Author Archives: Martha Woodroof

kilmarnockCharlie and I like to go on road wanders. It doesn’t have to be to anywhere exotic – in fact, it doesn’t even have to  be to anywhere specific.

Last week, we found ourselves in Kilmarnock, a good-sized small town on Virginia’s Northern Neck, the northernmost of the three Virginia peninsulas that jut into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Northern Neck is bounded by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. It’s fishing and farming country. And it’s beautiful if you like your landscape flat and serene, and your sky big and full of birds. And if we keep on keeping on as we are now, a lot of it will be underwater in the blink of time’s eyes.

Kilmarnock cat 2Okay then, one evening Charlie and I were taking  a break from wandering, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of McDonald’s. It was not a scenic spot compared to the rest of the Kilmarnock, but we like to see the sides of towns that are not on their tourist brochures. Next door was a used car lot that was, surprisingly, home to some number of cats.

I hesitate to call them feral cats, as they were remarkably well fed. They came out cautiously from under cars, and darted back immediately when I tried to get close.

Golly, but I’m a sucker for animals in general, and cats in particular. I’m also a reporter by trade and nosy by nature, so naturally I asked around. It turns out there’s an organization in Kilmarnock that feeds these cats in the morning; and a really nice, concerned lady who, on her own, feeds them again at dusk. Someone also went to the trouble of building them an insulated shelter at the back of the lot.

Charlie and I drove home from the Northern Neck listening to a series of NPR stations, catching up with the news. There was a lot about American politics; a little about all the hungry, displaced Syrians who really could use some help from the rest of us.

The cow pasture in which I live is near Harrisonburg, Virginia — a small city that for decades has opened its doors and offered its resources to wave after wave of refugees. As far as I can tell, these refugees were welcomed mainly through the efforts of organized networks of individuals, very similar to the organized network of individuals that feeds displaced cats in Kilmarnock.

Trying to think about the best way to do good always makes me uneasy. I have a strong impulse to help out those in need. And I feel good whenever I act on this impulse.

The thing is, I know I can’t help everyone, and I only have so much time, and so many resources. There are lots of simple ways I can help and feel better, and there are lots of others ways I can help that would lead to considerable personal inconvenience.

With that in mind, those Kilmarnock cats raised this uncomfortable question for me: Does it really matter how I help, as long as I help?

kilmarnock cat 4


Charlie and I live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I used to say our closest neighbors were cows, but then the farmer down the hill moved his cows to another pasture. So these days I say our closest neighbors are Peter and Dorathy Driver, who are buried side-by-side in a lovely patch of woods just across the dirt road from our house.

peter driver 1

A lot of springs, Charlie heads over to the Driver’s graves carrying a rake and clippers and his weed-eater. We country neighbors look out for each other, and my husband sees no reason to leave the Drivers out of the loop just because they’ve been dead a hundred and sixty-some years. It usually takes him a couple of days to get the Driver’s graves looking right. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And getting the Driver’s graves looking right is one thing Charlie Woodroof’s got to do.

peter driver 2Peter Driver was born November 10, 1766, in Pennsylvania. He came to the Valley at some point after his marriage to Dorathy Raleigh and made his living as a farmer and blacksmith. According to tax records, Peter Driver bought land around the spot where our house sits in 1797.

The Driver family belonged to the Dunkard (Brethren) church.  Local history has it that Peter Driver was slow to give up his German ways and spoke English only when forced to. In other words, Herr Driver resisted change, wanted to carry on  today  the  same way he’d carried on yesterday. Which, to me, sounds like a lot of 21st century people I know.

What is it about change that makes it is so difficult for us to embrace?

Peter driver 4All I could find out about Dorathy Driver was her maiden name (Raleigh) and her dates of birth (April 15, 1771) and death (October 7, 1844). As is true with most Eighteenth Century women, the only other thing history cares to remember about Dorathy’s 70 years, five months and 22 days is that she was Peter Driver’s wife.

There is, however, one rather splashy bit of modern-day Driver lore.

phyllis dillerRemember Phyllis Diller, the fright-haired, honking-laughed comedienne? Well, according to the people we bought our house from, she show up one day in a stretch limo and announced she was looking for the Driver’s graves.

Phyllis Diller, it turns out,  was born Phyllis Ada Driver, and is a direct descendant of Peter and Dorothy.

So anyway…

Now you know what I know about our closest neighbors.

But, when I say Peter and Dorothy are our closest neighbors, do I mean that I believe in ghosts or spirits or some such alternative plane of existence?


But neither do I not believe in them either. Indeed, I can sum up my personal position on the post-death experience  in two words: Got me.

And you know what, as I’m a bit of an adventuress, I like not knowing. I sometimes suspect all of humanity’s elaborate attempts to explain that which we really know nothing about goes straight back to our resistance to change. I mean,  think about it. The only thing we really know about death is that it brings about a really gargantuan change in our lives over which we have absolutely no control.

Back to the Drivers, whatever their current state, it’s a rare morning that I don’t wave at their graves as I head out to work and wish them a pleasant day.

Although I do find it hard to imagine that their day would not be pleasant, considering where they chose to live, die, and (possibly) hang out for eternity.




Why write a blog post, when I’ve been given permission to post some of Mark Griffin’s wondrously captioned Facebook pictures …


Prince Charming finally gives up

Prince Charming finally gives up …


Petal to the metal ...

Petal to the metal …


urban steer skull...

Urban steer skull …


Mark 5 I'll bet that's driving somebody nuts...

I’ll bet that’s driving somebody nuts …


In my dreams, there's a sign on the back door saying "Bach in 5 minutes"....

In my dreams there’s a sign on the back door saying “Bach in five minuets” …


VCCA-entrance-500-pixels-acrossA quarter of a century ago, I spent a summer cooking supper at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, an artist colony in the Virginia countryside. Robert Johnson was assigned to “train me.”  Five minutes after we met, Robert sent me into the pantry after a pot. As I crossed the floor, I heard his voice sing out behind me, “Whoo-wee!  She’s got that Chicago walk!”

Robert was the colony factotum. He did anything as long as there was money in it. He cooked, cleaned, transported, mowed grass, posed for visual artists, barbecued. He fleeced the fellows at poker. Then he’d gamble away both his winnings and his earnings down at the local convenience store. “Ooo, do I feel lucky to-night!”  he’d say as he left to put in his numbers and lose more money. The colony’s fellows were in awe of him. Robert was the real deal – a wild man, a free spirit, an outlaw – something most of the artists aspired to be, someday, when they can afford it.

ace of spadesA lot of the fellows came from big cities. To Robert, these artists were alien beings, creatures who dressed funny and were disturbed by normal, everyday things like cows and black snakes and tall grass and silence. He found them skittish; euphoric one moment, gloomy the next. “When these peoples gets in a bad mood, I just leave ‘em alone,” he said to me, “or pretty soon we’d have two peoples in a bad mood.”

Since he was a fellow cook, I asked Robert once what he liked to eat. “Tuna fish,” he said. “And corn flakes.”

“What about your vitamins?”

“What’s vitamins?”

For years, I’ve been getting up every morning and writing for a couple of hours – working away on novels no one wants to publish . . . yet. The combination of intense creativity and unforgiving intellectual discipline involved in getting an imagined  world exactly right satisfies me as much or more as anything in the real one.

Once that summer, I printed out a draft and laid the formidable stack of pages on a table in the dining room. Robert stood looking down at them.

“You type all these pages?”


“What you do with them now?”

“I’ll send them to a man in New York who I hope will be my agent.”

“And that agent, he send you money, right?”

“No. If he agrees to represent me, he’ll try to sell the book to someone else.”

busRobert shook his head. “Whoo-wee! If I typed all those pages, and I sent them to some man in New York and he kept them but didn’t send me no money, I believe I’d be on the bus!”

This, from a man who regularly lost serious amounts of money on the numbers.

An un-airconditioned kitchen during the southern summer is a pretty live-and-let-live place. I wrote; Robert gambled. I took my rejections; he took his losses. We both managed to pay the rent and have a pretty good time.

God bless the child that’s got his own . . .

I’m lobbying hard for the Wayland Baptist Flying Queens to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. I’m doing this both because they belong there and for very personal reasons.

flying queens wayland baptist after winning 1957 AAU title. WBU archives

The 1957 A.A.U. Champion Wayland Baptist Flying Queens (from Wayland Baptist University archives)

First, the facts, the belonging part:

  1. Wayland is the first, and at this point the only, women’s team in collegiate history to win over 1500 games (currently 1,553).
  2. The Flying Queen’s 131-game winning streak is the longest winning streak in basketball history. Period. The team went undefeated from November 1953 to March 1958.

Now on to the personal reasons…

I grew up pre-Title IX, a time when strength and athleticism in women were viewed with skepticism, to say the least.

bball 1955For example, I grew up playing the demeaning form of basketball referred to as six-on-six or basquette.  Each team had six players instead of five; three forwards and three guards. Under no circumstances was a forward allowed to cross into the guard’s side of the court or a guard to cross into a forward’s. The reason, according to my junior high school gym teacher was that women are too delicate to run the full court. Plus, it might make us sweat, which is unladylike.

In the 1955 image to the right, note the young women in the striped, plain white, and checked shirts, consigned to stand around and watch the action from afar. Which, to me, is a pretty good example of what it meant to be ladylike.

Not being inherently ladylike, I always chose to play defense. And I still remember how shocked my friends on the other team’s offense were when I actually played defense… i.e. muscled the ball away from them.

According to Wikipedia, the Office of Civil Rights started looking at banning six-on-six high school girls basketball in 1958. It only took 37 years to phase it out.

But getting back to the Flying Queens of Wayland Baptist…

My good friend, Dr. Sylvia Nadler, is a Wayland Baptist graduate who, for a time, was both the Athletic Director and chair of the University’s physical education department. This quiet, modest woman was the first and only female to be chosen as NAIA National Athletics Administrator of the Year when men and women were both up for the award.   The NAIA now makes two separate awards, one for men and one for women. 

My friend, Sylvia Nadler, during her days as AD of Wayland Baptist

My friend, Sylvia Nadler, during her days as AD of Wayland Baptist

Before I met Sylvia, I had never heard of either Wayland Baptist or the Flying Queens.  As neither, I suspect, have you.

So, to give you just a snippet of their story, I’ll borrow from Jeré Longman’s 2010 New York Times article and about the team and to help you post-Title IXers gain perspective:

…“We played ball and had fun; the gym was never locked,” said Cookie Barron, 75, who graduated from Wayland in 1957 without losing a game. “There wasn’t much else to do. They wouldn’t let you dance, drink or smoke.”

This conservatism made Wayland Baptist — in Plainview, Tex., between Lubbock and Amarillo — seem an improbable pioneer and unlikely winner of 10 A.A.U. titles, said Betty Courtney Donaldson, who played at Wayland in the mid-1960s and later became a vice president of the university.

“That culture was almost a dichotomy,” Courtney Donaldson said. “On one hand, it was sit in the back row and keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, it was liberal enough to allow women to participate in basketball and be successful.”

flying queensWhat I truly admire about the Flying Queens, however, is not so much their streak as the way they played the game.

Look at the 1953 (?) photo on the left.

I do not for one instant think those young women are concerned about sweating. I think they are concerned about winning. Which makes them, in my book, not just basketball champs worthy of induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, but true feminist pioneers — part of that wave of wonderful, mystique-busting women who let us out of the hell of remaining ladylike into the joyous, competitive, sweat-filled fray of full-court everything.


Some thoughts on my being in my late sixties…

The more I ponder what I’d like to do with the rest of my life, the simpler my answer gets.

toenailsFirst of all, to think realistically about this, I have to accept down to my painted toes that my life, just like everyone’s, is finite; that it’s really, really, really going to end; arbitrarily, perhaps without warning, certainly in a way beyond my control. One day I will be; the next day I won’t . The End of the Martha story.

So, even though I’ve always been a dreamer, it’s not productive just to go on and on about all the things I dream of doing that I haven’t done yet.  As Andrew Marvel put it, there’s not world enough and time for any such coyness. I’ve been around long enough to know myself, to dispense with self-spin, to abandon what the world thinks I should like in favor of what I really do like. To put it bluntly, I’ve reached an age when it is appropriate for me to look myself in the eye, spit, and get real.

Looking back, it’s easy to see I’ve enjoyed life more and more as I’ve gotten older. And it further seems to me that this increasing capacity to enjoy life was directly related to my increasing comfort with who I am.

you are good enoughSurely, this must be true everyone: We choose either to accept who we are and so achieve  a modicum of serenity, or we choose to go on forever wallowing in “self-improvement” and so remain forever restless in our own skin.

With this in mind, I decided that, to think productively about what I want to do with the rest of my life, I have to look back at what I’ve done up already. Not so much as a laundry list of accomplishments and incidents, as a sequence of events where I was either my good, comfortable, real self in action (and so enjoyed myself), or I was not my good, comfortable, real self in action (and so was pretty durn miserable).

For me, past  good times seemed to have come from facing reality  with curiosity and without fear. What I was doing didn’t matter nearly as much as how I did it.

Seen in this light, what I guess I want to do with the rest of my life is pretty simple. I want keep poking around this sweet old world, as mindfully curious and un-fearful as it is possible to be.

Make any sense?

heart imageI so enjoy the theater of life, by which I mean the random happenings that unexpectedly delight us.

For example:

There’s a Family Dollar on the way to my gym.  I stop there often on my way to work out to buy an energy drink. The store is bright, cheery and cheap — and today it is packed with Valentine’s merchandise.

I’m checking out, chatting away with the cheery, young manager, when a stranger — a somewhat shy and shambly middle-aged gentleman — approaches the register. He’s wearing a plaid flannel jacket and a knit hat, and he’s holding a Valentine card.

“Excuse me,” he says.

I step back, figuring he wants to ask the manager something. But no, he wants to talk to me. He needs some Valentine advice, he says, from a woman.

“I’m your woman!” I say.

family dollarValentine Man hands me his card, asks me to read it. I do. The card is very sweet. I say as much. But still, he leans toward me, anxious for clarity. “Is it something I could give to a woman and not have her think I’m — you know — that I have ideas about her?”

“You mean, would she read this card and think you’re hitting on her?” I ask

He nods vigorously. “Yeah. You know, that I want us to be something other than — than just friends.”

I reread the card, consider its message seriously from my woman’s point-of-view. “I wouldn’t get any kind of come-on from this,” I say. “But then I have lots of men friends. You know what you could do is write a message on it saying how much you value her friendship. That would make your intentions really, really clear.”

Of course, the cheerful young manager has been listening. “That’s a good idea!” he says with enthusiasm.

Valentine Man looks relieved. “Okay then!” He smiles  a beautiful, sunny smile that lights up his whole face — the whole store, for that matter. “You know, I walked all over this place looking for a woman to give me advice, and there wasn’t a one, and then I saw you!”

“I’m honored to help,” I say. “And if you end up  not giving this card to your friend, you can give it to me.”

The three of us — Valentine Man in his knit cap, the cheerful young manager, and me — we are all beaming now.

I leave the store full of small, good feelings. You know, the kind that come from a sharpened awareness that all us humans are in this life together, and that our days are so much more fun when we stop for a moment to enjoy each other’s presence.

valentine 2

Note: I wrote this about the two sisters who were  my neighbors when I first moved to the Shenandoah Valley.

sheepThe sisters were way up in their eighties if they were a day. During the two years I lived one farm down from them, I passed Marjory and Elizabeth most mornings on my way to work—Marjory, driving the tractor; Elizabeth, riding shotgun; heading out to tend the sheep, or plow a field, or mend a fence. Sometimes they’d wave and sometimes they wouldn’t; having on those days, I’m sure, more interesting things to pay attention to than me.

Marjory and Elizabeth ran sheep and cropped hay, grew an abundant garden, and kept their barns and outbuildings in fairly good repair. Their house, however, was somewhat less spiffy in appearance. I think the kindest way I could describe would be to say it looked “disheveled,” as—if the truth be told—would be the kindest way to describe Marjory and Elizabeth, as well. Our other neighbors seemed to think they were weird. I, however, thought they were wonderful. I saw the sisters as true mavericks; like myself, only more so.

I’ve always been drafarmhousewn to happy, unconventional, un-helpless people. As I make my living telling stories on public radio, I told Marjory and Elizabeth I was a journalist and asked if I could record their story. Elizabeth is deaf, so Marjory shouts, and she shouted at me they’d have to think about it. After a couple of weeks, I checked back and they were still thinking. Six weeks later, however, there was a fortissimo message on my answering machine: “This is Marjory. If Martha still wants to hear our story, tell her to come on!”

It surprised me at first that the sisters weren’t better storytellers, more aware of the color the story of their lives would bring to this conventional old world. Perhaps they just weren’t interested enough in the past to talk about it in any detail—which would make them the only eighty-year-olds I’ve ever met who aren’t. “The past is over!” Marjory bellowed into my microphone. “Who wants to talk about the past?” But she did play a recording of Elizabeth and her singing hymns, and she let me leaf through dusty albums of grainy, fading photographs from which two dark-haired sisters in pretty hats and flowered frocks smiled out at me—Elizabeth, drop-dead gorgeous; Marjory, handsome and clearly nobody’s fool. It struck me that these were the photographs of women who could have gone anywhere, done anything that women were allowed to do in the mid-part of the last century; yet here they were, and here they obviously wanted to be. Even when talking into a microphone, they felt no need to explain or justify their odd course to the rest of us.

“Did you ever think about marrying?” I asked. They were, after all, of a generation of women who usually did.

Marjory hooted. “Awe, fellows asked us, but we didn’t pays ’em no mind. One came around just a couple of years ago, crying how his girlfriend had died and he was all alone and wouldn’t one of us marry him. Elizabeth told him to get a dog.”

tractorI’ve moved a lot and had a lot of neighbors. Most of them have come and gone without leaving anything permanently useful inside me. But my life is richer and steadier for having lived for a while one farm over from Marjory and Elizabeth. I simply haven’t met many other women—many people, really—who are living as they truly wish to, without worrying at all about the sideways glances of the rest of us. Seeing Marjory and Elizabeth in the morning on my way to work would usually mark the beginning of a productive day. The sisters were good for my morale and for my focus. They made it easier not to sweat the small stuff, all those annoyances and frustrations that any day in any office will generate if you let it.

The only bumper sticker I’ve ever put on my truck is one my daughter, Lizzie, sent me years before I met the sisters. It read “Uppity Women Unite,” and when I put it on my truck’s bumper, I thought, “There! That’s who I am!”

After meeting Marjory and Elizabeth, however, I realized I am a mere wannabe in the uppity woman department. In hindsight, I think I should have asked Miss Lizzie to send me another bumper sticker to give to the sisters. It would have really belonged on their tractor.

upptiy women

david bowie

Above is an image of David Bowie in 1981, the year my daughter Liz Gipson was fourteen. Lipstick. Eyeliner. Very gender-bending, very pansexual. And very attractive.

Below is a photo of Lizzie in 1983 that shows a corner of her David Bowie collection, which I remember as covering the four walls and ceiling of her room.

Lizzie and David Bowie...

Lizzie, I think it is safe to say, was into David Bowie. And this did make her mother (me) a tad bit uncomfortable, even though I liked to think I was as free-thinking as my generation got.  Looking back, Lizzie’s embrace of David Bowie probably made me uncomfortable because he didn’t just cross the accepted boundaries of healthy sexuality — he built a bridge over them.

Yes, my  mother’s generation brought women wearing pants into mainstream culture.


And my generation embraced Mick Jagger. Who certainly experimented with gender-bending.


But I think  Lizzie’s generations was the first to truly relax about gender-bending; to get that its perfectly acceptable for our personal style to be an extension of our sexuality; to figure out that being a sexual animal is fun instead of a cause for closeted angst.

It occurred to me recently that the late, great David Bowie was a huge part of this grand sexual relaxation.

And please note that I said “relaxation” and did not say “revolution.” Revolution implies great change; relaxation means we’re finally getting comfortable with the way we’ve been all long.



red letter dayTwenty-five years ago today, I was getting over my (hopefully) last hangover.

I was also digesting the formative experience of spending a night in the Amherst County hoosegow.

Spending a night in  a cage was terrifying and humiliating and surreal.  But I’m glad I did it, because the experience knocked some sense into me. Before that, I was such a pretender. I regularly made a fool out of myself and thought no one noticed. Or — an even worse delusion — I thought of myself as wild and free.

I have to tell you, it’s been a grand quarter-of-a-century. Just grand.

Being a non-crazy, healthy person rocks!

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