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.




“WISE MEN SAY . . .”

Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.” Elvis Presley

Elvis doll

Today of course I’m thinking about Elvis Presley. Friends who know me well know this. Early this morning a dear long-time friend sent birthday wishes for Elvis. Another writer gal pal sent an article about five places where Elvis is still adored. He would’ve been 85; unimaginable, actually. But age is just a number, and it’s true Elvis lives.

People love the story of the “hillbilly” kid from the wrong side of the tracks who made it bigger than big with all the American markers of success: money, mansion, cars, airplanes, fame around the world. But the old adage “money can’t buy happiness” has hung around all these years because it bears the weight of truth.

Elvis wasn’t happy. He loved life, loved his Mama, loved his Daddy, loved his wife Priscilla but couldn’t keep her.

I’ve been researching Marilyn for a project I’m calling Norma Jeane Wrote Poetry (there, I”ve said it). I’m struck by the similarities and commonalities between Elvis and Marilyn. Elvis grew up poor, dirt poor, and so did Norma Jeane. In fact, she lived with foster parents and was in an orphanage for almost two years. Both early on displayed a physical magnetism that was almost palpable. Both had dreams and ambitions way beyond what their “standing” in the world would have suggested. Neither was “lucky in love,” but both became recognizable around the world by just their first names.

The Elvis smile and the Marilyn smile light up the screen, still camera or movies. Sadly, both got tangled in the web of drugs prescribed by those who supposedly were trying to help them. Not widely known, both read voraciously, ever trying not only to improve their minds but also to find something “more,” something transcendent, to believe in.

Oddly enough, both wanted better roles in Hollywood, more respect for their acting talent. Elvis was a consummate entertainer with a voice like no other, but he wanted serious acting roles, and so did Marilyn. Neither was satisfied with being a famous “pretty face.”

Drugs had a role in both their deaths. Both died way too young. They lived in the sunlight of fame, but that shadow of unfulfilled longing was ever present for both. Marilyn begged her publiscists not to “make a joke” of her, to think a good thought for her.

On Elvis’ birthday I would wish for him a recognition of his talent and potential, not just as an idol but as a man who had much to offer and was wise in unexpected ways. That smile. That voice. That sense of generosity and his spirit of kindness. Elvis had his flaws, but to my mind he was a good man who made an effort to be great, not just with his music. I salute him. I think a good thought for him.

Note: I LOVED writing Protecting Elvis. I would love for you to read it. Find it at:





the pure products of America go crazy.” William Carlos Williams

Off the grid: James Harold Jennings’ lifestyle was the definition of off the grid. He lived on tobacco farm acreage his parents left him in Pinnacle, NC, with no electricity or running water. After the death of his mother in 1974, instead of living in the farmhouse, he lived in the four schoolbuses he acquired and cooked on a kerosene cookstove and listened to a battery-operated radio.

After fifth grade JHF was homeschooled. Perhaps he was bullied in school—that’s mere speculation on my part—or perhaps his mom just wanted to teach him at home, as she was a trained school teacher. In later life Jennings worked briefly as a night watchman and a movie projectionist, but according to him he gave up working away from the farm after his nerves “went bust.”

Jennings called himself the Artist of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. Locals called him Red Jennings, or “the crazy man down the road.” His companions were feral cats.

My husband John visited Jennings in the 90s, with other members of The Folk Art Society. Jennings talked about his dictionaries and the stars and astrology. According to Jonathan Williams, who also visited JHJ and interviewed him, Jennings had his own religion and his own goddesses. Williams says, “It might be Diana, the Roman moon goddess; or, Lilith, the mythical creature who preceded Eve in the Garden of Eden.” Jennings himself told Williams, “What truth there is in the Bible is astrology. You can get down on your knees and pray for what you want to, and, if it comes, it comes, but it won’t come from God.”

John purchased two of Jennings’ wood carvings which we live with and love. Both are now in our cabin in Bath County. Both are examples of Jennings’ powerful feminine figure. Without necessarily subscribing to the nomenclature, Jennings behaved as a feminist. Aeon, the angel, exudes both command and benevolence. The other, Blondy Tames a Bully, shows a strong woman overpowering a terrified man who Jennings defines as a bully.

Before he committed suicide on his birthday in 1999 Jennings was being treated for depression. Williams concludes that “He seemed very nervous and agitated by the coming of the Millennium, and afraid that vandals and lawless mobs would come and wreck his Art World.” A pure American art frontiersman, Jennings lived his life following his intuition and creating work to uplift. In Williams words, James Harold Jennings “pieces have a rare lilt and twang about them.”





Joy Harjo

Justice is a story by heart in the beloved country where imagination weeps.” Joy Harjo, The Myth of Blackbirds

I was at a conference in 1994 when Joy Harjo was on the program, to do a recitation of her poems in her collection The Woman Who Fell From the Sky. I went to hear her and was transported. Now she’s the Library of Congress Poet Laureate for the US.

I am so grateful I had that experience. And I purchased her book of poems, which she signed to me, “in beauty,” with her signature stars.

I was at the conference as a reading teacher; I guess by then I was a reading expert as well as someone who spoke often on the “best practices” for teaching writing to young people with dyslexia and other learning problems. Hearing Joy Harjo was such a lift from what was often a solemn gathering. The struggle to help students who learn differently in a climate all-too-often geared toward the “traditional” student was sometimes discouraging. Hearing Harjo celebrate the wonder of words was a much-needed reminder of the power of language.

I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. My grandmother loved poetry; she often recited to us children. My first book of poems was titled Honey for Tea, by Patience Strong, and was a gift from a neighbor I considered quite sophisticated, Mrs. Mallory. I still have that collection, badly frayed, the binding held together with string. Do publishers stitch book binding any longer?

What a gift, reading. I grew up good at it, one of the fortunate ones, and it has afforded me limitless hours of learning, entertainment, enlightenment, and even grief. Books are my company, libraries my halls of welcome and democracy. A friend asked me recently how many books I read each week. Honestly, I don’t know. Just depends. Right now I’m taking three with me to Richmond where I’ll be seeing my mother and daughters for Thanksgiving: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (she calls it a fictional biography, but she can call it whatever she wants; as the pre-eminent author in America, she does what she pleases); Between the World and Me, a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son regarding the race issues young Black men face in America today; and the Harjo collection. Lucky me.

I’ll do part of the cooking for Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful some of the family will gather together. I’m most fortunate to have far-flung loving family, as well, who will call with good wishes and memories as they go about their own happy celebrations. I’m rich in loved ones and grateful for each one, individuals with full lives and friends. I won’t be watching the football games after the feast, though. I’ll be reading.




Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso

Kristen Feighery

Paintings by Kristen Feighery (with a small  Deb Mell painting/collage on the right)

“The dust of everyday life” is unavoidable, but I’m reminded by an opening Friday night that we don’t have to gather that dust; we can wash it away and refill our soul with art.

Steven Francis Fine Art (SFFA) opened its doors in Lynchburg Friday, with a salon-style presentation of sixteen artists, with almost that many more from the Steve and Lucia Coates personal collection. The self-taught artist Kristen Feighery, above, drew my attention right away. Her off-balance angels and all-too-human disciples at the last supper reached into my spirit and soul immediately.

Yarn artist Janet Stapleman lifted my awareness of how art rises above the mundane. Her patterned fabric work came about after arthritis limited her as a painter. The beauty and richness of color compel me, but the narrative of her artistic journey in the face of what could be viewed as a roadblock to creativity shed light on the value of art in our lives.

Janet Stapleman_8198

International artist Ann van de Graaf has long been a favorite of mine. She was born in Africa and has travelled the world, but her feet and her art are firmly grounded in examining real people going about their real experiences trying to live richer, fuller lives. As well as a deep respect for the animal kingdom. Her artist bio explains that she is “influenced by the artistic expressions of indigenous people that reflect the human tie to the Earth and Spirit, and the mystery of that connection.”

Ann van de Graaf

Kathy Cudlin has travelled the world as a photographer. I have a color favorite in my study that she took in France, of clothes on a line. The visual contrast of the blue shutter with the flapping clothes still stops me, puts me there. The photographs she’s showing at SFFA are black and white, equally arresting. I’m fortunate to own a collection of b/w beautiful shots she made at Graceland.

Kathy Cudlin (1)

Lucia Coates is a lifelong artist who paints from nature as well as still life. As she devotes more and more time to her painting the work becomes stronger and more arresting. I was so pleased to see a collection of her recent work in this show.


We’ve often chosen Coates’ work as gifts. One of my daughters has lush hydrangeas in her dining room. Another cherishes a small painting of fruit. These works cheer the spirit on the dreariest day.

Our community is fortunate to have SFFA as an addition to its rich cultural offerings. But every community offers the opportunities to “dust off” the spirt and the soul through the arts. In these troubling times, when so much of the focus is on what we’ve been doing wrong in our democracy, visit the museums and music venues and libraries and galleries and breathe in again the uplifting air of the best we have to offer one another through the arts.






Elvis vet

People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another.  They thought I couldn’t take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering, but to myself.” Elvis Presley

Elvis served in the US Army from March 1958 until March 1960. Since he was a world-famous entertainer he was offered the option to go into Special Services, but he chose to enlist as a regular soldier. He was in training when his mother became so ill that he was sent from Fort Hood to her bedside in Memphis, so he was with her when she died August 14, 1958. Some say Elvis was never the same after Gladys’ death.

The photos of Elvis being inducted show a happy guy going through the usual process that all the guys went through: getting his hair cut (!!!), having the medical examination, being issued his Army fatigues. But people close to him say he was scared to death of the Army.

Stationed in Germany, to a tank brigade, Elvis adjusted to the rigors of Army life, getting up early (He was NEVER an early riser in any other time of his life), reporting for duty as required, pitching in without complaint as “one of the guys.” There are NO Army tales of Elvis taking advantage of his fame to avoid either chores or assignments. Like many GIs he did make a few trips to Paris for the night life. These are the only times Elvis ever visited Europe. He never performed there; the Colonel forbade him to perform at all while he was in the armed services, since he couldn’t be paid.

E’s Grandmother Dodger went along to Germany, as did his father Vernon. He didn’t live on base; he rented his own house where he could have musical evenings to break the monotony of service life (and food). But he was homesick. Charlie Hodge, who became a lifelong friend and member of the Memphis Mafia, joined Elvis for musical evenings. Elvis met the fourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu while he was stationed in Friedberg, West Germany, but she wasn’t the only  gal he flirted with during those two years.

Elvis started using amphetamines while he was in the Army. As they were “legal,” he welcomed the energy they provided, so he could rise early and stay up late. They were one bad habit he started during this time that never left him.

The fear that he’d be forgotten after two years in the Army was clearly unfounded. Elvis was mobbed when he returned in a snowstorm on March 3, 1960. The screaming crowd at McGuire Air Force Base made it seem as though he’d never left. But Elvis served his country; he was discharged as a Sergeant, and he earned the Army Good Conduct Medal. It’s an important part of his story: Elvis was a vet.


Angels, demons, spirits, wizards, gods and witches have peppered folk religions since mankind first started telling stories.”  Robin Marantz Henig

Finster Elvis

When John and I visited Howard Finster around late 1989, early 1990, he was learning to use a computer. He would’ve been 73. One of the universities had sent a desktop, a printer, and a computer instructor to see if he’d be interested in trying to use it with his art. Finster had by then done numerous college presentations, been on Johnny Carson (Johnny couldn’t get a word in), and designed an album cover for REM and one for the Talking Heads.

Finster called himself a “man of vision.” He said the Lord revealed to him in a thumbprint of bicycle paint that he was to use his talent to spread the word of God. The “vision” told him to “paint sacred art.”

Oddly enough, we’d learned about Finster at Ann and Boo Oppenhimer’s home, looking at a slide show they’d made of Finster’s Paradise Garden outside Summerville, Georgia. They were showing a slide of a huge angel mounted on a fence, her hundreds of wings labelled with artists’ names written in by Finster. I asked them to stop the show, went up to one feather, and pointed to John’s name. That’s the nearest I’ve ever come to a revelation. In any case, John’s name really was on that feather. And Howard Finster really had painted it. We’d never heard of him before that night.

That day we visited Howard Finster John couldn’t stay in the room with him, his talking was so incessant. I remember Finster saying that “Money’s not the root of all evil. No sir. It’s the LOVE of money that causes evil.” While he smoked a cigarette, demonstrated his point with a wad of money, and lounged on a daybed, tired of his computer lesson for the day.

We purchased a “cutout” of Elvis and another of a Coke Bottle. Elvis is in our bedroom, where I see him every morning. Finster’s text says “Elvis at 3 is a angel to me. By Howard Finster. From God. Man of Visions. 12.000.439 works since 1976. Now Nov. 18. 1989. 10:30 PM: God bless you all.” He sent Elvis out into the world to spread his love of God and the promise of blessings. I’ve always been pleased I selected Elvis Angel.

John chose the Coke Bottle. It’s obsessively covered with angels and stars and sayings in favor of Coke, as well as the faces of unheard-of prophets who spoke to Finster like Babcog and Chimox. Finster advises that “Millions of church folks drink Coca Cola and drive home very safely.”

Part of Paradise Garden is installed in Atlanta’s High Museum. The Library of Congress owns four paintings. This visionary, with no more than a sixth-grade education, achieved his goal of preaching “the good news” to the masses. He certainly touched my life.


NB: Ann and Boo Oppenhimer introduced John and me to the amazing world of folk art and folk artists. Many of them, like Finster, used their art as a means of preaching. James Harold Jennings believed in the Angel Aeon and hated bullies. Sister Gertrude Morgan was called to warn the world about the Revelation in the Bible with her Black Angel. More blogs to come on this topic!