Friday, October 31, 2008


I know that the small city of Gueydan, Louisiana claims to be the duck capitol of the world, but New Iberia also has its share of this water fowl… along with long-legged waders like herons, egrets, cranes, spoonbills, and flamingoes. Yesterday’s Daily Iberian carried a story about a very old species of duck that flew in during the time I was on The Mountain in TN this Spring and Summer.

Two ducks of the black-bellied whistling species nested in a pond near the Lynn Landry home in New Iberia (they make a mellow whistling noise), handsome creatures with bodies of chestnut and black, red bill and pink legs, and patches of white on their wings. The duck couple produced a family of nine ducklings while summering in New Iberia, and the offspring traveled from pond to pond in the area until they learned to fly.

Unlike many ducks, these birds are nocturnal and migrate at night, rest and feed during the day. They’re easily domesticated, and the Landry family became very attached to them. The newspaper article featured a magnificent color photograph of the black bellied whistlers flying against the backdrop of a dark sky with a full moon. The Landrys said the whistler is a bird that looks like a cross between a duck and a goose and evolved many years ago, according to expert guidebooks on birds.

It’s a good thing the whistlers didn’t land near another Frenchman’s place of a former time: the artist Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, France. The impressionist painter was very fond of eating fowl and kept an elaborate notebook of recipes for his palette of taste, including his favorite birthday dish: Becasse a la casserole, otherwise known as Casseroled Woodcock, cooked with shallots and white wine, not to omit Duck with Turnips (made with a duckling!) and duck in red wine sauce. I hasten to add that the average duck lover around New Iberia prefers to view his duck in the roasting pan, rather than viewing it in its nesting habitat.

For me, it’s refreshing to turn the mind away from politics and disasters and to read about the wild and natural world, to know that some facets of our landscape, even of the oldest species, are not lost to us, especially those lofty creatures from the world of the water fowl. ‘Strange how the ducks lifted off the day before Hurricane Ike hit, sensing, perhaps, that an ill wind was about to blow --they had the good sense to evacuate a habitat where the Big Wind often strikes.

The Landrys say the black-bellied whistlers are bound for Mexico to winter – I can only surmise the ducks gave them a whistle about where they were going, and I reckon that sunny Mexico isn’t a bad choice for a winter vacation. However, Mrs. Landry predicted that the ducklings would return in the Spring as they generally return to the place where they’re born. Maybe they tasted bayou water!!
One of my “series”poems about other birds from AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA, published by Border Press:


At dawn the dark birds
gather to bless the light,
squads of palmettos appear,
newly flooded by rain in the swamp.
I stop at the edge of the brown water
and bless the dagger-like fans,
wild plants that have followed me,
unabashed into the unknown…
like prayers spiking the underbrush.

Winter returned in the night
and tried to subvert the Spring,
a white bird takes his stand on one leg
in a sea of buttercups, whose faces, upturned,
catch the intrepid gusts,
disappear in yellow green stillness.

There is no unencumbered God,
like a Bedouin he moves
across flat green fields,
searches out yellow cups,
columns of crimson clover,
unsettles a grackle near drifting egrets…
casting the shadow of vigilant parent.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


From St. Mary’s Convent at Sewanee, TN, Sister Miriam sends me news about the trip that she, Sister Julian, and Sister Elizabeth will make to Haiti in a few weeks. In the communication, Sister Miriam tells me more about the orphanage there in Port Au Prince --the facility is called an orphanage but is really more of a last hope for poor families, according to Sister Dorothy who takes care of 22 sick children, some of whom are dying babies.

Sister Dorothy is a former real estate paralegal from Jacksonville, FL who moved to Haiti in 2004 to help poor children and families. In October, 2005, she established the Faith-Hope-Love Infant Rescue Mission in Port Au Prince where she works under the auspices of Christian Light Foundation, Inc. The Children’s Home there functions like a family at home, and Sister Dorothy acts as surrogate grandmother to sick and malnourished children. The Sisters of St. Mary who were formerly in the order of the Sisters of Charity have been on medical missions to this orphanage each year for the past seven years and have “picked up” interested missionaries along the way, including St. Mary’s energetic Sister Elizabeth who will be making this journey for the first time in November.

Regarding the orphanage, Sister Dorothy writes: “We are very crowded with 21 babies (Kervens makes 22 children) and were very lucky to find three portacribs for sale this morning. A lady gave us money to buy a new washer so we went shopping after leaving Tasha (Sister Dorothy’s helper who returned stateside) at the airport. The store didn’t have a washer but it did have cribs. We desperately needed them, and I haven’t found them in any other store or on the streets. Sweet Chris immediately gave me permission to buy the cribs instead of the washer. What a blessing! We have now tested all of the new children (Miltha, Patrick, Kimberly, Josie, and Lavinsky) for HIV and TB. Lavinsky had already tested positive for HIV, but he is still young enough to revert to negative. We hope the weak positive on his home test is a good sign. Miltha’s skin test is positive for TB. Her mother will come here tomorrow morning to go with us when we take Poutchino and Miltha to the TB clinic where Poutchino is being treated. Miltha will need more tests to confirm whether she actually has TB. Isn’t God wonderful to bring these children to us!”

Sister Miriam makes a plea for funding to get more supplies for the Haiti trip (in addition to two water purifiers she bought with funds we helped raise this past summer) – perhaps a washing machine and a bit more food. The pictures of the children on Sister Dorothy’s site show adorable, smiling children, along with stories about several of them and closing thoughts from Sister Dorothy. She quotes the Scripture reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” She further says: “We give thanks to you for a houseful of healthy and HEALING children, for always having food to eat and water to drink, for having a house filled with joy and peace, and much, much more. We thank the Lord for you who are our partners in prayer and ministry.”

If you’re interested in reading more about the orphanage and the children, log onto or contact Sister Miriam at St. Mary’s Convent, And thank you again for contributing to the water purification systems which will soon be flown down to Haiti to supply clean water for these children whose beautiful, smiling faces show they are being loved and healed despite being ravaged by HIV, TB, gastro-intestinal viruses and infectious parasitic diseases caused by drinking contaminated water.

And Bon Voyage and blessings to the good Sisters of St. Mary who will soon embark on this mission of mercy to Haiti.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


After experiencing eight months of clear mountain air in TN and re-entering an atmosphere clouded with sugar cane ash that made my allergies kick in, I suppose it was appropriate for me to go downtown and view wellness exhibits at the Sliman Theatre on Saturday. When I walked in, Betty Leblanc, a member of Solomon House outreach mission, guided me to her exhibit on the garden and labyrinth at Solomon House. Betty, along with her husband Wilson and Vickie Sullivan, built this labyrinth during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina so that those fleeing the hurricane could have a place to find solace and renewal. The builders created a long, winding path of river rocks and packed concrete/earth in the backyard garden of Solomon House to make this simple labyrinth. They wanted to help people empty themselves of fears, anxieties, and to quiet their minds during a time of disaster. I was inspired to preach the dedication for the labyrinth and garden and to read a poem about the work of Solomon House during the hurricane at this ceremony. The labyrinth has continued to attract visitors from throughout the community of New Iberia, assisted by presentations on its use by Betty. Her brochure about the labyrinth mentions healing for hospital workers, hospice patients, psychotherapists, spiritual directors, troubled teens, and those who belong to 12-step programs. Betty calls the labyrinth a “pathway to the heart.”

A Reiki representative was busy melting away tension in one corner of the room at the Sliman and advertised that Reiki, through laying-on of hands and touch, could heal a person of pain, reduce depression, and relax the whole person including body, emotions, and spirit. A larger claim was that of eliminating toxins and releasing blockages. Rev. Kari Rhose also advertised sacred stone therapy in combination with the Reiki sessions, objects used in the ancient science of Ayurveda. In this healing technique, warm stones and crystals are put under and upon the body to anchor the body and reduce tensions. Rev. Kari also heals animals and does energy work in the home.

A reflexologist was busy in another corner administering detox footbaths and explaining ion detoxification system work. This is a non-invasive way for people to detoxify the body by putting their feet into water and relaxing for 20-30 minutes. The owner of Zensations Bodycare, Melanie Trox, claims that the ion detoxification system creates the same environment as soaking in a mineral bath or walking along the beach, the body absorbing millions of negatively charged ions which alkalize blood and tissue. Melanie is also a Reiki teacher and gave me a card listing the Reiki Principles: “Just for today/I am peaceful,/I am relaxed,/I am grateful,/I work on my spiritual practice,/I am kind to others and every living being.”

One table held products of Lokahi: a combination of aloe vera gel, blueberry juice, grape juice, pear juice, cranberry juice, noni juice, acai, and goji berry, to name a few of the ingredients in a liquid that provides nutritional supplementation.

I was drawn to a table on aromatherapy where I stopped to chat with Joie Connelly, a health and well-being coach to whom I sold a copy of my Young Adult book about traiteurs (healers in the Cajun Tradition). The finale’ was a Yoga session that lasted one hour and which I watched, then did my centering prayer while the rest of the group sat in meditation. I haven’t written about all of the exhibits, but it was an awesome presentation of holistic approaches to health and healing, and I went home feeling somewhat better about re-entering a region of polluted air. At least alternative approaches to wellness are being offered in the community.

As much as I love bayou country, I can’t help wishing that a ban against burning sugar cane stalks in the open fields would be enforced so that those of us with respiratory problems could breathe more freely again!

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I crossed Bayou Teche twice yesterday. The second time I crossed the old bridge leading to Indest Street, I looked down at the brown, slow-moving waters and suddenly remembered the first time I crossed The Bayou in 1964. “We absolutely can’t live in a place where there’s such a polluted looking river,” I told my former spouse. I was born near a small freshwater creek in southeast Louisiana and had fished the waters of the Bogue Chitto River during the 50’s when the river was yet so clear that one could see through a few feet of its water to the pebbled bottom. I was horrified when I first glimpsed those murky waters of the Teche. Actually, I had never seen a bayou before I moved to New Iberia and didn’t understand the mystique of bodies of water that moved slower than rivers.

Needless to say, through the years I have grown to love the slow-moving Teche, this stream that twists through 125 miles of south Louisiana. Once I was asked to write an article about Teche country and in preparation followed the course of the Bayou and was driven through the small towns and villages that have built up along its banks. It was an amazing scenic trip, and my pen moved rapidly as I made notes on the countryside alongside the Bayou. The Indians called the Bayou “tenche,” after a snake, because it coils and turns so many times in the fashion of a huge snake. Life along its banks is serene, and travelers can find consummate Cajun cuisine and places steamy with Acadian history and tradition throughout the 125 mile drive. Harnett Kane described Bayou Teche more eloquently than any writer I’ve read, calling it the “most richly storied of the interior waters, and the most opulent…having about it the air of afternoon…”

The Teche was the center of a thriving cypress industry during the early 1900’s. Massive timber was cut in nearby swamps and floated on its waters to mills along its banks. The industry supplied 1/3 of the building materials for the United States during this time, and opulent mansions, built by “sugar money,” also flourished during the 19th and 20th century.

I’ve traveled in a rowboat on the Teche’s waters and on board an old paddle wheel that made excursions to Loreauville, about ten miles downstream. Dinner and dancing was provided during the ride, and my godfather (then 84 years old and a world traveler) accompanied me on this trip. When we returned to New Iberia and he stepped down from the old paddle wheel, he said wryly, “I wouldn’t have missed that ride for the world,” which was his stock evaluation of a travel experience that didn’t particularly excite him!

When I wrote the article about my travels along the Teche for “Acadiana Profile” magazine, I began the journey at Port Barre where Bayou Courtableau gives the Teche birth and followed its course all the way to Pierre Part and Belle River where it ends, and where I viewed a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a tiny island in the middle of the river. It was placed there by those who survived one of the many Louisiana floods in 1882 and seemed to be an appropriate end to the odyssey along the Teche.

New Iberia, of course, is called “Queen City of the Teche and is a city that reflects Spanish, French, Acadian, and Anglo influences in its art, architecture, music and other traditions. Some of the most picturesque bayou country can be found near New Iberia, and when I crossed the old Bayou for the second time yesterday, I felt a tightness in my throat, a full appreciation for this place in which I have lived 44 years (now minus the months I live on The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee). I waved my hand and acknowledged the truth in the old south Louisiana legend that if you ever taste Bayou Teche water, you’re bound to return.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


This morning I made my first trek to town since returning to New Iberia and went into our local bookstore to pick up a check for sales of my books that occurred while I was sojourning in Sewanee, TN. I’m always amazed at the number of Louisiana authors featured at Books Along the Teche. It’s a small haven for local and area writers promoted by owners Lorraine and Howard Kingston who have been in this book business on Main St. for 19 years. I love to look at the newest whimsical paintings of New Iberia folk artist Paul Schexnayder, who illustrated several of my children’s books – they line the walls of the bookstore. Each time I go into the shop, I marvel at the youthful looks of Lorraine, an auburn haired woman who never ages and who is remarkable in that she has kept this small, independent bookstore burgeoning despite economic downturns in other small businesses --and, I might mention, in the face of large bookstore chains such as Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million down the road in Lafayette, LA.

Lorraine exhibits books by the “rich and famous,” such as New Iberian James Lee Burke, whose books featuring the character Dave Robicheaux, stay on the bestseller list, but her inventory also includes many of us who haven’t achieved such fame with our books about Louisiana. Greg Guirard’s INHERIT THE ATCHAFALAYA, a wonderful book of photography about the Atchafalaya Basin, was among the titles exhibited on a table as I entered the bookstore. Louisiana artist George Rodrigue had a small display of his blue dog books on the check-out counter. Next to the check-out counter, a display of Louisiana recording artists featured the work of Brenda Lowry and “Bubba” Murrell, (who won a Grammy award last year) New Iberia blues and Gospel musicians. This pair also wrote the music for and performed “Women at the Well,” a Gospel recording that they created for my ordination as an Episcopal deacon back when… And, of course, Andy Smith, an outstanding area musician, was featured in this display of locals.

A recent addition to the Louisiana collection is a book by Smiley Anders, Baton Rouge columnist, who compiled BEST OF SMILEY and appeared at a book signing sponsored by Books Along the Teche in May. My old friend, Morris Raphael, has at least six of his titles on display, including the annotated tapes of Weeks Hall of Shadows-on-the-Teche fame and his best-selling book, THE BATTLE IN THE BAYOU COUNTRY. Morris writes for both the Daily Iberian and Acadiana Lifestyle and does his own share of penning “puffs” for local writers, artists, and musicians in his bi-monthly news column. An upcoming book signing at Books Along the Teche will feature SLAM DUNKED by Ron Gomez and Beryl Shipley.

Lorraine and Howard support many local endeavors, but one of their favorite charities is “Operation Blessings,” to which they contribute because they witnessed, firsthand, work that a crew from this organization performed following Hurricane Katrina. Their support reminded me of Gail Drake, owner of Lorena’s gift shop and book gallery at Monteagle, Tennessee, who recently sponsored a book signing for my book, GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR. Gail supports an organization called LEAMIS with whom she does mission work to Africa and other Third World countries. Both of these small business owners not only support the work of artists and writers, they send part of their profits to Third World countries and are especially interested in projects that contribute to the health and well-being of children.

The visit allowed time for me to tell Lorraine about my friend and fellow author at Sewanee, Isabel Anders, who writes books about the spiritual life (mentioned in my last blog). Lorraine immediately went online and said, “Wow, 12 books by some great publishers!” She was busy looking up information telling her how to order Isabel’s books when I left the shop. I have enjoyed a book-filled morning, and tomorrow I travel to the public library in Thibodaux to give a lecture on my books, MARTIN’S QUEST and FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE. I’m hoping to get back to book writing one day!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


After eight months on The Mountain at Sewanee, TN, Sunday we set out for home in New Iberia, Louisiana where we reside half the year now. We stopped in Hattiesburg, Mississippi for an overnight at a brand-new Courtyard Marriott in this small city presently listed among the top 100 U.S. cities in which to retire. I looked for mention of the old Mississippi Women’s College that my mother attended in the early part of the 20th century, but could find nothing about this college formerly located in Hattiesburg where my mother studied Art so long ago.

From Hattiesburg to New Iberia, Louisiana, I read aloud to driver Vickie almost all of a book entitled AWAITING THE CHILD, AN ADVENT JOURNAL by newfound Sewanee friend, author Isabel Anders. Although the chapters in this book are meditative essays, we felt the reading was a genuinely poetic experience. In her preface to the new edition of AWAITING THE CHILD, Isabel speaks of poetry and quotes Wallace Stevens as saying “There is a poem at the heart of things,” and she likens Advent to a season in which she longs to discover that poem. Guided by daily lectionary readings (Anglican) designated for the Advent season, Isabel compiled a journal written during the early weeks of her first pregnancy, declaring that “writing is another way of allowing Christ to be born in and through me...and the central incarnation around which this book is built, that of the Child who unto us is born, remains core – it still burns with intensity and urgency for us in a world that desperately needs to acknowledge God With Us.”

Isabel further writes that the book is a call to awareness of The Christ and our response to Him during the particular season of Advent. My favorite chapter in this book is “The City,” a meditation about the preparing of our hearts for the City of God. Isabel, an avid reader of the mystical Charles Williams, says that for Williams, as for all the saints, the belief in blessing every creature is seen as essential to the spiritual life. “He points out that definition of differences among the City’s occupants is unavoidable, but such a definition (or description) is intended to help order the City’s life in one particular way or another. Differences among us point out the need for ‘traffic regulations’ for the convenience of patterns of movement among people. That is what laws and rules serve to do – to make civility the norm. (I love that statement!!) But they cannot teach us to love one another…”

For Isabel, the Eucharist offers the best glimpse of the City where familiar and new people meet in thanksgiving and exchange gifts at the altar. She notes that "over a period of time the repeated experience of taking Communion with the same people can bring a transfiguration of common faces, temporarily overshadowing divisions and weaknesses. The open palms to receive Christ at best imply a unity of will and purpose…”

As you can see from the passages quoted, this is an important book written by someone who has a most original mind that reflects a deep spirituality. The themes it offers for prayer and reflection are opportunities to move through Advent with a heightened awareness of the Christ, while actively awaiting His coming. The noted author Madeleine L’Engle wrote a touching introduction to AWAITING THE CHILD, stating that Isabel wrote these Advent meditations while waiting for her first child to be born, while she, Madeleine, read them in her husband’s hospital room, watching him die… "and Advent is a time when birth and death draw close together and it is not always possible to tell which is which.”

AWAITING THE CHILD is an enriching experience designed for advancing anyone’s spiritual life. How fortunate I am to have become friends with Isabel before I left Sewanee. She has also become one of my major supporters in this risky business called writing. You can log onto her site at She’s c’est magnifique!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Before we leave Sewanee to return to Louisiana for the winter, Gail Drake, the proprietor of Lorena’s in Monteagle, TN, will sponsor a book signing for GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, my book of verse released this Spring. Although Gail’s daily work revolves around her gift shop and natural food restaurant, she cuts a big swath in community affairs of both Monteagle and Sewanee, sponsoring local artists, writers, and musicians. She’s also active in LEAMIS, an international ministry that develops leadership teams and provides mission training for those who feel called to make mission trips to developing countries. Some of the projects offer opportunities for people to teach cottage industries, Bible studies, and work with indigenous pastors to help meet the need for safe drinking water in their communities.

Gail has led missionary teams to Africa numerous times and has assisted churches in developing countries in forming coops and obtaining small start-up loans for cottage industries. She’s the key person who helped the Sisters of St. Mary obtain a trainer to demonstrate how to use bio sand filters and a chlorination system to eliminate bacterial and viral contaminants in water. Many Louisianians donated to the purchase of this clean water system that the Sisters of St. Mary will take on a mission trip to set up in hurricane-ravaged Haiti in November.

Gail has also worked with Mountain T.O.P., a mission associated with the United Methodist Church and a TN outreach project established by her grandfather, George Bass, to help those who are among the poor in the far reaches of the Cumberland Mountains. The project sponsors Youth Summer Ministry, a Major Home Repair Unit, and other ministries dedicated to meeting the physical, social, spiritual, and emotional needs of the poor in the Cumberland Mountains.

Some days when we visit Lorena’s, Gail greets us, out of breath from doing her short-term and long-term ministries, and we have to be careful when we talk about mission and ministry possibilities, even on a community level, or she’d be off and running. “No” isn’t a word that comes easily to her, but we often encourage her to slow down before she burns out. I’m very proud to have a few of my books displayed in Gail’s busy “community center” and enjoy the witty repartee with such an industrious, mission-centered person. Her background and ministries rate more space than a short blog, but this is an introduction to an outstanding person I’ll write more about later.

Monday, October 13, 2008


This past month, we have been showered with white oak acorns, “Quercus bullets,” I call them. They sound like hail falling on the roof and even persist through the night. The sound of falling acorns is usually followed by feet scampering across the rooftop – sounds I hope are those of squirrels and not of rats. In the place where we stayed at St. Mary Convent in the St. Anselm's cottage, these bullets were huge nuts, but here at 65 Fairbanks, they’re smaller and hit the roof with greater frequency. I hope the roof holds up because I already have to replace my damaged Louisiana roof that was hit by the last two hurricanes.

I’m told that the white oaks here at Sewanee produce a tasty acorn with a nutty flavor that improves with roasting. If there are Tennesseans with appetites for these nuts, someone more enterprising than I am could probably make a mint on this year’s bumper crop. Their competition would be squirrels and deer that consume a large percentage of the crop. Twenty-five percent of a deer’s diet during the Fall months consists of acorns (the other 75% is my flower bed). Many of the animals wait for groundwater to puddle and leach the tannins out of the acorns before they harvest and eat the nuts.

As I said, the white oak acorns are much more palatable than other acorns and don’t contain as many bitter-tasting tannins. Koreans make a jelly called dotorimunk from acorns. Acorns were an important source of nutrition for indigenous peoples in California, and native American women shelled and pulverized acorns during the fall season, producing meal they used to bake cakes and breads. Native American men built ground fires to ward off acorn moths and weevils. Not only did the fires destroy these pests, the burning was a good forest management technique. Today, acorn gourmets grind the white oak acorns into meal, mix with cornmeal, pat the mixture into cakes, then fry them. For those who are interested in keeping their health top notch, acorns are reputed to be the best known natural controllers of blood sugar. Lastly, during the 17th century, a juice extracted from acorns (the ones with much tannin and bitter taste) was given to an alcoholic to deter him from drinking.

This is probably more information than you wanted to know concerning the Autumnal fall of acorns in Middle Tennessee, but I just had to share my amazement at the abundance of this resource. And for all you senior women out there, a British legend purports that a woman who carries an acorn in her pocket will enjoy delayed aging. When I returned from a morning walk to the post office, I bent down and picked up a shiny brown nut and slipped it into my pocket. It was a necessary act. On this walk, we stopped in at the University supply store, and an 80-year old clerk told me she guessed I was near her age!!

Thursday, October 9, 2008


The trees are moving. Last night and this morning, winds rustled the leaves of white oak and maple trees surrounding the cottage. At night, the gales caused us to feel more secure indoors; this morning, they seem to be announcing a needed rainstorm, or, perhaps, that winter on The Mountain is imminent.

Upstairs at the Convent this morning, I plundered in a bookcase that contained back issues of “Weavings, A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life” and found several issues about practicing silence and the art of listening. One of the “listening” articles was written by Fr. Tom Ward, the priest with whom we practice Centering Prayer here at Sewanee. In the article, he talks about “getting behind his attraction for words” (and I’m guilty as charged!) and incessant busyness to achieve a state of stillness. Every Tuesday evening when we sit 30 minutes with Fr. Tom and four or five other participants, I find it difficult to be still with one sacred word in my consciousness so that I can peel back the layers that separate me from a Divine connection…and, also, that separate me from others who need to be “listened into existence.”

Meanwhile, I enjoy the hospitality of the Sisters of St. Mary, and it’s clear to me that they take St. Benedict’s dispositions on hospitality seriously. St. Benedict said that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me…’” the essence of St. Benedict’s theology is that we should all live as respectful guests in the world and extend that respect to others who come to our doors. Last night, we were guests at the Sisters’ table – Sister Elizabeth kept turning up food from the refrigerator and tucked away in kitchen cabinets, and combined the food with leftovers from lunch: ham, turkey, tossed salad, green beans, deviled eggs, cooked carrots, homemade bread, apple cobbler, and brownies.

A maintenance worker cultivates a garden at the Convent, but the present plot has seen its day and is now parched from the dry season we’re experiencing in Middle Tennessee. In addition to the persimmon trees we discovered on our walk a few days ago, apple trees abound on the Convent property. We overheard talk of wild blueberries growing on the premises, which the Sisters may be able to pick and enjoy since the deer seem to be concentrated at Sewanee and aren’t out here nibbling up all the wild edibles. The absence of deer seems odd to us because St. Mary’s is surrounded by deep…and dark… woods. Rumors are that the three Convent dogs keep the deer away, although two of them are tiny Chihuahuas that make a big noise but could be easily harmed by a protective mother deer; in fact, one of the dogs was spooked the other day when two giant acorns fell, rapid fire, on her head.

Each time a bell rings and we don’t attend that particular service, we feel guilty, which shows you how conscious we are of the regimen here. If we heeded all the bells, we’d attend four services daily, but we generally skip Noonday Prayer because we’re eating! The two evening services, Evening Prayer and Compline, are singing services…canticles and songs sung in high soprano voices, and I falter on the canticles, the Magnificat, and Cum Invocarem. I guess a high pitch is required for the songsters to reach the Divine Ear so I’ll have to finesse Centering Prayer to get the job done because my soprano voice shrieks, falters, and dies at each Evensong service. A friend wrote to me that she thought I was attracted to the monastic life, but I think I’d flunk out on several levels – the regimen of chapel services and chanting and singing soprano --not to mention my inability “to get behind my attraction to words,” so I can cultivate silence. Tomorrow we return to our cottage on the campus. Our time here has been a mini-retreat where we have created some desert solitude in our lives, detached from the familiar space of our own digs.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


After Morning Prayer and Eucharist, breakfast at St. Mary’s is a convivial time, and the Sisters sometimes share humorous anecdotes about their life experiences with guests. The former nurses in the Community have a “gracious plenty” of stories from their past hospital work. This morning, Sister Miriam sat across from me and told a story that took place in a Children’s Camp at Lake Tahoe where she served as Camp Nurse. The camp had a population of chipmunks that nested in the roofs of the buildings, and one morning as Sister Miriam washed utensils in a sink of soapy water, a baby chipmunk suddenly dropped down, from above, into her suds and appeared to have died from the sudden immersion. Sister Miriam, who’s always on guard to revive people and creatures, plucked the doused chipmunk from the sudsy water, carefully dried it off, then gently blew her breath over its face…and, voila, the small creature resurrected! I know she’s skillful in revivifications because she saved me from a major fainting spell when I was overcome by the heat while watching a Dog and Cat Show this past summer. The beautiful rosaries she makes are manifestations of her revival-of-the-soul work.

Three former nurses live in the Community of St. Mary, and two of them will make the annual trek to Port Au Prince, Haiti in November where they’ll help install the first water purifier in a children’s orphanage there. Many people in Louisiana donated to this project and, following the Sisters’ return, will receive a full report on the results of this work. Haiti has suffered through major destruction from two hard-hitting hurricanes and one tropical storm during 2008, and clean water will be a timely boost to the people of this underdeveloped country.

Carolyn Doerle of Doerle’s Foods in Broussard, Louisiana, asked her staff to pledge money for the water purification system, and she matched their contributions, which resulted in a sizable donation for the project. The Sisters of St. Mary regard their Louisiana donors as Ambassadors of Good Will and laud the gracious support Louisianans gave after reading “A Word’s Worth’s” appeal for monies to help purchase a water purifier.

You know, the poor challenge us in their giving. Low income people in the U.S. contribute a higher percentage of their income to charitable projects than do those who have middle or high incomes. Arthur Simon has a chapter in his book HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH, Hungering for God In An Affluent Culture, entitled “Filling the Heart With Something Better Than Cash.” His book advocates a way of life that frees us from the shackles of consumption and leads us to a way of gratitude and generosity. The book begins with an arresting paragraph: “A Christian from Germany visited the U.S. shortly after WWII. ‘I notice your churches have cushions,’ he commented, suggesting cushions of affluence. Then he added, ‘I notice your preaching has cushions, too.’ He had gotten a sampling of ‘feel-good’ sermons that treaded lightly (if at all) on the expectations God has for us regarding love and justice toward the poor…”

This morning’s readings from James about being doers and not just hearers of the Word pointed to the activity of those who’ve generously supported the clean water project in Haiti. As James says, “A doer that acts shall be blessed in his doing.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


My friend Vickie seems to always find trees that produce fruit, no matter what kind of terrain she explores – wild blackberry and blueberry bushes, cherry and kumquat trees. She grew up in central Florida where an orange grove flourished in the backyard; and avocado and mango trees grew abundantly in the front yard, so I don’t wonder at her present-day inclination to seek out trees that drop succulent fruit. During a walk yesterday afternoon near St. Mary’s Convent, she spied a persimmon tree. I kept trekking but she lingered to pick up a handful of the sweet fruit that had fallen and brought the harvest back for the table at St. Mary of Anselm’s cottage.

To Vickie, fresh fruit is like a foretaste of paradise. After Eucharist and breakfast with the Sisters this morning, she asked if anyone could make a persimmon pie, and everyone, including me, thought of some excuse to leave the kitchen, “naying” all the way. Nevertheless, this afternoon, we searched again for the luscious yield of the persimmon tree.

There’s something to be said for Vickie’s reverence for trees and plants, even though she sometimes has “to go to the garden alone,” to paraphrase an old Baptist hymn. Birds, flowers, trees – like St. Francis of Assisi, Vickie reveres the natural world and has no wish to dominate or exploit the Master Gardener’s realm…but she does want her share of delectable fruit. Her favorite Eucharistic Prayer is Prayer C in the Book of Common Prayer: “At your command, all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their course, and this fragile earth, our island home…”

Evelyn Underhill tells us that Christian worship is always directed toward the sanctifying of the natural world. In her classic book, WORSHIP, she acknowledges our Jewish heritage, saying that “the great benedictions of the Synagogue services are jewels of liturgical art, expressing the grateful consciousness of the action and presence of God.” Underhill admires the Jewish benedictions that hallow and consecrate things with which blessings are connected – like trees that bear edible fruit! Vickie’s reverence for the natural world isn’t too far removed from the recognition of our creaturely need and dependence on the Ultimate Source. While here at St. Anselm’s, I read aloud to her a passage from THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE by St. John of the Cross that resonated with her naturalist’s ear: “God passes through the thicket of the world, and wherever His glance falls He turns all things to beauty.”

On the afternoon walk, we retraced our steps along the gravel road leading away from the Convent and found the persimmon tree. We brought home 16 of these paradisiacal persimmons for the Sister’s table, anticipating a small pie, perhaps… Yet, we know that the good Sisters’ daily schedule doesn’t include baking persimmon pies for guests who’re supposed to be practicing austerity!

Monday, October 6, 2008


The sun glints in orange-colored leaves that have slowly begun to turn on a few trees fringing the bluff. I am sitting here on the deck of St. Mary of Anselm’s cottage, a hermitage retreat house used by the Sisters of St. Mary when they make private retreats or schedule “on-the-premises vacations.” St. Anselm’s is a small stone cottage in the midst of woods surrounding St. Mary’s Convent here at Sewanee. Inside the cottage are a small parlor, a wood-burning stove awaiting winter, a drop-leaf table, an antique desk with thin legs and nooks for letters, and rockers draped with colorful lap robes. Sister Elizabeth has made everything ready for us to spend the week here in this sanctuary. In the bedroom, a picture with Julian of Norwich’s words calms my foolish anxieties: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Prayer is the chief resident in the walls of the cottage; it is at the heart of this undisturbed place.

I rest in the sacrament of landscape and Designer, becoming like the chameleon, blending with the environment. A squirrel chatters nearby, and the ubiquitous cicadas prevalent on The Mountain enhance the wonderful silence with their monotonous hum. The cottage is a few steps away from the stone chapel where services are held four times daily – Morning Prayer and Eucharist, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline – except on Wednesdays when the Sisters enjoy what they call a “mini retreat,” otherwise known in the secular world as “a day off.” In competition with the cicadas, giant, white oak acorns fall and ping loudly on the metal roof of the Convent – acorns larger than those of the Louisiana live oak that litter my patio in New Iberia, and I wonder if the squirrels’ chattering has to do with an overabundant crop of nuts this Fall. Sister Lucy says that the bountiful crop foretells a cold winter on The Mountain. The acorns make intermittent pops like gunshot and are alien noises in the blanketing silence surrounding the Convent.

A nun, out of habit, and clad in blue jeans, strides up the road leading away from the Convent, but she won’t stray far; she’s taking her daily walk. In her spare time, Sister Margaret hikes and goes kayaking. She has a wide face with mischievous blue eyes, framed by gray-blonde hair, and a wry manner that revives good humor in those who need to “lighten up.” She was once secretary to two administrators at the Univ. of Tennessee in Knoxville, as well as a camp program director for a Girl Scout Council here in Tennessee (we can talk shop because one of my other lives was as a Girl Scout executive). She is now the co-Mother Superior of St. Mary’s. Eight Sisters live here – Sister Elizabeth, Sister Lucy, Sister Margaret, Sister Mary Zita, Sister Madeleine Mary, Sister Mary Martha, Sister Miriam, and Sister Julian, and I feel enclosed not only by a “cloud of witnesses” but a cloud of caring women, some of whom have been mothers, others who have been nurses, one, a teacher, and another, an orphaned Filipino woman. The experiences they bring to the Convent have created a climate of inclusiveness – and, always, one of hospitality. They’re a community of women who love to chant and sing, offer gifts of prayer and care. They create and expand the spiritual dimension of this mountain, a “thin place” surrounded by woods exuberant with trees and plants.

The Sisters invited us here because we rented out our Sewanee cottage for a week and were “homeless.” So here I sit, relaxing on the deck, feeling incautious and peaceful, living out a short pause in my life, sans internet, television, and cell phone…and, already, the view has become clearer.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


When you live on The Mountain in the village of Sewanee, you accept limitations with respect to lack of grocery stores, pharmacies, dry goods stores – all of the scaled down qualities of a community of 2,300 residents and about 1,400 students. However, we go up the road to Monteagle to find conveniences and products of civilization that we think we can’t live without.

Monteagle even boasts a winery, a stone building with red roof, red trim, and a basement filled with vats and bottling equipment. Recently, we were overcome with curiosity to see what the operation looked like, perhaps to compare the wine tasting of Tennessee with northern California and Hill Country, Texas. I was pleasantly surprised when we walked into the spacious, well-appointed lobby. We stood at a long counter and enjoyed a few sips of the white wines offered to us and talked with Carolyn Johnston, one of the winery’s four owners. Carolyn’s husband, Tony, a co-owner, is a Professor of Agribusiness at Middle Tennessee State U. in Murpheesboro and also writes a column about wine in the Murpheesboro “Daily News Journal.” He has been a staunch advocate for the conversion of tobacco fields into vineyards here in Tennessee.

The Monteagle Winery has a small vineyard in the front yard of the property and produces Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, and Chardonel from its grapes. It also produces wines from fruit grown in other areas of Tennessee, rather than those from fruit flavors or concentrates. The owners use Southern favorite fruits with which I’m certainly familiar – red and white muscadines and blackberries. We gained permission to view the vats and bottling equipment in the basement, and the fermented odor followed us back upstairs to a room filled with T-shirts bearing quotations from W. C. Fields, corkscrews, wine glasses, and packaged food to munch with wine at the Happy Hour. The winery features a “Music On the Mountain” event and a Vinofaire the first week-end in November and also hosts private receptions and business meetings. While talking with Carolyn, we made friends with a wine taster from Murpheesboro who claimed that he travels from Tennessee to Woodland, Texas every year to play Santa Claus, and he promised a bottle of Chardonel for everyone’s Christmas table.

Those who abstain from “the grape” might be interested to know that during Medieval times in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church widely approved of wine drinking, and, of course, it was necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist. Wine was a sign of conversion to the Christian faith, and there was nothing quite as salubrious for the ailing as the wines made by monks in France who stored it in caves to age successfully. In the Jewish faith, Kiddush is a blessing said over wine on Shabbat or on Jewish holidays: “Praise be the Eternal Ruler of the Universe who makes the fruit of the vine.” During the Passover meal, four cups of wine are consumed by Temple goers. I’ve attended many Seders with a Jewish friend (now deceased) and after the third glass of Mogan David, I (and everyone else) could sing well in Hebrew (or so we thought)!

And so much for a FYI about a local winery. I know many quatrains from THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KAYAAM as I grew up listening to my father recite verses from the Persian masterpiece that mentions wine innumerable times. I also have a limited edition of this book that I acquired when I lived in Iran back in the 70’s. My father’s favorite quatrain:

“Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the cup with sweet or bitter run,
The wine of life is oozing drop by drop,
The leaves of life are falling, one by one.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I received lots of responses to Mum, the box turtle who appeared under the umbrella of a yellow marigold in my flower bed recently. The magic of a turtle sighting filled me with a strange feeling of exhilaration most of the day, particularly when I was able to get a photo of this creature with a tie dye design on its shell. As I said in the previous blog, turtles have always fascinated me.

And then the financial turbulence in Congress flashed across the television screen; my oldest daughter called to tell me she has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus; the younger daughter in CA called to say she has health problems – a catalog of woes threatened to dissipate the magic of Mum. However, after Eucharist at St. Mary today, I came home to do mundane chores and decided I’d go outdoors instead of working—to search for the turtle of yesterday. After all, recent readings had revealed to me that a turtle sighting in Japan symbolizes felicity and is an omen predicting 10,000 years of happiness! Why wouldn’t I seek out this good fortune carrier? According to all legends and magical stories, the turtle is a creature in harmony with her surroundings, and a little harmony is needed everywhere in the world right now. One of the turtle’s jobs is to advertise this harmony that exists within the universe, despite the problems that sometimes overshadow our notions of universal balance.

I opened the kitchen door and was shocked to see another box turtle hustling through the grass near the giant hemlock in my backyard. When she came to a halt long enough for my friend Vickie and I to examine her, we found that she had similar shell markings of yellow, minus a few yellow striations that Mum’s shell exhibited. This is hard to believe, but she had a vivid yellow “2” on her shell, (see photograph) as if advertising that she was the second harbinger of good news to appear on my lawn. Her neck also bore a scattering of yellow dots, and two red eyes opened wide when I spoke to her. I named her “Mam”, as she’s probably Mum’s first cousin by virtue of the happy design on her shell, and I assume she belongs to the same species of box turtle. She didn’t possess the same degree of stillness within as her cousin Mum, but we managed to photograph her before she scuttled off to hide in the ground cover beneath the hemlock.

“Why are all these turtles seeking me out?” I asked my friend Vickie. “They seem to be looking for a place to announce something.” The superstitious Scot in me says that these turtles are serious about bringing me news of a fresh start as some myths purport. Mum and Mam inspire the play impulse in me and perhaps they’re looking for someone to come out in the yard so they can teach them how to play…how to develop harmony with the universe. Think of it – a turtle can make a home anywhere, and I believe Mum and Mam also showed up to advance the idea of new adventures awaiting all of us. They’re just “plain out” symbols of good fortune and new life.

The box turtle cousins reminded me of the child who lies locked within most of us, and of the night I celebrated my 60th birthday and decided I hadn’t been very adventuresome in my life, that I hadn’t played enough. Now that I have 10,000 years in which to enjoy happiness and seek new adventures, I suppose it’s time to reclaim my inner child. Here’s a poem I wrote about this feeling, the “play impulse,” as it appeared in AFTERNOONS IN OAXACA:


I am looking for the child within,
the one who broke through last Spring

and decided life was as much playground as battlefield,
who once sailed leafboats in city gutters,

casting off as the mistress of adventure,
the one who believed that fairies slept

beneath toadstools and that toadstools
were made only for hypermagical flights,

who hoisted a toadstool umbrella,
along with her mother and Mary Poppins,

learning how to fly in the heavens long ago,
forgetting how to fly, wanting to fly again,

who discovered friends, best of friends
in books, and has kept them always,

who has been blessed with good friends always,
is learning to explore, play, enjoy them again,

who has been given a play name
that she loves – Elizabeth, Elizabeth,

a double name that resonates
with double wonder and delight,

who, at three, turned the pages

“the world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,”

and has, at age 60, stepped out to claim that world.