Friday, July 3, 2015


Painting by Paul Marquart
Several years ago, I published a blog about the loss of civility in the U.S. This morning, at the risk of this essay being dubbed "a rant," I feel compelled to again pen a few lines about the careless use of language. I suppose that, as a writer, sarcastic critiques about books I've written, or critical responses to blogs, etc. easily get under my skin...and when I read ugly diatribes about other people's good books, I also feel righteous indignation roiling in my stomach.

A few days ago when a friend submitted the book she had written to the editor of a site that handled books about the particular subject she had written, she received one of the most inappropriate rants I've read in a long time. In fact, not since the 70's when I wrote a column called Cherchez la femme and debunked the excess use of four letter words in contemporary literature and was attacked by a caller who began to use all the four letter words he knew during our conversation, have I felt the urge to write a few lines about inappropriate language. I'm no Pollyanna, but I detected a bit of misogyny going on in the reviewer's reply to the submission of a good book by an unsuspecting woman.

The writer/reviewer of the inappropriate e-mail didn't bother to read the author's book—he only read the biography on the back cover before exploding like a 4th of July firecracker (maybe he was anticipating tomorrow's celebration?). When the author mentioned she was married to a successful professional person, he wrote: "The book is what is important not who you are sleeping with." When she said she had a PhD, he chided her for mentioning this, as if her rightfully earned degree was some kind of sacrilege that shouldn't be mentioned, calling her "unprofessional" for citing this in her bio ("hope you aren't one of those silly academics that use their PhD all the time...I have a PhD in literature from an Ivy League college but don't embarrass myself by putting it on e-mails," he wrote).  He then immediately went into a brag about his literary credits, his professional experience, his credits with a government organization. Further, he attacked her publisher's comment about the book being reminiscent of essays by a famous author and told her that "this was a stretch"—if that comparison was made, the reader would expect prose equal to the famous author (threat, threat!). More was said, but most of it was inflated verbiage about the reviewer's qualifications, rather than any positive comments about a book he hadn't even read.

I think that authors expect rejections, and they know they should have a high capacity for enduring it, but I don't think that personal attacks (this guy doesn't even know the author) are way out of line. When I read the e-mail, I told my author friend that it had the earmarks of either an alcoholic or someone mentally deranged and for her to erase the e-mail from her computer and to move on with marketing her book.

However, I have difficulty refraining from commenting here about "book reviewers" who attack writers personally. What's wrong with "sorry, but I can't review your book." Constructive criticism, please, not destructive diatribes about a blurb on the back cover!

This guy represents one of the warm, fuzzy organizations in our country, and his diatribe, as I said in the beginning of this blog, makes me know that civility is losing ground every day. Some critics think that freedom of speech allows them to write mean-spirited, insulting things about fellow authors. Several of the seven deadly sins come to my mind, the tantamount one being Envy, and this particular reviewer seems to have succumbed to a serious case of it, followed by an infection of Arrogance. This blog will probably never be read by the particular reviewer of whom I write, but maybe it'll give some in the crowd of reviewers out there second thoughts before attacking a writer without even opening the first page of a book!

Care should be taken in emailing such inappropriate comments in this day and age of social media. Many people and corporations, large and small, have suffered when such mindless comments have gone viral, as I hope this blog will illustrate.

I only hope that my author friend eventually blows this critic off as just another 4th of July firecracker that exploded... in the wrong place!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Painting of Martyrs of Memphis
During the eight years that I've been living part of the year on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee, I spend my "worship time" at St. Mary's Convent and have become an Associate of the Order of St. Mary. St. Mary's is a Benedictine Order, and the Sisters, Oblates, and Associates live according to a Rule that is a model of spiritual development—a Rule that, as writer Joan Chittister says, "is more wisdom than law...a way of life." (If readers want to know more about the Benedictine way of life, I refer you to the works of Joan Chittister and Esther de Waal, both of whom are scholars and members of the Order of St. Benedict).

Although I knew that the Order of St. Mary was not confined to The Mountain here at Sewanee, I didn't appreciate its far-reaching influence until I attended the annual Associates Retreat a week ago and joined in the celebration of fifteen decades of their history. At that gathering, speakers presented programs highlighting the ministry and hospitality of Sisters of St. Mary in the Philippines, New York, and Malawi, as well as that of our Order of St. Mary on The Mountain. Other speakers included women who attend historic St. Mary's Cathedral in Memphis, near which the Martyrs of Memphis—Constance and her companions of the Order of St. Mary—served during the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic.

When one of the retreat speakers talked about her correspondence with the Order of the Sisters of St. Mary in Malawi, Africa and her plans for a trip there this year, I suddenly recognized that her description of the installation of an Episcopal Bishop in Malawi was similar to one that my good friend, Jane Bonin of Washington, D.C., a former Peace Corps worker, published in The Color Of A Lion's Eye a few weeks ago.

Bishop Biggers of Mississippi whom the speaker mentioned was the same bishop whose installation Jane had attended while stationed in Malawi. What Jane didn't know is that The Rt. Rev. Biggers later established an Order of St. Mary in Malawi that is still active. The speaker who will soon be going to Malawi wrote down the particulars for ordering Jane's book, and I called Jane in Washington to tell her about the Order of St. Mary that was established on her old work turf. I felt as though I had helped "connect the dots" for the work of the Sisters.

I had often heard about Constance and her companions from readings in the Episcopal Church's Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts on September 9 each year, but I was moved by a reading the last day of our retreat that featured volunteer "players" who dramatized the work of Sisters Constance, Thecla, and other devoted Sisters of St. Mary. Sisters Constance and Thecla had come down from Peekskill, New York to Tennessee when they received word that Yellow Fever had struck in Memphis. The two Sisters were vacationing in the mountains of New York when they heard about the epidemic and immediately left their retreat to minister in St. Mary's Cathedral in Memphis. Prior to their Yellow Fever mission, they had managed St. Mary's School for Girls and the Church Home (both still operating) in Memphis. They began ministering in the middle of the infected section of Memphis and were on 24-hour call at St. Mary's Cathedral. They were joined by Sisters Ruth, Frances, and Hughetta, who exposed themselves to the disease while providing the Sacraments, working as nurses, taking in orphans, burying the dead, and feeding hungry people.

The Sisters were joined by The Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, rector of St. Lazarus and Grace Churches in Memphis, The Rev. W. T. Dickenson Dalzell of St. Mark's Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, a priest from Holy Innocents Church, Hoboken, New Jersey. The only survivor in this group of clergymen was the Rev. W. T. Dalzell who had become immune to the disease because he had suffered from the fever while serving military duty. Sr. Hughetta Snowden was the only Sister to survive the plague. During the epidemic, half the city's population of over 50,000 fled, and 5,000 died, and the Sisters of St. Mary's struggles at that time are documented in letters and diary entries that were pieced together to form a narrative for the reading that I heard at the retreat.

The speakers at this retreat gave me a wider lens with which to view the work of the Order of St. Mary's—i.e., the evangelization aspects of an Order whose Sisters practice solitude and contemplation but who are also involved in social justice and in extending charity to the neighborhood of the entire human community.

Note: For those readers interested in the history of the communities of the Sisters of St. Mary, Ten Decades of Praise by Sister Mary Hilary, CSM, is available at

Friday, June 26, 2015


Tangle of Yellow Floating Heart leaves
at Lake Cheston, Sewanee, TN
I wish that I had a dollar for every walk I've been on that involved a hunt for plants. My friend, Victoria, a botanist who is world-renowned for her work with Eupatorium, a white flowered weed that has no utilitarian value in the human world (that I know of), often asks me to accompany her on ventures into places that are close to nature's heart and, sometimes, places that bear the signage: "Posted, No Trespassing."

Yesterday, the plant hunt centered around bodies of water near Sewanee, Tennessee that are called lakes. I use the word "called" because to me, the ones I saw were more like ponds. I understand that there is a lot of uncertainty about what should properly be called a lake, and some simply define them as larger versions of ponds, or as bodies of water that are at least five acres or more in area; while others define them as twelve to twenty acres in area. I've read that in the state of Wisconsin almost every pond is called a lake; whereas in Newfoundland, every lake is called a pond.

Whatever the ecologists say about the appropriate definitions of lakes and ponds, we walked the perimeter of Lake Cheston on Wiggons Creek yesterday, and I think that we must have covered close to two miles, sometimes walking over rough terrain where matted tree roots made the going difficult for an aging tenderfoot like me.

We were trying to collect a water plant called the Yellow Floating Heart (Nymphoides peltata), a yellow-flowered species of plant that somehow got here from its native Eurasian habitat, was established in Quebec, and now occurs from New England southwest to Texas. We could not get close enough to the water to pluck a specimen so we stood on a bridge, attempting to "catch" a specimen with a long stick we had found on the trail. The floating heart-shaped leaves, with long petioles, grow so thickly that they form a network almost impossible to disturb with a stick. After numerous attempts, the botanist said, "I'm going in," and I shuddered because the ground around the lake's edge looked mushy enough to absorb a human up to the knees.

As this particular botanist has been touted as someone who walks on water, often wading in marshes around south Louisiana to demonstrate to students how a plant can be captured in boggy areas, I was surprised when she turned back and decided that the Yellow Floating Heart wasn't worth the effort.

Beached Yellow Floating Heart
We continued to walk the perimeter and as we neared the beach area, I spied more of this water lily-like plant. However, again, we were too far from the plant, and, again, the botanist gave up the catch, sighing heavily. As we turned to climb the hill where the car was parked, I looked down at the grass just beyond the lake's edge and at my feet lay a perfect specimen of the plant, its yellow face smiling up at me. "Eureka!" I said.  "A floating heart. It followed us." I felt like I had found a Swamp Candle in a south Louisiana swamp or a wildflower in the crack of a city sidewalk!

Readers may think that such finds are not so momentous, but I am proud to write that I've finally attained the title of "Amateur Botanist," with a specialization in the field of Yellow Floating Hearts.

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan