ORINDA -- Jean Lyford sits in the garden of her Orinda home of 46 years, the place where she raised her children, and contemplates how gardens have been a constant sanctuary.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, she would help her mother out in the garden. As an adult, the garden has been a reliable source of poetic inspiration.

Even with her early interest in gardening and writing, the words didn't flow poetically until Lyford attended a Hummingwords Writing Workshop four years ago, conducted by Orinda writing coach Cynthia Leslie-Bole. And that was when the poetic words gushed forth, producing a wellspring of poems that resulted in the publication of three books in four years.

Orinda poet Jean Lyford, who will appear at Orinda Books later this month.
Orinda poet Jean Lyford, who will appear at Orinda Books later this month.

After the publication of the first two, Lyford thought she was done. But with a stage four breast cancer diagnosis last November, and the emotions that went along with it, Lyford knew she had to have a place to put these fresh set of words that described her feelings.

Lyford will share what she considers her most poignant poems to date at a 1 p.m. reading on June 25 at Orinda Books. "Waiting for the Wind," her recently-published poetry collection, chronicles Lyford's feelings as she dealt with her diagnosis.

"When I got sick, I started writing as a way of processing what was going on," she said. "The words came from some other part of me, another section of my brain. Words would just come. It was like magic so deep within me that I didn't want to mess with it."


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"I didn't know if I would publish again," said Lyford, a middle school science teacher and former principal of Orinda Intermediate School from 1987 until her retirement in 1992. "I sent poems to several people I knew who had cancer and they told me it was so good to have someone understand what they were going through. So there's something about sharing your feelings that can help others. Then, I thought, maybe I need to come up with a different book."

In "Waiting for the Wind," Lyford discloses her private thoughts, blending nature with imagery, using her garden once again for inspiration.

On a recent cool pre-summer day, Lyford left her garden to take refuge from the wind, and as soon as she stepped indoors and took a seat, her plush Burmese-Persian cat Bella hopped onto her lap. Lyford said that, beyond writing about her garden, her family and her childhood memories, she's often inspired by the felines in her life past and present.

"Poetry is a vehicle for universal feelings you can share with others," she said.

Lyford said she cultivated creative self-expression in Leslie-Bole's writing classes every Wednesday for the past four years.

"When you're writing is timed, you don't edit yourself," she said. "What you're learning is what your strengths are and you develop them. (Timed writing exercises) made me not doubt myself, so I let myself say whatever was there. It was a way of releasing."

In the foreword of Lyford's book, Leslie-Bole writes that Lyford's poems are "like those of Mary Oliver, interweaving astute observations of the natural world with psychological insights and luminous mysteries shining beneath the surface."

Leslie-Bole said Lyford has been an inspiration to all the writers in their weekly workshop in Orinda.

"In addition to being a superb poet, Jean has a generous heart, a keen mind and excellent listening skills, all of which enable her to give really helpful feedback to others," Leslie-Bole said. "Jean has been a role model to all of us, and we cherish her irreverent humor as well as her wisdom."

Karen Mireau, Lyford's publisher, describes her book as "a chronicle of Jean's acceptance of the ephemeral quality of our life here and what it feels like to be on the cusp of transitioning to the next plane."

"I highly recommend this book to anyone who is experiencing illness or loss or who simply is in need of being truly inspired," Mireau said.

Lyford said when she retired, she thought of taking up painting again.

"The two have a connection, painting and writing," Lyford said. "I love my garden and I knew I either wanted to paint or write and just do it for the experience of doing it and not worry whether it's any good. Then I realized I couldn't capture the garden through paint the way I could with words."

She illustrates that point in her favorite poem, "A Rose in Winter."

"One winter my mother had this deep red rose that bloomed in the snow and it reminded me of the time I sang 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,' as a teenager in a church choir," said Lyford. "Then as I stood there looking at the rose, I would start singing that song to myself. It was an aesthetic experience."

Poetry reading, "Waiting for the Wind"
WHEN: 1 p.m. June 25
WHERE: Orinda Books, 276 Village Square, Orinda