“Like the pines, I am lonesome for you…”

There’s a Laurel and Hardy clip for every mood, every place and every occasion — including a road trip from New Jersey for a stay in  faraway Virginia:



Terpsichore in Blue Jeans

I didn’t think I would ever do such a thing. For one thing, I don’t dance very well. For another thing, all of my fellow writer and artists here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts are still pretty much strangers to me, since I’ve only been here for less than two days. But last night after dinner, someone shouted out “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a show!”

And somehow they managed to get me to agree to participate. See if you can figure out which one is me:

Heading home


It’s just about time to head home.

I’ve been in Virginia for nearly three weeks, and it’s been a great three weeks. I’m finishing up a fiction-writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on the outskirts of Amherst, Va., up the road from Lynchburg, within eyeshot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

There are many writers who would absolutely love a chance to spend time at this welcoming creative place. It’s not easy to get offered a residency at VCCA, which hosts its share of Pulitzer prize winners and NEA grant recipients and MacArthur “genius award” fellows and National Book Award winners. So, while I suspect that somehow the paperwork got mixed up and they think I’m someone else, I am so grateful and appreciative that for whatever reason I’ve been invited here four times in the last four years. So, thank you, VCCA.

This visit, I’ve completed about 8,000 words of a new novel, and maybe this is the one that will get turned into a movie starring Johnny Depp (or Brad Pitt) (or Dear Hollywood, take your pick, I don’t care who plays the lead role in the movie version of my novel tentatively titled “Anarchy: A Love Story,” just send me that big fat Hollywood check, preferably in advance).

I’ve loved living in a bare-bones but cozy writing studio – a corn crib converted into a little cottage – atop a hillside where horses and cows wander, coyotes howl and owls hoot, and a freight train passes by in the night.

studio exteior

As usual at VCCA, I’ve met some really friendly, interesting and creative people: other writers, of both fiction and poetry, as well as visual artists and composers, covering a wide range of ages and geography, but all of them talented and thought-provoking and supportive – and all of them amazingly punctual as they lined up for the delectable dinners served up nightly by the VCCA’s chefs.

horse on hill

And I’ve had some memorable personal experiences.

* Driving down beautiful back roads through the fields and in the mountains – sometimes almost awed by the wonder of it all, sometimes nearly forgetting life’s cares, and sometimes saddened by stark scenes of rural poverty. Being reminded constantly about the hard reality of the South’s legacy of racism and separation and oppression (such as an overheard conversation this morning at a local breakfast spot, as you-know-what -word was freely uttered several times in a family’s bitter conversation about the Election Day defeat of the tea party candidate for Virginia governor).

* Dialing through my radio and finding classical music on the public radio station out of Charlottesville amidst the seemingly endless stream of country music stations, bluegrass stations and Bible-thumping radio ministries. Passing dozens of evangelical churches while heading toward Lynchburg and driving along the Jerry Falwell Highway and skirting the campus of a very scary place called Liberty University, which was founded by the late Mr. Falwell, who also unleashed upon this fair land that plague called the Moral Majority.

* Meeting the many friendly people, both black and white, who live and work in the small town of Amherst and environs — including the local pharmacist who talked lovingly about his grandchildren and his move to the Blue Ridge from another part of Virginia to be be near them, while jabbing a needle in my arm to give my flu shot.

* And then this was this intriguingly and impressively taciturn couple I ran into when I went into town to do my laundry. He nodded at me (I think) when I entered. The two of them didn’t say a word — to me or to each other — for the next hour we all spent together at the laundromat.

laundry day

But now it’s time to go home, to familiar and comforting scenes and people and routines, to continue work on my novel, to the pleasure of preparing and sitting down together for home-cooked meals, to a little dog to whom I’m just a little attached, to preparations for the upcoming holidays, to a warm fire to dispel the autumn chill…

And most of all, of course, it’s about time to get back to the one I love.

Here’s some appropriate music:

A Blue Ridge Sunday

This is who I encountered this Sunday morning as I drove down through the pasture on my way into the small town of Amherst, Virginia, where — to my great surprise and joy — the gas-station convenience store actually had a stack of the Sunday New York Times, which meant I could indulge my Sunday morning habit of drinking a cup of coffee while doing the NY Times Magazine’s crossword puzzle.

Anyway, let’s call this first photo “How, Now…?”

brown cow

After getting my coffee and Sunday paper, I drove down to the Wash-and-Dry laundry, where the only patrons were me — and these folks. The husband nodded at me when I walked in — end of conversation. I took this portrait of my laundromat companions as she folded their clothes — and he watched her fold their clothes.

I’m stuck on two names for this photo. Either “A Woman’s Work Is…” or “Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers.”

laundry day


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: