I know there are good things about November: my brother Tom’s birthday, Election Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving.

But mostly the month feels melancholy, a time of fading and dying, as summer’s bounty turns to autumn’s final harvest and then inevitable winter. Click on the Tom Waits song (above), and you’ll hear some of what I’m feeling on this first day of November.

I took a break from my writing this morning, bought a cup of takeout coffee, and drove down a back road, heading in the general direction of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. I found myself on a gravel lane winding up a mountainside through deep woods. A rush of wind blew hundreds of dry brown leaves all around my car. A flock of wild turkeys, about two dozen of the birds, scurried across the road and down into a dark and deep ravine. It felt like a time of conclusions and departures and endings, and I while appreciate the month’s barebones beauty, I’ll be glad when November makes way for December, with its bright lights and boundless, beautiful dreams.

Here’s another song that feels like November. Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going,” sung by Tom Rush:


A song for a dark autumn night

I’m up on a secluded wooded hilltop in Virginia, listening for ghosts on a dark and spooky Halloween, and just listened to a haunting performance of song called “In the Pines” — just the mood music to be playing in this little cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills tonight — performed by a quartet called the Parkington Sisters.

It’s good to know that some 21st century musicians still know and appreciate the music of Huddie Ledbetter, who went by the name of Leadbelly, and who is probably best known for his songs “Good Night Irene” and “Rock Island Line,” and sometimes gave “In the Pines” the alternate title “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

I knew this song via Leadbelly, but also through a great rendition by the classic country duo the Louvin Brothers, who give the song their own Hank Williams-esque sound. And, in fact, it’s origins are as a Appalachian folk ballad, at least 150 years old.

It’s a great old song, worth a triple-listen:

Here are the very sincere, very country and very authentic Louvin Brothers:

And here’s the legendary Leadbelly’s definitive version:

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:


Back in Old Virginny

It’s so quiet, so dark, so Virginia…so not New Jersey. There are at least six thousand stars in the sky – about 5,990 more than I can typically see in the night sky of Central New Jersey.
The train whistle I hear isn’t the Amtrak train barreling toward Penn Station…it’s a freight train bound for Lynchburg — and maybe bound for glory as it barrels toward the city of the smug zealot Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, a city where you can walk into a wonderful friendly place called Dudley’s and order brains and eggs and grits for breakfast, and to that I simply say “No, thanks, y’all,” to both the scrambled brains and to the late Mr. Falwell’s self-righteous and scrambled-brain brand of religion.
Last night I heard the yip and bark of coyotes in the woods. Tonight I think I also heard the screech of a bobcat and a hoot owl’s hoot. This is what you call authentic. I half-expect to hear a knock at my writing studio door to find John-Boy Walton and Daniel Boone and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos inviting me to the hoedown over in Danville.
Time for a little mood music on a Saturday night in a place that’s lovely, but clearly and definitely south of the Mason-Dixon line:

A Blue Ridge Mountains morning

What with this powerful storm galloping toward the East Coast like the Four Horsemen unleashed, I decided this morning to do something I’ve meant to do ever since my first stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is located in the Shenandoah Valley in Amherst, Va. — to check out that hazy blue vision hovering in the western sky, the remarkable Blue Ridge Mountains.
Heading toward the Blue Ridge Mountains along westbound Highway 60.
So I drove westward along Highway 60 — through desolated abandoned hamlets at lonely crossroads, over whispering streams and flowing rivers, past green cow pastures and through deep autumn woods, up roads that kept swerving and curving higher and higher on a seemingly endless climb, as I glanced nervously at steep roadside ravines and gazed up in wonder at the soaring forested mountainsides.

I never made it to my destinations — the towns of Buena Vista and Lexington –because, by accident, I stumbled upon a most beautiful spot that is at the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and crosses paths with the famed Appalachian trail. I pulled over and got out of my car, and this is what I saw from my mountain aerie perched just beneath the clouds:

It was so beautiful up there that something magical apparently happened and my soul has been possessed by the ghost of John Denver, which is compelling me to include one of his most famous songs…OK, I know, I know, but he does mention the Blue Ridge Mountains, and fondly and quite sweetly, even though he apparently didn’t know that tthey’re in Virginia, not West Virginia.

Lucky stars, coyote howls and fellow travelers

1. My fellow traveler calls me from Indiana to report on her visit there.

She tells me she discovered — looked in the window but didn’t have the courage to actually go in — a 7-Eleven with an attached diner, with tables and chairs and waitresses and a menu.

She suspects this is a relatively new phenomenon. We agree it’s an ominous sign of the times. She tells me to be on the lookout for 7-Eleven diners when I hit the road in a few days on my way southward for an eight-day stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

2. Later that night she calls to tell me that she’s sitting in her motel room watching “Frankenstein” on cable TV.

3. She returns from Indiana the day before I’m off to Virginia. At dinner, I do my impression of Frankenstein’s monster  when he encounters the kindly blind man in his rustic cottage. You’ll recall that the lonely old man, who doesn’t realize that his surprise guest is a monster, gives his new friend a bowl of soup. a drink and a smoke. The monster, not used to human kindness, responds with happy grunts and heartfelt exclamations.

I do a damned good imitation of the monster’s “Smoke! Good!” and “Friend!” — right down to thumping my foot just like the monster does when the blind man plays a merry tune on his fiddle.

But I am humbled by the response, blown out of the water by a perfect imitation of the look on the Bride of Frankenstein’s face when she gets her first look at her green-complexioned beau.

4) Next night, I’m in Virginia, sitting on the front porch of my writing studio in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No 7-Eleven diners in sight. It’s dark. It’s quiet, except for a distant highway’s hum.

I hear a high, lonesome howl and high-pitched yipping bark. A coyote.

Another coyote answers — and another, and another, and another. I’m starting to wonder where these coyotes might be. I hear a rustle in the hedgerow. I decide it’s getting a little chilly out. I go inside, lock the door, and Google “coyotes” and “Virginia.”

5. I find a National Geographic article which reports that coyotes have become prevalent and pervasive throughout the United States.

AND…Some coyotes discovered in VIRGINIA have been determined to be hybrids of coyotes and WOLVES. That pack howling over the ridge  may be half-wolf, half-coyote  — and bigger and more aggressive than ordinary coyotes.

6. I, of course, get my phone, bravely step outside my doorway, and call New Jersey so she can hear the coyotes too. But the howling stops, so we say goodnight.

7. I linger in the doorway. I think of another Universal Pictures classic: “The Wolf Man,” starring Lon Chaney. As that movie begins, we read from an ancient book which describes the curse of the wolf man: Even a man who is pure in heart/and says his prayers by night/may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/and the autumn moon is bright.

I look up. The moon is just a half-moon. Thank God!

I look at the sparkling stars, my lucky stars, which we can see, coyotes and me, as we crane our necks and gaze up into the dark but star-specked Virginia sky.

Peak performances atop Mount St. Angelo

Virginia Center for the Creative studio is at the far left

The view of the Blue Ridge Mountains was spectacular. The setting, high on a hilltop called Mount St. Angelo, set way off the highway connecting Lynchburg, Va., and Charlottesville, Va., was perfect, complete with a bluebird and cardinal who appeared outside my studio window every morning to flit and flutter in the first weekend’s snow, complete with a freight train which rolled through the valley every few hours (complete with beautifully haunting train whistle in the silent moonlit Virginia night).

And I managed (despite those happy distractions — and many more, including one or two that were even more happily distracting) to add a big chunk of words (more than 10,000 words during my two-week stay) to my novel-in-progress, “City of Gracious Living.”

Even though I’m glad I left just in time to avoid the devastating snow storm which paralyzed that part of the country, I wish I could have stayed forever in my beautiful little studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Two of the highlights of my visit: Encounters with artist Melora Griffis and jazz trombonist J. Walter Hawkes. Melora’s paintings are provocative, haunting and beautiful. Plus she’s nice, interesting, smart and unpretentious. Walter’s soulful and skillful solo jazz and blues performances on the trombone and the ukulele are a sight to behold and sound to be heard in person to truly appreciate his rare talent.

The highlight among highlights for me during my stay with a few dozen other VCCA “fellows” had to be the next-to-last-night of my stay, when Walter and I collaborated on a reading/performance, with me reading a chapter from “City of Gracious Living” and a chapter of another of my novels, “Half Moon,” while Walter expertly improvised jazz and blues and big-band riffs before, during and after my readings. It was a true honor and a certifiable thrill.

Thanks, Walter. Thanks, Melora. Thanks to all of the other talented artists and writers I met at the VCCA — sharing excellent meals and excellent conversations. And thanks most of all to the VCCA for giving me such a wonderful two weeks.