Monday, October 29, 2012


My good friend, Victoria Sullivan, has written a book, Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, about aquatic and wetland plants, beautifully illustrated by Susan Elliott, artist, ecologist, and writer with Pinyon Publishing, a quality press located in the U.S. Rockies in Montrose, Colorado. Pinyon published the book on October 15, and we arrived in New Iberia Friday to find boxes of it safely stored with our friend, Janet Faulk-Gonzales.

Vickie, a writer and botanist, has a Ph.D. in biology from Florida State University and is a former professor with the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. She has published numerous botanical papers, fiction, and non-fiction, including the speculative novel, Adoption, also published by Pinyon. Vickie was recently honored by a new flower species Eupatorium sullivaniae being named after her, crediting her extensive scientific research on the Eupatorium genus.

Susan Elizabeth Elliott studied botany and French at Humboldt State University and has a Ph.D. in biology from Dartmouth College. She has published fiction and nonfiction, and her paintings are showcased in Open the Gates: Poems for Young Readers by Dabney Stuart, as well as in Why Water Plants Don’t Drown. Her drawings and paintings in Why Water Plants Don’t Drown greatly enhance and clarify the scientific text.

The following is an interview with Vickie in which she talked about this basic biological and ecological text:

Moore: I know that you wrote one version of Why Water Plants Don’t Drown in the 90’s and didn’t write this later version until last year. What prompted you to “begin again?”

Sullivan: I wrote a children's version of Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, which was bought by Franklin Watts, a division of Grolier that was then bought by Scholastic. My manuscript got sidelined in the buy out, and my editor there didn’t continue with Scholastic. I asked to be released from the contract with Scholastic and began looking for a new publisher. Pinyon Publishing became interested, but wanted the book pitched to nature enthusiasts of any age and to contain more science. I rewrote the manuscript, keeping the title and general categories of water plants. Gary Entsminger, the publisher, and Susan Elliott, the illustrator and botanist, provided excellent comments and suggestions for additions (and subtractions) from my draft manuscript.

Moore: What do you mean by Survival Strategies of Aquatic and Wetland Plants?

Sullivan: Plants that normally live on dry land cannot live in water or wet places for very long. Aquatic and wetland plants can only do so because they have adaptations that allow them to thrive in such habitats. Regardless of where they live, all plants have basic needs that must be met. They must have adequate light and concentrations of needed gases, the body must be supported, and they must be able to reproduce.

Moore: Why is light a problem for water plants?

Sullivan: Plants make food using sunlight or artificial light in the case of aquaria, but when light passes through water some wavelengths they need are filtered out. Plants living submerged in water must compensate by being more efficient in absorbing the light waves that they need.

Light and need for gases are linked in water plants. All plants need two gases, carbon dioxide and oxygen, and these are not as concentrated in water as they are in the air above the water. Water plants trap gases in air spaces in their bodies for later use. The same plant tissue that traps gases also allows them to float in water, in other words, to be supported by the water. If you examine a water hyacinth plant, a common floating plant in parts of the US, especially the southeast, you'll see that much of the plant is made of air spaces. Being supported by water is important because if water plants sink too deeply below the surface, they’ll be below the level of adequate light penetration for photosynthesis.

Being stiffly supported by hard stems and tough leaves, as in land plants, is a disadvantage in water. Water currents flowing across such stiff plants would tear them apart. Water plants that grow submerged tend to be soft and flimsy providing little resistance to the currents.

Moore: How do plants reproduce in water? On land, plants have flowers that make seeds. Do water plants have underwater flowers?

Sullivan: Reproduction by seeds varies in water plants and may occur after pollination underwater in some species or above water in flowers that attract pollinators. Underwater flowers are very nondescript and even hard to recognize as flowers. A common feature of water plants is to reproduce by cloning without seeds that is by breaking apart with parts growing into new plants. Hydrilla, the invasive scourge, and other water plants are able to spread as carry pieces of plants are carried from place to place on boats, wading birds, etc. In addition, hydrilla and others like it produce underground buds in great abundance that lie dormant for periods of time.

Flooded soils are low or lacking in oxygen, which is a problem that rooted aquatic and wetlands plants must overcome. Roots need oxygen and land soils have oxygen in air pockets among the soil particles. The aquatic and wetland plants I call snorkelers, pump oxygen to the roots in various ways from the surface. Water lilies, for example, take in gases through stomates in their floating leaves. As the sun heats the leaves, the gases expand and get pushed down through column in the leaf stalks, all the way to roots. Excess gases are pushed out into the underwater soils providing oxygen to other organisms. Methane, or marsh gases, and carbon dioxide from the roots move up the columns within these plants and are leaked into the atmosphere through stomates of older leaves.

Moore: in talking with Lorraine Kingston, owner of the New Iberia Books along the Teche bookstore, she suggested that the book should attract Louisianans because of the interest in environmental concerns – salt water intrusion and the demise of vegetation along the coast. Do you think your book will provide insights into Louisiana environmental problems? What about wetland plant loss?

Sullivan: Lack of sedimentation is a major problem for wetland habitats, and finding a means of replenishing flow of sediments is needed and being worked on. Over 40% of wetland habitats in the U.S. occur in Louisiana, and between 1932 and 2010, Louisiana lost 25% of its wetlands. Levees channelized natural waterways preventing overflow, robbing wetlands along the watercourse and coastal marshlands downstream of a flow of nourishing sedimentation. Without a sediments supply, marshlands erode and plants die leaving behind open water.

Intensive oil and gas industry development in Louisiana has damaged coastal wetlands. Spoil from canals dug to access well sites is piled along canal banks, smothering plants and impeding the flow of water and sediments. Also, the extraction of oil and gas from underground causes the marshes to sink and be replaced by open water.

Assessment of the impact of the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill is in its early stages. Marsh plants growing 15-30 feet from the shoreline were killed, and as this happened, roots could no longer hold sediments, and erosion from wave action along the marsh edges more than doubled.

Moore: How does sea level rise affect coastal wetlands?

Sullivan: Sea level rise affects coastal wetlands worldwide. Over time, elevations of marshes rise naturally through sedimentation and vegetation decay. However, if sea levels rise too rapidly, natural sedimentation can be outpaced, and coastal wetlands retreat inland, if possible or disappear. The EPA has predicted that during the next century, sea levels will rise 6 to 13 inches, which would inundate coastal wetlands. Over time sea levels rise during interglacial period, like this one, but the current pace of rise is higher than previous interglacial periods.

Moore: Tell me a little about each category of water plants you wrote about:

Sullivan: There are four categories of water plants and each one has a particular set of strategies or adaptations for surviving in water and wetlands. Diver is the playful name I give to plants that grow submerged in water. They float in the water at levels where there is sufficient light for photosynthesis, and are enabled by special air filled tissue to do so. A few are water pollinated, but some like Bladderwort produce lovely yellow or purple flowers above the water. Bladderworts are carnivorous plants that trap small aquatic animals in bladder traps. The cover illustration of Why Water Plants Don't Drown is of a bladderwort in flower and shows the underwater traps. Some of the most noxious aquatic plants such as hydrilla and water milfoils are divers. Many species of divers in marine habitats provide important nursery grounds for shrimp and fish.

Floaters include a disparate variety of species such as water hyacinths, duckweeds, mosquito fern and others. As the playful designation implies they float on the water surface, un-rooted in the soil. The leaves of water hyacinth act as sails and colonies like great rafts move on lakes and waterways. Water hyacinths invaded from South America and spread throughout the southeastern U.S. from plants given away at the International Cotton Exposition held in New Orleans in 1884. The exotic, purple flowers, with yellow encircled bull's eye nectar guides, attract pollinators.

The water lily and lotus are floating-leaf plants familiar to everyone. The circular or heart shaped leaf blades attached to long leaf stalks and float on the water surface. The leaf stalks attach deep underwater to horizontal buried stems. Inside the leaf stalks are hollow passageways for movement of gases from leaf blades downward to roots and back upward to leaf blades. I have dubbed this process snorkeling, which is common among the fourth category of wetland plants.

Waders are in the category of plants that grow in wet area with the upper part above water. The depth of water in which they grow varies. Many waders have proven to be snorkelers that are beneficial in oxygenating soils and ridding soils of methane. A few examples include cattails, the several species Spartina, bull tongue, mangroves, bald cypress, and cardinal flower. Leaves receive full sunlight unfiltered by water, have stiff supportive above water plants, and reproduce by seeds. Many in this category are wind pollinated grasses and sedges, which typically have reduced flower parts. Others such as the cardinal flower, with its spectacular red flowers, attract pollinators, in this case insects and hummingbirds.

Moore: Artist Susan Elliott is an ecologist as well as an artist, and her illustrations are beautiful. How did you and Susan coordinate the writing and illustrations for the book?

Sullivan: I feel very lucky to have found Susan to work with me on this book. Not only is she a wonderful artist, but she has a PhD in botany. We have never met although I feel like I know her. We worked entirely online, and our work began with my preparing a list of what I thought a reader would find helpful to have illustrated. She honed a method by trial and error aided by her knowledge of technique and software. A method evolved in which she emailed a "pencil" sketch attachment of each illustration, on which I commented as necessary, and she would adjust. She then colored using some computerized method, which is still mysterious to me.

Moore: Did the two of you have an audience in mind when you began work on the book?

Sullivan: I guess you could say we were passionate about making a book that would interest and entertain readers as much as we were interested in the topic. Aquatic and wetland plants are like desert plants in the sense that are found only in certain places. That enhances their specialness for me and digging into the natural history of water plants reveals layers of mystery.

Moore: Why is flooding a serious problem for plants if water plants don’t drown?

Sullivan: The title is a tongue in cheek because of course, drowning is a phenomenon that happens when lungs fill with water depriving us and any other land animal of oxygen. Plants don't have lungs, but their cells do need oxygen. When soils are flooded, water fills the air pockets between the soil particles and microorganisms use up the rest of the oxygen dissolved in water. Root cells become deprived of oxygen, which they need desperately. Water plants have ways of getting oxygen to the root cells that other plants don't have, and this is why they don't "drown."

Moore: Do you and Susan plan to work on another book together?

Sullivan: I’m open to the possibility, but we haven’t discussed it.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Yesterday, when I arrived back in New Iberia, Louisiana for my winter sojourn, I found a package of books from Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, one of which I had ordered several weeks ago, a spiritual autobiography entitled Path of Lightning by Barbara Schmitz. The book lives up to its title as a path of lightning as the author takes readers on her zigzagging search for God that begins with her Roman Catholic childhood in Nebraska and continues into her apprenticeship with Shahabuddin Less, a Sufi teacher with the Sufi Order of the West.

Schmitz’s journey is a long, circuitous one that takes her from Naropa Institute and study with Allen Ginsburg, (who was invited there by the Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa), to a Peace Vigil above the Wailing Wall in Israel, with travels along the way in Bali, India, Turkey, and Kashmir.

Schmitz, an English teacher and writer living in Norfolk, Nebraska, also studied Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Paramahansa Yogananda, made pilgrimages to sacred places around the world searching for mystical experiences, and ultimately found her place within the Sufi tradition by practicing Sohbet (spiritual discourse) with Shahabuddin, her teacher and mentor.

During her journey through “two year intensives,” and the deepening of her spiritual experiences, Schmitz began to feel despair and experienced the “dark night of the soul,” a period of boredom and aridity accompanied by stagnation of will and intelligence. She quotes from one of my favorite authors, Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican mystic who wrote the “bible” on the enhancement of consciousness, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, and who advocated that the dark night is a natural balance to the highs of spiritual exultation and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Underhill would have applauded Schmitz’s long journey as she wrote that “we are all the kindred of mystics…”

I particularly appreciated the section relating to the famous Turkish-born poet Rumi, who has gained popularity in the U.S. with the publication of his famous poem (included in Path of Lightning): “This we have now/is not imagination. /This is not/grief or joy. /not a judging state, /or an elation, /or sadness. /Those come and go. /This is the presence/that does not…”

Schmitz is a poet who has been recognized by Natalie Goldberg as someone who “endeavors to understand the mystery and beauty of being alive. I name her the Queen of Constancy for her devotion to meditation and never letting up or giving up on her spiritual journey.” One of Schmitz’s minimal poems in Path of Lightning, which she wrote on a pilgrimage to Turkey, illustrates her training in and mastery of metaphor, as well as her appreciation for the style of Sufi poet Rumi: “In Turkey/in the cemeteries/the uncut grass/on graves above/grows long/competing/with the uncut hair/beneath.”

Schmitz struggles through the four C’s on her journey: “Compare Not, Complain Not, Criticize Not, and Condemn Not” and remarks, “If I really do these, there’s not much left to talk about. I made a small sticky note with the four C’s on it and attached it to a photo on my desk at work to remind me to practice them at school. I gave it a stab – glad I didn’t have to report to anyone on how well I did them…” Those four C’s resonate throughout the Path of Lightning and are good guideposts for anyone engaged in a deeper search for spiritual enlightenment and compassionate treatment of fellow human beings.

On one of Schmitz’s trips to India, she pays loving tribute to her husband who has made his own spiritual journey alongside her to various countries and through her many illuminations. The sincerity of this passage impressed me deeply: “I sometimes don’t notice right at the moment, but Bob is as much my teacher as Shahabuddin, probably from the moment I made the decision to trust that my love for him (Bob) would lead me to God. He is always beside me, clarifying, discussing, helping, redirecting me when I get mixed up or confused…”

This is an unusual book written in a highly accessible style by a highly enlightened person who was given the name Vajra by her Sufi teacher after her first trip to India – a name that means “transformation by the lightning bolt,” and the Path of Lightning is filled with illuminating flashes that will attract readers interested in further developing their spiritual growth.

An incisive note by Schmitz on the compassion advocated throughout Path of Lightning: “Our path is to live with others, to learn to be a human being, Self analysis is looking at the self in relation to one’s family, peers, and friends…and I remember Shahabuddin teaching in one of our seminars, ‘We are sitting on a pile of gold. Why do we want to pick up rocks?’” After reading this personal odyssey about self awareness and growth toward “otherness,” we might ask, “Why indeed?!”

Available at Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


12   A Song of Creation  Benedicite, omnia opera Domini

  Song of the Three Young Men, 35‑65

One or more sections of this Canticle may be used. Whatever the selection, it begins
with the Invocation and concludes with the Doxology.


Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord, *
   praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, *
   praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

I   The Cosmic Order

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, *
   O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, *
   praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, *
   all winds and fire and heat.
Winter and summer, glorify the Lord, *
 praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, *
   drops of dew and flakes of snow.
Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, *
   praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

A few weeks ago, The Rev. Barbara C. Crafton held a retreat at St. Mary Conference Center, Sewanee, Tennessee sponsored by the Sisters of St. Mary’s Convent. It was a day of quiet time, talks, and centering prayer. I had never read Barbara’s books or attended any of her lectures or retreats, and her presentation of “Winter and Summer, Glorify the Lord,” mesmerized me. The publicity preceding her appearance quoted her as saying “I love the idea of all the elements of our environment praising God in concert. It isn’t just about the weather, but about God’s care for us, no matter how bad things look.” She based her talks on the Song of the Three Young Men, Benedicite, omnia opera Domini, beginning on page 88 of Morning Prayer II in the Book of Common Prayer (shown above for those of you who want to read the canticles).
A tall, attractive woman with slightly graying hair, Barbara walked into the conference room, shook hands with each participant (35 people), then sat down in a tall director’s chair and began reading “A Song of Creation.” It was an arresting experience, and I didn’t record anything because I was so taken with the presentation.
The Rev. Barbara Crafton is an Episcopal priest, a spiritual director, and author of several books; e.g., The Sewing Room: Uncommon Reflections on Life, Love and Work, but the title she mentioned that drew my attention was Jesus Wept, her personal story of depression, coupled with the narratives of many people who have battled with, and overcome, this disorder. I ordered it for my Nook and read it in one sitting.
 In the preface, she writes:  “…  How hard it can be to heed and act on Jesus’ words, ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ without either lying or sounding falsely pious…chronic fear is not about lack of information: it comes from within.  The same is true of chronic sorrow: it does no good to point out to the sufferer that she is really blessed in many ways, that things really aren’t so bad, that many other people have it much worse, even if all those things are true.  Depression comes from within, not from outside us…”  Barbara explains that internal woes are often authored by the brain’s chemistry and improve markedly with the right medicine, rightly managed.  She also talks about talk therapy or behavioral therapy as a treatment, and, in a subsequent chapter, the “beauty of prayer.”
Barbara currently directs The Geranium Farm, an online organization devoted to spiritual growth and practice. She was a chaplain at Ground Zero during the recovery effort after the attack on the World Trade Center. For many years, she has also worked as an actress, director, and producer, and her books and radio scripts have won numerous awards such as the Polly Bond Awards from Episcopal Communicators and the Gabriel Award for religious broadcasting. She has also been a commentator on “America at Worship.” You can Google Barbara Crafton online at her website, The Geranium Farm.
During one of the segments of the retreat that I attended, Barbara talked about death and how people in our American culture spend so much time denying death. In that talk she covered a bit of physics and explained that the energy in matter is never destroyed. Following the presentation about death, I went outdoors and sat on a bench near the bluff to write the following:

We do not dread so much
the pains of hell
as the loss of personality,
the precious way we laugh
or talk or try to impress others,
and perhaps we will lose all of this.
She told us we decompose,
are recycled, never destroyed,
and we cannot help wondering
what form decomposed bodies will take,
if we’ll have any say
in the tomb of reconstituted matter.
Oh, how good it would feel
to be recreated as a bird,
a purple/black crow
strutting in the sun,
cackling his canticle of joy,
his revenge over death;
piloting the universe,
dropping in free fall,
then rising again with urgency
in the same fashion
as we would hope the dying soar,
free fall, and rise again,
exulting in the sphere of His love.

P.S.  Leaving my desk in Tennessee this Thursday, and the next A Words Worth will be sent from Louisiana after we settle in, which will be the following week.
P.P.S.  We’re leaving the skunks on the Mountain, but we had another invasion from a critter two nights ago.  Skunk?  Possum?  Coon?  Chipmunk?  Squirrel?  Whatever the animal is, it has caused me to give serious consideration to the idea of moving to the city.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Louisiana Mist

This morning I woke up and looked out the window at a landscape veiled in mist, a familiar scene during the fall and winter here on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee. It seems that I move between mists and mists. In the summer and fall, I live at Sewanee, a place where, as one of my poems reveals, “the mist stores itself/ between the dark tree trunks/obscures the valley, /the air dense and wordless.” In the winter I live in New Iberia, Louisiana where similar mists prevail. They were once captured in the paintings of Alexander Drysdale of New Orleans, Louisiana (1870-1934) who thinned his oils with kerosene to produce the shadowy landscapes that made him famous. In later years, photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery of south Louisiana was attracted to what she called “shades of mystery and shadow” and gained national recognition for the photography of sugar cane fields shrouded in Louisiana mists.
Writers and artists have always been intrigued by mist, the condensation of water vapor that dims and obscures landscapes, often hiding such brilliance as the flaming leaves now turning orange, yellow and red on The Mountain here. Tolstoy, Faulkner, Yeats, Dickens, to name a few writers, wrote about mists hiding the changes taking place in nature or obscuring human figures so that they weren't recognizable at a few yards. The famous novelist Stephen King wrote a novella entitled The Mist, a story about people experiencing terror in a small town in Maine when it was engulfed by mist, and otherworld creatures appeared.
Here on The Mountain, we get socked in by mists and delay going down to the valley for provisions of any kind until it burns off. Those socked-in days become ones involving indoor pursuits. I know that when I return to Louisiana, there’ll also be mornings when mist will hang over the slow-moving, brown waters of the bayou, and I’ll feel a certain malaise and sense of isolation provoked by the gray landscape.
The only places I've lived where mists didn't hover over the landscape are Ahwaz, Iran and Electra, Texas. In Iran, the sky seemed to always be like a blank sheet of blue copy paper – cloudless, mist-less, and filled with merciless desert heat. However, a calendar with a painting of a misty sky hung beside my old tin desk in the front room of my home in Melli Rah and made me nostalgic for the landscapes I’m now complaining about!
Mists have actually inspired my Muse to write poetry and full-length mysteries containing numerous mentions of “mist” which I used to portray the atmosphere of south Louisiana and Mississippi; e.g., (from Chant of Death), “Insects whirred monotonously and Malachi thought how like the monk’s chants their incessant steady singing was, only the insects never seemed to sleep…As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see vague swirls of mist hanging over the lake…” Or from Goat Man Murder: “When Donald Majors returned to Pecan Grove as the sun pierced the morning mist, he discovered his sister Penelope already at breakfast…the long kitchen that faced a back gallery harbored a cheerful spirit not found elsewhere in the mansion…” (The latter mystery is presently being transposed into a script for a play by Rose Anne Raphael of New Iberia). Then there’s a scene from The Kajun Kween, my young adult book set in south Louisiana, in which Petite Marie Melancon goes into the swamp and encounters a loup garou (werewolf): “Out of the wispy mist ahead, something glowing yellow-white leaped up and floated toward the pirogue…”
There are many more allusions to mist in my writings, as well as in the works of more famous writers, and on such a misty day, I could probably spend the entire morning searching for such allusions. However, it’s 10 a.m; the bright fall leaves on the trees in my backyard are beginning to poke through the oppressive gray blanket, and I have packing to do to prepare for mists to come in bayou country.
Painting by my brother Paul Marquart
P.S. Coming Soon! A review of Dr. Victoria I. Sullivan’s and Susan Elliott’s newest book, Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, published by Pinyon Publishing, an excellent marsh plants guide with beautiful drawings and illustrations. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


One of the major experiences I’ll miss when I return to Louisiana for the winter is my life as an Associate with the Anglican Sisters of St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, Tennessee. Yesterday, Victoria Sullivan and I celebrated an anniversary of four years as Associates with the Sisters. We received a lovely bouquet of dahlias grown in the Convent’s garden and two cards with handwritten sentiments recognizing our service with the Community. Sister Miriam had also gotten up at 2 a.m. to bake apple raisin bread for the occasion, a bread that she jokingly referred to as "extremely pregnant" because it had risen to a mid-section height unparalleled in her baking career. Lots of unpublishable remarks followed this reference, and the anniversary was one of those light and laughter celebrations characteristic of the Sisters’ “family events.”
During the 80’s when I attended self-improvement seminars about how to live and work as a contributing person in society, participants were told that there are three things people need to do in their daily lives -- invite others to join them in contributing to community life, make promises to the community, and acknowledge people’s efforts when they've made contributions. The Sisters of St. Mary do those three things. They invite people to become Associates and work with them, requiring each person who joins with them in worship and service to promise to live by a daily Rule. And they support and acknowledge the Associates for their work.
The Big Plus for Associates is that they join an authentic family –a family that remembers birthdays, anniversaries, the names of the Associates’ offspring and grand offspring and one that offers open discussion of problems and ongoing spiritual direction. The family of Sisters listens well, rather than pronouncing personal judgments and criticism; and they provide prayerful, unconditional love. It’s an honor for Associates to be able to worship and pray at four services every day of the week in this small gray stone chapel perched on a bluff of the Cumberland Plateau.
We share the Eucharist and breakfasts on Tuesday and Sunday mornings every week and are sometimes invited, as we have been this week, to share Sunday lunch with the Sisters in a refectory overlooking the Cumberland Valley. The Sisters love to laugh and often praise Victoria for her special ability to tell stories or make wry remarks that incite laughter. In her anniversary card, Vickie received special acknowledgement for her gift of laughter, for her wisdom, and for the time she gives to Convent projects;e.g., the Board of Directors of the Convent.
I often serve at St.Mary’s altar and preach at least once a month while we’re sojourning on The Mountain and feel at home serving as a retired deacon from another Episcopal Diocese on this small, modest altar and sharing the Gospel with a congregation of 30-40 active members.  I've also been involved in fundraising efforts on behalf of the Convent's work and for maintenance of their mother house and received acknowledgement of those efforts.
In short, we’re included and respected as members of an organization that is a well-functioning servant leader organization, one that doesn't just pay lip service to so-called “religious” ideals but provides Associates a family that is honest with, and upholds, all of its members, unlike many of the dysfunctional families in American society that tout togetherness but practice phony baloney, acts of sniping and unkindness to members of the family into which they're born.   
The idea of developing an Associates order can probably be attributed to a Sister of an early St. Mary's order named Mother Mary Maude who, in 1934, wrote the prophetic words quoted in Ten Decades of Praise by Sister Mary Hilary:
“It has been said that this age is ripe for a new manifestation in the monastic tradition…One wonders in what way it will come. Perhaps in lay organizations, pledged to the ascetic ideal, yet living and mingling in the world. If ever the world needed the salt of distinctively Christian lives it needs it now. Such lives must be based on theological virtues, built up on the moral virtues, pledged to simple and frugal living, detached from worldly standards, fired with a passion for social justice, and sustained by a dynamic energy drawn from sacramental grace and nourished by a systematic prayer life…”
The Sisters of St. Mary in the southern province are the “inheritors” of an order established by four Sisters, known as the Martyrs of Memphis or Constance and her Companions who died nursing victims of a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee in 1878. The Sewanee order also established an order of St. Mary in the Philippines, and a tiny Sister named Mary Zita was called to the convent at Sewanee after the Sisters made a mission to Sagada.
We’re fortunate to have found this authentic family in one of the world’s “thin places,” a community dedicated to "providing the salt of distinctively Christian lives,” devoted to holy work and to caring for people who may not have experienced unconditional love and acceptance by their birth families. I might mention that members of the Sisters’ family include three cats and three dogs who scurry through the halls and sometimes join us at the Eucharist.
We'll miss our wonderful Convent family, but their e-mails, letters, phone calls, and prayers always follow us to Cajun country. It's exhilarating to enjoy a relationship with the Sisters that St. Paul described in I Corinthians 13, verses 1-13.  I invite you to re-read it.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Over a year ago, I accompanied Vickie Sullivan to meet with Kim Graham of St. Martinville, Louisiana to discuss editing a book Kim was writing about the loss of her youngest son, Pvt. Mark W. Graham, who died from critical injuries sustained in the Iraq conflict. Kim and her husband live in an old, Victorian home that has what I call an onion-topped roof on the Main Street of St. Martinville, a lovely home that Kim has been restoring and decorating for seven years. She took us to lunch at a small café alongside St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church, and we talked about her heartache following the loss of her son, which she had written about in a manuscript entitled A Song in the Night.
As my personal inclinations are pacifistic, my responses to the death of Kim’s son in the awful conflict in Iraq were feelings of rage that such a wonderful young man had been brutally injured when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and everyone in the vehicle perished except Mark. He had been scooped up by a medical helicopter unit and flown to Baghdad, but lost both legs and a kidney and had third degree burns on more than sixty percent of his body. Five days later, he died.
Kim’s book covers her spiritual journey from the point of a dream presaging the death of her son a year before he was killed, through months of grief and a search for the grace she developed by following her Roman Catholic faith. In the dream she glimpsed a heaven that sustained her through the aftermath of Mark’s senseless death.
She writes, “I think God prepares us for our biggest moments with smaller ones leading. We had our share. Financial or marital problems are normal in any family; ours were extreme. Flood, debt, separation, and a family torn apart led us on a tremendous journey of ‘faith searching’ and blessedly, ‘faith finding.’ Flat on your back with arms reaching upward is the time God can come, when we are literally open to Him in every sense of the word. Yes, each moment led to the next and prepared our hearts and our faith, but we never knew how much we would need that strength or faith for the journey to come…”
In March, 2006, Kim had a dream in which she encountered God while she searched for her family, walking down different roads that she thought would lead to those family members. In her encounter with God, He embraced her, and she “felt as joyous as a mother would feel when her son returns home from a war…it was clear, this feeling, with all it implied,” the feeling that a mother has when a son who has battled and suffered and grown returns safely. “I knew all he (the son) had been through clearly, and I knew the love, safety, and warmth of his (God’s) hug, and I knew, as well, that that was what heaven felt like. I had just had a glimpse of heaven.”
In the dream, Kim also saw groups of four and five men who were of different nationalities – “men of Arabic nations, Chinese, and Africans in colorful dress.” She was instructed to tell them about God’s embrace, about His love and joy that waits for them in heaven. One year after Kim dreamed what she later defined as a parable, Mark was killed.
Part of Kim’s recorded journey concerns her experiences as teacher of a memoir writing class that helped her survive the loss of Mark, a class that included bankers, inventors, civil rights leaders, stay-at-home moms who blossomed in their time. The students, of varying ages, wrote about events that, for Kim, resembled parables, “snippets of time and not always in clear detail, but we remember the atmosphere of an event, the feeling of the room, how someone made us feel. We remember our most important times, when they are most vivid in our mind, not because they were everyday events, but because they were special and almost always they cost us something. Sometimes it was our innocence.”
After Mark’s death, Kim was also consoled by the appearance of dragonflies which she considers to be the spirit of Mark and a reminder that God is omnipresent. Since the appearance of the first dragonfly, dragonflies follow Kim and her husband Neil throughout their yard in St. Martinville, almost every time they go outdoors. Her first instinct is to greet her son as she really feels that he accompanies her in the form of that beautiful insect. “I was told that if you think the Holy Spirit is with you, and you feel its presence, then you are correct in that assumption. If it’s in your head, then God put it there, I guess I’m always justifying that the bird (a yellow and black bird that appeared to her shortly after Mark was injured) and the dragonfly are Mark.”
Pvt. Mark W. Graham
A Song in the Night is the poignant story of a mother’s loss of a beloved son, one that will give hope to the thousands of mothers who have lost sons in senseless conflicts. Kim is a brave woman who recorded a hard journey, but readers will feel inspired from having read her bittersweet account, an account that she feels she was instructed to disseminate after having the special dream a year preceding her son’s death.
We hope to visit with Kim again when we return to Cajun country. She’s an inspiration, and, by the way, she makes wonderful fudge brownies!

A Song in the Night was published by Dragonfly Press. Click on the title to order.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Patrice Melnick

Yesterday, my blog highlighted a food festival held in New Iberia, Louisiana called The World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off, an event that emphasizes one of the favorite pastimes of denizens of Cajun country – eating. Shortly after publishing the blog, I communicated with Patrice Melnick, executive director of Festival of Words and co-owner of Casa Azul Gifts in Grand Coteau, Louisiana to talk about another Louisiana festival that focuses on a subject dear to my heart: poetry. The range from Cajun cuisine to soul nourishment reflects the richness of south Louisiana, even in remote rural areas like the small town of Grand Coteau, population 1,040, where the Festival of Words takes place.
The Festival of Words emphasizes that Poetry is For Everyone and features events that showcase this idea. It’s a literary festival that includes top level authors teaching hands-on creative writing workshops in schools and Drive by Poetry events which  feature youth performing in the streets, in cafes and gift shops.  The Festival features beginning writers reading along with professional authors and sponsors creative writing workshops in public schools and antique shops. The program has grown from 100 poetry/story lovers to a festival that attracts 750 people across south Louisiana and the south at large.
Festival of Words was launched by its present executive director, Patrice Melnick, who has been corresponding with me from the time I made a donation in support of this year’s annual festival, slated for Nov. 5-11, with activities at Grand Coteau and in St. Martin and St. Landry parishes. Louisiana Poet Laureate, Julie Kane, will read, as well as North Carolina author Randall Kenan (a familiar face at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference), spoken word artist Bonny McDonald (with whom I performed at a reading, along with Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana Poet Laureate, in New Iberia, a few years ago), and other noted writers. Of course, Patrice will also be performing.
I asked Patrice to fill me in on her background and education and to talk about the launching of this literary arts festival that began five years ago. She was up late last night answering my questions about an event that touts it “will do anything to convince people that poetry is for them.” Here are Patrice’s late night thoughts:
Moore: Where were you born and educated?
Melnick: I was born in Dallas, Texas. I earned my B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. I received an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Moore: What attracted you to teaching at Xavier University at a time when it was an all-black college?
Melnick: Xavier is still a predominantly black college. At the time, I was looking for work and applied at several colleges in New Orleans, including Xavier. They offered me a job, so I took it. I liked Xavier’s efforts to educate students, many of whom were first generation college students. The attitude of the university is that those who are bright, but may have had poor preparation, still deserved access to higher education. While many of the students were well-qualified, those who lacked basics or study skills still had the opportunity to acquire them in special courses.
That Xavier was a black Catholic college was not an issue. I am at ease, generally, with people of different cultures, and patient with myself through any adjustment period needed. Also, I have always read literature and music of other cultures—black American, Latin American, middle eastern, African or Native American. I love to explore and learn from different perspectives.
Moore: What prompted you to initiate the Festival of Words program?
Melnick: When I opened a gift shop in Grand Coteau called Casa Azul in 2005, I could only afford enough merchandise to fill half of the building, so the empty back area was sectioned off. I also had trouble attracting customers so I started an open mic series in the back of the shop. As a writer, open mic was something I knew how to do. At the first open mic, maybe five people showed up, and most did not know what to do. I brought copies of poems and distributed them for people to take turns reading at the podium. Over time the open mic gained popularity, and the audience averaged 25 to 30 people. In 2008 I was encouraged by the community liaison of the Acadiana Center for the Arts to apply for a grant. We did, and received funding. This allowed us to pay artists, and invite a wider range of performers. As attention to the literary arts grew, a group of us decided to start a literary arts festival.
In 2010, we founded our own nonprofit organization, the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective.
We started the Festival of Words because there was a lack of literary arts in the area. We decided to emphasize outreach because otherwise our audience would have been very small! Most in the area had never attended a literary reading, and we were determined to get people involved from youth to senior citizens. I believe in the power of creative expression and the power of the written and spoken word. It is heartening to see someone read an original poem in front of an audience for the first time. You can see his face change as he realizes the power of his own words. As more youth become interested in writing, they will become more effective readers, writers and creative thinkers. This leads to higher achievement in academics, and more young people are likely to enter college.
Moore: Did you receive a grant as a jump start?
Melnick: This year, we received a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a Decentralized Arts Funding (DAF) grant and a grant from South Arts. We are grateful for all of these grants, but the DAF grant, which we depended upon in the past, equaled about 30% of the amount we had received in previous years.
Moore: Who are your students in the program – percentage of old and young folks?
Melnick: The Festival of Words emphasizes outreach to people who may have had little exposure to the arts.  At this annual festival, about 70% of those involved are youth, and 30% are adults. Ten percent of the adults are senior citizens.
Drive-by poets reading on location
We reach the youth in several ways. Featured authors teach creative writing workshops in the public school classrooms of St. Landry Parish. Many are meeting an author for the first time in their lives! Also, our “Drive-by Poetry,” director, Bruce Coen, teaches youth to perform poems by featured authors. Then they perform “drive-by poetry,” in grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, and other mundane locations. This is all coordinated with businesses in advance. The event brings poetry into everyday lives. Students look forward to it every year.
Moore: Who have been some of the featured authors and sponsors in the program?
Melnick: We have specific criteria for our authors: 1) they must be accomplished authors or performers 2) writings must be accessible to the general public 3) must be effective educators 4) must be interested in community and audience development. 5) must be nice—it makes it easier to attract residents.
We know that we will draw people who love literature. But that is not enough. In our desire to be inclusive, we attempt to engage people of all ages, folks who may have thought they did not like poetry. We think we can convince them otherwise.  

Darrell Bourque, former LA
Poet Laureate
One major participant has been Darrell Bourque, previously Poet Laureate of Louisiana. He has been connected to our events since we were just a small open mic series in the back of Casa Azul Gifts. He obviously cares deeply about poetry and people, and now he serves as president of our board of directors. He has used his notoriety to draw attention to the Festival of Words and our mission to inspire creative expression and higher levels of literacy. Another major participant has been spoken word poet Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore who is director of Forward Arts, a Baton Rouge arts education organization that teaches creative writing and performance. “Xero,” has advised us on our programming and has brought the Baton Rouge youth slam team to Casa Azul Gifts to perform several times. He and others in the Baton Rouge slam poetry community have donated many hours to perform and teach in Grand Coteau and the surrounding area. Other favorite visitors have included Tim Seibles, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte and Kendra Hamilton. All were accomplished, yet with kind, generous personalities.
Moore: Where is your favorite space to hold the event?
Melnick: I likescheduling events at St. Charles Chapel, which used to be called Christ the King Church. The Chapel served as the black church in town, before desegregation, and the creole community revolved around this institution. At Christ the King church parishioners held fairs, had baptisms, weddings and other events. I knew residents had a lot of affection for this building and that it would be a comfortable place for them to attend an event. We always have a resident introduce the building before the program begins. This year, a tour of the chapel will be available on November 10 .
My 2nd favorite location is the back area of Casa Azul because that is where it all began. The space is intimate and eclectic.
Moore: Do you ever appear in a program? And what comprises a typical performance?
Melnick: For the first time this year, I will be one of the featured authors. I have a new book out called Po-boy Contraband, a memoir.
Our programming includes poetry, fiction and nonfiction. We also include some music, especially on the community stage where we hold an all-day open mic on November 10. The festival includes art work created by area youth, which serves as a backdrop at the literary readings.
Oral history is also part of our programming. Each month we invite a Grand Coteau resident to share stories of growing up in the area. The presentation is filmed and preserved in the Cajun and Creole Archives at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. During this year’s annual festival, there will be a tour of the old St. Peter Claver High school and St. Charles Chapel. There will also be a story-sharing session in St. Charles Chapel, which will be recorded and archived.
The Festival of Words wants to elevate the written and spoken word which includes stories. Oral history is a natural fit for this literary arts program.
Moore: Is this your full-time job or do you have another occupation?
Melnick: The Festival of Words in not my full-time job. I also run Casa Azul Gifts and I am a writer.
Moore: How do you think the Festival affects literacy? Are there any measurable results from programs offered?
Melnick: Most of the progress we see is anecdotal—but notable. When we began the program, there were no writing groups or other open mics in the area. Since then, three participating schools have started their own poetry clubs and open mics. Three adult writing groups have also started in the community. In the last three years, more businesses and festivals are including the literary arts. The Festival of Words now has a poetry performance component. Teachers, art administrators, and individuals from as far as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge ask for advice on how to build a literary arts community.
Moore: Will you being doing fundraisers every year for the program or do you anticipate state funding at some later date?
Melnick: I anticipate we will be doing fundraisers every year for the foreseeable future. If state and national funding for the arts becomes more available, we might do less fundraising, however it is very important to have the support of the community in which we work. These donations indicate community approval of our programming.
Moore: In the book, Running and Being by George Sheehan, he emphasizes that enlightened people include poets, philosophers, and athletes.  What do you think of that statement?
Melnick: I don’t know how to comment on this statement—I think I would need a better sense of the context. But I feel that enlightenment can come from reflection, creative expression, and an interest in humanity. One could argue that all of these types of people may have this in common.
To pledge support link to Festival of Words, and click “Manage Your Pledge.” Patrice says they’re only a few hundred dollars short of the goal for this annual event. Pony up for poetry!
Photograph of Patrice Melnick by Philip Gould, noted Louisiana photographer; other photos supplied by Patrice Melnick

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


By Paul Schexnayder for Kajun Kween

Hay la bas, I’m missing the World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off that takes place in my winter habitat of New Iberia, Louisiana! My friend Janet Faulk-Gonzales, president of the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce, recently called me about New Iberia gearing up for this annual event kickoff on Friday. Some good smells will be emanating from Bouligny Plaza, and a representative from Anderson Cooper’s Show will be reporting on and tasting the best of Louisiana cooking at the “Cook ‘Em” Event (this year’s title for the Cook-off).
It’s a premier, three-day event on historic Main Street and is backed by corporate sponsors McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce and British Petroleum. This year, ninety teams of gumbo cookers from throughout south Louisiana will begin stirring up a roux at 6 a.m., and the tasting and judging will begin at 11 a.m Sunday, October 14. During that time period, I’ll be preaching a sermon at St. Mary’s here at Sewanee, and I hope that I get through the delivery without stuttering because of visions of gumbo dancing in my head.
From years past, I can attest to the taste of chicken and sausage, and seafood gumbos that will ruin your taste buds for gumbos cooked in any other locale than Louisiana. This year, lagniappe has been added to the event. Fifty teams at the Cook-Off will cook in a competition that features “anything but gumbo” – dishes like jambalaya, corn and crab bisque, fried fish, red beans and rice, and funnel cakes…maybe even alligator dishes. Hay la bas, it’s Cajun cooking at its best, and here I am chilling out in 58 degree weather with a gray pall hanging in the sky at Sewanee, Tennessee and no prospect of tasting anything but noodle soup !
In Cajun country, we believe in dancing in the streets, and the Cook-Off will feature “chanky chank” music by such notables as Grammy Award winner, Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band. Troy and Jacob Landry of the TV series, “Swamp People,” will come up from the swamp to help celebrate the Cook-Off, and LSU fans will enjoy the LSU-South Carolina game on a 12x16  ft. TV screen and two flat screens set up in the gazebo of Bouligny Plaza on Saturday. The Cook-Off is just one of the celebrations in south Louisiana that represents the joie de vivre of a town that boasts an authentic French/Spanish background.
Where else could a person get a brimming over, hot cup of seafood gumbo for $4 and a cup of chicken gumbo for $3, except at a world class gumbo cook-off in south Louisiana?!! The weather prediction for the event is: sunny skies, gentle breezes, and 68 degrees temps, but Janet makes a disclaimer that a resident meteorologist isn’t on the Chamber of Commerce staff. However, I’ve enjoyed the event during a Louisiana rainstorm that didn’t fell the bright tents housing the Cajun kitchens.
Several years ago, I wrote a young adult fiction book entitled Kajun Kween, and one chapter is devoted to this world class cook-off which Petite Marie Melancon wins, hands down, for her Shrimp Gumbo. She also garners the overall Best Gumbo Award and accepts the award while dragging a pet pig on a leash that is stolen by a man shouting, “Kajun Kasualty, no! La Boucherie (hog butchering), yes. Cracklings and boudin, pork roast, yes! We’ll have it all tonight in Jeanerette!” Petite and her companion, Henri, rescue the pig, but if you want to read more about this 13-yr. old who interviews for a New York City comic strip publisher and beats out more ordinary jolie catins (baby dolls), her adventures are chronicled in The Kajun Kween. Petite’s adventures include an encounter with a mama ‘gator, a giant snapping turtle, a loup garou (werewolf) and a snake that drops into her pirogue while she’s poling through a south Louisiana swamp (and there are no Troy and Jacob Landrys around to rescue her!).
Mais, I’m missing bayou country as I write, and I can smell a phantom gumbo from here. Three more weeks and I’ll be laissez le bon temps roulez (let the good times roll) with the rest of the New Iberians in the Queen City of the Teche.
Drawing by Paul Schexnayder, world class artist from New Iberia, Louisiana.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


A few nights ago, while we watched a British mystery on television, we heard a loud thud against the French doors in the living room, a sound that reminded us of the children’s book about those “things that go bump in the night.” The noise preceded an expulsion of pieces of insulation through one of the floor vents, followed by violent scratching sounds beneath the vent. We searched out a hammer and beat on the metal vent for a few minutes, and the noise subsided. A big rat? A possum? A skunk? Who knew? We live in the woods of Sewanee, Tennessee, and wildlife strolls through our yard weekly – skunks, rabbits, deer, even a fox or two at times. Also, our cottage is situated on what I call a corduroy lawn, an uneven surface beneath which live millions of moles. Yes, we enjoy a regular cast of Beatrix Potter characters that may have enchanted Beatrix, but don’t fascinate me, particularly skunks and moles.
I didn’t harbor any loving thoughts about the invader, and the following morning we called the heating/air conditioning experts who donned hazard suits and went into the crawl space, returning with the news that some critter had chewed up insulation and destroyed part of the duct work, both of which had been replaced two years ago.
“Can’t do no work until you catch the animal,” Josh said. “You need to call somebody that traps critters.” He gave us the name and number of “the wild man,” as he’s called -- a man reputed to have a recording of the music from the “Batman” movie on his answering machine. Batman wasn’t available, so we searched the telephone directory for wildlife control technicians in Winchester, Tennessee and turned up an ad about a man who claims “if it walks or crawls/ give me some calls!” He also touted that he could get rid of animals dead or alive – rats, skunks, bats, coons, even honey bees. His field of expertise is called Nuisance Wildlife Control, and technicians have to be insured, licensed, and bonded before they can trap wildlife.
The technician arrived in early afternoon wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans – no protective armor of any kind – and began inspecting the site of the air conditioner. “Yep, gets through these holes in the front of the AC,” he announced. Mind you, the holes look small enough to accommodate a baby mouse, but he insisted that critters are mostly long and skinny. “If you take off their hair, they ain’t nothing, and they can slip right through a little crack,” he said. “I think it’s a skunk, but it could be a possum or a coon. You know it ain’t a squirrel because they stay up high and get in your attic. Got any of them?” I assured him that openings under the eaves of the roof had been boarded up. “Well, I know it ain’t a bird. Now if you get some of them, they carry these mites that can get in your house and make you itch and cause all kinds of diseases.”
After leaving that bit of assurance for me to chew on, he opened the trunk of his car and brought out a large cage and a small sack. The sack held a can of sardines, a bag of marshmallows, and a can of scent. The sardines went into the cage, along with the marshmallows, and he smeared the oil from the can of sardines on the ground in front of the air conditioner. “This ought to get ‘em,” he said. “If nothing’s in the cage by Thursday, call me. If something gets in the cage, don’t go near it.  Call me. And if I don’t catch nothing, you still owe me $175.”
Last night, we did a lot of peering through a bedroom window to see if a critter had been attracted to the can of sardines, but no wildlife appeared.
Meanwhile, readers are probably asking, as I did, how do you prevent the skunk, if it is a skunk, from spraying its odorous musk when it’s caught?
It seems that the trapper approaches the trapped, blind skunk and covers the trap with a tarp or piece of burlap. In the dark trap, the skunk is less likely to target and spray the trapper. The trapper gently transports the cage to his car, and as far as I know, takes the critter to a new location or releases it alive, but, in most cases, it’s humanely destroyed because it could be carrying rabies.
Last night I heard two bumps in the night and figured that whatever is underneath the cottage is hibernating or it would have gone out for dinner; namely, the smelly sardines. I know it isn’t skunk mating season or skunk birthing season, so what’s this critter doing in the “den” beneath my house, bumping around, eating insulation, and trying to make an appearance through the floor vents? I read somewhere that skunks actually like to be close to humans, but I’m not ready for such a cozy relationship.
This morning, first thing, I ran to the window and looked down at an empty trap. I was dismayed to see the smelly sardines still nestled in the trap and no critters looking out at me. I decided to give this experiment two more days, and then we'll search for another skunk chaser. As much as I believe in peaceful co-existence, I refuse to live side by side, or floor to crawl space, with a skunk! Bring in the swat team!
Meanwhile, bears have been sighted near the student cafeteria, a block away from us. It’s time to return to Cajun Country for the winter. Down there, we just have mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, and nutria. It’ll be interesting (or devastating) to see what takes up residence in our cottage while we're away from The Mountain this winter!