Tuesday, December 12, 2017

SNOW, WILDFIRES, AND PHOTOGRAPHY

In a preceding blog, I wrote about plans to fly out to California to see my younger daughter Elizabeth, 52, receive her RN pin from Antelope Valley College, and I’m now in the desert country of Palmdale, California, a few days past the graduation ceremony. The night before my departure, fires raged in southern California and snow began to fall in southwest Louisiana! During the early hours of December 8, I began making frantic calls to the airport, to a motel in southern California, and to the California Highway Department, to see if Interstate 405, a major artery leading out of the airport, was open. The preceding day wildfires had edged the city of Los Angeles, causing this highway to close. “The 405,” as native Californians call it, connects to Hwy. 14 and Antelope Valley and a closure could have meant being stranded at LAX. Despite the uncertainty about the wildfires and falling snow, we decided to wing it. “Wing it” involved a delay at the Lafayette airport because the plane from Houston had to be de-iced; and upon arrival in Lafayette had to be de-iced again. You guessed it — we missed our connection. We sat in the Houston airport until 6 p.m., climbed aboard a United Air flight to LAX, and finally arrived at our motel in Palmdale at midnight, Louisiana time. I’m beginning to realize that I’m no longer a happy air traveler.


Joshua tree

However, Elizabeth now has her nurse’s cap, the fires have moved to other points in southern California, and we’ve begun to explore plant life, searching for several trees that will be included in my forthcoming book of poetry entitled Let the Trees Answer. The biggest find is that of ancient Joshua trees, and my grandson Joel photographed one for me to include in the book. We also visited Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, Lancaster, CA, 100 acres of untouched high desert, with two miles of hiking trails that showcase a diversity of desert plant and animal life. We were able to get shots of the Western Cottonwood tree to accompany one of my poems. The site had a plethora of desert plant life, and we trekked the dusty trails long enough to photograph all the trees I’d hoped to find while visiting southern California.

Western Cottonwood

Grandson Joel, 14, loves to take photographs, and I’ve included several of his subjects in this blog to encourage his interest. Joel was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis shortly after he visited me in Tennessee when he was seven, but he’s a cheerful trouper — plays basketball, swims, is an active member of a church youth group, is teaching himself to play a guitar using an “app,” attends “Elizabeth’s Home School,” and is a whiz with electronic equipment. He also spends time teaching Zeke, his African gray parrot, to talk; however, Zeke only talks when we try to watch a movie or television show. 

Joel at his mother's graduation
Temps have remained in the 30’s and 40’s here in Palmdale, but we’re still enjoying the abundant light from sunny skies that I’ve enjoyed periodically for the 34 years I’ve been coming out to this place my father once called “Diddy Wah Diddy.”



Friday, December 1, 2017

SOARING

According to an article written by Xi Lin in the Department of Educational Foundation Leadership and Technology at Auburn, Alabama, 61 percent of the adult student population enrolled in colleges and universities of the U.S. are female nontraditional students. They are the fastest growing segment of all groups in higher education. Most of these students have multiple roles as parents, spouses, and employees and are challenged by child care, financial, and school responsibilities. They sometimes feel marginalized and excluded from traditional campus life, and they run a formidable race to achieve their educational goals.


I read this article only yesterday, and I know the facts presented in it on a firsthand basis. I know those facts because my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, at age 52, will be capped as an RN at Antelope Valley College in California (the college that former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan first entered) next week. She entered at the level of a freshman, and at the entry level, I think she underestimated her ability to succeed. However, she’s a highly-determined young woman. Her great-grandmother, Sarah Nell Greenlaw, once said that “she’s a stubborn child, but that isn’t always a bad quality.” Elizabeth was two when Grandmother Nell voiced this declaration.

Elizabeth went out to California at 18 and married before she could begin her academic experience. She has three children, ranging from age 14 to 34, and she home-schooled (and still home schools the youngest) all three, two of whom graduated from the school I playfully refer to as “Elizabeth’s School.” A few years ago, she decided that the time had come for her to continue her own education, and she entered Antelope Valley College. During her years of attending college, much of the time in Honors classes, she has been a homemaker, continued to run her home school, managed the stress associated with her youngest child’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and dealt with other family illnesses. I watched Elizabeth “ace” Chemistry, and Anatomy, and marveled at her ability to excel in classes for which she had no background education. She says that one of her most difficult classes was an Art History class, mostly because she had to visit museums for six weeks, several as far away as Los Angeles, which is a two-hour drive from her home in Palmdale, California.




I couldn’t resist celebrating Elizabeth’s achievement via a salute in a blog. I plan to fly out next week to attend the capping ceremony, and I’m sure it will be an emotional event.We’re a family of late bloomers. While raising a young son, Elizabeth’s sister, Stephanie, graduated cum laude in Psychology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at the age of 29; my daughters’ father received two degrees from Louisiana State University at the age of 31. I know that their level of self-confidence, while pursuing higher education, was often low, and the gap between high school and entering college was a hurdle they had to jump before they could catch up to traditional students. However, every time the bar was raised, they sailed over it. In Science of the Mind, I recently read and champion the idea: “…the energies …increase over time with the intentions you create, the words you chant, and the focus of your mind…”

I’ve resisted putting photographs of my offspring on Facebook for years, and family photos seldom appear in my blogs, but this event deserves notice, so here’s Elizabeth of whom the family is proud (as proud as I was when Stephanie was cited as a cum laude graduate in 1989). After visiting Elizabeth in California one summer, I wrote a poem entitled “Elizabeth Growing” that appeared in Soaring, one of my books of poetry, and I think of the last few lines this morning as I celebrate Elizabeth’s achievement: 


“You do the heart work,
cultivate fruit trees and marigolds,
small plots in sand drifts,
soul seeds that grow upward
toward the stars under which you swim,
entering the realm where you, again,
‘trail clouds of glory.’”*

Salud, Elizabeth Alice!

*"Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth

Painting on cover of Soaring by Paul Emerson Marquart



Tuesday, November 28, 2017

IT’S TIME FOR CLOVIS



Mary Alice Fontenot photographed by Debbra Sperco Piehler

The Christmas season approaches, and this morning I began thinking about gifts for the great-grandchildren in my family. For me, a list of Christmas gifts for the little ones includes Clovis Crawfish books, so I searched the cardboard box that contains desk copies of all the books I’ve written for a copy of Their Adventurous Will a book that features memorable Louisiana women and contains an essay about the creator of Clovis, Mary Alice Fontenot. Mary Alice died at the age of 93, and I estimate that her output included eighteen books about Louisiana, the most notable ones about critters native to southwest Louisiana bayou country. I sat down to read my own essay about this woman who wrote and read aloud memorable folk tales at school and library performances for children in Louisiana, beginning in 1959. 

I have a copy of Mary Alice on tape being interviewed by me somewhere in research material between New Iberia, Louisiana, and Sewanee, Tennessee. I couldn’t find the tape, but the interview with Mary Alice recorded in the introduction to the essay of Their Adventurous Will was sufficient to bring up cogent memories of that live 1983 interview. Actually, I was introduced to Clovis Crawfish in the early 1960’s when I began haunting the Iberia Parish Library. Ruth Lefkovits, the parish librarian at that time, introduced me to the books about this Cajun creature and informed me that if I was interested in writing, I should meet Mary Alice Fontenot, the creator of Clovis. “She’s a master storyteller,” she said, “and she frequents libraries a lot.” After I read one of the books in the Clovis series I became fascinated with the French-speaking crawfish who enchanted children in Acadiana. He seemed to know more about the Cajun landscape than the people who netted him and his progeny every spring during the crawfish season in Louisiana.

I didn’t meet Mary Alice until 1976 when I attended an autograph party for her book about Clovis Crawfish and Etienne Escargot, the snail. At that time I interviewed her for a feature story I’d been assigned to write for the Daily Iberian in New Iberia. When I walked into the meeting room of the New Iberia Library, Mary Alice was seated at a long table with a child on her lap, reading quietly from her book about Etienne Escargot. She had a soft-speaking storytelling style, punctuated by lively hand flourishes. Her characters seemed to be the gentlest creatures in bayou country, moving to help one another in their survival efforts, protecting the smallest critter from screaming blue jays, finding food for a starving ant, and singing, always singing, about their triumphs over natural disasters. Mary Alice finished her story, signed two books, put her arms around a child who was glued to her side and began telling the story about Etienne again — this time for me. The entire interview was made up of her storytelling.

“Clovis Crawfish symbolizes the Cajun people of south Louisiana,” she explained with a flourish of her hands in typical ‘if you tied my hands, I couldn’t talk’ French fashion. “I try to endow him with those traits that are common to the Acadians —concern for others, willingness to help with problems, and the courage to tackle situations that threaten the lives or happiness of their friends. At the same time, Clovis must maintain his reputation as a bon vivant.” Most of this accomplished raconteuse’s stories include nature study; she selected subjects that could be found in any child’s backyard and breathed into them her own sense of wonder — Jocette the Junebug, Lizette Lizard, Dennis Dirt Dauber, the Curious Crapaud, to name a few.

Mary Alice lobbied for the preservation of French in Louisiana long before the advent of CODIFIL (Council for the Development of French Louisiana) for which she was an avid supporter. The first six books in the Clovis series were once translated into French at the Bi-Lingual Center of Alice Boucher School in Lafayette, and a few hardbound copies remain as evidence of the venture. Mary Alice also wrote a two-volume history of her native Acadia Parish, which is a definitive work on this rice-growing parish of southwest Louisiana. The first volume won the 1976 Louisiana Literary Award given annually by the Louisiana State Library Association to the author who makes the most significant contribution to Louisiana literature. She also edited a history of Church Point, Louisiana and Mercedes Vidrine’s cookbooks, Quelque Chose Piquante (something spicy), Quelque Chose de Doux (something sweet) and recipes that appeared In Vidrine’s “Eunice Demi-Tasse,” a column that formerly appeared in the Opelousas Daily World

Memorabilia about Mary Alice Fontenot has been placed in the “Women in Louisiana Collection” at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She’s been titled everything from a Louisiana folk heroine to the Cajun ambassador for children of Louisiana. No doubt about it, Mary Alice Fontenot’s place in the genre of juvenile fiction in the South has been firmly established. French words, nature study, and a unique application of the Golden Rule remain the salient characteristics of her tales about swamp creatures.


For a more comprehensive essay about Mary Alice Fontenot, readers can still find my article about this memorable Louisiana woman in a used copy of Their Adventurous Will on amazon.com As I wrote in the beginning of this blog, my choice of Christmas gifts for children include Clovis Crawfish books, and I know several great-grandchildren who may be introduced to Cajun critters this Christmas.