Tuesday, December 30, 2014

SOME CAT-A-LOGICAL FOOLISHNESS

Yesterday, a slow drizzle of rain fell as I sat at my desk looking out at the pine straw heaped around the base of an old oak in the backyard. A neighbor's black cat crossed the yard and began rummaging in the straw as if he was searching for food. And, then, with that sixth sense cats seem to have, he sensed me watching him and stared back at me. Now, not only am I allergic to animal dander (cats being the worst offenders), I also have just enough Scot blood in me (or it could be the Cajun stream) to entertain a few superstitions, and I get anxious when I remember the one about black cats crossing in your line of vision and causing bad luck. I was hoping to escape the misfortunes that blighted this past year.

The cat and I regarded each other for a few moments, then he went back to his foraging, but I continued to stare at him, trying to will him away from my yard. It was a stand-off, and he won. He looked at me once, began sniffing the corners of the yard, and returned to the pine straw to settle in, even though rain drizzled constantly.

So I did the thing I do when all else fails, I began writing a "snippet" (aka a bit of calculated whimsy) about his invasion. I'll include it at the end of this blog. Meanwhile, I tried to divert my thoughts by thinking positively about this species of animal that has often caused me to develop paroxysms of sneezing, to suffer from swollen, watering eyes, and to lose my breath. Immediately, the face that appeared in my thoughts was that of Beatrix Potter, the Victorian woman who studied the behavior of animals and created enchanting paintings of them in a series of books about rabbits, mice, cats, hedgehogs, and other creatures she often saw in the Lake District of England.  As an adult, I still enjoy the story about an old cat named Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, an anxious parent who frequently lost her kittens, and when she found them they were committing some mischief. However, in this Tale of Samuel Whiskers, "Moppet and Mittens grew up to be very good rat catchers."


My daughter Stephanie has seven cats indoors and feeds as many that hang around outside. At first, the neighbors complained about the band of bedraggled felines roaming their yards, but when they discovered that the mice and rats nesting in their attics and snakes crawling in their yards had begun to disappear, no more was said about the invading cats. Many friends tease me about my daughter making a home for the cat population when I have allergies to them. They say that she probably opened her residence to them to keep out an interfering mother, but in my defense, I relate that cats have been her soul mates since she was three years old, long before I developed most of the allergies from which I now suffer.

Here's the snippet I wrote following the staring stand-off with the black villain that settled in the pine straw in my backyard:

LINES COMPOSED UPON AN ALLERGY TO CATS

Don't come peering in my window,
black cat, back arched, nose twitching
like the dark augurer you are.
If there are mice around
they're out there scavenging.
Plenty abounds in green cans,
unconsumed holiday harvest.

Go away, harbinger of bad luck,
last year's misfortune quota
soared enough for me.
Send another envoy in your stead,
perhaps an orange, striped ball of dander
with bug eyes like Garfield the comic cat,
at least he has a sense of humor,
a quality most of your kin don't possess.

Don't come peering in my window
or scratch on the clouded glass.
I know winter is out there,
but witches live somewhere else
closer to Halloween.
And why are you prowling
in the rain anyway?
Aren't you reputed to be
a lover of comfort?

I know cats don't have insomnia,
seldom exercise,
are model do-nothings;
as Anonymous said:
"Life is hard, then you nap."
So go curl up
on someone else's window ledge...
and take your time doing nothing.
P.S. Scat!


Friday, December 26, 2014

A BOX IN THE MAIL

Diane, Paul, Sidney Sue:
Christmas early 1940's
Two weeks ago my older brother Paul died in a nursing home on the rugged northern coast of California. His wife had moved to Big Bear City in southern California just a few weeks before Christmas and had sent me a box of notebooks filled with photographs of all his paintings and the beautiful gardens he had created in his yard.

His life passed before me, and my grief is deeper than sentiment, blood thicker than all the sins he buried in the garden he made for his wife, colors made bolder in a place where he could not hide his soul. "The place" dead-ended in a small wood and was surrounded by a tall cedar fence. Several small bungalows flanked a stone and cedar house with a square bay window in front. Flowers covered every space in the yard—yellow nasturtiums, red salvia, petunias, hollyhock—blossoms hovering over stones and settled among small pieces of driftwood. Birdbaths nestled in clumps of elephant ears and fern; begonias in
wooden tubs. It was a place of nooks and wooden bridges, and at the farthermost point of the yard, a forest of cedars and redwoods loomed.

The first time I visited him in this paradisiacal setting, he told me: "This is life here." That  life followed years of profligate behavior, and he had created a habitat that reflected only aesthetic intention. His paintings hung everywhere—landscapes of California or Louisiana, and a  
group of abstracts that looked like the beginning of creation, cosmic explosions in brilliant reds and blacks.

Ineffably, part of him will go down into the soil that nourished his plants; the rest will ride the wild, blue waves of the Pacific that he was always painting. And I have the photographs in the notebook and the covers of most of my poetry books for which he rendered beautiful paintings—valuable keepsakes that reflect a kind of artistic endurance.


Requiescat in pace, Paul.XXX





Friday, December 12, 2014

MORE OF KAREN BOURQUE'S ARTISTRY

On Wednesday, we not only brought home good memories of hanging out in Arnaudville, Louisiana, with Darrell and Karen Bourque, we acquired another glass art piece by Karen, whose work hangs in our Sewanee, Tennessee and New Iberia, Louisiana homes. The latest acquisition is a rendition of the Pickerel Weed, an aquatic plant with brilliant blue flowers, densely clustered on a long spike with heart-shaped leaves, that attracts bees and butterflies.

Karen was inspired to create the stained glass piece using blue dog-toothed amethyst after reading Why Water Plants Don't Drown by Victoria Sullivan and discovering the lovely illustration for the Pickerel Weed rendered by Susan Elliott, artist and co-editor of Pinyon Publishing.

In the text accompanying the glass work, Karen explains that no blue stone felt right for the flowers, so she chose the dog-toothed amethyst to represent them. She attributes qualities of spirituality and contentment to the amethyst and relates that it has calming, protective powers of healing, divine love, and inspiration and that it enhances psychic and creative abilities. We have hung this art that represents "the peace of the perfect peace which was present prior to birth" in the sunroom and can look out and see it each morning at breakfast time.

I always enjoy the texts that accompany Karen's work as they are small inspirational pieces she chooses to use in her interpretations of objects in nature and the personalities who commission the work, as well as to foster creativity in those who acquire the glass work. She is married to the poet Darrell Bourque, and they're well suited to each other because she matches his gift for writing poetry with her visual poems in glass.

Karen has done glass pieces for many homes throughout Acadiana, for the Louisiana Book Festival, for the Ernest Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and other art centers. Much of her work focuses on the natural world and spirituality—on those images that give meaning and harmony to human experience.

We now have five of Karen's glass pieces, three of which are at Sewanee. One of the more recent pieces is a rendition of a porch that was photographed and appeared on the cover of Porch Posts, a collection of essays and stories that I co-authored with Janet Faulk this year. I will be autographing this book at A&E Gallery in New Iberia Saturday, Dec. 13, 1 - 3 p.m., along with Vickie Sullivan who is debuting her sequel to the speculative novel Adoption entitled Rogue Genes.

Porch Posts' cover is Karen's interpretation of a painting done by the late Elmore Morgan, Jr. which shows the bare outlines of a porch open to the air that might have been a place to sit and watch the sunset and fireflies winking on a summer night.

Karen handles commissions for glass work created in her studio in Church Point, Louisiana, and if you're interested in her work, she can be reached at 337-684-3542 or 337-351-2219.

Photograph of the Pickerel Weed by Victoria I. Sullivan, author of Why Water Plants Don't Drown, Adoption, and Rogue Genes.
  



Thursday, December 11, 2014

"HANGING OUT" IN ARNAUDVILLE

The Poets
Yesterday morning, we took a ride over the "prairie" in St. Landry parish to have lunch in Arnaudville with our good friends, Darrell
and Karen Bourque. It was a chilly December day but the sun was out and as we drove into the small town of 1400 residents, we felt excited to be meeting with our old friends and visiting a town that has become a buzzing haven for writers, artists, musicians, and chefs. Arnaudville has gained recognition as the hub of the French cultural renaissance; in fact, the town received the award of "Cultural Economy Hero of the Year" from the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation in 2013.

We were also excited to be picking up a piece of glass art created by Karen, who had done a wonderful rendering of the pickerel weed, inspired by drawings she had seen of Susan Elliott's art in Vickie Sullivan's book, Why Water Plants Don't Drown, a naturalist's guide to aquatic plants. And, of course, Darrell and I had a chance to "talk poetry." He's a former Poet Laureate of Louisiana and winner of the "Louisiana Writer of the Year Award" presented at the Louisiana Book Festival this year.

The Artist
Both Darrell and Karen, native south Louisianans, contribute much to the Arts and also support writers, artists, and musicians throughout the State. Darrell has become fascinated with, and actively involved in, memorializing Amédé Ardoin, the legendary Cajun accordionist. The Amédé Ardoin Project is raising money to build a public statue in honor of the musician, and an estimated $30,000 to $60,000 is needed for a bronze statue.

Darrell has already memorialized Ardoin with his last book of 14 poems entitled If You Abandon Me, and he's busy working on another book that will include the Amédé poems and poems about other famous Cajun musicians of Louisiana.

We enjoyed lunch at the Little Big Cup restaurant on the banks of Bayou Fusilier, and Darrell took us on a tour of several cottages recently moved into Arnaudville that will be available for artists, writers, and musicians who apply for a few months' stay in the village so they can work on their various projects. He was inspired to take us on the tour because I had said how great it would be to have writing space in a tiny house in an out-of-the-way place like Arnaudville. The cottages near the center of town are situated on the banks of Bayou Fusilier, a bayou that forms a junction with Bayou Teche. Darrell said that artists from around the world visit the area, and some of them take up residence after tasting our Louisiana bayou waters.

We missed the Fire and Water Rural Arts Celebration that took place at NUNU's, but Darrell took us to this Arts and Culture Collective, site of the recent celebration, to meet George Marks, owner of the old warehouse that houses the artwork, books, and products of regional artists. NUNU's will also be the repository for funds raised for the Amédé Ardoin statue.

Amédé Ardoin's story is a sad song in itself. The famed musician who sang of loneliness and heartbreak, performed at a dance one summer night, and a white woman brought him her handkerchief to wipe his brow during the performance. Following the dance he was run over by prejudiced assailants and injured so badly he could no longer take care of himself. He was committed to the State hospital in Pineville, Louisiana where he died in 1942.

Darrell tells this tragic story in the 14 poems mentioned earlier and was inspired to carry out the project to create a statue in the musician's honor. Any home in south Louisiana (or anywhere else, for that matter) that hosts a party and raises as much as $300 toward the Ardoin project will receive a yard sign that says: "Amédé Ardoin stopped here on his way home."

Naan Oven
Birdhouse
Tower
When we took a walk in the yard around NUNU's with George Marks, I spied a unique clay oven that brought back memories of the ovens that baked our weekly naan when we lived in Iran. The oven was another creation of local artists and was fired up continuously during the Le Feu et L'eau (Fire and Water) Rural Arts Celebration last week. Vickie Sullivan snapped photos of the oven and a yard "totem" topped by a birdhouse made of tile that are displayed on this blog.

(Note: Before we left NUNU's, Darrell told us that George Marks will have a "tiny house" on wheels next door to NUNU's available by the Spring of 2015...hmmmm).


We always come away from a visit with the Bourques inspired to write and to support the Arts and are already planning an early January get-together with this talented couple to celebrate the New Year in bayou country.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

THE ESSENTIAL LOUISIANA COOKBOOK

Although New Orleans, Louisiana touts its chefs and cuisine as unparalleled in the United States, in the more provincial parishes of Louisiana known as Acadiana where every meal is a celebration, good cooks and cuisine equally abound. "The Berry" (New Iberia) and St. Martinville have their own culinary notables, and Saturday morning, two of these notables, Stanley Dry of New Iberia and Marcelle Bienvenue were in Books Along the Teche bookstore greeting customers. Bienvenue, author of the famed Who's Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make A Roux? who now teaches Culinary Arts at Nicholls State University, made a brief visit inside the store while Dry sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of the shop, hawking his new book, The Essential Louisiana Cookbook.

Dry writes the column "Kitchen Gourmet" in Louisiana Life magazine and was former senior editor of Food & Wine magazine before he became a Louisiana transplant who tasted bayou water and ended up becoming a citizen of Teche country. His new cookbook is a handsome volume with photographs by New Orleanian Eugenia Uhl whose work has appeared in Commander's Cookbook for Commander Palace and New Orleans Cooking.

The Essential Louisiana Cookbook features traditional favorites like Chicken and Sausage File Gumbo, Shrimp and Okra Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffee, Shrimp Sauce Piquante, Red Beans and Rice and other recipes a la Dry, as well as those for non-traditional dishes such as Mushrooms Stuffed with Boudin, Blueberry Clafouti and Satsuma Sorbet—rich culinary dishes that showcase Dry's talents as a food editor and consummate cook.

As Dry writes in the "Author's Note," no single dish in this collection exemplifies the complexities of Louisiana cooking since it is a mixture of influences and ingredients from French, Spanish, African, Native American, Caribbean and German cultures. However, foremost among the favorite recipes for any Louisiana table are those that feature gumbos. Dry comments on the history of this famous dish with the caveat that "trying to sort out the origins and evolution of the dish is highly speculative..." He includes a note about one of the earliest recorded references to gumbo in the memoirs of Pierre Clement de Laussat, French colonial prefect and commissioner for Louisiana, who hosted a Louisiana ball that lasted all night and featured 24 gumbos, eight of which were sea turtle dishes!

Dry knows his food as he has worked in the restaurant and food business for years, including a stint as a cook. While we visited with Dry, he and his friend Alice Burke discussed the merits of the gumbo she had made for her children's Thanksgiving dinner (an essential south Louisiana dish for Thanksgiving tables) which included both duck and oysters, two ingredients Dry mentions in the "Author's Note" that are often combined "from both land and sea." He adds that some cooks include hard-boiled eggs in sausage gumbos and others add quail eggs to versions of this tasty dish.

For the breakfast bunch, a section on Louisiana breakfasts and brunches includes a recipe for sweet potato biscuits that should please the palate of gluten-free enthusiasts, along with a dish that Dry says is associated with the Carolina low country, one that uses genuine stone ground grits as an ingredient —Shrimp and Grits. This delicious recipe is followed by another one for seafood and grits, with the note that grits are "no longer reserved for just the breakfast table."


Dry doesn't neglect the famous jambalaya and crawfish pie recipes that have found their way into story and song, or his version of bread pudding, Coconut Bread Pudding With Meringue & Custard Sauce. And if you've worked up an appetite for south Louisiana cuisine after reading this review, drop in at Books Along the Teche, in New Iberia, Louisiana, where signed copies of The Essential Louisiana Cookbook are available. Bon appetit, and Bravo Stanley Dry for this volume that reflects your most creative culinary abilities!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

SPECULATIVE FICTION (?)

Recently, I read an article in The Week regarding the possibility of finding conditions favorable for life forms on other planets and was startled when I discovered astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's viewpoint about looking for these life forms. The startling statement was that Hawking believes any signals we send out could cause a visit from a far superior alien civilization intent on either destroying or colonizing planet earth.

The article reminded me of passages in Victoria Sullivan's new speculative fiction book, Rogue Genes, a sequel to Adoption. Both books concern a species of scientifically engineered humans called "polyploids" who have multiple sets of chromosomes, which endow them with large size, phenomenal strength, and superior intelligence. The polyploid characters become mature adults by the age of six and are eventually banished to a reservation in a community called "Polysomia." They receive no respect from diploids (ordinary human beings with only two sets of chromosomes), are declared to be another species, and denied rights of ordinary humans because of their conspicuous differences.

This passage from Rogue Genes caused me to wonder what our attitude toward the discovery of alien creatures would be: 

"Mary lay awake a long time dreaming of a just world that accepted polyploids. Perhaps separation was the only way. The British, Americans, and Europeans had separated themselves from the native peoples in colonial Africa and other parts of the world. The colonizing Americans made no attempt to merge cultures. Native Americans were severely oppressed and required to give up their culture, religion, land, and mores in order to survive. And still they were treated as second-class citizens and when they fought back they were isolated on reservations. After generations, surviving natives began mimicking the attitudes of the colonizers by despising their native ways. 

"How did this apply to polys [polyploids]? Would polys be the colonizers, superior in understanding the modern world? Although outnumbered, polys were superior in nearly every way...the intellectual and physical abilities of polys were far superior to diploids. [Mary] could scan a book as fast as she could turn the pages and remember every word. Where did that ability fit into the diploid world? How could diploids compete with that? Where did that leave diploids? How could polys be taught to respect a truly inferior group?...
 

"Only in the purist of religions are people exhorted to love one another. Jesus sought out, mingled, ate, and talked with the oppressed. But the message of Christianity had been distorted throughout history to exclude and rid the world of the 'other.' In the name of Christ, crusaders killed infidels. Churches seemed to be more about excluding sinners, judged by a list of accepted behaviors... 

"Fighting for your people was age-old. Either you suited up and did what you needed to do or you died out or died inside from depression or addiction like some American Indian tribesmen had done and still do. For American Indians, the option to interbreed with whites had led to their extinction as separate cultures. That wasn't an option for polys..."

Sullivan, a biologist, has posed similar questions to those of Hawking in this fascinating speculative fiction, and readers who enjoyed Adoption will find an action-packed read in Rogue Genes that redefines a world which has touted itself as "inclusive."


Available at http://www.amazon.com/Rogue-Genes-Victoria-I-Sullivan-ebook/dp/B00OARFVLC or order from Border Press Books (http://www.borderpressbooks.com), PO Box 3124, Sewanee TN 37375.

Monday, November 24, 2014

REVIVAL OF THE LOUP-GAROU

During a recent visit with Helen and Rose Anne Raphael in their home here in New Iberia, I learned that "The Berry," as we often refer to New Iberia, Louisiana, would celebrate a "Blue Magic" Christmas. Main Street would be "going blue," a color honoring deceased "Blue Dog" artist and native son, George Rodrigue, followed by a "Blue Dog Comes Home" exhibit at the Bayou Teche Museum, Jan.15-April 11, 2015.

In anticipation of the exhibit, Rose Anne is reprinting The Loup-Garou of Cote Gelee, her deceased father's children's book that features some of Rodrigue's Blue Dog illustrations. Morris Raphael, her father, published this book in 1990, and it has been a steady seller since that time. The Loup-Garou is one of many books about Teche country and Louisiana that Raphael wrote during his long and productive life.

The story involves Ti-Maurice Mouton, an eleven-year old boy, who encounters a Loup-Garou (werewolf) named Jacques. The story is set in bayou country, 1859, and revolves around the fictional Moutons who struggle through drought, thievery, and the threat of losing their small farm. Jacques appears to Ti-Maurice in a cemetery on a moonlit night and becomes friends with the young boy. In 45 pages, Raphael weaves a story about bandits who attack the Mouton family, a confrontation with a pack of Loup-Garous, and a shoot-out that ends with the Loup-Garou becoming a watch dog for Ti-Maurice. 

I interviewed artist and illustrator George Rodrigue twice back in the 90's—once for an article in Acadiana Lifestyle, and, again, for a book that Rodrigue had been commissioned to write for Harper and Row. My job for the latter project was to interview and record enough narrative that Rodrigue could use for his book, and most of it centered on questions concerning his relationship with the Blue Dog, which he felt was a mystical one. He used the dog in the foreground of most of his pictures after the dog died and insisted that they continued a relationship even after Tiffany died. He seriously believed that the dog was attempting to return to his rightful place as a family member. I still have the manuscript for which Rodrigue paid me a handsome sum, but Harper and Row wanted a fantasy tale featuring the dog, rather than the story of Rodrigue and his relationship with the dog, and the interview was never published.

For those readers who don't know about Loup-Garous, in French the name means "werewolf," a mythical figure in legends told in France, French-speaking Canada, and in French Louisiana. Legends feature werewolves as living persons who have the power to change themselves into terrible beasts that consume human flesh. Some legends feature werewolves as witches who take the form of wolves so they can better roam the countryside terrorizing people. Cajun storytellers often relate that Loup-Garous ride the backs of giant bats when they travel from place to place.

Morris Raphael was a native of Natchez, Mississippi who became editor of the Franklin Banner-Tribune in Franklin, Louisiana, and worked as a project engineer for several engineering firms in the U.S. and Brazil. He loved history and Louisiana and was a past president of the Attakapas Historical Association, the Iberia Cultural Resources Association, served on the council of the Shadows on the Teche in New Iberia, on the board of St. Mary Chapter of Louisiana Landmarks, and was a member of the Louisiana Historical Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. His credits also include an award from the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of his historical works and induction into the Second Wind Hall of Fame.

George Rodrigue, a native of New Iberia, was an internationally known artist with studios in New Orleans and Carmel, California. He received a gold medal award for outstanding creativity in Italy, and an honorary medal at the Le Salon Art exhibition in France. His paintings still sell in the six figure range, and he was received by both President Reagan and George H.W. Bush when he presented portraits of them painted during their tenures. The Blue Dog appears in the foreground of many of Rodrigue's paintings and was regarded as a talisman of good fortune for the artist.

The Blue Dog celebration is sponsored by the New Iberia Downtown Business Association and the George Rodrigue Foundation.

Copies of The Loup-Garou of Cote Gelee will be available in New Iberia and online within the next few months.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

RE-ISSUE OF BOOK EVOKES MEMORIES

This morning, Victoria Sullivan, publisher of Border Press, and I were discussing a re-issue of my first book entitled Iran In A Persian Market. I began to reminisce about the flight to Tehran from London that my daughters and I made when we joined my husband who worked as a petroleum engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company in Ahwaz, Iran.

"I don't think things were as volatile in the 70's as they are in the Mideast now," I said, "but I do remember being herded off the plane in Tel Aviv, daughters in tow. We were greeted by soldiers holding machine guns and were placed in stalls where we were thoroughly searched. Later, someone on the plane who had previously traveled the route said that the so-called search for a bomb on the plane was only a cover-up for sales at the duty-free shops in the airport." Here's an excerpt from Sophie's Sojourn in Persia, a young adult novel I wrote, documenting this incident:

"We were supposed to be on the ground twenty minutes, and Mother told us we could stay on the plane. The captain's voice boomed over the intercom. 'All passengers must clear the plane. Take the buses to the terminal and wait for further instructions. Please clear the plane quickly. Carry all hand luggage with you...'

"As we walked down the steps toward a long bus resembling a trolley car, my mother gasped. Six soldiers wearing khaki uniforms stood in front of the bus, machine guns resting in their hands. They glared at us. The sun beat down on them, and great wet spots spread from their underarms. It was very hot....

"'It's only a checkpoint of some kind, I'm sure,' Mother reassured us. An old woman wearing a felt hat grabbed my mother's free arm and held on. 'Are we going to be shot?' she asked. Her voice quavered with fear... 'Of course not,' my mother said. 'They're probably checking the plane to see if it needs repairs or something...'

"Inside the terminal, dark-skinned women dressed exactly like the men soldiers herded us into a back room. It was filled with stalls that had dirty white curtains for doors. A woman motioned for the three of us to go into a stall. 'All of you can go in together,' she said to my mother. 'When you get inside, strip down to underclothes. Leave your bags with me...' She went over to my mother and felt her underclothing all over. My mother turned red and said pleadingly, 'You don't have to search the children that way.' The woman smiled. 'It's my job to search for weapons. My name is Leah...'

"The woman had put our bags in a corner of the stall and began to go through them. When she opened Suzy's bag (Suzy was a fictitious name for my youngest daughter) and pulled out a rubber octopus, she let out a piercing scream. The octopus dangled from a dirty string that Leah held in her hand as she ran from the room screaming and giggling...Leah and several other women ran from stall to stall, dangling the rubber animal for all to see. ...Finally, the woman took the octopus to the guard at the entrance to the room. He unbuttoned his shirt and took out a knife. Holding the octopus in the air with one hand, he slashed it three or four times in the head, then dropped it into Leah's hands. 'No explosive here,' Leah said, throwing the octopus to Mother...

"The old woman in the felt hat came over and patted Suzy on the top of her head. 'There, there,' she said. 'I just talked to Mrs. Seton.' She gestured toward a woman with bright red hair and a sharp nose sitting nearby. 'She says there was talk of a bomb threat, and that's why we had to clear the plane. They had to take out all the seats and search thoroughly. We should be leaving in thirty minutes...'

"Suzy stopped crying, but my mother's face got this tight look, and a bluish ring appeared around her mouth. 'Bombs? Who would do such a thing?' she asked. 'We aren't Arab spies!'
Mrs. Seton spoke up. 'Most of us are going somewhere in the Mideast to work or to be with husbands who work there. I don't think there was a real threat. Do you notice how many people bought gifts at the duty-free shops? I think it was a trick to get us to buy their wares...

"We boarded the plane and took off... It was evening, but the sky was blue, blue, with hardly any clouds in it. I looked down at the soldiers still standing on the airfield with their hands on the machine guns and wondered if we'd get the same kind of welcome in Tehran..."

At the time of the incident I accepted that explanation for being herded off the plane because the Israelis wanted us to shop at the duty-free stores; it was a reassuring thought for me and my young daughters, and this morning I continued to relate the experience as if all had been well during the time we spent in the airport. A few hours later, when I researched the Israeli-Palestinian situation of 1973-74, I was shocked to discover that in September of 1974, fifteen months after our encounter in Tel Aviv, a TWA jet with 88 passengers traveling from Tel Aviv to Athens, crashed into the Ionian Sea after Palestinian militants detonated a bomb hidden in the luggage compartment. The crash killed all the passengers and crew members aboard!! 

Forty-one years later, I stand guilty of "ignorance is bliss," since heretofore I believed that the investigation of the plane was a ploy to stimulate interest in duty-free goods. In any case, during the first three months in Iran when I experienced cultural shock, I avoided reading or talking about political incidents that resulted in severe consequences anywhere in the Mideast and buried the memory until I returned Stateside. I then recorded the cause of the Tel Aviv incident the way a fellow passenger had explained it when we finally resumed the journey to Tehran. The delay in Tel Aviv caused us to arrive at midnight at Mehrabad Airport and to experience another uneasy introduction to our sojourn in the Mideast.


However, I did overcome cultural shock and have written three books about our two-year stay in Iran, the last one being The Holy Present and Farda, a book of poetry recording the more fascinating aspects of this Mideastern culture and its history.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

THE ANSWER TO THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS

And having written that arresting title, I hesitate to continue writing as the reader may be anticipating a new or different approach to the problems that surround us every day.

Recently, we were traveling back to New Iberia following a few days' stay in central Florida, and on the 14-hour trek, we turned on a Daily Evolver podcast by Jeff Salzman of Integral Life. It was a brief broadcast, and the speaker concluded with a few words that most major religions talk about: the answer to healing the hole in the heart of humanity is love. He expressed his ideas much as the French Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin had—in a provisional, experimental, and post-modern form which is open-ended and creative, and he touted a theology of healing and reconciliation centered on the act of love.

This sounds like an oversimplification, I know, but I nodded my head in agreement as I had just preached a sermon at St. Mary's Convent church two weeks preceding our trip to Florida in which I cited an example of how babies are helping to change the world and foster love through an amazing program called "Roots of Empathy." In the November issue of Science of Mind, the author wrote an article entitled "Changing the World Child by Child," reporting how Canadian and American babies are involved in a program that has a mission of building caring, peaceful, and civil societies though the development of empathy in children. In the program, mothers bring their babies into classrooms nine times over the course of a school year so students can learn to sense the emotions babies are feeling.

The children also observe the loving relationship between parent and baby and see how the parent responds to the baby's needs. This attachment between a baby and a parent is an ideal model of love and empathy. In short, children who have participated in the program are kinder, more cooperative, and inclusive of others and are less likely to bully (a common problem in contemporary schools), compared to children who don't participate in the program. The ethic here? The ethic here is that the heart is the true center of human life.

As I said, love as an answer to healing humanity's problems isn't a new concept—it's just an irrefutable law that says we need to take the neighbor we are sent and love him/her. As George MacDonald, the mentor of C.S. Lewis, says: "We mope and mow, striking sparks, and rubbing phosphorescences out of the walls, and blowing our own breath in our own nostrils instead of issuing it to the fair sunlight of God, the sweet winds of the universe..."

I don't often publish excerpts from sermons or belabor the idea of love as a burning fire that cleanses and reconciles, but the podcast I heard caused a lot of musing about "this funny thing called love." And the speaker's ideas advocating a respect for our neighbor seem to be a part of every major enduring religion and ethical system—a system that calls for its followers to develop integrity, accountability, responsibility, steadfastness, fairness, and loving service. Our unity is as important as our individuality.  


The photograph above is of my great-grandson as an infant, one of those babies getting his share of empathy in a private lesson from his great-grandmother. Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A SITE ON "THE RETURN LIST"

From Martin's Quest by Billy Ledet
inside St. Martin de Tours
When I return to New Iberia, Louisiana every year following a sojourn on The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee, I usually have a mental list of places I want to re-visit while I'm in Cajun country. Yesterday, after I received the news about a friend's daughter being seriously injured in an automobile accident, I thought immediately about St. Martin de Tours Church in St. Martinville, Louisiana, a few miles down the road from me. Although I'm not Roman Catholic, I've made many short pilgrimages to the beautiful, historic church on the Square to light candles for family and loved ones. I'm always consoled while sitting in a pew of the old church, and when I return home I find that small miracles have occurred.

One of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. and the third oldest in Louisiana, St. Martin de Tours was established in 1765 when Acadian exiles who had been driven out of their homes in Nova Scotia landed in Acadiana. A Capuchin missionary priest named Jean Francois helped establish the church and by 1814, it had become incorporated. The church that stands on the Square today was built by lottery funds in 1836 and dedicated in 1844. As I said, I'm not Roman Catholic, but I like to think that when I sit in one of the church pews, I'm sitting near one of my ancestors, an Acadian exile named Pierre Vincent who must have been a member of the predominantly Roman Catholic congregation at St. Martin de Tours.

Inside St. Martin de Tours are gated pews, remnants of a time when congregants were assigned pews according to their donations to the church. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and a blue ceiling with stars overhangs the altar. The space inside is large and has the ambience of a country church, and brilliant light fills the interior. For me, it is one of those "thin places," so designated because the space between God and the people is thin... and the connection with God is easily made. I've been in a few thin places and experienced this connectedness—near the red buttes of Sedona, Arizona; at St. Mary's Convent church on the bluff at Sewanee, Tennessee; in a small church named Church of the Holy Spirit in Graham, Texas; and in the Garden of Evangelism in Tehran, Iran. On my bucket list of thin places is the Isle of Iona as I've read and heard that it is the thinnest of thin places where spiritual experiences frequently occur.

St. Martin de Tours is mentioned several times in my young adult book, Martin's Quest, and a pencil drawing by Billy Ledet depicts Martin, the hero of the story who is a traiteur, lighting candles in the old church. Martin's grandmother explains to him that the Church "is only against traiteurs trying to cure someone if they leave God out. When the prayers are said, God isn't left out. The Church today believes in the gift of healing, just as in Jesus' day. But the priests don't like superstitious practices," she added.


In St. Martin de Tours
I have lit many candles in the small blue crystal holders on a stand near the side door by the gray-walled Grotto at the left of the altar. The Grotto is a copy of the famous Grotto at Lourdes in France where miracles still occur and was created of mud and green moss by a black man named Paul Martinez. On my return trip to St. Martin de Tours, I'll petition for the complete recovery of my daughter and for the healing of the young woman who was seriously injured in the auto accident. For those who wish to add your petitions, the names are Stephanie and Glenae.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

THE HEALING PORCH

Porches, large and small, are healing places. I have been an advocate of their use for many years, and this year Janet Faulk-Gonzales and I published a book about the virtues of these places in a book entitled Porch Posts: Memoirs of Porch Sitters.

Recently, I was called home to New Iberia from my spring/summer stay in Sewanee, Tennessee because my daughter Stephanie had to undergo serious surgery. Following her discharge, I returned to Tennessee but was called back to Louisiana because she wasn't recovering well. The past two weeks have been tense ones, but Stephanie continues to improve daily. During the worst of part of her recovery, I retreated to the glass porch on one side of my home and sat, sunning and meditating  "in the passive life that goes on in the porch world," as I wrote in Porch Posts, and I felt myself recovering enough moxy to deal with the problem of my daughter's illness. I also re-read several essays from Porch Posts and decided to share one that I wrote regarding the glass porch that both Janet and I call "the healing porch." The essay is entitled "The Place of Oaxaca Breakfasts:"

"Of all the porches I've enjoyed, the sun porch in my New Iberia, Louisiana home ranks first among favorites. It's a diminutive glass and aluminum structure adjoining the dining room and has been, variously, a breakfast room, a writing room, and a sitting room. Seasonally, a bed of pansies or marigolds, bordered by giant elephant ears, grows alongside it, and at one time a vigorous sago palm dominated the flower bed before we cut it down because it was beginning to overtake the house.

"The New Iberia sun porch is a three-season porch, unused in summer because the Louisiana heat makes it uninhabitable. Even with an air conditioning vent that allows a small gust of cool air to enter and a ceiling fan whirling overhead, it becomes a steam bath from May - early October. However, it's a curative salon and is often used to heal physical and emotional ills like seasonal affective disorder, insomnia, winter colds, and arthritic pains. We diurnal creatures crave Apollo's bright face, and the glass porch allows salutary rays to beam through on most days when my friends and I are porch sitting.

"The porch has been a place of friendship and shared meals, especially "Oaxaca breakfasts," a name given to hours of intimate conversations, literary discussions, and the heightened consciousness that two friends and I felt when visiting Oaxaca, Mexico several years ago. As C.S. Lewis once wrote about friendship, the porch has the ambience of a "luminous, tranquil...world," a place where friends "see the same truth" while conversing, arguing, and amusing each other. It's a site where equals meet and sit side by side, absorbed in mutual interests.

"As a healing spot, the porch has also been a haven for friends who faced the grief of divorce, broken relationships, and family deaths. Like its transparent glass walls, it suggests the fragility of emotional crises.

"One spring, my son-in-law Brad painted the wrought iron trim of a glass-topped table and matching chairs on the porch a brilliant yellow hue, an evocative color that suggested happiness was always nearby for those who come to sit and talk about their problems. When I had to give up the table and chairs to furnish an apartment next door, my daughter Stephanie replaced the dining set with a comfortable lounging chair. The chair she and Brad brought in as a Christmas gift has soft gold cushions, and I believe she chose this color reminiscent of the sun because she knew I wanted to keep the aura of joy that surrounds this favored space."


If you enjoyed this essay, there are other "healing spaces" mentioned in Porch Posts that may give you some insights into the restorative powers of porch sitting. Porch Posts is available online at Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ROGUE GENES

In 2010, Pinyon-Publishing released Adoption, an intriguing novel by Dr. Victoria Sullivan that appealed to many fans of science fiction. Those fans have been asking for a sequel to this work of speculative science, and this week, Border Press announced the publication of Rogue Genes, the awaited sequel.

Adoption explored the idea of a superhuman race resulting from an in vitro fertilization at a clinic in Louisiana and featured six-year old Mary, a giant adopted by Val, a professor of biology who becomes a detective and protector of the brilliant and beautiful child. Val's research on plant genetics provides insights into the super race that is soon shunned by the government and a public that wants to destroy the very different "species" of humans.

In Rogue Genes, Sullivan continues the story of the superhumans, known as polyploids, who have been banished to Polysomia, a village in southwest Louisiana. Middle-East terrorists who want to use the boys as warriors in their country have captured six five-year old polyploid boys. At five, the boys resemble conventional humans, known as diploids, but they will soon become nine-foot giants. Because of an influenza infection of their diploid parents, the boys carry genes for healing wounds and regenerating limbs, and for synthesizing Vitamin C to keep them healthy.

Serious questions arise. How did kidnappers enter the village of Polysomia the night of the kidnapping? Will government agencies help to find the boys? And who killed a diploid girl and buried her along with a large sum of money in the woods near the Polysomia guardhouse? Was the killer a polyploid and the money a pay-off from the kidnappers? How does a full grown polyploid named Simon, who has violent tendencies, figure in the conflict?

Rogue Genes is a vivid page-turner that continues the exciting action of superhumans who are maligned by the world into which they are born, posing ideas about prejudice, scientific inquiry, and the appropriate treatment of people who cause citizens to become uncomfortable with human differences ... citizens who wish to eliminate creatures who don't fit into physical and social pigeonholes. Sullivan achieves an action-paced work of speculative fiction and presents underlying spiritual questions about man's inhumanity toward differing fellow humans.

Sullivan is an author and botanist. She studied biology at the University of Miami and has a Ph.D. in biology from Florida State University. She has published poetry, flash fiction, numerous botanical papers, and non-fiction articles. She held a faculty position in the Department of Biology, University of Louisiana at Lafayette for 20 years. She is a resident of Sewanee, Tennessee and winters in New Iberia, Louisiana.

Candace Birch, aka "Quala," rendered the beautiful painting entitled "DNA" on the cover of Rogue Genes.


Rogue Genes is now available on Kindle ($2.99) and in print ($17.50) online at Amazon. Include shipping and handling of $4.50 to order from Border Press, PO Box 3124, Sewanee TN 37375.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

QUESTIONS ABOUT LUCID DREAMING

This morning when I got out of bed, I walked out on the front porch and squinted at the heavens to see if I could glimpse the blood moon that was forecast to appear. I had been reading about the eclipse for several days and anticipated that I could glimpse it if I searched the heavens long enough. Outdoors, all I saw was the effects of a blustery storm that had passed through Sewanee last night—limbs down, heaps of wet leaves, and more of the crop of large green acorns shaken from the white oaks surrounding our cottage.

At the breakfast table, the topic of conversation moved quickly from "no blood moon" to lucid dreaming, a subject about which I know very little. However, a blurb on the Internet intrigued me because the lucid dream trainer talked about keeping a dream journal, a practice I once tried. I confess that I failed miserably in my attempt to enhance creativity and poetry writing through the process of recording dreams.

The basic premise of lucid dream training is that the dreamer can gain some control over certain actions in a dream or can manipulate the experience within a dream to assure him that the dream isn't real. Better still, nightmare sufferers can benefit from learning techniques for controlling dreams to develop an awareness of how to dispel the boogabears that plague them. Sometimes lucid dreams occur naturally when a dreamer experiences a strange happening, and when she stops to determine if the dream is real, she realizes she's in a dream. I guess you could call this a "reality check." Readers will be surprised to read about the number of trainings in lucid dreaming that appear on the internet and about the number of advocates of the lucid dreaming practice.

After I read several Internet entries, I pondered Wittgenstein's famous saying, "We are asleep. Our life is a dream. But we wake up sometimes, just enough to know we are dreaming." Was Wittgenstein a lucid dreamer?

Last month, I published Night Offices, a book of poetry about insomniacs who "recite the night offices," and this morning as I re-read it, I wondered if the inspiration for writing poetry occurs naturally within a lucid dream state and is responsible for the awake "aha" moment of creative expression that follows the nighttime dream. Many famous musicians conceived nocturnes and symphonies during night hours, and sleep experts often advise us to "sleep on it" when we have a particular problem that we can't solve during the daytime. Are we in a natural-occurring lucid dream state at that time?

The subject fascinates me because I'm not only an insomniac, I'm a victim of nightmares, and I'd like to lay to rest the phantoms of the night that often assail me.

Here's an example of a poem in Night Offices that may or may not have been born in a lucid dream:

"THE SOUND OF AN INSOMNIAC'S INK

If I were to arise
and go into my study,
watch shadows flicker on the walls
rather than entangle myself
in the warm sheets of insomnia
that Benjamin Franklin
would have left to cool awhile
while he battled his sleeplessness,

I would open the blind
to the sight of stars scattering
in the inky sky,
their silver points piercing
my Unconscious, bringing up
words to a blue screen
winking on a fresh page,

and I would ponder
how I miss, at night,
(and during daylight hours)
typewriter keys clacking
in a disharmony of sound,
executing words with loud taps,
making sure the darkness knew

I had not written my last stanza,
a sound signaling
that someone out there
would soon be turning pages
in a quiet room,
and the poems,
by their noise alone,
would know they had a right to live."


Note: This poem may have been more of a lament for an old-fashioned typewriter than an ode born in a state of lucid dreaming!!