Through a glass, brightly

Diningroom view

The view, this morning, from my dining room window.

For now I see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” 1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV

That phrase from First Corinthians popped into my head this morning while I was thinking about being closed up inside these past weeks in order to be “safe.”

I guess being raised Baptist has its advantages, though often I don’t recognize them. I was pretty good at Bible drill back in the day, before I left the church during the Civil Rights Movement because Baptist congregations in Richmond decided that “colored people” preferred their own church and chose not to open their doors to “the little children, red and yellow, black and white” that Jesus supposedly loved.

But I’m talking about looking out of windows and doors right now. This morning it’s a thrill to have sunlight after a few dreary days. That’s why I was standing at the window. And I could see through the glass “brightly,” not “darkly.”

Of course Paul is referring in his letter to the Corinthians about faith, not being able to understand the mystery of afterlife.

Staying inside is an act of faith, too, I suppose, but I’ve been considering it as a matter of survival. My faith that others will do the same has been sorely challenged, especially by the so-called leader of Liberty University inviting students back to campus, then offering them a thousand-dollar bounty to leave. That kind of movement endangers us all. But I haven’t seen or heard any parties in my neighborhood. We’ve been a quiet lot of people who come and go as needed. We’re taking care of ourselves so we can take care of others.

Being inside with my husband John has not been difficult for us. He’s an artist and able to go to his studio blocks away without interacting with another soul. As a writer I’ve cherished the opportunity to revise work-in-progress and clear my head for new poems and stories. I’ve completed the census online, applied for absentee ballots, and video-conferenced with my doctor.

And the warm weather has enabled us to work outside in our large back yard together while our two Standard Poodles, The Drifter and Jackie Oh, ramble. Having a glass of wine on the deck is private and lovely, cherished moments.

There’s spring cleaning to undertake, windows to be washed, bills that can all be paid online. We’re fortunate and grateful and know it. I see through our windows a brightness and feel an optimism. All our children and grandchildren are safe for the moment. Our older daughter is undergoing chemotherapy, but her doctors are brilliant and encouraging and she’s staying inside otherwise while her fiancée attends to those matters “in the world” that are essential and unavoidable.

Still there is darkness. One of our favorite singer/songwriters, John Prine, has become ill with the virus. Other artists, like Ellis Marsalis, have succumbed. None of us can answer the WHY of this, the great mystery. I’m among those who gets dander up over the slow response of the current administration. I am certain it has cost lives and jeopardized our medical systems in ways that could have been avoided.

But there is incredible brightness, too: Companies volunteering to make medical equipment, families posting songs and skits online, museums making their collections “virtually” available, neighbors taking supplies to “shut-ins” (that’s the word we used at Northminster Baptist Church back in the day). My 96-year-old mother’s caretaker Cheryl still tends her. Books and poems and movies sustain us.

So I choose to see through my glass brightly. Iris Dement put it aptly: “Let the mystery be.”


The Way Back

It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. You can love completely without complete understanding.”  Norman Maclean

The Way Back is a character study. I thought it was going to be a sports movie, and the main character does get a “second chance” by being given the opportunity to coach a losing basketball team, but it’s really about dealing with addiction and grief, grief and addiction, both in doses too gigantic for the aging sports hero to manage.

I read a lot, so I’ve read the interview with Ben Affleck about making this movie, and the interview with Director Gavin O’Connor about shooting the therapy scene with Affleck in one painful long take, cutting much of it due to the actual honesty and intensity that O’Connor believed would have been an invasion of privacy to include. Affleck admits, now, that his addictions have ruled his adult life, and have cost his birth family dearly in terms of lives ruined as well as suicides. He acknowledges his past inability to face his own failings and deal with them, and the shame of knowing his children were exposed to his erratic addictive behaviors during his most recent fall off the wagon. All this was going on while he was in the middle of making this movie.

Life mimics art, art mimics life.

Like many Baby Boomers, I first encountered Affleck in Good Will Hunting. I thought he and Matt Damon were the shining young male stars destined to make movies that matter. In a twist of irony, I took my son Gregg to see that movie in 1997, his first outing from a stint in a mental hospital. He was 24. His own demons had landed him there indefinitely, until he could regain control of his promising young life and give up drugs and alcohol and the self-destructive behaviors that came with both.

Another movie had reflected Gregg to me, a few years earlier: A River Runs Through It, the film version of the Norman MacLean memoir that portrayed the narrator’s brother who couldn’t come to grips with his own pain and promise. When the lights came up on that movie I couldn’t get out of my seat, I was crying to hard, thinking of my own dear son and hoping he could find his way. That year, 1992, Gregg had begun showing symptoms of paranoia.

Movies CAN matter. This latest Ben Affleck does. Why do some people deal with loss and move forward while others are crippled by it? Why are some people able to drink and experiment with drugs while others are destroyed by those substances? Why is the percentage high for addiction in the population of creative people? The Way Back doesn’t sugar coat the toll alcohol takes. And no, it’s not merely a sports movie in the vein of Hoosiers, which is a great film. It’s more. It’s about a man coming to grips with the things that are destroying him day by day, the truth that numbing pain doesn’t get rid of pain, and the reality that there is no easy way out. It’s a sobering movie. I admire Affleck for making it.


“A writer is a kind of benevolent cannibal who eats the world.” Janet Burroway


Ever since studying for my MFA I’ve heard dozens of stories of writers “cannibalizing” their lives. When I heard about Cheryl Harper’s new installation at the Maier Museum (a gem of a living museum at Randolph College) I was perhaps intrigued to think about this visual artist cannibalizing her life and the lives of her family and her husband’s family for her work.

But none of that prepared me for walking into the gallery: I was overwhelmed, grabbed, embraced, startled. Harper says “The purpose of my project is to bring attention to the feelings of loss that are still pervasive among Jews and African Americans as a result of their persecution and to foster discussion and understanding.” She accomplishes this and much, much more.

Her background: She’s a Jewish woman who grew up knowing the whispers of family members about others who had suffered, survived, died, fled during the Holocaust. She married a former Southerner, later discovered that his family descended from the Souther Carolina slave-holding Lesesne family. Extensive research, including unearthing attic treasures, developed into the still-evolving installation Passages.

My background: I grew up lower middle class in Church Hill in Richmond, Virginia, with a Jewish family next door, a Catholic family down the alley, and the Civil Rights Movement festering. I later learned that there was considerable anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiment in Richmond, but my family wasn’t like that. I envied the Bonnet sisters: they were beautiful, and their daddy owned a store. The five Mooney youngsters got to wear uniforms and go to private school. Our “ironing girl,” Lillian, was a grown woman, “colored” as we said at the time, and I liked her a lot. This exhibit feels personal to me, intimate while at the same time expansive.

We’ve been talking about monuments in Richmond for some time, the latest dialogue provoked by the new Kihende Wiley statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Rumors of War. This Monument features a young African American male, larger than life, rearing up on a warhorse. He rises above us, in a celebratory pose, arm uplifted, dignified. I wanted to cheer with him the first time I saw him.

The two “monuments” in Harper’s installation are made up of figures that remind me of the mannequins at Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads, grand old department stores (long gone) that catered to the well-to-do. Like Wiley’s figure, these two are larger, dominating the room with a grandeur and mystery. Harper explains that the first figure (above) is wearing a Lesesne wedding gown, Christening gown, and elopement dress. Harper has added jewelry and symbols and ribbons and Christmas-like decorations, creating a “new” amalgam, bringing me up close to see the “safety pins” (safety pins?) and peasant-like trim. Domestic objects that might have graced a fine plantation manor “serve” at the feet of the “mistress.” The viewer must question everything: the splendor, the layers, the add-ons, the objects, but also the implications that “merging” these means.

A second monument/mannequin (below) displays Harper’s own wedding gown, which she and her daughter both wore, as well as more heirloom clothing items, decorations, symbols, and images. The “wealth” of domestic objects, displayed on cloth, connects the two figures.

Of course gracious lifestyles and plantation opulence depended on the back-breaking labor of slaves. Harper is a printmaker. The Japanese paper “wallpaper” that she created to cover the gallery walls features imagery that enhances and elaborates on the mannequins. Some display runaway slaves from literal ads the Lesesne family ran to capture their “property” pre-Civil War.

Other parts of the “wallpaper” feature symbols of Jewish tradition, some from an antique mizrah one of Harper’s relatives made for a family member who was coming to America in 1878, seeking a “better life.” Imagery from this traditional mizrah–animals, flowers, designs–are stencilled and printed onto other panels of the wall covering. From photographs of family members who were imprisoned during the Holocaust more prints are layered, floor to ceiling. Among the adult “whispers” of Harper’s childhood: she discovers in her research that members of her father’s family as well as her mother’s were victims of the pogroms and the camps.

The installation is both beautiful and disturbing. I spoke with a local high school art teacher at Cheryl’s gallery talk this past Friday evening, and she was bringing students to the exhibit this week. This is an exact, excellent example of thought-provoking contemporary work that adolescents should enter and discuss, launching their own thoughts about heritage and family objects and meaning in their lives, as well as in the wider culture.

In her essay accompanying the show Harper concludes, “My art is intended to honor the stories of the persecuted and it is my hope that as we learn more about the past we will shape a better world for today and tomorrow.” That distills what I felt: horror, honor, hope. Passages is an amazing installation and I encourage you to visit it with someone who would benefit from seeing it, thinking about it, and talking about it. The city of Lynchburg is engaged in a race dialogue right now. I hope Mayor Tweedy gets to experience Passages.




Wiley statue

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.” Matthew 24:6.

Kehinde Wiley’s monument “Rumors of War” was unveiled at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this past December to a cheering, diverse Richmond crowd.

As I’ve visited the museum and Richmond these past three months I’ve been cheered by the many enthusiastic viewers who walk up to this new statue on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, recently renamed for the tennis great who was the first African American man to break the color barrier in the sport. Wiley asserts, himself, that he is “overwhelmed by the sheer history of what we are dealing with.”

The sculpture is not the first Wiley piece that the museum owns, nor is it the first work of his to engage the national conversation. Until “Rumors of War” Wiley might have been best known for his Presidential Portrait of Barack Hussein Obama. In 2006 The Virginia Museum acquired the astonishing portrait titled “Willem van Heythuysen.” According to a critique in Blackbird, curator John B. Ravenel says the wealthy Dutch merchant is “appropriated” in all his elegance by an imposter, “a fellow from Harlem, New York–[who] usurps not only his predecessor’s pose, but also his identity.” This is a visual trope Wiley uses to force the viewer to question position and place in society, identity, and, to my mind, “otherness.”

Ravenel goes on to say that Wiley’s portraits “call attention to the fantasy of belonging and the desire of some disenfranchised young black men to blend into mainstream white society by means of name-brand consumption. In this way, Wiley uses irony and self-questioning–generally absent from the original source–to interrogate not just the Western cannon [canon?], but also the construction of black masculinity.”

The same could be applied to “Rumors of War.” In this case Wiley’s prototype, though never mentioned on the statue, is right down the street, the monument of Civil War “hero” and general JEB Stuart. Wiley’s monument is proportionally larger, and his “general” sports ‘dreads’ and is wearing a hoodie. The piece is magnificent, overbearing, unavoidable, grand. That Richmond celebrates this statue brings an enhanced level of optimism to the current dialogue on race in this complicated city.

One of the misunderstood elements of this statue is its title. Early on I read criticism that suggests the title was an endorsement or encouragement of war. The truth is far more complicated and thought-provoking. Religion as a sustaining aspect of African-American life is a rich component of the history of the culture. Why should any oppressed people, however, depend on a better life after life? Why not NOW. The statue shows the vibrance of a young man, a “warrior,” if you will, struggling with dignity and bravery and over-arching confidence in a race war that all too often hasn’t honored his struggle. The Bible may suggest humility, but he is unwilling to wait to claim his dignity. That’s part of the celebration. To be alarmed by that is to miss out on the glory and wonder and promise and, yes, the many opportunities for diversity and acceptance and joined triumph.

Don’t be alarmed. Be a part! That’s what this monument is doing for Richmond and the wider art community, bringing us together to celebrate those creative individuals among us like Kihinde Wiley who lift us and remind us of our potential, together, for greatness.

Wiley VMFA cover


All beings of the world are in a constant state of either coming into being or going out of being.”  Kilroy J. Oldster


Artist Beatrice Modisett might expand Oldster’s observation by including not just “beings” but also the landscape and every object in it.

Modisett’s current show at The Maier Museum, Scorched Earth, presents recent work that considers what’s happening right this moment on earth, in that constant flux of eroding and re-creating itself.

John and I attended the opening Friday night, and I went back for Modisett’s lecture on Saturday. She’s created all of the work in the Maier gallery in the last six months: one installation, Evelyn’s Grove, three massive charcoal/wood ash drawings, and four paintings.

I was most drawn by the installation and the three drawings on Friday. In hearing a title such as Evelyn’s Grove one might expect a vision of thriving trees, and all the commensurate greens and browns and smells of leaves or bark. This installation is the opposite; it’s knee level, a grouping of what appears to be burned out tree trunks–or lava pits. Modisett described making them using ash from a fire pit she created to make ceramics for another show, as well as plaster and cloth. The resulting installation is fragile. Devastation is the word that jumped to my mind, then destruction, then damned carelessness and divorce from what’s natural and beautiful and living.

Modisett used the ash and charcoal from the firepit to create the three massive drawings that bespeak her interest in that junction of living while dying, or arches and entries leading into or away from beauty and destruction. I was fascinated to learn that she put the paper on the ground and spread the ash using all of her body, crawling and spreading with the physicality reminiscent of her hikes in the living landscape. In drawing–and erasing–once she put the paper on the walls, she allowed herself to make an impression only as far as her arms could reach, again incorporating the aspect of her actual body interacting in the landscape.

Colors burst out of the paintings, a surprise after the installation and the drawings. Modisett used natural objects like rocks as she poured paint and embedded charcoal and drew with tar to re-envision landscapes that are “almost recognizable.” I saw them as spaces that might have existed before humans interacted with the earth–or perhaps the terrain that might remain after we have finished our devastation.

Modisett says she’s interested in the impact of the “discourse art can launch,” hoping that artists can “play a bigger role in the conversation.” She certainly deepened my commitment to being a better steward of the earth, to walking through the landscape with greater reverence and attention, and to encouraging others to participate in this necessary dialogue.



George Wythebecoming clara belle

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou

Only part of my writing life is my own writing. Much of it has been spent working with other people, helping them tell their own stories. Those experiences have deepened my own writing sensibility and afforded me incalcuable joy and satisfaction.

After I earned my MFA at VCU, I never applied for any university positions; that hadn’t been my goal. I wanted to write, but I needed to teach, too. I continued to work with students with reading and writing problems at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge, Virginia. A great perk of that position, though, was that I “inherited” Donald McCaig’s evening creative writing class, that brought lots of creative students my way.

Prior members of that class like Toni Williams and Katie Letcher Lyle had formed their own writing group in Lexington, VA, so I was able to meet them and join their group. That enriched my writing life in untold ways, one of the best being gathering with Katie’s “good ol’ gals” for a number of years.

One of the women who came to my evening writing class, Janet Runion Patton, had rich stories to tell about her daunting experiences as a Mennonite woman teaching English in a small tribal community in Africa. But when she was in college a professor had insulted her writing skills and told her “never” to try to write again. Naturally she was fearful and insecure about putting pen to paper. Janet went on to write her first book, A Mennonite Woman in Two Worlds (available on Amazon), and to provide local interest feature stories for the newspaper. Since then she has written and published three more memoirs and is currently working on a novel. Writing has become an ongoing aspect of her life as a Mennonite woman, wife, mother, and community activist.

But publishing isn’t the only way to measure a writing life. A dear friend I met at Nimrod Hall over twenty years ago, Jane Goette, has finished an amazing memoir, Confederate Union, that chronicles her growing up in Louisiana in the racially confusing sixties. Her writing has taken her back in time to her family’s heritage that spans both the Confederate and Union armies. She has found letters from her mother and artifacts from her father’s and grandfather’s family, all aspects of her writing adventure. I am hopeful her memoir will find a publisher soon, though; her insight into the turmoil of the sixties is invaluable.

The people who have come and gone at Nimrod haven’t come, necessarily, to work toward publication. Instead, they come to deepen and enrich their writing lives. But many of the people who have joined me at Nimrod HAVE published books. Heath Lee’s second biography, League of Wives, about the wives of Vietnam POWs who called attention to their plight, is garnering national attention now. Gayla Mills’ book Making Music For Life is encouraging many people in mid-life to pick up an instrument or join a choir or make music an integral aspect of their lives.

Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt came to Nimrod to finish a Master’s Thesis on the history of her family store; she left with the inspiration for her memoir, Finding Thalhimers. Bonnie Stanard has published three novels as well as a collection of poems. Jenny Block has published two research-based books on human sexual behavior as well as numerous news features. Recently available on Amazon, Suzanne Munson’s much-needed biography of the patriot George Wythe is garnering invitations to speak to audiences interested in Virginia and US history. Physician Molly O’Dell first came to Nimrod to write essays; she has since published one chapbook of poems, Off the Chart, and has another in pre-publication.

Cathy Hankla, author of fifteen books of fiction, essay, and poetry, came to lead the workshop at Nimrod over twenty-five years ago and continues to influence the writing lives of everyone she meets. I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to submit a poem without Cathy’s guidance and insight and encouragement.

Innumerable poets study with Cathy Hankla and go on to publish their work. Activist and poet Amelia Williams ( describes herself as “poet, eco-artist, writer/editor, meditator, biking enthusiast, teacher, amateur naturalist, and avid anti-fracking activist.” Her collection, WalkingWildwood Trail: Poems and Photographs, chronicles her work to preserve the natural beauty of Nelson County against the threat of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Writing friends have arrived in many other ways, through my involvement with the visual arts as well as as an educator. Another writer I met in Lynchburg, Libby Lane, published her novel becoming clara belle, which blends family stories in a fictional context, as well as a book of essays and psalms conveying her challenging spiritual journey. Annually she takes herself on “retreat” to Florida or South Carolina or even Puget Sound to make time to write and refuel. For years she went on dolphin swims and kept a journal of these encounters. She’s finished another novel based on a strong, silent, influential woman in her family and is in the process of working toward publication this fall.

So “The Writing Life” is about connections with other writers as well as deepening connections with your own sense of language and culture and what matters in the world. Each writer I meet gives me gifts, tangible and intangible, that I bring to my own stories.







Going on retreats is one of the best methods to pump up your inspiration. When the mind encounters new vistas and new surroundings, it begins processing differently, synthesizing elements together that you have not thought of before. The Aha! factor increases by magnitudes as you finally receive answers to vexing problems about your writing that you may not have been able to generate without this new environment.” from HandHeld


Photo: A group of Nimrod writers–and a visual artist, too.

I was with a group of visual artists this Tuesday and the idea of taking a retreat to Nimrod this upcoming summer was broached. One of the painters said he’d thought of it often but never acted on the possibility.

I started telling him WHY I find going on a retreat to Nimrod essential to my creative life.

When I was a full-time educator Nimrod gave me a time and place apart, separate from the demanding “world” that rightly consumed my energies. From the late 1980s on I’ve written constantly, but as a teacher and administrator I had to “carve out” hours from crowded, exacting professional responsibilities. Now that I’m retired my time truly belongs to me. So why would I need to continue to go on retreat each summer?

The change in environment is magical. Stepping out of your own demands and obligations and yes, connections provides a freedom and openness to creativity. The focus is entirely on what you’re making and thinking.  The conversations and interactions center on who you are as a writer/artist, not who you are as a wife or mom or (fill in the blanks) worker. A change in environment, a “room of your own,” feeds the freshness and original thinking. At Nimrod Hall the natural beauty and river option and simplicity provide a backdrop to investigate and explore and recharge. For me as a woman, not thinking about breakfast, lunch, or dinner–planning, preparing, cleaning up after–is a freeing of mental and physical energy, no small piece of the appeal.

I’m married. My husband is an active visual artist. He’s been making and teaching art his entire adult life. So I have a homelife that encourages creativity. Still, the CHANGE is stimulating and invigorating.

I’ve been going to Nimrod over thirty years, when I was a novice writer and my husband, as a painting instructor, invited me to come and read from my work in the evening. While I was there I thought: Writers would benefit from this environment, too. And thus started the writing component of Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program.

My return to Nimrod each summer is the time during my writing life that I’m energized, re-invigorated, lifted, and re-charged.

Cathy Hankla has joined me as writer-in-residence for twenty-seven years. Her artful teaching and expertise are invaluable to the experience. She has fed my writing life in more ways than I can describe. I have an upcoming poetry chapbook, published by Finishing Line Press. Without Cathy’s encouragement I’m not sure I would’ve dared write poems.

This summer there are five weeks for visual artists and one week for writers, July 12-17. If you’ve never taken a retreat, this would be a wonderful place to start.