Tuesday, November 29, 2011


St. Mary's chapel, Sewanee, TN
Following Thanksgiving, several friends of ours who attend the chapel at St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, where we worship when we’re in Tennessee, wrote to us about their part in an interactive Thanksgiving service at the convent. Although the liturgy at the convent usually follows the conventional Anglican way, every once in awhile, the Sisters jolt us out of our “sacred cowness” with an alternative method of involvement; i.e., the interactive sermon.

Friends at Sewanee reported that the Sisters led off with expressions of thanksgiving for various blessings in their lives, then asked others in the congregation to stand and declare their thanksgivings. I understand that this was a cleansing, as well as a praise time for congregants. Although we “frozen chosen” aren’t a testimonial type group, sometimes we’re melted down by the Sisters’ departure from “ritual as usual.” Actually, the interactive sermon is not a new thing and harks back to passages in the first book of Corinthians when people stood up and shared a part of the worship service, as well as expressed transformative spiritual revelations they had experienced.

I remember attending an interactive sermon church in Washington, D.C. a few years ago. The experience sorta’ scared me because people came up to an open mike and critiqued the sermon, which I don’t think is the real purpose of interactive sermons – the purpose is to lead congregants to this sacred place where they meet God. When I preach at Grace Fellowship Church at Sewanee, a very small interdenominational church in the woods near St. Mary’s Convent, discussion always follows my homily, which is a form of interactive preaching and is nearer to educative preaching than inspirational preaching. However, the expressions of this small group are always heartfelt and affirming of whatever message I deliver.

I was touched by the report of the thanksgivings that were said at the St. Mary Thanksgiving service, and the reports sent me scurrying to my shelf of books about blessings which are said not only on Thanksgiving but, in the Celtic tradition, are expressed all year long. The blessing is “a direct address, driven by immediacy and care,” John O’Donohue writes in To Bless the Space Between Us, a book that contains blessings which help us look at “blessing” as a way of life and as a means of transforming a broken world. O’Donohue refers to blessing as a “huge force field that opens when intention focuses and directs itself toward transformation.”

St. Mary's Convent chapel icons
The Namaste, a gesture of blessing when we pass “The Peace” at St. Mary’s, is such a strong influence we found ourselves responding with it to others at The Church of Epiphany here in New Iberia, Louisiana during the Peace this past Sunday. The Namaste, is performed by slightly bowing and pressing hands together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards in front of the chest. The Sisters of St. Mary usually perform it without speaking.

Namaste, commonly performed in India, is a respectful greeting and means “The spirit in me respects the spirit in you,” or “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you.” The gesture first appeared 4000 years ago on clay seals of the Indus Valley Civilization. It’s another non-traditional expression carried out by the Sisters which we’ve adopted and that may have startled those around us when we used it at the Peace during the New Iberia service. However, it’s one that has become involuntary after four years of our attending the convent church at Sewanee. The Namaste is a reverential salutation that could stand a bit of use in and out of church in our own country.

We hope that you expressed thanksgivings for all your providences this Thanksgiving and, as O’Donohue says, “May we all receive blessing upon blessing. And may we realize our power to bless, heal, and renew one another.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Now in Kindle format
Petite Marie Melancon of The Kajun Kween fame has been waiting in the wings for several years, and today she went into press again as a Young Adult book of fiction on Kindle. Thanksgiving seems to be a good holiday to recognize Petite for her heroic antics in deepest south Louisiana as the heroine of Kurrent Komics, a fictitious New York comic book publication.

Petite Marie Melancon appeared in print in 2003 as a publication of Border Press and decided this year to join the world of electronic publishing, having seen some of her sister YA books enjoying popularity on Kindle – Flood on the Rio Teche, Martin Finds His Totem, and other titles published by BP.

A thirteen-year old who is extremely tall for any age (6’2”), Petite is self-conscious about her height but decides to interview for a New York City publisher anyway. She beats out other jolie catins (baby dolls) in a race to provide true adventures about French Louisiana for the comic strip, “Kajun Kween.”

This adventuresome enfant terrible hasn’t bargained for encounters with a mother alligator protecting her egg nest, a giant snapping turtle, or for a visit from a loup garou during a late-night adventure poling alone in her pirogue in a swamp. During her adventures, a potbelly pig drops from a tornado into her pasture and becomes her companion. Romance enters her life when she competes in a hot pepper eating contest and a gumbo cook-off in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Henri becomes her prince consort as she enjoys the simple life on a Louisiana chenier. Petite fnally realizes that her height is not such a disadvantage and that acts of courage do not always mean heroics.

For those readers who prefer their books via Kindle, Petite wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving as you follow her unusual adventures in bayou country.

The winsome cover illustration is by Paul Schexnayder, New Iberia, Louisiana artist, whose drawings and paintings have been internationally recognized. We regret that the interior illustrations cannot be used in ebook format. Soft-cover editions of this YA book can be ordered from www.borderpressbooks.com.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Most people who know Dr.Victoria Sullivan (otherwise known as Vickie) recognize that she is a gifted person in many fields, and it’s not surprising to those of us who know her that yesterday she received an e-mail informing her the most recent edition of Systematic Botany names a new species of Eupatorium (the genus of plants that Vickie studied and wrote about for many years), Eupatorium sullivaniae, in honor of her research work. In the article entitled “Systematics of the Eupatorium album Complex (Asteraceae) from Eastern North America” by Edward E. Schilling, who is with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Schilling writes that “the name E. sullivaniae honors Dr. Victoria Sullivan, whose extensive work has led to significant advances in our understanding of Eupatorium.”

I’ve always teased Vickie about studying “a dirty white weed that can be collected only when the sun is beaming white hot on collectors’ backs and the soil is parched dry to make digging impossible,” because I’ve accompanied her on many field trips throughout the South during the summer when temps were at their hottest peak, but she has always diverted my attention to joe pye weed, a close relative of Eupatorium with lovely lavender hues, to try to incite more sentiment in me for her chosen plant of study. I remember accompanying Vickie and a Japanese botanist, Dr. T. Yahara, on a collecting trip during a rainstorm preceding Hurricane Elena, which followed us all the way to St. Augustine, Florida and then turned and followed us back to Lafayette, Louisiana. These two botanists’ idea of a good time included climbing fences posted “No trespassing,” backing up the van on the interstate highway at 60 mph to study a plant they spied as we sped past, and running through fields in sheets of rain that fell steadily for the three days they collected. Such are the activities of those who study the plant world, and I did my part by documenting the trip in an article that appeared in Skylight, a literary magazine published in Florida!

Vickie, who received her Ph.D. in Biology from Florida State University, has a formidable background in the teaching profession, having taught biology and botany at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for twenty years and biology, environmental studies, and physical science to students at both Teurlings Catholic High School and Episcopal School of Acadiana in Louisiana for a four year stint. She was also a naturalist with the U.S. National Park Service in the Everglades National Park, worked in Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami, Florida and has authored at least 25 papers about Eupatorium, thistles, and other plants. At one point during her career, she, along with several colleagues, obtained a grant from EPSCOR for over one and one-half million dollars to do work on molecular evolution. Vickie has worked with the Louisiana Nature Conservancy, the Ecology Branch of the U.S. Army, and as a botanist with the Trustees for Internal Improvement Trust Fund, State of Florida.

She has published flash fiction on the Internet, authored non-fiction articles in non-scientific periodicals and has written an outstanding article identifying the plant life in the murals of the famous Gulf Coast painter, Walter Anderson, which appeared in Interdisciplinary Humanities. In 2009, she translated her grandmother’s letters for a book she entitled Granny’s Letters: A Georgia Wiregrass Pioneer Woman’s Tragedy that has been enjoying a “run” on Kindle. This past year, Pinyon Publishing published Vickie’s speculative fiction book, Adoption, in which her heroine is featured as a superhuman, a character who was created by Vickie using her research on the genetics of polyploidy plants that have multiple sets of chromosomes. As owner, publisher, and editor of Border Press, an independent press she established several years ago, she also publishes quality fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Boards of profit and non-profit organizations seek Vickie out for her financial expertise, and she has served as Treasurer of Solomon House, an outreach mission, as CFO for her family company, Central Ridge in Frostproof, Florida, as treasurer of the Episcopal Church of Epiphany, New Iberia where she also did stints as Senior Warden and served on the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana. She served as president of the Epiphany Day School in New Iberia, Louisiana, as treasurer of Bayou Girl Scout Council and was a member of its five-year strategic planning committee, chairing the Fund Development committee of this same organization. Recently, members of the board of St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, Tennessee recognized Vickie’s wise oversight of financial matters and appointed her to the board of St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, Tennessee where she lives eight months of the year (and resides in New Iberia, Louisiana the other part). She’s an active Associate of the Order of St. Mary and several days of the week can be found at early morning Eucharist at St. Mary’s chapel on the bluff where she worships regularly.

In her leisure time, Vickie travels in all the states adjoining Tennessee where she sees a lot of Eupatorium but refrains from collecting as I am usually along for the ride. She has traveled in the Dominican, Europe, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, the Caribbean, and Jamaica. She enjoys a daily game of Scrabble, does extensive reading of philosophy, religion, and psychology, exercises daily, studies the latest tomes on Nutrition, and keeps up with research through readings in science magazines, of course. Back in the 80’s when the Rice Festival marathon was scheduled in Crowley, Louisiana, Vickie put on her running shoes and ran eighteen miles before running out of steam. She has medals from many 5K and 10K races in the Acadiana area. Vickie's a great proponent of natural food and has a heavy hand with exotic seasonings, having authored two microwave cookbooks featuring international recipes.

A true Renaissance woman, Vickie is deserving of honors in many fields as her interests are eclectic, and we look forward to reading her next book, soon to be published by Pinyon Publishing. Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, a nature enthusiast’s guide to aquatic plants, will feature the delightful paintings of Susan Elliott, a fellow botanist and artist on Pinyon’s staff.

Brava, Vickie! I know that the hybrid apomictic species named Eupatorium sullivaniae is glad to finally be named after a gifted woman of diverse talents who has entered her seventh decade with such energy and vision.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Today, we plan to lunch with our good friends, Henry and Kathy Hamman, a couple who owns one of The Mountain’s small presses called Plateau Books. Henry and Kathy, who’re world travelers, have formidable credentials in the editorial and publishing field, and my friend, Vickie Sullivan, who owns Border Press, often compares notes with them about the complicated job of marketing.

The Hammans lived in Iran and India – places that offer delicious Eastern cuisine – and as I lived in Iran during the 70’s, we have a common interest in exotic cuisine. Today’s menu for the luncheon includes curry, roasted vegetables, dal (yellow lentils), and raita (yoghurt with cucumber and dill). Kathy is a chef magnifique and has a deft hand with seasonings and unusual ingredients.

Kathy, editor-in-chief of Plateau Books (at Sewanee, Tennessee), formerly served as editorial director of a press at the University of Miami where she captured the “Choice” award for two of the books she edited. She has been recognized in the journals Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Henry, the publisher, has edited numerous scholarly monographs, published fiction and nonfiction books, and is a former university faculty member. He’s also recognized for his excellent investigative reporting and articles in Financial Times.

The Hammans live in a cottage on Jumpoff Mountain Road at “Tick Farm,” where their offices are located. They’re assisted in their work by “Lucky,” an ancient Rhodesian Ridgeback dog that pretty much owns the place and joins us at mealtimes when we visit the farm. Lucky’s manner of getting acquainted is to approach a guest, stick his wet nose in her face, and if the guest blows her breath on his face, he retreats and lies down, signaling his approval of the visitor by curling up in a corner to listen to the repartee'.

Plateau Books advertises as a publisher of “lasting significance for discriminating readers” and is committed to publishing books that “value wisdom, knowledge, passion, and personal experience.” This year, the Hammans produced Swimming Solo, a book that recounts the story of a courageous daughter who dealt with aging parents suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Swimming Solo has been touted as “a fascinating personal story, painstakingly told, with no unflattering or awkward details spared in the interest of wholeness – and that is the triumph.” (Isabel Anders, author of Becoming Flame). I reviewed the poignant story in a former blog when the book first appeared on the market. This account about “parenting our parents,” carries out Plateau Books’ mission statement of publishing volumes that “value wisdom, knowledge, passion, and personal experience.”

As a former editor for an academic publishing house, Kathy knows the special requirements for academic publications, including the importance of peer review. Presently in the slot for publication by Plateau Books is a theological work entitled Getting Your Sermon Heard, by William Hethcock, professor emeritus of homiletics, The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South. Hethcock, the “preaching guru” at Sewanee, has authored a work that will be a significant contribution to theological seminaries throughout the U.S. and abroad.

We were told to come to lunch at 1 p.m. as the Hammans had to pick up their Mennonite milk delivery (which they use to make yogurt) at 12:30 from Dagmar Gundersen, and I’m sure the raita will contain some of the Gundersen pick-up. Although rain has begun to fall and Sewanee is shrouded in grey, we anticipate having a good time – the conversation is usually lively and eclectic, and we laugh a lot when we get together. As four people interested in the art of writing, we also have weighty conversations about religion and books, particularly those volumes that both presses have produced. Border Press publishes many of my young adult fiction and poetry books, but Vickie takes notes about non-fiction possibilities as the Hammans have considerable background and experience in editing and publishing in this genre. Their press also supports independent booksellers and offers special pricing for direct sales to independent bookstores.

We plan to return to Teche country on Saturday, and I know this brief encounter with the Hammans will be another highpoint in visits to The Mountain – that is, if we get past the rain now falling in heavy sheets and coloring the landscape a gunmetal gray, a hue that often inspires me to refer to Sewanee as Grayburg. It’s a perfect day for sharing a meal and talking about books!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Book Cover on the Fly!

While visiting in central Florida, I've taken a "time out" to read poetry, my favorite genre, and selected for my bedtime reading, Archaeology at Midnight, the newest publication from Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. This book of poetry by Martha McFerren, who is a master of the wry line, is an antidote to the literary works of a literalist, historicized society of the West that has discarded the "power of myth" (to borrow from Joseph Campbell), and her poems reflect sharp insights into humankind—its myths, philosophies, and foibles.  She probes ancient society and contemporary society through the lens of her own experiences and relates them with verve, using strong satiric skills and turning our attention to inward realities.

On two pages of the book, facing one another, McFerren probes the art of prehistoric man and Tudor England, commenting in two succinct swaths, incising the psyche of a cave dweller, first, in a minimalist poem that profiles our ancestors in lines that capture the nature of prehistoric man: "The all-together,/outside and inside./I worship what I kill/and make again. I look at my hands,/baffled by their motion./ I don't understand my eyes./What do they want?/My mouth doesn't help me./I can speak/only one word at a time./And so I kneel here/both outside and/within myself./I need others/but have to be alone...A word: Look./Another word: Make." This is minimalist poetry at its most powerful and is one of those poems to which nothing more should be added.

On the succeeding page, "Glastonbury, September," features powerful imagery about the ruined architecture of Glastonbury, a romantic place in England during King Arthur's time.  The opening lines caused me to feel like Emily Dickinson's description of a good poem: "as if the top of my head was blown off." McFerren writes: "This is where we walk into the air./Doors leading nowhere/Nowhere making doors. A Gothic arch frames breath. A broken stair/becomes a helix..." and concluding with similar powerful imagery: "After millennia of red despair./How sweet the easy twilight of the story. /This is where we walk into the air."

Writing about the contemporary world, McFerren captures the personality of an overprotective mother in a satirical poem entitled "Beware," two pages of admonishments to a daughter who has moved to metropolitan Houston, a dangerous place where the mother feels the daughter will die from an encounter with an unknown assailant.  "Beware" is a "laugh aloud" poem, especially the lines that show McFerren's wonderful originality and humor: "Stand in the corner/in your zipped-up thick robe/Be unmoving. Be very good./If you are wrapped/you will remain unraped..."

Another "laugh aloud" poem emphasizes the human love of fat, dating back to prehistoric times when women instructed men who were going out to the hunt: "Bring us fat./Plentiful, dripping, sizzling fat./It tastes so good. Yes, bring home fat..." and culminating "in the kitchen with a stick of butter -- not butter with canola oil/but pure, unsalted butter...I place one sliver on my tongue/and no communion wafer could be sweeter or more reverential./It tastes so good...We have the new encyclical: No fat..."

In Archaeology at Midnight, the metaphors are apt; the humor is piquant and flawless. McFerren reflects the humanness of all of us, reminding me of the poet, Marge Piercy, in that she has the same keen eye as Piercy and records what she sees with uncompromised candor.  

Pinyon Publishing has published a winner, and I might add, the winner is a Louisiana poet who lives down the road, a 2 hrs. and 30 min. drive from New Iberia, in the "City that Care Forgot," New Orleans.

Archaeology at Midnight can be ordered from www.pinyon-publishing.com.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Angel Figurines on My Mantle
Anne Boykin, a good friend who lives in Sewanee, Tennessee and who actually influenced us to move to The Mountain there, is very ill and needs surgery on Tuesday. As I'm back in Louisiana, I regret that I won’t be there when the surgery takes place at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. When I thought about her crisis today, I chided myself for not trusting in something that Anne believes in—the guardianship of angels, especially the angels who protect all residents and visitors at Sewanee. The tradition told to every newcomer to The Mountain is that when a person departs the domain of the University of the South for a destination and passes through the gates of Sewanee, the traveler taps the roof of his car and an angel goes with him. Upon return, the person taps the roof of the car and releases the angel. In other words, residents’ bases are covered wherever they go, but the natural habitat of this divine creature is Sewanee on the Cumberland Plateau. When we first arrived at Sewanee, Anne gave us a copy of the angel legend and conveyed to us that she believes in these beings of cosmic awareness.

The angel that will probably protect her on Tuesday is the archangel Raphael who, according to the Zohar, is charged to heal the earth and through him the earth furnishes an abode for man, whom he also heals. In an essay about angels in The Angels, Gail Thomas writes that she senses Raphael's presence everywhere and while speaking to a conference on AIDS, she mentioned to participants that there is an inner healer within each one of us—“a communication within the body, mind, and spirit that knows what is needed and asks for help from sources which remain constantly available within each person…” Thomas probes the issue of the nature of healing, declaring that through the power of Raphael, man or woman can be led to perceive and recognize the healing principle… “which lives in the Christ principle…”

Rudolph Steiner imaged the angels as breathing, the continual taking in and moving out of our breath, and Raphael seems to be connected with the constant flow of healing forces within and without humanity through our breathing! Raphael’s name actually means “God has healed,” and according to Thomas, our experience of this healing is one of finding and losing.

Much of this description of finding and losing is based on the story of Tobit and his son Tobias in the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, in which Tobit, who is blind, is cured by Tobias. Tobias, who has gone out into the world, searches for and obtains fish gall, then returns to his father with the gall on his hands and blows into his father’s eyes, saying, “Take courage father.” He applies the fish gall, and with both hands peels away a filmy skin from the corners of his father’s eyes. Tobit regains his sight, and we are instructed that this account illustrates the story of an angel causing Tobias to find a healing for his father.

Thomas advocates that we are never alone. A companion travels with us who is a healing force in everything and the healing comes from our own adversity, so we shouldn't be afraid of losing—“the child in us begins to learn and in releasing, we find—in losing we win.” Implicit in the story of Toby and Tobias is the idea that the archangel Raphael was the companion of Tobias. Blind Tobit had believed in the efficacy of angels and had told his wife not to worry when his son went out into the world because “going away and coming back, all will be well with our child…a good angel will go with hm. He will have a good journey and come back to us well and happy.” Of course, Tobit also benefited from that good journey and became well and happy.

I pray that both Raphael the Archangel and the Sewanee angel do their work on Tuesday and that Anne will return to The Mountain, having had a good journey, coming back to her many friends and family "well and happy.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


After a good night’s sleep, I got up and looked out the window at the light streaming through the trees in the coulee and thought how glad I was to be focusing on the natural world, rather than on the budgetary needs of the household with which I had been working lately. My meditations on the world outside my window reminded me of a poem in my newest book of poetry, Alchemy, entitled “Prayer When Approaching Old Age:” (one, I might add, that my Bishop, Bruce MacPherson, particularly likes) “God, help me to know/you are now being fulfilled/in the moment of my writing./How many dense woods/I’ve traveled through,/magnificent silent creations/reflecting your good will. / When I see the leaves fall,/brighter in color before dying,/the blood red of still-alive,/I realize that in their blaze/you are being fulfilled/in a final act of ecstasy./In my seventh decade, I ponder this,/realizing that during these late years of poetry,/my own forests of good will,/these acts of co-creation slowly culminate,/become fulfillment measured by your time,/guided by this light…/evanescent among the trees.”

The remembrance of this poem spoke to my condition, as the Quakers say, and I crumpled all of the “post-its” dense with figures on the desk and picked up one of my favorite books, On Living Simply, a compilation of the works of John Chrysostom, a preacher who was a leader of the Church of Constantinople during the fourth century.

On Living Simply focuses on living as people who see themselves as stewards of their wealth, loaned to them by God, to be used for the common good and it is written in plain, frank language that would probably affront the wealthy in our society today. As the compiler, Robert Van de Weyer says, “John Chrysostom would be as unpopular today among the privileged members of society as he was in the fourth century – and as popular among the common people...”

The entire volume is a challenge to all of us who fail to remember generosity to another, not as gift giving, but as a required repayment of a debt. It records the story of John’s actions as the patriarch of Constantinople when he increased the hospitals and schools run by the Church and rooted out corruption among the clergy, stripping the patriarch’s palace of its lavish adornments. He also visited the city’s slums and preached sermons that accused the wealthy of insulting God by their greed.

John of Chrysostom felt that the skill which the wealthy needed to cultivate was one of using their wealth well and that it was regarded as the highest of all arts. He advocated that if the rich communicated directly with God, they would learn that the tools of their art were not fashioned of iron or brass, but of good will.

“He must learn always to think good thoughts, expunging all selfish thoughts. He must learn how to feel compassion, expunging all malice and contempt…learn how to desire only to obey the will of God [because] the skill of being a rich disciple of Christ is the highest of all arts…” Even more strong are John’s words about the rich being fierce in the pursuit of money, “even as wild animals pursuing their prey…even members of their own families may be used in their quest for wealth…their eyes blind to the suffering they cause, and their ears deaf to the cries of those whose lives are ruined by them…becoming slaves to their own greed…”

Just moments after I finished reading this, someone sent me an e-mail about Andrew Weil’s latest book entitled Spontaneous Happiness: Our Nature-Deficit Disorder in which Weil purports that the more people have, the less likely they are to be content, and that there is evidence pointing to depression as a disease of affluence. He boldly asserted that people who live in poorer countries have lower risk of depression than those of us who live in industrialized nations. Weil cited that the Amish, who live simply, suffer from a low rate of depression, 1/10th lower than that of the level of depression of other Americans. He also advocates that there are greater benefits of living close to nature – such a life not only gives spiritual sustenance but keeps our brains and nervous systems stabilized.

Having read all of that, I put away my pencil, again looked out the study window at the leaves falling from the Live Oak in the backyard and sat awhile, pondering how it would be to live like John, who said that if we regard nothing as a personal possession, in spirit we own everything, can look at the beautiful outdoor world, regardless of who owns it, and rejoice in its beauty.