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.


My get up and go . . .


Never discourage anyone . . . who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.” Plato

Ever hear the saying “My get up and go got up and went”? That’s how I’ve felt this week.

This turtle showed up in our front yard the other day. I was so excited about the “intruder” that I had to take its picture. That’s my level of stimulation these days: I got excited about a turtle in the front yard.

For weeks I’ve been an optimist in the face of this covid-19 scare. I’ve committed to being grateful and steady and committed to doing those things I’m able to do. I’ve revised a novel, with the aid of my friend and writer Laura in Brookline. That exchange has been a lifeline. My lifelong habit of reading has sustained me, too, so I’ve been a  “good literary citizen” as my friend Cathy calls it, purchasing novels on my Kindle, posting about those novels on my Facebook page. I’ve been the cabin cook for me and John, planning and preparing the meals. These are small, I know, but they’ve sustained me.

John has gone “out in the world” for us. He still goes to the studio every day. I haven’t even been in a store yet. I see this as civic responsibility, not a deprivation of my freedoms.

For over two weeks I followed my children’s advice and didn’t post about the current political unrest. I gave thumbs up to the ten photos of joy and the ten best books and works of art and the recommended art projects and the pictures of being a mom. Those were great, gave me smiles.

That all changed May 25th with the public homicide of George Floyd. One daughter lives a block away from the Lee Monument in Richmond, Virginia. Another lives across the street from the Virginia Museum, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy building that was damaged the first night of protest is located. My granddaughter and her boyfriend with asthma are marching in Seattle. One son is with his family in Santa Monica blocks away from where the riots occurred. Another works for a delivery service in Richmond. I am personally invested and involved, having committed to civil rights when I was 16 years old and left my church over their stand on segregation. I can’t go out myself, now, because of age and compromising conditions, but I can no longer sit on the sidelines without making my voice heard via social media.

These times remind me of my freshman year at Mary Washington when the assassination of President Kennedy stopped me in my tracks on my way to my 2:00 class. Some students went to DC, but many of us hovered around the television, riveted by the scenes from Texas, on the airplane, at the police station, during the funeral. I remember feeling paralyzed, perched in my bed hours on end crying. That’s what could happen when political division was out of control. That happened too often since then, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

With Bobby I was teaching first grade on a military post. I told the children that “violence never solves anything.” I know some activists disagree with me on that, but while I advocate for peaceful protest for civil rights, I cannot support violence. Wrongs don’t resolve other wrongs, to my mind. Looters and destroyers detract from the cause.

Many caring, concerned people have faced the fear of covid and joined protests against police brutality and systemic inequity. Instead, these times have robbed me of my mojo. My get up and go got up and went. I think I should be writing nonstop, but I can’t put pencil to paper, for some reason. My turtle moves are on simple tasks of daily living. I wish this weren’t so.

I’m kinda sad, too, for selfish reasons. I’m the girl who didn’t fly up from Brownies to Girl Scouts cause the thought of selling cookies terrified me. While I love to do readings of my work, and teach workshops on writing, and talk at bookgroups, I’m still frozen when it comes to selling my books. So the deadline for presales of my poetry chapbook hovers (June 12) and I’ve sold nowhere near 250 copies. That means the title won’t be picked up by the large purveyors that sell to libraries and bookstores. Bummer. That’s a fly speck compared to the human struggles playing out in our streets and halls of power, but I’m trying to be honest about the mix of emotions that scramble my brain these days.

This turtle ramble twists and turns more than most of my blogs. I think that reflects my jumbled thinking right now. I’m trying. I am. I stay in touch with loved ones. I read and watch movies and do my chores. I post about injustice. I hope Plato’s right, and despite the fact that my progress is turtle slow I will overcome these corona blahs. Bob Dylan has to be right: “The times they are a’changin’.” I hope tomorrow I wake up and I’m changed back to my more optimistic, active self.


They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”  Andy Warhol

Marilyn Trapped

“Trapped” by John Dure Morgan

The word “SHARE” is loaded for me. As a participant in many psychotherapy sessions, my own as well as family members’, the word share has taken on a bit of a psychobabble phony-baloney connotation. People in groups are often invited to share, provoking them to perhaps reveal when they’re not ready to reveal or, in some cases, elaborate or even fabricate. Mind you I’m aware that in effective psychotherapy that isn’t a problem, but I’ve been there, so to speak.

In today’s social media world the word SHARE has a more powerful denotation, as a choice and as an action. Authors, artists, vocalists, many of us jump on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to post our latest work in the hopes that it will “take off.” Those who SHARE creative endeavors help get the work out into the world. Cybergalleries were popping up all over the internet long before the virus hit.

But this has heightened with the coronavirus isolation. No doubt some of us are feeling “Trapped,” as conveyed in my husband John’s collage, above. Now people are SHARING ten favorite albums, or ten photos that give them joy, or ten works of art, or ten books (one friend is sharing thirty!) that have mattered in their lives. This new focus, just this month, on things that give us pleasure and inspiration are a positive, refreshing  relief from the neverending uncertainty and dark nature of the current medical and political posts.

The One World Together At Home concert came at a moment of need for me, It was a lift, hearing all those artists contribute their talent for the benefit of our medical personnel who face the danger of coronavirus every day to heal the sick and comfort those in need, often alone and afraid. And the 2020 Graduation broadcast made memories for a whole nation of high school graduates who missed out on all those moments, not just graduation: proms, picnics, senior skip day, beach week. Yo-Yo Ma playing “Tis A Gift to Be Simple” was a unique gift. He didn’t have to do that.

As Elvis might say, “Whole lotta sharing going on.” He was noted for his generosity, giving away cars and horses and even houses. He never forgot what it was like to need a boost. My neighbor Lucia gave me flowers, this week; she invited me to come to her yard next door and cut peonies. Former student Mari sent a lovely hand-written note. Aunt Helen sent a photo of my grandmother when she was a girl.


I’ve made an effort to spread the positive as well. Friend Debby Freed posted her most recent whimsical pottery animals and I’ve shared them. Artist David Csicsko posts amazing coloring book pages that I send along. Daily I share art work by our many artist friends on Facebook and Instagram as well as poems and books.

Back in “normal” time or “before” time or whatever we call it, artists showed their work in galleries. Authors did readings at libraries and bookstores and colleges. I could teach with my colleague Cathryn Hankla at Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program, welcoming writers, novices or experienced, for a week honoring their talents and works in progress.  The connection and interaction at that retreat sent us all back into the “real world” with a sense of connection. Those physical options no longer exist, so we creative people have to develop new ways to share what we create and to promote our work. A few weeks ago BookNoFurther sponsored a cyber reading by Lee Smith of her new work, Blue Marlin. Over 400 people participated. Most of us writers would never get 400 people at a reading anywhere, any time. My husband John, who has avoided social media like a plague, now posts his work daily on Instagram. He’s pleased to get likes and comments, but especially shares.

All this is to say that I see the need to SHARE, now, in a way I didn’t before. The LIKE button is great, but it’s SHARE that has the power. That button is a bit of a lifeline to friends and family and like-minded strangers, as well as an opening to an audience for my books and poems. The word no longer feels like psychobabble to me. I SHARE, and I’m grateful to others who do, also.