Tuesday, September 27, 2011


While I sojourned in northeast Georgia last week-end, I spent an evening reading A Listening Life by Tracy Balzer, one of the latest books published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. This practical guide to deepening the spiritual life reminds me of Evelyn Underhill’s books about becoming an everyday mystic by practicing “the art of union with Reality.” Through accounts about personal experiences and forays into monasteries, discoveries in art, nature, and poetry, periods of listening and meditating, Tracy Balzer presents a convincing case for those in contemporary society who want to find God and a more peaceful life. She advocates that spiritual seekers should develop an attentiveness to sacred and wonder-filled experiences and should pursue the practice of listening as a holy calling.
“Wonder-filled experiences alert us to transcendence, reminding us that God works co-creatively within us,” Balzer tells us in a chapter entitled “Wonder,” in which she explains the terms “general revelations” as anything in the created universe that reveals God’s truth to us,” and “special revelations” as “revelations that refer to Holy Scripture.” She explores general revelations with examples of natural wonders such as humpback whales singing to each other, the sight of goldfinches, visits to the Cascade Mountains, citing Psalm 8 as an articulation of the notion of wonder: “When I consider your heavens,/ the work of your fingers,/the moon and the stars,/which you have set in place,/what is man that you are mindful of him,/the son of man that you care for him?”

In a chapter on “Illumination,” Balzer gives an example regarding this concept of revealing a grand mystery in an unusual anecdote about her daughter, Kelsey, who at eight had accompanied Balzer to visit her great-grandparents in an Oklahoma nursing home. Missing her daughter, Balzer finds Kelsey engaged with an elderly woman in a wheelchair, looking intently into the woman’s eyes. As Balzer watches, she experiences the impression that Kelsey’s face is actually glowing as she talks to the woman–“ it appeared that she was wearing the face of Jesus as she tenderly loved this woman, a stranger…this was a simple experience of illumination, an illustration of the ways God reaches us through otherwise ordinary events…” Balzer also uses the example of lectio divina as a way of receiving illumination, citing Jan Johnson's use of the word “shimmer” when talking about the way Scripture catches our attention and opens our eyes and ears to Bible passages.

I particularly liked the chapter on “Possessions,” since I have been reading two biographies lately that feature outstanding figures in American history who have disregarded the ideas of “ownership” in favor of following their vocations at all costs–one is the biography of the scientist George Washington Carver, the man who discovered the various uses of the peanut; the other is a biography about the poet Robert Francis who lived in near-poverty while pursuing his career as a poet. I was interested in the example Balzer employed to illustrate the idea that we should shed many of our possessions. She described a grassroots movement initiated by blogger Dave Bruno who diminished his personal possessions to one hundred items and formed something called “The 100 Thing Challenge,” a movement in which people limit their material possessions so they can free up physical, mental, and spiritual space and are empowered to live more joyful and thoughtful lives.

The chapter on “Humility” and Balzer’s experience as a scholar-in-residence at St. Benedict’s monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota arrested my attention as I worship at a convent where the Sisters follow the Benedictine Rule. During Balzer’s time at St. Benedict’s monastery she experienced the love and inclusiveness of Benedictine hospitality when the Sisters welcomed her and others “as Christ” and learned about the kind of humility essential to a “listening life.” Balzer quotes Thomas Kelly to illustrate the concept of humility as “the disclosure of the consummate wonder of God.”

In A Listening Life, Balzer achieves a spiritual message which Evelyn Underhill advocates in her famous Practical Mysticism: “the change of attention, which enables you to perceive a truer universe; the deliberate rearrangement of your ideas, energies, and desires in harmony with that which you have seen–that a progressive uniformity of life and experience is secured to you, and you are defended against the dangers of an indolent and useless mysticality…”

Tracy Balzer’s special charism is her teaching about spiritual formation: that we must become listeners–by paying attention, looking for spiritual illuminations, developing persistence and an authentic sacramental life, dispossessing ourselves of too many worldly goods, and developing compassion and humility–so that with “open hearts, minds, eyes, and ears, we can continue to seek the Truth, knowing it will be given to us. And it will set us free.”

You can order A Listening Life by Tracy Balzer online from pinyonpublishing.com.

Monday, September 26, 2011


With the advent of leaves turning gold and orange and the first hints of fall temperatures this past week-end, I felt a pull toward apple country where growers harvest the fall apples grown in the hills and valleys near Ellijay, Georgia. This town is known as the Apple Capitol, a place where apples actually “birthed” the agri-tourism business in northeast Georgia. When we started our Saturday tour of the orchards, the roads became congested with tourists seeking their share of 600,000 bushels of apples harvested near Ellijay.

Although October 8-9 and October 15-16 are the official dates for the Georgia Apple Festival at the Ellijay Lions Club Fairgrounds, the orchards bustled with apple tasters and pickers this past week-end. September harvests bring in September Wonders, Red and Golden Delicious apples, Rome Beauties and Mutsus, a few of twenty-five varieties that have already been picked and bagged. We sampled apples at R&A Orchards owned by Andy and Jennifer Futch and their four children, a family that carries on the apple-growing tradition begun by Leonard and Della Payne who planted their first trees in Gilmer County. This orchard has sixty acres of apple trees and approximately ten acres of peaches and nectarines, which will be harvested in June.

As my oldest daughter, Stephanie, lately follows a strict diet but can have an apple a day, I asked the orchard store clerk to ship twenty Gala apples to Stephanie's home in New Iberia, Louisiana. The young woman who prepared the shipping label asked me if I wanted to put a message on the package, and I told her to just say that I was sending something to encourage Stephanie's healthy loss of twenty more pounds and to sign it ‘Mama.’” I turned to leave, then added, “Put ‘Love, Mama’ on the card.” The young woman smiled at me . “I was going to write that anyway,” she said. “You must like your mother,” I replied. “Oh, I love my mother,” she said. “There are three of us children, and none of us live farther than five miles away from her.” Her sentiments made me lonesome for my own daughters, Stephanie and Elizabeth, who live in Louisiana and California, respectively.The young woman’s comments about her family depict the typical attitude of tightly-knit families who live in apple country, and their friendliness adds to the area’s charm.

The town of Ellijay derives its name from an Indian word meaning “earth green there,” a name befitting the forests in the Springer Mountain area of the Appalachian Trail. Cherokee Indians lived in the Ellijay area until they were removed in 1838 and sent to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. The town boasts Oscar Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame which displays 3,000 blue, white, and yellow plywood pigs on a hillside near Poole’s Bar-BQ restaurant.

The sight of the apple in all its forms – the apple itself, apple jelly, apple pie, apple butter, and apple cider -- brought up the memory of an apple poem written by poet Robert Francis whom I heard read in Amherst, Massachusetts back in the 80’s. Francis entitled the poem “Remind Me of Apples,” the last stanza of which reads:

“In the long haze of dog days, or by night,
When thunder growls and prowls but will not go
Or come, I lose the memory of apples.
Name me the names, the goldens, russets, sweets,
Pippin and blue pearmain and seek no further
And the lost apples on forgotten farms
And the wild pasture apples of no name…” Robert Francis

This memory caused another poem to surface – a poem I wrote after I heard Francis read about his apples.  It appeared in my chapbook, Afternoons in Oaxaca, and is entitled “Robert Francis Reads On His 85th (Jones Library, Amherst, Massachusetts, August 12, 1986).” The following are the last two verses of this poem:

“Robert Francis placed a finger
with far-reaching nail
against his downy chin,
a forgotten pasture of stubble,
and waited to shake the apple tree,
to cause the sudden fall of fruit.
People stood up to give him ovation,
the air rained apples,
enchanted poems,
Robert Frost came out of the night
and peeled a deep russet one.

That evening of celebration,
Francis reminded me
apples made poems,
light filtering through tree limbs,
a harmony of red fruit
rendered just ripe,
are some men’s gifts.
He reminded me
when doubting the mind’s retreat
into its own falsity,
poets are more ancient
than scars on a library stair rail,
flesh made word, word made flesh,
not metaphor and mood,
but vowels,
crisp as fine apples dropped,
broadcast to heal
disturbances of spirit.”

Monday, September 19, 2011


A few months ago, the photograph of a reproduction of a Louisiana Creole table crafted by my son-in-law, Brad Romero, appeared in an article about an old home featured in Country Living, a national magazine. I know about the table’s beauty firsthand because I also have a reproduction of this table in my living room here at Sewanee. I was dismayed to see, however, that Brad’s name appeared nowhere in the article as the artisan who had built this handsome table. I’m publishing a photograph of the table and its creator, along with this puff about Brad’s artistic abilities.

I published a blog about Brad several years ago, and this is a second acknowledgement about my handsome son-in-law of Spanish/Italian descent who owns a furniture restoration business in New Iberia, Louisiana. In addition to the complete restoration of broken furniture, Brad has been turning out reproductions, carefully crafted and refined, that now stand in the rooms of several old plantation homes in Louisiana and more humble cottages like my own. His work fashioning furniture of cypress, pine, oak, walnut, cherry, and Philippine mahogany is a labor of love. Show him a piece of wood and he’s enthralled – long boards of scavenged wood are stacked from floor to ceiling in his shop, aptly named Restorit.

My daughter, Stephanie, gave Brad a wonderful book last Christmas entitled Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835, which is a study of early eighteenth-mid-nineteenth century Louisiana furniture, during a time when mass production wasn’t on the horizon, and furniture making involved artisans of French, Anglo-American, Caribbean, Canadian and African descent who hand-crafted their work. Brad particularly admires and reproduces furniture of Creole and Acadian design, and while we celebrated Christmas, he scrutinized the photographs of armoires, tables, and beds in Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, noting dimensions and other facets of the furniture. He has extraordinary visual perception and can look at a photograph of a piece of furniture, then reproduce it faithfully, finishing the furniture so that it appears as a finer piece than the photograph.

Regarding the Acadian furniture that Brad also loves, the early Acadians furnished their homes minimally with a few beds, storage chests, one table, two or three chairs and constructed it of a wood that he particularly likes to use – cherry wood. Later, the Acadians used cypress, which was a more available and softer wood, in their furniture making, and only the very wealthy Acadians had cherry wood, according to Carl Brasseaux, noted Louisiana historian. Some of these finer pieces of Louisiana Creole furniture are found in old plantation homes and in museums in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Brad also builds armoires, including miniature armoires after the style of construction in the early nineteenth century. He researches books and magazines and visits old plantation homes to view these pieces before designing them. In Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, an interesting note on armoires and their durability reveals that a cypress armoire actually survived the 1927 Mississippi River flood which inundated many homes in south Louisiana. Brad achieves the same kind of sturdiness in his armoires.

Other products of Brad’s work include the beautiful wood jewelry boxes he constructs and frequently donates to auctions at Solomon House and other charitable and business organizations around New Iberia. The boxes, constructed of mahogany, cherry, whatever wood attracts Brad at the time, have auctioned for $500-$700. Many of them have become part of a private collection owned by an Avery Island resident.

I often tell the story about how Brad can spot authentic antiques in stalls of flea markets or furniture stores that advertise antiques. When he accompanied me on a foray for antique pieces to furnish our Sewanee cottage, I pointed out an old china closet in a Cowan furniture store, and he said firmly, “just leave that right where it is.” Most of the time his discerning eyes see more “leavings” than “findings,” and we discover very few pieces that satisfy his refined taste. He’s definitely a purist when we're antique hunting.

In his spare time (?), Brad restores old guitar and violin cases, patches up broken furniture that takes on an expensive appearance once his expert hands have restored it, and has a waiting list of work to be done which projects through a year at a time. He’s the sole proprietor, craftsman, and advertisement for Restorit, and I look forward to seeing what kind of Louisiana piece he has built when I return to New Iberia next month.

If you want a glimpse of the work of an artist and craftsman who restores fine furniture and creates reproductions of unique furniture representing Louisiana traditions, Brad’s shop is located on St. Peter Street in New Iberia, Louisiana. His work, c’est magnifique!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Yesterday, while going through statistics on sales of books I’ve written and published on Kindle, I discovered that readers are scattered throughout the U.S. and Europe. I appreciate this wide readership through an electronic reading device that has accelerated sales of the work I do. This blog is a thank you note to readers who use Kindle and a notification that another book I’ve written, Silence Never Betrays, has been published on Kindle.

Briefly, Silence Never Betrays is about Hadrian Boswell, eccentric owner of The Oaks, an antebellum mansion in a small town in southwest Louisiana. Hadrian has a terrible fear of the dark and is an insomniac. He spends many nights frightening guests who visit the mansion, putting on weird costumes to scare them. Hadrian’s servant and companion, King, alternately despises and admires his employer. Because of Hadrian’s shenanigans, most townspeople shun him, as do famous artists and writers after they spend a few nights at The Oaks.

Waverly Bradford has been in love with Hadrian, despite their aborted marriage, thirty years earlier, since they attended art school together in New Orleans. Waverly, living on nearby Deer Island, visits Hadrian when he returns to Comeaux to renovate his mansion. However, the visit is short-lived. Hadrian stages a prank that causes her to flee from the mansion. Waverly vows to get revenge.

Meanwhile, Joseph Hollier seeks out Hadrian for art instruction, and they embark on a wild painting excursion to Last Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. During a night boat ride, Hadrian damages his right hand trying to escape “cachemars.”

Joseph moves in with Hadrian, and King plots to get rid of Joseph; however, Joseph plots to get rid of Hadrian…and, perhaps, King. Houngans enter the scene, and Hadrian mysteriously falls from a second-story gallery of The Oaks. He dies in the local hospital, a despised and lonely man. Or is he really dead?

Other books I’ve written that appear on Kindle include: Chant of Death (co-authored with Isabel Anders, published by Pinyon Publishing), The Maine Event, Nothing for Free, Goat Man Murder, Flood on the Rio Teche (YA), and Martin Finds His Totem (YA) published by Border Press.

I look forward to the time when I can share thirteen books of my poetry on Kindle, many of which are already listed on Amazon.com.

Again, bountiful thanks to readers who continue to show interest in my work.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


At least five years ago, in the middle of the night, my youngest brother, Michael, left a state facility in Louisiana where he worked as “kitchen help” and disappeared into an area near Lake Ponchartrain. When authorities called me to say that they suspected he had been murdered and thrown into Lake Ponchartrain, I told them to check the dates of his last bank withdrawals as he had often talked of going out West. Michael suffered from addiction to alcohol and bi-polar disease. He had been given usufructuary rights to the family home in Franklinton, Louisiana where he had lived on a disability income for at least twenty years, minus stays in hospitals and treatment centers that occurred several times a year. He had been counseled, assisted by family, friends, and the Roman Catholic Church in Franklinton, Louisiana. By the time he entered the last state facility, he had allowed his home to deteriorate, even after I had repainted and refurbished it countless times. He had begun cooking on a charcoal barbecue pit inside the house, had turned off the water supply, scorned help from family and friends, and was finally found wandering on the highway in a delusional state and sent to the state facility.

From the time Mike left the state facility and became a “street person” in San Diego, California until his death in Chicago in 2009 (news of which reached me last month), he remained alcoholic, unmedicated (at his behest) and had become a part of the sixty-six percent of those homeless people in the U.S. who are substance users and/or have mental health problems. He died in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago of pulmonary problems, listed on his death certificate as “natural causes,” and some nameless person or hospital buried him in an Illinois cemetery.

Michael had been a victim of his own desire for isolation, living a marginal life in a world I cannot even envision, turning his back on his sister, his close friends in Franklinton, and his cousins who lived in the same town with him, frequently fed him, gave him money, and helped place him in hospitals. He had an income of $900 monthly, a Medicaid card, a home, a car which a friend and I gave him, clothes that I bought for him, and frequent visitors from the Roman Catholic church that stood on the lot behind his home. He had access to Social Service workers who visited him when he agreed to be on medication that he never took very long.

As the youngest in a family of five, Michael enjoyed more attention from my parents than any of us, had the same educational opportunities, and at the time he joined the Coast Guard, was a high-strung but sane person, serving in Hawaii most of his tour of duty in the service. He married in Brooklyn, New York and held an electrician job, working on lighthouses, in a civilian capacity with the Coast Guard for a few years before his wife sent him home to my parents, along with a note saying that she couldn’t take care of him. He had developed Crohn’s disease in his late twenties and had undergone an ileostomy that made it necessary for him to wear a bag the rest of his life. He never held a job again. From the time of his surgery until he died, he manifested symptoms of bi-polar disease. When my father died in 1985, I began visiting Mike and an older brother several times a month to make sure they were functional. Unbeknownst to me, Mike had stopped taking his medication.

I never knew when I would receive a call or a letter telling me that I should go to Franklinton and oversee Mike’s hospitalization again. Members of his church and community often called and asked me what I was going to do about this brother who refused to submit to medication, who wanted to live in his own home, and who was an embarrassment and problem to the entire town. One devoted church member, who appeared to be a father figure to Michael, counseled with him, gave him money, invited him to all family gatherings and, finally, when Michael refused medication and lived on alcohol, this friend made the hard decision that he could no longer help Michael. Priests and deacons, including me, talked and pleaded with him and tried to help him live a civilized life. He was incorporated into church services as a lay reader and a member of the Knights of Columbus, but alcoholism and bi-polar disease claimed him, and his willfulness can only be attributed to those two diseases.

The last time I heard from Michael in December, 2008, he had entered a hospital in Chicago and wanted to return to the uninhabitable home in Franklinton that was in such bad condition it had to be “pushed up” by town authorities. Michael stayed in Chicago and died there six months later. A few weeks ago, I learned that he had died when a credit union called me to say that an old account he had never touched contained a few hundred dollars to which he had named me as beneficiary. Social Security had informed them of Mike’s death, and they immediately called me.

This is a sad story that I’m sure is only one case in the annals of street people who suffer from drug addiction and mental disease. Throughout the years, many people, including me, prayed for the transformation of Michael, and I have no idea how this problem of mental illness can be answered. I do know that when Mike was in a hospital, even for short periods, he improved – he was warm, fed, medicated, and could function in a limited way. I also know that laws governing mental illness require only a few short weeks of commitment before the patient is returned to “society,” where he again becomes an anti-social being. Today, the real keepers of those who suffer in this way are law enforcement officers and social workers who have only limited time with them. When legislation emptied the institutions and facilities of people who had problems similar to Mike, victims of those dual diseases became people of the streets who now live intermittently in shelters provided in large cities, or on the street where Mike was often found in a stupor or exhibiting delusional behavior.

The two poems I wrote about Mike recently do nothing to relieve the sadness I feel about his wasted life, and I will probably be haunted with the question, “What could I have done?” for the rest of my life.

Green scrolled borders, silver seals,
the handsome death certificate,
arrived today,
a neat and tasteful document,
true and correct copy
pronouncing the sentence:
end of your madness.
You, whose mind was an empty room
on a deserted street,
and no one at the door,
you are now certified and authentic.

I hope someone greeted you on the other side,’
the document declared a civilized burial
somewhere in Illinois,
without relatives,
just an orphan boy in a wintry forest
lying under the moon,
saying nothing more or less
than the lines typed
on a silver-sealed certificate.

Wild Man, Brother Lost,
who walked away from condemnation,
now a ghost on the dark stairs,
I hope you have walked into first light
where angels welcomed you
as a reawakened Michael the Archangel,
once vexed in body and mind,
by death, now ennobled in soul.

The illustration is a painting by my brother Paul, who lives in northern California. I used it for the cover of my poetry chapbook Counterpoint.