Poems & Essays

05 Feb

Rules for Parenting

General/Column One Response

First, know that you know nothing,
and you’ll continue to know
nothing into the infinite future.
That small furry baby’s head
of a reed going to seed along the shore
signifies everything you don’t know,
and that cry? It’s your own cry,
so let it roll out of your throat
and into the world, where it
will find a home on hawk wings
and at the tips of pine needles.
Second, flow with this river
even though it’s colder than ice,
even though it’s more dangerous
than anything you’ve ever done.
Keep your feet up, over the
smooth rocks and pointed downstream,
because that’s the only hope
you’ll have of surviving.
Finally, know that you won’t arrive.
This water goes forever,
past spruces with eagles’ nests and
beneath skies that alternate
dark and brilliant.
All along you’ll be thinking
you must almost be there,
but you won’t be.
You’ll still be floating,
still trying to avoid getting
tangled in roots and drawn
under boulders, still riding
white waves and discovering
quiet pools, and there’s no
way of stopping, no end
except an ocean that will,
finally, draw you into
its broad, loving arms.



Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Muse /A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Eyedrum Periodically, 3QR, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books).

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05 Feb


General/Column No Response

The cornea scratches easily,
pulls an eye into the present,
says, here, see the danger,
the thinness between inner
jellies and bright world,
between you and me,
between arteries and veins,
between deer and fawns,
between one planet and another,
between night and endless, starlit day?

My daughter lies in bed,
shaded by a damp cloth,
double-Adviled up,
waiting for cells to
stitch together across a
minute gash that feels
wide as a canyon.

I wait, watching her sleep,
hoping for ropes across
the ravine, wishing for
water through boulders,
wanting bacteria to infect
something else, if it must:
some fly, some forest edge,
some frozen comet
hurtling through sterile space.



Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Muse /A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Eyedrum Periodically, 3QR, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), and a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books).

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05 Feb


General/Column 2 Responses

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.

–Traditional English Language Nursery Rhyme, Roud Folk Song Index #8148

The problem with candlelight vigils is that they’re usually during bedtime. They have to be. Candlelight can’t provide its comforting glow in the middle of the day. Living in the darkness of the world before artificial light, early singers of lullabies and nursery rhymes knew all too well that candles can’t compete with the sun.

I became a mother in the fall of 2014, around the time the world went mad, at least from the limited perspective of a suburban white woman gently swaddled in many forms of privilege. Scrolling through the news as I rocked my infant, I became aware of a world slowly melting down, liquid pooling at the top of the candle, atoms building upon themselves until their own weight became too much and the hot wax spilled over.

It seems like every day since my daughter’s birth has brought more monsters into the open: corrupt police officers killing people of color, neo-Nazis emerging from their lairs, mass shooters gunning down victims in record-breaking numbers.

There have been so many candlelight vigils. I have seen them on the news, followed their orders of service on social media.

But my own vigils look quite different.

I keep my vigils in the nursery, rocking in the mint green glider, the increasing weight of my baby and then my toddler and now my preschooler in my lap. I keep solitary vigils, my husband often away at one of the real services, the kind where people gather, not because gathering changes anything, but because it’s healthier not to grieve alone.

My candle is a nightlight; melting wax is not the kind of thing you want around a child. My daughter doesn’t know I’m keeping vigil; I’m only singing, the same thing I do every night.

On the inside, I am raging, composing strongly worded letters to send to the appropriate people, demanding they do something about this collective meltdown. I’m not especially good at inner peace, though motherhood frequently demands I fake it on the outside.

So on the outside, I am singing. I’m often singing the song my daughter calls “Bonny Banks,” better known as “Loch Lomond.”

The song has a conflicted history both as a memorial to the failed Jacobite uprisings (a series of 18th century attempts to restore the nominally Scottish Stuarts to the throne) and its partial responsibility for romanticizing Highland culture for mass consumption.

But whatever else “Loch Lomond” is, it is a lament. The chorus, which is all most people know, goes like this.

Oh, you tak’ the high road,
and I’ll tak’ the low road,
and I’ll be in Scotland
afore ye.

But me and my true love
will never meet again
on the bonny, bonny banks
of Loch Lomond. 

One interpretation of the lyrics says that two Jacobite rebels have been captured. One is to be pardoned and sent home, and the other—the narrator—is awaiting execution or transportation to a penal colony. Either way, the only way he will return to Scotland is by “the low road” of death.

It’s a strange choice for a lullaby. Yet my mother sang it to me, and her mother sang it to her, so it is in my repertoire for my own child, and she often requests it.

“Sing ‘Bonny Banks,'” she murmurs, eyes closed, sleepy head burrowing into my chest.

In lamenting through lullabies, I join a long tradition of women pouring their pain into the ears of children, both of us for now blocked from public mourning by the needs of those children—needs like a regular bedtime and a mother who keeps her grief under control.

Folklorists cite many reasons parents sing such terrible songs. There’s the superstition that if the gods or the fairies or whatever spirits listen at windows hear that misfortune has already visited a house, they will pass it by. There’s the theory that we sing to children of death and destruction (and often of the death and destruction of children) because of the high rates of infant and child mortality for most of human history. The mother prepares herself for loss through song because the cradle might fall.[1]

I rock my sleeping child, comforted both by the sound of her breath and the swish-swish of the white noise machine. Thinking of Columbine, of 9/11, of cars driven like weapons, of Newtown and Townville, of Orlando and Las Vegas, of Sutherland Springs and Rancho Tehama, perhaps I am doing the same thing. Whether it is a biological imperative to secure my genetic material, love for an individual and irreplaceable child, or a bit of both, whenever there is some catastrophe that calls for a candlelight vigil, my thoughts and my body rush to her, desperate to find that she is safe, to feel again that second heartbeat beneath my own.

The words of nursery rhymes are no better than the lyrics of lullabies. So many conjure up thoughts so unspeakable they can be expressed only through song or rhyme.[2]

I rock, thumbing through the book of nursery rhymes to amuse myself, not yet ready to lay my sleeping child down, to experience that nightly separation. Folklorists cite separation as a common theme of American lullabies. In a culture obsessed with independence, in a country where legal mandates say that puppies get eight weeks with their mothers to a human baby’s six, mothers must prepare themselves and their babies from birth.

How many miles to Babylon? asks an old nursery rhyme, answering its own question with the word “candlelight.”

My thoughts stray to Alas, Babylon! Pat Frank’s 1959 novel of nuclear destruction, disturbingly relevant again after all these years since the Cold War. I read it in high school in the 1990s, from the security of a childhood lived out in relatively safe and prosperous years—years of childhood peace I fear I cannot give my daughter as I think about how I will one day talk to her about active shooter drills.

My mind wanders to the Babylon of the Bible, the mighty empire that fell, crushed under the weight of its own hubris, leading the prophet to cry, “Alas, Babylon!” and back to the title of the novel.

I wonder, as I rock, what is the good of candlelight vigils? I am tired of candlelight vigils, tired of hearing of them secondhand, tired of missing them, tired of the need for them. I am tired of clutching my child too tight, of rocking too fast, of singing a little too loud. I am tired of the soft blue glow of the nightlight representing a candle lit for mourning.

There is a new vigil every week, and nothing ever seems to change.

I think, as I rock my living child, of the tiny lumps of fieldstone that mark the graves of small children in old cemeteries. They knew how to keep time, those old singers of lullabies, knew its value, understood every day as a miracle. I think of the crumbling, moss-covered monuments that mark the graves of mother-baby dyads long gone, the ones that say things like

…who died aged 23 years, 4 months, and 3 days, together with her beloved child, who died aged 1 year, 8 months, and 1 day…and I think of an illness, an accidental fire, a violent frontier.

I think of a pandemic, an oil spill, a mass shooting. For we have arrived at a place like Babylon. We live there now. And whether we arrived by candlelight or not, I don’t think we can get back that way. But I rock as long as I can, keeping a watch in the night, singing sad lullabies, willing the wax not to spill.

Keeping vigil. For myself, for my daughter, for all of us.


1 Marder, Jenny. “Why Are So Many Lullabies Also Murder Ballads?” PBS NewsHour. 13 August 2014. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/many-lullabies-murder-ballads.

[2]Marder, Jenny. Also see: Galchen, Rivka. “The Melancholy Mystery of Lullabies.” The New York Times Magazine. 14 October 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/magazine/the-melancholy-mystery-of-lullabies.html.





Courtney McKinney-Whitaker writes (decidedly not scary) rhymes for young readers and historical fiction and nonfiction, essays, and poetry for older readers. Her 2014 novel, The Last Sister, won the IPPY Silver Medal for historical fiction, and her work has been featured in Highlights HELLO and Mothers Always Write. Follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit or visit her website at courtneymckinneywhitaker.com.

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02 Feb

April Literary Writers Boot Camp

General/Column No Response

What is a Literary Writers Boot Camp?

An online Boot Camp for those interested in perfecting the literary essay through extensive one-on-one coaching by an editor of MAW. Our camp also offers the opportunity for peer review and discussion with other writers through our camp’s FB group. And, if  you are looking for writing support once camp is over, we offer the opportunity to join a writers critique group with other camp participants.

What makes a piece of writing literary?

Literary journals seek that pearl–the type of writing where the language itself is the experience. The story, while strong, takes a backseat to the art of creative writing loaded with well-turned figures of speech that enhance the reader’s understanding of the theme. This workshop will help writers strengthen their creative writing.

The workshop will provide: 1) An outline of reading materials on the literary essay; 2) Sample teaching essays with annotated comments; 3) An opportunity for brainstorming on your essay topic; 4) A general critique of your piece for content and back and forth discussion sessions with your mentor; 5) Specific line-by-line edits including explanatory comments and suggestions; 6) The opportunity to ask editors questions about writing and the publication process through live FB chats; and 7) The opportunity to have your essay considered for publication by MAW as well as a list of suggested sites for publication. We have now extended our workshop to three weeks so that participants have ample time to fit your writing in between life’s other demands.

The boot camp runs for three weeks beginning Monday, April 23, 2018. Tuition is $106 (Proceeds in part are used to support MAW’s mission to pay its contributors). Space is limited to fifteen participants per workshop. Our Boot Camps fill up quickly. Register here on Submittable.

Boot Camp Instructors:

Sarah Clayville is a Creative Writing and 11th grade English teacher as well as freelance editor and writing mentor. Her fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Central PA Magazine, StoryChord, and other journals. Her areas of expertise are short and flash fiction. She is a poetry and essays editor for Mothers Always Write.

Michelle Riddell has earned her B.A. and M.A. in English from Wayne State University in Detroit. She has written for Ford Motor Company, MSX International, The Cornerstone, MomSense Magazine and Hello, Darling. She is a two-time recipient of the Albion College Cathy L. Young award for French poetry, and has written a novel. She is a poetry and essays editor for Mothers Always Write.

Julianne Palumbo has worked as an attorney and a writing coach. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Ibettson Street Press, YARN, The MacGuffin, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, The Manifest Station, Literary Mama, Motherwell, and others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013), and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and is part of the HerStories Anthology: So Glad They Told Me. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Mothers Always Write and currently a columnist at Literary Mama.

Read what participants in our previous workshops had to say:

“I think every Writer, whether aspiring or established, could have benefitted from this Boot Camp. I appreciated our Mentor’s feedback, as well as what was given to me by my co-horts. The idea of having a deadline, articles to read, and a private Facebook page to share on, really brought this whole Boot Camp to life. I kept saying that I felt as though I had enrolled in a University-level class. Michelle [my Mentor] didn’t just push me to do my best, she provided an array of suggestions. Thank you so much MAW Editors for pulling this together!!”

Susan Goldstein

“The MAW Boot Camp helped provide a workable timeline on writing an essay and taking it from draft to finished product. If you are looking for a way to jumpstart your literary essay writing, this workshop offers the tools, resources and editorial help to guide you through the process. Top notch editorial feedback helps take your writing to the next level. I highly recommend working with Juli and the other editors at MAW.”

Rudri Patel

“I have been participating in a 10-day literary boot camp put on by the editors of MOTHERS ALWAYS WRITE. This magazine is not just a wonderful venue for mother-writers to share their stories, it’s also a loving, supportive community of writers. A family of sorts. I made so many new, wonderful writerly-friends, learned copious amounts of writerly-stuff, and had absolutely amazing (did I mention I’m addicted to alliteration? lol) mentoring from Julianne Palumbo. And, thanks to Juli’s suggestions of where to submit, my essay has been accepted for publication in MANIFEST STATION, an brilliant online literary magazine. I would never have tried to submit to this magazine before. But this workshop, and the support of my mentor gave me the courage to try.”

Leslie Wibberley

“Boot Camp was just what I needed to help motivate me to write. I enjoyed the small group feeling and enthusiasm from the other members. It was helpful to receive feedback both from my mentor and other group members. I feel as if I have made some new connections to other writers.”

Cheryl Maguire

“My editor pushed me without being pushy. She offered thoughtful, probing comments that made me dig deeper into what my essay was really about, and offered encouragement every step of the way (and sometimes receiving permission not to rush the result is as important as anything else!).”

Robin Flanigan

“The MAW Boot Camp was by far the best value writing experience I’ve participated in during my five years as a freelance writer. It’s affordable and accessible, and provided a much needed burst of inspiration. The detailed level of feedback from engaged and excellent editors, along with a supportive and encouraging community of fellow writers, make it a hugely worthwhile investment for writers at any stage of their career.”

Ruth Dawkins

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