Feeling at home , missing home…and then a horse appears in the mist


I’ve been spending time in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, at a wonderful retreat called the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve done four residencies here, working on my fiction, as a visiting fellow.

It’s become so familiar to me that it feels like a second “home” — not at all comparable to my first “home,” New Jersey, where I’ve left behind someone I love dearly for about three weeks so that I can chase my elusive muse, but “home” enough that I’d love to have her here with me so she could hear the coyotes and bobcats and owls at night, and could help me count the stars in the velvet-dark sky, and could enjoy the quiet (except when the freight train rolls by, which it does frequently all through the night) and could meet some of the interesting and inspiring writers and artists and composers I’ve met during my stays here on this former farm called Mount St. Angelo.

Maybe most of all, for some reason, I’d like her to see this dark horse and these misty hills, which I see every morning as I walk down the hill from my studio to breakfast in the dining room:



The culture of sculpture

The photo above? I call it “Large Head of Woman Appears to Float in the Mist in Replica of Japanese Garden Near Lovely But Expensive Restaurant.” The location? I took it yesterday at the Grounds for Sculpture located in Hamilton Township, N.J.

Don’t get me wrong. The Grounds for Sculpture is a stunning place, with hundreds of striking and creative outdoor sculptures, beautiful landscaping and pathways that beckon with a mantra hum …like the one in this photo, also taken yesterday:

It’s a place filled with wit and wisdom and wonder, with the beauty of spirit and the spirit of beauty. I intend to go back some glorious morning in spring and I want to walk there in silent winter snow and I want to hear the soft crackle of leaves beneath my feet as I get lost in autmn on the perfectly unpredictable paths.

Yesterday was a hot day, with thunderstorms rumbling and dark clouds looking so biblical that the experience was nearly humbling…but not enough to resist the temptation to say “Visit the Grounds for Sculpture. But don’t bother sitting through the introductory film  in which someone rambles very seriously about experiencing the wonder of art and making it one’s own and other very pretentious prattle that the narrator with her very British accent manages to read without even one little proper giggle.

Here’s the link to the Grounds for Sculpture.

Get past the fact that these folks take themselves just a little too seriously and definitely need a new scriptwriter — and you’ll find it to be a place you’ll want to visit again and again.

P.S. At the entrance to one of the indoor exhibits I found a plaque bearing the best poem I’ve ever read or heard about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. It was written by my friend BJ Ward just days after the tragedy. BJ read this powerful poem just a few weeks later at one of the readings in the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival series I’d started just a few years before. I remember saying to people at the time that the poets and I had discussed whether it was right to hold the reading series that awful autumn. BJ’s stunning poem made it clear that proceeding with the event wasn’t just right – it was necessary:

For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims

Nothing could have prepared you—

Note: Every poem I have ever written

is not as important as this one.

Note: This poem says nothing important.

Clarification of last note:

This poem cannot save 3,000 lives.

Note: This poem is attempting to pull your father

out of the rubble, still living and glowing

and enjoying football on Sunday.

Note: This poem is trying to reach your mother

in her business skirt, and get her home

to Ridgewood where she can change

to her robe and sip Chamomile tea

as she looks through the bay window at the old,

untouched New York City skyline.

Note: This poem is aiming its guns at the sky

to shoot down the terrorists and might

hit God if He let this happen.

Note: This poem is trying to turn

that blooming of orange and black

of the impact into nothing

more than a sudden tiger-lily

whose petals your mother and father

could use as parachutes, float down

to the streets below, a million

dandelion seeds drifting off

to the untrafficked sky above them.

Note: This poem is still doing nothing.

Note: Somewhere in this poem there may be people alive,

and I’m trying like mad to reach them.

Note: I need to get back to writing the poem to reach them

instead of dwelling on these matters, but how

can any of us get back to writing poems?

Note: The sound of this poem: the sound

of a scream in 200 different languages

that outshouts the sounds of sirens and

airliners and glass shattering and

concrete crumbling as steel is bending and

the orchestral tympani of our American hearts

when the second plane hit.

Note: The sound of a scream in 200 languages

is the same sound.

It is the sound of a scream.

Note: In New Jersey over the next four days,

over thirty people asked me

if I knew anyone in the catastrophe.

Yes, I said.

I knew every single one of them.

BJ Ward

from Gravedigger’s Birthday(North Atlantic Books)

Paint by numbers

Roman Opalka
I guess “paint by numbers” wouldn’t be an accurate description. It was really painting with numbers or just plain painting numbers.

Roman Opalka, who dipped his brushes in the paintpot of infinity, died a few days ago at age 79, which means that either he didn’t make it to eternity and forever…or he’s there now.. or he’s still progressing along his endless path toward some never-reached destination.

About fifty years ago, you see, Roman Opalka, living in Warsaw, began a painting. Using a fine-tipped brush, he began painting numerals on a 4-foot-by-6-foot canvas, white numerals in straight rows on a black background, working from top left corner to bottom right corner.

And that’s what he did for the rest of his life. Each canvas after that continued the sequence of numerals. By 2004, he had reached 5,500,000. Five-and-a-half million!

According to his New York Times obituary, in 1968 Opalka took a major step — he changed the backgrounds from black to gray.

In 1972, after he passed 1,000,0000, he began gradually lightening the gray with white plait until, by 2008, he was painting white numerals on a white background. In 1972, he also began saying each number into a tape recorder and took snapshots of himself in front of each completed painting.

Each painting had the same title: Opalka 1965/1 — ∞.

“All my work is a single thing, the description from one to infinity,” Mr. Opalka once wrote. “A single thing, a single life.”

What was it all about? Our journey from here to infinity…or eternity…or oblivion.

“Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance,” Opalka once explained. “We are at the same time alive and in the face of death — that is the mystery of all living beings.”

5,500,001…5,500,002, 5,500,003, 5,500,004, 5,500,005…et cetera.

We sensed each other beneath the mask

We both felt left out, left over, left hanging out to dry, or left high and dry, or maybe left for dead. We were good friends. We lived in different states. This was in the days when people wrote letters. So we wrote each other letters, thinking out loud in print, weeping our woes and joking our joys and up so many floating poems down.

And we quoted Bob Dylan, especially the liner notes, written by Dylan himself, for the back cover of the album “Planet Waves.” Many of the songs Dylan recorded for that album also hit home with us then: “Something There Is About You,” “Dirge,” “Forever Young,” “Hazel”…every great song resonated on that great underrated album.

But the liner notes! I quote selected phrases that I remember we quoted to each other, finding some hidden meaning known only to us — and, maybe Dylan:

Back to the Starting Point!…I dropped a double brandy & tried to recall the events…headwinds & Snowstorms…We sensed each other beneath the mask, pitched a tent in the Street & joined the traveling circus…searching thru the ruins for a glimpse of Buddah…Yeah the ole days Are gone forever And the new ones Aint far behind…the Laughter is fading away, echos of a star…Energy Vampires in the Gone World going Wild!…My brothers of the flood…

And we quoted “Desolation Row” from the album “Highway 61 Revisited.”

We were lost boys who had lost true loves and had no idea where our lives might lead, and so we quoted the lines about eyes being fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow and nobody escaping from Desolation Row, and especially the last 12 lines, beginning with “Yes I received your letter yesterday…” and ending with the plea not to send any more letters unless they were postmarked Desolation Row. I believe, in fact, although the memory is hazy because I was in such a foggy haze, that the last letter I received from my old friend ended with those very lines — don’t send me no more letters no….not unless you mail them from…Desolation Row.

This all came to mind recently when I came upon a website featuring  a fascinating painting in which Shane Balkowitsch and Theo Cobb depict and portray every single line and character down on “Desolation Row,” even the restless riot squad — and thrown in for good measure are visual allusions to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Shelter From the Storm” and even the day Dylan wrecked his Triumph motorcycle outside of Woodstock, New York.

Here’s a video montage of the painting — accompanied by Mr. Dylan himself, singing one of his greatest songs:

I enjoyed it and so will my old friend — even though neither of us lives anymore on “Desolation Row,” I know we both remember it well.

The secret artist

I talked to my mother on the phone last night and she said: “I have a surprise for you.”


My father died six years ago, just in his late 60s. He was in declining health for the last 10 years of his life, and retired early, and during those final years he did a few paintings.

They were good. They were terrible. Depends on what standards you apply.

He did some copies of classic Renaissance era religious art. Yes, that was sort of a weird thing to do. Yes, it hints at some serious lack of imagination. But it was also sort of touching — we’re talking about a man who was slowly dying and knew it, so he copied religious art. What’s more, the drawings showed he had some technical talent — we’re not talking Leonardo da Vinci here, but they’re  pretty fair copies for amateur copies.

He also painted a winter scene, which I’m guessing he must have copied from a photo or maybe even a greeting card illustration, which is really what it looks like. It depicts a cluster of cozy little cottages in some snow-covered wooded hills. Same verdict: They were pretty good, just in terms of drawing ability, and certainly way better than anything I could ever dream of doing.

But everything my father drew or painted lacked that spark. There was no art to his art.


When my father was a young man, he dreamed of becoming an architect. His idol was Frank Lloyd Wright. And so my father took classes in architectural draftsmanship at Saunders Trade and Technical High School in our hometown of Yonkers. After he married my mother, after high school and a stint in the Air Force, I believe he also took some related night classes at the famed Cooper Union in New York. He actually worked for 10 years or so as a draftsman for a couple of architectural firms in New York City. But my father never became an architect. He quit his dream.

And he also abandoned any notion of becoming an artist. When he was a young man, he did sketches, portraits, some of which I’ve seen — of my cigar-chomping grandfather and of my very young mother. These sketches show not a little talent, are clearly heartfelt, and hint at some perception beyond just what my father’s eyes could see. The sketch of my Grandpa Nash, my mother’s father, captures a man who was simple, quiet and gentle but was also a little jaunty. And the sketches of my mother, done when they were both in their 20s, are adoring and romantic and show clearly that my young father enthralled by his pretty young wife.


Anyway, back to the egg: My mother told me last night that she had a surprise for me. And the surprise was that she had gone down into her basement and cleaned out some stuff in a file cabinet my father once used. “There were a lot of old architectural magazines from the 1960s,” my mother said. “I was just going to throw them out but it’s a good thing I looked first, because you know what I found? I found a drawing your father did of you when you were very young, a toddler. I’m going to get a frame for it and give it to you. I thought you’d want to have it. It really looks just like you!”

Now, of course, I’m anxious to see this drawing. What did my father see when he did that sketch of his first-born son? Did he simply see a cute little boy? Or did he see something in my eyes? Did he detect even just a little of my soul? Was he thinking that my blood was his blood? Did he feel love or pride? Did those feeling pour from his heart into the drawing he created?

Did he really draw me? Or does the drawing just really look like me?

Death’s legions

This is the latest in a series of essays titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death.”

I read today that roughly 100 billion people have died since the first person was born. For some reason that makes me think of the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death.”

I guess I associate that overwhelming number of people – 100 billion gone! Gone where? – with the overwhelming chaos of death’s triumph in Bruegel’s painting.

Skeleton armies roam the land. Ships sink and cities burn. Skeletons hunt and kill the humans. A dog devours a child. Smoke darkens the sky. Horrible screams – you can’t see them but you know they’re there – fill the air. The bones of the skeletons scrape and click. Maybe most chilling of all: God’s legions are clearly incapable of halting the cruel and indiscriminate carnage.

"The Triumph of Death" by Bruegel the Elder
"The Triumph of Death" by Bruegel the Elder

Sylvia Plath in her poem “Two Views of a Cadaver Room” mentions the Brueghel painting and focuses on two lovers, tucked into a corner of the painting, who seem oblivious to the horrors swirling around them. Plath’s narrator seems to suggest that the couple represents hope that love can triumph over death. 


Me, I tend to think the couple are a couple of fools, and that the skeleton troops are simply saving the best – or worst – for last.