Saturday, November 29, 2008


While I was enroute home from a Black Friday trip to Lafayette, Louisiana, a cell phone call from an old friend becalmed me as we navigated through the snarled traffic leading from the Disney World of all Americans – The Mall. The long-time friend, Jo Ann Lordahl, is a notable self-help book writer, author of several romantic novels, and chapbooks of poetry. She now lives in Kalaheo, Kaua’I, Hawaii and has lived in Hawaii for at least ten years. For a brief period back in the 70's, Jo Ann lived in New Iberia, Louisiana where she “hibernated” to write several of her novels. During that time, I worked as a feature writer for “The Daily Iberian,” and interviewed her for a profile in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper. At first, she was reluctant to be “written up” because she had published only one novel, but she finally relented and, in later years, used the article in her marketing ventures.

When Jo Ann lived in New Iberia, she attempted to live on a shoestring while writing her books, and she never wavered from the road taken toward becoming a published author. Through real estate deals, teaching, and writing, she gained the financial independence she sought to create space for pursuing a full-time vocation as a writer. She has published 19 books since the time she lived that shoestring existence in New Iberia.

In Jo Ann’s newest book, entitled SPIRITUAL GOLD FOR WOMEN, she recalls her awakening to a reality that included "no self-esteem, no money, no education, no supportive circle of friends. Amid smashed dreams and coming out of marriage to an alcoholic with a child in tow, my only assets were an old green Studebaker and my baby, and an invitation to come home until I could get on my feet." Jo Ann vowed to get out of her position of powerlessness and to create a life she desired. “Now financially independent (though still learning, still refining), I live these principles every day. You can create the life you desire,” she writes in SPIRITUAL GOLD.

Jo Ann “loves a good time,” as they say here in Cajun country, but she is among the most well-disciplined writers/readers I know and doesn’t veer from the path of daily writing, even if she’s only journaling…except for occasional off-the-path travels to Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean, and, of course, exotic Louisiana. She also organizes workshops and retreats about money, spirituality, health, and women’s issues.

One of Jo Ann’s books to which I’m always referring is MONEY MEDITATIONS FOR WOMEN, a book of thoughts, exercises, resources, and daily affirmations women can use to create their financial future, to learn how to manage their money, and to create prosperity. A simplistic example from MONEY MEDITATIONS: “Money and power can liberate only if they’re used to do so. They can imprison and inhibit more finally than barred windows and iron chains. Maya Angelou.” Affirmation: “I know why I want money and what I will do with it.” Jo Ann says that with affirmations we can erase old thought patterns and reinvent our lives. “In a deeper sense, those affirmations allow us to align ourselves with larger, universal patterns. We are better able to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, doing what we most need to do…”

Jo Ann’s credentials include a Ph.D. in Psychology from Florida State University, study at the Academy of American Poets in Manhattan, work with Donald Justice at the University of Florida, and many more fellowships. The high point in my telephone conversation with Jo Ann was an invitation to visit Hawaii next year. Aloha. You can log on to for further information about this talented writer.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Last Saturday, Sisters Julian, Miriam, and Elizabeth of the Community of St. Mary, Sewanee, and a group of dedicated workers from Church of the Brethren in West Virginia returned from their mercy trip to the Faith/Hope/Love Infant Rescue Home in Port au Prince, Haiti. The headliner for the report of their trip was: “WATER PURIFICATION SYSTEM INSTALLED AND WORKS!”

Sister Elizabeth, for whom this was the first journey to Haiti, reported that veteran workers, Sisters Miriam and Julian, felt that the atmosphere in this ravaged country had improved – people were not as fearful and were out in the parks in Port au Prince. “There is still the poverty, but there is movement in a positive direction, and the UN presence is a plus, according to Haitians to whom we spoke,” Sister Elizabeth said. Sister Elizabeth, always a cheerful presence at the Convent at Sewanee, must have been part of this positive atmosphere in which 18 people ministered. She said that her group could have been on Prime Time TV for Home Improvement!

Frank, a technician from Monteagle who is also a veteran in foreign outreach, especially LEAMIS in Africa, flew down with the Sisters to install the Water Purification Project and trained workers to maintain it. The rescue crew tackled home repairs, from fixing electrical problems to plumbing. Sister Dorothy Pearce, who runs the orphanage, had been operating sans car, and a group of men repaired it so that she now has transportation for the infants. Rooms were cleaned, painted and decorated, yard work done, shelves built, and cribs painted in red, blue, and yellow colors to brighten the disposition of all the infants. Twenty-two infants were rocked and cared for by “nannies” during the visit of the Sisters and Church of the Brethren members.

Sisters Miriam and Julian shopped in Haiti for baby food, rice, diapers, flour, juices, fans, etc. “However, after we left Haiti and even before,” Sister Miriam wrote, “I kept finding money in my suitcase, in my pockets, in my backpack, and when I began counting, $1,099 turned up as we returned home. Also two checks for $320 for the water project came in.” I teased Sister Miriam about having another calling as a banker – she is a magnet for money when it comes to fund-raising for outreach. The remaining funds will be used as seed money for next year’s trip to Haiti.

The good Sisters took many photographs, and Sister Julian, an expert on Power Point, is creating a presentation, using all the photos of the infants and completed work projects. This group of 18 workers accomplished all of the above in one week. The Sisters of St. Mary, beloved to all at Sewanee, have touched so many lives with their spiritual work at the Convent, and these three Religious who ventured to Haiti are exemplary servants who blessed this orphanage and 22 infants with their love and care. They send messages of thanksgiving in this Thanksgiving season to all who donated to the Haiti project.

The photograph is of Poutchino, one of the children at the orphanage, after he suffered a seizure and received medication. Taken from

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


If I had to stage a formal English Afternoon Tea for a group of four-year old girls, I’d probably need to engage in a séance to the Other Side to get instruction from my Godmother Dora in order to pull it off. Bishop Willis Henton’s wife, Martha, (now deceased) once visited London and brought me two how-to books about tea parties so I could master this art, but I failed the test on scone making. I finally passed on the little books to a friend who only has to read any instruction manual about cooking/ serving and is able to put on an excellent meal, tea, or holiday celebration.

Here in New Iberia, the Queen of Tea Time (who was actually King Sucrose’s royal mate at Sugar Cane Festival celebrations this year) is Betty LeBlanc. Betty served as the president of the Board of Directors for Solomon House when I was director of this outreach mission. She’s originally from New Albany, Mississippi, not far from Oxford, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother presided at the table of The Oaks in New Albany and also at Elgin Plantation on the Natchez Tour of Homes, so Betty is adept at creating the right ambience for what she calls “tea-lightful” experiences. When I left New Iberia to summer at Sewanee last year, she had begun launching her Tea Parties service, ranging from “La Tea Da” parties for pre-teens, teen-agers, and young adults to “Granny’s Attic Dress Ups” for girls ages 4-12.

Betty’s goal is to foster good manners, poise, and social graces, and she also teaches tea history at the table for these young people. As Betty is an interior decorator, her home is a showplace of fine furniture and accouterments, and she brings out china cups, silver spoons, and tea service to prepare children for future fine dining experiences -- the teas are also opportunities for young women to create wonderful memories for succeeding generations. Even four-year olds are allowed to use lipstick, lip gloss, blush, and perfume, and they dress in “older ladies attire” to transform into young ladies attending an afternoon tea.

Yesterday, we enjoyed lunch with Betty, and she showed us all the photographs of her tea events, including the latest one she held for a group of six-year olds. After viewing the photo of this party held on Betty’s glassed-in porch, Vickie Sullivan wrote the following verse about the six-year olds “taking tea.”


“Look, I’m pretty,
I’m so pretty,”

the skin of her shoulders
as smooth as a seal’s,

cheeks bright, lips reddened,
ear ornaments dangling

under ancient hat and veil,
blond tresses wafting perfume.

She eats sweet cakes with the silver,
crumbs falling on pink linen,

her bare toes wriggling
beneath an old lady dress;

basking in the sun
of her first real tea party,

the camellia in a southern garden.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Dictionaries and Bibles – my home here in New Iberia has more of these books on my shelves than any other title. So, when given the opportunity to frequent a Barnes and Noble on a Saturday afternoon, what catches my eye? A stand holding copies of a new compact Oxford Dictionary and accompanying compact Oxford Thesaurus. I circled the store about six times during the hour spent there, and several clerks eyed me as if I was going to tuck a few volumes into my big black purse. I always ended up standing in front of the display of dictionary and thesaurus and finally picked up the COMPACT OXFORD THESAURUS, held it conspicuously in open palm, and walked away with more than 140,000 synonyms in hand.

“Look at the words printed in bright blue,” I explained to two friends who accompanied me to the B&N. “Feel the soft cover, and look at the spelling tips and punctuation rules in the back.” I don’t need to describe my friends’ enthusiasm – one of them was searching titles of poetry books; another was in the computer programming section during most of the time we spent there. Their faces didn’t hold the same credulous delight as my own, and I knew they didn’t understand my joy at finding help for this “WordsWorth” blog. Then, again, perhaps they did, since both of them often hear me creating strange, new words to amuse myself while riding in a car long distances on some of our trips to find serendipity.

While circling the dictionary display, I veered off once into the poetry section. I found a copy of Mary Oliver’s AMERICAN PRIMITIVE, and the book fell open to the page, “The Snakes,” the subject of my last two blogs. “That’s it,” I announced to no one, “my enneagram is right, a #5 sees everything as related.” What a strange soil of perception, you have, my inner critic said. However, I marked an “x” (mentally) in the “related” column. I find it difficult to give up the idea of connectedness in a universe that often doesn’t make sense – you know, the “why am I here” line of thought that comes to you when you are listening to midnight train whistles.

When I arrived at church this morning, who should be on the altar but Miss Belle of the Bayou, Mary Himel, the woman who stared down a snake! She was behaving very properly, serving as a good chalice bearer, and I wanted to say something about her nighttime baptism as I lifted the cup at Communion, but restrained myself until she filed out after church. I told her to read my blog as she had recently appeared in a scene with a snake, followed by one of her poems. She told me that just last week, five years after the publication of WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK, she went into a store in St. Martinville, and the manager gave her $7 for a copy of her book of poetry that he had sold recently. You do see the point about this relatedness business, don’t you? One mention of the book thrown to the universe of the Internet and cash registers begin to cha-ching.

And what about the snakes? Only two mentions have occurred so far, but Janet did see something similar to a snake that appeared recently, and it turned out to be a gecko that hid in the bushes bordering our property here in New Iberia while we were in Tennessee. She said he hides in the irises, also, and makes the grass rustle just like a snake. (Geckos also make a chirping noise, eat roaches, and some of them are parthenogenetic, which means the female can have babies without engaging in copulation). Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be opening books in the B&N that fall open to poetry about geckos…yet, there are these connections…? They do go on.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Yesterday’s blog about Scout Janet watching a snake swim around in swamp waters where Mary Himel of New Iberia stood, waiting to be filmed as a Cajun woman being immersed at a night-time baptism, reminded me that Janet actually has a long-standing fear of snakes. She records that fear of reptiles in THE ROAD HOME, a book of essays about her Alabama childhood, published by Border Press and now out of print. In a chapter entitled “Not for Herpetologists,” Janet writes:

“When I was six, I lived near my Aunt Bea and her family, which included my Grandpa. They had pets at their house that would wander down to our house. Pa Faulk had a bird dog who would catch biscuits the size of coffee saucers in his mouth when Daddy tossed them out the kitchen door to him. My cousin Jane had a small brown and white Beagle named Sport. One time, Sport went missing for days, and I remember Pa Faulk looking for him, finally finding him under the house, dead, where he had crawled after being bitten by a snake.

We lived out in the country on Highway 10 close to the woods and near what Daddy called a bottom, which must have been the reason for all the talk about snakes. There was the snake that bit Sport, and seems like there was always conversation about King snakes and how you shouldn’t kill them because they were good snakes. There were stories about green snakes and my maternal grandfather who had a reputation for being a practical joker. One of his favorite pastimes was to put a thin, wriggling, green snake under his straw hat, then go down to the country store and complain to some unsuspecting customer that something about his hat was causing him to itch. Of course, when this Good Samaritan offered assistance and lifted the hat, he was startled, to say the least.

There was the brown-colored snake that hung, wrapped like a horsehair rope, around an exposed beam in a vacant back room of another aunt’s house. As my cousin Jane and I played, rambling through the unused rooms of the big country house, our eyes came to rest on this rope imposter. When it began to unwind, the two of us went running and screaming through the house, out into the yard, leaving the front screen door flapping behind us, while my aunt stood looking bewildered, wet dish towel in hand.

Then, there was the gargantuan snake that Jane’s sister’s boyfriend killed in the piney woods behind the house just after it had swallowed a whole rabbit. If you don’t know much about snakes, you need to know that we could tell it swallowed the entire rabbit because of the big hump about halfway down his otherwise slinky, six-foot long body.

The last snake of my childhood was the one that had been chopped into two pieces and left near the driveway. Jane and I had great reservations about walking past it to meet the school bus, but we did, swearing to everyone on the bus that the head came alive and chased us all the way to the bus stop.

No wonder there’re so many strange stories about snakes; those reptiles have a real knack for catching you by surprise, including the one that caused all that domestic trouble between the nice young couple, Eve and Adam. In her third marriage, my mother returned to the country after living in town for many years. She’s a gregarious woman, and the solitude was maddening. She has been afraid of snakes since the days her father teased people with his green snakes. When she worked in the fields near him, she’d hold back yelps of fear to keep him from knowing that she had come across one, afraid he would tease her about it. Now, in the early evenings at dusk, she actually seeks out a snake. She has seen it in the backyard “pretending to be a stick,” and she has seen it slither up the white oak tree nearby. She believes it’s a King snake, a friend, and has made failed attempts to photograph it. She thinks about it throughout the day and looks for it at twilight. Could Eve have been so lonely?”

Friday, November 21, 2008


When I talked with my friend Janet about her work as a scout for the movie, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST OF THE CONFEDERATE DEAD, (topic of a recent blog), she also mentioned the night she accompanied film crew members who worked on an opening montage for the TV series, “True Blood,” set in an area that would depict a contemporary, decadent southern place. Janet didn’t disclose the locale, but she described an event featuring a good friend of mine, Mary Himel of New Iberia – a woman I call the “poet laureate of Catahoula.” Catahoula is part of St. Martin parish, Louisiana and isn’t to be confused with Catahoula Parish, birthplace of the famous marble blue-eyed Catahoula hound further north and near Harrisonburg, Louisiana.

Border Press published a chapbook of Mary’s work entitled WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK in 2003 before Mary was tapped to play a role in the montage for “True Blood.” In the montage scene, Mary wears a modest Sunday dress, with hip waders beneath, and wades into swamp water for a night-time baptism (the scene was actually shot at night). Scout Janet stood on the bank and watched male crew members from New York and Chicago stiffen when they saw a water moccasin swim toward the spotlight where Mary stood, waiting to be immersed. Unflinching Mary, who spent her childhood in Catahoula, has the verve of a strong Cajun woman and simply stared the snake down. She may not have continued her film career following filming of the montage, but she was a much-talked about woman when the amazed crew members met for coffee the morning following the snake stare-down. Janet took pictures of this scene, but lost them during a computer crash – she says it was a great loss as Mary was “classic” in her depiction of a Cajun woman being baptized.

Mary Himel writes poetry and short stories, “always within 50 miles of her birthplace,” she says, “and the world has been big and small at once. In my writings, I attempt to unite those two worlds.” She taught French and English on the secondary level in St. Mary and St. Martin parishes, worked as a masseuse, and now spends a lot of time recording memories of Catahoula and Bayou Portage, her “childhood Edens that are my treasure chest of imagery,” she adds.

A poem from WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK by Mary Himel, published by Border Press:


My people sleepwalk,
doused in drink to keep afloat

dreams of an Arcadia -- distant,
they don’t recall –

only the good times now
that come with the sure steps,

buoyed repetition.

Always my people dance the Two-Step,
“Fais do-do” holds more than colloquial charm,

every dance a step back toward Beau Pre,
where God had been generous,

the ox bow garden that lulled in its arms
tired children in earth that provided all.

The photograph on the cover of WHEN THE LEVEE WAS A SNOW BANK, which appears above, was taken by Mary.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


As I lay awake last night, I heard several freight trains wailing in the distance. Train wails at night once struck me as lonely sounds, but in my 7th decade, they’ve taken on a friendlier tone. I think of them as a call to alertness, a time when I’m in touch with the center of things, plunged into watchfulness, listening to the dense whir of insects in profound darkness. It’s a time, perhaps, when mysteries are disclosed, when I’m open to illuminations of the Spirit.

When I lived in Iran, I rode a train through a long night from the desert in Ahwaz to a Shemiran garden in Tehran. At first, I felt terror as the train zoomed through the Elburz Mountains on a narrow track – on top of the world, it seemed. I shuddered, looking down at bottomless ravines, then slowly became calm. In a flash of revelation, I realized the falsity of the adage that East will never meet West. During the long night I became aware that God’s world is indeed one – and He is, as Teilhard de Chardin says, at the heart of the universe. That ride was a time of intimate union, and that union was born on a night watch. I was fully alert when I was blessed with morning light as we arrived at a well in Qum where women were bringing their pitchers to fill at a long trough. I stepped from the train, refreshed and taken with the sun.

So, train wails in the night can be sounds that incite alertness and revelations rather than loneliness. On a lighter note, I’ve always wanted to travel on the Orient Express and was disappointed to read recently that there is no longer a Paris to Istanbul route which I’ve had romantic notions about traveling since I read MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Dame Agatha Christie. Of course that route existed only during the 30’s when the Orient Express was at its apex as a luxury train, and the route has been changed many times since.

Perhaps I’ll have to confine my rail travel to listening to midnight wails of the freight trains and Amtrak passing through the Queen City each night – or to writing poems about trains; e.g., two that appear in my chapbooks, MORE CROWS and JUST PASSING THROUGH:


Midnight train shrieks a warning signal,
the whistle of velocity moving forward

toward a final destination in cold darkness,
an old redcap announcing this place

too far from home.


The night hawk travels through bleak passes,
whistling loneliness,

the Earl of travel charging space,
tracks leading everywhere

toward some isolated station,
waybill hooks still hanging,

worn bench outside,
ready for the itinerant traveler

waiting to be transported…
into the whoo of memory.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


On Sunday, I spied an Eastern Phoebe, an olive green bird that is described as a bird that “wags its tail,” according to the National Audubon Society’s guide to birds. She was sitting atop a bird bath in the backyard which we had placed on its head because the bath, when filled with water, began to breed mosquitoes. I thought the Phoebe was acting rather dumb because she frequented a dry, upside down basin, but later read that this bird swoops down on prey from any type of perch. The Phoebe stood on the stone bath long enough for me to find information about her in my bird guide and to discover the fact that her ancestors were the first ever to be banded in America by John James Audubon, the great artist who authored and painted BIRDS OF AMERICA.

Audubon was working on the aforementioned book when he banded the Phoebe, but his major job at the time was as tutor to Eliza Pirrie at the Oakley plantation home in St. Francisville, Louisiana. I once made Spring pilgrimages to St. Francisville , and on one occasion took my godfather, Markham Peacock, then 95, to visit Oakley. The two-story frame house now stands on a 100-acre tract known as Audubon Memorial State Park, which has also become a wildlife sanctuary. The house was built by James Pirrie over a raised brick basement and has a curved stairway joining the two galleries. At the time I took my godfather, I tried to discourage him from climbing the staircase, but he shushed me with the information that he had climbed pyramids in Egypt and took the steps with more vigor than I could muster.

John James Audubon tutored Eliza Pirrie at Oakley and taught her to draw and paint; his wife taught Eliza to dance, using an abandoned cotton gin rather than a ballroom for the instruction. According to Lyle Saxon, Eliza eloped with a young aristocrat on a rainy day, and her lover carried her through steams that were breast deep, then succumbed to pneumonia and died three weeks after he captured his bride. However, Eliza married twice after her first tragic marriage.

St. Francisville is situated in the Tunica Hills of Louisiana where red sediment and tan loess lie beneath rolling hills. In wealthier times preceding the Civil War, it was a rich town that boasted many plantation homes: Propinquity, The Myrtles (which has ghosts!), Catalpa, Wakefield, and Rosedown, queen of St. Francisville plantation homes, with formal gardens landscaped after those at Versailles. The house is a blending of Georgian, Louisiana, and other classic architectural styles.

The Cottage, where we spent the night on the trip with Godfather, has a long front gallery to which coffee and biscuits are brought out on a silver tray for guests as they arise in the morning, and Godfather pronounced the place “quite European” despite its austere appearance. The Cottage isn’t as grand as Rosedown but it’s a hospitable place where week-end guests can relax and renew themselves after a week of work. It stands on a high bluff (shades of Sewanee) in a wooded area, and we had to cross a rickety bridge over a creek to reach the old home.

A motel in St. Francisville features many of John James Audubon’s bird paintings, but I don’t remember seeing the little Eastern Phoebe that piqued my interest. Natchez, Mississippi, just “down the road” from St. Francisville, is another example of a wealthy city of pre-Civil War times and has a plethora of planters’ plantation homes. I have a manuscript in my files (unpublished) entitled THE GOAT MAN MURDER that takes place in this historic city. Border Press plans to launch it in a few years.

P.S. The photo above is of Godfather at 95, and my friend Vickie Sullivan, resting near a tangle of white azaleas in the gardens at Oakley, just after climbing the curving staircase.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


In May of this year I wrote a blog about Ben Blanchard, my young, tall and handsome friend, who illustrated THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO, a short poem I wrote about a giant devil frog whose remains were found in Africa. The poem was inspired by Joel, my “frogasieur” grandson, and Ben knew just the kind of pictures that would appeal to a boy Joel’s age. His whimsical illustrations perfectly carried out the devil frog theme.

This morning, Ben came over to visit while he sojourns with his mother a few days before departing again for Patagonia, AZ. I was able to tell him that Border Press now has the BEAST BEEZLEBUFO in a forward slot, and he can soon retire in Patagonia on royalties from sale of the book! As an artist, Ben can appreciate that bit of humor about exploding the book market.

Ben left Cajun Country in May to attend a course in Raw Food Preparation and Organic Gardening at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia and graduated from the course in August. He has since been practicing his food preparation in Phoenix and environs. After he spent a week back in Cajun Country, he was offered a job as a chef and gardener at The Tree of Life Center in Patagonia.

Ben stayed long enough for us to photograph him and to chat about sales for the little book we did together. As I wrote in a former blog, he’s the son of my good friend, Janet Faulk, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce here. I’ve known him for all of his 22 years, and he has been drawing and painting since he was in kindergarten. He has a deep interest in all things artistic and calls himself a Renegade Scholar and a “Roads Scholar” who likes to travel. Ben is an avid gardener, chef, and artist, and loves music and literature equally. “I’m uncontaminated by formal training,” he once told me. I love his free spirit.

Each time Ben visits, I’m inspired to do more projects with him, and this morning I got an “envee” (“strong urge” in Cajun lingo) to follow him to Patagonia, which he assured me is an ideal place for retirees. He knows my penchant for The West, particularly after I visited Sedona, AZ on two separate occasions for several months two years ago. At that time, I fell in love with red rock country. Patagonia is probably no more than three hours’ drive from Sedona!

I call Ben my “Renaissance Man,” and I’m glad to see he has decided not to re-locate back in bayou country where raw foods would not be as appreciated by those who love Cajun cuisine as those who are devotees of healthful food in the Far West.

THE BEAST BEEZLEBUFO may be “out there” before Christmas. Watch for it! Wonder what the weather is like in Arizona during December…hmmm…

Monday, November 17, 2008


During dinner at a Mexican restaurant last week, I asked my long-time friend, Janet Faulk, when the film “In The Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead,” based on native son James Lee Burke’s novel of that name, will appear. She said she had been anticipating the movie since the Spring of 2007 when she worked as town scout for the film depiction of this novel.

Janet, now President and CEO of the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce, isn’t a native Cajun but as a former CAO in the previous New Iberia city government, she knew enough about historic landmarks, the culture and landscape of Acadiana to locate sites for the filmmakers. Back in May, 2007, I wrote a feature story for “Acadiana Lifestyle” entitled “Location, Location, Location” that featured Janet’s adventures scouting, including forays into small towns looking for men’s restrooms!

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD is a déjà vu kind of story that centers on a Hollywood crew coming to New Iberia to produce a Civil War film. The movie features Tommy Lee Jones as famed Dave Robicheaux, the fictional New Iberia detective who is the hero in at least 17 Robicheaux books based in New Iberia and environs. In the novel, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, Dave Robicheaux attempts to link the murder of a New Iberia woman to a New Orleans mobster returning to his home town and the memories that arise within him when the movie crew films this Civil War movie. The story records Robicheaux’s conversations with the ghost of a Civil War soldier and other weird happenings and was adapted by Mary Olson Kromolowski and Jerzy Kromolowski.

The notable Bertrand Tavernier directed the filming of “In the Electric Mist.” He has been quoted as saying that the films he makes are primarily subjects he is passionate about, and he tries not to be too analytical about why he wants to direct a certain movie. I understand, from Janet’s account of her adventures as a scout, that Tavernier became a real fan of crawfish boudin. Janet reported that Tommy Lee Jones was highly focused on his work and precise in his requests. She’s among the few who got close enough to converse with Jones about his role as Detective Dave Robicheaux. The Civic Center here in New Iberia played a large part in the filming because it’s the site of the Mayor’s office, parish library, and Iberia Parish Sheriff’s offices with a brick courtyard and fountain in the center of this complex. Locations involved five Acadiana parishes.

The town was determined to have New Iberia and its environs appear in the movie because a previous film about a James Lee Burke novel was filmed in New Orleans when its setting should have been New Iberia. At the time of filming “In the Electric Mist,” Janet said that the concept to create the film in its indigenous setting had been a commitment by the movie company and had driven the creative processes to keep the integrity of the story intact. Additionally, the company used existing property instead of building sets. This focus made Janet’s scouting job more intense and more far-reaching than it might have been otherwise.

Author James Lee Burke’s novel, IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH THE CONFEDERATE DEAD, claims a place in an alternative English class at ULL entitled “Down the Bayou," a survey of multicultural literature, and he can hold his own alongside Ernie Gaines, author of A GATHERING OF OLD MEN, with whom I briefly studied back in the late 80’s. Burke is one of two authors to win two Edgar Awards, and his novel, THE LAST GET BACK BOOGIE, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Many of us who watched the film crews at work in the Queen City of the Teche are anxious to see this film that showcases the haunting southern mystique of our town. New Iberia traces its history back to 1779 when Francisco Bouligny led flatboats of immigrating Malaguenos up the Bayou Teche from New Orleans into this subtropical area to form a settlement. To learn more about this Spanish settlement, get a copy of my young adult novel FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE from Border Press.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I lived in Limestone, Maine near the Canadian border during the mid-1950’s, a place where the snow piled up as high as telephone poles bordering the road that led to an old farmhouse in which we lived. My former spouse was there with the U.S. Army, attached to a Strategic Air Command base that guarded U.S. borders against enemy invasion. I was a 19-year old southerner who had never lived in the northeastern U.S. and certainly hadn’t experienced sub-zero temperatures before that tour of duty with the Army. During the time I lived in what was termed a “hardship area,” the warm spot in that snowbound town was the home of a Mormon family, the Groesbecks, who lived across the street from us.

The Groesbecks were devout Mormons, and I know now, after studying their literature through the years, that they were more interested in a doctrine contained in their ARTICLES OF FAITH (a copy of which the Groesbecks gave me when I left Limestone) concerning “Benevolence” than they were in banning other religions or people. Benevolence, according to this family, embraced and far exceeded charity. As far as they were concerned, they were to make their neighbor as dear to them as themselves. This family shared many things with me, including a large Maine lobster that they divided six ways one evening when we were invited to supper! Marion, the wife and mother, often baked honey bread and brought me a loaf. When I had a miscarriage, she was the first person on the scene afterward. Her children spent many nights in my apartment and gave me the joy of children before I knew the joy of my own children. Marion and her family offered me the gift of friendship during a stark period of my life.

When I sat in the Groesbeck’s living room or ate supper with them, I never heard talk about hatred of blacks or that black members could not hold the priesthood in the Mormon Church or that missionaries could not evangelize in Africa, the Caribbean, or other regions inhabited by populations of blacks. I also heard no gay bashing or talk of polygamous relationships. In that cold, sub-zero weather, the Groesbecks were a warm, loving family faithful to their religion, bound to the doctrine of benevolence, rather than devotion to social issues. The only proselytizing they did was to give me the BOOK OF MORMON, ARTICLES OF FAITH, and a book entitled TREASURES TO SHARE when I left Aroostook County. I have vivid memories of listening to classical music with them, reading to their children on snowy evenings, and attending a Mormon women’s group where I was surprised to find a group of literary people interested in studying WUTHERING HEIGHTS. No one tried to recruit me, no one spoke of just tolerating and not accepting other groups or religions. It was a rare experience of Mormonism, and I suppose I have lived in a time warp about their decent beliefs and faith since those days I spent in Maine.

As I read the headlines yesterday about the “Latter Day” Latter Day Saints raising $40 million dollars to support a social ban, although they claim “attacks on churches and intimidation of people of faith have no place in civil discourse over controversial issues,” etc., the Mormons today,unlike those I knew in Maine, seem to have joined the ranks of fundamentalists who are moving far from the doctrine of love espoused by Christ: if man would win eternal life, he cannot afford to neglect the duty of love to his fellow, for “Love is the fulfilling of the Law.”

I often wonder where my benevolent Mormon neighbors…those people who believed that “sincerity of disposition and humility of soul whereby the word of God may make an impression upon the heart” are today, and I guess I wonder where many of my so-called benevolent Christian neighbors, who profess the same thing, live, as they vent their hate in the streets of our towns…from Maine to Louisiana. The question comes to my mind, where is that belief of all Christians in their inherent sense of justice? Or this: “Is the world to be forever confirmed in its opinion that theological partisans are less truthful, less candid, less high-minded, less honorable even than the partisans of political and social causes, who make no profession as to the duty of love?” (to quote the Mormon’s ARTICLES OF FAITH!).

I guess that my experience of the Mormons of that time in Maine was an unusually blessed experience. Idealist that I am, I choose to remember them the way they were.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


During my recent trip to Thibodaux, Louisiana to deliver a talk about Louisiana traiteurs, I discovered new information about the famous Louisiana chef, John Folse, which reinforced a belief touted by most native Louisianans – Louisiana is the center of the culinary world. John Folse has established a cooking school known as the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. This institute features a fully accredited, four-year university program that awards a Bachelor of Culinary Science degree. The school has a faculty-student ratio of 15 to 1, so students receive lots of guidance in culinary techniques, learn about better business practices and food service trends.

Nicholls State University is only a one hour drive from New Orleans, the culinary capitol of Louisiana, where some of the students in the Folse Institute intern; other students enroll in study abroad programs in Europe, Asia, and South America. This year, several of the students in the Folse Institute received honors for their cooking – one placed in a California competition, another received a scholarship to attend the Paul Bocuse Institute abroad, and another apprenticed at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. One Summa Cum Laude graduate enrolled in Nicholls State’s Innovative Culinary MBA Program.

If those who visit south Louisiana don’t return because they “tasted bayou water,” they’ll probably be drawn back to Cajun Country because they’ve tasted the cuisine of Louisiana and New Orleans. One of our finest chefs who rivals John Folse in cooking expertise is Marcelle Bienvenu, a famous chef from St. Martinville (la Petit Paris d’Amerique),which is ten miles down the road from New Iberia. Marcelle once owned Chez Marcelle Restaurant in Broussard, Louisiana where I always took out-of-town visitors to sample Cajun Country cuisine. She has written a food column since 1984, which appears in newspapers and journals in New Orleans, Lafayette, and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Marcelle was born into a large Acadian family where meals were a celebration of the good life here on the bayou and grew up on ideals of hospitality and hearty Cajun cuisine. She has the distinction of working on the volume of Acadian and Creole cooking in collaboration with editors of The Time-Life American Cooking Series. She has also been catering manager of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and collaborated with Emeril Lagasse on several of his cookbooks.

Approximately 20 years ago when Marcelle served a stint as chef at Oak Alley Plantation on the River Road near Baton Rouge, I met and visited with her on an exceptionally cold Spring day. I remember that when I went into the gift shop at Oak Alley, she was standing near a counter that held the Sesquicentennial edition of the PICAYUNE’S CREOLE COOK BOOK (published by The Times Picayune newspaper in New Orleans), which she had edited. She shook hands with me, then remained standing before me, warming my frozen hands with her own, exuding hospitality in the tradition of Acadian friendliness. I also remember being presumptuous enough to suggest that Marcelle do her own cookbook. I have a letter from her in my files in which she discusses doing a joint cookbook project with me, and I later told her that she, alone, should do the project as she was a consummate storyteller and an excellent journalist…the book really belonged to her!

Several years later, Marcelle published her famous volume on Cajun cuisine, WHO’S YOUR MAMA, ARE YOU CATHOLIC, AND CAN YOU MAKE A ROUX? This 200-recipe cookbook features the best of Cajun cooking, and numerous Bienvenu family photos and stories about life in Cajun country. Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette has published a paperback edition of this wonderful cookbook.

Marcelle Bienvenu also teaches cooking classes and has a website for those who search for good cuisine at

Friday, November 14, 2008


Every time I travel to Frostproof, Florida, I visit with a cousin in the Sullivan clan who, through the years, has developed notable skill in the decorative arts. The artist, “Toni” Blackwell, lives up the road from Frostproof in Babson Park, a small hamlet that boasts it is the birthplace of Webber International University. Toni paints murals, note cards, mail boxes, glassware (including wine glasses and champagne glasses), vases, canvasses, candles and candle holders and tinware, using acrylics to create her colorful decorative art on metal, glass, ceramics, cloth, wood, terra cotta pots, even kitchen cabinets.

During this last visit when “Toni” brought me a set of beautiful note cards as a gift, she talked with me about the origins of her decorative art, tracing her artistic inspiration back to her paternal grandmother, “Gacky” Thomas. “She really loved beautiful things – jewelry, furs, silver, and china, just to name a few,” Toni told me. “My sense of color can be linked to her, as she encouraged me to use color. She loved for me to wear red. We had a special bond because I was her first grandchild, so her deep appreciation for beauty transferred to me.” Because Toni dresses in colorful, flamboyant clothing, wears lots of bracelets, necklaces and rings, her mother, Mary Thomas, gave her Gacky’s large garnet ring which Toni wears as an everyday accessory, rather than for dress-up as less artsy people would do.

Toni was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, attended Gettysburg schools, then migrated to Florida where she graduated from Webber International University in Babson Park, Florida. She worked as an administrative assistant to executives of Florida Power Corporation (now Progress Energy) for 35 years in Longwood, Sebring, and Lake Wales, Florida, retiring in 2002.

I remember when Toni first began to express her interest in decorative art as I was visiting her mother, Mary Thomas, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the same time Toni had flown up from Florida to vacation. Toni was experimenting with her paints and a watering can on a card table set up in her mother’s living room, and although she considered her initial efforts “modest,” I was impressed with her first paintings. Through the years, I have followed her progress with pride and encouraged her to “swing out” with her work.

Toni studied art with Dawn Kelly, a certified instructor of Donna Dewberry’s One-Stroke technique. This is a method that originated in an unusual genre called “one-stroke painting” as demonstrated on PBS-TV by Donna Dewberry of Orlando, Florida. Using this technique, the artist blends, shades, and highlights the painting with one stroke of the brush. Toni uses this technique to render her Florida Florals. She has gradually expanded her repertoire to include almost any blank surface. I sat beside her at a birthday luncheon in Lake Wales, Florida recently, and she began to eye the white linen tablecloth, laughing as she announced that she’d like to decorate this surface. She has also become interested in a technique similar to watercolor which utilizes acrylics for her larger canvas paintings. “I really appreciate a number of techniques as I can get more definition with other types of painting,” she says. Her florals are exquisitely rendered in vivid colors, some of them expressing the flamboyant red her Grandmother Gacky once urged her to use for dress-up occasions.

Toni exhibits her work primarily in Polk County, Florida, New Iberia, Louisiana, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and continues to decorate her own home in Babson Park with vibrant colors and unusual design. She has a small studio off the kitchen in her home where she stores glassware, tinware, vases, and other objects she has garnered from special discount sales -- those “blank” surfaces that entice her to render her one-stroke paintings. Toni has one son, Chad Blackwell, who is a mortgage broker in Orlando, Florida. If you’re interested in Florida Florals, contact Toni at

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


During the course of a 14-hour car trip from central Florida to Louisiana, I had an opportunity to read apace! Among the reading material was an unpublished manuscript about the wisdom of women written by my friend from Sewanee, author Isabel Anders. I read aloud this wonderful and absorbing manuscript and returned to Louisiana to take up a second reading of Isabel’s FACES OF FRIENDSHIP, a first-person account about the spirituality of friendship published by WIPF and STOCK Publishers. As I read the book again, I thought, also, about C. S. Lewis’s famous treatise, THE FOUR LOVES and his ideas about friendship in which he says that lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other, while friends, side by side, are absorbed in some common interest and often answer this question: “Do you see the same truth?”

In FACES OF FRIENDSHIP, a vivid example of friends engaged in the art of writing is included in a chapter entitled “Mentors As Friends.” It is a tribute to the famous author, Madeleine L’Engle, who became Isabel Anders’ personal friend and remained a faithful one, nurturing and mentoring Isabel for many years. Isabel met Madeleine L’Engle during the time she worked as an editor in a publishing house in Chicago. She and a fellow editor went to lunch with Madeleine to discuss the famous author’s poetry and religious writings. At that particular luncheon, Madeleine L’Engle’s dignity and faith impressed Isabel as much as the author’s writings. Madeleine kept her luncheon engagement with the two editors in spite of the fact that she had received the news her grandchild had been hit by a truck the day before and hospitalized. To add to the problem, Madeleine, in Chicago, could not reach the New York hospital because a blackout in New York had left phone lines dead. “Yet, Madeleine L’Engle, full of prayer and watchfulness, kept our lunch engagement, kept going, giving, thinking, feeling – ever mindful of the presence of the unknown outcome hanging over herself, her family, and this loved one. To us, as new friends and potential colleagues, it revealed the dignity and authenticity of her faith in a most trying situation,” Isabel writes in FACES OF FRIENDSHIP. (And by the way, the child survived the accident and eventually recovered fully.)

Isabel began a correspondence and an acquaintance with Madeleine L’Engle that blossomed into a friendship. She later attended some of Madeleine’s classes at Munderlein College where she was studying for a Master’s in Religious Studies. When Isabel wrote her classic about the season of Advent, AWAITING THE CHILD, Madeleine L’Engle wrote an inspiring introduction praising Isabel’s abilities as a spiritual writer. Madeleine and Isabel cultivated a friendship that lasted until Madeleine’s death, and to me, the example of the friendship between the two authors that Isabel records in FACES OF FRIENDSHIP aptly answers Lewis’s question “Do you see the same truth?” I particularly liked Isabel’s idea… “I would like to think that the love of beauty, of truth, of the good, of the incarnational vehicle of language is itself a milieu that often draws us to those we most need to meet and know and learn from. Love is the connection between friends, between teacher and learner, mentor and pupil…”

This blog isn’t a formal and comprehensive review of Isabel’s FACES OF FRIENDSHIP but perhaps the mention will titillate readers to pursue further some of my friend’s work about those faces of friendship we encounter and recognize as persons who “belong together” –just as Isabel encountered and recognized this mutual belonging between herself and her mentor, Madeleine L’Engle.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


A few days ago when we passed a sign advertising the exit to Micanopy, FL, enroute to the central Florida lake region, I thought about the three times I had attempted to visit the Marjorie Kennan Rawlings State Park site near Gainesville. Each time we stopped at the site, the home was either closed or we were too late for a tour. It seems I’m doomed to stand in authors’ yards as I’ve encountered the same problem at the site of Rowan Oaks, Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, and Dixieland in Asheville, North Carolina, the boarding house run by Thomas Wolfe’s mother and a place where Wolfe’s writing germinated.

On my visits to Cross Creek, I was able to view the live oak hammocks surrounding the Rawlings’ home and to peer through the screen on the long porch where Rawlings often sat, typing on a small black manual typewriter – writing THE YEARLING or CROSS CREEK, perhaps. The site is located between Orange Lake and Lochloosa Lake where Rawlings migrated after she served a stint as a journalist for several journals, the last being in Rochester, NY where she wrote a column entitled “Songs of the Housewife” (which she didn’t seem to be!!).

As I sit her on the long porch of the Sullivan home facing Silver Lake, I look out at a great blue heron feeding in the torpedo grass and think about Rawlings sitting on her “Florida house” porch recording her experiences with her “Cracker” neighbors at Cross Creek and her observations about the flora and fauna of this region. With the support of Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, she immortalized the area in the story, THE YEARLING, a poignant narrative about a young Florida boy’s adoption of a pet deer that he eventually had to shoot. This book, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, catapulted her to fame.

During one of my stops at a gift shop near the Rawlings’ site, I found a book written by Idella, her African-American maid, entitled IDELLA; MARJORIE RAWLINGS’ PERFECT MAID, which chronicled the relationship of the two in a candid story that didn’t omit Rawling’s fondness for alcohol or accounts of her trigger temper. Although Rawlings’ books are “regional” in my mind, she abhorred that label because she didn’t want her writing to be known as quaint, regional literature. A photograph of her taken by Carl Van Vecten in 1953 reveals a certain toughness that is reflected in the major characters of her novels, short stories, and autobiography.

When I observe the beautiful groves owned by the Sullivan tribe, I remember reading about Marjorie Rawlings’ attempt to build a citrus industry at Cross Creek and how she managed to cultivate a small grove, only to have it destroyed by a freeze (a disaster I’ve seen happen to some of the Sullivan groves). However, Marjorie Kennan Rawlings’ grove wasn’t strategically placed in a warm area of Florida like the groves in Frostproof (hence, the latter’s name) and was destined to fail. I’m sorry she failed to become a citrus magnate, but I’m glad she found her place as an important American writer.

Rawlings’ independence and “toughness” are reminiscent of the “Cracker” spirit of the folk in the Frostproof area. Pioneers who came here during the 1880’s found the same jungle of oaks, palmetto, and thick undergrowth as the vegetation that surrounded Rawlings’ home at Cross Creek. The sandhills near Silver Lake here in Frostproof proved to be ideal for citrus, peaches, figs, and grapes. When I first began visiting this property on Silver Lake, Sullivan orange groves dominated the landscape across the highway. However, members of the Sullivan corporation recently sold this land that was once part of a citrus industry first in production and shipment of citrus fruit in the State of Florida. A huge industrial complex now stands on that property. As e. e. cummings, the poet, says: “Progress is a comfortable disease…”

Monday, November 3, 2008


Recently I traveled to Thibodaux, Louisiana to talk to teen-agers about MARTIN’S QUEST, my book of fiction set in Teche country about a boy traiteur (healer). In Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, young people’s response to this book and to the lectures about traiteurs is always heartwarming, and I always come away feeling I’ve shared something valuable and interesting with them.

The Lafourche Public Library is located on the top floor of a building that also houses the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Center, one of a network of Acadian Cultural Centers that tells the stories of the Acadians, through artifacts and exhibits. These stories about French Canadians who arrived in Acadiana from Nova Scotia in the 18th century provide good fodder for Louisiana writers. The Acadians were exiled from Nova Scotia by the British in a mass exodus known as the Grand Derangement, and some of them settled in south Louisiana where they began to thrive as fishermen, trappers, cattlemen, and rice growers.

At the desk in the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, I talked with a ranger about placing MARTIN’S QUEST, THE KAJUN KWEEN, and FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE because the history contained in these books is intertwined with that of those Acadians settling in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. The board of this Center will review the books at year’s end, and I’m hoping they’ll be placed alongside the many wonderful books about Louisiana written by authors in the Pelican State.

The Jean Lafitte National Parks Service publishes a small official newspaper that showcases its park sites, and one of the latest articles about New Orleans in this publication intrigued me because it answered a question that has haunted me since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans – Why was New Orleans built below sea level?

In defense of those settlers who built on the site where New Orleans now stands, Danny Forbes, a Park Ranger, presents readers with the positive story first. New Orleans was built on its site because the Mississippi River brings goods downriver from the interior of the United States, and ships from throughout the world bring goods upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. In short, New Orleans is a grand city of commerce ideally situated on the Mississippi; it’s also the center of Dixieland jazz, outstanding Creole cuisine, and unique Spanish and French architecture.

Ranger Forbes relates that much of New Orleans is above sea level; e.g., the French Quarter, the Garden District (which includes one of the most beautiful boulevards in the world – St. Charles Avenue) and Uptown. These neighborhoods escaped Katrina because they sit on the natural levee built up by the mighty Mississippi. Every year, Spring floods bring new layers of sediment that elevate the natural levee. However, the bad news is that about a mile from the Mississippi River, travelers arrive at a place that is at sea level and where the natural levee becomes swampland. According to Ranger Forbes, New Orleans has drained those swamps, and in the 1900’s people began constructing new neighborhoods that actually lie below sea level. These neighborhoods were the ones flooded by Katrina. During the years, no new soil has been deposited as people have built levees to contain the river within its banks in order to protect their property from Mississippi River floods. During flood season, the natural levee has shrunk – and south Louisiana is sinking!

The answers to the above problems are being worked on by environmentalists, State government, engineers, and other scientists who are determined to build up Louisiana’s diminishing coastline, construct canals, and further develop conservation measures that remain a challenge to all of us web-footed creatures who love our wetlands State.