Monday, February 27, 2012


Last week, I came across an article about an Iranian Christian pastor who had been found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death for his unwillingness to denounce Christianity. The pastor, Youcef Nadarkhari, has been a Christian since he was a teenager and claims that he has never practiced Islam although he was born to Muslim parents. According to the Christian Post, he has been a Christian pastor for ten years and may be executed by the Iranian government for his beliefs.

This Huffington Post news alert awakened my memory of another Christian clergy-person who was nearly murdered in 1979, four years after I had returned to the U.S. after a two-year sojourn in Ahwaz, Iran. On October 26, 1979, The Rt. Rev. Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the first Iranian born Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Iran, awakened to see the barrel of a revolver pointed at his head. He hardly hears the shots when they are fired. His wife, her left hand bleeding from a gunshot wound, pursues the fleeing attackers, and Dehqani-Tafti looks at his pillow – four small holes surround the place where his head has lain. I read this account years ago in The Hard Awakening, written by the Bishop, a book in which he also describes his experiences after the Shah was deposed. At that time church property had been confiscated, offices broken into and clergy and staff arrested. Following the attack on the Bishop, he and his wife fled to Great Britain. However, the greatest personal tragedy occurred when his son Bahram was murdered by thugs on the streets of Tehran.

I didn’t know the Bishop personally, but during my sojourn in Iran, I spent a few weeks in the summer of 1974 at a church camp in Tehran that was sponsored by the Episcopal Church in Iran and one of my roommates was the Bishop Dehqani-Tafti’s British mother-in-law, Mrs. William Thompson. She was a hardy woman who decided that the cabin in which three of us were housed was too hot, and on the first night moved her cot outdoors to sleep in the open. She spoke about her daughter marrying the Persian-born Bishop in a unique Persian/Anglican wedding and told me that he had worked with her husband, Anglican Bishop William Thompson, adding that her husband had inspired Hassan Dehqani-Tafti to become an Anglican priest.

Our camp, built by Presbyterian missionaries, was a compound of rustic military-like barracks named “The Garden of Evangelism” and was located near muezzin calls with which we competed for listeners. Our British minister, The Rev. Phillip Saywell, played a guitar and incited us to sing loudly during the time that Muslim chants, via loudspeaker, drifted across the walls of the Garden. At the time, I had no idea that the Revolution was fomenting and that members and clergy of the Episcopal Church and Christians, in general, were an endangered species. I left Iran before the Revolution, but I remember clearly the dismay I felt when I heard that Khomeini had become the political power in this country in which I had lived and worshiped in a Christian congregation. The thought that flashed into my mind was a line from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming:” Things fall apart/the center will not hold/mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The center of Iranian government had collapsed, and the country that had been making great strides toward emerging from a medieval-like culture had been halted in its progress.

Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti stood his ground as an advocate for Christianity and the Episcopal Church in Iran for awhile, but the assassination attempt caused him to write, “Sometimes I feel so small, so weak, so near to non-entity; and the task is so gigantic and full of awe that I am tempted to regard the whole thing as unreal. But then I hear the voice of God telling me that it is his work. The weaker you are, the stronger his power; and miracles the more possible…” Following the attempted murder, the standing committee of his Diocese finally convinced him to go into exile in Great Britain.

During his tenure as Bishop, Hassan Dehqani-Tafti brought about the reorganization of an Archbishopric in Jerusalem into the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East and became the first Presiding Bishop of this organization. After he fled to England, he became Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Winchester. He abrogated vengeance against Islam for the death of his son and became known as an advocate of peace and compassion. He often wrote about his vision for cultural unity and ecumenism. He’s noted for his poetry and watercolor renderings and was renowned as a scholar of Persian mystical poetry. From Bishop Dehqani-Tafti’s mother-in-law, I learned that while I worshiped in the Diocese, the Bishop and his wife traveled the roads of Iran, establishing boarding schools for boys and girls and expanding the church’s work with the blind – one of the schools was located near Ahwaz where I lived.

An interesting article about Iran’s decades of Christian persecution, published by the Assyrian International News Agency, can be found on the Net. After reading this article, I placed an order with Amazon for Bishop Dehqani-Tafti’s autobiography, The Unfolding Design of My World.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Be Bop, Be Bop
There must be thousands of Internet users who have experienced the fleeting memory of an old friend and gone to the Net to search for news of that long-forgotten person. Yesterday, I saw the word “scarlet” on my screen and remembered Billy Scarlett, a musician friend with whose wife I worked at Agricultural Extension Service, Louisiana State University, during the mid fifties. I was shocked to find Billy had died of cancer but pleased to read that he had gained fame as “a jazz legend in Tennessee” (according to the many tributes on the Net) during the past fifty years.

I met Billy, this handsome, black-haired man who resembled a melancholy Italian, when Katy, his first wife, and I were candidates for our Ph.T’s (Putting Husband Through). At the time of our meeting, Billy was working toward his Master’s in Music Theory and playing jazz gigs at night. My husband was working on his first degree in Geology. Sometimes in the evenings, I’d visit the Scarletts in their garage apartment near the campus where we’d play Scrabble and listen to progressive jazz or “bop,” as it’s now called. I knew nothing about bop at the time, but I grew familiar with the sounds of Charlie (Bird) Parker’s alto sax and the trumpets of Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and became hooked on progressive jazz, enjoying the many stories Billy told about the improvisations of Bird Parker, who was regarded as the music symbol of the Beat Generation. Billy’s favorite story was about hearing the recording featuring some of Bird’s flubs during recordings of “Be Bop” when he actually shook the sax to get the right note out of the horn. “Minnie,” (Billy’s name for me, and I still don’t know why he called me by this name) he’d say, “you don’t know zilch about music,” and I’d try to defend myself, declaring that I had played a clarinet in a high school band five years. “Kindergarten,” he’d say, putting on another record and tuning me out. It was the day of “hi-fi’s,” and although the Scarletts struggled to make ends meet, Billy owned expensive hi-fi equipment, including speakers on several walls in the small apartment. The overpowering sounds of jazz frequently incited comments from the neighbors and sometimes caused the floppy ears of the Scarlett’s blonde cocker spaniel, Sandy, to stand up.

Within a year after I met the Scarletts, Billy and Katy moved to Knoxville where Billy became a professor of Music Theory at the University of Tennessee and played in jazz groups on the week-ends. I flew to Knoxville three consecutive years to spend Thanksgiving with them. I had no idea that I’d one day move to Sewanee, Tennessee, only three and one-half hours from Knoxville, or that I’d one day read Billy’s obituary announcing that he was a jazz legend in Tennessee. In the late 1950’s, during those visits to Knoxville, we roamed around to gigs and jam sessions, one particular gig being near Gatlinburg, Tennessee somewhere in the boonies. En route to this gig, we drove in a blinding rain through the mountains, stopping in Asheville to stand on the porch of “Dixieland,” one-time home of the writer Thomas Wolfe, peering through the front windows at the parlor furniture because the house wasn’t open to the public that day. Katy and I were disappointed because we were fans of Wolfe’s work and once in awhile, we got in a few words about literature in the “mostly-music” conversations. We spent all day getting to our destination, and Billy played his sax with an obscure group whose name I can’t remember, then traveled the rest of the night to arrive back in Knoxville during the early morning hours of the following day. My flight to New Orleans was scheduled for 11 that morning!

On several visits, I attended concerts of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra as Billy, classically trained, played clarinet with this group. In the articles I read on the Internet, I discovered that he was acknowledged as the “principal clarinetist” in this symphony for forty years and that he became renowned as a teacher of Music Theory at the University of Tennessee, teaching there for fifty years. However, his forte’ was the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

In an Internet article, Rocky Wynder, a black jazz musician who became one of the cornerstones of Knoxville jazz, paid tribute to Billy for being courageous enough to schedule gigs in places that barred black musicians.   After the jazz group arrived at the club and unpacked their equipment, Billy would talk to the owner of the club, then tell the musicians to repack the equipment and head home because the black member of his group – Rocky – was told he couldn’t come in. Billy worked for civil rights before the days of marches for integration.

Billy knew the value of daily practice, and I observed his drivenness when he and Katy stayed with me for six weeks one summer while my husband was at Geology camp in Colorado. Although Billy had received his Master’s, he spent every day at LSU, studying clarinet privately with a professor and playing his sax in the evenings. When the Scarletts left Baton Rouge, Billy flew to New York City, alone, to take private clarinet lessons, living in an apartment on Bleecker Street and playing his sax at night in the Village.

Billy was intense about music and intolerant of poor performance, especially when he performed badly. The first night of the six weeks Billy and Katy visited me, he packed up his sax and went off to jam for a few hours. At midnight, he returned with a broken sax in his hands. “What happened?” Katy asked, thinking the sax had been run over by a vehicle of some kind. Billy hung his head, admitting to having done the damage himself. “I wasn’t playing well. Haven’t practiced enough. I couldn’t get the right sounds out, so I got mad and smashed it.” That evening I had to leave the “hut” (G.I. housing in which we lived) while Katy and Billy argued about his behavior and whether he deserved to own another sax. The following day, they went downtown and bought a new sax, and Billy resumed his jam sessions, playing gigs around Baton Rouge wherever he could find them. At the time, I thought he was a spoiled brat, but I knew nothing about his ideas of perfection and how much he abhorred sloppy performance – or that he’d become a jazz legend.

I lost touch with the Scarletts during the 60’s and talked with Katy via telephone when my second book, Their Adventurous Will, was published in 1984. During the 90’s, I discovered that she had died of heart disease from her daughter Holly when I tried to reach Katy by telephone. Every time I’ve passed through Knoxville since 2006 when I moved to Sewanee to live part of each year, I’ve thought about contacting Billy but have been rushing toward some vacation destination in North Carolina and have whizzed on through the city. Although I lost touch with Billy, my music collection includes significant reminders of him – the music of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck…and I could claim status as one of Billy’s “lay musicians” who doesn’t play music but appreciates the sounds of progressive jazz because of him.

Billy Scarlett was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame in 2008, launched the University of Tennessee’s Jazz Giants Band, and has been touted as the mentor of every student now playing in the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. He played with greats like Woody Herman and Duke Ellington, often opening for them when they came to the UT campus. In 1994 he made the recordings “Jazz from the University of Tennessee” and “Tenors and Satin.”

I wish that I had contacted Billy Scarlett before he died, but I’m proud to have enjoyed his friendship back when “bop” was coming into its own.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The art of Karen Bourque
Last month, Drs. Mary Ann Wilson and Vickie Sullivan, accompanied me to lunch with former poet laureate Darrell Bourque and his wife Karen, a glass artist, in their home near Churchpoint, Louisiana. At a feast featuring pork roast, a la Darrell, and flour-less chocolate cake a la Karen, we talked about Karen’s latest glass art, the depiction of the four seasons for glass panes in the windows fronting their home. After we had decided on the season we liked best (and which was not for sale), we discussed the glass piece Karen had created for the opening of the Ernest Gaines Center at University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) last year.  She related how the first rendering of the piece had been a “casualty.” When I returned home that evening of the visit, I wrote this prose piece to illustrate her story:

She and her poet husband were moving the center panel of “Just Like A tree,” a beautiful glass piece, 23”x72,” depicting an oak tree and the river, two motifs often appearing in the work of Ernest Gaines. She had made the piece to define the entrance way of a writing center named after her husband’s mentor and friend. The glass piece was something that reflected the mentor “leading us to the in-habitation of our better selves,” she had written to describe his influence on her art.

But as they carried the glass together, the “center would not hold.” The panel broke into pieces and separated the tree from the river. It was one of those things she’d rather not have experienced but knew she would accept, although the palms of her hands felt as if they had been pierced, although her heart bled into the pool beside the cottage. She bent double to stay the flow, finally raising her head to look into the shocked eyes of her husband.

“Glass breaks,” she said simply. It was her summary of suffering that she voiced for her Buddhist husband. But he fled as if pursued by djinns to make his three-mile walk – to ponder the fracture of this creation.

She picked up the pieces – the stones, agates, and gems that represented “insight and strength,” pausing before a Buddha who smiled as if urging her to dignify the break. “There’s more than one way. The memory is whole. Nothing is that sacred,” she heard the Buddha say, his smile widening.

So she saved the glass. That much she knew to do from watching her husband, who never discarded any of the drafts of his poetry, never wadded and tossed the first expression of special words into a wastebasket.

Later, when the poet had summoned enough courage to return to the scene of broken art and what he perceived would be her broken spirit, he found her putting the tree beside the river again. In her mind, she had returned the panel to its dimensionality. “I told you that glass breaks,” she said. “A fragile and beautiful thing is worth recreating.”

A most extravagant hope, the poet thought. But she is like me and my poems, making many drafts, trying to bring something into eternity. “My beloved,” he said, embracing her. “You are a better Buddhist than I.”"

Monday, February 13, 2012


On a recent trip to central Florida, we dipped southward to the beach near Fort Walton, and after a brief look around at deserted condos and empty beaches with sea oats swaying in the wintry wind, we turned north again toward DeFuniak Springs. We traveled on a narrow highway that led through Scrubs and stretches of ancient sand dunes dotted with scrub oaks, pines, and curious mounds I learned were the homes of gopher turtles. My intent was to stop and investigate the mounds, but we were due in central Florida that evening, so we sped across the fifteen-mile stretch of turtle habitats without making a widespread search for the actual reptile.

Gopher turtle mounds near Navarre FL
Later, when we settled in central Florida, I talked with the caretaker of Inez Sullivan, our hostess for several days, and Juanita, the caretaker, told me how her people caught gopher turtles during hard times when food was scarce in lake country. The hunters reached into a turtle hill with a long hook and simply pulled the turtle out of its hill. She claims that the success rate of catching one of the gopher turtles was 100 percent – no bait, just a hook and a croker sack to hold the catch. Sometimes the hook yielded a rattlesnake, which I assumed shared the hill habitat, and I asked the caretaker what happened when the hunter caught this reptile. “He’d run like the devil was at his heels,” she said.

I remember some of the stories my former father-in-law told about Depression Days when turtles were coveted as food. He claimed that the family would save up enough money to buy a little gasoline to run their Model T, not to make a trip, but to putt-putt through the woods and scare up turtles so that the family could have meat for supper. Juanita said that a favorite recipe among country folk was turtle meat stewed down with onions and seasonings to serve over rice.

I love turtles and believe that when they appear, they bring good fortune. A few years ago, I wrote a blog about a box turtle that appeared in my yard at Sewanee – a specimen that had the #1 marked on its shell. The following day another turtle of the same species appeared with the #2 on its shell. “Now,” I told my readers, “if a turtle with the #3 imbedded in its shell had shown up, I’d have been spooked, but these two turtle sightings completed the show.” I wasn’t tempted to stew them or to play the lottery using the numbers, but the sight of turtles with numbers for markings did give me a start.

Gopher turtles were known as “Hoover chickens” during the Great Depression, but hunting them in Florida and other southern states is now forbidden as they’re an endangered species. Developers in Florida are required to temporarily move populations when they begin development of land for subdivisions. Floridians regard the Gopher turtle highly and designated it as Florida’s state reptile.

So far, I’ve only seen the turtles’ burrows, which I’m told often reach a depth of nine feet and which protect them from coons, skunks, foxes and other predators – and, I might add, curious investigators like me.