Marion Greenwood Mural

How To Write A Biography

Nominated for a Pushcart Prize

Stand before a 1933 mural in Morelia, Mexico. Wonder at the images of Purépecha women wrapped in rebozos, the fishermen bent over butterfly nets on Lake Pátzcuaro. Marvel that you’ve never seen this painting through twenty years of visiting Michoacán. Register that spine tingling jolt that art delivers when viewer and artist unite across time. Ask the guard for the muralist’s name. Fight chagrin that you assumed it was a man  – one of the “Three Greats” – Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros. Listen to the call of the dead as Marion Greenwood’s life overtakes your own.
Put aside the book of essays you vowed to finish this year. Overcome the rational warning about biography: that it will send you into a mine shaft of endless work, a labyrinth without exit, a money drain no publisher’s advance will cover.

  • Lazuli Literary Group, March 2020

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Neurosurgery by Marion Greenwood

Marion Greenwood and Anne Poor: The Women Artists of the WWII Art Program

In 1944, Marion Greenwood held a red-drenched paintbrush to an easel in the operating room of Atlantic City’s Thomas England Hospital. “Neurosurgery” depicts a scalpel-wielding doctor and his assistants bent over a soldier. The eerie green of their medical scrubs forms a nimbus around the painting’s bloody center. Across the world, Anne Poor sketched bandaged men being lifted into planes on a Pacific airfield. One drawing features a soldier draped over a medic in a desperate, dance-like embrace.

  • Hyperallergic, June 2019

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Richard Lillash

Ink Addict: Confessions of a Book Keeper

I’m a bibliovore, catholic in my book choices. I use my Kindle frequently, especially for long flights when I panic if deprived of reading material. But let’s be clear: nothing will ever replace the physical book, talisman of memory and identity.

To understand why, let me take you to my childhood home, where eight people lived in too close quarters. I was perhaps nine years old when, as punishment for some infraction, my mother banished me to a corner where my family’s few books resided. From a shelf I pulled The Secret Garden. The lush green cover and image of an English girl in lacey dresses stay vivid in my mind. I would later buy a copy to preserve my own secret garden—not a place, but the recurring delight of a book in hand, read in solitude.

  • The Pennsylvania Gazette, July/August 2017

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The Lives of Others: A Reconsideration of Biography

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf asked as she grappled with shaping the life of painter and art critic Roger Fry. Hermione Lee opened her biography of Woolf with the same question, one any biographer might ask. The exasperated tone speaks to the audacity of the task. Beyond the seeming impossibility of apprehending another’s life, how does one write it? What design fits the subject: a birth to death chronicle, a partial and focused portrait, or some entirely new form? Should the author’s voice be audible or disappear into third-person? What weave of private life and historical setting will create a compelling narrative?

  • The Writer’s Chronicle, September/October 2017

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Marion Greenwood’s mural of Tennessee musical history


My current project is a biography of twentieth-century artist Marion Greenwood. Here’s a link to an interview (in Spanish) with Mexico City writer Michael Schuessler:

Greenwood’s mural in the Abelardo Rodriguez Market, Mexico City

Epiphanies: Reading Symbols in Other Cultures

If you doze on the bus leaving the mountains of Michoacán for Mexico City, a pink mist over Lake Pátzcuaro, you might wake disoriented. You might gather the wool shawl over your shoulders, chilled by the sight of low stone walls edging farmland and cottages sinking into the earth, bent by time. You could think, as I did, that you were in Ireland.

– Oregon English, Fall 2013

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Fishermen on Lake Patzcuaro

Unimaginable Riches

A hermetic seal enclosed my childhood in an Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood near Philadelphia. But for a smattering of grandmothers who spoke their native Italian, English dominated. Cultural assimilation prevailed. Uniform-clad children streamed daily to St. Dorothy’s School to sit in straight-backed chairs and diagram sentences, then to our street to play kickball. My father applauded both realms: the neighborhood teeming with children, and the nuns’ focus on grammar. He was devoted to family, home, crossword puzzles, and all things language-related.

Oregon Humanities, Summer 2011
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My father in Germany 1952

Oregon: A Contrary Unity

“Languages, though not necessarily synonymous with distinct cultures, express a bond between people and place that offers perhaps the closest human counterpart to the adaptive “fit” of genetically distinct salmon stocks to their ancestral coastal streams.”

  •  The Rain Forests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place

They named themselves as they stood, one by one, survivors of nations within our state: Burns Paiute, Coquille, Klamath, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua, and five separate groups of Confederated Tribes  – Grand Ronde; Warm Springs; Siletz; Umatilla; and Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw. Beaded regalia shimmered under the lights of the Portland Convention Center, newly opened in 1990. Smatterings of Sahaptin and Chinook mingled with English as Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes processed through the hall.  Their presence refuted the 1950’s attempt to assimilate American Indians by terminating their tribal status. Of the 106 tribes and bands terminated nationally, 62 had been native to Oregon. They called themselves “The First Oregonians.”

– These United States, 2002


Clotheslines: A Nostalgic Journey

“Laundry is a rebirth, a new beginning,” sings one laundress in Roberta Cantow’s documentary film, “Clotheslines.”  “There is an art to hanging laundry,” chants another, ascending to her Brooklyn rooftop.  In the footage that follows, women pound clothes on rocks in the Ganges. Parka-clad Inuits bend over washboards.  Clotheslines layer a Hong Kong sky.  I was thirty years old, studying for a Ph.D. in Folklore when I first saw this film.  Friends didn’t understand why I was spending the plentiful 1980′s nearly penniless, why I had moved across the country from Alaska to Philadelphia and back five times, why I wrote papers on quilts, saddle-makers, and Native American stories, why the range and texture of human expression stunned me into slack-jawed silence.  Now I could explain.  It all came back to laundry.…”

Lavanderia: A Load of Women, Wash, and Words, 2009



“It is more certain than certainty that in the northern shore of Ireland a place horrible by its terrors was found by him and generally called St. Patrick’s Purgatory.  The fame of that place has been so scattered through European parts that it seems to go on wings.”

Thyraeus, Panegyrics on the Names, Tribulations, and

Miracles of St. Patrick, Douai, 1617

“So much alike is our historical

And spiritual pattern, a heap

Of stones anywhere is consecrated

By love’s terrible need.”

Patrick Kavanagh, “Lough Derg: A Poem”

I paced the Derry bus terminal on a balmy July day.  Beach-bound passengers surrounded me, faces blistered by the hottest summer sun in a century, spirits soothed by the dawning of peace after twenty-five years.  I envied their light spirits.  Slave to some inner voice,  I’d awakened at 5 a.m., determined to get to Lough Derg, the legendary pilgrimage site on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic.  I’d missed the first bus, received wrong directions from the pilgrimage office.  Now, I begged instruction from a bent man in tweed cap.  He cocked an eyebrow, waved his walking stick and announced, “Aye, you can get there all right, but not if you start from here.”

– New Letters Essay Award, 1997


The Calling

“You would know when the call came.  Father McGuire stood in front of the class, ample body swaying side to side, brow knit in concentration. His hand covered his heart, then touched his ear.  “You’ll have to listen hard, inside and out.”  I focused on the white hairs edging Father’s ears, on the blue eyes shining in his craggy face.  A shiver snaked through my body.  Mystery surrounded the summons to a vocation: How would you recognize your calling?  Some knowledge cannot be stated, only pointed to.  A vocation yoked some inner awareness to an outer path, an umbilicus that sought growth rather than severance.  Like much in Catholicism, this truth rested on paradox: a calling couldn’t be directly pursued.  But honoring the mysteries, serving others, and performing the proper rituals could nudge you toward spiritual readiness.”

– Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond, 200

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Magical Thinking

Two young men linger in the driveway of Eva Castellanoz’s house in Nyssa, Oregon on a fine June day. People waiting to be healed—a scene I’ve witnessed many times over the two decades that I’ve known Eva. The men, handsome young Mexicans, came from a migrant camp in Idaho. One man’s jeans bag at the crotch; his baseball cap completes the urban look. The other, unsmiling under a thick mustache, sports tighter jeans and a broad-brimmed cowboy hat. Like many of Eva’s clients, they have no appointment and know about her work through word-of-mouth. Luis, the man in the baseball cap, has been here before, returning now with his troubled friend, Jorge.

Anthropology and Humanism, June 2010


Quiet Hour

Rule # 1

No talking whatsoever for the hour between noon and one. Never forget this foundational rule for Quiet Hour. Let time suspend on sticky, sultry summer afternoons in two boxlike brick houses on Flintlock Road, in Pilgrim Gardens, outside Philadelphia, for two intertwined Catholic families. Picture a pair of mothers, circa 1968. Yours wears plaid Bermuda shorts and Bobbie socks or perhaps a Hawaiian muumuu that is all the rage; her best friend, Mary Mealing, sports white shorts and sleeveless shell.  Imagine their eagerness for time alone as their combined thirteen children trudge off to their rooms. Know that it is hard work to be quiet, for you each share a room with at least one other shouting, talking, attention-grabbing sibling. For this hour, no stories can be told, no secrets revealed, no plots unfolded for pilfering pennies to purchase sour balls at Woolworth’s, no plans hatched for fishing with bread bits in Darby Creek. Be quiet, completely quiet.

Portland Magazine, December 2003


Between the Lines

Morning light filled the kitchen window the August dawn that I turned the final page of my cloth-bound library book. I hadn’t wanted the story to end. By habit, I went back to the first line, not knowing that “All happy families are alike…” was among the most famous in literature. But it was the small print on the title page of Anna Karenina that stopped me. For the first time, I noticed “translated by Constance Garnett.”….

Oregon English Journal, Summer 2012

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In the fall of 1969, I wore a white polyester uniform, hemmed modestly at the knee, and a black apron. My sturdy white shoes seemed better suited for a 65-year-old woman than a fifteen-year-old girl. My sister, Pat, two years older and identically dressed, already knew the ropes at the Dolly Madison Ice Cream Parlor. She showed me which busboys to avoid; how to sneak ice cream from the walk-in freezer; how to write a “dupe”; and how to spot the “sad men” who came for dinner each night. They were past 40, slightly balding, and as beige as the trench coats they wore. More important, they were single – a sorry state in the family dominated world of the 1960’s.

Oregon Humanities, Fall 2007


Through Dreams and Shadows

I looked out from my kitchen window as the steel hulls of crab boats glided like floating pyramids into the Kodiak boat harbor.  Eleven p.m. and still daylight.  Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” played in my mind.  “Between the dark and the daylight, when the night is beginning to lower …”  But no time felt “between” here.  There was light. Or deep darkness.

Hand on the telephone, I waited. One of the other crisis line workers from the Kodiak Women’s Resource Center had called as I started my shift.  “Be ready for a call from a Native woman from one of the villages,” she said. “We didn’t get her name, but she’s in town, and she’s in danger. Called from a trailer park – didn’t say which one.  By the time she got through, she was whispering. Then, nothing. The phone line was cut.”   A chill went through me.

The Stories That Shape Us: Contemporary Women Write About the West, 1995




Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon
An illegitimate spawning
A small one thrown back
To the waters…

– Seamus Heaney

             How do you find solace after the death of a child? Open your heart to myth and ritual. Query the keening Irish woman: can laments lift weight from body and spirit? Will they warm the void? Ask clerics and hospital workers who carry nearly weightless bundles from rooms darkened by loss. Each sings in different pitch the shared tune of why.  

My voice now swells this chorus as I kneel at Soapstone Creek, a twenty-six mile surge through Oregon’s coastal rainforest. Here I pray for Ramona, her almost-life marked by a stone smoothed under torrents of rain and Pacific wind. Yet I wonder whom to beseech on behalf of my sister, Chris’ lost child. Was it Neptune, Roman god of the sea or Poseidon, his Greek brother that floated Ramona from one watery womb to another? Or was it the God to whom I prayed in childhood? The face of solace eludes me. Still, I’ll linger near Soapstone Creek where salmon are born and return to die. Brilliant immolations, they cycle back from the Pacific to this gravely well both baptismal and mortuary. Coral backs glisten, flashes of light as elusive as the faith my family nearly lost the spring day when Ramona died.

Read more: Ramona