Reviewing and reflecting on three books

The Human Comedy by William Saroyan (1941)

Celebrate What Is   by Doris Standridge and Carol Tomlinson (1981)

An American Family by Khizr Khan (2019)


Some of the figures crowded around a car in the faded black and white photograph were familiar, but I didn’t know the boy sitting on the running board.

“That was Louis,” my father said. “Granddaddy Mack took him in when his parents died in 1918.”

Both parents had died of influenza shortly after Louis was born and he was brought up by my grandmother’s parents. There were several family stories like this. My mother was rescued by her aunt from being sent to an orphanage when her mother became sick with tuberculosis. During the Depression, my grandfather took in a whole family. Later, the eldest son of that family, who remained a family friend, and became a successful businessman, always spoke of the wonderful taste of my grandmother’s rice dishes. Taking people in, rescuing them, saving them—this is a memorable family tradition.

Throwaway people, human refuse, and other no-counts populate the daily news. By bribes, tricks, and subterfuge they slip into our society to graze on our welfare and take away our jobs. This explanation comes from a different tradition.

At the same time that my family was rescuing people, our country was turning immigrants away. The rationale and sentiment of those times are repeated today.  The “wretched refuse” of Emma Lazarus’s poem were considered poor genetic material, illiterate, unskilled, criminal, and probably, if somewhat illogically, both communist and feeble-minded.

But the immigrant Khizr Khan was a highly trained Pakistani lawyer, devout Muslim, linguist, and meticulous worker with experience in working for a Texas oil firm in Dubai when he came to the United States.  He didn’t want to practice law in a country where “professional witnesses” were routinely hired to strengthen a case and where legal advancement depended upon paying bribes.  In a first-year course on constitutional law, he had read the American Constitution, and been astounded by the idea of creating a system of laws, not men. Privilege, graft, nepotism, and corruption were accepted legal practices in Pakistan, India, and most of the world. The American system offered a more honorable professional path. Living and working as a green-card holder, Khan saw for himself that the ideas of the Constitution were visible in Americans’ daily lives—even though they didn’t notice this fact. He sent for his wife and children, became a citizen, and sponsored the “chain migration” of his mother, siblings, and their families.

Hitler once previewed his genocidal intentions by asking, “Who remembers the slaughter of the Armenians?” Who indeed? William Saroyan was a second-generation Armenian-American who spent five years in an orphanage after the death of his father before his mother could rescue him and his brother by proving she could raise them on the salary of a cannery worker in Fresno. His first novel, The Human Comedy, incorporated his personal story into a larger story about the incredible toughness of human love and acceptance. Written at the very time that Hitler was clearing a path through Poland both for the invasion of Russia and the establishment of a network of extermination centers, The Human Comedy may strike readers as simple-minded and sentimental.

The cynical or at least critical irony we have come to expect from writers is, in fact, missing from all three of these books. As Tomlinson and Standridge describe Blair, the boy who ultimately dies from an accident, it is difficult to accept that such a cheery, even Apollonian, person could have existed. He seemed to float over the ground like a demi-god—even when he wasn’t skydiving. Similarly unbelievable is Khan’s exhilaration while sleeping on a Boston park bench for a week because he had spent everything he had in order to complete his law course at Harvard and pay for his family’s expenses in Houston. Perhaps most unbelievable, however, are Saroyan’s philosophical sentences:

Mrs. Macauley began to speak, but she did not turn to him. “You will find out,” she said. “No one can tell you. Each man finds out in his own way. If it’s sad, nobly or foolishly, the man himself will make it so. If it’s richly sad and full of beauty, it’s the man himself so, and not the things around him. And so it is, if it’s bad, or ugly, or pathetic—it is always the man himself, and each man is the world. Each man is the whole world, to make over as he will and to fill with a human race he can love, if it is love he has, or a race he must hate, if it is hate he has. The world waits to be made over by each man who inhabits it, and it is made over every morning like a bed or a household where the same people live—always the same, but always changing too.  .  .  It was pity that made you cry,” she said. “Pity, not for this person or that person who is suffering,  but for all things—for the very nature of things. Unless a man has pity he is inhuman and not yet truly a man, for out of pity comes the balm which heals.”

Did any mother ever say such things to a fourteen year-old son? One either dismisses the unbelievable passages in The Human Comedy as, at best, homilies disguised as dialogues or accepts them as good-faith expressions of Saroyan’s experience. Perhaps we can accept that in war time, any situation may lead to questions of meaning and existence, particularly for a boy who has become the breadwinner.

A family crisis like the fatal injury of a son paralyzed from a fall, as described in Celebrate What Is, or killed in battle, as in An American Family and The Human Comedy, quickly disperses the comfortable ironies, equivocations, and speculations that usually keep mortality at a distance. The stories of survivors, orphans, and immigrants show us with heart-rending clarity what sort of people we are because we are surprised by the unbelievable, simple humanity of the language:

A mother is stricken with guilt and frustration at the relief she had felt before she was told that her paralyzed son would live: “If we had been willing to let go of him, why hadn’t life been willing to let go as well?” (Celebrate What Is, p.145)

A father gives up playing through all the “what-ifs” about his son’s last moments: “My son was dead because he was trying to make sure a stranger wasn’t killed by mistake. He stayed true to the shape of his heart.” (An American Family, p.219)

Another soldier’s mother, Mrs. Macauley, foresees her son’s death: “There will always be pain in things . . . Knowing this does not mean that a man shall despair. The good man will seek to take pain out of things. The foolish man will not even notice it except in himself. And the evil man will drive pain deeper into things and spread it about wherever he goes. But each man is guiltless, for the evil man no less than the foolish man or the good man did not ask to come here and did not come alone, from nothing, but from many worlds and from multitudes. The evil do not know they are evil and are therefore innocent. The evil man must be forgiven every day. He must be loved, because something of each of us is in the most evil man in the world and something of him is in each of us. He is ours and we are his. None of us is separate from any other.” (The Human Comedy, p.189)

These remarkably unbelievable statements and questions are honest messages from the heart of human suffering. Only honesty can live with such suffering. The language is simple, heart-felt, and neither ironical nor vindictive. The stripped heart cannot be fed with hate or fear. As Ileana Cabra Joglar sings,

Let hatred be starved

                        By not feeding it.

                        Together, let us destroy

                        Walls, barriers, and wires.

    (From “Odio” or “Hate” by Ismael Cancel and Ileana Cabra)

“Yielding in protest” to the facts of death and suffering, Tomlinson describes a family who “learned to look for reason in unreasonable death (and) learned to look beyond death for a quality of life which knows no limits. Because of Blair.” (Celebrate What Is,  p.279). Tomlinson became part of Blair’s family, and was friend, colleague at the University of Virginia, and daughter to his mother for the rest of her long life. Khizr Kahn’s family grew by thousands as he and Ghazala established scholarships for other ROTC graduates from the University of Virginia and as they appeared at the Democratic Convention in 2016 to speak in honor of Capt. Humayun Khan and in praise of the Constitution.

The Macauley family lost and gained a son when the orphan Tobey, their son’s Army buddy, returned to tell them how Marcus died and how he had promised Tobey that his family would take him in after the war.

Mr. Spangler, a telegraph operator who sent so many messages from the War Department to so many homes, watched the dancers on July the Fourth. “The music was swing, jive, and boogie-woogie, and the dancing was terrific. ‘Americans!’ Spangler said. ‘Look at them. Americans—Greeks, Serbs, Poles, Russians, Armenians, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Abyssinians, Jews, French, English, Scotch, Irish—look at them! Listen to them!’” All of them were brought together by African American music, another language of the heart. Then Spangler spoke about the dead—not the brave dead, or the sacrificed dead, or the patriots. That is not the simple language of the heart.

I’m not going to try to comfort you,” Spangler said. “I know I couldn’t. But try to remember that a good man can never die. You will see him many times. You will see him in the streets. You will see him in the houses, in all the places of the town. In the vineyards and orchards, in the rivers and clouds, in all the things here that make this a world for us to live in. You will feel him in all things that are here out of love, and for love—all the things that are abundant, all the things that grow. The person of a man may leave—or be taken away—but the best part of a good man stays. It stays forever. Love is immortal and makes all things immortal. But hate dies every minute.” (p.280)

Love is immortal but hate dies every minute.


We’re full.

We’re full.

We’re full. No others need apply.

We’ve limited the sky.

The songs are sung, the stories told.

The faithful sheep are in the fold.

All measures indicate

that we can calibrate our hate.


We’re full. We’ve eaten up the past—

the so-called millions gassed,

the border scans for feeble minds;

middle passage, trail that winds

in tears both west and north

are left behind as we go forth.


Yes, going forward from this day,

none hesitates to say

we’re full and need no longer wait,

or question how we legislate—

for whom, how much, or why.


For, you see, we’ve limited the sky,

detained invention, walled up hope,

banned intellect and scope:

So, do not question how or why

we’re full.




rlr & ltrs to congress


Promotion of my work is never easy for me.  Recently, it has simply stopped.

As planned, the release of Coming Around, in 2018 roughly coincided with production at several venues by Capitol Opera Richmond of the opera, Monte & Pinky and Amber (in a combined work called Strike the Rock!) But the releases of book and operas were not close enough so that I could easily use the operas to promote and sell the book, as I had hoped to do.

Since then, I have presented at a few book fairs and private readings, with disappointing results and other set-backs leading me to forget about blogs and promotion. I returned to my usual practice of handing my work to friends and those who show interest. Then came another disappointing set-back in trying to arrange a performance of music and poetry in a nearby town.

Sometimes you need a bump to get off dead center.  For me, it was the phrase “We’re full.” This stimulated me to write the poem above and the promotional blog and challenge to you   below.


Several local literary communities have recently welcomed me into their pages:

Jaybirds in the morning,” was published in the PSV Newsletter of the Poetry Society of Virginia See for information about PSV.  Newsletters are not shown on the site. The PSV Festival at William and Mary is on May 17-18.  I’ll bring some of my books.

“Emma Strawbridge” will be published in the next issue of Artemis, Maurice Ferguson, Literary Editor and Jeri Rogers, Founder & Editor.  See  Here’s a promo for the annual event, which I will also attend:

Artemis Journal 2019, with the theme “Women hold up half the sky,” will launch its twenty-sixth journal next year on June 7, 2019, at the Roanoke Taubman Museum of Art. The journal will feature a stunning photograph from Sally Mann’s recent show “Sally Mann—A Thousand Crossings” at the National Gallery of Art, and poems by some of Virginia’s finest poets, including US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, Virginia Poet Laureate, Ron Smith, and acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni.

“Three Stops on Route 15,” appeared in the Piedmont Journal of Poetry and Fiction (2017, 2018)

The poems “A Truth,” and “Lucretius,” and the story, “The Centerpiece,” appeared in The Best of Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology, 1918-2018, Betsy Ashton, Editor (2017) See

“To a Self-Made Man,” appeared in Lingering in the Margins: A River City Poets Anthology, 2019, Joanna Lee, Judy Melchiorre, and Marsha Owens, Editors. This is a project of the River City Poets in Richmond.  See

Also coming up: The FOURTH ANNUAL FREDERICKSBURG INDEPENDENT BOOK FESTIVAL, SEPTEMBER 21, 2019.  I’ll be selling my books.



The original purpose of this website was to make my work publicly available. Having sixty years of poems and writing sitting in journals on the bookshelf is a discouraging situation.


Posting blogs was intended to show new work and to call attention to previous work. At the beginning, that seemed like a promising kind of promotion for someone who would rather be writing than advertising.

As it turned out, however, the possibility of even being found on the internet turned out to be miniscule and the possibility that anyone would return to a site to discover other works was even smaller. What to do?

  1. Encourage readers who read the website to share it. Try to find or create a community of interest.
  2. Give readers a link to a list of all blogs, poems, music, videos and other publicly available writings.
  3. Continue to post coming events on the site.
  4. Encourage others to give a reading, workshop, performance, or to write a review, essay, story, or poem for the site.

So here’s a challenge for you who read this site:

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE OR PROMOTE YOUR WORK ON THIS SITE, PLEASE CONTACT ME AT  Include a few remarks about yourself with your submission.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO RESPOND TO SOMETHING ON THIS SITE: Follow the same instructions as above.


And, of course, you can always leave a reply here:



The Blob vs. The Blog

I realize that a blog is meant to establish my brand. This realization comes late.  My original intention was simply to share my words and music. Turns out that you must have a presence on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and frequently say and show more of yourself than a prey animal would ever recommend. Brandishing my brand also means showing and reading my books:


. . . at book festivals in Petersburg

RLR at Petersburg stall

. . . Richmond’s Book Lovers Festival

Booklovers Stall.jpg

. . . Charlottesville’s Blue Ridge Festival

My stall at Blue Ridge Festival.jpg

and then back in Richmond for the Virginia Writers Club Symposium and James River Writers Conference.  By the way, tonight (11/7/2018) I’ll be at an engagement at Stir Crazy Cafe on MacArthur Ave. in Richmond at 7 p.m.  It may later be broadcast on WRIR as part of the Prose&Cons program. Here’s an interview from that program that aired earlier in the year:  

Okay. Enough brand-ishing.

Election results are encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether folks can behave with civility and acknowledge that the public good is served through compassionate compromises.

Little gets said about actually attending to the magnitude and urgency of the socio-environmental issues of  climate, population, and industrialization.

It reminds me that the Blob is still frozen in the Arctic.

You know about the Blob, right?

The film documentary was made in 1958. We may not be concerned about climate science, but given that enough of Greenland and the Arctic have disappeared to encourage Russia to claim territory, shouldn’t we also be concerned about the return of the Blob?

This is supposed to be a rant, but like Emily’s complaints, it comes out slant–

Melting, and Other Slips of State

“How do you get people to protect themselves against something they don’t believe in?” and “I don’t think it can be killed, but at least we’ve got it stopped—as long as the Arctic stays cold.” —from The Blob, a movie in 1958


How do you get people to protect themselves

against something they don’t believe in?

A light’s required to see the Thing

against background light as the Thing is—

white on white, Malevich’s hand in it,

or Malewicz on Malevich, with Stalin’s hand.


White is the art. Arctic is its abstract grip

on cold ideals believed in

so much northern light conceals—

wedged, bowsprit jammed

down, a dory tipped and emptied—the scene

in grating ice, the ship of state.


I like to bear down on existence and coexistence by setting thoughts into the compressed and spiny, sea-urchin-like multiple prickly references of a poem whose comprehension requires the reader to spend some time with it–maybe even diagramming a sentence or two. The rant’s there, but it isn’t breathless or venomous.

Instead, I put together the elements of the script-line from The Blob, the  art & politics of Malewicz, the effects of climate change, the analogy of how insistent self-delusion is like trying to see white on white or like being distracted by a personal light-show like the aurora borealis, and the comparison of the sinking dory to our denied slow-motion environmental disaster.

I know, it’s all a bit much.

But this is the kind of problem poets set themselves.

Not brandishing–or ranting.

Not a page-turner but a page-pauser.

A poem combines diverse elements to make a work that conveys an experience both in what it says and in how it says it.  In its completed gesture, it’s like a good meal or the musical experience from a pick-up group that brings everyone into the circle–like Barry Bless’s group at Crossroads Cafe on Friday mornings.

Or like a country that finds its strength in the trust and human treasures of all its people.

Crossroads w Billy dancing




Truths, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Updates, & Links for the Frameshifts Project


Truths, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Updates, & Links

Living with a truth is like living with a teenager. Argument does not weaken him; nor is he moved to pity. He sullenly presumes your betrayal. Singing “And who can abide the day of his coming?” Truth will never let you off.

For example, it is true that humans are interdependent with each other and with other living beings. In a letter of condolence, Albert Einstein once called the sense of separation an “optical delusion of consciousness.” And, also speaking of separation, James Baldwin observed that some people, “because they think that they are white” bring “humanity to the edge of oblivion.”

Argue that separation is inevitable or sometimes beneficial: Truth simply shakes his head. Seek a concession or grandfather clause: He offers no loopholes.

Living with Truth in the house means that you must take a drive if you want to return to your Dream. But when you go back into the house, Truth is still there.

So, when Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the world and Me, writes to his son that America’s achievements derive from racist brutality, lynching, and looting, he is simply telling the truth.  And when Coates takes a drive around the block he finds the “gorgeous dream” of America. “It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is a tree house and cub scouts  .  . . (a dream that) persists by warring with the known world.”

It is a dream of how we choose to think about ourselves. Go back into the house. Just over the threshold, Truth is waiting.

Like the Departures and Arrivals Gate at the airport, the threshold between different frames of reference is always available. Shifting frames of reference is not a comfort.  Frequently trying on different frames of reference, like choosing shoes, may be annoying, but it does offer one benefit: it offers just enough depth to put your life in relief and lead you to ask, “Now what do I do with my life?”

Just don’t be too quick to answer the question with someone else’s idea of Three Easy Steps.  The only worthwhile answer to how we are to live with the truth that we are not separate must come from the work we do on ourselves–trying to master our own materials first, in our own studios (whatever they are), one step at a time.

In this way, Ta-Nehisi Coates answers his own version of the question: “How do I live free in this black body?”  Always a curious observer, and working on himself, he finds that the “greatest reward of this constant interrogation, of confrontation with the brutality of my country, is that it has freed me from ghosts and girded me against the sheer terror of disembodiment.”

The Frameshifts project is dedicated to shifting your frame of reference through stories, poems, and music. When we shift frames, we think differently about ourselves and others. We may even question unchanging ideas about how things are and should be and reconsider the unbidden systems we received at birth. Let ghosts go on their way.


INTERVIEWS:   Listen to the interviews of authors Richard Rose and Bill Sizemore on Monday July 23, 2018 on WRIR 97.3fm at 11:00 a.m. (Afterwards, it will be available on podcast at ). This features a short performance based on:  COMING AROUND,  released for sale on August 6, 2018. In nonfiction and poetry, both authors address their families’ past involvement with slavery and consider the present-day consequences. Sizemore’s book release will be at Chop Suey Book Store in Richmond on September 5, 2018.  Both books are published by Brandylane Publishing in Richmond.

PERFORMANCES:   Also, check out the performances of some of Rose’s operas on his YouTube channel. Included are the April 2018 performances by Capitol Opera Richmond of “Monte and Pinky” at the Black History Museum and “Strike the Rock!” at the Church of the Holy Comforter.  “Monte & Pinky” is the musical companion of Coming AroundThe character “Pinky” first appeared in the first volume of Frameshifts, a book of poems and stories published in two volumes in 2011.  For the recorded performances, link to Rose’s YouTube channel:


THE BOOK TOUR: Two more stops on Richard Rose’s book tour for Coming Around are:

The Local Authors Expo: Over 30 authors will be present on Saturday, August 4, 2018 at Petersburg Main Library on 201 W. Washington from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. to discuss, sign and sell their books.

The BookPeople Re-Opening Event: Richard Rose will present a performance based on Coming Around for the re-opening of a remodeled BookPeople in Richmond on Saturday, September 1, 2018, from 1:00 to 2:30.  Book People (536 Granite Ave # A, Richmond, VA 23226).

Recently, the online Piedmont Journal has published an issue in hard copy, which includes Rose’s series of poems entitled “Stops along Route 15.” Link:


To see more work by Richard Rose, see or to subscribe to the blog and website, at

Launch from the Lawn: A new book, a book tour, and another Fourth of July


ComAro Cover Final

Launch from the Lawn: A new book, a book tour, and another Fourth of July

             Saturday morning, I cut the grass. Time to think. Lawns are a microcosm of culture: managed, monetized, mechanized, monocultural media of unminded conspicuous consumption. Thorstein Veblen would say even more.

As one whose feelings come out in words and music, I can only report on how culture makes me feel.  Processing plants of all kinds—except for real plants—work on specialization, through-put, sampling and correction, unit-design and replication, efficiencies of scale, automation, and just-in-time expediting, inventory, and delivery. What appeals to us in making battleships or bottlecaps in this way is the possibility of arranging our personal and social lives in the same way.  Such engineered practices have a long history but the current culture of immediate communication seems to offer the greatest possibility that humans have ever had to create such a society and standard of personal life. Nazism could only go so far; now we have the internet.

Speaking of plants, and back to grass-cutting, I suppose that one could argue that cellular organization is like a factory. That’s how we teach it: a cytochrome system is like an assembly line, for example.  But don’t we use such analogies to simplify events so interdependent and intimately responsive that we have no conceivable equivalents? Were humans as adeptly responsive to their surroundings—and their surroundings as exquisitely suited to them—as organelles in a cytoplasmic matrix, our grasp of our experience would be within a different frame of reference. Certainly, we would not need to refer to factories.  We’re not there yet.

As one who is suited to making words and music, I simply watch the robins descend on the lawn to do their work and return to my studio to do my own work. Maybe in comparison to someone with ten talents, like Geoffrey Hill (See Paul Batchelor’s review in the current Poetry.), my single talent is minimal. I prefer to think that each of us is singular and our talents are not units but powers of ten.

So, with the lawn finally cut for the Fourth, I’m finally ready to put up information about the new book, the book tour, and—

Oh, I didn’t mention Ted Steinberg’s book, American Green, about our obsession with lawns. This source and others claim that 2-4-D, glyphosate, chlorpyrifos, and other residues affect us and our pets in various ways. Other sources make different claims. I discussed most of this in an earlier blog (See ),  but am buoyed by encouraging words from Pope Francis in A Man of His Word and Fred Rogers in Won’t you be my neighbor?  Fred said that his work and ours is Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning “repair of the world.” ( BTW, The modern understanding of this phrase is more expansive than the original meaning.)

More generally, the Lawn As Microcosm of Culture is an example of a deep confrontation that has little to do with blue and red politics. Is life concerned with perfecting the customization of the world to human beings or with humans working on themselves to become more adept at adaptation and accommodation to the world and to others? Are family meals, for example, about “what would you like, honey?” or are they about learning to share the same food—which is to say, to share a common life? Is civilization better characterized by enthusiasts proposing the Anthropocene, the Free Market, or the Half Earth? Questions not for philosophers but parents.

Just as parenthood may be defined as the time to discover one’s principles and to learn to practice them, so adulthood may be defined as the time to live into one’s human responsibility and learn to practice life. Saying “to practice life” is a way of hinting that one works on oneself to approach life intentionally rather than to assume that life only happens to you. Part of that practice is finding out what you’re suited for and working on it.

Even if it’s the power of one talent, you are acting responsibly.

Even if it’s as corny as my new video for July 4. (See )

Even if it’s writing and promoting a book of poems, like Coming Around, and starting a book tour with a podcast interview by Ben Krumwiede and Dominique James of WRIR, airing at 11 a.m. on July 23, 2018, which will thereafter be available online at

Even if it’s like my coming presentations at BookPeople   (See: )  and other places, as advertised on this site.  (See Coming Events at )

The practice of life:  it’s all about rehearsals. It’s about working in your own studio to master your own materials first, so that your own experience may speak. As my blog’s side-bar says, “you are not obliged to be admired… just don’t stand pat.” We may not all have the high exponential power of Fred Rogers or Pope Francis, but each of us is a singularity. As Fred repeated daily, “there is no one else like you.”

Meanwhile, if you’re planning a July 4th lunch on the lawn, please use a blanket.



MONTE & PINKY at BHMVA . . . and COMING AROUND at Tottering Tea Cup

Some Links to what’s coming up:

On Saturday, April 7, 2018, the opera Monte & Pinky, featuring Erin Wind as Monte and Del Sykes as Pinky,  will be performed by Richmond Concert Opera (  at the Black History Museum in Richmond ( at 2:00 p.m.

It will be followed by dramatic readings featuring Del Sykes, Diana Carver, and Richard Rose on the lives of domestic workers during the Great Migration.

Besides the reading, another companion to Monte & Pinky is the publication of Coming Around, a poetry collection by Richard Rose.  Although the general release will be in August, some advanced copies will be available for some upcoming events.  Rose will speak during the RVA Literary Crawl (2018_RVALitCrawl ) at the Tottering Teacup (  with other poets on April 21 at 5:00 pm:

On April 22, both Monte & Pinky and Amber  will be produced as STRIKE THE ROCK! in a concert reading at the Church of the Holy Comforter ( at 2:00 p.m.

An extended reading from Coming Around is planned for late April or early May.  Details TBD.

STRIKE THE ROCK! opens at the Gellman Room, Richmond Main Library


WINGS . . . and other invitations

Ten years ago this May, Susie and I returned to Virginia in a small plane flown by a friend of my sister in Oklahoma.  Following ten days of hospital treatment for pneumonia, Susie was propped by the window for the take-off.  Nine years of Alzheimer’s had left her without speech and unable to sit up, but when we lifted off, she looked at the sky and smiled.  It was the last time I saw her enjoy herself.


Like Susie, Emily Stilson flew many times with her father in small planes, but Emily walked on the wings of bi-planes. Her wing-walking over crowds in cornfields and state fairs forms the background for WINGS, the current production at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre ( ). A 1992 adaptation by composer Jeffrey Lunden and lyricist Arthur Perlman of the play by Arthur Kopit, the story begins with Emily’s debilitating stroke, from which she never fully recovers–an unlikely premise for a musical.

But we are the beings who see beyond the worlds and wounds we have created–the beings with imagination. As Kopit was writing the play, his father had a stroke.  He took the invitation to imagine his father’s experience.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor described her stroke as feeling like a liquid, in some ways like the “flow” or absorption felt when we are creatively engaged (see Csikszentmihalyi’s book, cited below) or like the uncensored “ejaculatory speech” of a person with Tourette’s syndrome, as described by Oliver Sacks: a flow of sounds and words uncensored and unmodulated by speech centers; a flow of images flooding the visual centers. With speech disabled, one recruits first-responders from other parts of the cortex; as more former associates appear on the scene, they bring lost words and new connections.  Given gentle care, time, and opportunities for little awakenings through participation in arts, one may even imagine herself back into the same reality that others imagine. Emily, however, never quite lands again in the acceptably imagined world.

She stays in the territory of what Robinson Jeffers called “edgeless dreams.” The loss of nouns (anomia), the struggle with consonant clusters, nonsense rhymes, gibberish, and sudden memory lapses, and failure to recognize faces: these impediments are like a torn cowling or swathe of fabric ripped up and plastered against the visor and the pilot’s face. The plane flies on; Emily’s identity is intact. Recovery is slow and incomplete, her dreams as real as her daily routine in various institutions.

But how do you portray this in a musical?

Firehouse Theatre willingly takes on such projects, such as the challenge it met earlier in the month with the successful production of Walter Braxton’s To Damascus. In the production of Wings, Lunden’s score for keyboard, flute, ‘cello, and  samples lays down a tentative landscape for the territory Emily inhabits. Maddening, confusing, elusive, her conflicting emotions sink and soar in a spare but lyrical idiom under the capable musical direction of pianist Kim Fox.  Director Kerrigan Sullivan and Scenic and Lighting Designers Vinnie Gonzalez and Bill Miller use minimal staging to create a space seamlessly transformed into hospital, airfield with landing lights, rest home, barn, bi-plane, and the cloudy, unnamed regions that Emily inhabits with doctors, nurses, attendants, and other patients. Supporting roles are  played by the flexible cast of four  actors: Andrew Colletti, Lauren Elens, Lucinda McDermott, and Landon Nagel.

For eighty minutes, Bianca Bryan is center-stage as Emily Stilson in a remarkable performance.  In a part that requires not only singing and acting but also speaking gibberish, she is completely convincing–whether playing the disabled Emily frustrated with others’ inability to understand her or the intact individual beneath all the afflictions who grasps new insights about the feel of the mind coming through clouds.

Invitations announce themselves in many ways. Grief asks you what you will make of it. Confusion and conflict ask you to discover the roles and realms available to you. We want to get outside our old eyes, our old world, our maddening wounds, and imagine ourselves into a new reality:  Dangerous territory.  Emily wondered whether she’d crashed somewhere.  So much to take in–and what does one make of it?

The invitation is to choose something for yourself–not to have it chosen for you, by the way. Choose how to imagine yourself. Both your world and dream-world are imaginative works. To take on an imaginative work is to breathe capaciously, to hold and examine the potential of it, to release and give shape to it, and then to hold the absence of it, the grief of it, which always becomes a new invitation.

That Last Rites are a Lift-Off


Set meters to aught.

Let sorrows depart.



Let go.

Instruments zero.

Forget what you know.

Let go.


Pierce eyes.

Fly with your heart.

Let sorrows depart.

Pierce eyes.


The poem was written in 2008 after our last ride, coming home in a Piper. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book is My Stroke of Insight (2006). Oliver Sacks’ last book is The River of Consciousness (2017).  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book is Flow (1990).  Joel Bassin is the Producing Artistic Director of the Firehouse Theatre, where Wings continues for several more weeks.  Amber will be at the Firehouse on April 10 for a one-night concert performance.  (See “Coming Performances.”)