Collage by John Dure Morgan

I restore myself when I’m alone.” Marilyn Monroe

Covid has forced aloneness. Ironic: as a writer, time alone was that longed-for commodity. Apparently like everything else it’s a double-edged sword. Now I want company. Beer and nachos with my college roommate. An overnight to exchange ideas with my women writer friends. A road trip to visit people I haven’t seen in way too long.

But I isolate here at home with my husband John. He’s a visual artist, so he leaves almost daily to go to his studio and work. I have plenty of time to write, to read, to do research, to think. Self-care, other-care: how to maintain both while the level of anxiety beneath the surface bubbles and brews, ever present.

Like so many people we’ve made efforts to restore our home, to make it more embracing as we spend countless hours here. A few months ago we replaced the roof. The red is inviting, we think. Now, this week, a crew of basement restorers are here shoring up the concrete wall that was cracking, inserting a pump to drain moisture out of that space so it won’t flood any more. I’m planning the spring plantings for the yard. Yesterday I cut honeysuckle vines out of the apple tree at the back fence and put suet feeders out for the Eastern bluebirds. Watching the birds come to the feeders in the morning gives me a lift. A few days above fifty degrees has given me renewed energy and optimism.

Last year I did considerable research on the life of Marilyn Monroe, the elusive Norma Jean. One thing I learned: she wrote poetry. She actually exchanged work and was friends with Norman Rosten and she knew Carl Sandburg. Like so many public personalities Marilyn’s media image was a fabrication, that disconnect between the external woman people thought they knew and the complicated interior woman. She wanted to be famous and beloved, certainly. But she wanted to be taken seriously, too, for her thoughts and aspirations. She married Arthur Miller, hoping to nourish a life of the mind. She studied with Lee Strasberg, trying to deepen her acting skills.

Life is too short. Time is what we’ve given, that’s it. Each of us finds ways to restore ourselves or we wither, like fruit left on the tree.

What will restore us after covid, I wonder. Spring is on its way. I am so grateful that we’ll have time at the beach in Kill Devil Hills, to celebrate our anniversary, returning to the same spot I’ve visited for over fifty years. And we’ll open our cabin in the mountains in Bath County. The birds are flocking to the feeders here at home. I know how lucky I am to have these spots to turn to for renewal and restoration.

Are You Gregg’s Mother?

“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” Kurasowa, Japanese Director

That’s probably good advice for a mother, too.

Akira Kurasowa’s classic movie Rashomon centers around a trial for the murder of a samurai warrior. The bandit who killed him, the samurai’s wife, and a woodcutter who claims to be a witness must all testify. Their stories vary so much that a medium conjures the samurai himself to describe what happened. This reference film “blurs the lines between memory and fact.” What is memory, after all, but a personal filter for experience.

I’m a most fortunate woman. I have four healthy, independent adult children. I’ve strived to be a loving, understanding, involved mother from the day my first daughter was born. My older daughter appeared in the world independent and confident. When she was four she announced one evening, “Mama, please don’t read out loud any more. I can read faster in my head.” My older son–actually my stepson–came to live with us when he was seven. So he has double trouble, two moms, but his heart’s plenty big for that. His positive nature infects everyone around him. Gregg is next–loving, smart, thoughtful, kind, spiritual. My younger daughter, born ten years after Gregg, is creative, theatrical, funny, and an original thinker. All four have stories to tell, rewarding experiences to cherish as well as difficult, trying moments that challenged their lives and made them stronger. Each could write a book.

Their lives are intertwined, of course, but each is one of a kind. Making way for individuality was always important to me, often discouraged during my growing up when “fitting in” was a mark of respectability.

One might ask Why did you choose to write about being Gregg’s mother, and not, say, any one of the other three? The two older children had already left home for college and beyond when Gregg disappeared the first time, in the grips of mental illness. That’s when I started writing Are You Gregg’s Mother?, trying to figure out as a mother how it was possible for him to go so far astray, for me to literally lose him to mental illness. I didn’t think I’d ignored warning signs, but maybe I had. I’d had my own troubles, my own mental crises, learned the hard way to be both more reflective and more assertive–had that caused me to “avert my eyes” from Gregg when he needed me most? The book began as exploration, personal reflection.

The memoir evolved, telling my story as a mother raising a beautiful son who develops paranoid schizophrenia. That disease is a body snatcher, stealing a person’s personality, taking his judgment hostage. even disguising the sound of his voice. I had no idea of its power until it possessed Gregg.

The first time Gregg disappeared for two years. The second time he was gone over three years, before we had any idea where he was or if he was even alive. This book doesn’t ask the question Why didn’t Gregg learn his lesson that first time.? The disease is not a lesson: it’s like demonic possession. Medications have improved these past two decades, but even with the best medication the person feels “less than,” often, and wants to get off the meds as soon as he starts to feel better. Plus the legal system and the mental health regulations rob a parent of most of their ability to help after their child turns eighteen. The mental and physical takeover of the person with the illness can be incomprehensible unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

Having a child disappear is one of a parents’ two worst nightmares. In Virginia, my home state, Gil Harrington’s daughter Morgan disappeared after a concert one night. Gil says, “Experiencing what it’s like to have a missing child, knowing that pain, it’s like being in a terrible club.” Morgan was brutally murdered. Virginia State Delegate Creigh Deeds’ son Gus died a horrible death the day after he was turned away from his local hospital because they couldn’t locate a mental health bed for him.

But this is my story, as Gregg’s mother, told as honestly as I’m able through the filter of my memory. It’s my way of “not averting my eyes,” of trying to look hard at coping with paranoid schizophrenia as it invaded my son and my family. It describes the disappearances, the hospitalizations, the searches, my mistakes as well as my honest efforts to do what’s right, many times having no idea what that might be.

A child’s illness leaves a parent feeling alone and helpless far too often. This memoir is an attempt to tell parents you’re not alone, to connect on a level that textbooks and movies and therapists can’t. From a loving mother’s unique vantage.

After confronting my own depression I left my full-time teaching job and earned an MFA in writing. I write fiction, poetry, personal essay, art criticism. But the most difficult thing I’ve ever written is this memoir. I’ve tried to be as honest and true as possible from my point of view, as I remember and attempt to convey my life with Gregg. I’ve tried hard not to avert my eyes.


Etc 2020 by Aggie Zed

“I create in the cracks of my life, the places that I love both real and imagined. Creating in the garden and in the studio, the things that give my heart moments of quiet peace. I’ve been extremely grateful for those moments.” Gina Louthian, Visual Artist

Bones by John Dure Morgan

For most of my adult life I’ve had to juggle time as a professional educator, wife, mother, and writer. Finding the space to write was never easy, but I managed because it was important to me. As I’ve often told students, time is one of the few things that we control. When I retired four years ago time finally became my ally. When the covid pandemic hit in March the time factor should not have been important to me because I’m in charge of the flow of my days now, and the virus didn’t change that, but I’ve been surprised by the way the anxiety surrounding the crisis has eroded my creativity.

It’s been since late July that I’ve written a blog. I soldiered on for a while, through July, but at some point I began to doubt my authority to say anything that mattered in the midst of such a life/death climate. In the early months of the pandemic I had my poetry chapbook final edits to complete; then I had to work on revising my memoir, Are You Gregg’s Mother? While I wasn’t creating new work, I was writing. I was fortunate to have a critique job for another writer in the area this summer, response to his novel in progress. Not going on annual retreat to Nimrod Hall was a creative blow, too, a loss that took a toll. Somehow I managed to write six new poems during this time, though–always a slow process for me–but no new fiction.

I have sorely missed my writing group, both the one nearby and the one that has sustained me out in cyberspace. I was meeting with two writers in Blacksburg once a month but we had to stop around the Christmas holidays and then we were never able to start again when covid hit. For years I have exchanged work with a dear writer friend Laura who lives outside Boston. At first we did that via snail mail, but in recent years we’ve used the internet. We both came to the conclusion of some big projects together a few months back and after covid hit we didn’t schedule any new exchanges.

Other artists have managed to keep making new work even in this jarring climate. My husband John has been a model artist for me to admire and strive to emulate. He goes to his studio on most days no matter what–virus, tense political climate, sickness and in health, he’s married to his creative process. And it shows. He’s made collage after collage since March and has some major assemblages in the works, too.

Aggie Zed and Gina Louthian are two life-long visual artists who haven’t been stopped or stymied by the virus. Both post new work regularly on Instagram, like John, and wrap their lives around making art. I not only admire their art, I admire their commitment to create, no matter what.

I don’t think I’ve had “writer’s block” so much as I’ve had “creativity block”–a barrier to the positive flow of ideas. Fear, anxiety, uncertainty–these are powerful barriers. I can’t minimize their ability to get in the way of “my best self” and the ideas that mental exploration generate. Luckily I’ve been able to read a lot and post my responses to the many novels like Girl, Woman, Other that have kept me thinking about women and self-fulfillment and the search for meaning in life.

Just this week I had a ZOOM meeting with my two writing friends Jane and Mindy in Blacksburg and we’ve decided to exchange work again. They both have projects in the works and I’m excited to read what they’re writing. Laura and I are going to look at the novels-in-progress that we stalled a few months back. We’ll bring fresh eyes, tempered by this challenging period of forced loneliness. My next-door neighbor, visual artist Lucia, is starting new paintings, too, and we’re walking and talking about books and ideas.

The issues that have mattered to me my entire writing life–the internal lives of women and how we strive to become our fullest, honest selves–still matter to me. As I comb my thoughts and experiences and look to the visual and verbal artists I admire I intend to sharpen my creative skills and immerse myself once more in the writing that has mattered to me my entire life. I only have this voice, my own true voice, and time to use it is a gift.


Nimrod Porch Shot

Admit me to the school of skittering

minnows and the raw skin of the sycamore 

where silent, water-light movies play

beneath the leaves and limbs.”

Cathryn Hankla, from RIVER SCHOOL, Artemis 2020

Nimrod Hall in Bath County has been one of the best places on earth for me for years. I go on retreat there every summer, for time to write but also for time to renew my sense of “what’s right in the world.” Like most places Nimrod has had its share of intrigue and problems, but it’s still a transcendent getaway, a reminder to me of what’s possible, what’s good, what’s humanly admirable.

The writers who have been with me at Nimrod know I avoid saying good-bye. I just don’t like those words—they’re so final. Like our beloved Cowpasture River, I prefer to roll on. So I choose to say, instead, “Take Nimrod with you.”

Since I won’t be going to Nimrod this summer—the Summer Arts Program is closed now due to covid—I’ve been thinking, myself, about what that means to me. How can I take Nimrod with me, keep it with me for as much as another year until I’m able to return? I’ve come up with four “gifts” Nimrod has given me year after year.

Less really is more. Proprietor Frankie Apistolas taught me that I need not pack a suitcase for a stay at Nimrod; a laundry hamper would work just fine. For many years I’d return to “my” room—Frankie’s growing-up bedroom on the second floor of the old, original farmhouse. The furnishings were “antique” in the well-worn version of old, original furniture. A dresser, a chest of drawers, a big double bed, a bedside table, and a rocking chair. Some years I brought a folding table; in the past decade I threw a towel over the mirror and used the dresser for my writing desk. I needed so little but found myself filled with the delight of simplicity, of shedding all my “stuff” back home. We didn’t have television or phones in the rooms. It took years for Verizon service to connect us to the outside world. But I found a peace and even joy in that simplicity. My brain sharpened. My sense of kindness, not envy, was enhanced. I smiled more.

Respecting my writing time is up to me. From grad school in 1985 until now, I’ve written five novels (three published), two short story collections (many of the stories published), a memoir (soon to be published), a chapbook of poems (coming out in August), and many isolated poems. I’ve had a full writing life. When people asked me, before I retired three years ago, how I was able to write when most people can’t “find the time,” I used to answer, fliply, “I don’t clean my house or watch tv.” Nimrod taught me, more than anything, to respect my writing time. When I first designed “a typical day” for writers at Nimrod, one agenda item was absolute: Sacred Writing Time. That meant no distractions, no visiting, no conferences, between after breakfast and before lunch. People could nap, take walks, soak in the tub, but the time was devoted to writing and thinking about writing. That Nimrod lesson has stuck with me and enabled me to set aside the solitary time to write. That hasn’t always been in the morning, like it is at Nimrod, but the lesson is “If I don’t respect my writing time, who will?”

Other peoples’ writing and ideas help me forge and deepen my own. As writer-in-residence I’ve always had a “sidekick,” the REAL writing teacher. For over twenty-five years that’s been Cathryn Hankla. It pleases me to say that many of the writers who’ve attended (and many have come back year after year) have called us “the dynamic duo.” We shared a writing philosophy: Bring writers voices’ to the front. Let them be heard. We wanted to help all of the writers find and sharpen those voices. Workshops and readings invited praise first, then questions about troublespots, and, finally, suggestions. Interaction was based on respect. This is the only way I know to teach. But the wonder is, it’s actually a way to learn, from one another. People talk of “being afraid” of workshops; many started in that posture when they first arrived at Nimrod. Most left our gatherings fired up to write. That’s the point.

Nature is there for me, sustains me, sustains my writing life, if I only pay attention and dive in. The Cowpasture. The Smith graveyard. The bull gates. The walks, the tubes, the night swims: those nature adventures glued us together at Nimrod. I saw ball lightning from my second floor porch—I never knew there was such a thing as ball lightning. I met Naked Lady Lilies—and came to wait to see them year after year. The garden vegetables, tomato and cantaloupe and squash—were fresh veggies EVER better? Nature’s bounty and beauty have fed me and healed me year after year.

I hope other Nimrod artists and writers will add their comments on the ways they “take Nimrod with them” into their creative and active lives. I’m a different person because of Nimrod, a better writer and woman. How do I take Nimrod with me: It’s in my mind, my heart, my soul.

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

I do believe it will finish, I do  believe it will finish.” Gertrude Stein


Gertrude Stein’s stream of conscience poetry feels fitting in more ways than one today.

My birthday rose that I posted June 12 still hasn’t dropped its first petal; the bud that I rued cutting in order to bring the rose into the house is blooming. A rose is a rose is more than a rose.

And when I looked at the poem that embedded Stein’s famous rose line, “Sacred Emily,” I was taken with how absolutely appropriate it is for my corona mind these days. The line “I do believe it will finish” jumped out. Stein entered my muddled mind and connected, boom.

I’ve been thinking about connections between minds these days and how books and movies and poems and works of art enable them. Remember that ad “You are what you eat”? I have no idea what it was marketing, but the idea has stayed with me in one of those wacky memory tricks that enable me to call up something I’m not thinking about–I don’t think–and not be able to remember something I’m desperate to recall. My mind IS what it “eats,” what I feed it.

Reading the Shirley Jackson biography by Ruth Franklin, A Rather Haunted Life, I wanted to go visit Shirley and have a meal with her and spend time talking about everything, not just writing. Mothers and husbands and children and ideas and minds and the tricks they play on us. Her novels shook me and moved me when I read them, but I had no idea what a complex, complicated, conflicted woman she was. We would’ve had a lot to exchange, I’d like to think.

Weird: that bud blooming on my birthday rose has made me more optimistic than all the things I’ve read lately and all the art that’s been posted that I’ve looked at and all the poems I’ve tried to write. Why is that? Maybe it’s Mother Nature at work, saying don’t give up, “I do believe it will finish.” Or maybe it’s the simplicity of beauty. Or maybe it’s that sliver of the human spirit that more often than not refuses to give in.