Monday, June 30, 2008

BACK TO GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR

Yesterday when we set out for a visit to Grace Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, clouds of mist drifted slowly down the Mountain like smoke signals sent up to lead us eastward to the church. The mist didn’t dissipate until we reached Kimball, TN at 8 a.m. Friends we had met during the Silent Retreat at St. Mary’s – Dr. Gerry and Joy Jones; Dick and Alice Ramsey – invited us to hear a book review about Gen-X, presented by a Divinity student from Vanderbilt and to attend services afterward.

The review focused on a subject not confined to Gen-X – man’s search for meaning and his doubts about religious dogma. The Divinity student reviewed VIRTUAL FAITH, THE IRREVERENT SPIRITUAL QUEST OF GENERATION X, focusing on the premise that Gen.-X’s faith is placed not in traditional religious institutionalism but in the simulated life contained in video games and MTV videos of popular culture. After the review, I remarked to my friends that although the author Tom Beaudoin argued that Gen-Xers differ from other generations in their hunger for a spiritual place in a world of consumerism, I thought that this hunger was familiar to all generations of our culture and not just to this demographic group.

There are so many Episcopal churches in this area of TN, all of them architectural gems, and the distinguishing characteristic of Grace Episcopal Church is the side chapel within the huge church. During the Eucharist, a small service takes place at this side altar where Joy Jones, our friend, stood with a companion to offer spiritual and physical healing. Healing is a special emphasis in Grace’s mission statement, along with “the nurturing and challenging character of the Holy Spirit, open to and respecting all who would come.”

During lunch at a Thai Restaurant, our friends began to question me about the books I write, and I found myself stumbling over the list, neglecting to mention one of my latest, GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR. How did I overlook the only book of rhyming poetry I’ve written in 73 years? I’ve received many comments about the book, most of which focus on the nostalgia engendered by reading it. GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR seems to provide a point of identification with a period of our history that has become an important part of modern literature and movies. One reader wrote “wherever we lived in this time, our lives seemed to be almost identical, even to the knitting for war victims.” Another reader wrote that she read it aloud to her son, 16, and he enjoyed her own reminiscences of her childhood, between Baby Boomers and Gen-X. Many readers were fascinated with the 4th grade report card pictured on the back cover of GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR and asked why I made an A- in Conduct and the only B on the card was in Arithmetic. Give me a break!!

Here’s the end poem in GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR entitled “The Good Ole Days.” You can order your own copy of this verse retrospective of the forties from www.theborderpress.net.

THE GOOD OLE DAYS

And from the rubble of the past,
Godfather announced a baleful forecast,

the world ended in the 1950’s exaltation,
we had best be sensible in expectation

of a peace that will never prevail,
too many wars have caused us to fail.

As for my favored 1940’s decade,
this appraisal is tentatively made:

in the 40’s, the unity, patriotism, hope for peace
belied a nation’s determination for wars to cease.

Now, the battle guns centuries old
foretell war after war, out of control,

the planet’s warriors excel in rabid hate,
marching toward Godfather’s predicted fate,

we keep trying to own vast cultures and fields,
no one in the universe willing to yield,

negotiate, withdraw, turn the other cheek,
desperately climbing this self-absorbed peak.

Yet, none of us know for certain if conditions are really worse
than those recorded in this small collection of nostalgic verse.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

AND CATS DESERVE EQUAL TIME

Yesterday’s blog about dogs engendered some protest in the hearts of cat lovers who believe that the “felis domestica” also deserve to be touted on a blog. My daughter Stephanie, who owns the eight cats I mentioned yesterday, would have been the first to become enraged about all this attentiveness to dogs. Readers need to know that I immortalized a former Persian cat in my book, SOPHIE’S SOJOURN IN PERSIA, and also in a column I once wrote for the “Daily Iberian” in New Iberia, Louisiana. You will remember I mentioned that excerpts from “Cherchez la femme” would appear in this blog from time to time. For all you cat lovers, here’s equal space for a column about our house pet, Roya the Persian cat, that appeared in “Cherchez.”

“I’ve been thinking about all the traumas that Roya, our Persian immigrant cat, went through after we purchased her for 2400 rials (about $35 at the time we lived in Iran) from a peddler reeking of wine on a crowded backstreet in Abadan, Iran. Most people surmise that an oriental cat is a cherished house pet… indeed, Mohammed cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than disturb his favorite cat, Muessa. But when I lived in Persia, Iranians weren’t so fond of poor “khanoum” cat. Animals were threats to survival.

Our Roya was not a pure-bred Persian, but she did have queenly bearing and refined taste in food. In fact, we thought that, like Don Marquis’ Mehitabel (the alley cat who thought she was Cleopatra reincarnated), Roya felt she was born to grace an Oriental carpet, and we suspected that she fancied herself to be a former Empress of Iran. Like Mehitabel, Roya felt she had a rough time becoming a liberated female, particularly when she lived in a country where someone was more likely to kick a cat wandering on the street than to stroke her into a purr.

Mehitabel once sang: “The life of a female artist is continually hampered. What in h---have I done to deserve all these kittens? I look back on my life and it seems to me to be just one darn kitten after another. Am I never to be allowed to live my own life?” Roya must have felt keenly the last two lines of Mehitabel’s verses when she resided in Iran. We kept her behind locked doors and would’ve veiled her if we had thought it would keep her from pining for the skinny toms who scratched at her window when she looked out at the monotonous tan desert.

In the region of Iran in which we lived, veterinarians who operated on small animals were scarce, so Roya never got “fixed” while we resided in Ahwaz. Also, we refused to bring home to America an entire brood of Persian cats, so Roya was kept imprisoned in our Melli Rah home for almost two years, except for short walks in my daughter’s arms in the threatening outdoors. She screamed, wailed, clawed, and sang choruses from Mehitabel under her breath: “It isn’t fair, arch…it isn’t fair…these darn tom cats have all…the fun and freedom.”

A beautiful orange, black, and white female, Roya would have been a sensation in the city of Paris, which we visited en route home…if we had let her out of our room at the Intercontinental Hotel and onto the Left Bank, or if we had allowed her to walk down the street to the Tuilleries Gardens. But she lolled in a corner of the room, peered at the Francoise Villons of the Paris streets and waited…

Roya traveled to America in a small, rickety crate constructed by Irani craftsmen and labeled “Persian Express.” She arrived at Miami International Airport in a state of wild terror. After unloading eleven pieces of luggage, unaided, and throwing them in line at Customs, I asked for my terrified cat. A laconic animal inspector brought her out, waved aside her papers and said: “I don’t need no papers. Has she had a shot?” I nodded. “One cat passed,’ he wrote on a slip of paper. And Roya became an American citizen. Ah, liberated at last, she must have purred. When we arrived in New Orleans, the cargo loaders told us that she had broken out of her crate and roamed up and down in the luggage section all the way from Miami to New Orleans.

Roya never knew the joy of Mehitabel’s motherhood (“what if providence in her wisdom removed my kittens; they are living just now in an abandoned garbage can just behind a made-over stable in Greenwich village, and if it rains into the can before I can get back and resume them I am afraid the little dears might drown,” sang sardonic Mehitabel).

As soon as Roya arrived in Teche country, she was bustled off to the vet, underwent an operation, and was granted freedom to roam the Acadian woodlands. It was a joy to watch this liberated woman. We thought she sincerely believed she had ascended to cat heaven. She cavorted with butterflies, chased birds, sniffed flowers, and rolled in the long green grass daily. Many nights she took moonlight walks all night, and a stringy gray tom next door wailed a Romeo aria to her each morning. Some mornings when I let Roya out to pasture in the backyard after she spent an “off nights” indoors, she made a leap into the air, and I just know she was shrieking Mehitabel’s boast: “There’s a dance in the old dame yet.”

Two years after we returned to New Iberia, Roya disappeared when we went away for a week-end at Grand Isle, Louisiana. I just know she eloped with a Francoise Villon of the lower Teche region. In our family, no one can resist a good line of poetry…”

Friday, June 27, 2008

DOGOLOGY

No, I didn’t mistakenly spell “Doxology” – this is a brief commentary about dogs, inspired by a notice in “The Sewanee Messenger,” published here on The Mountain. The article touted a July 4th Mutt Show to be held on campus, and many show categories are advertised, the most interesting one being “owner/dog look alike” category, which is rivaled by “best dressed dog.” I’ve heard of the theory proposing that people who live together a long time begin to look alike but didn’t know this phenomenon extended to canines. What about whitening hair? And the need for glasses? I guess I’d have to attend the dog show to find out how dogs and their masters/mistresses begin to look alike. As for dressing dogs in human costume, to me that would border on cruelty – what better dress than the luxuriant hair of a freshly-washed black Lab?

My ancestors and immediate family were dogologists, and I grew up with canines, only to develop an allergy to animal dander in my forties. My daughter Stephanie in New Iberia, LA has eight cats that dangle from table tops, drape chairs and sofas and give me hospital-bound allergic reactions, and my daughter Elizabeth in CA owns a miniature Doberman named Darla that tries to catch birds in flight, but, alas, I’m denied the privilege of owning a pet of any kind, save an imaginary one, which I do have. Before you accuse me of “going off,” let me list the advantages of owning an imaginary dog – in my case, a black Labrador retriever that I’ve instructed to start chasing off the deer eating up my rock roses and Mexican heather that line the back walk. The advantages include a house devoid of stiff, long hair, doggy scent vaguely reminiscent of spoiled mushrooms, and water/food puddles on the kitchen floor…not to mention the inevitable fleas that defy even Petmed products. Then, there’s the avoidance of “have to walk no matter what” at least once in the morning, most of the time before the sun has risen in the pink sky…and what about the cruel leash with which one must temper the extrovert dog that wants to leap upon and lick other walkers? Think of how many times you have to bellow “sit, sit, sit,” infinitely before your canine learns to be obedient… and, contrary to his nature, introverted. And wouldn’t you rather avoid the barking that sometimes goes on all night because of twig snaps, blowing wind, car headlights, and night marauding animals like the moles that tunnel in our yard? And what if you should decide to go on vacation without this loyal animal so attuned to your every move it cannot bear the world without you, even if you’re only spending a few days at the Outer Banks? Last year, a good friend in San Antonio, Texas, who traveled to Italy on vacation, was forced to fly home mid-sojourn because his “sausage dog” named Clementine was actually dying from separation pangs.

Of course, all of the above is just “sour grapes” because I’d love to own a black Lab and can’t, so I’ll just have to survive with the imaginary creature named “Black Dog” (after Churchill’s title for days of depression – “black dog days"). If you’re a dogologist and would like a little history on my family’s love of dogs, there’s a long rhyming poem in GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR” entitled “In Defense of Doggerel,” and you might be interested in ordering the book from Border Press. The poem expands on the theme of my Great Uncle Ed’s favorite quote: “The more I see of man, the more I love my dog.”

And here’s another snippet about dogs from my unpublished manuscript RESURRECTION OF THE WORD:

THE BLACK DOG

came running around the fence,
leaping a coulee stitched with fern,
without collar, vagabond Lab
broke loose in happiness
in contradiction, danced
against Churchill’s label of depression:
“black dog days.”

Something in his insouciant sass
brought me a peak moment,
seeing in his black fur
a sheen of freedom
that sent my own happiness
bounding with him,
this intelligent, abashed creature,
loyal to man (who does no deeds for him),
rushing by and unleashing in me
the same wag of spirit.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

BELLS

Bells ring out everywhere on The Mountain – on the campus of the University of the South, at St. Mary’s, Sewanee when we’re summoned to early Morning Prayer and Eucharist—Angelus bells, carillon bells, bells to announce the time of day. Campanology is big business up here.

In the silence of early morning at St. Mary’s, the bell brings us fully awake. Someone still performs the duty of pulling the rope attached to the clapper of a fine pealing bell to call us to worship. At The Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, we have an electronic system for bell ringing, but the old Celtic custom of ringing the bell by hand (during Medieval Times) persists at St. Mary’s.

We live on the campus of the University of the South and sometimes, in the evenings, we’re treated to carillon concerts. I’ve often wanted to climb to the carillon tower to watch the carillonneur strike the keyboard with his fists while using his feet to activate a pedal keyboard. What a strenuous way to make music!

The most impressive carillon music I’ve heard was played in Bok Tower near Lake Wales, Florida. The 205 ft. tower made of pink marble and coquina stone is a magnificent architectural edifice that stands on one of the highest points in Florida in the center of a garden of ferns, palms, camellias, jasmine, and other lush plants. I’ve visited Bok Tower three times, and it could easily fit into that realm of Sacred Spaces which I mentioned in earlier blogs. I like the story about Edward Bok (who had the tower built) receiving the inspiration to build the tower to house the carillon because of his grandmother’s words: “Make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”

When I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico a few years ago, I loved the sound of church bells ringing every day. I thought about D. H. Lawrence’s description “the magnificence of a big and lonely church…and where there is a church there will be a zocalo…” Three of us stayed in a small hotel that faced the zocalo, perhaps a block away from a church where bells pealed each morning. When I heard the bells, I’d sit, motionless for awhile until the last ring resonated through the window that opened out onto the sleepy square. Sometimes, I’d awaken to the sound of bells and would write snippets, many of which are contained in AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA, available at Border Press. Here is a snippet inspired by the sound of morning bells:

AWAKENING

The Nahua know about faces and heart,
physical and non-physical ones;

we practice ixtli in yollotl,
face and heart making,

carrying our true selves, with purpose,
creating them here

where mountains lie in shadow,
where we keep trying to sleep

and awaken to the bell of a new language.

On the bureau, a rose,
dark as blood, droops,

a crimson sigh
against the white light,

Annunciation… morning on earth.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

THOUGHTS ABOUT CALIFORNIA

When I wrote about grandson, Joel, and what I laughingly refer to as “la-la land” (California) yesterday, I became overwhelmingly nostalgic about the Central Coast of California which I toured for at least 15 of the 23 years I went out to visit my daughter and family. Here in Tennessee, where I’m living a landlocked existence, thoughts about the ocean overcome me at times. This morning, I read about the recent intrusion of wildfires in the forests on the Central Coast and felt saddened by the destruction occurring there. It’s not often that one can locate in the wonderful place where mountain and ocean co-exist. Here in Tennessee, we can appreciate the mountainous areas but there is no ocean nearby when we want respite from the condition of “landlockedness.”

The central coast of California is foggy, chilly, craggy, its bluffs rivaling the best of TN outcroppings, and it also offers some of the most magnificent scenery I’ve seen anywhere (and that includes travels around the world, living in the Mideast, and brief sojourns in at least 47 states). It’s true that my daughter lives in Palmdale, atop the San Andreas Fault, and I’ve viewed the crack in the earth near Elizabeth Lake -- a puny crack, but nonetheless, a sinister prediction that one day the desert, forests, and mountains will fall into the beautiful Pacific. Yet, I love California and can close my eyes and see the winding mountain road that runs before the Henry Miller Library at Big Sur, the Big Sur Campground with an icy creek coursing through forests of giant redwoods, and those majestic stone outcroppings overhanging the blue Pacific. Many of my poems center on this area, and I feel like Robert Frost who touted the virtues of New Hampshire in his famous poem “New Hampshire,”…Frost went on and on about “how restful just to think about living in New Hampshire,” then ended the poem with the line “at present I am living in Vermont.” I can identify with feeling wistful nostalgia for a place where one is not presently living and suppose that after describing the beauty of the Central Coast, I’d paraphrase Frost by ending my burst of nostalgia with “at present I am living in Tennessee!”

I once wrote 15 poems while riding in the passenger seat of a car en route from a vacation at S. Lake Tahoe to Palmdale, CA, and many of the poems in my chapbook, AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA, center on California. Here’s one about my reunion with brother Paul in northern CA after a 20 year hiatus in our relationship. It’s from a series of poems called “The Journey Back:”

THE JOURNEY BACK

Giant trees loom in shadow,
dust lying on their branches

like the powder of snow,
a forest of ghosts older than our memories.

We stand on a bridge looking down
at a clear stream, seeing through

to islands of pebbles,
unsure of how we will be together

after the desert of 20 years,
yet wise enough to know

nature can be trusted,
will inspire what is needed for connection,

winding through the narrow alley
between redwood towers, making our way

to the ocean cresting, blowing foam of memory,
believing the rock in its center to be redemption,

a solidness we have not known.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JOEL

This morning at St. Mary’s of Sewanee, we heard readings about John the Baptist, the wild man of the desert who prepared the way for Christ. An icon behind the altar had been changed to one that showed his image, and Sister Lucy said that in preparation for her homily about John, he had kept her awake half the night! Some of my favorite former sermons concerned John the Baptist, but I won’t be boring readers by putting in a homily this morning, regardless of how much I respect the ministry of John the Baptizer. Instead, I’ll comment on another commemoration, my grandson Joel’s birthday today.

Like Elizabeth of the New Testament, who bore John in her old age, my daughter Elizabeth bore her last son, Joel after she had raised her family. Joel, my grandson, celebrates his fifth birthday on this day of commemoration for John the Baptist. He was born a “preemie,” and my Elizabeth nearly died with toxemia bringing him into the world. Like John, Joel lives in desert country – among the Joshua trees and the San Gabriel Mts. of High Desert in Palmdale, California. On this day five years ago, I was in the delivery room to help bring Joel into the world, and he emerged with the ferocity of a John the Baptist. By the time he was two years old, he was listening to Gospel music, a little cricket singing on the hearth and holding an imaginary mike, chirruping “This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it,” and I was saying, “This is Joel whom He has made, rejoice and be glad in him!”

Joel loves desert creatures, especially lizards, and one of the books I have written for him, yet unpublished and illustrated by my young friend, Ben Blanchard, is about a prehistoric toad from Africa called the Beast Beelzebufo. I know Joel will appreciate it because he loves all “creatures great and small.” I tell my daughter Elizabeth that Joel, four pound wonder who reached up to grasp the oxygen lifeline as he swung out into the world, is the best thing she has done for us and “thank you, Elizabeth Alice,/for such simple packaging of soul,/this small goose babbling/a wild and unknown language.”

Here are two poems commemorating Joel’s fifth birthday written several years ago. They are part of an unpublished book of poetry entitled RESURRECTION OF THE WORD:

JOEL GOING ON THREE

lives in a house
at the edge of roses,

large pink and red faces
he touches each morning,

retreating from “pokeys,”
like a dapper Gospel singer

he changes shoes four times daily,
singing “It was a great, great thing

pat-a-cake for me,” (you did for me),
reports a red doodle bug flying

then crashing into backyard cottonwoods,
into his forecast of desert weather:

sun and abandon, always balmy.

YOU FIND THEM EVERYWHERE

Joel’s wooden snakes
wriggling in the fireplace,

in the shiny planked room
they lie, like living sausage links

stretched full length
to taunt Darla,

the miniature Doberman
who barks at nothing,

and Sam the fat cat
too plump to escape,

frightening the grandmother
as she enters her nightly bath,

the snakes no less menacing
because Joel has pulled out

their bright red fangs.
With his help the snakes still slither,

calculated protection,
defense against play invaders,

like his grandmother,
and her pristine notion of security,

…an old skin not yet shed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

ABOUT WATER

Water is the symbol of a major sacrament in Christendom – baptism. It’s also a symbol of purification and of life itself. We are blessed with clean water…or, better said, we know how to purify water so that human life is sustained and kept healthy. However, last year, one billion people in the world drank unhealthy water, and five million died from drinking polluted water, many of whom were children who didn’t reach the age of five years.

Each year, Sister Julian and Sister Miriam, formerly of the order of Sisters of Charity and now of the Community of St. Mary, travel to Port au Prince, Haiti to minister to dying children in an orphanage there, some of whom have become ill from infectious diseases caused by drinking polluted water. During the silent retreat held recently at St. Mary’s, Sister Julian and Sister Miriam talked about their forthcoming trip to Port au Prince and the problem of unsafe drinking water. As we listened to the presentation and watched the slides of the beautiful faces of children in this country, Vickie and I remembered that we had once spoken to Gail Drake, one of the founders of LEAMIS, International Ministries, Inc. and that she had mentioned a water purification system LEAMIS used in third world countries. We told the Sisters at St. Mary about the system and asked them to accompany us yesterday to see a demonstration of water being purified, sponsored by LEAMIS, at the Morton Memorial Methodist Church in Monteagle,TN. The demonstration awed all of us, and the Sisters promptly recruited the technician, who explained the purification process, to help set up such a system in Haiti.

The system the technician demonstrated is called a New Life International Water Purifier and is the brainchild of a man named Duvon McGuire who had visited Ecuador, South America with his family on a mission with shortwave radio station HCJB, “The Voice of the Andes” and contracted Guardia from contaminated water. This experience caused Duvon to study parasitology, and before he graduated from college he spent the summer serving in hospitals in India. There, he witnessed deaths that result from humans drinking contaminated water. So, in 1992 he designed a water purifier for orphans who had become ill from drinking unsafe water. This system was demonstrated to us yesterday at the Methodist Church.

The water purification system is fairly simple and filters protozoa, helminths, etc. from water by using bio-sand filters to remove the parasites, then a chlorination system to eliminate bacterial and viral contaminants. Sterile water storage is also taught. 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.

My botanist friend Vickie and I are interested in enabling the Sisters to obtain a purification system and to fund the trip for the technician who demonstrated the purification system yesterday. He will be able to train others in Haiti to use the system. The LEAMIS organization, founded by our friend Gail Drake and Rev. Debra Snellen, is committed to carrying out the Gospel imperative, “And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple…” and the Sisters of St. Mary who minister in Haiti have been searching for a method to do the same. The Sisters need $4,000 to carry out this imperative, and Vickie and I want to empower the work by garnering financial support for the water purification project. I plan to pledge the first $500 and feel that many who read this may be called to assist this project. We hope to enlist many supporters.

If you’re interested in ministering to those who are deprived of clean drinking water, most especially children in the orphanage in Haiti, write to me. Your support of this project will be an expression of your gratitude for the gift of water with which we are blessed daily.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

BLUE MERLOT

At dusk, evening before last, our good friends Brenda Lowry and Bubba Murrell aka “Blue Merlot,” “Women at the Well” performers, just voted “The Best Jazz Group in Acadiana,” appeared on our doorstep here at Sewanee. For four hours we had a real Cajun confab ranging from Gruen guitars to a fantastical tale Bubba is writing, part of which involves angels and Cajuns. “Well, Chere, isn’t that all there is, anyway – Angels and Cajuns?” I said. Bubba laughed and gave me a story line that only those who can stand at the edge of far-out imaginings and allow thoughts to flow without getting into a linear mode can follow.

Brenda gave us a copy of their new recording of “Women at the Well,” re-titled “There Is A Well,” a collection of songs that is beginning to have a history – it’s about women disciples and what Christ meant to them, imagined by Brenda and Bubba -- a wholly original interpretation of the feelings of New Testament women who followed Christ. The morning after our visit with these two talented musicians, we played the new recording before going to Dalton, Georgia on a day trip and agreed that these two performers were only getting to be the best musicians in the South.

Bubba, keyboard and production artist, guitarist, and songwriter par excellence, recently received a Grammy award for engineering and producing Grammy winner Terrance Simeon’s “Best Zydeco or Cajun Album.” Brenda, vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter, was recently named a Luna Guitars endorser, which is a woman-led company that empowers musicians by encouraging their growth in the music world through use of fine instruments. For full-length articles about Brenda and Bubba, log on to www.bluemerlot.com where you can read about their music, which is described as “gumbo funk,” sounds that combine genres of Louisiana blues, jazz, Gospel, swamp pop and R&B.

Over ten years ago, I can remember sitting across from Brenda at a table in Poupart’s Bakery, Lafayette, LA, listening to her talk about getting back to her music which began when she attended Loyola in New Orleans as an undergraduate. I encouraged her to “follow her bliss,” as did several professional people who discerned her singing abilities early on. When I was ordained a deacon in 1999, she and Bubba teamed up to produce and perform “Women at the Well” as an ordination gift for me. A few years later, I rented the apartment alongside my house in New Iberia, LA to them so they could have a private studio for developing their music; they practiced their music there until they found larger quarters for studio work.

Brenda and Bubba have spiraled into the music limelight since teaming up over ten years ago and play for festivals, dance halls, churches, restaurants, retreats, fundraisers, and private parties. When we visit with them, we often talk about mutual woes concerning the marketing of artistic work, but I always emerge from three to four hours of intense conversation about Art feeling inspired to persist with my own writing work. I hope that when they left at almost midnight, bound for Nashville and a trade show, they carried the same inspiration with them –soul-filling musicians that they are.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

THE SHERWOOD MISSION

Although my friend Vickie and I now attend Episcopal services regularly at St. Mary’s Sewanee, we have sometimes ventured into the valley of the Cumberland Mountains to the Epiphany Mission Episcopal Church at Sherwood, TN. Because of my long years as a parishioner at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, LA where I was ordained a deacon, I was drawn to the “same-name” church where Sister Lucy of the Community of St. Mary served as rector for 17 years. Coincidentally, when Sister Lucy returned to Sunday sermonizing at St. Mary’s, we moved with her.

The Epiphany Mission Episcopal Church at Sherwood is 76 years old, and for a long time, it was supported in its work for the poor and needy by what Fr. George Jones called “The Greater Congregation,” friends and generous benefactors of the Mission. At its most active in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, the small stone church boasted a walled garden built in Spanish Mission style with an open air chapel where the Eucharist was often celebrated during the summer. In the garden, the chapel had an altar and a statue of Mary, “Our Lady of the Hills.” In 1960, fire destroyed both the church and most of the walled garden, but today, a new church structure has been rebuilt, and the pool, fountain, and a partial wall guarded by “Our Lady of the Hills” still stands. The cavernous interior of the church could serve a few hundred people, but the entire town of Sherwood only has 200 inhabitants, so the congregation is small. One of the outstanding features of the Mission is the beautiful triptych behind the altar, a Greco-style rendering of the Baptism of Christ and two depictions of St. John the Evangelist . The original full-sized triptych, painted by Phillip Perkins and given to the Mission, was destroyed in the fire, but a study, or half-size rendering,of the original was found and presented to Epiphany Mission in 2003.

In an area where only 200 of 1200 former residents remain, due to a shutdown of an old limestone quarry in the late 40’s (quarry buildings resemble old castles sitting in a pasture), the Mission is a small beacon of hope parishioners refer to as a Phoenix that has arisen from ashes.

The Epiphany Mission is located near railway tracks where a mid-morning train shakes the drowsy worshiper awake, and the piercing whistle disrupts celebration of The Eucharist as it did one Sunday morning when we were worshipping there. The sound inspired the following poem from my chapbook, JUST PASSING THROUGH, published by Border Press.

INVITATION

Sister Lucy stands at a surround altar
consecrating the elements;

Outside blue and red panes
the hot air of August

settles on Our Lady of the Hills
perspiring, still guarding a walled garden

where dry leaves curl up
and fall without the grace of wind.

Sister extends her hands over the chalice,
the train from Cowan tunnel

whistles three long notes.
rattling through, rails chanting

The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming.

Her hands drop near His chalice,
pause for the whistle to be no longer,

and ringing rails echo:
The Lord is coming, the Lord is coming.

Chests heave and cough in the cavernous silence,
Sister’s deacon turns a page,

near blind, she stumbles on the words:
“we celebrate the memorial of our redemption,”

no one listens, no words act as intermediary,
the train has already brought them to the table

singing, the Lord is coming, the Lord is coming.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

AN INDESCRIBABLE PLASTIC WIND INSTRUMENT

Cool mornings of sixty degrees send us outdoors for an early morning walk on the campus of the University of the South. The Sewanee Music Festival has begun, and at 8 a.m., we pass students sitting under a white oak tree, tuning their violins, and, further on, a boy on a bench practicing deep quacking noises on his bassoon. The Sewanee Music Festival will last five weeks and is internationally acclaimed for its program for advanced music students and opportunities for professional concerts. The Festival has been going on 50 years and draws more than 200 students from throughout the US and other countries who participate in workshops and play in concerts with 50 teachers, performers, and great artists. It’s a plum experience for musicians and students, and you can hear music scales vibrating in the air on the campus throughout June and July.

This morning’s encounter with the bassoon player took me back to an old Cherchez la femme column I wrote called “An Indescribable Plastic Wind Instrument… and I did tell readers “Cherchez” would appear from time to time…so here’s my commentary on music and a wind instrument I wrote about in Cherchez:

“I used to turn off the vacuum cleaner when I received a letter from a British woman I befriended in Iran, as her news often lifted any bad disposition I might have developed because of housekeeping chores. This friend possessed a wry sense of humor straight out of an old “Punch” magazine. Anne once wrote a hilarious letter to me about her children dabbling in the world of music. “Sarah was given an indescribable plastic wind instrument for her birthday,” she wrote. “So we spend our afternoons following the score of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ (and, yes, God save the Queen from this indescribable plastic wind instrument!). Wouldn’t you like for her to cross the pond and bring IT for a long visit?” I think Anne was alluding to a recorder, a small plastic or wooden instrument that should be familiar to most Britishers.

Actually, I own two recorders. Although I studied and played clarinet in my youth, in old age music has come from me in the form of a recorder played “by ear.” I’m sure my deceased parents are sighing in relief. They agonized over the hours I spent hiding in the garage composing mournful dirges on the clarinet, playing out my adolescent angst. “It’s only Great-Grandma Runnels’ melancholia,’” they diagnosed my wailings in the garage.

While they were growing up, my daughters often returned from school to hear the sound of the “indescribable plastic wind instrument” drifting from my study. They’d shake their heads and declare it a “washing machine day” (that’s the day the washer broke down, and the laundry towered in height comparable to Mt. McKinley…and I had just returned from giving a book review called “I’ve Only Got Two Hands and I’m Busy Wringing Them”).

The writer of an article in a music periodical recently wrote that poets are seldom musical – that words seem to be enough music for them. But, the author pointed out, cigar-smoking Amy Lowell, the American poetess, loved music and translated two short, French light operas. “If Amy Lowell could translate operas and Mama is a poet,” I asked my daughters, “why can’t Mama wail on this historical instrument? Henry VIII had 76 recorders (one for each wife).” Shakespeare not only mentions the recorder in Hamlet, he brought it on stage for the audience to see and made the characters talk about its construction. I was in good company, indeed, when I wailed.

My recorder came home with me from Iran, but it was manufactured in Great Britain. The mouthpiece is chipped from sometimes-flings against the floor when I couldn’t get the proper wail from it, but, nevertheless, it was good for sending the children and Roya, our Persian cat, out-of-doors on an afternoon when all else failed to get them out of my hair.

Handel used the flute for “See the Conquering Hero Come,” but he found the recorder more suitable for “Wise Men Flattering May Deceive You.” Somehow the flute has a more joyful sound than the recorder, and there is a distinct difference between a lilt and a wail.

Perhaps I should have invited Sarah to bring her indescribable plastic wind instrument for a visit, just to save the Queen. And as for my experiences making wailing sounds on my chipped recorder, I told my family that playing the recorder was less harmful than taking up the fiddle and traveling with a Cajun band Saturday nights, san family. “O.K., mama,” they said, “Play ‘See the Conquering Hero (-ine) Come,’ please.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

HIKING

Four miles of walking today gave me four miles of nature study, but the last two miles were almost sabotaged by a woman at the Visitors Center of the South Cumberland State Recreation Area where we rambled after lunch. We went to this Center to find out more about the 16,000-acre State Park, which covers four counties.

When we walked into the Center, the receptionist gave me a long, observant stare. Yes, I thought, I have white hair, a few facial wrinkles, and am only five feet tall, but, yes, I want to know about hiking trails. She was twice my size and appeared not to have gone on a hike in quite a while herself, but she was quick to tell us, “This is a backpacking and primitive camping park. Not easy.” We persisted in trying to get information about a short hike near the Center. After ten minutes of stonewalling and showing us every brochure in the Center, she admitted we could walk this two-mile hike back to a lake, but…She looked at me again and pointed to a bandana with a map of the area imprinted on it. “You might need this if you get lost. You wear it on your head so you always know where you are.” I bristled – a map for two miles? And do I absorb directions for finding my way by wearing it on my head? Then, she took a real swipe, “You might need that walking stick ($16 worth) to help you keep your balance.” I wanted to tell her I wasn’t tottering stage yet, but held back. “How about snakes?” I asked. Aha, she had fodder for another swipe. “Honey, there’re snakes everywhere,” she delighted in telling me. “What kind?” I asked. “Copperhead, rattlers, water moccasins…want a brochure on the poisonous ones?” She smiled thinly after her last ditch effort to put me in my place as a woman too old to hike. I declined the brochure and thanked her politely but wanted to tell her that I had passed all my tests for Good Health and was the right weight for my height and age. However, I swept out before she could tell me about chiggers, ticks, deer flies, and any other deterrents to elderly hikers she could think of.

The trail went through a meadow where we found milkweed, Jo Pi weed, and other not-so-exciting plants, then into a wooded area where we found some respite from the sun. For me, the high point was the lake. After living in landlocked TN, in contrast to bayou-ridden Louisiana, I was overjoyed when we spied a small lake filled with singing frogs and a few genuine water lilies. “Hay la bas,” I cried. “Water at last.” I was reluctant to leave the water site but didn’t want the well-wishing receptionist to think that we couldn’t make a two-mile hike in 40 minutes, so we backtracked to the center, nearly running the last lap.

I can’t wait to ask the receptionist about the trek to Fiery Gizzard Trail near Tracy City, which is reputed to be the most rugged and difficult trail in TN. I’m not about to climb the terrain in the gorge, which is extremely steep and rocky (“the millions of rocks you must step on or across all seem to move as you step on them, making the footing very precarious,” the brochure warns), but I’d love to give her the impression that this creaky old lady is planning to step high on that trail --without a walking stick, of course…carrying a loaded backpack, of course…camping out, a la primitive style, of course, under a rock shelter, just as my mother did when she was a Golden Eaglet Girl Scout primitive camping in the Dismal Mts. Who knows, I may rappel off the Stone Door Bluffs –as Mehitabel, the alley cat says, “there’s a “dance in the old dame yet!”

Monday, June 16, 2008

SACRED SPACE

The anxiety I feel about the re-building of St. Mary’s Conference Center at Sewanee is that the spirit of the location will diminish, that it will lose its place as a Sacred Space. An administrator who spoke to us at the close of the Silent Retreat this week-end promised that the space would remain untouched in terms of environmental intrusion, but I’m still anxious. I’ve visited a few Sacred Spaces in my travels, as I mentioned earlier; i.e., Sedona, Arizona, Big Bend, Texas, a place called Dur Untash in Persia, and there are places along the cliffs at Big Sur and Point Lobos, CA that I feel are Sacred Spaces. In fact, I have asked that my ashes be scattered among the kelp in a small inlet of the Carmel highland near Point Lobos. Some people define Sacred Spaces as sites where prayer and meditation occur more easily, where human and Divine make a natural connection; others define Sacred Spaces as places where blood has been spilled; e.g., Dachau, Ground Zero, etc. For me, St. Mary’s belongs among Sacred Spaces, and I hope that it’ll remain unsullied by the building of $3 million facilities.

When I visited Big Bend, Texas several years ago, I experienced a feeling of being in Sacred Space in a tiny graveyard at Terlingua, Texas, a place we looked at on the map and traveled purposefully around but returned to the following day, drawn by a strange energy that baffled us. In fact, two friends and I got up that morning and said, almost simultaneously, “We need to go back to Terlingua.” It was a mid-summer day and unbearably hot, but when we saw the cemetery at Terlingua, we got out and walked through it, silent and oddly unaffected by the blazing heat. We stood in the graveyard, unmoving, for perhaps ten minutes, meditating in what I’d call the home of unknown gods. We were in prayer space – a bleached out, arid site where there was room for not one word. We were blessed by the sun and had as our companions sotol and ocotillo, two plants that thrive in the Chihuahua Desert.

Here’s the snippet I wrote in that Sacred Space, from a section in my chapbook, COUNTERPOINT, entitled “Texas Trails – 1999.” It’s also available from Border Press:

VIVA TERLINGUA

Among baked sandstone
and abandoned white rock houses

sans roofs, lingering ghosts greet us,
seeking deliverance.

A statue of Mary stands,
watchful in the alcove of rock,

undisturbed by the sun,
caretaking graves of cedar and stone.

She sleeps in the sunlight,
becomes a burning sacrament at night…

remembering her son’s fast in scarlet sand.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

SISTER JULIAN AND CREATION

Rain fell during the night, and the air was chilly on the bluff this morning. No place can be as gray as the mountains near Sewanee when the sun disappears. The encompassing fog isn’t cozy; it’s weighty. Mist hovers everywhere, reminding me of a scene in a British screenplay, perhaps the scenery in WUTHERING HEIGHTS or a television re-run of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Trees droop with moisture, bird calls are muted, and spirits could sag were it not for the meditations on the wonders of creation that Sister Julian delivers.

Sister Julian tells us everything that is created is headed toward the fulfillment of its potential, and the way she relates this statement in her gentle, but impassioned way, we have no room for disbelief. The statement reminds me of a reflection from C. S. Lewis’s ANTHOLOGY OF GEORGE MACDONALD, in which MacDonald writes: “For he regards men not as they are merely, but as they shall be; not as they shall be merely, but as they are now growing, or capable of growing, toward that image after which He made them that they might grow to it. Therefore a thousand stages, each in itself all but valueless, are of inestimable worth as the necessary and connected gradations of an infinite progress…”

In contemporary life, “developing human potential” has become a buzz phrase for achieving material and corporate success, but Sister Julian spoke, of course, of the potential in all of us to achieve spiritual fulfillment. She lectured on Creation Spirituality, emphasizing that the beginning and ending of existence is awe. Our assignment for the day was to go into the out-of-doors and be alive with all our senses, to let in the awe. “Let God surprise you,” she added.

Poetry always surprises me because I never know when the Muse will come and sit on my shoulder. This is what surprised me:

SISTER JULIAN AND CREATION
Rain pelted our disbeliefs
but she predicted sunlight,
anticipating more light than we had seen,
smiling to herself at a hoarse cry
outside the window, a rain frog
chanting Noonday Prayers.
She spoke the language of distant stars,
galaxies of potential, the world in a hazel nut,
coaxing us to wonder and awe.
She walked miles ahead of us,
a small figure parting the mist,
enfleshing our vision,
and the rain stopped,
we saw the mountains
greening before us again,
surprised by her predictions of sun,
we admitted the Mystery.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

SILENT RETREATS

“In your silence, /I am too much conversation.” This is a two-line snippet I wrote for a friend years ago, but it could have been addressed to the “One Whom None Can Hinder” (to borrow Great-Grandmother Greenlaw’s referral to God) at a silent retreat. A silent retreat at St. Mary’s is a new experience for me. I’m joined by approximately 50 other, temporarily-silenced, Associates of St. Mary’s, some of whom came from as far away as Pasadena, CA. The California participant rode a Greyhound bus for two days to get here for this retreat billed as “In the Beginning God Created.”

The phrase, “In your silence/ I am too much conversation” is an insidious one, and I’m re-learning how to be still in order to make the connection between human and Divine. Like most of us, I get lost in the noise and frenzy of the dailies and often sabotage reigns of silence. This morning, here on the bluff, the only sounds were those of myriads of birds, and we were allowed to sing the hymn “Morning is broken/blackbirds are singing,” during Eucharist. Another sound was that of the wind rustling the leaves of hickory, black oak, and sweet gum trees bordering the great bluff on which St. Mary’s Conference Center stands. During Morning Prayer, we read Psalm 104, which spoke of the Lord’s presence in the wind, of God riding on the wings of the wind and making the wind his messenger.

Sitting here, watching that wind play in the trees, I ponder the messenger, aka the Holy Spirit, and the messages I’m to receive during this retreat. Like a recalcitrant child, I want a “take home” message right now! However, I wait… and sit with my own words, “In your silence, /I am too much conversation. While I wait, I acknowledge the blessings of imagination, wonder, and artistic expression, an acknowledgement that turns out to be a prelude to Sister Julian’s meditation that we should regard this universe with awe and wonder. In Meditation I, Sister Julian (after Julian of Norwich) used brilliant slides of the heavens and earth to illustrate the wonder and awe of the cosmos, telling us that All That Is, according to scientists, is derived from a small, dense ball the size of a golf ball that exploded and created the “All.”

Sister Julian used the metaphor to lead into a reflection about Julian of Norwich’s remarkable prescience regarding the origins of the world when she received a realization that “All” was contained in a small, dense ball… a hazel nut. This revelation occurred in the 15th century, pre-dating the discoveries of modern scientists. Julian of Norwich wrote:

“In this revelation God showed a little thing, /the size of a hazel nut/in the palm of my hand, /and it was round as a ball. /I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: ‘What can this be?’/And it was generally answered thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ /I marveled how it could continue, because it seemed to me it could suddenly have sunk into nothingness because of its littleness. /And I was answered in my understanding, ‘It continueth and always shall, because God loveth it; and in this way everything hath its being by the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three characteristics: /The first is that God made it, /The second is that God loves it, /The third is that God keeps it.”

Friday, June 13, 2008

RAMBLING AGAIN

Sometimes during the slow, summer afternoons, my friend Vickie and I ramble to not-so-faraway places that are unfamiliar to me; e.g., Tracy City, TN, a town of approximately 1,000 about twelve miles northeast of Sewanee. We hadn’t been to the new tea room there, and I couldn’t imagine what high tea would be like in the square, white block structure, sans windows, but we passed it without getting a glimpse of the interior because it was closed. The tea room is one of the few attractions of this small town in Grundy County, TN. The other is a bakery called “The Dutch Maid Bakery,” established by a Swiss immigrant, John Baggenstoss in 1902, a few years after he migrated to the Swiss colony Gruetli, TN. John and his brothers began making breads and pastries first for the Gruetli community, then at Tracy City, and his recipes have been passed on to present owner, Cynthia Day, a baker with Publix Food Stores for many years.

Inside the bakery, we found baked goods ranging from whiskey cakes to fresh, home-baked bread, colorful bottles of scuppernong and other ciders, jams, jellies, preserves, and foods that you’d find at a county fair in a small rural town. One of the bakers told me that in its infancy, the bakery would prepare fruitcakes for Christmas, and the cakes overflowed in the front room of the bakery to the extent that bakers and customers had to walk, single file, to make a path through the cakes before they were mailed to buyers throughout the United States. The famed fruitcakes are still made there and sent throughout the country, but their storage system has improved since the days of front room stacking.

About 20 miles further along Hwy. 56, travelers can follow a winding road that may give them motion sickness before they reach the town of Beersheba Springs, TN where we once attended an Arts and Crafts Fair the fourth week-end in August. The festival is held on the grounds of the United Methodist Assembly at the old Beersheba Hotel, first built in the mid 1800’s. In 1854, one of our Louisiana military men, Colonel John Armfield, made improvements to the first structure and expanded the old hotel so that it could accommodate 400 guests. Also, twenty cottages were constructed on the grounds. Louisiana planters followed the Colonel to Beersheba Springs to escape the Louisiana humidity, and log cabins were built for Episcopal Bishop James Otey and our fighting Bishop Leonidas Polk. At that time, Beersheba Springs vied for the Episcopal university that eventually became Sewanee!

Grundy County is an interesting area, and the Arts and Crafts Festival at Beersheba Springs draws 200 vendors from several states. The proceeds from renting space to vendors at this fair benefit many local charities and other forms of outreach. Thirty-two percent of the 553 people who live in Beersheba Springs live below the poverty line, so the festival is a boon to the area.

I’ll be participating in a silent retreat at St. Mary’s beginning yesterday evening so will be “incommunicado” for several days. The silent retreat is sponsored by the Sisters at St. Mary’s Convent and is held annually for Associates of St. Mary’s, people who enjoy the hospitality and counsel of the Sisters and agree to follow a Rule of Life for six months before they’re admitted to the Order of an Associate. The Rule includes meditating and praying daily, reading spiritual literature and the Bible, participating in Quiet Days and retreats, as well as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, supporting the Community of St. Mary, and putting spirituality into action.

Another poem about crows and their connecting us to the spiritual, a subject that several readers found interesting, from SOARING, published by Border Press:

MORE CROW CALLS
Hearing a party of crows almost daily now,
black warriors raucous in the tree tops,
we become them, seeking seed
lodged in the yellowing grass,
cawing for revelations to be scratched up
and fed to the raven within,
to power ascent above the wind pulls
and fuel the flight straight into the heart of
… the Holy One.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

LUMBER AND SAWDUST

One of the persons I befriended after services at St. Mary’s, Sewanee one morning is The Rev. Gene Moritz, a native of Natchez, MS. He and his wife Janell live in Richmond, VA and come up to Sewanee each summer where they have a second home. They have been Associates of St. Mary’s for 15 years and support the Convent in its spiritual work. Like most Mississippians, Gene can spin a good story, and he delivers them non-stop at the breakfast table following Eucharist. Gene’s family was in the lumber business in Natchez, and he tells a lot of “sawmill yarns,” some of which resonate with me since my Grandfather Paul and Great-Uncle Ed were partners in the Greenlaw Lumber Co., first in Mississippi, then at Ramsey, Louisiana back in the early 1900’s.

Gene told a story about the diminishment of the revered white oaks in America in which his ancestors participated. The cutting down of these large trees (some as large in width as in height) was so profound that a song was written by blacks about the clearing away of these giants. In essence, the song relates the tale of the felling of trees from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and laments in the lyrics “if the white man cuts all the white oaks from the Atlantic to the Mississippi/, who will care for me?”

In a similar story about the rape of a forest, the proprietor of a bed and breakfast based in the old Greenlaw home at Ramsey tells about the clearing of all the long-leaf pine trees at Ramsey by my Great Uncle Ed. Several years ago, she told me that Great Uncle Ed cleared so many long-leafs, a person could stand on the porch of the Greenlaw home and see the town of Covington five miles away!!
Here’s a poem from my chapbook, MORE CROWS, about the demise of Gr. Uncle Ed’s wife who died while they were clearing the massive stands of long-leaf pines:

SAWDUST
The contradiction of feeling nostalgia
for a place I could not live a week
without angst, claustrophobia;
those tall pinewoods near Covington
where trees fell every day,
future houses rolled onto two ponds,
kept wet until shipping
down the rails to Franklinton
where another sawmill hummed.
I could not have lived there
because of the incessant buzz,
not only of saw but cicada,
like small shrieks,
a symphony of dissonance,
strung out, lonely,
voices among dead trees.
Alice was the lonely woman
thrust into a lumber industry,
promised wealth, vacations, dresses
and hired help by my great uncle;
getting instead, early death.
She must have been 30 in an old photograph,
a handsome woman in boat-shaped hat,
standing with children at her side,
poised on a wooden bridge
overlooking the River Bogue Falaya,
one naked child pointing a plump finger
toward murky water,
another, fully clothed in a checked dress,
long red curls in sausage style,
the three of them in this wilderness life
enchanted with the water,
dreaming, perhaps, of sailing away,
pulsating with the idea of New Place.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CROWING

Through the tall, clear glass windows behind St. Mary’s altar, I watch three ebony-colored crows soar past, their wings bent upward. Crows and blackbirds are my favorite birds, including the boat-tailed grackles that make piercing whistles and annoy city dwellers. On my first trip to Mexico, I often glimpsed boat-tailed grackles in mesquite trees near hotels,and began to watch for them on the entire driving trip from Monterrey to Tampico, feeling that they somehow expressed a noise of friendliness in a strange culture as they perched in the mesquites, their long creased tails drooping from tree limbs.

When I lived in Iran, the most memorable part of a trip to Isfahan was the sight of large ravens the Persians call “khalag birds” that strutted in the garden of the Shah Abbas Hotel. These huge birds weren’t threatened by ex-patriates sitting at tables in the garden and foraged freely while we ate lamb shish kebab and drank tall glasses of Tuborg beer (this was the era of the Shahanshah, before the mullahs took over!). The khalag birds were waiting for crumbs to drop, and we were eager to satisfy their appetite. Crows will eat just about anything, including harmful insects that damage farmers’ crops…and remnants of shish kebabs, I might add!

In my chapbooks of poetry, crow poems outnumber other bird lyrics, and one of the chapbooks is actually entitled MORE CROWS. These beautiful, purple/black birds are believed to be the most intelligent of all birds and have excellent memories, especially when it comes to remembering where they have cached their food. Myths abound about crows, but I prefer the heresay regarding crows that hover in the yard any length of time…they are said to be bringing messages…messages of hope, I like to presume. And just for those who collect crow trivia, it’s “crowworthy” and contrary to popular opinion that crows have fewer family squabbles than birds of other species!

Here’s a snippet about crows from my chapbook SOARING which can be ordered from Border Press:

SOARING
We bird watch,
birds watch us,
vigilant crows
watching for their day to rule,
seeing straight through to within,
the evolution of human soaring.
How we claim ascent,
tree top, free fall,
while sitting at a table,
lying in bed,
waking before daybreak,
wings beating wildly.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ARMY WIVES

This week-end, I received my eleven exposures, or whatever the number of “hits” is to heighten one’s awareness of a product, program, person, or event so one will either, buy, turn on, or participate in something because one is zapped eleven times with a television ad. The ad centered on “Army Wives,” a show with an obvious title, touted by both presidential hopefuls, Obama and McCain. When the show came on, it was my reading hour, so I didn’t catch the first installment for this season of an award-winning TV show. Perhaps I’ll watch it next week.

Years ago, 55 to be exact, I was an Army wife in El Paso, Texas (in the heat of desert summer) and in Limestone, Maine (during a severe winter). My experience as a Cpl.’s wife included the experience of learning how to cook ground meat 999 ways. I can also remember the bounteous plates of beans and potatoes I consumed while living in the heart of the potato industry in Aroostook County, Maine, and when I returned to Louisiana, friends wondered how I had fattened up when we had lived on such a meager salary as Uncle Sam provided Army personnel during the 50’s. The best benefit from this experience was the G.I. bill, and coupled with my salary at LSU, we managed to support an education for my ex-spouse. The Army experience involved two years following the end of the Korean crisis and wasn’t exactly a “mean” tour of duty – it was just a time of learning how to balance a budget of $300 for rent, utilities, gas, car note, and clothing. For me, the loneliness of life in snowbound Limestone, Maine while my ex-spouse (who was in Operations Intelligence) had 24-hr. duty, every other day, was the worst part of the two-year stint. I spent most days, reading, playing 45 rpm records of Tchaikovsky’s music, memorizing THE RUBAIYAAT, and leading a pack of children under the age of six on hikes through the snow, sledding downhill with them in front of the apartment of the old farmhouse we rented.

A few years ago, I was transported back to that memory of my life as an Army wife through the writing of a good friend, Janet Faulk. Following a fund-raising event for Solomon House Outreach Mission, I read aloud Janet’s vignette about a serviceman’s wife to a group of musicians and writers gathered on the back terrace of Marsh House at Avery Island, Louisiana. The book in which the vignette now appears is entitled THE ROAD HOME and can be found on the Border Press site. It’s a charming sample of Janet’s work:

THE SCENT OF ONION
In the five o’clock blue sky of summer, my gaze caught five helicopters flying eastward in formation, snatching me back to the ominous whirling sounds of hundreds of helicopters taking off from Fort Rucker, the largest heliport in the country, my hometown. In 1970, heavy Chinooks filled the sky and shook the Alabama red dirt, making it impossible for snakes to rest. Trainer pilots taught maneuvers, preparing young men to fly away to that contradictory place, Viet Nam. I was thirteen and this war had caused conflict on the home front all around me. I was simultaneously out of it, an adolescent oblivious to the real world, and in it, engaging with anxious families left stateside, as if everything proceeded as life-as-usual.

I feel guilty about being so na├»ve concerning Viet Nam when I lived in such a highly-charged stronghold, the major “jumping off” place for everyone associated with military reconnaissance and helicopters – pilots, crew members, mechanics. But, maybe the young wives needed me and my innocence to create a sense of normalcy that helped them to survive the state of “not knowing” in which they lived. I babysat their small children while they went to ceramics classes, shopped, participated in exercise classes, anything they could do to fill their time while they waited. These modern-day Penelopes were in perpetual motion, and the waiting must have been unbearable. In early evening, I often walked with them as they pushed their baby strollers around the block, telling them silly jokes, boring them with descriptions of happenings in the seventh grade. I let one of them pierce my ears with self-piercers. I helped another clean out a china cabinet that held more dishes than I’d ever seen in my life. We never talked about the war, except maybe a young wife would say how long it had been since she had received a letter from her husband.

Near dusk on a cool Spring evening, Linda, one of the army wives, knocked on our door. She had received word that Wayne was coming home on temporary leave. She had baked cakes all day and would my mother please let me come and chop onions for Wayne’s favorite salad. “I don’t want my hands to reek when he holds them,” she said with a pleading laugh.

I pulled on a sweater and went. It was perhaps the most significant thing I’ve ever done for romance.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

REMEMBERING CHERCHEZ LA FEMME

While watching Senator Hillary Clinton suspend her campaign for the presidential nomination in an eloquent, televised exit speech I swallowed a lump of sadness about her defeat. However, I applauded her remarks directed to women in which she made much of her remarkable, (soon-to-be unremarkable for other women who aspire to the presidency) run for the highest office in the U.S. She encouraged them to keep on trying to reach their potential. Her comments about the climate for women and success caused me to ruminate about a column I once wrote for the “Daily Iberian” in New Iberia, Louisiana, entitled “Cherchez la femme.” At the time I wrote this column, I had just returned from a two-year sojourn in Iran where I observed, first-hand, the second-class status of women in the Mideast. Through that experience of watching the denigration of women, I was inspired to write “Cherchez,” a column which began as a thorn in men’s sides: the subject of women’s rights. It gradually became a potpourri of comments concerning subjects ranging from Persian-bred cats to women’s love of old shoes. Translated, “cherchez la femme” means “look for the woman.” At one time in a period of French history, the phrase gained popularity in Paris when a rash of street murders occurred almost weekly. When the gendarmes had exhausted all leads and needed a suspect for the crimes, they would scratch their heads and point to a woman, exclaiming, “Cherchez la femme.” In my column, I used the phrase in a positive way to encourage people to look at the world at large, intimating that if the reader wanted to follow significant developments in the scientific, legal, medical, artistic, and, yes, domestic fields, they should “look for the woman.” After two years of writing this column, I seemed to have descended from the soapbox into the dishwasher, so I bowed out of writing about women’s rights for awhile.

One of the lighter columns of “Cherchez” which brought favorable response was entitled “We Need Another Lady Godiva,” and I’m including it here in its entirety. From time to time, I may include “Cherchez” columns that might “speak to your condition,” whether you’re a male or a female reader.

WE NEED ANOTHER LADY GODIVA
In this century of tax complaints, we often say that we’d do anything to help reduce the nation’s tax burdens. I re-read a story the other day that could inspire action to reduce taxes if some female was just willing to perform the act. I refer to the story of Lady Godiva.

One morning I went to the Main Street Branch of the New Iberia, Louisiana library for coffee and began chatting with the branch librarian. I wasn’t really looking for a news story, but I came away with a very bare fact: the librarian was a descendant of Lady Godiva, the woman with long tresses who became famous for her ride in her “altogether” through Coventry, England.

“I guess you could say she was the first woman streaker,” I told the librarian.

“No,” she corrected me, “she was probably the first protester. She didn’t burn her bra. She just did away with her riding habit. But she didn’t ride to expose her body; she rode to protest heavy taxation of Coventry that her own husband had imposed on the citizens.”

Somehow, I can’t visualize the First Lady saddling up, nude, to free us from tax servitude. But Lady Godiva was more concerned for Coventry’s welfare than for “what every woman should wear.” In the year 1043, Lady Godiva married Leofric, Earl of Marcia, and with him, founded a monastery at Coventry, endowing it with half the land of Coventry and 24 lordships. She also ruled the village of Madeley, Staffordshire after King William’s accession.

Legend tellers recount that Lady Godiva repeatedly implored her husband to reduce Coventry’s tax burdens. He finally became so exasperated that he agreed to do so if she would ride naked through the crowded marketplace. One legend reveals that Lady Godiva then undertook the ride, accompanied by two soldiers, her hair covering all her body except her legs. And upon her return, Leofric issued a charter “freeing Coventry from servitude.”

In “Chronicle at Large,” 1572, Richard Grafton wrote that Godiva first asked the rulers of the city to order all citizens to remain indoors at the time appointed for her ride. She then galloped through the town accompanied by her husband, escorts, and, of course, gentlewomen. So the people heard the horses but did not see her streaking. However, in the 17th century, a manuscript appeared in the Coventry archives that stated Godiva’s horse neighed during the ride, whereupon a citizen let down his window and looked out. This Peeping Tom was either struck blind or dead.

“Well,” I told the librarian, “since you’re a direct descendant, you’re the logical choice for the woman who will carry on this tradition of helping reduce tax burdens today. What are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing,” she replied. “In the first place my hair isn’t long enough – and, in the second place, what if my horse should whinny?”

Tax burdens still weigh heavily on bodies that refuse to “bare,” but, as I’ve pointed out before, if you want the facts about spectacular, progressive incidents in history, “cherchez la femme.”

Saturday, June 7, 2008

RED DIRT AND OCEAN

While traveling the road to Fayetteville, TN yesterday, I marveled at the piles of red dirt created by road machines along the way. I was taken back to my origins in southeast Louisiana where the red soil always made me wonder why my Greenlaw ancestors settled in a bed of rusty clay after living in the green hills of Virginia and, earlier, Scotland. Maybe they were iron deprived… the ingredient that makes the deep orange color in red dirt is iron oxide–abundant iron oxide. A few summers ago, I traveled to Sedona, Arizona and found great ridges of red rock in a place that claims to be a thin site “near to the heart of God.” However, red dirt is more indigenous to the South, and a form of Red Dirt music has sprung up in Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, and other southern states. It’s a mix of country, rock, Texas honky tonk, and echoing Mexican music. My good friend, Janet Faulk, who is originally from Alabama, confesses to a deep affinity for red dirt and put a picture of a red dirt road on the cover of her book, THE ROAD HOME, a collection of stories about growing up in Alabama during the 60’s. You can see the cover that features the red dirt road on Border Press book site.

In a former blog, I talked about the charm of Fayetteville, TN and the welcome I received from Pam Howell, owner of The Book Inn located on the square in Fayetteville. Recently, I placed copies of FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, THE KAJUN KWEEN, and SOPHIE’S SOJOURN IN PERSIA at the shop, and Pam offered to sponsor a book signing for me in the Fall. She also told me that there were several poets in the area. On the way out of the book shop I picked up a copy of “The Elk Valley Times” and found an article about another poet named Tom Springer who has just released his second book of poetry, SEASONS OF MY LIFE. Like GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, the poetry contains a medley of humorous and poignant verse; e.g., Springer’s opening poem is “Biscuits in the Oven,” a poem focusing on the early years of his marriage to his deceased first wife. Springer, a native of Lawrence County, TN, retired from the State Department of Human Services, fertile ground for studying people and storing up fodder for poetry. Pam Howell says she’ll feature Springer and several other area writers at my book signing in the Fall.

A snippet excerpted from poetry written about Tennessee last summer during a spell of homesickness for Teche country is taken from JUST PASSING THROUGH, which can be ordered from Border Press:

NOSTALGIA
I am called to the ocean,
unmoving here on the mountain,
the lack of water and motion of wave,
nearness to Gulf, river, lake,
and, yes, ocean, favor stillness;
here, a sea of limestone,
rock and bluff beggaring attention
from craggy, monolithic inhabitants.
I remember standing at the edge
of cliffs overlooking the Pacific,
gulls soaring in the cliff wind
over that cold sea of green light,
its belly lapping wildly
like a savage storm,
that day passed, lived out,
wished for again
and the sight of sea lions flapping,
bathing in the sea,
basking on promontories of rock.
Nothing has equaled my feeling of ecstasy
watching all of this, nothing moves here,
and I am unmoving, enervated
by the sight of motionless rock,
ancient frozen oceans…
a callous geology.

Friday, June 6, 2008

SPIDERLINGS, SPIDERS, AND PERSIAN POETRY

I suppose that I deserve two unwanted visits from spiders after writing about “all creatures great and small” in the last blog – some of these spindly creatures wished to be counted among the “small.” Twice now, when cleaning the front stoop, (as distinguished from a real porch, a new friend told me this morning – but I reckon a southerner knows a porch when she sees one!), I’ve discovered a cluster of sac-like objects behind French doors leading to the “stoop.” When I asked my naturalist friend to identify them, she put one of the objects in her hand and spread it apart to reveal a spiderling, otherwise known as a baby spider. I was spooked, not knowing whether she was holding a black widow, a brown recluse, or a wolf spider, all of which reside in Tennessee but none of which seem to favor the front porch in broad view of those who would broom them away – which I did to the unidentified spiderlings this evening. I assume that the spiderlings hadn’t molted yet but had left the egg sac and were slated to stay clustered awhile. An interesting aspect of the spiderling’s development is that they sometimes balloon. A young spider will point its abdomen in the air and send out a long thread we often refer to as "gossamer.” Wind will capture this light thread and carry the spiderling away on it. Some of those babies can travel a long way on that gossamer thread, but most of them don’t go far from their homestead. It’s o.k. with me if the spiderlings balloon and take a long trip because I, like Little Miss Muffet, recoil at the sight of them.

When I lived in Persia during the 70’s, we discovered an invading spider coming down the hall of our home in Melli Rah in the middle of the night. The huge, teacup-sized spider slipped through a crack in the front door, and we actually heard the door open and close as it entered the house. We got up and watched Roya, our Persian cat, pounce on the mammoth-like creature and carry it away. This incident is chronicled in my book, SOPHIE’S SOJOURN IN PERSIA, a young adult book published by PublishAmerica. You can order a copy on www.amazon.com or directly from PublishAmerica in Baltimore, MD.

Whether I'm writing about Persian spiders or Persian poets, Persia seems to be a subject that I never finish writing about. Last year, I wrote a third book covering our experiences in this mideastern country. However, this third book is not narrative--
it contains poetry--and, as I say in the introduction, I wrote it because sister poet Naomi Nye published a quote in “The Progressive” magazine, “If we read one another…we won’t kill one another. Read American poetry…plant mint…” So this is my mint, poetry about Persia when I lived among them… when I shared the hot suns of desert mornings and felt great affinity with Sa’Di, Hafez, and Rumi, the country’s great poets. As my Persian friend, Jabar, once told me, “We are same-same.” Yes, hopefully, with same-same wishes for peace in our time.

Here is a poem from FARDA THE NIGHTINGALES WILL SING, the collection of my poems about Persia, yet unpublished:

AT SA’DI’S TOMB
Sa’Di retired on the hill of Pahandez,
orator, poet, pilgrim to Mecca,
twice, smashed idols in temples there;
not unlike His Holiness Christ in Jerusalem,
and not unlike St. Francis,
he fed the poor, birds, and animals,
yet, was adored by princes of Shiraz.
His mausoleum was destroyed and built again,
a compound, underneath flowing
spring water as pure as his moral counsel,
pumped to the surface for his rose garden.
Sa’Di, an Isaiah of Persia,
chided kings to show justice, equity,
spoke with the heart of a deacon.
Serve humankind, he exhorted,
protect the weak and oppressed,
penning 1300 pages of ethical verse, moral excellence,
studied by Indian and Turkish monarchs,
proclaiming his intrepid lyric:
if we are unaffected by afflictions of others,
we are not worthy to be called human.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

“ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL”

Creatures feed on my yard here at Sewanee –that’s right, ON my yard, not IN my yard. They include deer, rabbit, and Moles I Have Not Seen firsthand but know they are there from the undulating surface of my sloping lawn. One night the mole(s?) dug up a crop of Impatiens and threw them aside disdainfully. They were looking for a meal of wriggling earthworms, which also abound in my yard. A friend says to spread cat litter around to keep them away. Had I Beatrix Potter’s love for night-creatures I might write the Tale of Miss Marauding Mole, but after seeing pictures of the ugly, cylindrical bodies of this critter, I desire no firsthand looks and am not inspired to compose such a tale. Rabbits hide behind the hemlock and mow the grass, and deer prefer any Big Boy Tomatoes we’re bold enough to plant. Last summer, they watched us pack our bags and leave for the Outer Banks, North Carolina, and while we were gone, they topped off the leaves of luscious tomato plants, ate the fruit, then nibbled the Mexican heather and daylilies down to “ground zero.” They left the zinnias intact. Not long after these unabashed creatures destroyed my plants, Sewanee announced a deer culling, but I’d rather lose the flowers than see those soft-faced creatures killed. My oldest daughter, Stephanie, who loves animals and houses eight cats in New Iberia, says I should feed the deer and tame them. However, the neighbors would be more likely to shoot me than the deer if they saw me trying to tame them because most people up here regard deer as major annoyances.

Critters and birds abound at Sewanee. They remind me of my favorite passage from Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS: “I think I could turn and live with the animals/they are so placid and self-contained. /I stand and look at them long and long,/they do not sweat and whine about their condition…” One of my Louisiana poems focuses on the activity of another creature who makes holy indentions in the New Iberia yard and one who, again, enchanted Stephanie when she was three years old – the armadillo. We had taken Stephanie riding in a grove of mesquites on an old oil lease in west Texas when we spied what she called “a big Appley Dappley” (Beatrix Potter’s mouse) and wanted to bring it home with us. She thought the armadillo was a larger version of one of her treasured toys, a rubber rat she inherited from my Godmother Dora in Virginia. During a visit to Blacksburg, Virginia, we missed Stephanie one evening following supper, and after searching the large Georgian house (one that had hiding nooks everywhere), we found her upstairs bathing the cats’ favorite rubber mouse. Stephanie named him “Appley Dappley.” So after two weeks of nightly scrubbings, Appley Dappley went home with us.

The following poem is not about a precious Appley Dappley but is a snippet about a creature so little respected, he was used in leprosy experiments by scientists encamped at the old Gulf Research Institute in New Iberia during the 70’s. The poem appears in my chapbook, AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA, and can be ordered from Border Press, P. O. Box 3124, Sewanee, TN 37375.

THE ARMADILLO
Morning finally comes,
as blind as he and half awake,
I sway to the back door,
look out to the edge
of the new blooming coulee,
surprised by the gray-striped shell,
a snout moving blindly in ground cover,
tiny head swiveling back and forth,
unearthing a grub,
the yellow substance of day
he could not find by night.
My grubs wait in the prayer of night,
four times, awakening me to walk
with pain in an unwelcome darkness.
He is an armored knight
passing my way, saying
you will find something,
something fat and rich
in the soil of morning –
even blinded.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

CARTOONS AND OTHER AMUSEMENTS
The burgeoning contemporary cartoon and comic book phenomenon interests me. As a WWII child, I teethed on comic books and the “funny papers,” and I describe the latter in my new book, GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, A Verse Retrospective of the Forties. On our 1940’s journey to “Diddy Wah Diddy” (California to you readers…also described in GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR), I can remember my mother and father creating their own “funny paper” by stopping in small Texas towns and buying the local newspaper so they could read the Society page and recreate funny notations about social events. “Listen to this one I just paraphrased,” my mother Dorothy would say to my Dad. “Mrs. J. B. Sweetwater motored to Copperas Cove, site of the famous Cowboy and Spurs Saloon to visit her aging parents, Mr. and Mrs. Brandon Pines and enjoyed afternoon ice cream with relatives and friends. Harold, do you think the ice cream came from the saloon? And what brand of ice cream do you think ‘afternoon ice cream’ is?” There would be deep laughter and on to the next social tidbit. “How about little Miss Patsy Cox made her debut in Swan Lake Saturday at the local theatre?” my father would rejoin. “Can you imagine a lake in the local theatre?” “Oh, Neeny,” (my mother’s name for nincompoop that she used as an endearment for my father) stop now, enough about this polite society we’ve left behind.” Life was amusement in small doses during that summer of our odyssey to California, and I’ll include the poem about the funny papers of this era from GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR at the end of this blog.

When I was preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church in New Iberia, Louisiana, my comic strip background often reared its head. I alluded to Charlie Brown from the comic strip, “Peanuts,” by Charles Schulz many times, and at my retirement party in the bayou side home of Jeff and Margaret Simon, Bubba Murrell went over to an open piano and began to play the theme song from the television program about Charlie Brown. One of my favorite sermons including Charlie was delivered to the students attending Chapel at Episcopal School of Acadiana one morning. The Gospel that morning had to do with Christ talking about the idea of personal prestige and self exaltation being the opposite of having a simple trusting heart…of authentic Christians exemplifying humility. It seems that Charlie Brown and Lucy are having one of their famous conversations in the living room of their home where Lucy is seated, quietly reading. Thank God, since once she opens her mouth, we usually hear a diatribe. Charlie Brown is munching on a sandwich. Charlie is musing about his hands, saying, “Hands are fascinating things.” In the next frame, he says “I like my hands. I think I have nice hands,” and in the succeeding frame, he stretches out his hands, boasting, “My hands seem to have a lot of character.” Lucy looks up as he goes on. “These are hands which may someday accomplish great things…these are hands which may someday do marvelous works. They may build mighty bridges, heal the sick, or hit home runs, or write soul-stirring novels.” In the concluding frames, Charlie really gets carried away and is bellowing, “These are hands which may someday change the course of destiny.” Lucy has put her book aside by now, and we wait for the axe to fall. She looks down at Charlie’s extended hands and says tartly, “They’ve got jelly on them.” Well, I don’t usually support Lucy’s negative ideas, but that day in Chapel I told the students that she brought Charlie down to his humanity…his humility. I won’t belabor this blog by repeating the sermon, but many times when I’m feeling “puffed up,” I glance down at my hands and remember the jelly story.

Here’s the poem from GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR:

READING FROM SUNDAY FUNNY PAPERS
He could press 4,000 pounds and sometimes 36 tons
and enlisted in the “mighty Navy” in 1941,
muscled arms riddled with tattoos, arch enemies he’d foil
in “arful” battles designed to impress his girlfriend Olive Oyl.
Each Sunday at the oak dining table my father read aloud
the adventures of Popeye the sailor man, a character he avowed
could handle any enemy who dared to invade the States,
a spinach-eating hero to all his admiring shipmates,
father shouting at the end of each strip, his own “zap, pow and bam,”
quoting Popeye’s “I yam what I yam, that’s all I yam,”
affirmation of my father’s individuality, a message belying the cartoon,
with Popeye, he was ready to battle Sea Hag, Bluto, and Alice the Goon.
His somber voice deepened, describing the cold cruel world he knew
as that of Little Orphan Annie, another comic icon of WWII.
who formed Jr. Commandos and blew up a German U-boat,
enlisted us to collect scrap metal to keep the US Navy afloat.
On her arm, Lil Annie wore a band with “JC” inscribed upon it,
called herself “Colonel Annie” and demanded we do our bit,
“Gee Whiskers,” my father’s voice would sometimes resound,
“She’s left Daddy Warbucks! Poor girl’s on shaky ground.”
Alley Oop in the Kingdom of Moo who traveled to the moon,
Prince Valiant, the Nordic Prince who fought the hated Hun,
Dagwood, Blondie, and Lil Abner in the Golden Age of comic strips
where our father took us on astonishing Sunday morning trips,
life served up in weekly installments of strange cartoons,
accented by his voice ascending on floating word balloons.

For those of you who haven’t bought your copy of GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, you can find one at Books Along the Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana, or order it at www.amazon.com, or write directly to Border Press, P. O. Box 3124, Sewanee, TN 37375. If you happen into a bookstore (I mentioned in a former blog) called The Book Inn in Fayetteville, TN, you will find a few copies there. And if you’re enjoying this blog, tell your friends how to log onto the site.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A POET’S LIFE

Emily Dickinson has been one of my favorite poetesses for a long time, but I had never seen the video of Julie Harris performing in THE BELLE OF AMHERST and recently rented the video made in 1976. It was a riveting performance, and I could relate to the way Dickinson went into voluntary isolation in order to entertain her Muse. I once visited “The Homestead,” Dickinson’s family home in Amherst, and remember standing at the window in her small bedroom, looking out at the Fall sunlight, thinking of her lines, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose, --a ribbon at a time.” A tiny white dress draped the dress form in one corner of her bedroom, and I thought about her description of herself as a “small wren.” Julie Harris’s performance about Emily’s life was filled with pathos, and it was difficult to tell whether the poet or the performer gave the finest performance.

Here in this glorious Spring, I can imagine the delight Emily felt when she reveled in her flower garden. She actually collected, pressed, and classified 424 flower specimens, and was partial to peonies, daffodils, and marigolds, three plants that also grow in my yard here at Sewanee. As a poet who appreciates the rejection of Emily’s poetry, I feel deep sadness that she composed 1800 poems, and only five of them were declared good enough to publish! All the hoorah about “slant lines” and eccentric punctuation has long since died down, and the eminent critic Harold Bloom dubbed her a major poet of the 19th century. Now on the “other side,” she must feel some gratification that she made a distinguished contribution to the body of literature in the world.

In 1986 when I visited Amherst and Emily’s home, one evening I saw an ad in the Amherst newspaper about a poetry reading scheduled in the Jones Library. The reading was to honor Robert Francis, another New England poet who has often been compared to Robert Frost. I knew nothing about Francis but decided to attend the program and when I arrived, I found that the noted poet Richard Wilbur was slated to introduce Francis and announce his birthday. Francis recited, without notes, from his latest book of poetry, much of it written in the minimalist style and delivered with wry inflection. Following the reading, televised by a Boston station, I returned to my room and wrote a poem that later appeared in my chapbook entitled AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA. The cover of this chapbook is my favorite abstract painting by my brother Paul. You can tell more about what went on at the Amherst reading from the content of the poem:

ROBERT FRANCIS READS ON HIS 85TH

Robert Francis, New England poet,
asked to be reminded of apples,
named and no-named, on his 85th,
and in the resonant voice
poems dropped from apple orchards
guarded by scratched door jambs,
the gates of an old library
celebrating a wry old poet.
His gray hair clung thin on narrow skull,
brown spots patched his cheek,
some color of experience,
as he wobbled up to read.
He advertised the perfect man,
one who owned freedom and leisure
to write words unpausing,
words uncompromised,
to be as God,
an intentional philosopher,
Creator of apples.
Robert Francis placed a finger
with far-reaching nail
against his downy chin,
a forgotten pasture of stubble,
and waited to shake the apple tree,
to cause the sudden fall of fruit.
People stood up to give him ovation,
the air rained apples,
enchanted poems,
Robert Frost came out of the night
and peeled a deep russet one.
That evening of celebration,
Francis reminded me that apples made poems,
light filtering through tree limbs,
a harmony of red fruit
rendered just ripe,
are some men’s gifts.
He reminded me
when doubting the mind’s retreat
into its own falsity,
poets see beyond,
are more ancient than scars
on a library stair rail,
flesh made word, word made flesh,
not metaphor and mood, but vowels
crisp as fine apples dropped,
and broadcast to heal…
disturbances of spirit.

Monday, June 2, 2008

FINDING FAYETTEVILLE

On Saturday, following the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was really an Episcopal service involving the Reception of the Sisters of Charity into the Community of St. Mary and the admission of Postulant Deborah as novice of the Community, we feasted on lunch provided by the Sisters. Bishop John Bauerschmidt made his first visit to St. Mary’s Convent, and the reception feast in his honor (and in honor of those being received) equaled that of a good south Louisiana banquet. After feasting, we set out for Fayetteville, Tennessee, a 40-minute drive from Sewanee, retracing a drive through Mennonite country near Belvedere, a tour covered in an earlier blog. Along the way, I made what I call “agricultural notes.” Baled hay covered the hillsides for miles, and we passed acres of bountiful wheat, its golden color vivid against the gray background of a rainy day. Cluster after cluster of Musk Thistles (a species naturalized from Europe according to my botanist friend, Vickie) bloomed along the roadside, their purple heads towering above yellow clover. We stopped to pick one head and brought it home to decorate the dining table.

In our field trips, we always forget to allow time and gas for Being Lost – this time, we turned off at Flintville Fish Hatchery, a place where rainbow trout eggs are hatched and raised to a length of approximately 10-12 inches. As the office closes on Saturday, we didn’t find information about how to get into this hatchery, but we do know that wonderful rainbow trout are raised there and stocked in 48 streams and lakes in 48 Tennessee counties. I was interested to locate the trout because the best plate of fish I’ve tasted in my seven decades wasn’t a platter of fried catfish in southwest Louisiana – it was a plate of broiled rainbow trout in a lodge at Sequoia National Park, California – rainbow trout accompanied by crisp fresh broccoli and carrots. I’ve never found an equal to that plate of trout. Unfortunately, in the hunt for the rainbow trout at Flintville Fish Hatchery, we got lost on the narrow road bordered by dense woods of sweet gums, sugar maples, and box elders. We wound our way through the forest passing isolated homes and no cars, and feeling a bit uneasy, as if we had entered a scene from “Deliverance,” the movie about southern backwoodsmen. We huffed to a stop at 3 p.m. in Lynchburg, Tennessee with an empty gas tank, 17 miles away from our destination of Fayetteville.

Road trips usually result in serendipity – off-the-path places that offer beauty and new experiences. The serendip didn’t appear until we reached the square in Fayetteville where we found a small bookshop called Book Inn, one of the independent bookstores scattered throughout the U.S. that have survived and thrived while competing with Barnes and Noble, Books A Million, and other chain booksellers. The proprietor told us she had been in business 17 years and does a healthy business despite the fact that readers are not too far from the sites of larger bookstores in Huntsville, AL and Nashville, TN. She had a small stock of regional authors tucked away in a side display, several of which were by Howard Bahr, an author of considerable talent, who lived in Fayetteville 13 years. Previously, he had held a long time position as curator at Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi. Since 1997, Bahr has been writing southern novels. One volume entitled THE BLACK FLOWER is based on an 1864 Battle of Franklin in Franklin, Tennessee. It was nominated for several awards and received the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Following the success of that novel, he wrote another book about the battle of Franklin called THE JUDAS FIELD, followed by PELICAN ROAD. The proprietor told us that Bahr had taught at Motlow Community College nearby in Tullahoma, Tennessee, and she expressed regret that he had moved back to his native Mississippi where he’s teaching Creative Writing at Belhaven College in Jackson. “He brought a lot to the town, and we love his books – his prose just flows,” she said. I’m returning to Fayetteville soon to place a few copies of FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE at the Book Inn as the interested bookshop owner related that THE CAJUN NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS sold well in Fayetteville. I’ll pick up a copy of one of Bahr’s Civil War chronicles when I return.

Real estate in this valley town, elevation 700 ft., is about $100,000 less expensive than that of homes on The Mountain. Were it not for the higher temps, I’d find it easy to live in Fayetteville. It’s a small town of 7,000 citizens who’re proud of their handsome historic houses, a charming square, the Antique Mall, a two-story 1870’s building with lots of antiques and room settings…and, of course, the Book Inn. On the way home, we passed Prichard’s Distillery in Kelso, distributor of rum made with pure water and premium molasses, but we dared not turn off the road to take a look at the distillery for fear of getting lost again. Leaving Fayetteville, we encountered road detours where earth moving machines and other heavy highway equipment clotted the landscape --clearing the way for progress and a healthy economy.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

SHE BUILT HER HOUSE UPON A ROCK, PART II

In the last blog, I began a “memoir upon a memoir” about Baptist missionary Dora Runnels, Greenlaw, my great-grandmother, and promised a second installment in today’s blog. Here is the conclusion to that story.

Part II.
Dora was known to be “quotatious,” often gathering her grandchildren in her bedroom to make them memorize Scripture. She thought about St. Paul whose dislike for women often annoyed her, but for whom she had deep respect as the best disciple of all. Her admiration was so great that she named her youngest son after him. The words of the fifth chapter of the letter he had written to the Romans came readily to her: “Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord Jesus Christ…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character…” (Romans 5:1-4) and most especially did the 13th chapter fill her disappointed mind after the encounter with the stoic pastor: “Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good and you will receive its approval…” (Romans 13:3). The night following the incident with the pastor’s blatant disapproval of her missionary work, Dora fell asleep on the words from Romans.

The next morning, she hitched up Nell and went to Mt. Pisgah where she formed a society. The women there told her about ministerial students, hungry men at Louisiana College in Alexandria who needed food as they often went without meals so they could follow their calling. Turning Nell toward the Great Northern Railroad Depot, Dora began another mission. The men may not approve of this action, she thought, but we’ll give them what they need anyway. Hitching Nell to a post at the depot, she marched into the station master’s office and demanded an audience.

“I want to send meal, potatoes, syrup, peas, canned goods, free of transportation charge, to the men at Louisiana College. You do remember Our Lord’s imperative to feed the hungry in Matthew 25?” (Matthew 25:31-46). The aging station master, a veteran of “The Late Great War” and a friend of Dora’s beloved captain simply said “I do” and scheduled an entire car for the shipment.

“Send it in His name,” Dora said, daring the man to oppose her. She vowed to sit down and chart her course for her missions that morning. Mt. Pisgah, Hays Creek, Pine, Bogue Chitta, Bogalusa, Rio, Enon…she had a lot of building to do but the field was broad, and she would remove the mountain of male opposition.

Dora Runnels Greenlaw, a more than “good Baptist,” and my great-grandmother, met the opposition of approximately 20 pastors, finally becoming Superintendent of Women’s Work in Washington Parish, Louisiana, a position she held from 1908-1920. Often, societies would weaken, especially when Dora ran out of tracts, and the women resorted to reading old sermons aloud. “After two or more sermons, the societies when to sleep, and it took several years of effort to resurrect them,” Dora related in her memoirs (Greenlaw, Mrs. L.D. MEMOIRS OF THE BEGINNING OF THE BAPTIST WMU OF WASHINGTON PARISH ASSOCIATION, 1920. Private printing). Much of what I have related is paraphrased and expanded from Dora’s chapbook of memoirs, which is now in the Archives at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

That day in 1909 when Dora struggled out of a mud hole and overcame the shifting sand of a male pastor’s disapproval, she revitalized an already strong faith in Christ and began to build a legacy that she passed on to other generations, a legacy that morphed into different denominational forms, including this Episcopal deacon now relating her story. She told her stories of struggle and faith, wrote poetry, taught her grandchildren Bible verses, and ventured out in her buggy daily to appeal to pastors for cooperation in spreading the Gospel. Dora Runnels Greenlaw established not just that one Spring Hill Society, she formed eighteen missionary societies in Washington Parish. Today, those missionary societies remain a testament to her call to build many missions – even Episcopalians know about the proliferation of WMU! Dora had clearly heard Christ’s words and acted on them. She died the night I was born. In my family, relatives tell strange stories about her soul transferring to me because she was a poet and so am I. Perhaps…but I think it’s fair to say she passed on her discipleship to me, and she inspires me to strengthen my own faith. In the closing paragraph of her memoirs, she says, “He who leads his armies had another armor bearer ready.”

A short biography of Dora Runnels Greenlaw is included in BAPTIST BUILDERS IN LOUISIANA by John Pinckney Durham and John S. Ramond. The authors reported that in 1916, pastors finally relented and attended the annual meeting of the WMU of Washington Parish, and in 1918, the societies raised over $11,000 for their missionary work, a considerable sum in that particular period of history and in a rural Louisiana parish where farmers struggled to maintain their families. Dora began her mission work as a woman of good faith, became transformed through her service and mission study, and died as a woman of great faith, for…”The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because…it had been founded on rock.”

In the middle of a rainstorm that pelted the windows of the chapel at St. Mary’s this morning, the reader stood up and read the exact passage I have just quoted. It was accompanied by a fanfare of lightning and thunder!!