Monday, June 28, 2010


Every year in July, we Sewanee residents traditionally celebrate two  art festivals—The Sewanee Music Festival and the Sewanee Writers Conference. A few months ago, I volunteered to sell tickets at the Music Festival on June 27 and July 17, and as a reward for volunteering, I gained entrance to the concerts, gratis.

The Sewanee Music Festival is a summer event that provides a program for advanced music students and a professional concert series. The Festival, over fifty years old, offers a training program that focuses on performance experience. Yesterday’s Sunday afternoon program included the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Sewanee Symphony, and I was amazed at the brilliant performances of some very young, gifted students.

In a departure from traditional renditions, the Sewanee Symphony surprised the audience with one of Gyorgy Ligeti’s compositions entitled “Atmospheres,” which some readers will recognize as the background music of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “The Shining” movies. Now, I am a fan of Phillip Glass who is a modernist, but I wasn’t prepared for the sounds of a composition that focus on texture and tone, rather than melody, harmony, and rhythm. The music reminded me of Bartok, and I’ve read that in his youth, Ligeti admired this composer. The instrumental sounds at the beginning of the piece hit my amateur musician’s ear like a blast of tuning up noise, and I glimpsed a cello player on the front row grinning broadly at the surprised looks of music aficianados in the audience.

The images that came up for me when I heard the opening sounds, known as “tone clusters,” were those of the bazaar in Iran where I lived in the 70’s. In my first book, IRAN: IN A PERSIAN MARKET, I referred to it as cacophonous—the dissonant bleating of sheep, donkeys, clanking carts, Paykan automobiles, strange Farsi cries  and screeching tires intermingling in the streets. I became accustomed to the bazaar, and as I listened to Ligeti’s “static mass of sound,” my ear gradually became attuned to the unusual sounds. However, as the music progressed, I also became aware of interval silences. At the conclusion of “Atmospheres,” the image of a door closing and someone stepping out into space came to mind. “Atmospheres” was a strange, almost mystical experience that sent me scurrying to read a biography about Ligeti.

Ligeti was born, a Hungarian Jew, in Transylvania, Romania and later became an Austrian citizen. His family suffered during the Holocaust, and his father died in Auschwitz where both parents had been sent. Ligeti lived in terror for awhile, fleeing to Switzerland in 1947, then returned to Hungary until 1956. After “Atmospheres” and “Appartitions” were performed in 1961, he became famous worldwide. His repertoire, varied and controversial, is defined as “micropolyphony,” and in his old age he commented that he was bold enough to say that he had already found a new style. In his late years, Ligeti composed a unique opera entitled “Le Grand Macabre.”

I look forward to the next concert at which I'm to sell tickets, but doubt if I’ll hear sounds equal to that of this gifted modernist. And I wonder what kind of poetry I’ll hear at the Sewanee Writers Conference?!

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Yesterday when I put water in the bird bath under the hemlock tree, I spent a few minutes pondering how long the magnificent tree has been growing in my backyard. Hemlocks here on The Mountain reach lofty heights, but live oaks in Louisiana could challenge them as far as “spreads” are concerned.

My pondering led to thoughts of the old live oaks near my other home in New Iberia, Louisiana. Some of them are several centuries old. This large spreading tree that The Celts celebrated as a tree of doors and the gateway between worlds, supports the epiphytes known as Spanish moss and embellish many of the yards of homes in Teche country, especially those along Bayou Teche.

Several years ago, I published a thin book that featured live oaks in the title, LIVE OAK GARDENS: A PLACE OF PEACE AND BEAUTY, a place on Jefferson Island, ten miles west of New Iberia. Although some of the live oaks date back to the late 19th century, many were destroyed during hurricanes and were replanted by J. Lyles Bayless, Jr. who inherited Jefferson Island during the early 50’s. Bayless designed and planted a beautiful avenue of live oaks on the approach to the island and, again, hurricanes destroyed many of the trees. However, today, visitors to Jefferson Island still enjoy some of the old oaks scattered throughout the gardens. I was so inspired by the island’s live oaks, I wrote in the introduction to LIVE OAK GARDENS: “…the live oaks form ancient shelters, standing like patriarchs with their beards of moss trailing in the slight breeze. They arch high above the paths, unencumbering, but offering visitors respite from the sun…”

Live oaks abound in New Iberia and remain green year-round, leafing through the mild winters there. Several famous live oaks grow near old homes on Main Street, one of which is the Gebert Oak, first planted in 1831 when it was eight years old. The magnificent oak suffered from a disease that afflicts trees a few years ago but has since revived and is over 170 years old. The first Spanish settlers who came to New Iberia camped out under a live oak tree at the end of Darby Lane, which was only removed when a newly-built highway to St. Martinville intersected with Darby Lane. One of the local schools is named Live Oak School, an old hotel once bore the tree’s name, and a Live Oak Society with a mission of preserving the oaks, thrives in the area. A Festival of Live Oaks will be held in March, 2011 in New Iberia’s City Park to celebrate the long lives of all the oaks that have survived storms, hurricanes, and drouths. Some of the trees in town could probably compete with the national champion of live oak trees in Louisburg, Louisiana that topped other competitors around the state in 1976.

Interestingly, I recently discovered that a realtor wants to sell an entire island of live oaks dubbed Live Oak Island off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina. The realtor didn’t give a list price!

My great-grandmother, Dora Runnels Greenlaw, in her book of poetry simply entitled VERSES, once penned an ode “To An Old Oak.” An excerpt from her long poem:

“…Each year has locked its story within your heart,

and the secrets, untold, will perish with you.

But listen, O mighty work of a provident creator,

the soft gray moss bearding a few of your trusted limbs,

will creep slowly, slyly over your stately form,

and as slowly sap the life from your unsuspecting heart,

so you too shall fall a victim to time’s relentless mastery.

Passing! …O silent historian of the forest.”

I love her last line and have often said, “if only trees could talk!”

Photograph of a live oak taken from my book, LIVE OAK GARDENS published by Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette, Louisiana. Photography by Ed Bowie, Cliff Deal, Curtis Darrah, Mickey Delcambre, and Jim Valentine.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Since March, the major activity at our cottage on The Mountain at Sewanee has been restoration—a new bath, electronic garage doors, porch painting…and, unexpectedly, the installation of a new AC when the old one burned up. When all was said and done, I felt that every line of poetry I might have written since March had been siphoned off in the hecktivity of home improvement.

This morning after services at St. Mary’s on the bluff, I sat on my front porch and contemplated writing poetry again. Immediately, memories of the summer I spent in Oaxaca City surfaced. Not only was I inspired by the landscape and people to write poetry while I vacationed there, I became interested in the ancient Nahua poets—poets who believed that we’re born with a physical heart and face, but if we’re to be truly men and women, we’re to leave temporary pleasures and create a more lasting Self manifested in a more enduring, true heart and true face.

This Nahua poetry was preserved by friars who arrived in Mexico and studied the country’s native languages and customs. From this preserved poetry emerged verses such as this one written by an anonymous Nahua poet: “From the house of flowering butterflies/was born the song;/I hear it come to life; I, the singer./It wanders flying, the peerless firefly of/the gods.” Many Nahua sad songs appear in A GUIDE TO MEXICAN POETRY by Irene Nicholson and represent the Nahua’s struggle toward faith and fulfillment, fostered by a belief that life on earth is perishable and an illusion; however, it can become permanent when the true heart and true face are created.

Of course, the research into Mexican poetry while I was in Oaxaca City, led to Octavio Paz, whose long poems remind me of the American poet Walt Whitman and who was strongly influenced by surrealism. He transported me into the landscape of Mexico: “only this plain; cactus, acacia, enormous boulders exploding under the sun.”

We stayed in a hotel on the zocala (square) in Oaxaca City and watched armed soldiers march into the center of the square to raise the Mexican flag every morning. We were apprehensive about the military maneuvers and later learned that in 2006, violence erupted in that same square when the Oaxaca Teachers’ Union staged a strike and called for the removal of Ruiz, the governor of Oaxaca. An American journalist was shot in the chest in the zocalo during October following the teacher’s strike in May. We shuddered as we read about scenes of violence that took place in this historic square we had enjoyed in the late 90’s.

Most afternoons when we sojourned in Oaxaca City, we rested in our hotel room facing the zocala and read, journaled, or wrote poetry about our experiences in this city with its narrow streets, old stone buildings, and shaded plazas. Here’s one of the poems I later published in my book, AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA.


Every night is Saturday night in Oaxaca square,

hot marimba on the keys,

rumba in the street,

voices murmuring on the hot wind.

We leave their celebrations,

the orange and yellow blossoms on sandstone,

but the sun will not age before we return,

lonely for the bruised stone,

wind blowing the curtain

through open casement windows,

seeking the birds of myth,

the gold and black butterflies,

blue and yellow tapestry of memory,

our Spirits’ refreshment again,

and Quetzalcoatl, their ancient man-god,

anointing his new companions.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Last night I watched a movie that I had rented because it concerned Iran, a country in which I once lived during the reign of the Shahanshah.  I should have known how horrific it would be from the title “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” but I persisted until I had watched every terrible scene in this movie about misogyny in the Middle East. The movie was a true story about the stoning of a woman who had been falsely accused of adultery because her husband wanted a divorce to marry a younger woman, fourteen years old. Needless to say, the viewing of a mob of men murdering a woman with rocks caused a swift chain reaction in me and brought up some of my own experiences as a victim of misogyny. Unfortunately, misogynists are still alive and well within my family, and I hear about incidences of disrespect and abuse daily.

Basically, the word misogynist means one who hates women, and it usually applies to men who have no respect for women and who abuse and control them. Although the practice of stoning women occurs throughout the world and has begun to be banned in some countries, there are other equally abusive practices that exist in America, fostered by literature, music (namely, some hip-hop rapping) movies, fundalits, and pornography, and we’ve become accustomed to living in a society that downplays violence against women. An author named Bob Herbert says that violence against females in the news is almost as familiar and as ho-hum as weather forecasts, and that “the disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock…”

The women’s group, Equality Now, advocates that “once you dehumanize someone, everything is possible.” After seeing the movie about the Iranians stoning a woman, I wonder how many men in this country have regressed to viewing such a movie without becoming shocked and horrified. Misogyny permeates every major religion, especially the patriarchal ones, and reaches back to the Greeks and to Aristotle who wrote that women are inferior to men and that the courage of a man lay in commanding, while the woman’s courage lay in obeying. In short, he advocated that a female was an incomplete male. He’s joined in his opinions by Kant, Buddha, Hegel Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, to name a few who felt that women were inferior beings. In some corners of the world, the opinion that women actually have no souls still persists.

Misogyny is a troublesome problem, and rather than our society progressing with a positive attitude toward women as a group, we seem to have become apathetic about the amount of violence directed toward them. I’m not being histrionic when I say that misogyny is rampant and is characterized by the willingness to dehumanize women and girls and the unwillingness to recognize them as the equals of men. Has anyone reading this essay ever heard of gender reconciliation? For those who’re interested in this burgeoning problem, read Jack Holland’s MISOGYNY: THE WORLD’S OLDEST PREJUDICE.

As a Christian and a female clergyperson, I often refer to Galatians and a passage in which the apostle Paul, sometimes dubbed a woman hater, writes the words: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," underlining the idea that economic status, status, gender, and social differences make no difference to God.   We are one in the mind of God and are always bound together in love -- not in hate of either gender.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


A drive to buy groceries in Winchester in June means a trip down a winding mountain road, alongside of which grow a diversity of wildflowers in wooded areas and rock outcroppings. This June morning I spied butterfly weed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and one of my favorite weeds—the thistle.

This particular species of thistle, according to my botanist friend, Vickie, is musk or nodding thistle, a plant partial to limestone soils. We have plenty of rocky soil on The Mountain, so the lovely purple plant thrives in this area. The thistle is actually native to Europe but has migrated to America and contains an abundance of medicinal ingredients that have been known, for centuries, to cure fevers. They’re also important to the making of paper, so they’re admired for both beauty and plant usefulness.

The thistle is a Celtic symbol denoting nobility of character; the Order of The Thistle is the highest heraldic Order of Scotland and has the distinction of being Scotland’s national flower. The thistle symbolizes a Scot’s “prickly determination.” This plant has also become the symbol for an organization called The Magdalene Community about which I read only recently.

Magdalene is a residential home established in Nashville, Tennessee and has a branch home in Chattanooga. In 1997, a female Episcopal priest, Becca Stevens, established this community to house women who had histories of prostitution and drug addiction. They were allowed to live at Magdalene at no cost for two years. At Magdalene, they operated (and new residents continue to operate) Thistle Farms, a non-profit business, where they create natural bath and body products, and all proceeds go back into the program.

In the information about Thistle Farms provided to the public, the thistle is recognized as a weed that sometimes grows on the streets and alleys the women of Magdalene have traversed. However, the thistles have a deep tap root that allows them to penetrate thick concrete; they can also survive drought. Thus, they represent tenacity of spirit, which is seldom attributed to women of the streets.

What a perfect symbol for an organization that rehabilitates women of the streets. The women often tout their time in this community as the “best life I’ve ever had.” Click on the following hypertext, Thistle Farms, to read a few of the women’s testimonies, to see the products they have created at a place where they learn job skills, cooperation, and responsibility. You’ll gain a new perspective about women of the streets and their symbol, the prickly thistle.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Every year in June, the Sisters of the Community of St. Mary’s offer their Associates and Oblates  a silent retreat at St. Mary’s here on the Mountain. Sister Julian has been a coordinator for the past three years, and this year she organized a program that was a bit different from the meditations offered in previous years. She focused on the positive aspects of Anglicanism, embracing the entire “Anglican Tapestry,” as she called it, with worship services taken from Canada, New Zealand, Kenya, Nigeria, and Scotland, and litanies from Ireland and Kenya. This impressive tapestry emphasized “Diversity in Unity in the Anglican Communion.” If anyone came away feeling that we Anglicans should follow a rigid religion within the constructs of a tidy, antiquated system comprised of people who say we’re the one true church, they didn’t get Sister Julian's message.

Being Anglican or Episcopalian, in my opinion, means that we live with a variety of approaches and experiences under the umbrella of Christianity. Actually, at Lambeth in 1968, the Anglican Church was affirmed as a comprehensive church. Hopefully, we have learned from the controversies in our history that we can tolerate disagreement about the apprehension of truth, and this comprehensiveness will prevent us from feeling that it’s necessary to break communion. In ’68, Lambeth’s bishops said that in leading us into truth the Holy Spirit might surprise us. And I won’t belabor that thought.

I’ve been an Episcopalian for 75 years, and as far as I can understand, the Church is to imbue people with a common sense of worship through the Book of Common Prayer and work within the common culture that follows Richard Hooker’s three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. As David Holmes tells us in his history of the Episcopal Church, being an Anglican or Episcopalian means that we exercise a certain reluctance to push too hard to make boundaries that exclude, and we recognize that much learning comes from comparing experiences and exploring differences positively. One of these differences is in regard to Scripture. We believe that Scripture is the living word, which does not close down possibilities. As a living word, it affirms and invites the challenge of interpretation. We don’t have any neat formulas within which Christians can be safe and static. So, our approach values intuition as well as logic, faith as well as formulas and process as well as context. Holmes goes on to say that the price of being an Episcopalian or Anglican is the acceptance of some untidiness. Urban T. Holmes defined the consciousness of Anglicanism as "dominantly feminine: the sense of a community of thought as opposed to a well-defined definitive position…” We’re definitely not a pietistic religion and believe that Scripture is about “good news” and wholeness, not about proof texting and judgment. Or so I was taught!

Sister Julian’s lectures wove a tapestry of diversity, unity through word and sacrament, unity in mission, seeing God’s goodness in all things bound together in God’s love, and concluded with a beautiful Taize’ service in the chapel, a row of candles flickering in the evening light. Sister Madeline Mary, the songbird of St. Mary’s community, led us in singing Taize’ chants. Taize’ is an expression of reconciliation and is an ecumenical tradition begun by Frere Roger, leader of a monastic community in France, which incorporates chants or singing prayer. Many of the songs, sung in Latin, are derived from Gregorian chants. The idea is that through singing chants, sometimes a phrase repeated over and over, people’s minds are quieted, and the heart is opened. Taize’ is sung by denominations all over the world and was conceived as a way of assisting the discouraged and deprived. Its community in France attracts pilgrims from around the world to study, to share and pray, and to do communal work. Within the Taize’ community, Christians receive affirmation to live in the spirit of reconciliation.

This morning at breakfast I thought about Madeleine L`Engle, a devout Episcopalian and Christian writer, who believed in universal salvation and who wrote that “All will be redeemed in God’s fullness of time…all, not just the small portion of the population who have been given the grace to know and accept Christ…all the little lost ones.” For a time, because of her views on universal salvation, many Christian bookstores refused to stock her books, and some of them were banned from libraries and schools. I think she’d have liked Sister Julian’s approach to a unified church and the lesson of love. It occurred to me that more retreats emphasizing the positive aspects of Anglicanism and its mission, accompanied by diverse worship services and Taize’ singing would keep us from being smug Anglicans. Such retreats would foster good will and inspire inclusiveness within and outside our Anglican Tradition, which has always been a comprehensive tradition, despite Pietism movements, the Oxford Movement, Fundamentalist movements, dissension, schisms, etc. Perhaps in the next century, long after my demise, Christians—Anglican and other denominations—will be singing Taize’ with one voice, and when they look into each other’s eyes, they’ll see the eyes of “The One Whom None Can Hinder,” as my Baptist great-grandmother once said.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Of the twenty-six books I’ve published, nine of them in the fiction/non-fiction categories (excluding a dozen poetry chapbooks) have featured Louisiana and Louisiana characters. As I watch the oil spill saga unfolding, I think about THE KAJUN KWEEN, one of the Louisiana books I wrote that was set in the chenier country of Louisiana, a place where the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was dug through the Chenier Plain’s northern marshes and where oil was discovered by Pure Oil Company in Cameron Parish in 1926 near Sweet Lake. Part of the land there belonged to the Vincent family (my maternal grandmother and her relatives) who benefited from drilling accomplished near Hackberry, Louisiana, but oil production has diminished to almost nothing. As oil reserves have declined in Chenier country, residents have resumed such pursuits as alligator farming, hunting, fishing, and trapping. An annual Fur and Wildlife Festival, held in Cameron Parish, draws men, women, and children who compete for first place in muskrat and nutria skinning, trap setting, geese and duck calling, oyster shucking, and, of course, gumbo cooking.

During the early forties, the Gulf Intracoastal Canal that connects the marshes of Chenier country with the Gulf of Mexico and the Calcasieu Ship Canal were forged from the Gulf through Calcasieu Lake. These canals and others provided access for drilling and exploration by oil companies. They also caused salt water intrusion from the Gulf, which has resulted in the destruction of vegetation that cannot withstand salt water. This intrusion has contributed to Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands. Marsh management structures, like weirs, have been built but there are questions about the effectiveness of this means of controlling coastal land loss.

The Chenier Plain abounds in deer, muskrat, nutria, possum, rabbits, raccoons, and striped skunks. Bird life flourishes in the region; snapping turtles and alligators make their homes on the chenier. A list of the bird life in the area is formidable and includes ducks, geese, egret, hawks, gulls, boat-tailed grackle (my favorite), roseate spoonbill, etc. Fish and shellfish are also plentiful; crawfish, channel and blue catfish, crappie, croaker, drum, flounder, gar, oyster, sea trout, shad, and shrimp abound. I first glimpsed the salt marshmallow on a trip to Chenier au Tigre in the 70’s and also saw marsh morning glories and wooly rose mallows. I’m not sure we ever found Chenier au Tigre, but while traversing the canals, we saw beautiful marsh scenery.

In THE KAJUN KWEEN, Petite Marie Melancon, the heroine, has adventures with snapping turtles and alligators on the chenier, and the book features descriptions of the chenier landscape, as well as a chapter about one of the many hurricanes that hit this area of Louisiana. Go to or if you’re interesting in obtaining a copy of this book about the state that has become a part of the daily news.

Here’s a short excerpt from the second chapter in THE KAJUN KWEEN: “Petite Marie chanted the names of the places they passed to amuse herself: Rockefeller Refuge, Pecan Island, Intracoastal Canal, an inland ship canal where small tugs huffed…Forked Island, Cow Island…and finally, they rounded a curve near Kaplan. She looked at the rice and crawfish ponds spinning past, pointing out to Uncle Ti’ Joe a lone box turtle sunning on an old black tire in a coulee (ditch). He grunted and sped on toward Abbeville. Promptly at 3 p.m., they arrived at the steps leading up to the stately Abbeville Court House with its six fat columns in front and the dome on the top that Petite Marie called a ‘spy tower...’”

Note: Illustrations by Paul Schexnayder, artiste magnifique of New Iberia, Louisiana

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 75th birthday by visiting Asheville, North Carolina, accompanied by my daughter, Stephanie, her husband, Brad, and my good friend Vickie. It was a busy visit, and during the hecktivity of travel, I had little time to look back at 75 years and meditate about what it means, now, to be part of the elderly population. When I finally sat down to ponder the aging process, I remembered my godfather Markham who lived next door to me in New Iberia for thirteen years during his late eighties and nineties. Markham died at the age of 99 ½ years, and while he sojourned in New Iberia, he often spent mornings sitting and meditating. I’d take him his mail and find him doing what I considered to be nothing. One day I delivered him a sheaf of mail and found him seated on the sofa, holding his head in his hands. “Are you depressed?” I asked. “Gracious no,” he replied. “I’m just meditating,” then added, “at 90, I have so much to think about.” He also said that he “knew too much,” due to a long life of accumulating knowledge. The third point he shared with me about his moments of contemplation was that he had so many good memories and now had time to think about them.

Well, I’m not ninety yet, but I can identify with all those points. Memories are a large part of the fabric of our lives. I have as many bad memories as good, and during a silent retreat sponsored by the Sisters of St. Mary last year, I received a bit of simplistic instruction in how to handle both. During a break from a lecture, I picked up a book entitled PRAYER, THE ACT OF BEING WITH GOD by John Killinger. A reading of the chapter, “Blessing Your Memories,” presented me with a process for dealing with the entire spectrum of memory. For those interested in productive contemplation or a variation on the subject of contemplative prayer, Killinger says to begin by sitting and recalling good memories, perhaps some childhood incidents and impressions that you treasure—maybe it was the acquisition of a new dog or another simple occasion. Focus on that memory for awhile. Then, thank God for the memory. Inevitably while you’re dealing with the good memory, a bad memory will emerge, perhaps an event that brought deep emotional pain and you might wonder why it’s still painful. However, this is the way of memory—the pain has persisted…so thank God for that memory also. You’ll probably find yourself “yo-yo-ing” through your memories but it does help to bless all of them. They’ll be your companions throughout your life, so why not bless them?

Try this kind of prayer when you’re in a reminiscent mood, which might turn out to be a daily occurrence, as it was with Markham. It will bring into presence the richness of experiences through which you’ve lived and endured. Killinger tells us that the history of the faith of Israel, the Bible, is primarily a recounting of the events in the lives of a people and a meditation about how God entered into those events. So, he says, when you prayerfully remember events in your life and bless them by giving thanks for being able to remember all of them, bad and good, in essence you’re participating in the same kind of theological act as those who recorded the history of Israel.

“This too, [bad memories] will pass,” Killinger says, “and will become part of the history of your life. It’s good to live and to give thanks to God [for all memories].”