The PK Featured Poet 14 – Barbara Ostrander

"I think all of us have an innate desire to know and be known.  What I write is simply my efforts to do just that." - Barbara Ostrander

Barbara's poetry, while not overtly preachy, has a spiritual quality, the reality of the everyday becoming part of something much bigger. At times her work is funny, and at other times moving but at all times it is true. And it is this base of truth which gives her work integrity and universality. (Jim Bennett)

The PK Featured Poet 14 – Barbara Ostrander


At the age of three, my family set sail for Bangladesh, where my father became the administrator of a small industrial school located 24 hours up the Ganges River by paddle-boat from the capital city of Dacca.  During our four years there, I learned to speak Bengali, dance the cultural dances with other girls my age, eat hot curry, and love the people, who are by nature very generous.  By age seven I had acquired an ulcer from worrying about the well-being of my playmates.  My love for the poor was birthed during these early years and I remember feeling very sad when we left.

I was eight when Dad became the administrator of a mission hospital in southern Tanzania, East Africa.  I instantly fell in love with this wild and beautiful land and to this day consider it my home.  My fascination with the medical world grew as I helped out at the hospital, assist in surgery and travel to the bush clinics.  I decided then to be a nurse when I grew up.

My mom home schooled me initially, and I learned to write under her tutelage.  She loved the arts, history and poetry, and dragged my siblings and me to all the "wonders of the world" as we travelled between continents.  It would take pages to share all the places I have been, the things I have been lucky enough to see and experience, but from the beginning I knew I was a very lucky girl.

In eighth grade, I began attending boarding school in Kenya.  I learned to care for myself, travel between school and home, play field hockey and the guitar, and found myself vacationing on some of the most exotic beaches in the world.  I travelled with the school's choir, sang for President Kenyatta, cut albums, and sang in a trio that was aired on Radio Kenya.  That was a real trip.  I shot my own zebra (for food, of course) and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro twice. These were barefoot and happy years for me.

During this time in Africa, I wrote a lot of poetry- not very good perhaps, but compelled by the beauty of my surroundings and the passion of youth that beat in my adolescent heart.  My dad loved my work and bought me lovely bound books so I could write my poetry in them.  That was a huge encouragement for me.  He still cries to this day when he reads the things I write.

I returned to the States for college, met my husband, and after a couple of years of University, dropped out to get married.  I settled down in a lovely little house, had four babies and gave myself to being wife and mother.  What a sweet and gentle time that was in my life.  I began home schooling my children, teaching them all the things I loved: Greek mythology, sculptures like "Winged Victory," geography, and especially the art of capturing the written word and communicating the creativity within themselves. At the moment I have a poet, a guitarist and a ballerina living with me.  Of course there is also my youngest, Kyle, twelve, who is taking chorus this fall in school only because he has heard that they get out of class regularly to travel.

In 1994, I began to read about the Rwandan Civil War.  Within days I knew I couldn't just sit reading about it from my warm and safe living room.  I felt like God wanted me to go and help out any way I could, so I found some aid agencies listed in USA Today and began calling to volunteer.  Even though my children at that time were ages 4-12, it was the right thing to do.  I went to Goma, Zaire, for a month with a medical team, worked in the Refugee camps and at an orphanage that had grown in number from a little over three hundred children to more than thirty-five hundred in just one week.  It was a desperate place, and I cried many, many tears while there, but God redirected my whole life during that trip.  The love of nursing was reborn in my heart and I knew that international crisis relief was going to be an important aspect in the second half of my life.  When I got back home, I immediately reapplied at the University to finish my nursing degree.

It was during that war in 1994, while I was in Goma, that I began to write actively again by keeping a journal.  I went to Africa once again in the fall of 2000, this time with a drought relief team.  This trip was particularly special to me since my 19-year-old son went with me; in fact we both cut class to go.  A journal from that trip brought me to my first online list.  I met a writer who told me my writing was good enough to be published (a new concept for me) and introduced me to his publisher, who offered to help me find an avenue to get my journal in print.  That set me on the path of having my work critiqued by other writers, and a wealth of input ensued.

I have never been published.  My excuse is that it takes a lot of time and energy to submit work for publication and I haven't had much of it with raising a family, going to school, starting a new job, travelling overseas.  It just hasn't been a priority yet, maybe one day soon. 

I finished my BSN,R.N. degrees in the spring of 2001, after going to school part time for six years (I was home schooling my children during this time.)  I am now employed as an ICU nurse at a major metropolitan hospital here in Lexington, KY.  I love my job caring for open heart patients and am interested in being a flight nurse eventually.  However, my dream remains the same: to travel overseas at least once a year with a crisis medical team.

As I write this, I'm in a fight for my life.  Last October I was diagnosed with Renal Cell Carcinoma.  I liken it to the terrorist attack on 9/11 - random, deadly, and cruel.  Everywhere I go the prognosis is poor.  Yet, God has given me a powerful sense of peace and I feel I will survive.  Certainly it has opened me to the other side of suffering and given me an opportunity to voice feelings I have never before known.  Life is a teacher, among other things. 

I feel honored to be asked to share some of my poems with you, especially within the context of these other talented poets.

How/when did you start writing?

I don't remember the exact time though I do know that I was writing in Junior High School.

Was there anything and or anyone that particularly influenced you?

Yes, several.

Africa's dusty plains, suffering in any form, the sea, the beauty of my own kid's faces, the touch of a hand, things like that move me to write.

My mom was my first teacher.  She read to me incessantly, taught me to diagram sentences and write a good essay, but more significantly, to value my own eye for interpreting what was unfolding around me.

There are several writers out there that have challenged me by the unflinching honesty in their words.  Though they are not famous yet (notice yet), to me their work is incredibly rending and beautiful. 

On a daily basis, the PK list influences my hand.  My friends there applaud when I manage to write something worthwhile, yet are pretty good at making sure I don't get away with much rubbish, an invaluable combination.

How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing - time of day?

Are you kidding?  I wish it were so sane.  No, I write whenever it comes, in the car, in the middle of the night.  I have little pieces of paper scattered everywhere with my notes.  I have found that if I don't respond when the words come, I cannot pull them back later.

Why do you write poetry?

The same reason I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro: it's beautiful and challenging and it is there.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think all of us have an innate desire to know and be known.  What I write is simply my efforts to do just that.


One of my passions is the sea.  I find I can reflect, cry, find God's peace, all in the sound of the surf, the feel of the sand, the taste of the salt, the glory of the sunset…

Last Respects

the summer sun died a slow death tonight
             arched its back
                     took a swan dive
                 that sent it bleeding into the sea
             crimson, orange, russet tears
spread in widening circles
touched my feet as I stood
watching the ocean breathe

this wake holds me here
long after tears have dried
sand against skin
water lapping my toes

summer's gone
a final resting place
at last

This is born out of what I have witnessed while working in war zones and cancer wards and intensive care units but more personally what I know from experience.


quiets the voices
that echo through your head
holds the walls up,
makes the chaos step back,
the blows land more gently.

through the long tunnel
it buffers the wind
that whistles and wants to
howl at the moon,
stripping away all dreams.

it helps you to breathe
in - out - in - out,
to think foolishly that it can be done,
this walking room to room
looking normal.

I welcome it over reality.
I welcome the Novocain,
the few hours of peace
that silently numb the senses,
deletes pain.

The word cancer is so ominous, it's as though it is painted in black letter across our hearts.

The "C" Word

there is no shelter

from what twists and destroys
and I find a rightness of fit
to this level of unease I carry

it is oddly reassuring
to finally be face to face
with the risks I have always known

could play across my fate



story goes like this...

I'm dying before my eyes
on the horizon a shadow
a slow shadow
my soul as well as my skin
becomes lose, falls back
folds of dry waste
that smell of rain
but no rain falls
all is empty
bitterly sad
I am unable to plump up
newness and the rosey color
of health.

dis-ease creeps into
how the world
sees me
dreams stripped away
expose the weakness of being
weeded out
survival of the fittest is like that
loneliness takes on a new degree
I gather myself
fill my lungs with chilly air
try to breathe

I used to know what to say
when to be silent


Does this need an explanation?  I think not.


last night I had a craving
for the sweet taste
of warm summer days
coconut and salt
waves hitting the shore

last night I had a craving
for hot sand
brushing against skin
the sultry breeze
whispering my name

last night I had a craving
for exploding spectrums of color
when the sun finally sets
as I lick your suntan oil
from my lips.


broken dreams

fall to the ground
like an upturned purse
shaken empty
everything precious spilling out
to roll from view

I'm on hands and knees
searching under the day's moments,
running my hand in the shadows,
coming up with only dust balls.

Soul Mate

I taste your soul
in the warmth of your lips
on mine
the pressing of your kiss
that opens me to your hands
your touch

I taste your soul
in the words you speak against
my mouth
whisperings that linger
softly between sighs
for this time
this place

I taste your soul
in the salt of your tears
hopes and fears
that bridge the years before we met
joins us in ways we cannot know
won't explain

not yet

Intensive Care Nurse

you placed your life into my hands
looked straight in my eyes
said don't let me die

would that I had such control

someone should tell you
I can't save my own

Indian Summer

the day has chosen to wear her colored skirt
brown, russet, orange and flaming red
she decorates her falling hair with leaves
stands proud as golden rays reflect
her beauty across the winding road.

the chilled air has already nipped at my nose
sending my sandaled feet
back inside for real shoes.

maybe when the sun stands tall
in the sky
he'll take the day in his arms
enfold us all in the heat of that embrace
maybe then I'll be able to crack open
the car windows
smell the day's new fall perfume
in the air.


The birds are at work again.
The rain has come 
to tattoo its song along the earth's spine
awaken all that has been frozen for so long.
it will see the reward of its mercy spent,
watch as bright green shoots
push through the ground
reach for the pleasant light and
warm nights of spring.

Eyes closed, the feel of warm air
whispers across my skin,
this clamor of nature
is no match for the insistent flutter of hope
that rushes in.
The chill slips down sinew,
through the soles of bare feet
to soak away into puddles resting
gently in the grass.

Eruption of Mt.Nyiragongo, Goma, Congo

worlds apart

I'm trying to live in my world today
buried in snow overnight
it's blanket did not disturb me as I slept
quietly floated down over my head
a slip of white
smooth and comforting as silk

but your world is the charred taste on my tongue
buried in ash beyond my eyes
smothered in sticky smoke
its rumbling belly vomits molten fire
outruns your banana groves
scorches the bare feet of your shrieking children
lost in the fleeing hordes
all lost
beneath the red night sky.

what am I doing here
when you are on the run again?


the voices are all broken
the one that whispers in my ear, hushed
the one that skips a tune across my skin, stilled
the one that pens itself across the page of my
arrested mid-stroke
the voices all gone
like the streets of Paris before dawn

Here is exile

her body sighs
she realizes
she's  done nothing all day
no writing, no critiquing
nothing but wait
for the other shoe to drop

the uncertainties are all the greater
because of the silence
she opens her mouth to whisper
but it is a grave
empty and sad

only for a moment
she gathers herself
on the brink
as the darkness sees into her heart
fills her lungs with snowy air
life goes on
one way or another
everyone gets left alone


We found Bullet, on the side of the road, hit by a car, almost dead.  When we took him to the vet, we found he had a bullet in his back hip, long healed over, hence his name. For months after he came to live with us, he would cringe and tuck his tail whenever an unfamiliar man would walk into the house.  He's ours now and the best dog ever, never barks unless my youngest is under water in our pool, go figure that. 

the storm within

thunder cracks
lights flicker on off
the staccato of little paws
head peers around the door
beg with soulful eyes for understanding
you know better than to be in the house

we found you hit along the highway
vet set your dislocated hip
couldn't heal the bullet's wounds
long healed over
found on the illuminating x-ray

still today
you crawl under my computer chair
lick my bare feet
seek comfort
not too hard to put the story together
you still cringe when thunder strikes

abuse is like that


Covering our differences

bought a wig today

for you

I'd rather go bald in this summer heat
have henna curls drawn on smooth head
by some artist on Venice beach
I'd rather spend my time fighting
this disease

than spend it making sure
you sleep well tonight.

All my kids know what is going on, of course, each are processing it differently.  My youngest has been so sweet, wanting to be closer than ever.

Through it all

I watch my little boy at play
he glances my way now and then
smiles that smile that says
I love you Mom

he knows
still he hangs close

Illness has a way of shucking things down to the cob, what is and isn't important at all. 

Shucking it down to the cob

I lost my diamond ring the other day
looked down at my finger
saw a pale band of skin
where it should be
but no ring

two days later
my Mexican toe ring
gone as well

I'm wearing skin these days
shedding the layers
the illusion of being in control
the worry about what others think
the realization of how few things
really matter in the end

born naked
heading back home