Tuesday, July 31, 2012


"I was the night sky."

I once had a friend from Yugoslavia who had been through the strife of WWII and who often talked about the poverty she endured during her childhood. “I never had beautiful children’s books like the ones your mother bought you,” she said. “We were glad to get good bread and soup and have a warm stone at our feet when we went to bed.” At the time, I felt dismayed when she talked about her impoverished childhood, and I appreciated even more the books that my mother bought for us at Claitor’s Bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana back in the 40’s. A passage in the introduction to my book entitled Their Adventurous Will: Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women refers to Mother’s love of books and the trips to Claitor’s: “Every month for years, Mother would take one of the three children in our family to Claitor’s Bookstore to choose two books for our nightly reading session. She was the first family member to open the books, touching the pictures with credulous delight. My mother began to fly in the heavens long before Mary Poppins opened her first umbrella to make her wonderful flights…” I was privileged to grow up with beautiful books, and my appreciation for children’s books probably equals my mother’s enthusiasm for them. I’m sorry that every child doesn’t have the opportunity to grow up with access to good books.
Yesterday, I received two copies of a children’s book entitled Willameena Moonbeam, written and illustrated by Ben Blanchard, a young friend of mine who has done paintings for two of my books and who illustrated a long poem that became a small book for my grandson Joel. When I opened Willameena Moonbeam, I thought immediately of the words that I penned about my mother touching books “with credulous delight.” That’s how I felt when I touched the illustrations in Ben’s book.
Ben illustrated Willameena Moonbeam using collage and watercolor techniques and printed, by hand, the text of his long poem. The theme of the poem concerns Willameena and her young friends wishing for and actually lengthening a day to one of constant sunlight, a day when the sun “grew weary …weary of waiting for moon…” Children playing in the fields longed for more sun, danced and pretended that the day would lengthen…The day did lengthen, but the youngsters became hungry, and one of them cried out, “Surely we’ll grow thinner/if we keep on playing/without any dinner.” Unfortunately, the parents of Willameena and her friends decided they couldn’t call their offspring indoors while it was still light, and the children became aware that they had achieved more than they had bargained for.
One of the beautifully-illustrated scenes in Willameena Moonbeam shows the children trying to capture darkness by getting under umbrellas, but even then, the sun doesn’t vanish, and they’re forced to solicit the help of their grandparents to bring on the night. According to “The Elders,” the solution involves the use of a patchwork quilt dress that Willameena must wear and dance in so that she becomes part of the night sky. “I was twirled by my music and from afar/my long dress made a canopy of quilted stars,” Willameena explains. “Like a thousand pearls…all strewn/were actual stars in procession with moon…” Willameena dances the day into night, the moon finally rises, and all is well in the skies above. Ben brings his poem to a close as Willameena bows her head and finally accepts the fact that “it’s time for bed.”
Ben Blanchard is originally from Lafayette, Louisiana and currently lives in Austin, Texas. His multimedia projects include works in music, film, and collage. Willameena Moonbeam is the first book he has written and illustrated. Ben graduated from the Raw Food Preparation and Organic Gardening School sponsored by the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Arizona and practiced as a raw foodist for a few years in Sedona, Arizona and Lafayette, Louisiana. One of his delicious raw food specialties that I’ve sampled is “Third Eyes Cream,” a dessert made with frozen bananas, raw chocolate, and Goji berries. Ben’s original drawings also appear in a book we published together entitled The Beast Beelzebufo. We share a mutual interest in the comic strip “Peanuts,” and have shared ideas in artistic sessions held at tables in Starbucks.
Willameena Moonbeam is an artistic achievement that will engage the interest of any child…as well as grown children like me and my fantasy-loving mother (deceased).
You can order Willameena Moonbeam from Ben Blanchard, 1200 Elm Street, #114, Austin, Texas 78703.

Monday, July 30, 2012


Last week, we hosted dinner for Henry and Kathy Hamman, owners of Plateau Press here on the Mountain in honor of a visit from Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, professor of English, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. After dinner, we enjoyed a lively discussion about a school on the Cumberland Plateau that I had never heard mentioned during the five years I’ve spent at Sewanee. The Highlander Folk School, once located between Monteagle and Tracy City, Tennessee, not more then ten miles away, no longer functions but it has evolved into the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.
Henry informed us that we could still see the old Highlander Folk School structure in Grundy County, so the next day we went on a field trip to search for one of our regional historic sites. We located the plaque commemorating the school but never found the old structure. However, some time in the near future the Hammans have promised to take us to the location of the school that was established to “provide training for rural and industrial leaders and for the conservation and enrichment of the indigenous cultural values of the mountains.”
The Highlander Folk School was an amazing venture established in 1932 by Myles Horton, an activist; Don West, an educator; and James A. Dombrowski, a Methodist minister. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, the school focused on labor education and the training of labor organizers, but the staff later developed a literacy program for Blacks who couldn’t vote because they were illiterate. This program at Highlander Folk School later transferred to the Southern Christian School because the State of Tennessee threatened to close the Highlander’s doors.
The school played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement and such notable leaders as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Septima Clark, visited the school and were involved in its trainings. During the 1950’s, southern newspapers attacked the Highlander Folk School, accusing its staff of causing racial strife. The State of Tennessee forced the school to close its doors in 1961 after moonshine mysteriously appeared on its property, and the staff was falsely accused of being a communist training center.
An interesting account about the attacks on the Highlander Folk School by white supremacists appeared in 2003 in a senior thesis by Laura Grantmyre. It detailed white supremacist responses to anti-racist activities. The thesis reveals how white supremacy is interwoven with systems of gender and is embedded in certain cultures. “Charges of communism, atheism, and interracial immorality were used by white political elite of the South in their attacks,” Grantmyre wrote.
The Highlander Folk School closed its doors and moved to New Market following the adverse reaction to its mission, and during the 1960’s and 1970’s, it focused on worker health and safety in the coalfields of Appalachia and helped initiate the Southern Appalachian Leadership Training Program.
Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the notables who visited the school in its infancy, became interested in the Highlander Folk School’s objectives related to economic justice and equality. We look forward to the search for the site of a school that addressed issues of national and international importance – once located approximately eight miles away in a small rural community near Sewanee, Tennessee. 

Monday, July 23, 2012


Painting by Paul Schexnayder' for cover
of Sophie's Sojourn in Persia

Last week, I published a satirical piece about the use of the common fork (and knife) that was a revision of one of my old newspaper columns entitled “Cherchez la femme.” I received such favorable responses to the blog that I’ve been inspired to revise and publish another of the columns in “A Words Worth.” When this publication appears, I hope I’m not accused of allowing my children, when they were young and foolish, to abuse animals. Any perceived bad treatment of their pets was purely accidental and isn’t something I sanctioned. I don’t want the SPCA on my doorstep!
When my daughters were in their pre-teens, we “went through” several pets in our household. Our cat, Roya, had the distinction of being the longest-lived, and she was four years old when she disappeared –probably with a Cajun alley cat.
However, our first household pet was a hamster. The haggard white rat ran up and down in a cage in a corner of my daughter’s bedroom and finally learned to unlock the gates of his prison. He would then roam freely throughout the house at night. The bedroom in this particular house boasted wallpaper with clusters of flowers embossed on it, and our pet hamster’s appetite for the flowers on the wallpaper was insatiable. Whose bedroom adjoined chewing territory? You guessed it – mama’s and papa’s room. One night the hamster made a foray into the bathroom and, somehow, became entangled in the drier. No, we didn’t turn on the drier without loading, and the next day my daughters found him in the works before we roasted a white rat. However, we think this nameless creature died of pneumonia. Elizabeth, my youngest, was four years old during his residency, and she decided to bathe him back to white rat status – in the toilet. Even after we dried him carefully in a towel and gave him extra portions of hamster food, the nameless creature died a few days later. The white rat was followed by a newly-married gerbil couple who, because of their prolonged honeymoon, became exhausted and, mercifully, crossed the “Great Divide” within a few weeks. Yes, they died dirty. Elizabeth had learned her lesson.
Along came a small black dog, again nameless, who ran up to our back door one day, then ran away from our back door the following day with a female companion, barking Mehitabel the alley cat’s theme song: “Toujours gais, buddy, toujours gais” all the way down the block.
In previous blogs, you’ve read about Pet #4, Roya, the Persian cat who traveled from Iran to the U.S. housed in a crudely-built crate in the cargo area of a jet. She believed she was the Farah Diba reincarnated and draped herself on tabletops with the air of an exotic queen. Roya thought that the oriental carpets we had transported from Iran were made primarily for cat snoozes. She gave us quite a shock after we left Iran because when she got to America, she ran around all night, perhaps because she wasn’t allowed outdoors in Iran. She shed all her former repressions and became a real lady of the night, finally disappearing into the darkness with a Tom that had howled at our window long enough to entice her away forever.
The last additions to our pet population during my daughters’ pre-teen years were two goldfish – again, no names. One afternoon I was lying on Elizabeth’s bed, nursing a headache, when I heard this slight nibble, nibble noise. I thought the hamster had resurrected. The nibbling persisted for perhaps a half hour before I gave up the headache and asked Elizabeth if she had mice in her room. “No,” she explained. “It’s my goldfish breathing.” She was right. I’ve since read that many fish produce noises with their air bladders or teeth. I didn’t examine these little swimmers for teeth evidence, but the way they carried on, I’d say they either possessed expanded air bladders or well-developed chompers. I’m sorry to report that those innocent creatures may have gone down the drain during one of Elizabeth’s “Mama, I’m changing the water” episodes. I’ve read that some goldfish live to be 50 years old. Others live to be 15 years old, while most goldfish that reside in a bowl indoors survive for five years. I should have known that they were destined for a short life span when I bought them for my enthusiastic pet lovers (?).
I really like dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, goldfish, even some insects; e.g., cicadas. And I have a pet theory that people who dislike little creatures have a mean streak. However, when we were raising and disposing of pets, I often thought that perhaps my offspring could have practiced caring for all creatures great and small on an animal as noiseless and aesthetic as a butterfly flying with abandonment – beyond our boundaries!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Robert Francis, one of my favorite New England poets and a contemporary of Robert Frost, wrote that poetry was what “excited him most deeply,” but at the age of 70 he declared that he disliked it! In the introduction to Traveling in Amherst, Richard Gillman explains that Francis declared this antipathy for poetry because he found much of the poetry written by his contemporaries (excepting Frost) “to be boring or baffling or both.” At some point in Francis’s life, he concentrated on creating his own poetry rather than being unhappy reading the work of others, and he wrote his best poems when he entered his sixth decade.
I admire Robert Francis’s poetry, but in antithesis to his denigration of contemporary poetry, I find that I’m exhilarated by post modern and progressive poetry, and my shelves have become crowded with volumes of contemporary poets.
Publisher Gary Entsminger of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, has launched the work of several distinguished contemporary poets during the last few years, and the work of these poets have delighted and surprised me. I always try to budget for the newest poetry books emerging from this Indie press located in a cabin in the Rockies.
Pinyon’s latest poet, Francine Marie Tolf, has written a volume of sharply-edged poems that might surprise Robert Francis, if he were alive and reading, despite his avowed dislike for contemporary poetry. Prodigal, Tolf’s second collection of poems, is written by a poet who possesses that which some literary critics would call “new eyes”—and she uses them to make observations about animals, nature, even antiquity, sometimes poking fun at herself in the manner of Charles Simic, another contemporary poet, particularly in the prose poems that plumb her personal life; e.g., “She Only Wants to Write:”
“the thin keening of crickets this fragile May morning, and how the breath of her cat sleeping on a pillow behind her is a little cloud on the back of her neck. She knows if she links these two mysteries, she’ll spin a bridge joining everything to everything, with her in the center, swaying on rope that braids itself as she casts down words, sinking full weight into each syllable without looking down.”
This kind of objective/subjective poetry is difficult to achieve. It illustrates “control” accomplished by synthesizing personal and profound in a way that changes and moves not only the reader but the poet as well. As publisher Entsminger observes, [it is] “derived not from cheaply won sentiment, but from an intensely personal conviction…”
Tolf achieves a meditative effect with her compact poem entitled “Morning,” which includes a beginning quote from Joanna Macy: “I could not cure myself of praying to a God I no longer believed in.” The brief, incisive poem is a wry commentary on the Jungian notion of God needing us to bring Him into the world:
“But I do believe. He knows that.
I talk to him as I drink coffee in the morning.
I give him angels.
When I wake in darkness, severed
from myself and from him,
‘he knows my terror.
He allows me to pray
him back into being.”

For me, the poem that presented an evocative mixture of mindfulness and wisdom was the title poem of Tolf’s book, “Prodigal.” It is a blend of imagery about ordinary landscapes of nature and human terror and extraordinary beauty that illuminates our intimate connection with all life:
“…They remind me how prodigal beauty is
Think of sunflower offering themselves
at the edges of freeways, never caring
if they’re prized.
Beauty seems the opposite to me of evil,
which weighs advantages expertly
and wastes nothing—
neither a mother’s terror, not a child’s trust,
nor the gold filings of the dead.
Beauty throws away acres
of pear blossom and burnished maple
season after season, never learning
to be prudent, yet saving my heart
again and again—
my stapled together heart
that refuses to remain open…”

Prodigal contains wonderful meditative poetry that illustrates hard-won wisdom emerging from an understanding of what it is to be a human living in the tension of a beautiful and savage world.
Francine Marie Tolf’s poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, and she has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board; Barbara Deming Memorial/Money for Women; the Loft Literary Center; and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has an MA from Kansas State University and an MFA from the University of Minnesota.
Prodigal is available from www.pinyon-publishing.com or Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Monday, July 16, 2012


It all started with a remark made by Lady Mary, a daughter who is being urged by her aristocratic parents, the Crawleys, to marry an heir to the family fortune in the televised Downton Abbey series. The scene is a country home in Edwardian England, circa 1912, and the discussion centers on a gentleman who is sole heir to the kingdom of the Crawleys. After watching the heir’s table manners, Lady Mary remarks that she could never marry a man who couldn't hold his fork like a gentleman. “Oh,” I said to my friend who was watching the series with me: “I know how Brits feel about Americans’ table manners, and I wrote all about it in my column, Cherchez la femme, back in the 70’s.”
At noon today I unearthed a compilation of the columns, which I once planned to showcase in book form, and read aloud the column involving the use of the common fork at the lunch table. After reading it, I decided that there could be some Downton Abbey fans who would enjoy the revised column I'm posting below:

Good manners rank with good grooming and good behavior. And if you don’t believe that adage, ask the British. They’re sticklers for the proper use of china, glass, and silver. I know because I underwent considerable teasing about my American style of eating when we lived abroad.
The problem had to do with the common fork. One noonday at a church camp in the Garden of Evangelism in the Elburz Mountains near Tehran, Iran, I was casually cutting a piece of meat with knife in my right hand and fork in my left. When I transferred the fork to my right hand to devour the meat, I found several Brits looking at me and snickering. “Oh, you Americans,” one of them commented. “You always do things the wrong way—and certainly the hard way.”
If you’ve never tried eating continental style in the manner that my British friend recommended, you must try forking food “the proper way,” as the Brits say. You spear meat with you fork and cut it off with the knife. With the meat fixed on the prongs of the fork (prongs down, prongs down) you place the knife blade underneath. The Brits say, “A slight twist will help to fix it firmly.”
Don’t stop with the meat. You also pile a small amount of potatoes and vegetables on the topside of the prongs, along with the meat. The heavily-laden fork is then conveyed to the mouth by twisting the wrist and raising the forearm slightly. The biggest “no-no” is that of changing hands. And you aren’t supposed to stick your elbows out and raise your entire arm either.
I worked on this fork operation for the ten days of church camp I attended that summer of 1974, but I was still viewed as a clumsy fork user. “Why?” I asked my British friends, “why isn’t the fork used to scoop food when it is fashioned with a gentle curve in the middle for holding food?” Well, they didn’t know, and no amount of researching turned up the answer either.
Actually, mention of the fork in literature dates back to the 11th century when a lady journeyed from Byzantium to Venice. She married a rich Doge, Domenico Selvo, in 1070. The first person in history to mention forks was an Italian named Saint Peter Damian. He wrote that this Doge’s wife from Byzantium did not touch her food with her fingers. She carried it to her mouth with certain gold, two-pronged forks she had brought with her from Byzantium. At that time, people were shocked by the lady’s extravagances, and very few people followed her example.
Well, forks aren’t everything. The Brits at the Tehran camp didn't know how to eat watermelon southern style. They tried to cut the melon in dainty snips just the way they cut meat. “Look,” I told them in my best Louisiana drawl, “watermelons are to be held. Put down those forks and knives and watch me.” I grasped a large slice of melon with both hands, lowered my face, and zipped through the choicest pulp, swooshing the melon from one side of my mouth to the other.
“But what do we do with the seeds?” they asked. Would you believe that there are now Brits who returned from their stint in Iran to live in places like Sussex, London, Surrey, and Buckinghamshire who mastered the art of spitting watermelon seeds through their teeth almost forty years ago?
Yes, I know good manners are as important as good grooming and good behavior, but we Americans also believe that good digestion is vitally important. And how can you digest food properly if you’re uptight about conveying food on a heavily-laden fork to the mouth?
Just between us, in that seed-spitting contest, I was lucky to get one watermelon seed through my teeth with the first shot (which landed in the lap of the Anglican minister who was director of the camp). And, truthfully, I always eat watermelon with a knife – sometimes with a fork.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Joe Natural's for lunch at Leiper's Fork

Last week, a friend in Louisiana wrote to me about a small town near Franklin, Tennessee called Leiper’s Fork, knowing well that this information would incite my peripatetic senses. It seems the town was showcased in a recent article that appeared in Country Living magazine and is one of those quaint back roads villages that has been rejuvenated and caters to Franklin and Nashville citizens who look for a place to spend a week-end in the country. I let the message from my friend sit on my desk for two full days before setting out to see why Leiper’s Fork had filled several pages of Country Living.
Like Bellbuckle, another small town in Tennessee that I often visit, Leiper’s Fork is one long main street lined with galleries, gift shops, and wonderful restaurants. We stopped at Joe Natural’s for lunch because the restaurant advertised fresh, natural ingredients and organic, homemade cuisine. Some of the fare included gluten-free breads and cookies and grass-fed burgers, but I opted for a cold soup containing pureed avocado, celery, and tomato, seasoned with homegrown herbs. The piece de resistance was a home-baked cookie made of beets and chocolate. I know the ingredients sound not-so-palatable, but it was one of those “give me more” occasions!
My book addiction led me farther down the street to Yeoman’s In the Fork, a rare book and document gallery inside an old mansion with the traditional four white columns on the porch. I was surprised to discover a gallery with over 50,000 rare books, documents, and maps. The bookstore features rare antiquarian books from many historical periods, with a special focus on Colonial America, including historical documents hand signed by some of America’s founding fathers.
Randal Bedwell explaining bookbinding at
Yeoman's in the Fork
I wandered toward the back of the gallery and discovered a man sitting at a desk engaged in bookbinding who offered to help me if I needed information about the gallery. Instead, I struck up a conversation about his bookbinding work, and he showed me a large book with leather binding that he had just finished cleaning and mending – it was a copy of the works of Euripedes, a Greek tragedian living in the 5th century B.C. The volume was published in 1694, and the print was as clear as the day it was published on fine, unblemished paper resembling parchment!
Bedwell established a Guild Bookbindery in 1987 in the basement of his parents’ home in Paris, Tennessee and reports that he began his business repairing and rebinding old Bibles, as well as Civil War volumes. We found that we had a mutual acquaintance in Oxford, Mississippi --Richard Howorth, owner of the famous Square Books bookstore in Oxford. Bedwell pursued his Masters in History at Ole Miss and later started a publishing house called the Guild Bindery Press and a literary magazine, Southern Reader. He published his own books through the press, authoring many books on southern history and culture and later sold his May I Quote You, General? Civil War Biography Series to Cumberland House Publishing and three other titles to Random House in New York City.
Bedwell showed me a copy of General Lee and Santa Claus: An Adaptation, a children’s book that he authored with Louise Clack about the unlikely pairing of General Robert E. Lee and Santa Claus, which he plans to reprint this year. However, his real passion is bookbinding, and he’s searching for more bookbinding equipment as this service will soon be expanded at its present location so that the work of conserving, preserving, and bookbinding rare books continues at Yeoman’s.
Bedwell also teaches History at Nashville State Community College and is working on his doctorate at Trevecca Nazarene University, but his dissertation isn’t concerned with bookbinding – it’s about online learning. He authors a blog, one of which tells the story of the loss of the famed jeweled book, The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam when the Titanic went down a hundred years ago. This book, with more than 1500 gems in its cover and worth $45,000, was recovered and then lost again. But I won’t retell the story because interested readers can read the complete story on Bedwell’s blog Sinking of Titanic Spawns Bookbinding Legend -- The Great Omar.
As I’ve said before, no telling who or what will turn up when you take a trip through the hills of Tennessee, and Yeoman’s in the Fork is one of those rare places where you’ll find serendipity.