Wednesday, December 30, 2009

COOKING AND ART – Cooking: An Art


Grandchildren deserve equal time, and grandson Joel, 6, had his “little hour” yesterday, so it's time for the one and only granddaughter Kimberly to be onstage. Kimberly will be 18 in three months, and she’s one of those artists who characterize a parallel relationship between visual art and culinary art. For Kimberly, cooking is as much an art form as her painting, and she’s hypersensitive to the details and flavors that create quality cuisine.

Kimberly began painting one summer while I was visiting in California. We had begun experimenting with drawing and painting a small mural within a large, unsightly crack on the concrete wall enclosing one end of the backyard pool. Despite the jeers of her big brother Troye and her cousin Martin, whom I chased away, we created a desert landscape in the small space, and Kimberly became hooked on art. She has taken private art lessons for years and has won numerous Grand Prizes at the Antelope Valley Fair in California. Several of her paintings, including a portrait of me and my sister Sidney Sue that she painted from an old childhood photograph, hang on my walls here in New Iberia, Louisiana and at Sewanee, Tennessee.

Kimberly began cooking seven years ago, and when I went out to Palmdale one Thanksgiving, I made her my sous-chef, a position that required her to clear away and wash pots as we progressed with meal preparation. Too much dishwashing inspired her to advance to chef, and her mother Elizabeth has become sous-chef. Kimberly and Elizabeth have collected a library of cookbooks to equal that of my Godmother Dora Peacock who collected recipes, rather than cooked gourmet dishes. My godfather Markham Peacock donated the collection to Virginia Polytechnic Institute after she died (you can Google the name "Dora Greenlaw Peacock" to find out more about the collection). Two years ago, when Kimberly visited New Iberia at Christmas, she prepared a Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo that could have won ribbons at the New Iberia Gumbo Cook-off, and we have since begun giving her Cajun cookbooks.

The artist/chef connection fascinates me, and Kimberly is in good company. The impressionist painter Monet kept voluminous cooking journals and provided recipes for his table at Giverny, France. He loved food that was fresh and in season, and with his wife Alice, served beautifully-prepared dishes for notables like the painters Renoir and Pissaro, sometimes presenting pike from his own pond and vegetables and herbs from his kitchen garden. If he served mushrooms, they were picked before daylight before they could be presented at his table. Several of Monet’s favorite paintings, such as “The Breakfast Table,” “Luncheon," and “Luncheon on the Grass” reflect his love of food and its artistic presentation. Some of Monet’s artist contemporaries, Cezanne and Millet, were also food lovers and served artistic dishes such as bouillabaisse (Cezanne) and petits pains (Millet).

Kimberly’s art career is in its infancy, but she garnered a Grand Prize for a painting of food -- her still life of fruit arranged in an ornate bowl. She always cooks with fresh ingredients, disdains packaged food, and is very fussy about her meals. When she visits Louisiana, she discards her diet regime – one that focuses on nutrition and a slim body – and indulges in shrimp and crawfish dishes.

When Kimberly is asked to cook, she says simply, “Select a recipe and I’ll make it – anything.” However, we know better than to select one that contains packaged ingredients. She makes a family favorite, Baked Spaghetti, which she’s preparing for seven of us tonight. It’s a common-sense recipe that Elizabeth enjoys on her birthdays each year. Kim also bakes and has a certain predilection for chocolate.

We have an apron ready and have scoured the kitchen, anticipating this chef’s arrival. Vive le food art! Note: The paintings in this blog are Kimberly's work.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

“NOW WE ARE SIX”


The chimenea about which I wrote last month finally fostered a good fire during Christmastide. Joel, my six-year old grandson who is visiting from California, inspired us to build a roaring fire in the pot-bellied chimney on the patio, and it provided a few hours entertainment for us on a chilly December day. After Joel helped Vickie build a fire with pinion wood, he gathered pine cones and sweet gum balls to stoke the blaze by dropping them down the chimney. We sat around the fire and drank hot tea with honey and lemon, a drink that Joel had never tasted. He was introduced to tea time and sat quietly watching the flames and sipping his tea.

Last year when Joel visited, he wasn’t as composed, and I’m amazed at the rapid changes in child development that take place within a year. Last year, he wriggled, tapped his feet, ran around the living room -- was a child in perpetual motion. This year he’s a little old man who has learned to sit at the table, use a knife and fork with dexterity, and join in table conversation. When he tires of adult talk, he asks to be excused and amuses himself with the figures in my manger scene, creating a drama of his own by talking all the parts of the figures at his station behind the TV set where no one can hear the dialogue of characters in an imaginative play he has created.


At dinner a few days ago, Joel seemed pensive during most of the meal and suddenly blurted out, “I’m glad to be over here. This little girl at the other house (his other grandmother’s place) punched me in the stomach two times, and her mother didn’t even make her stop. When she finally did, the little girl kept on hitting me. I asked my dad what to do and he said to ‘block her.’ Then the little boy who’s visiting hit me too and followed me around everywhere. He has a bad cold. You know I have asthma, and if he keeps following me, he’s going to give me Double Asthma.” At that point, everyone at the table cracked up, which encouraged Joel to confess more “tell all.”

“Do you think your grandmother is Dr. Phil?” someone asked, and we laughed again. “Don’t hold back,” another family member quipped. Joel was nonplussed. “Well, what do you think I should do?” he persisted. Someone told him to punch the girl back (which my daughter Elizabeth has encouraged Joel not to do), and I suggested that he inform the mothers. “Hmph,” Joel said. “The little girl’s mother doesn’t even tell her to stop at first. She just says that’s the way she plays with other kids.” The matter was never settled because for the most part, we’re non-combative people and didn’t want to encourage fighting, but my grandmother instincts almost overcame me. I wanted badly to tell him to punch back. Instead, we insisted that he talk to the mother again. Such are the trials of Joel at six years old, and since he’s home schooled, his exposure to bullying is minimal. Stomach punches are new to him, and hitting is offensive to all of us.

Joel has a slight build and as a “preemie” weighed in at four pounds when he was born. I flew out to California to help deliver him six years ago and feel deep kinship with him. He had great composure when he told the story of his struggles with an aggressor, but he sensed that he was in a sympathetic climate and confessed his problems in a wry way. We stifled laugher, knowing that in the process of socialization (unfortunately) Joel will meet many more aggressors and people who possess ill will, although most of that will be expressed verbally–in every arena, including church groups, perhaps especially in church groups during the last decade.

When Joel departed for the night, he took with him packets of decaffeinated tea, honey, and a huge prize lemon Judge Anne Simon had given us after a tea party in her home during Christmas. Every day, Joel arrives, asking for a cup of tea, and we wonder if it was really the soothing effects of tea after the “Dr. Phil session” that caused him to appear so becalmed when he left us. Yesterday, he reported that one of the aggressors had left, and he had experienced resolution without confrontation. We had prayed for that happy conclusion!
.

Joel’s development during the past year reminded me of A. A. Milne’s poem from NOW WE ARE SIX:

“When I was One,
I had just begun.
When I was Two,
I was nearly new.
When I was Three,
I was hardly Me.
When I was Four,
I was not much more
When I was Five,
I was just alive.
But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever,
So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever.”

Photos by Vickie Sullivan

Saturday, December 26, 2009

CHRISTMAS BRINGS BIOGRAPHY OF CHARLIE BROWN’S CREATOR


Charlie Brown, Lucy, and other “Peanuts” comic strip characters often people the sermons I deliver at both the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, Louisiana and at St. Mary’s chapel in Sewanee, Tennessee. The strip runs in over 2,000 newspapers and has inspired a book entitled THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO PEANUTS by Robert Short in which this author writes about theological themes that occur in the cartoon strip. I confess that I find these themes also, and I’m always referring to Lucy as the ultimate anti-Christian because she debunks the behavior of her friends, especially Charlie, and emerges as a thoroughly spiteful character.

This Christmas, my friend Janet Faulk (author of ROAD HOME), gave me a biography of Charles Schulz written by columnist and reporter Rheta Grimsley Johnson entitled GOOD GRIEF: THE STORY OF CHARLES M. SCHULZ. I was pleased that the book was personally inscribed by the author. Rheta is remembered by New Iberians as the author of a book about Cajun country entitled POOR MAN’S PROVENCE published in 2008. Rheta often enjoys trips to this area to visit her good friend Greg Girard, eminent photographer of the Atchafalaya Basin. My friend Janet has also met and befriended Rheta and admires her unpretentious writing style.

Rheta lives in Iuka, Mississippi, a town of nearly 3,000, in northern Mississippi near the Alabama border (which is an attention getter for Janet who is a native Alabaman). She’s won a plentiful number of awards, including the National Headliner Award for Commentary in 1985, the Scripps Howard’s Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for outstanding human interest reporting in 1984, the Scripps Howard Writer of the Year from 1983-1985, and in 1991 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

I like Larry King’s remark about Schulz’s characters being in all of us – a point that I often make in my sermons when I invoke Charlie Brown. I also liked Rheta’s comment that rejection is Schulz’s specialty… “he has spent a lifetime perfecting failure.” Indeed, the characterization of Charlie Brown bears out the remark, and Lucy is a strong supporter of that failure.

In GOOD GRIEF, Rheta tells about Schulz’s wartime experiences, explains how Charlie Brown came into being, and describes his life-long battle with depression and agoraphobia. Again, Charlie Brown reflects that struggle in “Peanuts.” The book is a very honest, intimate account of Schulz’s life, and Rheta presents the paradox of Schulz in a graceful, insightful manner.

This biography is complete with family photos and is a “must read” for lovers of “Peanuts.” Rheta has earned many cudoes for her accessible, charming style of writing, and I look forward to reading more of her stories centered in the South.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A FROG FOR CHRISTMAS?


Last year about this time, Border Press reviewed the text and illustrations for a children’s book entitled THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO, which I had written and Benjamin Blanchard (I call him “Ben German”) of Lafayette, Louisiana had illustrated. For a year, a whole lot of dickering with a program that would accommodate the color illustrations and cover transpired, and, finally, a few days ago, the printer informed us that a proof will arrive next week. For Ben’s sake, I’m hoping it’ll be delivered by Tuesday, at the latest, because I think the first proof will make a great Christmas gift for both of us.

My collaborator Ben, a young man in his twenties who now lives in Sedona, Arizona, is a certified raw foodist. He spent a summer training for certification with Tree of Life in Patagonia, Arizona and worked with this organization after he graduated from his schooling. I’ve known Ben since he was a baby and have watched him go through various stages of drawing and painting, an interest in film, and, finally, raw food preparation, at which he still works. However, he also seems to have found his niche as a children’s book illustrator. For many years, Ben and I have shared a love of Peanuts and the antics of Charlie Brown, a passion that often inspires me to include Charlie in my sermons. Ben’s mother, Janet Faulk (author of ROAD HOME),has provided Charlie Brown books for Ben since he was a toddler and has nurtured his passion for drawing and cartooning.

We’re holding our breaths that the proof of THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO will properly showcase Ben’s art in the final printing. The book is actually a poem that I wrote for my grandson, Joel, 6, who lives in arid southern California. Joel has a passion for reptiles, and I thought he’d be fascinated with the story of this giant prehistoric devil toad that was discovered in Africa over a year ago. Perhaps I’ll be able to show the proof to him at Christmas. THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO is a short poem, and the story of its history and size inspired Ben to do some wonderfully-whimsical drawings for THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO. Last year before Ben left for Arizona, we discussed details of the poem and illustrations that would go into the book over a cup of coffee at a Starbucks cafĂ© in Broussard, Louisiana. We spent three hours sparking each other’s imagination. I love working with a young artist who has esoteric tastes in art and literature. Ben’s now doing illustrations for a long poem about the moon that he wrote, a copy of which his mother shared with me a few days ago. It’s delightful!

The droll illustration shown above is a copy of one of the pages in THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO. Our hope is that the book will be available at Amazon.com by the 15th of January. It will also be listed at borderpressbooks.com.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WINTER BLOOMS


The sight of a winter-blooming red camellia in a vase on the breakfast table gives me a morning boost during this gloomy week of Louisiana monsoons. This morning’s “pick” is a beautiful blossom gathered from my daughter’s yard, and what a treat to find flowers blooming in December!

Over fifteen years ago, I was commissioned by Live Oak Gardens Foundation and Acadian House Publishing to write the text for a book about Live Oak Gardens at Jefferson Island, Louisiana. While researching the book, I spent many days in the gardens, enjoying the varieties of camellias displayed in “generous levels of light,” as I wrote in the book, LIVE OAK GARDENS, A PLACE OF PEACE AND BEAUTY. I was fascinated with the gardens planted by J. Lyle Bayless, Jr., the original owner and designer of Live Oak Gardens (then called Rip Van Winkle Gardens).

When Bayless first saw a red camellia in Jackson, Mississippi , he was enchanted with the beautiful flower, and his interest was further stimulated at a demonstration about grafting camellias given by his friend, E. A. McIlhenny, creator of Jungle Gardens on Avery Island. In 1917, Bayless purchased Jefferson Island, and his interest in camellias burgeoned when he saw the Jeanerette Pink Camellia which grew in the front yard of the Joseph Jefferson mansion on the island. In 1952, he began clearing the land around the Joseph Jefferson home and planted it with numerous varieties of camellias and azaleas. He also designed a 1 1/2 mile live oak avenue leading up to the gates of the Joseph Jefferson home.

After Bayless’ plantings were destroyed by several freezes and hurricanes, he commissioned Geoffrey Wakefield, an English horticulturist, to develop Rip Van Winkle Gardens. Interestingly, Wakefield had lived at Haver Castle, birthplace of Anne Boleyn and was the son of the head gardener for Lord Astor. On Jefferson Island, Wakefield designed many small gardens joined together with a circuitous path, importing plants from throughout the world, particularly camellias. His assistant, Mike Richard, eventually became the Director of Horticulture for the island gardens. Bayless continued to expand his camellia garden and won more than 1,000 prize ribbons at southern flower shows. He also hybridized many camellias, naming a prize white camellia “Elizabeth” after a relative.

In 1978, Bayless donated the tract that comprised the gardens and the old Jefferson Home to Live Oak Gardens Foundation and built a home for himself at the edge of Lake Peigneur. On November 20, 1980, oil well workers, who were drilling under Lake Peigneur, punctured the roof of the salt dome on the island, causing Lake Peigneur to drain into a mined-out cavity, and as the lake drained, the ground around it caved in. The lake swallowed up 65 acres of Live Oak Gardens, including greenhouses, thousands of plants, and Bayless’ lakeside home. Bayless retired to Maui, Hawaii where he enjoyed the abundant plant life until he died in 1985.

Today many varieties of camellias can still be found at Live Oak Gardens on Jefferson Island, and visitors from all over the world continue to enjoy J. Lyle Bayless’ legacy of a luxuriant garden on an island rumored to have been frequented by Jean Lafitte and his buccaneers. You can read further in LIVE OAK GARDENS; A PLACE OF PEACE AND BEAUTY, published by Acadian House Publishing and available at Live Oak Gardens, Jefferson Island, Louisiana.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A CHRISTMAS POEM


I’ve never written a Christmas poem, but this year seems to be the year for publishing poetry, as evidenced by three books of poems published in 2009, so I’m including the poem below in this year’s production. I think it’s important to say that the meditative space at the little convent of St. Mary’s on The Mountain (pictured above) provided inspiration for the Muse many times during the past year. The gray stone chapel fortress on the bluff, the good Sisters, dressed in their blue jumpers and white blouses, continually offering prayers and worship, and the feeling of community engendered by these blue angels–all provided vision for an expanded spiritual life. Here’s one of the results:

A CHILD IS BORN,

The Word prospering from a poor beginning,
the sacred march to Bethlehem,
driven by longing for something beyond,
Joseph wanting to be counted, to stay within
the crumbling margins of the acceptable.
Imagine Mary’s rude place in the straw
and her alienation on the darkest bed,
good births often occurring
on the threshing floor of the world.

I doubt that she cared about the rudeness
or the restless animals that paced in their stalls,
lying in a place she knew she would forget
as soon as she held the star-crossed infant
and gazed down at the Word prospering,
covering Him with her blue shawl,
a feckless protection, startled by that wail
foretelling undisclosed agony.

And what prescience overcame her,
even in her new rapture,
that she would know in the night of stars
lay a proclamation and a declamation,
her birthing would deliver death,
a link of joy and loss.

She would be elevated as He was elevated,
the Word prospering from a poor beginning,
no one would remember the hour of joy
forever after depicted
as this expression of maternal agony,
and He would be held accountable
for what man had done to man,
believing the substitution would clear
all who would assassinate one another.

Before his altar, the one of stony wood
not offering the comfort of mercy
but the diversion of sacrifice,
we feel the desire for goodness,
a sense of the numinous,
but have inherited the ground of Golgotha,
uttering mysterious promises
that the Word will prosper,
that we can get behind the beauty
on our compulsive quest,
are entrusted with His speech
of freedom and joy,
yet linked to the poor beginning,
straw on the threshing floor,
animals pacing in their stalls,
there-the Madonna and Child,
a last exhilarating vision,
the world’s slow redemption.


Thank you for your interest and responses this year. I wish you the blessings of this Christmas season. Diane+

Friday, December 11, 2009

AN AFTERNOON WITH TWO ARTISTS


My poetry mentor, Darrell Bourque, cuts a wide swath in the national and international literary world, but his subjects are born in the provincial atmosphere of small town south Louisiana. In his home tucked away behind a bamboo hedge near Church Point, he emerges as a man who exemplifies Louis MacNeice’s description of a poet–“an extension of …a concentration of… the ordinary man.” Darrell resides where he has lived most of his life–in the frame house in which he grew up, located between two towns: Sunset, which was briefly the sweet potato capital of the nation at the turn of the century, and Church Point, the Buggy Capital of south Louisiana and home of the Cajun Woodstock.


Traveling north of Lafayette toward Sunset, my friend Vickie and I observed that the countryside was flat, prairie-like pastureland, a pastoral place where quarter horses were being trained and Hereford cattle grazed. After living on The Mountain at Sewanee for three years now, the flatness seemed more flat than I remembered. We turned off on Jessie Richard Road, almost immediately sliding into the drive beside a bamboo hedge that entirely surrounds the home of Darrell and Karen. The bamboo, which Darrell planted in 1975 as a wind break and for privacy, hides a lovely rose-colored frame house with bright blue shutters and blue tin roof, colors straight out of the heart of the French Quarter. We crossed the cobbled brick patio and were greeted by the Bourques and Sam, a Jack Russell terrier who moaned like a good Baptist during most of the visit. After the traditional Cajun bussing and hugging, we entered a home filled with art treasures—paintings by Lynda Freese, Clementine Hunter, John Hathorn, Dennis Williams and others. The crown of the collection is a painting entitled “Arnaudville,” by former ULL history professor, Gloria Fiero. Through the courtesy of Dr. Fiero, this painting became the cover for Darrell’s newest work, CALL AND RESPONSE.

Darrell had been fasting, so we didn’t linger long viewing the gallery of art and Karen’s studio, and sat down to eat at a festive table decorated with a Christmas table cloth. Except for the piece de resistance --a flourless chocolate cake his wife Karen had made according to a recipe by Emeril -- Darrell had cooked the meal: salad with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts, pork roast, couscous, a casserole of Darrell’s own concoction: roasted red peppers, zucchini, and yellow squash, purple onions, seasoned with garam marsala and, of course, Tony Chachere seasonings. Karen passed around a basket of nahn that Darrell claimed to have included with the meal because of my sojourn in Iran. I asked him to say grace to “give me a rest,” and he said a simple thanksgiving for friendship and food, Buddhist style. A former Roman Catholic, Darrell recently took his first vows as a Buddhist in the Shambala tradition.

Mealtime is a time of celebration for most people who live in Cajun country, and this one was no exception. The two hours spent at the Bourques’ table was a time of conviviality and friendship, and we talked about old friends and shared experiences, eventually turning to poetry and Darrell’s latest work. I asked him how Buddhism had affected his poetry, expecting a complicated exposition on the influence of Buddhism, but he answered simply, “it has had a subtle effect,” explaining that the entire idea of non-attachment has affected his art. “I’m less attached to ’finished product,’” he explained. “When I write something, I get rid of the attachment to what I think is good. Sometimes, something you think is good is not. A good poem still has merit but what you may consider to be a bad poem also has merit.” I laughed and said I felt better about writing a plethora of what I consider to be bad poems during the last fifty years.

Darrell has been writing poetry for over forty years, and I’ve followed his work since the early 80’s when I wrote a feature article about him for “The Daily Iberian,” and, a few years later, introduced him at a poetry reading in the New Iberia Library. In 1989, I enrolled in a Creative Writing course at ULL that he team taught with Dr. Carl Wooton, and filled one of the thickest portfolios of poetry I’ve ever written during a five month period. No doubt about his teaching abilities—he is inspiring! In recent years, I’ve begun to realize that he isn’t just the perfect Poet Laureate of Louisiana, he could achieve the position of Poet Laureate of the United States. After reading his two latest books of poetry, which he gave me before we left, I’m even more convinced that my evaluation is accurate.

CALL AND RESPONSE, Conversations in Verse, which Darrell and Jack B. Bedell, poet and director of Louisiana Literature Press, wrote together, is a collaborative work of two voices telling stories in lyrics that range in location from rural Louisiana to exotic places in the Far East and Europe. The book was written after Bedell contracted West Nile virus and during his illness realized that to heal himself, he needed Darrell to “help him make poems again.” The resulting work carries an explicit message about Darrell’s love of communicating. In the introduction, Darrell writes: “Poetry is for me one form of conversation. It is a way of talking back and talking into things–talking back and talking into memory, and ancestry, talking into the geographies I inhabit and the family I am part of; talking back at calamity and experience; talking into relationship, talking back and talking into the languages that have shaped my understanding the world I live in; talking back and talking into history; talking into possibility and into hope.” There, he says it all in one short paragraph—his credo as a poet!

The collaborative style of these two poets in CALL AND RESPONSE was based on the chants that workmen used when they were picking cotton, digging ditches, and doing other physical labor. One worker would sing a call, and the other workers would respond in song. The poem that resonated with me and virtually came alive, when I saw his wife Karen’s stained glass rendering of it, was “On An Overgrown Path,” a remarkable poem of love for Karen to whom he has been married 46 years. In fact, Karen was the surprise of the visit. I knew that she worked in stained glass, but I wasn’t prepared for the stunning brilliance of her work–it’s an exquisite match for Darrell’s poetry. We toured her studio in a guest cottage behind the house, a small workroom where she carries out what she calls her “spiritual work.” .
Karen is largely self taught; however, she also studied with Dave Temple who owns Acadiana Art Glass. Only a few pieces remain in the studio because she sells or donates almost every piece she creates. One arresting stained glass window of a chubby African angel caught my eye, but equally brilliant were her floral renderings, mandalas, and madonnas. Each piece of glass she inserts into the windows depicts a spiritual value, of which she is unaware until she finishes the piece and then researches the meaning of the colored stone or glass she has used. Karen says she is guided by some force that takes over and illuminates the work. The poem that inspired the jewel of her collection, shown below, was Darrell’s “On An Overgrown Path,” dedicated to her.

“The red table still holds its redness
after all these years. It is chairless
now, this table we took our meals on.
But the lilies you planted in the borders
Still bloom every month as you planned
it. Spider lilies in September, arum lilies
throughout the summer, amaryllis in
the early spring and crocuses and tulips
and hyacinths in their time. Nun’s
orchids are still here among the weeds
and grasses as is the evergreen wisteria
with Zephirine Drouhin roses twining
through it, dropping petals in our plates.
and we are here too, surveyors upright
and open, in the tangle we still tend.”

After the studio visit, we followed a path into the Bourques’ winter garden, a paradise of holly trees, ginger trees, banana plants, camellias, Louisiana sweet orange, grapefruit, and lemon trees, and crepe myrtles flanked by several bronze sculptures done by William Lewis, a sculptor now living in Arnaudville. Darrell and I posed, arms linked, for a photo taken in front of a sculpt depicting a poem by Rilke, but I disappeared myself from the results, as he looked more appropriate standing alone beside his favorite sculpture.

We visited three hours and left only because Vickie had to give a report for a Solomon House meeting. But we’re going back, at their invitation. They issued the call, and we’re responding to it! It will be a good departure point before we wing back to Sewanee. I feel the inadequacy of words when I say that being with the Bourques is an experience of being with two gifted people who have not only mastered their art but have mastered the art of living well.

Note: Photographs by Vickie Sullivan

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

POSTCARDS ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR

My good friend, Morris Raphael of New Iberia, has many talents, the most well-known one being his skill to write books about Teche country and a column in “The Daily Iberian.” However, he’s also a unique artist who has designed post cards covering Civil War battles in the bayou country that showcase his deftness in drawing. Raphael sketches the intricate details of battles that he has also narrated in BATTLE IN THE BAYOU COUNTRY and A GUNBOAT NAMED DIANA, two of a dozen or more books he has written.

The postcards are miniature, vividly-colored drawings that should attract the attention of Civil War buffs and warrant framing, which one of Morris’s sisters-in-law in northern California has done. I keep my postcard collection atop a bookcase in my study and am considering framing them as a Christmas gift to the house here (that’s the newest narcissistic rage – giving yourself a Christmas gift!).


The postcard that particularly attracts me is that of the Yankees converting the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany into a hospital, showing one of the pews that has been removed from the church being used as a feeding trough for horses. Several of those pews were salvaged, complete with the horse’s teeth marks, and remain in the back of Epiphany Church. They’ve outlived threats to sand and restore them to shiny new pieces of church furniture.


Another colorful postcard depicts General Banks celebrating the Yankee occupation of the David Weeks mansion, now known as The Shadows on the Teche, a property of the National Trust. Raphael’s mini history on the back of the postcard describes Banks riding horseback through the dining room of the old mansion. According to Raphael’s WEEKS HALL: THE MASTER OF THE SHADOWS; Mrs. Moore, who had become wife of Judge John Moore after her first husband David Weeks died, fled to the attic of The Shadows because she refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. She became a prisoner in her own home, and as is revealed in WEEKS HALL, “General Banks and his staff did everything that they could for the mistress of the house, but she would have none of it and moved to a room in the garret on the third floor, remaining there in willful seclusion…” The First Lady of the Shadows died in 1863 and was buried in the southwest corner of the ground between two magnolia trees.

Many of the cards depict scenes around New Iberia, including the Rebels repulsing Yankee invasion at Bayou Petite Anse, Avery Island, Louisiana. The card reveals a Union plan to destroy the Avery Salt Mine that was thwarted by a small artillery unit positioned on the hillside. The Yankees were forced to retreat, carrying their dead and wounded back to gunboats on the bayou. Another postcard depicting a battle scene near New Iberia shows Confederate Col. William Vincent and his 2nd Louisiana Cavalry ambushing two Yankee cavalry units at the Nelson Canal bridge. According to Raphael, the Union advance was halted, leaving the road full of dead and wounded.


Battles at Irish Bend near Franklin,, at Brashear City (near Morgan City), Vermilion Bridge, and at Cornay’s bridge near Pattersonville, Louisiana – these are a few of the skirmishes included in the postcard set and exhibit Raphael’s skillful draftsmanship and imagination. I’m happy to own a full set drawn by this talented friend.

In 1979, Raphael received the Jefferson Davis award from the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of his historical works. Now in his ninth decade, this New Iberia writer and artist continues to write a column for “The Daily Iberian” and feature stories for “Acadiana Life” magazine. He and his wife Helen live in a home with windows overlooking the fabled Bayou Teche, a stream which inspires many of his Teche country stories.

Monday, December 7, 2009

ENTRIES FOR A RAINY DAY


When the rain falls in Louisiana, it falls heavily. My patio floods, the glass porch springs a leak, and at breakfast I stare out at darkness, praying that the gray slashes will soon stop. A friend sends me an e-mail, writing that she is lying abed with a virus and contemplating what she wants to do in 2010. Another friend sends me a comment on my blog about living “lightly,” with no attachment to “things” and admits that she would grieve if she had to give up any of her prized possessions. On a gray day, I agree with her, since many of the objects indoors–vases, lamps, rugs–reflect color and brilliance that comfort me. I don’t wish for the friend’s virus, but I feel the urge to return to bed and read.

Instead, I go through more papers and journals. In my great-grandmother’s secretary, where I store some of my writings, I find journals written over ten years ago-journals that contain thousands of entries, some of which became poems published in at least ten of my books of poetry. Great-Grandmother Dora Runnels Greenlaw’s secretary is fit housing for the journals as she was a poet who died the night before I was born, and family members say that there was a literary transference. Such is the nature of superstitious Scots.

I must have had more discretionary money at the time I purchased the journals because they have brown, black, red, and tan genuine leather covers with gilt-edged pages! Such presumption! I leaf through them and find a few readable snippets. I’m passing them on to readers who may be having the same rainy morning and are spending meditative time indoors.

A GRAY TORTOISE

crosses the road,
fears averted;
the small sound of a motor
disappearing his head,
this lover of safety,
shell resident,
who chooses to dwell in isolation.
I watch him practice immobility, thinking,
he may as well stick his neck out…
the road will not change.

HARVESTING

All night the acorns rained,
hailstones in a calm night,
season shifting squirrel bounty,
creating the sharp explosion
of too much plenty.

Here’s a newer snippet that I wrote after purchasing the famous chimenea that appeared in a previous blog:

NOVEMBER EVENING

The new pot-bellied chimenea
with its big navel
stands erect in a light rain
pelting the red floor of the patio,
pinion logs glowing hospitality,
burning away anxiety
and bringing comfort in an old blaze,
memories rising in the curl of smoke.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

LIGHTEN UP


I’m always curious about the places where writers do their work and the manner in which the Muse comes to them. For me, the dining room table suffices – or a striped chair in the living room here in New Iberia, or a faded, red velvet antique chair in the bedroom of the cottage at Sewanee. My favorite place to entertain the Muse is in the passenger seat of a moving car, and I often think of taking a train trip so that I can write poetry while traveling at a high speed, hurtling toward some favorite spot in the U.S. (like California).

Recently, I picked up a book entitled JOURNEYS OF SIMPLICITY, Traveling Light, a book that features writers who made an art of “unencumbered living” and the few things they took with them on journeys or to preferred writing habitats. My favorite vignette is the one about Annie Dillard who wrote her famous PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK in a small cinder block room overlooking a rooftop next door and a parking lot. Dillard claims that writing is done best in “a room with no view so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” The list of objects she took to her unadorned room is short: books, quotes on index cards, various colored pens and yellow legal pads, and her brilliant mind. She reports that one day she closed the window blinds and never opened them again during the time she was writing the book.

In the early 2000’s, Dillard set up a writing tent in the yard of her home on Cape Cod and conceded to using a computer, put down a rug, moved in a desk, chair, cot with mattress and took along all sorts of bird skeletons, stones, and whale bones. By taking only this sparse collection of objects into the writing tent, she felt free to invite the Muse daily.

One of the most arresting essays in JOURNEYS OF SIMPLICITY was about the renowned chef M.F.K. Fisher who tells of WWII food shortages. She describes a cook named Sue who, at 70, lived alone in a deteriorating house that had “the scent of bruised herbs.” Sue spent less than $50 a year on food and wandered along cliffs and beaches, picking up weeds, sea spinach, pink ice plants, and kelp for salads that became legendary for taste and variety.

JOURNEY IN SIMPLICITY is a guide to simple living and provides a peek into the lives of writers, chefs, explorers, etc. who know what is essential to good living and what they took on their important life journeys. It’s written by Philip Harnden, a Quaker who lives in northern New York State.

Reading this book inspires me to ponder how much baggage I think I need so that I can live the good life in two dwelling places–in a subdivision house here in Teche country and in a cottage on The Mountain at Sewanee. The implicit message in JOURNEYS IN SIMPLICITY is for us to learn to dispossess ourselves of so many things–to practice non-attachment. My excuse is that I like a change of scene, but, then there is that statement by Dillard about living in a room with no view so that we can meet imagination in the dark!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

ROAD HOME


During the holidays and throughout the past few years, I’ve heard enough ranting about the end of the world and how we’re living in the apocalyptic age to inspire my own rant refuting that subject. I think I hear a lot of fear mongering in the name of religion going on, but as I said at Thanksgiving, I prefer to enumerate blessings, so I’ll leave the end of the world to the fundamentalists and concentrate instead on present-day Joy, a fruit of the Spirit, St. Paul says…and, he adds, “the rest is dung.” Amen. There–that’s as close to a rant about naysayers as I’m going to write.

One of the events that gives me much joy and renewed belief in the humor of the human spirit is the reprinting of a collection of essays, a la southern style, entitled ROAD HOME, written by my good friend, Janet Faulk of New Iberia. The book should be in print and ready for distribution by Border Press by late December and will appear on Amazon.com. Here’s one of the vignettes entitled “Ticket for Life” from Janet’s book:

“TICKET TO LIFE
If I’d had fifty cents more in 1963, my life might have turned out differently. Beauty queens are important in small towns, and they gain their titles in various ways. In my hometown of Clio, Alabama, the beauty queen nominees collected money in tin cans set on counters all over town; the kind you see in hometown grocery stores and locally-owned convenience stores. Votes were a penny apiece. In the first grade, my opponent in the “Homecoming Princess” competition was Carol Roberts. She was a pretty, prissy girl from a well-to-do family, plus she had more collection cans, strategically placed around town, than anyone else. My mother thought that it was fairly obvious what the outcome was going to be, and she just hated knowing that her daughter really didn’t have a chance to win.

I have no recollection of how nominations came about, or how I ended up in the competition at all, except that I probably was as cute as any of the other little girls. I had a big dimple in each cheek and a spray of freckles that fell across my nose the way a sprinkling rain dots dusty porch steps. My light brown hair was fine and soft. I wore it pushed back with a hair band, the colorful plastic kind with big bad teeth, and the band let a little wisp of bangs slip out over my forehead so that when it was hot or when I was exasperated, I’d poke out my bottom lip and blow and my breath would make the soft hair dance.

I must have been a popular girl because I remember boys would wait at the foot of the gigantic silver sliding board for girls to come flying down, and sometimes they waited for me. Actually, those boys had a bad habit of yanking dresses up as the girls would land square on their feet in the dusty sand at the bottom of the slide, but when they were told by the teacher that such conduct wouldn’t be tolerated, they went to cracking head bands, which may have been more socially acceptable but certainly was more painful. Popularity does come with a price.

On the final day of the beauty contest, the money that had been collected, practically all coins, was poured out onto a table in the front of each class. The anticipation was high. When the judges counted the money in the first grade, I had lost the contest by fifty cents. I must have been a little disappointed, although I don’t remember it, but my mother was totally outdone with herself. She still has guilt about not adding another handful of change to my collection can.

It’s probably just as well though, because I think that somewhere along the way, by some conscious need or unconscious act, we are issued lifetime tickets. These tickets are instrumental in defining who we are, how we are to behave, which experiences in life we are going to be able to take part in, and how we will synthesize these experiences. And, like an all-day-ride ticket at the state fair, there are always restrictions. Right away, the folks around you – relatives, teachers, and friends – become cognizant of the ticket you’ve been given, and during your formative years they keep reminding you of it.

My theory is clearly proven when you consider all the unattractive girls that you see vying for one beauty queen title after another. They have the ticket to enter. Important people in their lives have told them that they are beautiful, and indeed, after years of hearing the same message, it becomes ingrained in them. Like Carol Roberts, who went on to participate in many other beauty contests, they believe they have the “prettiest hair” or “the most beautiful eyes” in the world and must act on that belief in order to please the ticket masters, who over the course of a lifetime, become unidentifiable, and the ticket itself becomes questionable.”

As I said on the back cover of Janet’s ROAD HOME, these stories are authentic tales narrated with a strong southern voice. Charming vignettes told with “wisdom and delight”! The picture above shows both front and back covers. The photograph was taken by Janet Faulk, and the design of the book was done by Martin Romero.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

THE SEASON OF BLESSING


Most people I know consider their lives to be blessed. I was reading an article in a magazine sent to me by my sister-in-law (who is a Christian Scientist) about gratitude, and it set me to thinking about how many times I hear people saying, “I’m blessed.” I watch the evening news only to stay abreast of the economy, the weather, or for other educational purposes, but I often tune out the bad reports because I hear words of ingratitude and “unblessedness” grumbling in my ear. This isn’t a Polly Pureheart stance–I just get tired of hearing commentators grousing about the crumbling state of the world.

Even when I served as director of Solomon House and saw hundreds of needy people weekly, many of them left me with the words, “I’m blessed.” The phrase wasn’t and isn’t confined to any class of people, and I hear it repeated more often than I hear phrases of ingratitude. C.S. Lewis once described his mentor, the Scottish minister and writer George McDonald, as a man who was “hospitable as only the poor can be.” That statement has always resonated with me because I’ve often been the guest of such hospitality. I’ve also seen impoverished people give beyond their means, and when I ponder this thing called gratitude, I honestly don’t know many people who aren’t grateful–who don’t either volunteer time to good causes or open their checkbook to some charitable endeavor. I encounter giving people more frequently than I do miserly or ungrateful people. Recently, I read that volunteerism is burgeoning, that charitable giving is still strong, and the exception to all of this are the corrupt who have been toppled from their perches of power on Wall Street. I repeat, most people I encounter and know are grateful people.

Every Thanksgiving, I especially remember my godmother Dora and her husband Markham who contributed so much to my life and to the lives of my offspring. I wrote a tribute to Dora in the introduction to my book, THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL, and Markham appears in many of my blogs and poems. When my oldest child was born, Dora entered my life in a cogent way when she re-introduced me to Anglicanism – true Anglicanism–the tradition of "a lively, changing body of thought," as Urban T. Holmes says, that embraces comprehensive thinking and invites all to come to the table. She was dismayed that I had fallen away from the church, so she began to send packages of books published in the old Church Teaching series, books by the mystic Evelyn Underhill, and by her mentor, C.S. Lewis. She also wrote long letters with a line that she repeated often about people losing everything except God and finally realizing that He had been with them all along. That was the essential blessing that my godparents gave to me–an intellectual nudge and their heartfelt wish for me to develop my spiritual life because, as Dora said in an inscription in one of Evelyn Underhill’s books, “we wish for you the fruits of the spirit above all else – for then, all riches will be yours.” In later years, these godparents made my life more comfortable materially, and I remember them daily for that assist, knowing that I’m blessed. However, the initial gift was one which Dora called (in the words of Evelyn Underhill) the “Radiance of Reality” or the inspiration to pursue the spiritual life. Even though she died before I entered the process to become an ordained deacon, she was probably the greatest influence on my decision to answer this call.

Among my possessions I have four blue leather journals Dora purchased on several of her trips to New York, journals in which she wrote sporadically and which included notes on the cost of “The Woman’s Home Companion” (a total of three cents) to poems she wrote during her many days abed with respiratory illnesses. Here’s one written on Oct. 31, 1939: “How quickly the present/swirls into the past/like so many leaves/fallen from a tree./ A sudden gust,/and we,/bereft and naked/must await/another Spring.”

Dora loved music and declared that it expanded the soul. During a Thanksgiving holiday in the 60’s that I spent in Blacksburg, Virginia, my godfather Markham built a roaring fire in the living room fireplace and put on a recording of “Madame Butterfly.” The three of us sat on the sofa and spent a quiet afternoon listening to opera while snow blanketed a weeping willow they had planted for me beside Dora’s study. Of music, Dora wrote: “At the sound of some music, we feel flooded with joy, as if we stood under an apple tree in full bloom, caught in a cascade of falling blossoms. When we become old, we lose our blossoms more freely–a sudden sorrow and we are nearly stripped. The older we are, the greater the toll, and how we do hang on to the blossoms–the symbol of life somehow…” Then, in December of 1940, Dora wrote: “Such beauty God distills from the human heart. As the harp must stand the tension of taut strings and the agony of vibrant plucking, so the individual and the human race must stand the strain of pressing on in faith and the slow despond or crashing defeat of human effort-and see through all of it the Divine plan of God, spun out like great music. I am listening to the mellow, poignant singing of Negro spirituals from Greensboro, North Carolina. How similar their spirituals are to the great Hebrew chants…”

I’ve been blessed by the influence of good and grateful people. If you google Dora Greenlaw Peacock, you’ll read about her contribution of a cookbook library to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute where Markham was head of the Dept. of English and Foreign Languages for many years. The portrait of Dora, shown above, was painted during the 40’s.

Monday, November 23, 2009

CHIM-CHIM-CHIMENEA


We’ve made enough trips to Mexico for me to appreciate Mexican artisans and their colorful pottery, and I was especially impressed by the pottery work of Oaxacans when we vacationed in Oaxaca City about six years ago. Since then, I’ve passed displays of pottery and chimeneas in Texas and New Mexico that have caused me to covet one of the earth-toned chimeneas for my patio. Friday evening, I finally decided that I just had to have one, so we set out for Wal-Mart’s to look for a front-loading fireplace and found a small one that we felt would brighten up a patio devoid of anything except a bereft looking St. Francis statue. Right away, we learned that if we purchased one, we needn’t expect to be able to transport this big-bellied oven to the car. Even so, the brawny Wal-Mart worker had to use a wagon to carry it, and my neighbor was enlisted to help us unload the piece and place it on the patio without dropping it on its stomach.

Just as we prepared to fire it up with pinion wood (to ward off the ubiquitous mosquitoes that hover around my patio), Janet, my neighbor, informed us that “Downtown Alive” had been cancelled because of storm clouds. Her forecast held, and as we unwrapped the package of wood (yes, you can buy firewood in Wal-Mart), rain began to fall. Ever wonder how you prevent rain from pouring down the chimenea’s chimney and flooding its stomach? If you have been through a Louisiana hurricane, you know that blue tarp will cover anything, including leaky roofs, so we unfurled blue tarp and shrouded the chimenea for two days.

Yesterday afternoon, we folded up the blue tarp and brought out the wood. Now, I’m a former Girl Scout executive, and Victoria has camped in every campground in the U.S., but we must have had a senior hour before we remembered to use kindling to get the fire started. We burned up an outdated copy of Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana canons (a lot of pages to keep us wayward clergy in line), a cardboard box, and we even tried to set fire to a damp pine cone before figuring out that we needed to strip kindling from the pinion wood. Voila, we had a fire going by 3:30 p.m.! We sat and looked at the fire, basking in the glow of the flames, and reminisced about fires we have known – including my memories of ovens in Iran that were used to make the wonderful nahn we often bought at the bazaar and ate with homemade chili.

I’ve since learned a lot about chimeneas, including the fact that Mediterranean food tastes better when cooked over a wood burning fire, but instructions that came with the chimenea warned me that this big-bellied oven sitting on my patio can’t be used for cooking. Chimeneas originated in Mexico, of course, and were primarily made of clay and terracotta, but today you can buy elaborate ones made from cast iron. On a windy, chilly day in San Diego, California, I enjoyed an outdoor meal near a cast iron chimenea, and I’ve eaten in other restaurants where they’re used for cooking and for creating a cozy ambience.

I’m told that my chimenea may not have a long life span due to its tendency to crack because of the difference in expansion between the inside of the chimenea and the outside surface temperatures. I’ve been advised not to move the chimenea around very much as it likes a stable environment and fractures easily. It also prefers gardens and enjoys the faces of flowers, rather than blank walls. (You can plant plants as close as six inches away from your chimenea. As for maximum warmth and coziness, two-four people can stay comfortably warm by sitting two-four feet away from the chimenea.

Articles about chimeneas warn that wet climates like Louisiana may cause cracking, flaking of glaze, and crumbling clay, so I guess I’d better get the most use from this open fire garden heater before I meander back to Sewanee, TN in the Spring. I’m thinking of having a chimenea party on one of those gray days in winter to share the aromatic scent and radiant blaze of this wonderful oven.

Friday, November 20, 2009

MOSS TRAILS


When I was in central Florida recently, I spent some time with a small boy named Alex who is a member of the Sullivan clan, a very clever two-year old who walked with me several times on the lake property belonging to Inez Sullivan. We chased butterflies and squirrels, gathered shells near the lakeshore, mocked crow calls, and picked up moss that had fallen from the oaks surrounding the property. My biggest success with entertaining Alex occurred when we decided to put the moss he had collected around faces that had been attached to two oaks along the driveway – eyes, nose, and mouth made of a clay-like material that adhered to the trees and which looked like the faces of old men. After we decorated the trees, Alex was so enchanted with the results, he wanted to go back after dark and re-do the old men’s faces.

The moss Alex and I used to create beards and hair on the old men’s faces is the same Spanish moss that trails from the ancient oaks here in Teche country. I can remember being impressed by the gray beards trailing from drooping branches of oaks on my first visit to this area. Spanish moss, which is gray-green in color, is an epiphyte related to the pineapple family and thrives on air and the extreme moisture prevalent in Cajun Country. Moss provided an industry for Acadian families before the advent of foam rubber and other synthetic materials and was used to fill mattresses, upholstery, automobile seats; it was almost indestructible as filler for those products.

The best description of moss gathering that I’ve read was written by Gladys Case in THE BAYOU CHENE STORY, written in 1973. When I was marketing THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN, I met Gladys Case at a book fair sponsored by the library in Abbeville, and she gave me a copy of her book about life in the Atchafalaya Basin from 1798-1927. She entitles the chapter about moss gathering “Louisiana’s Lagniappe,” the latter word meaning “something for nothing,” and she wrote that Spanish moss could be had for nothing “if one was not too lazy to pick it and get it ready for market.”

According to Case, families who gathered moss were usually large in number and children helped with the operation. The family also had to possess a small barge with a ladder on it, and the barge was pulled to a location where moss grew abundantly. Children picked the low-hanging moss, while the father used a long pole with a hook on the end to pick strands of the fiber from the tall oaks. When the family had filled the barge, they went home, spread the moss out on the banks of a bayou, and wet it down with water. The constant wetting process caused the outer fuzzy covering to rot and exposed a black resilient fiber that never rotted. Approximately six weeks later, pickers washed the moss and hung it on fences or trees so that it could dry. The fuzzy covering had rotted quickly in humid Louisiana weather. Then the moss was washed in water until it was a glistening black color. Again pickers dried it on bushes, trees, and fences. Later, it was made into hundred pound bales and transported to buyers.

Case wrote that if a family was energetic enough, they could initiate an assembly line process with black moss drying on the fence, green moss curing on the banks of a bayou, and the moss picker in the woods gathering more moss from the trees. She added that if the family was really enterprising, the father of the family could put out trot lines in the bayou to catch fish to trade for coffee, sugar, and other products needed.

Mattresses in Cajun Country were often made with the resilient moss, and some old-timers claim that they lasted a lifetime. In large families, several moss mattresses were placed on beds, and when company arrived, one of the moss mattresses would be taken from the bed and placed on the floor for visiting children. Case reports that now and then a moss picker would be lucky enough to come upon a tree that had been felled by a Louisiana storm or would find treetops from the previous year’s float. The moss on these trees had been in the water for months and would be well cured by the time the moss picker discovered it. The picker then bypassed curing the moss, which was a process that slowed down readying the moss for marketing.

I don’t know if Floridians were as resourceful as Acadians who used the abundant Spanish moss on their trees for making mattresses, but Alex, a city boy who lives in Columbus, Ohio, passed a good time using strands of it to create hair and beards for the old men faces on the oak trees surrounding Silver Lake. He and I got plenty of “something for nothing,” moss picking to satisfy our play impulses.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

LAUNCHING OLD RIDGES


Well, here it is again – another book about to be born. On my return from Florida yesterday, I found the proof of OLD RIDGES, the 23rd book I’ve written. It’s a compilation of new poetry and short stories written throughout the last 45 years. In a few weeks, the book will appear on Amazon.com, and I’ll move on to other projects; namely, the revision of two mysteries that have been collecting dust in a box for at least twenty years.

The title, OLD RIDGES, seems to resonate with a lot of my readers, perhaps because many of my friends are in their sixth and seventh decades, and the reference to old ridges suggests aging. Some of the short stories include childhood experiences, such as “He Was Too Smart” and “The Book of 100 Stories;” others are satirical, especially a tongue-in-cheek one about the chaos in my church, the Episcopal Church of America. Then there are several stories about Iran and a really outrĂ© short story about a cane toad.

The thirty poems in this volume were written during my sojourn at Sewanee this year, a few of which appeared in previous blogs and two reflections/prose poems; one about a librarian friend, now deceased, and another about my godfather’s father who lived in the Mississippi Delta.

The collection has range, and perhaps there’ll be one that resonates with you. Here are a few opening paragraphs of a story straight out of my childhood entitled “The Book of One Hundred Stories:”

“You can’t check out books from the Adult Section.” Miss Riggs peered over the top of her black-rimmed glasses at Sarah, and her hand clamped down on the book Sarah had selected to take home. Miss Riggs’ blonde hair sprang up in violent corkscrews on her head and seemed to be the only alive part about her.

“This isn’t even fiction. It’s about growing up.” Sarah inched her fingers toward the forbidden book. “Who would care if I read The Mature Mind?”

“A rule is a rule. If we relax one, soon all the children will be in the Adult Section, reading things their minds can’t fathom.” Miss Riggs reddened to the roots of her disheveled hair.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Sarah said. “I’ve read every book in the Children’s Section, and my teachers always let me move on to more advanced reading.”

Sarah hated being eleven years old. She might as well be five, the way the librarian looked down on her. Maybe it was because she felt homely, but she couldn’t help having straight hair that no amount of bobby pins could curl and a long nose that mama said came from her Jewish great-grandma. Then too, her Grandma Nettie still made her these homemade dimity dresses with rickrack, high collars, and sashes that tied in the back. But she and Sonny Boy Murphy had read her dad’s sex manual and even knew how babies were made, if that’s what bothered Miss Riggs…”

OLD RIDGES will be available on Amazon.com in two weeks. See my other books at http://borderpressbooks.com.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ISLAND IN A STORM


A few years ago, I put an idea on the drawing board for a novel about Last Island, or Isle Derniere, once a small island on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, located about 100 miles from New Orleans. However, after reading the masterful account, CHITA, by Lafcadio Hearn, I discarded the idea. Last Island was once a resort community before being completely destroyed by a hurricane in 1856, and Hearn published his novel about the hurricane and its survivors in 1889. In 1980, Louisiana author James Sothern published a non-fiction account of the hurricane and the devastation of the island in a book simply entitled LAST ISLAND, but I hadn’t read any other accounts until I walked into Books Along the Teche in New Iberia recently and found two books about Last Island displayed on the checkout counter. The one I bought is entitled ISLAND IN A STORM by Abby Sallenger, and I think that it deserves the Louisiana Book of the Year award.

Author Sallenger has a B.A. in Geology and a PhD. In Marine Science and is a former chief scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Coastal Geology. He combines history and environmental facts in an account that is compelling reading. I found ISLAND IN A STORM to be a page turner, and it certainly convinced me that I didn’t need to write a book about Last Island. I have little to add to the story of that disaster and certainly know nothing about the case he presents about environmental concerns.

Following the hurricane that hit the island and by the end of the summer of 1856, Isle Derniere, which had been a two-hundred-yard wide strip of sand on its Gulf side, fringed by marsh on its bay side, became totally uninhabited, devoid of homes and hotel, except for a forest standing in the surf. Trees had been reduced, and the island had been broken in half. According to Sallenger, between the 1890’s and 1988, Isle Derniere retreated landward about two-thirds of a mile and lost three quarters of its surface area.

The tragedy of Isle Derniere is twofold: loss of human life and coastal erosion. At one time, the island boasted an exclusive summer resort that attracted wealthy planters and merchants; it was a place where they escaped the dreaded yellow fever epidemics that occurred during humid Louisiana summers in New Orleans and other Louisiana cities. Four hundred inhabitants were on the island when the hurricane struck without warning. The island was known for unrivaled fishing and sea bathing, and many of the summer visitors stayed at the Last Island Hotel where they could enjoy a bar, billiard and bowling saloons, and a livery stable. The beaches of hard-packed sand provided good walking and buggy riding terrain, and “The Table” was supplied with choice delicacies, including fresh catches from the Gulf, for the palates of the wealthy.

On an August night in 1856, residents of Last Island had been dancing until midnight in Muggah’s Hotel when the wind and rain began to pelt the island. “The water from the bay rose incessantly into what was left of the hotel and drove the remaining inhabitants into irrational flight,” Sallenger writes. Shrapnel pierced the crowds of disoriented people milling around and everything began to fly through the air – chairs, tables, books, and glassware. Some of the island’s inhabitants were impaled by planks and dismembered. Then the water began to rise, and the dual assault of wind and rising water took the lives of almost 200 people. When rescuers arrived, they found bodies sprawled in the sand, arms and legs strewn about, a woman, almost buried with just her “jeweled hand … protruding from the sand…”

Sallenger researched newspaper articles, letters, diaries, and interviews to recreate the narrative of this disaster, telling about the course of the hurricane as experienced by real-life characters like Emma Mille, a young woman who was treated and cared for by New Iberian Dr. Alfred Duperier . Four months later, Dr. Duperier married his patient and brought her home to New Iberia to the large manor house north of Bayou Teche. At the age of 98, she was able to give an account of the hurricane to a reporter from the New Orleans “Times Picayune.”

Sallenger’s account of an island storm also serves as a warning tale about global warming and the vulnerability of coastal locations. He relates how storms have a continuously-eroding impact on low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast. It’s interesting to note that he reports Last Island has never been rebuilt, whereas Dauphin Island, hit by hurricanes in 1979, 1985, 1998, and 2005, has been rebuilt four times in 29 years. Holly Beach, which was wiped out during Hurricane Audrey in 1957, damaged by hurricane Carla in 1961 and every structure destroyed in 2005, then was inundated in 2008, has been rebuilt again and again. Despite sediment starvation and sea level rises, humans doggedly rebuild structures on the sandy coasts of the Gulf…except for Last Island, which, ironically, lives up to its name.

This is a brief review of ISLAND IN A STORM, and for those who like a good read about historical events, the prose is elegant and fast-moving. Abby Sallenger tells a more than 150 year old story brilliantly. Not only does he spin a good historical tale, he inspires some deep thinking about the future of our fragile coastline.

A Postscript to ISLAND IN A STORM: My old friend, James Wyche, Jr.(now deceased) of Belmont Plantation, once replied to a column I wrote about Last Island with a “Post 1856 Narrative of Last Island,” in which he told the story of his father and a friend, Tom Henderson, making a trip to Last Island in the early 1890’s. It seems the young men had been crossed in love and decided to get away from “it all” and return to a “primal state,” as Jimmy described the experience. They chartered a lugger in Morgan City and were left on Last Island with a few possessions, minimal provisions, a barrel of drinking water, and a tent. They told the boatman to return in a month to pick them up! In the meantime, they planned to live on fish, crabs, oysters, primarily seafood. “Papa said some of the oysters had shells almost the size of soup plates,” Jimmy wrote. To catch fish, Jimmy’s father and his companion waded into the shallow inlets to lagoons and seized fish with their bare hands. About the time their transportation disappeared, they discovered their drinking water had been placed in an empty, untreated, and uncharred whiskey barrel and was unfit for human consumption. The men discovered rain water had soaked through the sand until it reached the level of the greater density sea water underlay and rode on top of it. By making a hole in the sand, the men found fresh water, uncontaminated by salt. The water had the taste of some plant and carried an unusual flavor, but they drank it. Although Jimmy’s father and Tom Henderson had been lifelong friends, they grew tired of each other on this deserted island, and they’d take walks, one to the east and the other to the west, to keep the relationship intact. Jimmy ends this island saga with a story about the men varying their table fare with a pelican. They shot one, prepared the meat from it in steak form, and roasted the steaks over an open fire. However, when the food had cooked, the odor was so overwhelming, they “abandoned their project,” as Jimmy reported. In 1930, Jimmy’s father took him to Last Island, and he was able to see the exact spot of the island idyll.

Drawing by Paul Schexnayder from my Young Adult book, THE KAJUN KWEEN

Monday, November 9, 2009

ARTWALK AND THE ART MAN OF ACADIANA


One of the joys of coming home to Teche country is that of returning to an artist’s paradise. Years ago, I wrote that New Iberia bred more artists and writers per square foot than any place in the U.S. Perhaps it’s the lush scenery that provides an artistic backdrop, or perhaps it’s the diverse blend of people from European backgrounds that inspires the proliferation of art, but whatever inspires it, I’m a fan of all the artists in the region and try to visit the New Iberia Artwalk when I spend the winter here.

Friday evening, I attended the Artwalk that featured art work in metal, wood, paintings, pottery, jewelry, and furniture, starting with A&E Gallery on W. St. Peter Street, which features the work of 20 New Iberia artists. I was blown away by the latest work of my favorite New Iberia artist, Paul Schexnayder. Paul has done covers for several of my Young Adult books, and I love his whimsical studies that are rendered in bright blue, red, green, and yellow acrylics. His latest paintings of New Iberia scenes are as busy and colorful as his past work, and when I look at them, I feel as though I am participating in a festival or some kind of celebration of Cajun life. It’s hard for me to believe that Paul is color blind, but he is. I once wrote that his folk art is definitely “color bold.” His paintings tell stories that make connections between the people and landscape of south Louisiana.

People who leave Paul’s exhibits usually come away with either a painting or a feeling that they express as “uplifted” or “joyful.” His work is very electric and portrays Paul’s sense of fun. He says that his art was inspired by Matisse, Gaugin, and Rousseau, but the subjects come directly out of his love of Louisiana, the people and the place. Paul claims that he’s attracted to sunlight and is very visual -- after three days of gray winter he’s looking for light somewhere. He was also attracted to New Iberia, which is his home, after he attended LSU and traveled for a few years. He calls New Iberia his “blank canvas on which he was meant to paint.”

Paul attended LSU and graduated with a B.F.A., and he relates that his work began in Graphic Design but after preparing and presenting a portfolio to his professors, he was told he should be taking the Art curriculum. After he entered Art, he was told he should be in Graphic Design, so he explains his style as somewhere between those two. After graduation, Paul began painting contemporary Louisiana folk art while living in Boston. Once he began working in this genre, he knew he had to return to New Iberia and paint the scenes and people of his roots. In Boston, he also taught art to dyslexic children enrolled in the Landmark School.

During the 80’s, Paul spent two summers in Guatemala where he found inspiration in the simple lifestyle of the natives. During his stay there, he became inured to the vivid colors everywhere, and he credits this country of color with contributing to the joie de vivre reflected in his folk art. He now turns out a canvas daily and likes the feeling of having done stories that illustrate old aphorisms such as ‘When the sun is shining and it’s raining, the devil is beating his wife’ or ‘thunder means that the angels are bowling’, or ‘three birds on a wire means a thunderstorm is coming.’


His subjects range from a band of angels flying over the Bayou Teche keeping watch over the bayou city that inspired him to return home, to a life of Christ narrative he wrote and illustrated for his wife, Lee. He makes handmade wooden and metal crosses, having been inspired by Spanish crosses he collected while honeymooning in Santa Fe. On each cross, he includes a house painted on its surface. Many of his paintings are on pieces of wood and slate. I have always liked the panel of “Away With Their Whole Lives Before Them,” a painting on wood, 34 x 48, featuring a yellow-haired woman (his wife Lee) and a reddish-haired man (Paul). The woman is dressed in a lavender gown, and her arm encircles the black-cloaked man if she means to clasp him forever. The couple is guarded by a pair of white doves in a tree, and viewers know that it depicts Paul and Lee beginning their married lives. Sometimes Paul paints fish outlined in red to portray the catch of south Louisiana waters: redfish. The panel is supported by a row of piano keys painted beneath a red piano cover bearing hand prints.

Paul has exhibited his work all over the world, including Paris. Stateside, he has had exhibits in New Orleans, Houston, Texas, Massachusetts, and in other galleries and museums. Paul once told me that he gets excited thinking about the fact that when people buy his art, it’s going to become part of their family history and will be there for generations to enjoy. I have bought many of his prints and given them to relatives and friends for gifts, but I possess only one depiction of an old house on a small piece of slate that hangs in my Sewanee house. However, I’ll always have the covers he painted for my Young Adult books, and “Hay la bas,” I pass a good time looking at them!

Friday, November 6, 2009

OMISSION OF A LOUISIANA ARTIST


Since my exodus from Sewanee, Tennessee for the winter and my return to New Iberia, Louisiana, I’ve done a lot of culling of files and books, which I mentioned in a previous blog. Yesterday, I discovered several articles and a research index card about a woman I considered including in my profiles of memorable Louisiana women for THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL back in the 1980’s. Her name is Caroline Durieux, an artist (now deceased) whose satirical art became famous during the 30’s and 40’s. Most of her lithographs are included in a volume entitled CAROLINE DURIEUX; LITHOGRAPHS OF THE THIRTIES AND FORTIES by Richard Cox.

Durieux attended Sophie Newcomb in New Orleans in 1913 and later went to the Philadelphia Academy of Art where she was influenced by the work of Daumier and Chinese landscape painters. She married Pierre Durieux, a New Orleans exporter who took her to Cuba and then to Mexico City. The famous artist Diego Rivera painted a portrait of Durieux and is said to have praised her work because “It’s not like mine.” Durieux’s societal renderings sometimes impinge on dark satire, but they’re very amusing. She also did lithographs of serious subjects during WWII, the most famous one being “Persuasion,” in which a huge hand is shown gathering up a crowd of hapless people, denoting the oppression and fear associated with war.

One of the most interesting aspects of Durieux’s work was her technique of printmaking using radioactivity to make art prints. Using an ink that contained a radioactive isotope, Durieux completed a drawing that she placed against x-ray film, which was then slipped into a lightproof envelope beneath a stack of books. Three days later, the image of her drawing was on film and was exposed to photographic paper for six months to create the very first electron print. This was a revolutionary approach to printmaking, and she did the work while teaching at LSU. In 1978, she exhibited her electron prints at the LSU Union Art Gallery in a special collection entitled “Art, The Atom, and LSU.”

Durieux’s work has appeared in the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York Public Library, and in many other state museums. She was a highly successful artist and enjoyed the benefits of being born into a wealthy family and marrying a wealthy exporter, but her life was marred by tragedy when her husband committed suicide. She taught art at LSU for 21 years and continued to make her prints available to the public at affordable costs during her lifetime because she claimed she never had to create art to make a living.

I had requested an interview with Durieux when she was in the Ollie Steele Burden Manor in Baton Rouge but couldn’t get through to her by telephone to schedule an appointment, so she didn’t make the cut for my book on Louisiana women. However, through the years I’ve enjoyed checking out library books of her lithographs. With reference to my former blog about “quirky,” Caroline Durieux’s work could be regarded as “quirky.” I think she’s a highly original artist, even if her most caustic works ridiculed women.

Since I don’t have rights to reproduce any of her lithographs for this blog, I can only direct you to google her name on the Net. You’ll enjoy the unique lithographs by this Louisiana artist.

P.S. The index card above shows my intent to publish a profile about Durieux. Perhaps some of the art critics who write for “Louisiana Cultural Vistas” (the magazine published by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities) will write an extensive biography about this unusual woman.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A WHOLE LOT OF QUIRKING GOING ON


Yesterday, I received a rejection message from a major publisher concerning a manuscript that a good friend and I jointly authored. The message included some favorable, positive remarks, followed by a description of the manuscript as “quirky.” Now, I’m quirky about that word “quirky,” since it was once used to describe a serious book I had published about Louisiana Women entitled THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL. Well, the word does mean “peculiar” – but then, “peculiar” can mean “distinctive” – and “distinctive” can mean “distinguishing.” Therefore, I conclude that the manuscript is “distinguished.” There --is that reductive reasoning, or what?!

My co-author friend, who knows of my aversion to “quirky” told me about a very intelligent man who calls himself “Canon Quirk” and insists that this man is a prophet. So, again, using reductive reasoning, we’re in the company of prophets, right? I’m happy that the manuscript was read and actually well-received, so I can’t quack about the quirky remark. Perhaps I’d have felt more comfortable with the word “quark,” which has its derivation in a word that means to caw or croak. And since my favorite birds, the handsome crows, caw, why shouldn’t our manuscript quark?

According to “One Hundred Words Every Word Lover Should Know,” in scientific terms,” quark” is used to denote the fundamental unit that combines to make up subatomic particles called hadrons, and they have fractional electric charges. There’s a WOW word! It was used in FINNEGAN’S WAKE in the line: “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” Now doesn’t that sound better than “Three quirks for Miss Murk?”

Three quarks for the novel that elicited an evaluation of “quirky.” Well, you say, enough with the quarking about quirking, and just yesterday you had no qualms about telling poets to burn all rejection messages from publishers. I’m saying to you today: Don’t question that advice; people often quibble about silly things, and I sometimes use quodlibetic language when I’m trying to quash my reactions to a word that doesn’t qualify as the most quintessential remark to make about a manuscript. In another quarter, a publisher says her editors are “queueing up” (her words, not mine) to read the manuscript, and I’m hoping she doesn’t say it’s quixotic. O.K., I’m quitting while I’m ahead on the “q’s” in this questionable essay. And don’t quote me as saying anything quirky. I’m drowning in the quicksand of “q.” Shall we move on to the letter “r”???!!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

A NOT-SO-GROANING BOARD AT THANKSGIVING


November and a little nip in the air signals me that Thanksgiving is approaching. I don’t know the temps in Sewanee, Tennessee right now, but I think we timed our homecoming to New Iberia, Louisiana to coincide with the onslaught of winter on The Mountain. The leaves in the woods near our cottage at Sewanee had become beautiful red, yellow, and orange hues and had fallen in our yard and surrounding woods when we locked the cottage doors, turned off the water, and drained lines in preparation for what old-timers on The Mountain predict is going to be a cold winter. We’re still green here in Louisiana!

As we’re invited to my grandson Martin’s new home for Thanksgiving, I don’t have to ponder menus and polish silver this year, but I still like to read about Thanksgiving spreads. One of the most unusual Thanksgiving dinners I’ve read about took place in the Ft. Juniper, Massachusetts home of poet Robert Francis. He wrote about it in a little book entitled TRAVELING IN AMHERST, a journal of the years 1930-50 in the poet’s life. I‘m on my fifth reading of this small volume that chronicles not only his everyday experiences in the Massachusetts countryside but his philosophy/theology of life. In this book, we see his reaction to a neighbor perched in an apple tree, his wisdom as he considers the inevitability of change, and his feelings about writing poetry. We’re also treated to some of his best poetry.

However, back to the not-so-groaning board at Thanksgiving. Because Robert Francis lived in virtual poverty in a house that he built for $1500 and subsisted on a yearly income of approximately $500 (shades of Thoreau), he grew most of his food, and this unusual Thanksgiving dinner consisted of: Baked soybeans in tomato sauce with fresh basil, creamed potatoes with fresh parsley, mashed squash, creamed onions, carrot sticks, wild grape jelly, fresh hot brown bread, Indian tapioca pudding with cream, elderflower wine, salted peanuts. He got all the ingredients from his garden, placed it on a table covered with a blue cloth and decorated it with a large orange, three golden ears of corn, and sprays of bittersweet. Francis said that he lived far below the American standard of living but wasn’t impoverished or pitiful. “I own my home; I am well nourished and adequately clothed,” he wrote. “Few writers have more propitious conditions under which to write.”

In 1986, while visiting in Amherst, Massachusetts, I noticed an announcement of a poetry reading at the Amherst Library and decided to attend the reading, expecting to hear an obscure local poet read verse that hadn’t been published. I was surprised to find television cameras set up, Richard Wilbur on the premises of the library, and Robert Francis reading from his published works at the celebration of his 85th birthday. I was also surprised to find that Francis was a friend of Robert Frost and that Frost has once said about his work: “I am swept off my feet by the goodness of your poems this time…Ten or so of them are my idea of perfection. I can refrain from strong praise no longer. You are achieving what you live for. You have not only the feeling of a true lyric, but the variety of a man with a mind.”

I’ve been a fan of Robert Francis since that time, and I always remember his not-so-groaning board on Thanksgiving Day when turkey and all the stuffings are placed on my own table that groans from the weight of what we southerners call “a gracious plenty.”

Note: For all you wannabe poets out there, Francis burned 459 rejection slips he had received for his poetry submissions, had a 16-year hiatus between publishing several books, and self-published two of his volumes of poetry. However, he received the Shelley Memorial Prize, Golden Rose of the New England Poetry Club, was Phi Beta Kappa poet at Tufts in 1955 and at Harvard in 1960. In addition he lived in Rome on a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and returned to Italy on an Amy Lowell Travel Scholarship. In 1974 he received the Brandeis Creative Arts Award and became a Fellow of the Academy of American Poets. If you’re a poet who keeps old rejection slips, find a good place to make a bonfire and burn them. Create space for more writing and better fortune! Don’t be daunted by publishers. Read a raunchy poet like Charles Bukowski alongside Robert Francis, and you’ll probably decide, as I did, that contemporary critiquing is more a matter of taste than a matter of recognizing good talent.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

REVIVAL OF AN OLD POET


When we moved to Sewanee with the intention of staying at least six months of the year, I had to cull my library here in New Iberia for favorites to take with me to The Mountain. Most of my books of poetry found a new home in Tennessee, but I left hundreds of other beloved volumes, some of which were passed on to me by my godparents who lived in Virginia most of their lives. Markham, my godfather, was Head of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, so I inherited anthologies of literature and books by the Elizabethan and Romantic poets. Dora, my second cousin and godmother, passed on several volumes of poetry written by friends of the family, among which were two volumes by Mary Leslie Newton.

In another life when I took Communion to Sarah Helm of New Iberia (now deceased), I found we shared a mutual interest in the work of poet Mary Leslie Newton who had been Sarah’s headmistress at All Saints Episcopal School in Vicksburg, Mississippi and who had been Dean of the school when my godmother served as Assistant Dean. Sarah had never seen one of the small volumes I inherited from godmother, a green leather book measuring 3 ½” x 5 ½” entitled THE WINGS OF LONELINESS. The volume, with its parchment frontispiece (still in good condition), was written in 1925 and contained twelve poems to coincide with the months of the year, each reflecting the theme of loneliness.

On a flap torn from another of Newton’s books of poetry entitled A CROOKED STAFF, I learned that the poet had graduated from the University of Tennessee, and following her retirement from All Saints, she had moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, a forty minute drive from my second home at Sewanee. She'd probably be judged as a “minor poet” in contemporary literary circles, but some of her work had appeared in the “New York Times,” the famed “Poetry” magazine, “The Lyric,” “Singing Mississippi,” and other publications.

During WWII, Mary Newton was in great demand as a lecturer and conducted a class on current events during the war years. In addition to her work at All Saints, she taught at Noble Institute in Anniston, Alabama, Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah, and at St. Mary’s Hall in Dallas, Texas. When she attended the University of Tennessee, she produced so many publishable poems that she had to use several noms de plume for the school paper in which they appeared so the readers wouldn’t accuse of her monopolizing space.

Mary Newton’s friends referred to her as Emily Dickinson, and she was capable of writing what I call “pithy snippets;” e.g., “A memory is a sudden coin you touch/Deep in an empty pocket…”

From THE WINGS OF LONELINESS, a few lines from the poem depicting August:

“Night is a pool of silence, on whose brink
Hover the stars, and winds stoop down to drink.”

‘Seems she was a minimalist in 1925 before the minimalist movement had gained momentum in the literary world. It’s nice to find such small treasures on my own bookshelves.