Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Yesterday, as we drove through the deep woods along the road leading to the Templeton Library here at Sewanee, we heard loud buzzing sounds coming from the trees.  Joel, my grandson, seven, had never heard the strange sounds, so we stopped the car and our resident botanist, Vickie, took him near an old oak by the side of the road to pick a cicada from a leaf so he could hold the noisemaker.  It was a specimen for a budding entomologist (Joel loves insects and reptiles), and he examined, firsthand, the short proboscis under the strange head with red bug eyes and beautiful transparent, veined wings. 
The insect was part of the 13-year resurrection of the southern cicada from Brood XIX here in middle Tennessee. Joel seemed to be more fascinated with the cicada than any amusement attraction he had seen at Dollywood and around Gatlinburg.  Vickie showed him the noisemaker called the “tymbal” on the abdominal base of the bug and explained how the male sings loudly to attract his mate.  Cicada means "buzzer" in Latin. They are fairly benign bugs and don’t bite unless they mistake your arm for a tree root and begin to feed, so Joel was brave enough to hold the insect before releasing him to join other cicadas in the surrounding trees. 

I remember making a field trip with three biologists one hot summer in North Carolina when the 17-year cicadas emerged.  Their resurrection area was deafening when they emerged from life underground as nymphs for seventeen years, living on root juice and in their final stages before emergence, constructing an exit tunnel.  After emerging they molt, shedding their skins on a plant close by and enter the world as adults.  In the North Carolina woods, the eerie noise sounded like music announcing the end of the world, a constant, monotonous sound hynoptic in effect and crazy-making if you tune in to their static too long.

In many countries, the cicada is featured in songs, novels, and folk tales, and is regarded as a symbol of reincarnation. I have always considered them as symbolic of the resurrection even though they only live for five or six weeks.  Cicadas are also deep fried and served up in north China as a delicacy and are utilized in Chinese medicine. 

However, here in middle Tennessee, cicadas are often regarded as pests and back in 1998, millions of them invaded sidewalks, highways, and households.  Folks say they covered cars, crunched underfoot, and drowned out the strains of music at outdoor weddings with their buzzing arias. 

Meanwhile, Joel searches for them every day.  Yesterday, he brought home a specimen whose abdomen had been devoured by ants and put it in a pocket of the Honda.  When we rescued the bug that evening, he was still alive.  We placed him on a pink zinnia in the flower bed where Joel watched him closely, knowing that he would die and declaring that he’d bury him in the bed when he took his last breath.  The insect was still struggling at dusk, but we plan to have a burial service today if the birds haven’t eaten him.

DYING SOUNDS (A poem about locust songs from my chapbook, Just Passing Through):

These locust afternoons of summer,
sound murmurs in monotonous cicada cadence,
muffling any hope of nascent song.
Is this the way death sounds,
a forever evenness of one continuous note
we insects will sing without question
in awful unawareness, beating our wings,
attempting to pierce a final darkness so dense,
to serenade a quite deaf ear?

P.S.  Some critter or bird carried our cicada away during the night.  The botanist went on an early morning foray and photographed a singing male.  She said this morning’s cicada song is ear-splitting.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Although I prefer to write about the sublime subject of a flower garden of lilac, pink, and yellow blooms we planted yesterday afternoon, this morning, I find that I can’t disappear the subject of “sniping” words from my mind.  Lately, I’ve stood at the edge of a battle going on within a social structure and had the dubious privilege of observing how mean-spirited people can be when things don’t go their way.  The result has been the expression and enactment of words that have prefixes of “sn;” e.g., “sniding” (making snide remarks), sneering, sniggering, sniping (a sly critical attack), snipping, snapping, snorting (expressing defiance by a noise in the nose), snarling, sneaking – the cruel qualities of “sn” words is overwhelming.

I think of Lewis Thomas’s essay in which he exhorted the use of interoffice messages within corporations, rather than meetings because in meetings people’s egos rise like balloons, and I can visualize this scene, readily seeing that no positive results can be achieved in a room filled with those hot air balloons.  When I worked as an executive director for Girl Scouting, after we had been trained in corporate management that involved democratic management where each executive was acknowledged and respected for her area of expertise, we often used interoffice memos to deter such hot air collisions.  The process worked well, provided we intentionally focused on mission and goals and didn’t become preoccupied with the use of “sn” words to demean other staff members’ ideas.

Anyway, from the hill of 76, I feel grateful for those years of shared corporate management with 13 diverse staff members, representing pluralism in action, who were focused on the mission of “inspiring girls with the highest ideals of character, conduct, patriotism, and service that they may become happy and resourceful citizens.”  Through the years, I’ve observed that the result of any toxic verbal battle fueled by hot air egos, in which the intent and meaning of “sn” words are carried out, is the game of “gotcha,” a game which usually culminates in unnecessary human pain that takes a long time to heal and chips away at the mission of any group. 

Regarding ego, I’m reminded of a story I once included in a sermon, in which a saint is dying and when asked if she had some wisdom to impart before dying, she spoke of humility, saying: “Make yourselves small…very small.”  On my spiritual journey, I’ve become more and more aware that we were wired for “cooperation, not competition,” and this idea is sourced by effective, caring leadership, the master leader being “The One Whom None Can Hinder” (Christ) as my great-grandmother once wrote. 

Reflection about the “sn” subject prompted the writing of the two poems below:

How like rats they are,
these canny creatures lurking in shadows,
knowing the exact location for a strike,
having reconnoitered the territory
under cover of darkness,
waiting to steal the crumbs
from a steward’s pantry,
boring holes in a tomato
ripened by a kindly sun,
tearing up sofa cushions,
destroying the soft cotton
with bared teeth, gleeful squeals,
happy with their affronts,
flipping their tails
and scattering waste pills behind.

The leaf lay on the stone table
as if someone had deposited it
dead center, for us to contemplate,
filigrees faintly tinted green
when held to the morning light,
laced veins showing a jagged hole,
victim of a beetle, a leaf borer?
The hole is shaped like the mark of teeth
or some jagged object,
reminding us of a quarrel
in which harsh ripostes passed,
of how the human psyche, so fragile,
like the leaf, is still flexible
and will find its place,
moving into its center,
becoming stiff with endurance again.
It will recover although the hole remains,
a small death that fluttered to our table, saying
scars remain, imperfections, now known…
but the lightest shade of green persists.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


A bouquet of tulips arrived on my doorstep yesterday, a Mother’s Day offering from my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, who lives in California. The beautiful lavender, orange, and yellow blooms sit in a clear vase atop a buffet in the dining room, evoking a lot of reflection and sentiment about motherhood. The flowers also remind me of the beautiful tulip blooms I wrote about in FARDA, a book of poetry chronicling my stay in Iran, published in 2009. The poem, entitled “Khuzestan Color,” contained couplets about all the flowers I had seen growing in Iran during 1973-75, pre-Islamic Revolution.

Allusions to tulips are scattered throughout THE ROSE GARDEN, my favorite book of Persian literature that I brought home from Iran. THE ROSE GARDEN or GULESTAN (pronounced like Golestan) contains elegant Persian prose filled with aphorisms of wisdom and is said to include every major issue faced by mankind, one critic pronouncing that each word has 72 meanings. The book was written by Sa’Di, a lover of tulips who penned the lines:

“The rain in the beneficence of whose nature there is no flaw
Will cause tulips to grow in a garden and weeds in a bad soil…”

Written in 1254, THE GULESTAN has held its place as a best seller among volumes of mideastern poetry throughout the world. As I said, Sa’Di immortalized the tulip as it was indigenous to both Persia and Turkey and inspired the great Persian poet and philosopher.

Among the tulips in my bouquet are several variegated specimens which look as though small dark leaves are embossed on the bloom and which result from breeding selections from a genetic mutation. The patterns are lovely and illuminate Sa’Di’s line about “bright multi-colored tulips” contained in THE GULESTAN. A bit of trivia reveals that in the movie, “The Whole Nine Yards,” a character who is a killer was nicknamed “The Tulip” because he sent tulips to his victims’ funerals!

Thank you, Elizabeth, for sending the bouquet that evoked good memories of my daughters and of a better time in Persia when flowers and gardens were revered and Persian poets wrote such lines as: “If we are unaffected by the afflictions of others/we are not worthy to be called human (Sa’Di).”

The poem I wrote entitled, “Khuzestan Color,” includes a line about the tulips of southern Iran:


Touching down on flat Iranian plain,
the aircraft enters another West Texas,

a stark landscape of stone and sand,
and the tune“Where did all the flowers go?”

replays in my mind…

But it is a fleeting thing,
this question about landscape,

as some weeks later, I have seen
Lale’, the wild tulip

growing spiritedly at Masjid-I-Suleiman,
blooms of beauty taken to Europe

during the Crusades,
and wild garlic with its red and green flowers

clustering in flower stalls, not vegetable bazaars.

Goats have stripped the stark plateau,
leaving only globe and artichoke thistle,

a few anemones and yellow daisies,
but they have bypassed the caper plant,

spicy night bloomer,
its large white flowers wilting in sunlight,

at night its pickled buds
enhancing salads at dinner parties.

Plants within our reach,
wild marigolds at Andimeshk near Choga Mish

and further into the Zagros Mountains
at Hamadan, Iran’s red poppy,

closer home, cultivated gardens
of Persian cyclamen

showing off its heart-shaped base.

In my own garden,
the yellow rose of Texas struggles,

is the household joke
that I was lured to Iran by a spouse

who sang at my arrival,
“I didn’t promise you a rose garden,”

then grew a neat row of yellow and pink blooms.

We do not neglect the almond and pistachio,
Or the tall Lombard poplars favoring Isfahan,

nor do we forget the poisonous oleander,
nemesis of Ahwaz gardeners

that gave me a case of hayfever
endemic to more tropical climes,

reminding me of home, Teche country...
the lushness enclosing.

Friday, May 6, 2011


When I moved to Sewanee, Tennessee to take up dual residency, living part of the year in New Iberia, Louisiana and part of the year on The Mountain at Sewanee, I felt rather schizophrenic during my first year of living this way, jitneying back and forth between the two “cultures.”  This year, just as I’d adjusted to this lifestyle, a few financial reverses caused me to look at the “extravagant “ lifestyle, and the other day I was forced to consider the reality of keeping both homes open for my pleasure -- each piece of real estate stayed vacant for part of the year, generating no income, as I struggled to keep up on a fixed income.

Yesterday, I bit the bullet and decided that I’d give up access to my home in New Iberia, would rent it out and begin breaking up my household there, overloading the cottage here with furniture from the New Iberia home.  I had to accept that if I rented out the property, I’d become a tourist to New Iberia, visiting there only a few times a year to celebrate holidays with my children and grandchildren.
At 76, the idea of moving for approximately the 15th time in my lifetime caused me to mope about for a few days, resisting the change but knowing that I was at least free to make this choice and could move past self-induced limitations.  I picked up a copy of “Science of Mind,” a magazine I read monthly, and came across a meditation on spiritual liberation that featured a fable about a bird.  This creature slept in a withered tree every evening, and one night a blustery wind blew down the tree.  The fearful bird was forced to fly miles and miles to search out a new residence.  After traveling a long time, the bird reached a wood in which fruit trees flourished.  If the bird’s tree had fallen, the bird wouldn’t have been forced to give up its security and seek a new home.  The article stated: “We change when the pain of remaining who [where] we are is greater than the fear of changing…”

Three years ago I wrote a young adult book about the Spanish settling New Iberia entitled FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, and in the introduction I included a prose poem regarding my feeling for this lovely city on the Bayou Teche: “It is a fecund city on the banks of the Bayou Teche.  The air, fungi-laden and humid, presses down on us all the time.  Jays squawk incessantly in the magnificent oaks, the stand of trees like somber umbrellas overshadowing day-to-day commerce.  On the Teche’s banks are dagger-shaped plants; in the fields, the drooping cane grows thickly.  The place seems somnolent and enclosing.  I fell in love with the trees, the air, and the vigor of many cultures living alongside one another.  I was inspired by the lordly oak and complaining jay, meandering bayou, and pale green light of Spring.  I can never leave this place for long.  It has a voice, a liquid voice, husky because of the mist above the brown water and the decay, dark banks loamy with decay.  The people came down, in exile, and made their music, sharp in the heavy air, laughing confidently, laughing away the somber history of their exile and rejoicing on the banks of muddy water, birthing many infants, the making of children rich and life-giving.  They plowed the loamy soil, poled in the backwaters of the swamps looking for food, always the wild animals lurking, the mosquitoes, and the stifling curtain of heat, behind which they sang and told stories.  Its voice is a very old voice and its history is one of struggle…”

As I said in the introduction to FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE, I have received many happy years and inspiration to write, living in the wonderful culture of Teche country and can’t imagine I won’t succumb to the old legend that whoever tastes bayou water must return to sample its waters and “appreciate the mysterious call to live in this compelling culture nurtured by the slow-moving waters of the Bayou Teche…”  And I might add, to engage in Teche country’s joie de vivre.
Note:  Painting by my brother Paul, drawn and painted from his memories of living in Louisiana.