Expense Report


The small things add up, and I’m noticing them more now after a month not leaving this area. I haven’t had to fill the car with gas since March, and my EZpass hasn’t dropped a dime in what would have been a forty-dollar month, at least. The lack of mileage means less need for an oil change as soon. And not being on the road trying to cross the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel has saved me more than a few anxiety attacks. The lack of the usual dash into 711 at midday for something to drink, or the vending machine at the college for a snack, is adding up.

I haven’t bought myself a dessert at Panera when I stop to pick my mother up a bear claw every once in a while, and this has saved me more than a few pounds along with whatever other crap I was eating on the road, plumped behind the wheel of the car, one hand deep in the brown bag of hot fries.

Though I do miss bringing mom the bear claw. She doesn’t care, and it wasn’t about the food as much as the absolute joy on her face of spending a little time hanging out. We’d sit and talk for an hour about nothing at all, and, honestly, that routine has continued for nearly three decades, so it’s kind of strange to not help shuffle her papers for her or bring her some groceries. Or just talk about the pictures of her great-grandchildren which creep across her Iframe. They’re getting big, all four of them.

I haven’t had to spend any money at IHOP or Village Inn or wherever Jack and I decide to have pie, or lunch, or lunch and pie, and where we talk about weather and radio and about what pisses me off this week about David Sedaris’ writing. At Ynot Pizza I get the chicken parm sandwich and soup and he gets the eggplant parm and salad and calamari and meatballs—Jack eats more than I do. I’ve known Jack for thirty years and we’ve spent every other week for several years now eating everything on the menu BUT pie.

Tim, too, and we hang out for hours talking about—and this is why we’ve remained so close for twenty years—anything but writing. Sure, it sneaks into the conversation sometimes, but mostly we talk about time, and age, and our folks, the four of whom seemed to have traveled similar destinies. Yes, we talk about them a lot. Except when we go to Texas de Brazil where gauchos carrying skewers of food like lamb and prime rib and fine cuts of pork and trays of seafood wander table to table, and then we just talk about food. Just food.

All of that seems so long ago, and none of it feels very close to our future. God knows when Mom’s place will relax the conditions enough. Her birthday’s coming up in two weeks and it won’t be spent together. Mine’s in July and that’s pretty questionable too.

The expenses of this pandemic.

I know my students have saved money not being able to eat their normal two fast-food meals a day or the three stops at Starbucks on campus, but they’ve also lost out on why they stop at the coffee shop to begin with. I’ve written extensively about that “Third Place” we all need; hell, I feel like I’ve written a book about it. But no one has that “place” anymore, those places that get in our blood and keep us alive; they’re all closed and we’re not really sure when they’ll be open again. And my students especially learn more in conversation in the student union than they do in most of their classes; at least the stuff they’re going to remember years from now.

And classes? Yes, I can teach them the material, but the nuances of facial expressions that help them know whether or not they’re on track, the quick comments from colleagues that ignite ideas or start friendships for these freshman, are paused. And the motivation has been derailed. I can teach them the material online, of course, but what is it costing them to not have that eye contact, that quick after-class quip that wakes them up. I became more prepared to teach college by working for Richard Simmons than I ever did from two grad schools. Classrooms are exercise facilities where we warm them up, motivate them, work on cognitive skills, do some group mental aerobics, and during the cool down we encourage them and set some fires. They need that; they need the one on one only found on campus. You can’t put a price on that kind of subtlety, you can’t measure the cost of dormitory companionship’s.

I’m not suggesting anything should be handled differently. I’m not a medical expert and I have no interest in listening to anyone except medical experts on when I can once again visit mom and plop a bear claw on her table and say “surprise,” because they’ve already warned me the cost of a compromised immune system. 

I’m well aware that the expenses of this virus are most difficult to measure.  


On the Way to Somewhere Else


The goal has always been the river. Walk along the property trails to the driveway, follow that to the road, turn left and go down the hill past the farm to the river. Twenty-four years of this. The Rappahannock River, or “the Rap,” or “the rivah,” runs from up well past Fredericksburg past the Tappahanock/Warsaw area at the upper Rap bridge, then running past the historic oyster village of Urbanna, winding wider under the lower Rappahannock Bridge near here, where it clears a mile and a half wide from Topping to White Stone, and finally out to the Chesapeake Bay with Windmill Point on the tip of the Northern Neck and Deltaville on the tip of this peninsula on the river’s south shore.

Where I stand, or walk, or stroll the sand up along Ransone’s farm and back down to the end of Mill Creek, is just a stone’s throw from the river’s mouth. Sometimes small dolphin swim out here, often stingrays, and occasionally loggerheads can be seen just below the surface, one once on the sand. The brackish water from the west collides with the slightly saltier bay water here and to the east, and wildlife converge from both habitats. Eagles are in abundance in winter, osprey in summer, heron all year long, hawks and an occasional kestrel too.   

At the river, as well, I can look across the Bay and with my camera lens or binoculars make out the cargo and container ships heading up to Baltimore or south to Portsmouth, or out to sea at the mouth of the Bay in Virginia Beach seventy nautical miles away. Sometimes at night when SpaceX launches from Wallops Island just across the bay on the other side of that ultrathin portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, we can stand here and watch the rocket’s red flames push it up and just slightly southeast until the flames are gone. Then we walk home thinking about this human-made mass of metal filled with food or supplies we just watched kick out of the atmosphere to dock with a floating office complex in space. Crazy, what we see from the beach.

That’s the river, the daily destination for sunrises, or, more likely, sunsets, part of the routine for my son and me for many, many years. So it is easy to think in terms of  “being at the river.”

But lately I’ve learned how to slow it down, pay attention to the path and what we pass along the way. The property itself is flooded with laurel and holly and dogwoods. This time of year the leaves have not fully grown so the dark trunks cut through the view and the mix of green and tan and yellow and brown bring the sky to life, and dark blue breaks all of it as the sweeping foundation on the canvas whenever I look into the top branches.

Here, piliated and downy woodpeckers, robins, titmice, mockingbirds, baby osprey and more move about the woods from feeder to bath to branches, often to the porch rail where some squirrel eats part of an apple or black walnut, neither minding the other, neither minding me. If I sit very still, hummingbirds will hover by, the beat of their wings filling the air with a buzz. Once I wore a red shirt and sat on a chair near the feeder and one hummed just inches, really, just inches from my chest.

There is so much to know along the way I wonder sometimes how much I miss on my way somewhere else. This happens as well when I drive. How many times have I headed to Florida or western New York and passed state parks, streams running along state highways, small farm stands with produce and people to talk to, to remember, to perhaps see again someday?  On just a short drive from here to the point I pass such colors and such deeply rooted history from docks to boathouses to the tragic presence of early 18th century quarters I wonder how much I miss I am not even aware of.

Maybe I don’t want to know. Perhaps with the weight of time on my shoulders I prefer to just see what I already know, spend time with those I already know, and let it all be. But the newness of an old path makes contemporary things ancient and eternal. Like hearing from a good friend who just says hi, thinking of you, or remembering when, or planning ahead, the things we pass sometimes are what we are really headed toward to begin with. The journey is internal, and there are rivers in me I’ve yet to explore, paths and wildlife and fears and insecurities I’ve yet to unearth and care for. I wonder sometimes if depression is the result of trying to reach some destination and not, when I should be better at exploring the space between now and then.

Here’s an obvious reality: We’re all headed toward the end of the end, but we know it is each moment along the way we are here for. It isn’t different in nature, nor in human nature. We are, we love, we miss, we long, we hope, we remember, we try and remember, we are reminded, we can’t recall, and eventually we stand, at some point, at the river, looking out across the reach, and it all seems so brand new. 




Carolina wrens sing in the trees outside my bedroom, like clockwork, every morning. The sun hasn’t yet cracked the surface of the bay and I can hear them call. And mourning doves, too, near the birdbath on the front path. And this time of year in the near distance the grain drills lay down soybeans and wheat in the fields, just after dawn and then on and off all day. Just rising from the cotton sheets, my mind hasn’t adjusted to the world yet, and it remains in the cocoon of here and now and the slight chill of morning, and the faint aroma of coffee my son makes in the kitchen.

At the river the small rolling waves break on the rocks, and the young osprey call  from the nest on the other side of the marsh. My calf muscles tighten on the uphill walk home, and it feels good, as always, the taught skin, the sense of motion. Before the humidity brushes across the bay and overtakes the rising temperature, I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with the faint feel of saltwater, and it fills my senses like air, like first snow, like last light.

Bacon, eggs, and some toast at the small table on the porch, with orange juice, and I can feel the energy rise, my mind wake, and words mix with images and I resist the urge to walk again just yet and instead head to my upstairs office to make notes, scribble out some ideas and digressions for a piece, perhaps about the train ride, maybe Spain, always about life and dying, love and time and their passing. Only then, a few hours later when the sun has lost its intrigue and hangs blankly in the sky, do I meander the paths out to the road and down the hill to the river, and if the tide is heading out toward the bay, a small breeze moves in from the west. It feels later than it is, and the rest of the day comes toward me like a car ahead of me on the highway suddenly backing up, and reality seeps into the rest of my isolation, and what was not confinement, was not “staying at home,” was not anything other than my normal life being normal, is suddenly redefined, impressed upon, constricted by a new diction. I hadn’t really planned on going anywhere anyway, but now I can’t, and there is a difference.

The news bleeds all over my thoughts, my work, and my instinct is to fight the new path, but I can’t. I hear of rising numbers, of a falling economy, and I wonder when I’ll see my mother again, her safe behind several sliding glass doors and an acutely careful staff at her independent living home, hoping. Just hoping. I wonder when I’ll see colleagues, my brother moving to the area, yet, when I see him seems still indefinable. And now the small things I had forgotten about but now remember how they always lay scattered across my normal weeks, like lunch with Tim, pie with Jack, oysters with Michael, and readings, so many readings in crowded cafes leaning into each other, laughing, sharing and embracing. I had not so much forgotten as much as set aside, and that worked fine. But now, midday, when the sun is high and the sky a pale blue, barely catching my attention, and the birds have moved on , and the newness of first light fades, I remember, and I wonder, and things no longer feel…what….in my grasp, perhaps. That sense of absolute conviction that my future is my own has faded to a mere hope that things turn out okay. And once again the power of things unseen is proven.

And I recall the strength of this dichotomy, the life and death of things unseen, what doctors tell me is a microscopic serial killer, contrasted with what in my college days we learned was also invisible to the eye, faith, and that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” For many it takes one to battle the other. And so goes my mind, followed by my day, until evening.

Evening, when a whippoorwill calls as she ever has from the brush behind the patio, and I read Kevin Codd’s narrative about walking The Way in Spain, and I am reminded of those days when every single day was like the one before, yet somehow unique, and beautiful, and permanent, and how it turns out that a pilgrimage is rarely about reaching a destination and more about finding some peace inside we seem to be in search of all of our lives.

And I crawl back under my cotton sheets, cocooned, and the waning moonlight streams in the skylight, reminding me that things change, and then they’re the same again.


Hey, HEY! Back off…



As evident in the picture above, wheat does not practice social distancing. Nor do the clouds, often floating along in seeming formation, just to the side from each other, maybe whispering as they meander by. Sometimes they gather quite close in blatant violation of CDC guidelines, like this morning when storm clouds kept climbing on each other’s backs, up higher, mounting and building some black and grey tower until they cracked, and then rained, and then exploded bolts of lightning, further proving the problem of coming too close to each other, such as clouds are apt to do this time of year.

Geese ignore all instructions and fly wing on wing, honking to each other to “Close the gap! Closer! CLOSER!” as they take turns in traditional tandem fashion. Even after they land in the pond they paddle next to each other, like they’re cold, like they’re lovers. Deer too, and swallows, and starlings, so close this last group that they bend east and west in one massive stroke, like a paint brush with black acrylic swept down and back up the canvas. Bats are the same, those bats, those sociable and close-knit colony of mammals that are the supposed ironic root of this inhuman human distancing we now find ourselves learning, like a new language, reminded again and again to stand in the next circle, to wait our turn behind the line of tape on the floor, to step away from the counter, to nod not shake, wave not embrace, and as we depart to say not “good-bye” anymore, but instead, “Stay safe.” It is the new farewell. Decades from now slang dictionaries will note the root of this signature to be from the times of covid. We will never again be able to separate ourselves from these times.

It turns out horses, as well, are social animals who find separation a cause of anxiety. Ants, yes, as proven on the old tree stump in the woods behind the shed; crows, of course, which I well may murder myself for their constant gabbing early in the morning. And who hasn’t seen by now the famous photo of penguins in Antarctica, gathered by the thousands. Topping the list at the social affairs, however, are apes, gorillas, and humans, followed way too closely by dolphins. But this is disturbing: these top three social animals, all primates, are among the only ones—the ONLY one’s—who kill each other. That’s really not very social at all. I’m betting the social nature of primates is simply a bad idea and leads to, among other things, war. Genocide. Annihilation.

Humans? Honestly, I’m not sure why everyone has a problem with social distancing. To be certain, we’re not very good at being close. We push and shove on city streets because someone is too fast or too slow, and we tailgate which leads to road rage which leads to someone being “in your face.” The tediousness of rush hour, the impatience of long lines, the lack of elbow room.

And yet, sometimes we can’t get close enough. Sometimes when we find ourselves away from one another, we wish we had never parted to begin with, and we call, cry, shout to be heard across the distances of not-touching, not making eye contact. Absence makes the heart grow fonder? Out of sight out of mind? Interesting debate topic until now; now, when the verdict is in, and hearts around the world grow weak from tapping deep into their wells of fondness hoping for the call to come to crowd and gather and not ever let go again.  


Aerie, for Now


Seems like the entire human race is back in the cave watching the shadows.

Not for long, of course, and to varying degrees. Some studios in the city must be unbearable for any extended length of time, and in some places with large parcels and room to wander, this forced grounding could be considered welcome. That’s the case here.

When I purchased this wooded land just up the hill from the Rappahannock River and just a few miles from the end of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, where the river meets the Chesapeake, I felt at home immediately. The horse farms made for fine neighbors, and the fields of corn and soybeans offered an Americana landscape that is getting harder and harder to discover.

Not long after I purchased these acres, my father and I came up from Virginia Beach to tape off the area in the woods to be cleared for the house, as well as lay out how I wanted the driveway to wind through the trees. He looked around and said, “You’re not far from Richmond, are you?” I agreed, told him it was about an hour or so, and that I could make it to DC in two-and-a-half, as well as to his place at the beach in an hour and a half on a good day. “This is really centrally located, Dad,” I told him. I grew up in two homes, both on the Island, and both unique for the friends I had, the growing up, the ties, the crazy freedoms I collected as I grew older. When we moved from home one to home two, I never once felt like we weren’t going to be “home” anymore. We simply relocated ground zero. I never told him, but that move Dad made probably did more to define “home” to me than any floor plan could possibly contain.

Back here on the river as the months passed, I built the home, contracting out the stacking of the logs and the framing as well as the mechanics, of course—I didn’t want to blow up. But I did nearly all of the inside myself such as the interior walls, the stairwell, the floors and trim work, the kitchen cabinets, in addition to the landscaping when I’d drive up from the beach and sleep in the shed. It makes this place more “home” because of the bruises and blood invested, of course; we can make a house our home by the work invested, the time committed to converting the frame and foundation into a memorable homestead. My new neighbors came by when they saw my jeep out front to welcome this ‘Come Lately” to the area. One of them bragged about the town.

“It’s really centrally located, Bob,” he told me.

“Yes, I was just talking about that with my father,” I replied.

My neighbor went on: “Sure, the village is just three miles from here, and Urbanna is about fifteen miles from here and has great restaurants. And if you don’t mind driving a bit, Gloucester has some good food stores and shopping, but it’s about twenty or twenty-five miles.” My diction and sense of relativity was being redefined. I was fine with that.

I’m pleased it hasn’t changed much in the twenty-four years I’ve been here. Now, I head to the village daily for coffee, sometimes a drink at the Galley, sometimes to just walk about the docks. When I have the energy and time, I’ll make the trip clear over to Urbanna up river about fifteen minutes for some oysters. Yes, centrally located has found me here.

In these twenty-four years I’ve walked to the river almost every day I’m home, and my son—who grew up here since he was just three when we built the place—has taken pictures of these sunsets his entire life. We’ve planted gardens and raised apple trees and a few dozen crepe myrtles I bought for a dollar a piece twenty-one years ago when they were less than a foot tall, which now tower over the house at more than thirty feet. I’ve blazed trails and laid out mulch and scattered about benches and sitting areas in holly-crowded cutouts off the trails.

Then there is the wildlife. While still building the home but after Kenny the builder already framed out the roof, I was walking home from the river and as I came down the winding driveway, I noticed an adult bald eagle perched on the corner of the eave. He took off, of course, but many have returned over the years, and in more abundance. Hawks call out too in the late afternoon, and it is why I quickly named the place “Aerie” for a few reasons. One, an aerie is an eagle’s or hawk’s nest, and two, it is the name of the first John Denver album I ever remember copping out of my sister’s collection when I was a kid, and it made me want to live in nature, surrounded by wildlife, and here I am. It’s not the Rockies, but it’s closer to my nature anyway, water. In the winter, fox ramble about on a nightly basis, and deer are everywhere, particularly after we plant beautiful flowers.

There have been some setbacks. Most notably, Hurricane Isabel in 2003. This monster ripped thirty oak trees up at the roots and dumped them all over the property, including a half dozen sixty-foot tall beauties right down the middle of the driveway. Out in the hinter parts of the property a few downed trees are still working their way back to the soil, all covered by foliage and brush most of the year. Holly, too, and laurel, makes the land quite private in winter since the dark green bushes and trees are everywhere.

And birds. I don’t remember their names, but they’re all here, like an aviary from some museum. I’m certain this place qualifies for “Bird Sanctuary,” and my son has for years recorded in a journal the ones he has seen, matching them up with his tower of guides.

When I worked full-time in Virginia Beach (though I only had to make the drive twice a week), colleagues were curious how I could possibly live so far from work. Then they’d come here and quickly say, “Oh. Okay. Yeah.” This life can’t be bought in the city; not for less than five times what I paid and even then I’d only have one quarter what is here, and there is no price you can put on the health of living in the country with bay breezes and endless trees. We are outside almost all of the time. Even now.

Yes, even now.

When the call came down to “Stay In Place” because of coronavirus, I had no issue. Life here didn’t change much. There’s nobody out here. Sure, if I drive into the village people buzz into the Great Value or Hurd’s Hardware, or swing by one of the “to go only” restaurants, all of us careful of each other, each of us sanitizing our hands upon reentering our cars. No one in this town on the edge of the bay has ever made me feel like a “Come Lately,” and it feels good to be at home. And we’re all really really clean right now. And as of this afternoon the map of Virginia shows this county is one of only a few in the entire Commonwealth which still has no recorded cases of the virus. But all of that aside, the cause of my bragging about home this afternoon is how easy it all has been, being here, living life here. To carry this reflective dirge a bit more—since we are all home reflecting on our routines in the greater picture of how we pass our time on what Tim Seibles calls this “big wet rock,” I can honestly say this land works well for a good quarantine. I’ve lived in five states, spent extended time in several countries including Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic and various third-world locales, and there are only a few places I have ever felt I could stay for good, and I wouldn’t even need an official “lockdown” to do so. This is one. It just happens to be home.

Is there anything missing in this picture I’ve painted of Aerie? Of course, there always will be no matter where we settle down, no matter what path we follow. As beautiful of a place this is for me to spend the rest of my years, under the right circumstances I can leave tomorrow and begin again somewhere else. I could head back north, head out west, sail away. That’s my father’s fault. Without even knowing it, he taught me through a very subtle example that the most important part of being centrally located is understanding the “center” we seek is within, and it moves with us. And thank God, because the pursuit of this life is what makes this life worth living, never the arrival. One of the things I love about being here along the river, not far from the Bay, is I get to look out across the reach and wonder where, if I ever decide to live anywhere else ever again, where will it be? I like wandering the paths here at Aerie and wonder what can be planted, what more my soul might harvest from this land. In a perfect quarantine, the people I love, the ones I laugh with, the ones who finish my sentences, would all be here at Aerie through it all. But, no. So it helps me that I finally understand that home for those of us who seek simplicity, is a place, like love, which we simply “call” home, and for a brief time we let it absorb us like water, like breath, like the fluid promise of dawn.








Somewhere in Eastern Siberia


I generally don’t do this, publish on the blog a work which is destined for a larger, more involved project, but tonight I am for three reasons. One, I just finished what will be a 200 page book about Siberia, called The Iron Scar, and this is only about a third of the final chapter but it feels good to get to this point and I wanted to share it while everyone is getting zoombombed. Two, it’s corona-time, and it’s the only contribution I can make to create a diversion for those sitting inside. Maybe some people won’t mind reading this, traveling across fifteen time zones with my son and me, sharing it with others if  you wish. And three, John Prine just died a very short time ago. He always made me think of moving on.

Thank you for reading my stories on this site these four and a half years.

You’ll be leaving on a new train
Far away from this world of pain

                       –John Prine



The engine pulls us across the last sets of trusses and in the distance we see the small, hilly skyline of Vladivostok. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as the flooded Amur spares this train. The tigers will have to find other fare.

The rare non-saturated fields we passed heading south on this peninsula toward Vladivostok are clearly the land of laborers. Farmers and fisherman, lumberjacks and rail workers all jockey for position, try to make a living. The non-forest land is checkered with farms separated by fences made from trees, and small, lush gardens of cabbage sit inside makeshift walls, endless tiny plots each with its own tool shed. Cattle wander at will on all sides of the waterways, and fields of potatoes and onions stretch across the hills. I’m sure it is an isolated life, but those we’ve met don’t imply loneliness. The sweeping generalizations I’ve heard about Siberia, and Russia in general for that matter, have no support, no evidence of how such trite judgments might have started to begin with. In the nineteenth century, perhaps, and even up through World War Two, but nothing here is the same as cold-war-era kids like me had been taught. Nothing.

I don’t understand the engineering principles which make this train run across these iron rails through green landscapes past forests of birch trees. I can readily enough turn my pen toward the burning oil, the human waste, the garbage, the third-class suffering and see the searing effects of this iron scar. Certainly, these rails brought opportunity to the Siberian outposts, yet these cars also carried innocent millions to gulags and prison camps. It brought soldiers to war and home again, bodies home again, Jews from their homes to eastern towns during the pogroms, tourists trying to reach Baikal, businessmen hoping to spend a few days away from the city; it brought the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the west to the east, and the hopes of millions into the vast indifference of the Russian frontier. These packed train cars have slid past vast fields of indifference for more than a hundred years, and they’ve carried the confessions of gulag guards, of Bolshevik evangelists, the wit and subversive criticism of dissident poets, the last hopes of a dying imperial family; these carriages have carted east those feared in Moscow, those freed in prison camps but forced to flee no further than the next station; these cars moved multitudes to the wasteland beyond the Urals hoping to populate the eastern perimeter of Russia, most dying from disease and deadly winters. This train has moved though our lives carrying stories of strangers, companions beyond communication, brothers without borders bonding over chess and Baltika beer during some late night/early morning leg on the Mongolian border, where laughter remained our only diction. Oh, this train.

This railcar carried this father and son from apprehension to confidence, and the further we rolled toward the barren reaches of the empty lands in eastern Siberia, the closer we came to independence and companionship. It has been three weeks, it has been ticked off the clock not on Moscow time but on the immeasurable growth of a time shared playing music between cars, or over drinks all the while this train moves south and closer to home than Moscow.

We can finally travel at our own pace, on our own tracks. 

The Vladivostok skyline is ahead of us and grows across the flooded plain, China to our west, North Korea not far, and from this rain-soaked window in the dining car, my office for nearly six thousand miles, I sit one last time and listen to Shostakovich, jot down a few final thoughts, and drink a can of Baltika

If I were to ride these rails again, I’d spend more time on the platforms buying fry cakes, pirogi, dried fish, flat bread and fruit from the local women, and talk to them more, engage in what is clearly their existence, that walk from their home to the station and back. The connection I have discovered no matter where I travel, but in particular somewhere as remote as the rural sections of what is essentially already rural Siberia, is the food. It is the common denominator, the shared space on a circle graph, and like the chess games here in the dining car brought us together with strangers, the old women at the stations all along the crossing who sell us their goods make this trip personal. It is food which binds us—not language. I’ve been on trains throughout the United States, in particular the commuter routes from Manhattan to Long Island, and people who do share a language don’t talk anyway, so this isn’t much different. I challenge it is more engaging; too much common ground can kill a relationship, no matter how fleeting.

Still, across this vast empire I believe the reason I spend so much time looking out at the wild landscape, the royal-blue station-houses, the deep truth of birch trees, the small villages and eroding towns, is simply they need no translation, no subtitles. I can let my imagination drone over the landscape without the need for inquiry or answer. Certainly, I would like to know the story behind an apparently abandoned gulag, or what the primary occupations are so far from any town of note, but that information is encyclopedic, and anyway, between cabinmates and dining car chess players, we seem to have discovered a decent cross-section of eastern Siberian culture. None of the people are rude; they’re guarded. Their excited reaction to various topics is at first defensive, yet as soon as they discover our attempt to communicate and learn, not accuse, they have patience and openly desire to engage and assist. This is all accompanied by frustration on both parts when we try too hard. The railway has taught me not to try too hard.

The great irony of crossing Russia from its westernmost city to the eastern port of Vladivostok—just about the widest crossing one can undertake anywhere on the planet and remain in one country—is despite remaining on track moving forward, it is a wandering experience, seemingly erratic and haphazard. I like not knowing what is around the bend, never quite sure of in which town we might have disembarked, and which ones are better left to the tigers. There is always a cost to the choices we make.

There is a price to pay as well for being a father, especially when you are close to your child. A part of you dies with each new passage, and at some point you understand there is no end of the line, there is only moving on, separately, praying the other is well, healthy, still moving forward. I’ve gone as far as I can on this ride with my son, and it is all so familiar. I was twenty, my father fifty-five. He drove me to the airport for my one-way flight away from home toward something else with a vocabulary I had not yet even tried to unravel. I just knew I needed to go, and he let me.

That’s our job, as parents, to let them go. I imagine a life years from now, when some time will have passed since I last saw my son, and he will have aged, and I will have slipped further toward the end of the line, and we’ll embrace, and he’ll tell me a story or two about his life since moving on.

I sit up early before departing the train for the city, then the airport, then home. My bags lay packed on the floor, the linens already rolled up and bagged for the attendant. Outside the sky is grey but clearing, and the morning sun picks up glints of glass on the skyscrapers of the city. Michael returns with his last cup of tea from the samovar and sits across from me on the opposite, now empty, bunk, our knees nearly knocking. I look at him and smile.

“What?” he says.


I know he thinks we had exhausted the Train Song Game, so he stares out the window a while trying to dial up a train song by one of his favorites. Nothing. Of course not, I think. I saved this one on purpose. This one’s for the fathers:

I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

On the platform in Vladivostok

The Nature Readings Blog

At first I was going to just record myself reading a blog, and then I thought I’d record something specifically about nature.

Then I found some videos of Tim Seibles and me from the Jewish Mother sessions we did for several years in Virginia Beach, and I was going to publish them, but, no.

Then I realized how many people I know write about nature, and this page was born. Already since this was published a few hours ago, a list of writers to add to the page has grown. But understand, there is no ranking involved. I reached out to writers I knew well and the first bunch that answered my call and sent me a video I posted. That’s it. And many of them did so while trying to move classes online.

What started a few months ago as a passing thought has turned into this page, and I’m excited to see where it goes. I mean, how can anyone ever get tired of readings about nature.

Thank you for watching. Please if you so desire, like their readings when you watch them, and remember to go to the links of their work and read their bios. 

Here’s the link:

The Nature Readings

Miles from Nowhere



My walk was chilly today, a breeze coming from the northwest stirring up the surface of the bay and pushing away the false hopes of an early summer. I love—embrace—the feel of this time of year on my skin, whether it be warmer days or chillier nights. For now, it’s early spring again, closer to late-winter, and I walked along the water and past the farmlands, nothing to see but sky, deep blue sky, clear to the horizon. A young eagle swept across the road and along the duck pond near the river, and the same blue heron I see every day was there only to take off like she always does with a deep honk  to glide across the pond to the marsh, landing in the shallow water without causing so much as a ripple. The kingfisher on the wire as well as the gulls along the rip rap are braver, not caring so much about my routine. The herons, however, and the egrets and buffleheads all distance themselves as fast as possible.

A sign of the times, maybe.

Everyone I know is inside; the entire planet is isolated or quarantined or Staying in Place by whatever decree the local, state, national authorities updated today. It’s like the whole world was put in a Time Out for three minutes or three weeks or three months. Some people are engaged with the news watching the numbers go up, and I suppose it helps us stay in tune to the gravity of the situation, keeps us in check, but it feels an awful lot like for some the CDC tally has replaced Sports Center. I’m not indifferent to the desperate and unprecedented nature of this crisis; it’s simply that I’ve done all I can do at this point. My art and writing students are in check, the kitchen and pantry are stocked, I’m not going anywhere, and by nature here at Aerie I don’t see any more or less people now than I have in the twenty-four years I’ve been out here on the eastern edge of the peninsula.

Still my mother called earlier to make sure I was safe, avoiding contact with people the best I can. I told her, “Mom, I have to drive somewhere to have contact with people.” She felt better. Until tomorrow. As for her, she’s in her independent apartment in Virginia Beach in a facility that keeps her safe, the property spotless, and everyone else—including family—away. Isolation means being away from others. It is safe. But it is also very sad. For some, tragic. Isolation, while the best course of action, contradicts the soul’s desire for human interaction. It is one thing to choose to be alone; it is an entirely different thing to have aloneness thrust upon you. Some, I am sure, would rather die.

But back out here in the Wilderness, the sky is “blank” tonight. That’s what my son and I call the sky at sunrise or sunset when no clouds are resting along the horizon, stirring up the dust, calling up colors for us while we sit and watch or take pictures. Sometimes the western edge just above the reaches of the river, up past Tappahannock and outwards toward Fredericksburg, is so streaked with dark reds and blood orange that we can’t decide whether to shoot pictures or just stare silently while it all goes down. We might hear a boat out past the point, or sometimes Mike landing his P-13 a mile or two to the west at Hummel Field, but mostly it’s just the water, softly, right there, every few seconds at our feet.

But tonight, well, tonight, as if to underscore the news blasting out from literally every town on Earth, the water is rough, coughing up white caps and slamming the rocks at the end of Mill Creek. Parrot Island looks half submerged, and the pier near the old boat ramp is underwater. It’s like nature knows.

Of course it does.

It’s like the earth is saying, “You’re not paying attention!” It’s like the earth is telling us who is in control, from violent storms to virulent disease, it is calling out for some humility, some humble self-reproach. This crisis has demonstrated, clearly, as if under a microscope, how indiscriminately we brush off people and time and life itself. I know so many will be complimenting the efforts of billions worldwide, and showing how we’ve come together, showing how we’re sewing masks, or clapping for nurses, or thanking cashiers, or washing our hands. We’ve pulled ourselves together to get through this, yes. Yes.

But it’s only now, six feet apart at best, miles apart for sure, lightyears away from each other for certain, that we appreciate the eye contact, the walk along a city street, stopping in stores, sitting at a café; that we appreciate shaking hands, a quick hug, the friendly embrace. The economy will return to something better than this, the chance of contracting the disease will back off, the colleges will reopen for face to face classes, and we will be able to sit at Starbucks and laugh, sharing a muffin. Of course, But I fear it is going to be sometime before we have those sensory experiences, the visceral explosion of life on our souls.

It’s getting dark and my skin is cool, almost wet from the night air. I can taste the salt from the bay on my lips, and my face is lashed red and wet. It feels good, and I can take a deep breath, a deep deep breath, and walk up the hill past the farm under a half-moon into my home for the night.