Linda Barrett was reading another woman’s poems three years ago when she realized what she needed to do with her own. Linda’s son had given her a gift of books from one of his dying patients, a self-published author, teacher, missionary and mentor. “The author of those books asked him to give them to me when he told her, ‘My mom also writes poetry, mentors, teaches and has been on several missionary journeys,’” Linda says.
As she read the author’s poems and short stories, one titled “Only the Ice Cream Shows” registered as familiar. Linda realized she had heard the author read the poem nearly 10 years earlier at the Heardmont Senior Center. She tried but was unable to connect with her afterward. “As I realized how extraordinary she was, I regretted not being more persistent,” Linda says.
The unexpected but welcome discoveries and the sense of regret made Linda, 67, think about her own poems, most of which were housed only on her computer. What if the words she had penned from her heart never made it further than a folder on her desktop? What potential impact of the verses she had painstakingly crafted would be lost? She needed to preserve them in a more lasting and shareable format, just as the other woman had done. She did not want them to die unread and un-preserved.
That’s when Linda decided to compile her poems into a book. Several friends she had shared her writings with offered to financially support the project, which to Linda spoke volumes of confirmation that she was doing the right thing. She spent much of 2018 working on what would become Vinaigrette: Because Life is Bitter and Sweet, a self-published collection of poems, reflections and perspectives that, in her words, “presents this bitter/sweet reality in which we live—our vinaigrette.”
“We live in a bittersweet world. We long for the sweet. We do whatever we can to obtain it and grasp and cling to it when it comes near. However, sorrow, sin, fear, and doubt are also features of our lives,” Linda writes in her book’s foreword. “My prayer is that the honesty of my conflicting emotions in these poems will help you fully embrace the oil and vinegar of your own dazzlingly mysterious life.”
Honesty is, indeed, at the forefront of Linda’s work. She admits in Vinaigrette her distaste for most of the poetry she was first introduced to in the fifth grade. But she gave it another chance in high school, during a Baptist youth retreat, and has clung tightly to it ever since. “After that retreat, poetry became a new friend,” Linda writes. “That began my use of poetry to reflect about life and to process the many conflicting emotions I experience.”
Her Christian faith guides all aspects of her life, including her writing. A quick perusal of Vinaigrette is all the proof you need. She starts each chapter in the book with a prayer related to the topics therein. The poems come next, followed by groupings of Scripture verses and questions readers can tie back to the content of the poems. Linda designed Vinaigrette to be as versatile and fluid as its readers might need it to be; that is, it can be read simply as a book of poetry, consumed as a 12-week devotional or used as a guide in a small-group discussion with an emphasis on God’s Word in the “Personal Reflections” sections.
The book is the product of Linda’s experiences in different phases, different seasons. She and her husband, Raymond, were married in 1972 and traveled for the next 20 years while he was in the Army. His last tour brought them to Birmingham, close to Linda’s siblings. “It was a blessing to come home to family,” she says.
Their extensive traveling ushered in a variety of career roles for Linda, from school secretary to administrative assistant and more. “I’ve done everything from park cars to drafting for a building company,” she says. Add teaching and fundraising work to the list.
The mother of three has also been active in the Christian ministry for most of her life as a teacher, women’s mentor and speaker. She is working on her graduate certificate in spiritual direction from Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta. “My heart, in general, is to point people to Christ in some way,” she says. “That motivates most of my labor – Christ and his love, his glory and his majesty.”
She says some people describe the work of a spiritual mentor as “holy listening,” or listening to someone who is longing for more spiritually. “They need some direction, or maybe they need help in knowing they’re hearing the voice of God,” she says, noting she tries to stay in the background. “It’s more of, ‘I’m with you, let’s pray and seek the Lord together and see what the Lord says to you.’”
Like her career background, Linda’s writing has not been confined to any one medium.
About 10 years ago, she started a blog on WordPress called An Invitation to Wonder. She has had devotion articles featured in two editions of a print publication called The Upper Room, and she and Holly Mackle co-authored a book titled Engaging Motherhood: Heart Preparation for a Holy Calling in 2016. Vinaigrette officially joined the group in January 2019. Linda’s joy was palpable. “I had a book reveal and served everybody dinner and read from the book,” she recalls. “It was a moment that I felt more like myself than I had ever felt in my life, acknowledging that I was God’s poem and He had given me the privilege about writing about Him. It’s a work of courage.”
And, although pain and suffering aren’t pleasant, Linda hopes her book will encourage people to be more transparent about their trials, even if it’s only to themselves. “We face suffering, and we can either deny it or just live fully in it. God is present always even in sorrow and in the joy,” she says.
Simply put, the poems that fill Vinaigrette are raw and real—they are the good, the bad and the ugly, Linda says, like the experiences that make up life for all of us. They are both bitter and sweet.