Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A CHRISTMAS GIFT


As usual, I received a “gracious plenty” of gifts this Christmas. My favorites were two treasures popular with me during my childhood – a facsimile of the original Raggedy Ann doll and an edition of Raggedy Ann and Andy stories given to me by my youngest daughter, Elizabeth.

Approximately 15 years ago, the series of Raggedy and Raggedy Andy books from my childhood was complete when I transported a boxful across country headed for California and the home of my grandchildren, only to have them stolen out of a locked van in Albuquerque, NM. I’ve avoided that city ever since, and the loss of those treasures remains an unpleasant memory. To assuage the memory of that loss, Elizabeth, the purported recipient of the books, gave me the doll and book on Christmas Day.

These children’s books were read aloud by my mother for years, beginning when I was three years old. Each Christmas I would receive a new adventure of the rag dolls from my aunts, or my grandmother, or my mother. Johnny Gruelle, the creator of Raggedy Ann, birthed the doll when he retrieved an old rag doll from his attic in 1915 and painted a face on it for his daughter Marcella. He then sent a hand-drawn illustration of the doll to the U.S. Patent office and three years later, P. F. Volland Company, published Raggedy Ann stories, a series about this doll (and, later, her counterpart, Raggedy Andy) who came to life in the nursery after Marcella went to bed each night. The stories were fanciful and featured a doll imbued with qualities of kindness, generosity, friendship, and love. Raggedy Ann bore the legend “I love you” painted on her chest, but the original doll contained a heart made of candy.

Raggedy Andy, on the other hand, was mischievous and adventuresome, downright impish at times, and I have to say, a bit more entertaining than his sister. The adventure stories of these two dolls are peopled with a Camel with Wrinkled Knees, Hookie the Goblin, Uncle Clem, The Snitzdoodle, Snoopwiggy, and other colorful characters who made our bedtime reading a time of fun and fantasy. My mother was probably more enchanted with the stories than any of us – as I wrote about her in “Their Adventurous Will: Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women,” she flew in the heavens long before Mary Poppins opened her magical umbrella and levitated!

Johnny Gruelle also worked as a journalist and cartoonist, and his illustrations appeared in “McCall’s,” “The Ladies World,” and other notable publications, bringing him fame throughout the world. I’m among those whose childhood was graced by the rag doll stories during a time when we were easily enchanted by a doll with cheerful mien and a disposition toward kindness and love.

Here’s a poem I wrote about the enchanting dolls in “Grandma’s Good War,” published this year by Border Press:

RAG DOLL MORALS

On winter evenings when we came indoors
from playing games of “Tin Can” and rubber gun wars,
my mother would tell us to bathe and dress
in flannel pajamas for her nightly address,
the “read aloud” hour with Johnny Gruelle’s latest book,
a wartime luxury brought home from Claitor’s nook,
the adventures of two rag dolls, Raggedy Ann and Andy,
whose hearts were made of delicious red candy
with “I love you” inscribed upon them
and who spent each night creating nursery mayhem
when Marcella, their owner, settled them for the night,
and upon her departure would stand upright,
raid the pantry, smearing jam across their faces,
forgetting to wipe their mouths of all traces
and hearing Marcella approach, would scramble away,
leaving crumbs, spilled cream, and jam along the way.
Marcella would soap the dolls down until smiles became dim,
hang them out on a clothesline where they became grim
listening to her advice: “Never take anything without asking
what you can always have just for the asking.”
She’d set her own tea table with sugar cookies and lemonade,
take down the dolls and feed them, undismayed;
Always the morals with their deep impressions,
my mother reading stories as if they were lessons,\
platitudes for us to follow toward goals easily reached,
modeled by rag dolls practicing what Marcella preached.
The strongest lesson the cotton-headed dolls did impart:
“be unselfish, reflect sunny music in your heart,”
my mother’s voice resonating with a final chime:
“The heart’s music will make your lives sublime.”

Monday, December 29, 2008

WRITER ON THE BAYOU


During Christmas holidays, Morris Raphael, New Iberia writer and long-time friend, invited a few people over for a soiree, and I enjoyed my annual Christmas visit with him, his wife, Helen, and daughter Roseanne who had come in from Berkeley, California. Morris is now 91 and still writes a column for “The Daily Iberian,” an upbeat commentary that highlights people and events in Teche country. Through the years, he has been one of my most ardent supporters in this writing venture we share, and he always tells visitors about our mutual admiration society as we “scratch each other’s backs” about the books and newspaper articles we’ve written.

Morris has published thirteen books, ranging from Louisiana history to several mysteries based in Cajun country. One of his novels entitled “Mystic Bayou” is about Hitler being transported in a German sub to the swamps of south Louisiana and hidden there at the end of WWI. It has always been my favorite of his books, and I think it’s worthy of a movie version. His “Battle in the Bayou Country,” concerning a Civil War battle near Franklin, Louisiana, has been his biggest seller and is in its fifth printing.

Morris and Helen fell in love while they were stationed in Brazil – he served as a construction project engineer with Copebras and Helen as translator with the U.S. Information Agency, and they met in Santos, Brazil. Helen, a Californian, was on her second tour of duty; Morris, a native of Natchez, MS, was on his first assignment to build a carbon black plant near Cubatao, Brazil. His memoir about the Brazilian years is another of my favorites and encompasses the Raphael storybook romance on the beaches of Gonzaga in Santos and Copacabana in Rio. In 1985, 27 years after living in Brazil, the Raphaels visited old friends and former Copebras officials in Sao Paulo. As Morris is a Civil War enthusiast, he visited Vila Americana, located northwest of Sao Paulo, which is a place established by Confederate expatriates who left the USA because they didn’t want to live under Yankee rule. Morris found several graves of former St. Mary Parish Louisiana residents who had settled in Vila Americana and includes a chapter about this visit in “My Brazilian Years.”

Among the visitors at the Raphael Christmas party was Will Chapman, publisher of “The Daily Iberian,” who commented that he had given Morris carte blanche to write about anything he wished in his column because he had increased the readership of “The Daily Iberian” tremendously since he launched his column several years ago. I can understand Morris’s popularity because he recognizes the accomplishments of many Iberians in his stimulating column. Each time I publish a book, Morris gives me a “puff” in “The Daily Iberian, and it’s usually a glowing review. He has friends throughout the U.S., and many of his books are distributed abroad.

Morris is past president of the Attakapas Historical Association, the Iberia Cultural Resources Association, the New Iberia Kiwanis Club, and the Jeanerette Rotary Club. He served on the Council of the Shadows-on-the-Teche at New Iberia, and has served on the board of the St. Mary Chapter of Louisiana Landmarks. He has been a long-time member of the Louisiana Writers Guild, the Louisiana Historical Association, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He was one-time city editor of the “Franklin Banner-Tribune,” and received the Jefferson Davis award from the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of his historical works in 1979. In 1985 he was inducted into the Iberia Parish Second Wind Hall of Fame, and in 1991, he was honored with the Cajun Culture Award for his efforts to advance Cajun culture.

Helen is Morris’s best reader and supporter – she’s an omnivorous reader with an encyclopedic mind honed at Monmouth College in Illinois and at UCLA. In addition to her stint with the U.S. Information Agency, she once worked as an engineer at North American Aviation, as well as taught math at Mt. Carmel High School in New Iberia. A gourmet cook, Helen sets one of the best tables in New Iberia. I’ve never seen the Raphaels perform on the dance floor, but I’m told they’re really dazzling dancers, especially when the band strikes up a Latin American tune called “Quando, Quando, Quando!”

Recently, Morris fell and broke his arm while he was delivering his column to “The Daily Iberian,” and I understand he wrote a column at Christmas, despite his handicap, and had his daughter Roseanne email it – a “first” for him. He’s a role model in stamina and dedication to the writing craft, and I hope he finds time to publish a collection of Civil War stories, accompanied by his original drawings of battles in Teche country, during the New Year. Salud, Morris!!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

WEDDING BELLS


On Jan. 16, my grandson Martin Romero, age 29, will marry Kristin Tusa Walker, and I’ll deliver the wedding homily at a Roman Catholic Church in Baton Rouge. It’s the second largest church wedding to occur in the family, and it seems that the grandchildren in our family have become the first to celebrate getting married in a grand way. For years, Martin has vowed to be cautious about getting married because he said, “I don’t mean to hurt the feelings of anyone in the family, but I don’t want to continue the family tradition of divorce.” No hurt here…we’re just glad he waited long enough to be certain that he had found a compatible mate.

This morning as I was writing the homily for this forthcoming event, I kept thinking about C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, who had to reverse a lot of his thinking when he met Joy Gresham and married her in his late 50’s, then enjoyed only three years of wedded bliss before she died of cancer. Lewis’s literary companions in a group called “The Inklings” were astonished that Lewis would finally marry…and to a divorced woman. C. S. Lewis held some strong views about divorce and, for years, had stood by the Anglican Church’s teachings that a divorced person could not be given a church marriage. However, when Lewis met Joy and married her in a civil ceremony, he soon wanted the Church’s sanction of the marriage. He was disappointed to find that the Church, with its strong laws against divorce (in the 1950’s) wouldn’t fulfill a higher law – the law of love! When the Bishop of Oxford refused to allow a religious celebration of the marriage to take place, C. S. Lewis felt that the Church had slammed the door in his face. Finally, Fr. Peter Bide, a friend of Lewis, who had the gift of healing, agreed to represent the Church and marry Lewis and Joy. Lewis, who had held fast to Church canons, told Bide that Joy’s first marriage had been to an already-divorced man and therefore, in the eyes of the Church, her first marriage wasn’t really legitimate. According to one of Lewis’s biographers, Bide later wrote that Joy desperately wanted to solemnize her marriage before God and to claim the grace of the sacrament before she died, so he married the two in a bedside religious ceremony.

The story doesn’t end happily since Joy Gresham died, but C. S. Lewis declared to the world that he didn’t know why he waited so long to get married as he enjoyed every aspect of the union for three happy years…to the extent that his strong grief following her death led to indifference about keeping up his health. Three years after Joy died, on the exact day Pres. John Kennedy was assassinated, C. S. Lewis died. I’m just romantic enough to think that C. S. Lewis’s marriage was indeed a marriage made in heaven. I agree with Gibran’s words defining a good marriage in “The Prophet,” in which he writes: “You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore. You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days. Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.”

I’m not relating this story about C. S. Lewis to cast a shadow on Martin’s forthcoming wedding, but perhaps to assure Martin that waiting until his match appeared and he had matured was a wonderful idea, and I pray he will avoid the “family tradition,” as he calls the several divorces that have occurred in our family. And to inject a little of the lightheartedness that characterizes Martin’s future bride, Kristin, how could a match between two chauvinistic LSU Tiger fans be anything except a marriage made in heaven?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

ANGELS


It’s the time of year for that which Thomas Aquinas called “separated substances” – angels, that is. These invisible bodies don’t seem to fit into our post-modern society, but annunciations occur all the time; we just refer to them as characters or events in our Unconscious. Angels appear to be demanding more attention than they have for centuries. Perhaps they’re responding to those of us who live in a complex industrial society and who search for symbols of hope, love, and peace. Or perhaps they’re simply responding to the 1918 prediction by Rudolf Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy (study of the wisdom of the human spirit) who declared that up until the year 2000, humankind would be assigned the job of becoming seriously aware of the angels. During this time he predicted angels would search for us, attempting to connect with us in a conscious way.

The word “angel” originated from a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mal’akh which means the shadow side of God. Later, the word was interpreted as messenger. Angels are mentioned in recorded history as far back as 3000 years before the birth of Christ. They had their birth in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, and continued to flourish in the Greek and Roman cultures. Angels have been defined as expressions of God by the Gnostics who were alive during Christ’s time. Representations of great winged creatures appeared in the Book of Genesis, and angels came to Abraham in the form of three men who sat under an oak tree and even ate a meal with Abraham. The Greeks also believed that angels and men could get together and bear children, but by the time the Jews were captured in Babylon, in 600 B.C., angels had moved up to higher forms. They quickly developed into part animal, part spirit creatures with large birdlike wings that moved with remarkable speed.

Today, they symbolize moments of insight and clarity. Always, the winged forms carry us into higher states of illumination. They represent a way for God to communicate with His creatures, make contact with human consciousness. Do angels live forever? A Greek theologian, Origen, believed that they not only live and die but are subject to evolutions over many lifetimes. Whether angels live forever or die as humans do, they seem to be eternal in the divine mythical sense – most people in all cultures and centuries want to believe they have guardian angels that keep them safe and uplifted, and that guide their souls toward contemplation of eternal issues. Plato once described an angel as a messenger moving between heaven and earth in a lightly rushing motion. Ancient Gnostics believed that an angel is the soul within, a spiritual counterpart, and an inseparable part of us. For Carl Jung, the psychologist, the angel emerged as intuitive cognition, our direct knowing of the part of our many selves that is awesome and spiritual. In the mystical writings of the Jewish Kabbalists, ten angels form fundamental channels of divine energy, bearing abstract names like beauty, power, grace, knowledge, and wisdom.

In the ever-popular “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the movie that plays and replays during the Christmas season, Zuzu says “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” She was among 69% of the American population that expresses a belief in angels, according to former polls conducted by “Time” magazine. When I coordinated a women’s writing group at the Episcopal Church of Epiphany, in New Iberia, we wrote meditations about angels after reading Sophy Burnham’s bestseller, A BOOK OF ANGELS. A class member, Margaret Simon, wrote this sketch concerning a guardian angel during a 20-minute meditation period in a meeting of the writing group:

“An angel is God in the same sense that… a butterfly is God. An angel can come near to us and give us the comfort of God’s presence. I have always felt that Margaret Shields Liles is my guardian angel. She was my maternal grandmother. She died three months before I was born, and I was given her first name. Whenever I visited my grandfather’s house, I would sense her presence in a huge, life-size portrait of her which took up the entire space on one wall in his tiny living room. I was spooked by her portrait, but at the same time, I felt comforted. She holds a violin gently in her lap, and I can imagine her gently cradling me.

“Perhaps my guardian angel was with me when my first-born daughter, also named Margaret, suddely became ill. When Maggie was four months old, she was placed in intensive care because she had developed an unusually high heart rate. She was given medication to reduce the rate, but it didn’t work. The doctors in New Iberia decided that she should be sent by helicopter to Oschner’s Clinic in New Orleans to see a pediatric cardiologist. In the helicopter, the paramedics instructed me to lie on the stretcher with Maggie strapped to my chest. I could feel her heart racing next to mine. I remember the loudness of the helicopter’s motor and the smooth lift upward. As we flew through the night sky, I prayed furiously. An amazing feeling of calm swept over me, and I knew with certainty that everything would be all right.

“The doctor at Oschner’s found Maggie’s heart normal – just accelerated – which indicated an infection. After a few tests, it was revealed that Maggie had pneumonia in one lung. She went home in two days with a hoarse voice and a minor cough. I received calmness that disturbing night. I believe that God’s presence, in the form of an angel (probably Margaret Liles), gave me the comfort and calm I needed and also took care of Maggie.” – Margaret Simon –Excerpted from MEDITATIONS OF MY HEART by the Women’s Reflection Group, Church of Epiphany, New Iberia, LA.

Angels! They’re those spiritual guides who show us unconditional love and who often intervene in moments of crisis to protect us from fatality or to create a miracle that brings more love and joy into our lives. Angels! They’re forceful beings who move beyond conscious control. By entertaining these creatures of beauty and light, we can connect with a power that not only protects us from disaster but trains us in the art of happiness. They abolish worry, transform crises into humor, and create in us a feeling of sublime abundance that resonates throughout the universe.

May the angels bring you tidings of great joy this Christmas season!

Note: Painting by my brother, Paul.

Monday, December 22, 2008

MARTIN FINDS HIS TOTEM


This New Year I’ll begin the year by having another book for young people published– a sequel to MARTIN’S QUEST, a Young Adult novel about a 12-year old boy in French Louisiana. MARTIN’S QUEST was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation Contest for Children’s Fiction back in ’95. In the sequel, MARTIN FINDS HIS TOTEM, Martin acknowledges that he is a traiteur, a French word for healer, and that his ability to heal was handed down through his Grandmother Eulalie from his shaman ancestors of the Chitimacha tribe. Martin becomes attracted to voodoo when Tim, the son of African-American voodooiennes, wanders into the Romero’s yard where Martin and his family and best friend, Renee, are cleaning up after a major hurricane.

Tim has been abandoned at the hurricane evacuation center in New Iberia, Louisiana because his mother finds voodoo evidence that convinces her he conjured up the hurricane. Tim traces his ancestry to a long line of voodooiennes, and when the Romero family brings the abandoned boy into their home for care, Martin, to his family’s chagrin, develops an obsessive curiosity about voodoo practices.

During Hurricane Ada, Grandmother Eulalie is nearly killed when the roof is blown off her treating shed where she waits out the storm. Martin and his father rescue her, but she remains weak and ill from a heart condition. After Martin meets Tim, visions of voodoo rituals appear to him. Meanwhile, Tim is captured by his mother and voodooiennes and taken away to a voodoo ceremony. Martin, Renee, and Martin’s father find and rescue Tim and are chased by voodooiennes, evading the limousine driven by these practitioners by hiding in a cane field.

Martin suggests to Grandmother Eulalie that he might be able to heal her with voodoo. She becomes very angry with him and suggests that he return to his tribal reservation to be cleansed of his obsession by Mr. Verdun, a Chitimacha wise man. During ancient ceremonial rituals of herbal bathing, fasting, and chanting while he is isolated in a forest, Martin discovers his totem, a marsh hawk that will protect and strengthen him to defy voodoo spells.

Thinking that Martin is still in sympathy with voodoo, Papa John, Tim’s voodooienne father, returns to Martin’s home, demanding that Tim be returned to his family. However, after finding his totem, Martin has strength to banish voodoo ways, and Papa John is frightened away by the strength in Martin’s voice when he condemns voodoo practices.

This YA novel also reveals the healing treatments of traiteurs, practices that are common even today in southern French Louisiana and mistakenly thought to be of French origin. However, history shows that the Chitimacha Native Americans, as well as other ethnic groups, passed this tradition of healing to Cajun French people as their cultures gradually merged after the arrival of the Acadians in the 18th century.

The cover illustration of MARTIN FINDS HIS TOTEM was rendered by my brother, Paul Marquart, and the design by my grandson, Martin Romero, and my friend, Vickie Sullivan. Copies of this book can be ordered from Amazon.com by January 15, 2009.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A GIFT FOR “THE GIFT OF WATER”

I’ve wanted to write a Christmas message for several weeks, and in all the hecktivity preceding the season, I couldn’t seem to find the time to do so…until this morning, that is. This morning, I received a note from my Bishop, The Rt. Rev. Bruce MacPherson, telling me that the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana was forwarding, through me, a check for over $5,000 to the Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee, TN to use for their mission work in Haiti. He added, in characteristic wryness, “Who said these beads don’t work?” (Alluding to the Anglican rosary made by Sister Miriam at St. Mary’s Convent which I sent to him earlier this year).

The Haiti project has actually been in motion for eight years, as two of the Sisters of St. Mary have made annual missions to Haiti to provide medical assistance at an orphanage there. When Sr. Miriam and Sr. Julian, formerly of the Order of Sisters of Charity, joined the Community of St. Mary at the Convent in Sewanee, they brought the Haiti project with them. This year, the Sisters initiated a water purification project to aid sick and dying children at the orphanage in Haiti. This amazing system filters protozoa, helminthes, etc. from water by using sand filters to remove the parasites, then a chlorination system to eliminate bacterial and viral contaminants. A by-product of the purification process is sodium hydroxide, better known as lye, which can be used to make soap in a cottage industry or to sterilize sewage.

This year, Associates of St. Mary and many Louisiana friends, including Bishop MacPherson, donated money for the water purification system and to finance the flight and lodging of a technician to install this system in the Port au Prince orphanage. The two medical missioners and technician were joined by Sister Elizabeth of the St. Mary community and representatives of other denominations who were interested in this missionary work. I wrote about the success of this mission in a recent blog and referred Bishop MacPherson to the site so that he would have a full report about the Fall mission. This morning, Bishop MacPherson sent a note informing me that the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana was sending the aforementioned generous check to help provide clean water for children in Haiti. When I read that note, I felt like the adage: “There are times when whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.”

When I pledged the first $500 toward the water purification system, and Vickie Sullivan directed the Sisters to a demonstration of the system at a Methodist Church in Monteagle, TN, we felt confident that this project was, as Evelyn Underhill once wrote, “a manifestation of the Will of God.” I’m certain that the good Sisters, through their lives of constant prayer , and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, often bring about miracles for the needy and disenfranchised in the world. When they constantly hold themselves in God’s presence in solitude and silence, they teach all of us how to return to the heart.

Christmas is upon us, and I’m grateful for many personal blessings, but this year, I’m particularly grateful for the hands extended from the Diocese of Western Louisiana to the Sisters at St. Mary…for the hands extended from the Sisters of St. Mary to the sick and dying children in Haiti…and for the link of spiritual community to spiritual community in the unifying action of Divine charity. God bless us one and all!
And Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

MEMORIES

It was a trip down Memory Lane… a recent drive to Covington, or, rather Ramsey, to visit St. Joseph’s Abbey in the piney woods of southeast Louisiana. Actually, Ramsey was the site of my great-uncle and my grandfather’s lumber business, and my great-uncle’s home, now a bed and breakfast called Mill Bank Farms, is just a mile down the road from the Abbey. On the way to the Abbey, we crossed a bridge that spanned a muddy creek near the old Greenlaw home site, a bridge that is the major feature in a photograph hanging on my bedroom wall – well, not the major feature, perhaps – the major feature is that of my godmother (and second cousin) Dora, age 2, standing on the bridge rail “in the buff,” (except for stockinged feet) pointing a finger toward the tea-colored water.

The lumber business at Ramsey required building rails that ran from Ramsey to Franklinton – from my great Uncle’s side yard to my grandfather’s sawmill in Franklinton, and for awhile, the two brothers thrived on the proceeds from cutting and milling longleaf pine, cutting 75,000 ft. of lumber a day. When my great-uncle’s wife died, he took up the rails, sold the home, and moved to New Orleans where he cut a fine figure as a bon vivant, became a charter member of the famous Pickwick Club, got his name in the blue book of New Orleans society, and birthed a magazine about the transportation industry entitled “Louisiana Digest.” Great-Uncle Ed preceded the recreational vehicle industry back in the late 20’s and 30’s when he and my grandfather transferred their zeal for making money to the automobile industry -- Great Uncle Ed built something called “The Virgie-Dora,” (named after his third wife, Virginia, and my godmother Dora), a truck with a small “house” on its bed that the family used for camp-outs, a camper before campers came onto the transportation scene! According to my godmother, the transportation magazine consumed his fortune but when he died, he left a handsome home on West End Blvd and passed on the legacy of a love of literature which has been in the family since the Greenlaws came to this country.

Ramsey isn’t now, and wasn’t an incorporated town when my great-uncle began cutting down all the longleaf pine trees, and life in the woods around Covington was lonely. I have an old letter written by Uncle Ed’s wife, Alice Brittain, to her sister in Virginia that tells about a life of sewing, cooking, housekeeping, and her yearning for more cultural pursuits. Yesterday, I found Alice’s gold pin in my jewelry box that had inscribed on it: “BMFC piano graduate,” and I remembered that she was touted as a talented musician. I also have a photograph of her, my great- uncle, my grandfather, and great-grandmother playing billiards in a room of the old house at Ramsey –and it is Alice, the cultured young woman, who leans over the pool table, cue stick in hand, ready to play a two ball combination! However, sometimes in the evenings, Alice played the violin, Great-Uncle Ed, the cornet, and Dr. Oscar Greenlaw, another great-uncle, played bass violin. She also taught her oldest daughter, Ida, how to “keep time” on the piano and play the violin. I don’t know Alice’s exact age, but she died before the age of 30, succumbing to a disease once called “the grip,” lamenting that Ed, my great uncle, could never take time off from the lumber business to vacation with the family in New Orleans. I always feel great sadness when I read her letter because she seemed to have been so lost… and lonely for a more cultured life than that of a lumber baron’s wife isolated in the deep piney woods.

Visits to southeast Louisiana always evoke poignant memories. Many of them center on St. Joseph’s Abbey where my mother, when disturbed by family situations, sought consolation from the Benedictine monks who resided there. She also provided breakfast for at least three of the rotating priests who came out from the monastery to a Roman Catholic mission in Franklinton, ravenous following early morning Mass on Sundays. One of the priests ate six eggs at each breakfast sitting!! We were given fishing privileges in a pond that is still a part of the property at the Abbey, and my older brother, Paul, worked in the garden at the Abbey in the summers. At one point, he declared he would become a priest; however, he soon became more interested in adolescent parties at the old Village Inn, and the Anglican family fold remained intact. However, years later, two of my younger brothers converted to the Roman Catholic denomination because of the influence of the priests who came out to the Franklinton mission from that same Benedictine Abbey.

When I visited the Abbey a few weeks ago, I was somewhat dismayed to see and listen to a professional choir singing, rather than monks chanting the old Gregorian chants, and was amazed to see about 400 people gathered for Mass in the huge church. The wonderful paintings by Gregory DeWitt, hanging in the chapel and refectory, have gained national recognition, and the monastery has become a place where concerts, art shows, and theatre performances are held. The once silent monastery has burgeoned into a center of art and music that my Great-Aunt Alice, who pined for a more-enriched culture nearby, would have applauded.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A LANDMARK IS LOST


Last week, I attended a meeting of Fortnightly I. Literary Club, the oldest literary club in Iberia and Vermilion parishes. I was a member of this club during the late 70’s, then dropped out for awhile and rejoined several years ago because I missed the book reviews and camaraderie of club members. When I attend these gatherings twice monthly, I always learn something new about New Iberia – about its history, or culture, or just about the goings-on in town, particularly as these subjects are relayed to me by Dianne Landry, who keeps a finger on the pulse of our Queen City.

During this meeting last week at Nash’s Restaurant in Broussard, Louisiana, Dianne showed photographs and a bidding catalog concerning the sale of the statue of Hadrian who, until recently, stood on a pedestal beside the St. Peter Branch of IberiaBank, New Iberia, Louisiana. The Hadrian statue was one of our town monuments, and Dianne informed us that it was to be sold at Christie’s Auction House in Rockefeller Center, New York City. She said that the experts had put a price of $350,000 - $500,000 on the sculpture. A day after our Fortnightly meeting, the statue sold for $902,000, and IberiaBank will receive $750,000 as its share of the sale.

IberiaBank has owned the statue since 1961 when the bank purchased it from J. Wilson Raker of New Orleans, but its origin dates back to the Villa-Montalto-Negroni-Massimi, Rome and was bought by the Earl of Darnley of Cobham Hall, Kent England during the 18th century. It was sold at Sotheby’s in London, then to J. Wilson Raker of New Orleans. Hadrian finally found his way to New Iberia, with its ambience of Malagueno settlers, via IberiaBank.

For almost 20 years, Hadrian stood on a pedestal outside the St. Peter Branch of IberiaBank and suffered through bad weather and the effects of exhaust fumes, remaining vulnerable to defacement by potential vandals. In 1980, he found a new home in a domed glass enclosure and became one of the curiosities of New Iberia, a piece of antiquity encased in a glass box nestled beside a banking institution!

The Emperor Hadrian was born in Rome in 76 A.D., and his father, a Roman senator, was a native of the Roman settlement of Italica in Spain. Dianne Landry told us that possibly because of Hadrian’s father’s Spanish lineage and the fact that New Iberia was originally founded by the Spanish, the linkage inspired the board of IberiaBank to buy the statue.

Hadrian reigned as Emperor of the Roman Empire, 117-138, and his contributions include the Pantheon, the Temple of Venus, his own mausoleum, and other architectural treasures. He distinguished himself as a military strategist and during his reign, he attempted to solidify the Roman Empire’s borders. His legions constructed walls in Britain to defend Roman Britain from the Scottish Picts in the North and in Algeria. His military credits include quelling a Jewish revolt and creating a Panhellenic League. In an attempt to secure the loyalty of Greek aristocracy, Hadrian also completed the Temple of Zeus in Athens.

New Iberian Henry Dauterive was a board member of IberiaBank in 1961 when the sculpture was bought and was quoted in the Daily Iberian as saying that interest in “The Year of Hadrian” in Europe this year probably influenced the high bid on the statue at the auction in New York City. Some Iberians chided the bank for doing away with a valuable piece of art and lamented the loss of another notable landmark in New Iberia, Louisiana. It’s a “given” that when money is scant, art is one of the first things to go!

Monday, December 8, 2008

40-DAY JOURNEY

This fall before we ended our half-year sojourn in Sewanee, TN, I befriended Isabel Anders, an author who has achieved acclaim for her spiritual writings and who lives year-round at Sewanee. Isabel has 19 published books in her repertoire, and the latest, 40-DAY JOURNEY WITH MADELEINE L’ENGLE, was added to her list of titles this month. It’s a book that pays tribute to Isabel’s friend and mentor, Madeleine L’Engle, renowned novelist, poet, and speaker. I once met Madeleine L’Engle at an Episcopal Churchwomen’s conference at Camp Hardtner, Louisiana where she delivered a series of lectures about her journey with Christ. A few years after meeting her, I found a copy of her book, WALKING ON WATER, at Trinity Church, NYC, and read it. The book influenced me to persist in the writing process back in the 80’s when I was discouraged midway in my research and writing about 16 memorable Louisiana women.

Isabel’s 40-DAY JOURNEY provides the opportunity for Christians everywhere to be mentored by Madeleine L’Engle, she explains in the directions about how to use the book – and encourages readers “to begin living what you learn.” She has selected 40 inspiring excerpts from Madeleine L’Engle’s books and added to them questions to ponder regarding the excerpts, psalm-fragments, nudges for journal reflections, followed by prayers of hope and healing for readers.

Isabel promises readers that if they follow the instructions in 40-DAY JOURNEY, they’ll deepen the focus and intensity of experiences that result in spiritual transformation. Most of Isabel’s books center on this deepening of the spiritual life and reflect her own deep faith and daily spiritual practice. In preliminary pages of the book, Isabel gives direction for keeping a spiritual journal which she recognizes as a form of meditation; i.e., “a profound way of getting to know yourself – and God – more deeply…writing is generative: it enables you to have thoughts you wouldn’t otherwise have had….”

Also included in the preliminary pages of 40-DAY JOURNEY is a brief biography of Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007. Isabel talks of Madeleine’s engagement with the questions of life and death, and her exposition of themes about good and evil, science and faith, and man and nature. Readers will remember Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A WRINKLE IN TIME, which received the John Newbery Medal award for an outstanding young adult book – and which has sold eight million copies. Isabel adds a note that is heartening to writers: Madeleine L’Engle’s prize-winning book was rejected 26 times before being accepted by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. It’s now in its 69th printing!!!

I especially liked the excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle which Isabel chose for Day 24: “Through no virtue of our own we are made dead to the old and alive in the new. And for each one of us there is a special gift, the way in which we may best serve and please the Lord whose love is so overflowing. And gifts should never be thought of quantitatively. One of the holiest women I have ever known did little with her life in terms of worldly success; her gift was that of bringing laughter with her wherever she went, no matter how dark or grievous the occasion. Wherever she was, holy laughter was present to heal and redeem. In the Koran it is written, ‘He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.’”

Isabel’s 40-DAY JOURNEY WITH MADELEINE L’ENGLE is a gift to those of us who are interested in spiritual growth and provides a series of “inspirations” to help us understand how the Holy Spirit is working within all of us. Brava, Isabel, and thank you for the Christmas gift you have packaged of the writings from the work of your friend and mentor, Madeleine L’Engle. You have achieved that which you write about your mentor in the preface to 40-DAY JOURNEY: “an illumination of the journey with Christ that more timid minds might bypass…”

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

WRITER IN WASHINGTON, D.C.

Yesterday I “tuned in” to the site called “The Color Of A Lion’s Eye” and read the latest blog by my friend Jane Bonin. The blog was a lovely vignette about a Christmas that came too late in Niger, Africa. Jane, a former Peace Corps director in Malawi and Niger, Africa, is now retired in Washington, D.C. and is writing a book about her experiences in Africa. She has led a life filled with rich experiences, and has been active, worldwide, as a servant to the needy. In addition to her work with the Peace Corps, Jane spent many years promoting The Hunger Project (founded by Joan Holmes), a global non-profit, strategic organization committed to the sustainable end of world hunger. Members of the Project work in 13 countries to develop effective bottom-up strategies to end hunger and poverty. Back in the 80’s, Jane and I worked together in the Hunger Project, and we introduced the idea of ending hunger to Bayou Girl Scout Council where I was an executive with GSUSA at that time. When Jane moved to Washington, D.C., she remained committed to the work of the Project until she was appointed to a Peace Corps position and went to Africa.

The background information on Jane’s blog is modest, but she has a high profile as a Renaissance woman and has maintained this profile for the almost-40 years I’ve known her. I met her when she was a professor of English at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana, and we worked together on a graded reading list for Grades 7-12 for the Iberia Parish Schools published by the New Iberia Library where I was a PR director for five years. In our spare time, we edited the Epiphany church newsletter which we named “Epiphany Tidings.” At the time, Jane was heavily involved in writing her books about drama: PRIZE-WINNING AMERICAN DRAMA and MAJOR THEMES IN PRIZE-WINNING AMERICAN DRAMA. She was one of the founders of Eavesdrop Theatre, an experimental theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana and was director for “Open Space,” a showcase for student playwrights. Jane also wrote several plays herself, one of which was produced Off-Off Broadway in 1976. In 1982, her biography about the playwright Mario Fratti was published by Twayne. During her tenure as professor at ULL, Jane received the Distinguished Professor award, a deserved honor as she was well-beloved by her students.

Today, Jane indulges her lifelong interest in music (she was once a bass cellist) by taking voice lessons, singing in Episcopal church choirs, and tinkering with a piano she bought after returning from Africa. She also works out at a gym, takes French lessons, blogs, continues her writing on the book about Africa, and cooks, a la French style. On one visit to her apartment in Georgetown, we enjoyed a midnight concert in which she sang, a cappella, coached by her voice instructor who was present for dinner.

A thin, fit woman who loves elegance, Jane usually mesmerizes people gathered for parties with her wit and range of conversational topics. She often visits her daughter, Knowles, at Sewanee where we sojourn part of the year. She also has a son, “Little William,” who lives in North Carolina.

Log on to http://alionseye.blogspot.com and read Jane’s Christmas message. You’ll enjoy a rich reading experience!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A CALL FROM HAWAII


While I was enroute home from a Black Friday trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, a cell phone call from an old friend becalmed me as we navigated through the snarled traffic leading from the Disney World of all Americans – The Mall. The long-time friend, Jo Ann Lordahl, is a notable self-help book writer, author of several romantic novels, and chapbooks of poetry. She now lives in Kalaheo, Kaua’I, Hawaii and has lived in Hawaii for at least ten years. For a brief period back in the 70's, Jo Ann lived in New Iberia, Louisiana where she “hibernated” to write several of her novels. During that time, I worked as a feature writer for “The Daily Iberian,” and interviewed her for a profile in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper. At first, she was reluctant to be “written up” because she had published only one novel, but she finally relented and, in later years, used the article in her marketing ventures.

When Jo Ann lived in New Iberia, she attempted to live on a shoestring while writing her books, and she never wavered from the road taken toward becoming a published author. Through real estate deals, teaching, and writing, she gained the financial independence she sought to create space for pursuing a full-time vocation as a writer. She has published 19 books since the time she lived that shoestring existence in New Iberia.

In Jo Ann’s newest book, entitled SPIRITUAL GOLD FOR WOMEN, she recalls her awakening to a reality that included "no self-esteem, no money, no education, no supportive circle of friends. Amid smashed dreams and coming out of marriage to an alcoholic with a child in tow, my only assets were an old green Studebaker and my baby, and an invitation to come home until I could get on my feet." Jo Ann vowed to get out of her position of powerlessness and to create a life she desired. “Now financially independent (though still learning, still refining), I live these principles every day. You can create the life you desire,” she writes in SPIRITUAL GOLD.

Jo Ann “loves a good time,” as they say here in Cajun country, but she is among the most well-disciplined writers/readers I know and doesn’t veer from the path of daily writing, even if she’s only journaling…except for occasional off-the-path travels to Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean, and, of course, exotic Louisiana. She also organizes workshops and retreats about money, spirituality, health, and women’s issues.

One of Jo Ann’s books to which I’m always referring is MONEY MEDITATIONS FOR WOMEN, a book of thoughts, exercises, resources, and daily affirmations women can use to create their financial future, to learn how to manage their money, and to create prosperity. A simplistic example from MONEY MEDITATIONS: “Money and power can liberate only if they’re used to do so. They can imprison and inhibit more finally than barred windows and iron chains. Maya Angelou.” Affirmation: “I know why I want money and what I will do with it.” Jo Ann says that with affirmations we can erase old thought patterns and reinvent our lives. “In a deeper sense, those affirmations allow us to align ourselves with larger, universal patterns. We are better able to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, doing what we most need to do…”

Jo Ann’s credentials include a Ph.D. in Psychology from Florida State University, study at the Academy of American Poets in Manhattan, work with Donald Justice at the University of Florida, and many more fellowships. The high point in my telephone conversation with Jo Ann was an invitation to visit Hawaii next year. Aloha. You can log on to www.joannlordahl.com for further information about this talented writer.

Friday, November 28, 2008

RETURN FROM HAITI


Last Saturday, Sisters Julian, Miriam, and Elizabeth of the Community of St. Mary, Sewanee, and a group of dedicated workers from Church of the Brethren in West Virginia returned from their mercy trip to the Faith/Hope/Love Infant Rescue Home in Port au Prince, Haiti. The headliner for the report of their trip was: “WATER PURIFICATION SYSTEM INSTALLED AND WORKS!”

Sister Elizabeth, for whom this was the first journey to Haiti, reported that veteran workers, Sisters Miriam and Julian, felt that the atmosphere in this ravaged country had improved – people were not as fearful and were out in the parks in Port au Prince. “There is still the poverty, but there is movement in a positive direction, and the UN presence is a plus, according to Haitians to whom we spoke,” Sister Elizabeth said. Sister Elizabeth, always a cheerful presence at the Convent at Sewanee, must have been part of this positive atmosphere in which 18 people ministered. She said that her group could have been on Prime Time TV for Home Improvement!

Frank, a technician from Monteagle who is also a veteran in foreign outreach, especially LEAMIS in Africa, flew down with the Sisters to install the Water Purification Project and trained workers to maintain it. The rescue crew tackled home repairs, from fixing electrical problems to plumbing. Sister Dorothy Pearce, who runs the orphanage, had been operating sans car, and a group of men repaired it so that she now has transportation for the infants. Rooms were cleaned, painted and decorated, yard work done, shelves built, and cribs painted in red, blue, and yellow colors to brighten the disposition of all the infants. Twenty-two infants were rocked and cared for by “nannies” during the visit of the Sisters and Church of the Brethren members.

Sisters Miriam and Julian shopped in Haiti for baby food, rice, diapers, flour, juices, fans, etc. “However, after we left Haiti and even before,” Sister Miriam wrote, “I kept finding money in my suitcase, in my pockets, in my backpack, and when I began counting, $1,099 turned up as we returned home. Also two checks for $320 for the water project came in.” I teased Sister Miriam about having another calling as a banker – she is a magnet for money when it comes to fund-raising for outreach. The remaining funds will be used as seed money for next year’s trip to Haiti.

The good Sisters took many photographs, and Sister Julian, an expert on Power Point, is creating a presentation, using all the photos of the infants and completed work projects. This group of 18 workers accomplished all of the above in one week. The Sisters of St. Mary, beloved to all at Sewanee, have touched so many lives with their spiritual work at the Convent, and these three Religious who ventured to Haiti are exemplary servants who blessed this orphanage and 22 infants with their love and care. They send messages of thanksgiving in this Thanksgiving season to all who donated to the Haiti project.

The photograph is of Poutchino, one of the children at the orphanage, after he suffered a seizure and received medication. Taken from http://dorothypearcehaiti.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

LA TEA DA


If I had to stage a formal English Afternoon Tea for a group of four-year old girls, I’d probably need to engage in a séance to the Other Side to get instruction from my Godmother Dora in order to pull it off. Bishop Willis Henton’s wife, Martha, (now deceased) once visited London and brought me two how-to books about tea parties so I could master this art, but I failed the test on scone making. I finally passed on the little books to a friend who only has to read any instruction manual about cooking/ serving and is able to put on an excellent meal, tea, or holiday celebration.

Here in New Iberia, the Queen of Tea Time (who was actually King Sucrose’s royal mate at Sugar Cane Festival celebrations this year) is Betty LeBlanc. Betty served as the president of the Board of Directors for Solomon House when I was director of this outreach mission. She’s originally from New Albany, Mississippi, not far from Oxford, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother presided at the table of The Oaks in New Albany and also at Elgin Plantation on the Natchez Tour of Homes, so Betty is adept at creating the right ambience for what she calls “tea-lightful” experiences. When I left New Iberia to summer at Sewanee last year, she had begun launching her Tea Parties service, ranging from “La Tea Da” parties for pre-teens, teen-agers, and young adults to “Granny’s Attic Dress Ups” for girls ages 4-12.

Betty’s goal is to foster good manners, poise, and social graces, and she also teaches tea history at the table for these young people. As Betty is an interior decorator, her home is a showplace of fine furniture and accouterments, and she brings out china cups, silver spoons, and tea service to prepare children for future fine dining experiences -- the teas are also opportunities for young women to create wonderful memories for succeeding generations. Even four-year olds are allowed to use lipstick, lip gloss, blush, and perfume, and they dress in “older ladies attire” to transform into young ladies attending an afternoon tea.

Yesterday, we enjoyed lunch with Betty, and she showed us all the photographs of her tea events, including the latest one she held for a group of six-year olds. After viewing the photo of this party held on Betty’s glassed-in porch, Vickie Sullivan wrote the following verse about the six-year olds “taking tea.”

TEA PARTY

“Look, I’m pretty,
I’m so pretty,”

the skin of her shoulders
as smooth as a seal’s,

cheeks bright, lips reddened,
ear ornaments dangling

under ancient hat and veil,
blond tresses wafting perfume.

She eats sweet cakes with the silver,
crumbs falling on pink linen,

her bare toes wriggling
beneath an old lady dress;

basking in the sun
of her first real tea party,

the camellia in a southern garden.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

CONNECTING WORDS

Dictionaries and Bibles – my home here in New Iberia has more of these books on my shelves than any other title. So, when given the opportunity to frequent a Barnes and Noble on a Saturday afternoon, what catches my eye? A stand holding copies of a new compact Oxford Dictionary and accompanying compact Oxford Thesaurus. I circled the store about six times during the hour spent there, and several clerks eyed me as if I was going to tuck a few volumes into my big black purse. I always ended up standing in front of the display of dictionary and thesaurus and finally picked up the COMPACT OXFORD THESAURUS, held it conspicuously in open palm, and walked away with more than 140,000 synonyms in hand.

“Look at the words printed in bright blue,” I explained to two friends who accompanied me to the B&N. “Feel the soft cover, and look at the spelling tips and punctuation rules in the back.” I don’t need to describe my friends’ enthusiasm – one of them was searching titles of poetry books; another was in the computer programming section during most of the time we spent there. Their faces didn’t hold the same credulous delight as my own, and I knew they didn’t understand my joy at finding help for this “WordsWorth” blog. Then, again, perhaps they did, since both of them often hear me creating strange, new words to amuse myself while riding in a car long distances on some of our trips to find serendipity.

While circling the dictionary display, I veered off once into the poetry section. I found a copy of Mary Oliver’s AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, and the book fell open to the page, “The Snakes,” the subject of my last two blogs. “That’s it,” I announced to no one, “my enneagram is right, a #5 sees everything as related.” What a strange soil of perception, you have, my inner critic said. However, I marked an “x” (mentally) in the “related” column. I find it difficult to give up the idea of connectedness in a universe that often doesn’t make sense – you know, the “why am I here” line of thought that comes to you when you are listening to midnight train whistles.

When I arrived at church this morning, who should be on the altar but Miss Belle of the Bayou, Mary Himel, the woman who stared down a snake! She was behaving very properly, serving as a good chalice bearer, and I wanted to say something about her nighttime baptism as I lifted the cup at Communion, but restrained myself until she filed out after church. I told her to read my blog as she had recently appeared in a scene with a snake, followed by one of her poems. She told me that just last week, five years after the publication of WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK, she went into a store in St. Martinville, and the manager gave her $7 for a copy of her book of poetry that he had sold recently. You do see the point about this relatedness business, don’t you? One mention of the book thrown to the universe of the Internet and cash registers begin to cha-ching.

And what about the snakes? Only two mentions have occurred so far, but Janet did see something similar to a snake that appeared recently, and it turned out to be a gecko that hid in the bushes bordering our property here in New Iberia while we were in Tennessee. She said he hides in the irises, also, and makes the grass rustle just like a snake. (Geckos also make a chirping noise, eat roaches, and some of them are parthenogenetic, which means the female can have babies without engaging in copulation). Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be opening books in the B&N that fall open to poetry about geckos…yet, there are these connections…? They do go on.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

HERPETOLOGY

Yesterday’s blog about Scout Janet watching a snake swim around in swamp waters where Mary Himel of New Iberia stood, waiting to be filmed as a Cajun woman being immersed at a night-time baptism, reminded me that Janet actually has a long-standing fear of snakes. She records that fear of reptiles in THE ROAD HOME, a book of essays about her Alabama childhood, published by Border Press and now out of print. In a chapter entitled “Not for Herpetologists,” Janet writes:

“When I was six, I lived near my Aunt Bea and her family, which included my Grandpa. They had pets at their house that would wander down to our house. Pa Faulk had a bird dog who would catch biscuits the size of coffee saucers in his mouth when Daddy tossed them out the kitchen door to him. My cousin Jane had a small brown and white Beagle named Sport. One time, Sport went missing for days, and I remember Pa Faulk looking for him, finally finding him under the house, dead, where he had crawled after being bitten by a snake.

We lived out in the country on Highway 10 close to the woods and near what Daddy called a bottom, which must have been the reason for all the talk about snakes. There was the snake that bit Sport, and seems like there was always conversation about King snakes and how you shouldn’t kill them because they were good snakes. There were stories about green snakes and my maternal grandfather who had a reputation for being a practical joker. One of his favorite pastimes was to put a thin, wriggling, green snake under his straw hat, then go down to the country store and complain to some unsuspecting customer that something about his hat was causing him to itch. Of course, when this Good Samaritan offered assistance and lifted the hat, he was startled, to say the least.

There was the brown-colored snake that hung, wrapped like a horsehair rope, around an exposed beam in a vacant back room of another aunt’s house. As my cousin Jane and I played, rambling through the unused rooms of the big country house, our eyes came to rest on this rope imposter. When it began to unwind, the two of us went running and screaming through the house, out into the yard, leaving the front screen door flapping behind us, while my aunt stood looking bewildered, wet dish towel in hand.

Then, there was the gargantuan snake that Jane’s sister’s boyfriend killed in the piney woods behind the house just after it had swallowed a whole rabbit. If you don’t know much about snakes, you need to know that we could tell it swallowed the entire rabbit because of the big hump about halfway down his otherwise slinky, six-foot long body.

The last snake of my childhood was the one that had been chopped into two pieces and left near the driveway. Jane and I had great reservations about walking past it to meet the school bus, but we did, swearing to everyone on the bus that the head came alive and chased us all the way to the bus stop.

No wonder there’re so many strange stories about snakes; those reptiles have a real knack for catching you by surprise, including the one that caused all that domestic trouble between the nice young couple, Eve and Adam. In her third marriage, my mother returned to the country after living in town for many years. She’s a gregarious woman, and the solitude was maddening. She has been afraid of snakes since the days her father teased people with his green snakes. When she worked in the fields near him, she’d hold back yelps of fear to keep him from knowing that she had come across one, afraid he would tease her about it. Now, in the early evenings at dusk, she actually seeks out a snake. She has seen it in the backyard “pretending to be a stick,” and she has seen it slither up the white oak tree nearby. She believes it’s a King snake, a friend, and has made failed attempts to photograph it. She thinks about it throughout the day and looks for it at twilight. Could Eve have been so lonely?”

Friday, November 21, 2008

POET LAUREATE OF CATAHOULA


When I talked with my friend Janet about her work as a scout for the movie, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST OF THE CONFEDERATE DEAD, (topic of a recent blog), she also mentioned the night she accompanied film crew members who worked on an opening montage for the TV series, “True Blood,” set in an area that would depict a contemporary, decadent southern place. Janet didn’t disclose the locale, but she described an event featuring a good friend of mine, Mary Himel of New Iberia – a woman I call the “poet laureate of Catahoula.” Catahoula is part of St. Martin parish, Louisiana and isn’t to be confused with Catahoula Parish, birthplace of the famous marble blue-eyed Catahoula hound further north and near Harrisonburg, Louisiana.

Border Press published a chapbook of Mary’s work entitled WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK in 2003 before Mary was tapped to play a role in the montage for “True Blood.” In the montage scene, Mary wears a modest Sunday dress, with hip waders beneath, and wades into swamp water for a night-time baptism (the scene was actually shot at night). Scout Janet stood on the bank and watched male crew members from New York and Chicago stiffen when they saw a water moccasin swim toward the spotlight where Mary stood, waiting to be immersed. Unflinching Mary, who spent her childhood in Catahoula, has the verve of a strong Cajun woman and simply stared the snake down. She may not have continued her film career following filming of the montage, but she was a much-talked about woman when the amazed crew members met for coffee the morning following the snake stare-down. Janet took pictures of this scene, but lost them during a computer crash – she says it was a great loss as Mary was “classic” in her depiction of a Cajun woman being baptized.

Mary Himel writes poetry and short stories, “always within 50 miles of her birthplace,” she says, “and the world has been big and small at once. In my writings, I attempt to unite those two worlds.” She taught French and English on the secondary level in St. Mary and St. Martin parishes, worked as a masseuse, and now spends a lot of time recording memories of Catahoula and Bayou Portage, her “childhood Edens that are my treasure chest of imagery,” she adds.

A poem from WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK by Mary Himel, published by Border Press:

MY POEMS DANCE THE TWO STEP:

My people sleepwalk,
doused in drink to keep afloat

dreams of an Arcadia -- distant,
they don’t recall –

only the good times now
that come with the sure steps,

buoyed repetition.

Always my people dance the Two-Step,
“Fais do-do” holds more than colloquial charm,

every dance a step back toward Beau Pre,
where God had been generous,

the ox bow garden that lulled in its arms
tired children in earth that provided all.

The photograph on the cover of WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK, which appears above, was taken by Mary.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

TRAINS

As I lay awake last night, I heard several freight trains wailing in the distance. Train wails at night once struck me as lonely sounds, but in my 7th decade, they’ve taken on a friendlier tone. I think of them as a call to alertness, a time when I’m in touch with the center of things, plunged into watchfulness, listening to the dense whir of insects in profound darkness. It’s a time, perhaps, when mysteries are disclosed, when I’m open to illuminations of the Spirit.

When I lived in Iran, I rode a train through a long night from the desert in Ahwaz to a Shemiran garden in Tehran. At first, I felt terror as the train zoomed through the Elburz Mountains on a narrow track – on top of the world, it seemed. I shuddered, looking down at bottomless ravines, then slowly became calm. In a flash of revelation, I realized the falsity of the adage that East will never meet West. During the long night I became aware that God’s world is indeed one – and He is, as Teilhard de Chardin says, at the heart of the universe. That ride was a time of intimate union, and that union was born on a night watch. I was fully alert when I was blessed with morning light as we arrived at a well in Qum where women were bringing their pitchers to fill at a long trough. I stepped from the train, refreshed and taken with the sun.

So, train wails in the night can be sounds that incite alertness and revelations rather than loneliness. On a lighter note, I’ve always wanted to travel on the Orient Express and was disappointed to read recently that there is no longer a Paris to Istanbul route which I’ve had romantic notions about traveling since I read MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Dame Agatha Christie. Of course that route existed only during the 30’s when the Orient Express was at its apex as a luxury train, and the route has been changed many times since.

Perhaps I’ll have to confine my rail travel to listening to midnight wails of the freight trains and Amtrak passing through the Queen City each night – or to writing poems about trains; e.g., two that appear in my chapbooks, MORE CROWS and JUST PASSING THROUGH:

FEAR OF DYING (From MORE CROWS)

Midnight train shrieks a warning signal,
the whistle of velocity moving forward

toward a final destination in cold darkness,
an old redcap announcing this place

too far from home.

PASSING THROUGH (From PASSING THROUGH)

The night hawk travels through bleak passes,
whistling loneliness,

the Earl of travel charging space,
tracks leading everywhere

toward some isolated station,
waybill hooks still hanging,

worn bench outside,
ready for the itinerant traveler

waiting to be transported…
into the whoo of memory.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

PHOEBE BIRDS AND ST. FRANCISVILLE


On Sunday, I spied an Eastern Phoebe, an olive green bird that is described as a bird that “wags its tail,” according to the National Audubon Society’s guide to birds. She was sitting atop a bird bath in the backyard which we had placed on its head because the bath, when filled with water, began to breed mosquitoes. I thought the Phoebe was acting rather dumb because she frequented a dry, upside down basin, but later read that this bird swoops down on prey from any type of perch. The Phoebe stood on the stone bath long enough for me to find information about her in my bird guide and to discover the fact that her ancestors were the first ever to be banded in America by John James Audubon, the great artist who authored and painted BIRDS OF AMERICA.

Audubon was working on the aforementioned book when he banded the Phoebe, but his major job at the time was as tutor to Eliza Pirrie at the Oakley plantation home in St. Francisville, Louisiana. I once made Spring pilgrimages to St. Francisville , and on one occasion took my godfather, Markham Peacock, then 95, to visit Oakley. The two-story frame house now stands on a 100-acre tract known as Audubon Memorial State Park, which has also become a wildlife sanctuary. The house was built by James Pirrie over a raised brick basement and has a curved stairway joining the two galleries. At the time I took my godfather, I tried to discourage him from climbing the staircase, but he shushed me with the information that he had climbed pyramids in Egypt and took the steps with more vigor than I could muster.

John James Audubon tutored Eliza Pirrie at Oakley and taught her to draw and paint; his wife taught Eliza to dance, using an abandoned cotton gin rather than a ballroom for the instruction. According to Lyle Saxon, Eliza eloped with a young aristocrat on a rainy day, and her lover carried her through steams that were breast deep, then succumbed to pneumonia and died three weeks after he captured his bride. However, Eliza married twice after her first tragic marriage.

St. Francisville is situated in the Tunica Hills of Louisiana where red sediment and tan loess lie beneath rolling hills. In wealthier times preceding the Civil War, it was a rich town that boasted many plantation homes: Propinquity, The Myrtles (which has ghosts!), Catalpa, Wakefield, and Rosedown, queen of St. Francisville plantation homes, with formal gardens landscaped after those at Versailles. The house is a blending of Georgian, Louisiana, and other classic architectural styles.

The Cottage, where we spent the night on the trip with Godfather, has a long front gallery to which coffee and biscuits are brought out on a silver tray for guests as they arise in the morning, and Godfather pronounced the place “quite European” despite its austere appearance. The Cottage isn’t as grand as Rosedown but it’s a hospitable place where week-end guests can relax and renew themselves after a week of work. It stands on a high bluff (shades of Sewanee) in a wooded area, and we had to cross a rickety bridge over a creek to reach the old home.

A motel in St. Francisville features many of John James Audubon’s bird paintings, but I don’t remember seeing the little Eastern Phoebe that piqued my interest. Natchez, Mississippi, just “down the road” from St. Francisville, is another example of a wealthy city of pre-Civil War times and has a plethora of planters’ plantation homes. I have a manuscript in my files (unpublished) entitled THE GOAT MAN MURDER that takes place in this historic city. Border Press plans to launch it in a few years.

P.S. The photo above is of Godfather at 95, and my friend Vickie Sullivan, resting near a tangle of white azaleas in the gardens at Oakley, just after climbing the curving staircase.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

RETURN OF BEN AND THE BEAST


In May of this year I wrote a blog about Ben Blanchard, my young, tall and handsome friend, who illustrated THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO, a short poem I wrote about a giant devil frog whose remains were found in Africa. The poem was inspired by Joel, my “frogasieur” grandson, and Ben knew just the kind of pictures that would appeal to a boy Joel’s age. His whimsical illustrations perfectly carried out the devil frog theme.

This morning, Ben came over to visit while he sojourns with his mother a few days before departing again for Patagonia, AZ. I was able to tell him that Border Press now has the BEAST BEEZLEBUFO in a forward slot, and he can soon retire in Patagonia on royalties from sale of the book! As an artist, Ben can appreciate that bit of humor about exploding the book market.

Ben left Cajun Country in May to attend a course in Raw Food Preparation and Organic Gardening at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia and graduated from the course in August. He has since been practicing his food preparation in Phoenix and environs. After he spent a week back in Cajun Country, he was offered a job as a chef and gardener at The Tree of Life Center in Patagonia.

Ben stayed long enough for us to photograph him and to chat about sales for the little book we did together. As I wrote in a former blog, he’s the son of my good friend, Janet Faulk, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce here. I’ve known him for all of his 22 years, and he has been drawing and painting since he was in kindergarten. He has a deep interest in all things artistic and calls himself a Renegade Scholar and a “Roads Scholar” who likes to travel. Ben is an avid gardener, chef, and artist, and loves music and literature equally. “I’m uncontaminated by formal training,” he once told me. I love his free spirit.

Each time Ben visits, I’m inspired to do more projects with him, and this morning I got an “envee” (“strong urge” in Cajun lingo) to follow him to Patagonia, which he assured me is an ideal place for retirees. He knows my penchant for The West, particularly after I visited Sedona, AZ on two separate occasions for several months two years ago. At that time, I fell in love with red rock country. Patagonia is probably no more than three hours’ drive from Sedona!

I call Ben my “Renaissance Man,” and I’m glad to see he has decided not to re-locate back in bayou country where raw foods would not be as appreciated by those who love Cajun cuisine as those who are devotees of healthful food in the Far West.

THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO may be “out there” before Christmas. Watch for it! Wonder what the weather is like in Arizona during December…hmmm…

Monday, November 17, 2008

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST

During dinner at a Mexican restaurant last week, I asked my long-time friend, Janet Faulk, when the film “In The Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead,” based on native son James Lee Burke’s novel of that name, will appear. She said she had been anticipating the movie since the Spring of 2007 when she worked as town scout for the film depiction of this novel.

Janet, now President and CEO of the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce, isn’t a native Cajun but as a former CAO in the previous New Iberia city government, she knew enough about historic landmarks, the culture and landscape of Acadiana to locate sites for the filmmakers. Back in May, 2007, I wrote a feature story for “Acadiana Lifestyle” entitled “Location, Location, Location” that featured Janet’s adventures scouting, including forays into small towns looking for men’s restrooms!

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD is a déjà vu kind of story that centers on a Hollywood crew coming to New Iberia to produce a Civil War film. The movie features Tommy Lee Jones as famed Dave Robicheaux, the fictional New Iberia detective who is the hero in at least 17 Robicheaux books based in New Iberia and environs. In the novel, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, Dave Robicheaux attempts to link the murder of a New Iberia woman to a New Orleans mobster returning to his home town and the memories that arise within him when the movie crew films this Civil War movie. The story records Robicheaux’s conversations with the ghost of a Civil War soldier and other weird happenings and was adapted by Mary Olson Kromolowski and Jerzy Kromolowski.

The notable Bertrand Tavernier directed the filming of “In the Electric Mist.” He has been quoted as saying that the films he makes are primarily subjects he is passionate about, and he tries not to be too analytical about why he wants to direct a certain movie. I understand, from Janet’s account of her adventures as a scout, that Tavernier became a real fan of crawfish boudin. Janet reported that Tommy Lee Jones was highly focused on his work and precise in his requests. She’s among the few who got close enough to converse with Jones about his role as Detective Dave Robicheaux. The Civic Center here in New Iberia played a large part in the filming because it’s the site of the Mayor’s office, parish library, and Iberia Parish Sheriff’s offices with a brick courtyard and fountain in the center of this complex. Locations involved five Acadiana parishes.

The town was determined to have New Iberia and its environs appear in the movie because a previous film about a James Lee Burke novel was filmed in New Orleans when its setting should have been New Iberia. At the time of filming “In the Electric Mist,” Janet said that the concept to create the film in its indigenous setting had been a commitment by the movie company and had driven the creative processes to keep the integrity of the story intact. Additionally, the company used existing property instead of building sets. This focus made Janet’s scouting job more intense and more far-reaching than it might have been otherwise.

Author James Lee Burke’s novel, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD, claims a place in an alternative English class at ULL entitled “Down the Bayou," a survey of multicultural literature, and he can hold his own alongside Ernie Gaines, author of A GATHERING OF OLD MEN, with whom I briefly studied back in the late 80’s. Burke is one of two authors to win two Edgar Awards, and his novel, THE LAST GET BACK BOOGIE, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Many of us who watched the film crews at work in the Queen City of the Teche are anxious to see this film that showcases the haunting southern mystique of our town. New Iberia traces its history back to 1779 when Francisco Bouligny led flatboats of immigrating Malaguenos up the Bayou Teche from New Orleans into this subtropical area to form a settlement. To learn more about this Spanish settlement, get a copy of my young adult novel FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE from Border Press.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A FUNDAMENTAL NOT PRESENT IN FUNDAMENTALISM

I lived in Limestone, Maine near the Canadian border during the mid-1950’s, a place where the snow piled up as high as telephone poles bordering the road that led to an old farmhouse in which we lived. My former spouse was there with the U.S. Army, attached to a Strategic Air Command base that guarded U.S. borders against enemy invasion. I was a 19-year old southerner who had never lived in the northeastern U.S. and certainly hadn’t experienced sub-zero temperatures before that tour of duty with the Army. During the time I lived in what was termed a “hardship area,” the warm spot in that snowbound town was the home of a Mormon family, the Groesbecks, who lived across the street from us.

The Groesbecks were devout Mormons, and I know now, after studying their literature through the years, that they were more interested in a doctrine contained in their ARTICLES OF FAITH (a copy of which the Groesbecks gave me when I left Limestone) concerning “Benevolence” than they were in banning other religions or people. Benevolence, according to this family, embraced and far exceeded charity. As far as they were concerned, they were to make their neighbor as dear to them as themselves. This family shared many things with me, including a large Maine lobster that they divided six ways one evening when we were invited to supper! Marion, the wife and mother, often baked honey bread and brought me a loaf. When I had a miscarriage, she was the first person on the scene afterward. Her children spent many nights in my apartment and gave me the joy of children before I knew the joy of my own children. Marion and her family offered me the gift of friendship during a stark period of my life.

When I sat in the Groesbeck’s living room or ate supper with them, I never heard talk about hatred of blacks or that black members could not hold the priesthood in the Mormon Church or that missionaries could not evangelize in Africa, the Caribbean, or other regions inhabited by populations of blacks. I also heard no gay bashing or talk of polygamous relationships. In that cold, sub-zero weather, the Groesbecks were a warm, loving family faithful to their religion, bound to the doctrine of benevolence, rather than devotion to social issues. The only proselytizing they did was to give me the BOOK OF MORMON, ARTICLES OF FAITH, and a book entitled TREASURES TO SHARE when I left Aroostook County. I have vivid memories of listening to classical music with them, reading to their children on snowy evenings, and attending a Mormon women’s group where I was surprised to find a group of literary people interested in studying WUTHERING HEIGHTS. No one tried to recruit me, no one spoke of just tolerating and not accepting other groups or religions. It was a rare experience of Mormonism, and I suppose I have lived in a time warp about their decent beliefs and faith since those days I spent in Maine.

As I read the headlines yesterday about the “Latter Day” Latter Day Saints raising $40 million dollars to support a social ban, although they claim “attacks on churches and intimidation of people of faith have no place in civil discourse over controversial issues,” etc., the Mormons today,unlike those I knew in Maine, seem to have joined the ranks of fundamentalists who are moving far from the doctrine of love espoused by Christ: if man would win eternal life, he cannot afford to neglect the duty of love to his fellow, for “Love is the fulfilling of the Law.”

I often wonder where my benevolent Mormon neighbors…those people who believed that “sincerity of disposition and humility of soul whereby the word of God may make an impression upon the heart” are today, and I guess I wonder where many of my so-called benevolent Christian neighbors, who profess the same thing, live, as they vent their hate in the streets of our towns…from Maine to Louisiana. The question comes to my mind, where is that belief of all Christians in their inherent sense of justice? Or this: “Is the world to be forever confirmed in its opinion that theological partisans are less truthful, less candid, less high-minded, less honorable even than the partisans of political and social causes, who make no profession as to the duty of love?” (to quote the Mormon’s ARTICLES OF FAITH!).

I guess that my experience of the Mormons of that time in Maine was an unusually blessed experience. Idealist that I am, I choose to remember them the way they were.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

CAJUN CHEFS

During my recent trip to Thibodaux, Louisiana to deliver a talk about Louisiana traiteurs, I discovered new information about the famous Louisiana chef, John Folse, which reinforced a belief touted by most native Louisianans – Louisiana is the center of the culinary world. John Folse has established a cooking school known as the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. This institute features a fully accredited, four-year university program that awards a Bachelor of Culinary Science degree. The school has a faculty-student ratio of 15 to 1, so students receive lots of guidance in culinary techniques, learn about better business practices and food service trends.

Nicholls State University is only a one hour drive from New Orleans, the culinary capitol of Louisiana, where some of the students in the Folse Institute intern; other students enroll in study abroad programs in Europe, Asia, and South America. This year, several of the students in the Folse Institute received honors for their cooking – one placed in a California competition, another received a scholarship to attend the Paul Bocuse Institute abroad, and another apprenticed at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. One Summa Cum Laude graduate enrolled in Nicholls State’s Innovative Culinary MBA Program.

If those who visit south Louisiana don’t return because they “tasted bayou water,” they’ll probably be drawn back to Cajun Country because they’ve tasted the cuisine of Louisiana and New Orleans. One of our finest chefs who rivals John Folse in cooking expertise is Marcelle Bienvenu, a famous chef from St. Martinville (la Petit Paris d’Amerique),which is ten miles down the road from New Iberia. Marcelle once owned Chez Marcelle Restaurant in Broussard, Louisiana where I always took out-of-town visitors to sample Cajun Country cuisine. She has written a food column since 1984, which appears in newspapers and journals in New Orleans, Lafayette, and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Marcelle was born into a large Acadian family where meals were a celebration of the good life here on the bayou and grew up on ideals of hospitality and hearty Cajun cuisine. She has the distinction of working on the volume of Acadian and Creole cooking in collaboration with editors of The Time-Life American Cooking Series. She has also been catering manager of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and collaborated with Emeril Lagasse on several of his cookbooks.

Approximately 20 years ago when Marcelle served a stint as chef at Oak Alley Plantation on the River Road near Baton Rouge, I met and visited with her on an exceptionally cold Spring day. I remember that when I went into the gift shop at Oak Alley, she was standing near a counter that held the Sesquicentennial edition of the PICAYUNE’S CREOLE COOK BOOK (published by The Times Picayune newspaper in New Orleans), which she had edited. She shook hands with me, then remained standing before me, warming my frozen hands with her own, exuding hospitality in the tradition of Acadian friendliness. I also remember being presumptuous enough to suggest that Marcelle do her own cookbook. I have a letter from her in my files in which she discusses doing a joint cookbook project with me, and I later told her that she, alone, should do the project as she was a consummate storyteller and an excellent journalist…the book really belonged to her!

Several years later, Marcelle published her famous volume on Cajun cuisine, WHO’S YOUR MAMA, ARE YOU CATHOLIC, AND CAN YOU MAKE A ROUX? This 200-recipe cookbook features the best of Cajun cooking, and numerous Bienvenu family photos and stories about life in Cajun country. Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette has published a paperback edition of this wonderful cookbook.

Marcelle Bienvenu also teaches cooking classes and has a website for those who search for good cuisine at www.MarcelleBienvenu.com.

Friday, November 14, 2008

FLORIDA FLORALS


Every time I travel to Frostproof, Florida, I visit with a cousin in the Sullivan clan who, through the years, has developed notable skill in the decorative arts. The artist, “Toni” Blackwell, lives up the road from Frostproof in Babson Park, a small hamlet that boasts it is the birthplace of Webber International University. Toni paints murals, note cards, mail boxes, glassware (including wine glasses and champagne glasses), vases, canvasses, candles and candle holders and tinware, using acrylics to create her colorful decorative art on metal, glass, ceramics, cloth, wood, terra cotta pots, even kitchen cabinets.

During this last visit when “Toni” brought me a set of beautiful note cards as a gift, she talked with me about the origins of her decorative art, tracing her artistic inspiration back to her paternal grandmother, “Gacky” Thomas. “She really loved beautiful things – jewelry, furs, silver, and china, just to name a few,” Toni told me. “My sense of color can be linked to her, as she encouraged me to use color. She loved for me to wear red. We had a special bond because I was her first grandchild, so her deep appreciation for beauty transferred to me.” Because Toni dresses in colorful, flamboyant clothing, wears lots of bracelets, necklaces and rings, her mother, Mary Thomas, gave her Gacky’s large garnet ring which Toni wears as an everyday accessory, rather than for dress-up as less artsy people would do.

Toni was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, attended Gettysburg schools, then migrated to Florida where she graduated from Webber International University in Babson Park, Florida. She worked as an administrative assistant to executives of Florida Power Corporation (now Progress Energy) for 35 years in Longwood, Sebring, and Lake Wales, Florida, retiring in 2002.

I remember when Toni first began to express her interest in decorative art as I was visiting her mother, Mary Thomas, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the same time Toni had flown up from Florida to vacation. Toni was experimenting with her paints and a watering can on a card table set up in her mother’s living room, and although she considered her initial efforts “modest,” I was impressed with her first paintings. Through the years, I have followed her progress with pride and encouraged her to “swing out” with her work.

Toni studied art with Dawn Kelly, a certified instructor of Donna Dewberry’s One-Stroke technique. This is a method that originated in an unusual genre called “one-stroke painting” as demonstrated on PBS-TV by Donna Dewberry of Orlando, Florida. Using this technique, the artist blends, shades, and highlights the painting with one stroke of the brush. Toni uses this technique to render her Florida Florals. She has gradually expanded her repertoire to include almost any blank surface. I sat beside her at a birthday luncheon in Lake Wales, Florida recently, and she began to eye the white linen tablecloth, laughing as she announced that she’d like to decorate this surface. She has also become interested in a technique similar to watercolor which utilizes acrylics for her larger canvas paintings. “I really appreciate a number of techniques as I can get more definition with other types of painting,” she says. Her florals are exquisitely rendered in vivid colors, some of them expressing the flamboyant red her Grandmother Gacky once urged her to use for dress-up occasions.

Toni exhibits her work primarily in Polk County, Florida, New Iberia, Louisiana, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and continues to decorate her own home in Babson Park with vibrant colors and unusual design. She has a small studio off the kitchen in her home where she stores glassware, tinware, vases, and other objects she has garnered from special discount sales -- those “blank” surfaces that entice her to render her one-stroke paintings. Toni has one son, Chad Blackwell, who is a mortgage broker in Orlando, Florida. If you’re interested in Florida Florals, contact Toni at marilynton@aol.com.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

FACES OF FRIENDSHIP

During the course of a 14-hour car trip from central Florida to Louisiana, I had an opportunity to read apace! Among the reading material was an unpublished manuscript about the wisdom of women written by my friend from Sewanee, author Isabel Anders. I read aloud this wonderful and absorbing manuscript and returned to Louisiana to take up a second reading of Isabel’s FACES OF FRIENDSHIP, a first-person account about the spirituality of friendship published by WIPF and STOCK Publishers. As I read the book again, I thought, also, about C. S. Lewis’s famous treatise, THE FOUR LOVES and his ideas about friendship in which he says that lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other, while friends, side by side, are absorbed in some common interest and often answer this question: “Do you see the same truth?”

In FACES OF FRIENDSHIP, a vivid example of friends engaged in the art of writing is included in a chapter entitled “Mentors As Friends.” It is a tribute to the famous author, Madeleine L’Engle, who became Isabel Anders’ personal friend and remained a faithful one, nurturing and mentoring Isabel for many years. Isabel met Madeleine L’Engle during the time she worked as an editor in a publishing house in Chicago. She and a fellow editor went to lunch with Madeleine to discuss the famous author’s poetry and religious writings. At that particular luncheon, Madeleine L’Engle’s dignity and faith impressed Isabel as much as the author’s writings. Madeleine kept her luncheon engagement with the two editors in spite of the fact that she had received the news her grandchild had been hit by a truck the day before and hospitalized. To add to the problem, Madeleine, in Chicago, could not reach the New York hospital because a blackout in New York had left phone lines dead. “Yet, Madeleine L’Engle, full of prayer and watchfulness, kept our lunch engagement, kept going, giving, thinking, feeling – ever mindful of the presence of the unknown outcome hanging over herself, her family, and this loved one. To us, as new friends and potential colleagues, it revealed the dignity and authenticity of her faith in a most trying situation,” Isabel writes in FACES OF FRIENDSHIP. (And by the way, the child survived the accident and eventually recovered fully.)

Isabel began a correspondence and an acquaintance with Madeleine L’Engle that blossomed into a friendship. She later attended some of Madeleine’s classes at Munderlein College where she was studying for a Master’s in Religious Studies. When Isabel wrote her classic about the season of Advent, AWAITING THE CHILD, Madeleine L’Engle wrote an inspiring introduction praising Isabel’s abilities as a spiritual writer. Madeleine and Isabel cultivated a friendship that lasted until Madeleine’s death, and to me, the example of the friendship between the two authors that Isabel records in FACES OF FRIENDSHIP aptly answers Lewis’s question “Do you see the same truth?” I particularly liked Isabel’s idea… “I would like to think that the love of beauty, of truth, of the good, of the incarnational vehicle of language is itself a milieu that often draws us to those we most need to meet and know and learn from. Love is the connection between friends, between teacher and learner, mentor and pupil…”

This blog isn’t a formal and comprehensive review of Isabel’s FACES OF FRIENDSHIP but perhaps the mention will titillate readers to pursue further some of my friend’s work about those faces of friendship we encounter and recognize as persons who “belong together” –just as Isabel encountered and recognized this mutual belonging between herself and her mentor, Madeleine L’Engle.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

FLORIDA AND WRITING FOLK

A few days ago when we passed a sign advertising the exit to Micanopy, FL, enroute to the central Florida lake region, I thought about the three times I had attempted to visit the Marjorie Kennan Rawlings State Park site near Gainesville. Each time we stopped at the site, the home was either closed or we were too late for a tour. It seems I’m doomed to stand in authors’ yards as I’ve encountered the same problem at the site of Rowan Oaks, Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, and Dixieland in Asheville, North Carolina, the boarding house run by Thomas Wolfe’s mother and a place where Wolfe’s writing germinated.

On my visits to Cross Creek, I was able to view the live oak hammocks surrounding the Rawlings’ home and to peer through the screen on the long porch where Rawlings often sat, typing on a small black manual typewriter – writing THE YEARLING or CROSS CREEK, perhaps. The site is located between Orange Lake and Lochloosa Lake where Rawlings migrated after she served a stint as a journalist for several journals, the last being in Rochester, NY where she wrote a column entitled “Songs of the Housewife” (which she didn’t seem to be!!).

As I sit her on the long porch of the Sullivan home facing Silver Lake, I look out at a great blue heron feeding in the torpedo grass and think about Rawlings sitting on her “Florida house” porch recording her experiences with her “Cracker” neighbors at Cross Creek and her observations about the flora and fauna of this region. With the support of Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, she immortalized the area in the story, THE YEARLING, a poignant narrative about a young Florida boy’s adoption of a pet deer that he eventually had to shoot. This book, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, catapulted her to fame.

During one of my stops at a gift shop near the Rawlings’ site, I found a book written by Idella, her African-American maid, entitled IDELLA; MARJORIE RAWLINGS’ PERFECT MAID, which chronicled the relationship of the two in a candid story that didn’t omit Rawling’s fondness for alcohol or accounts of her trigger temper. Although Rawlings’ books are “regional” in my mind, she abhorred that label because she didn’t want her writing to be known as quaint, regional literature. A photograph of her taken by Carl Van Vecten in 1953 reveals a certain toughness that is reflected in the major characters of her novels, short stories, and autobiography.

When I observe the beautiful groves owned by the Sullivan tribe, I remember reading about Marjorie Rawlings’ attempt to build a citrus industry at Cross Creek and how she managed to cultivate a small grove, only to have it destroyed by a freeze (a disaster I’ve seen happen to some of the Sullivan groves). However, Marjorie Kennan Rawlings’ grove wasn’t strategically placed in a warm area of Florida like the groves in Frostproof (hence, the latter’s name) and was destined to fail. I’m sorry she failed to become a citrus magnate, but I’m glad she found her place as an important American writer.

Rawlings’ independence and “toughness” are reminiscent of the “Cracker” spirit of the folk in the Frostproof area. Pioneers who came here during the 1880’s found the same jungle of oaks, palmetto, and thick undergrowth as the vegetation that surrounded Rawlings’ home at Cross Creek. The sandhills near Silver Lake here in Frostproof proved to be ideal for citrus, peaches, figs, and grapes. When I first began visiting this property on Silver Lake, Sullivan orange groves dominated the landscape across the highway. However, members of the Sullivan corporation recently sold this land that was once part of a citrus industry first in production and shipment of citrus fruit in the State of Florida. A huge industrial complex now stands on that property. As e. e. cummings, the poet, says: “Progress is a comfortable disease…”