Books Consulting About Contact
  TheBook TheAuthor Praise Slideshow MyPlace  

The concept of "my place" is challenging for me. Certainly, there are the places that are integral to my overall "sense of place" and its associations with a sense of comfort, identity, and well being. For years, I have lived in Dummerston, a wonderful small home in the Green Mountains of Vermont, with my wife, Pauline. We have a quiet country setting on a hill overlooking the West River, with a vegetable garden and Pauline's flowerbeds. My studio is there in my basement, and I teach at Marlboro College, a small liberal arts college nearby. My son, who is now grown and living on his own, is near enough for us to visit regularly, which is a gift.

         In 1992, I co-founded The In-Sight Photography Project, a nonprofit organization that offers photography programming to area youth regardless of their ability to pay, and I have been involved with the program as a volunteer ever since. In that same year, I was introduced to a family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, and I've spent one to three months a year there ever since, staying with people there I relate to as family. I consider the reservation to be another part of my home at this point in my life, especially since Pauline and I met there almost twenty years ago.

         Through my work with the college and In-Sight, and being married to an Australian who wants to see the wider world, I've learned to appreciate diversity and culture by traveling a fair bit, often with students. The places we go to and experience with fellow travelers, learning from and collaborating with those we visit in host communities, all feels like a piece of home, welcoming enough to consider them as included in my space. I only hope that, in my treading into these various places from Vermont onward, I can share the welcoming feeling and learning with others so they, too, may gain from the shared experiences.

Copyright © 2015 John Willis. All rights reserved.


I've lived for more than thirty years in Alabama. The first half of those years I lived in Tuscaloosa, and since then I've lived in Birmingham, the "Magic City" whose steel industry sprang up as if overnight at the turn of the twentieth century. I stop short of saying I'm an Alabamian, though, since in these parts you can't claim that unless your mama's mama's mama grew up here. I'm a Midwestern transplant with New Yorker parents, and my mongrel-voice still prompts the response, "You're not from here, are you?"

         The land, now familiar, remains somewhat alien. Magnolia trees' huge-handed leaves and smelly, fleshy flowers. Kudzu's stampede over red, hard hills. Red ants. Snakes in the rivers. Torpedo-size mosquitos. St. Augustine grass, actually a vine. The mile-wide tornado of 2011 taking its sweet time, garbling a swath from west to east across our state and state of mind. And we rebuilt, fast, large: mirage of heat blurring over the job sites. Identical architect blueprints for every high school and wildly differing test scores, despite.

         We're under curfew tonight. George Floyd's spirit ignites us. A knee on the neck of our hills. Four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The pastor called the honor roll children down to the alter for applause, welcomed me when I visited. History rising in the heat. Our young black mayoral candidate won. In Woodfin's video message, he removes his mask so we can hear him talking about Dr. King as he walks from the Civil Rights Museum across from the 16th Street Baptist Church and on down through Linn Park where the Confederate statue, already encased in plywood, was toppled last night. These spring robins know nothing about it, though they call out to each other in clear, complicated phrases—the sound almost visible now that virus and violence have silenced us. Death takes its toll, obscenely, disproportionately. Cherry laurel, cherry laurel. Pin oak, Slash pine.

         I am a privileged visitor. I live in a neighborhood designed in the 1920s by Samuel Parsons, Jr., New York City's Landscape Architect for the City. Here, where the paved-over brick streets and trolley tracks follow the land's natural contours, I am an incessant walker, traversing the hilly, intertwined streets at all hours, over many years, watching how slow time has wrought and keeps wringing dwellings, gardens, verges. There are two abandoned houses on our street. In one case, inheritors tangled in legal battles over who owns the place, as if anyone owns Earth. In the other case, the widow's in a home now and won't sell—the past, for her, a black-and-white photo-in-the-mind, her childhood South a freeze-frame, a version of memory tough to uproot. Both gardens overcome with humps: wisteria, forsythia. Virginia creeper, English ivy, poison ivy. Morning glory strangles the old hedges up with its curly, rising script of same story, same story, till it waves its vine-y tendrils to the sky. As weeds, all kinds, below, riot, knee-high.

         Writing, for me, is the making of a home in the mind and on the page—occasionally, if I'm lucky, it's a satisfying shape of "what is" that I, or a reader, might inhabit in the time it takes to read and in the redolent afterglow of the imagination having "been" somewhere. I particularly enjoy working with other sorts of artists—visual artists, musicians, dancers, other writers—for the thrill of building a place through joint imagining. To have company in the process of creating, even when the subject is dire, includes the joy of fellow-feeling, profound in the doing, and its aftermath of a particular sort of friendship.

         I have never been to El Paso, but when I first saw John Willis's photographs of the memorials that arose after the massacre, I could not look away. In the face of this unspeakably tragic event, how can there be a way for us to dwell in deep fellow-feeling for the loss of so many lives rather than turning the page with the next news cycle? John's photographs keep us deep down in slow reverence. I wanted the language to hold us there, too, in unending grief, while also conveying something of the history of guns in this country and the ricocheting, numbing words—ads, machinery, statutes, statements— that swirl around it. Matan Rubinstein's music creates a multiverse of intensity that enfolds us right there in the bloody complexity: a grieving for those lost and a call to action by the living.

Copyright © 2020 Robin Behn. All rights reserved.



All content © GFT Publishing. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without permission. Website designed by Morgan Pfaelzer.