Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Penny at Mass
While the U.S. ponders whether it should cut off aid to Egypt’s military, Manila struggles with the aftermath of a typhoon that dumped two feet of rain, the stock market dips, and intermittent storms blow through various parts of this country, here on The Mountain, those of us who attend services at St. Mary’s have begun pondering the serious question of what to do about Penny’s "call."  Penny is an orphaned, mixed pitbull/retriever who found a home at the Convent a few years ago  a brown dog with an equable disposition who wanders through the halls, refectory, and, lately, onto the altar at St. Mary’s chapel. 

I’m sure that those who could be termed “preciousnists” or people who are obsessive-compulsive about liturgical matters, will recoil in horror as I present this question of what to do about a dog’s call to ministry, particularly when it involves liturgical functions. I’m one who appreciates dogs even though I’m allergic to animal dander and have to limit my petting privileges.  I inherited this fondness for them through the Greenlaw strain, a strain that has produced numerous dogologists who claim to speak in dog tongue, and I’m among those who have witnessed a dog being “called,” a call that should be given human and humane consideration.
As usual, the via media is at work among Anglicans who always try to hold two opposing viewpoints in tension as they attack theological questionsthere are those who dismiss this canine’s call to ministry as nonsense and advocate banishing the dog from the chapel, and there are those who favor her at least answering an altar call and coming up for a blessing.
Penny normally lies in a dog bed behind the chair of Sr. Madeleine Mary, the Sister-in-Charge of St. Mary’s, who has been a strong force in the discipline of the dog’s behavior up to this point.  Several weeks ago, Sr. Madeleine Mary went on a short vacation, followed by a doctor’s visit in New York, and Penny began to stray from her bed during services, sidling up to various dog lovers and asking them why her mistress had abandoned her.  Those of us who understand dogs saw that Penny was questioning the strength of her mistress’s affection for her – she had been abandoned by a previous master and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, as well as certain separation issues that require a support team trained in petting, feeding, and walking pets who have been mistreated or abandoned by masters or mistresses lacking in sensitivity regarding the emotional lives of canines.
When Sr. Madeleine Mary returned, Penny began to shadow Sister even more than she had before Sister went on vacation, and she refused to tolerate any more schisms in their partnership.  Now whether Penny suffered so much psychological damage that she was driven into considering the ministry (this sometimes occurs, and people get ordained before the Commission on Ministry realizes that the aspirant's "call" is really an act of desperation) or just had a valid call to serve on the altar, we don’t know, since there's no canine Commission on Ministry or Discernment Committee, no dog Bishop to disavow this call.  But the fact is that during Friday Healing Service, Penny followed Sr. Madeleine Mary onto the altar and stood waiting to be anointed like the rest of God’s creatures, great or small.  However, she wasn’t given the oil or a blessing, and she went away to ponder the so-called healing practices of humans.
I don’t know if Sr. Madeleine Mary read aloud portions of The Wounded Healer to Penny, or if she simply went into a mini-retreat to ponder what she should do with her newfound desire to participate in the Episcopal services offered at the Convent, but during the Eucharist last Sunday, Penny exhibited her call and decided to help me prepare the table and carry out my diaconal duties.  It was evident she really felt called, and had I been invested with more authority than a deacon (defined as that “inferior order” in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer), I would’ve ordained her a subdeacon on the spot…
However, I just went home and re-read an interview I once had with the famous Louisiana painter, George Rodrigue, whose blue dog appears in the foreground of almost every painting he renders.  In part of the dialogue with Rodrigue, I comment: “There is a book called Dictionary of Scripture and Myths, and the definition of a dog is this: the dog is a symbol of the higher self and the going forth of the self as will.”
 Rodrigue answers, “When my dog Tiffany died, she came back to find her master.  The spirits of  dogs travel – there is no time – they travel from the first century to the present, and their job is to try and find their way back to their masters, but they have a difficult time because every situation is a human situation and they’re caught in these human situations…”   Hmmm.
This dialogue goes on several hours, and I tell Rodrigue about the old legend that took place after Adam, the first man, appeared.  The legend relates that after the creation, a gulf opened up between Adam and the animals that he had given names.  Among them was this dog who kept looking at the ever-widening breach.  The separation was almost complete, but the dog suddenly leaped across the gulf and took his place beside man.
Maybe, just maybe, Penny thinks that like George and his blue dog, she and Sister Madeleine Mary should take their places side by side on the altar, or perhaps she even envisions serving as a subdeacon with me, despite my allergies.  It’s a thorny question, but I wouldn’t want this kind of "inclusiveness issue" to be deliberated at General Convention because I'm certain that Penny would become a dog with white whiskers before the warring factions made any decision about her “call” to serve or celebrate at The Table.

Monday, August 19, 2013


Daddy-longlegs on the prowl
One thing I don’t miss about life in south Louisiana is the onslaught of ubiquitous mosquitoes, or, as the French call them, “maringouins.”  Usually when I return to New Iberia in October, they’re still hovering outside my window that faces the backyard patio, and they’re probably the last thing I see dancing on the window before I leave for The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee in the early Spring. In bayou country, I seldom see granddaddy-longlegs or daddy-longlegs poised on my sill, and I’ve always heard that these spidery-looking insects hunt and consume mosquitoes.
However, here in my cottage on the Cumberland Plateau, daddy-long-legs seem to enjoy peering in my bedroom window, bunching up in pairs or groups on the wall near one window and delighting in startling me when I look outdoors to greet the morning, their long legs outstretched as if ready to envelop me in an unwanted embrace. I know they’re harmless and aren’t true spiders, but these critters with their long skinny legs look sinister enough for me to hunt for a broom so I can sweep them into the yard where they feed on dead organisms, which is one of their favorite meals.
I find several daddy-longlegs entwined at times and suppose they’re either mating or getting ready to dance, but I don’t understand why they appear in the morning as they’re known to prefer nocturnal life in the nightclubs of the woods. They join the crowd of insects and critters that congregate in my yard at night – a parade that includes katydids, fireflies, coons, deer, brown rabbits, foxes, and marauding skunks. Recently, I wrote a poem about these critters that will be included in my new book of poetry, In A Convent Garden and Other Poems, but I won’t preview this poem until the book is published sometime next month.
Back to daddy-longlegs – they don’t weave webs, and if you see them in a web, it’s because a large spider with fangs captured them. They also like to play dead when disturbed, and I always fear they've met their Maker when I take a broom to them, only to see them suddenly spread their long legs and descend the moss-covered steps leading to our front porch.
Daddy-longlegs were on this earth 410 million years ago and are related to scorpions, but I guess they’ve evolved into a more compassionate insect and can actually be held in your hand, if you can stand the tickling sensation. Despite bad press about being poisonous, they actually have no fangs, praise be my privilege to porch sit without fear of insect bites.
In the evenings when I sit on the front porch and watch squirrels playing in the white oaks or fawns emerging from the small woods facing our cottage, I usually have to dispose of my long-legged peeping Tom friends who have begun to gather in groups that are too close for my comfort. But I must admit, I hardly ever see a mosquito, even though we’ve been besieged by rain this summer on the Plateau – the stories about their appetite for mosquitoes must be true.
When my daughter from California visited me a few years ago, she was appalled by the abundant insects and critters in the yard, including a line-up of redbugs, ticks, spiders, locusts, and the sinister-looking daddy-longlegs. She also encountered poison ivy and went home, scratching mightily, leaving behind the comment, “I don’t think I’d like to live here.” However, she has learned to live alongside lizards, possums, desert rats, snakes, and other critters that populate her backyard in the Mohave Desert, not to mention wildfires, earthquakes, and an absence of gentle rain that she, a native Louisianan, likes to hear pattering on the roof.
To each its own in the natural world… even if I take a broom to those insects that appear on my porch each morning lately. However, I do wield the broom gently, honoring the food chain and attempting to keep my mosquito control program active.
P.S. The daddy-longlegs haven’t moved a sixteenth of an inch since I looked out at 7 a.m. and it is now close to 11. I guess they’re sleeping off their nighttime revelry.
Photograph by Victoria Sullivan

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Friends often tease me about my love of hotels and my not-so-secret yen to own a luxury hotel somewhere in the world.  The last time we visited Asheville, North Carolina, several months ago, we drove out to the Omni Grove Park Inn, Asheville’s showplace hotel that has a 100-year old history.  The hotel has recently spent 25 million dollars upgrading its facilities, and is touted as offering guests spaces that include modern technologies and conveniences.  It also boasts a 43,000 square foot subterranean spa that has 10 mineral-based pools and three fireside lounges.
Built by magnate, Edwin W. Grove, who created a formula to prevent malaria called “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic,” the hotel opened in 1913 after Grove had made his millions selling 1.5 million bottles of the miraculous tonic.  Grove suffered from bronchitis, and physicians sent him to Asheville for a cure in the fresh mountain air.  In Asheville he began purchasing property and later became renowned as “The Father of Modern Asheville.”  When Grove Park Inn opened in 1913, William Jennings Bryan delivered the ribbon-cutting address to a gathering of 400 southern gentlemen who heard him proclaim that the Inn was “built for the ages.”
I sat in a rocker on the porch of the Inn and watched people streaming through the lobby into the multiple restaurants and strolling through interconnected retail shops…and I coveted a room in the 513-room resort, vowing that next summer I’d book one and “take the air,” as the Cajuns say, in the Blue Ridge Mountains while sojourning in this refined place.
I’ve spent the night in many elaborate hotel complexes, but the lodging I enjoyed the most was the Shah Abbas Hotel, now known as the Isfahan Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, Iran, which we toured while living in southern Iran during the 70’s.  The hotel was built at the time of King Sultan Husayn of the Safavid Dynasty approximately 300 years ago and was originally built as a caravansary for visiting traders and diplomats.  At its zenith, the city of Isfahan was described as “half the world,” and when I stayed in this elegant hotel and strolled in the gardens during Now Ruz, I experienced the charm of that phrase.  The hotel has been renovated and remains one of the hotel showplaces of the Mideast.
Although I admired the beauty of the Hotel Grande Intercontinental in Paris, my stay there was limited by two children, 12, and 7, and a Persian cat I brought back to the States (not to mention eleven pieces of luggage I was transporting home).  The hotel’s luxurious amenities didn’t include a cat box for the immigrating kitty that developed a fever while we were ensconced in our elegant room.  The calming shot we had given kitty Roya before leaving Tehran had worn off during the first night of our stay, and I spent most of the early morning hours tending a sick cat and listening to the children’s complaints about a hotel that offered no decent pet accommodations.
I’ve savored Dutch ambiance and delicious beer cheese while staying at the Intercontinental Amstel on the banks of the Amster River in Amsterdam and eaten breakfast in the atrium at the Gaylord Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee during our stay there, have danced in the old Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel while sojourning in this New Orleans hotel, and have certainly stayed in less-luxurious digs elsewhere in the U.S. and the world… but I still have an envee to book a room with artsy-craftsy oak furniture at the Omni Grove Park Inn,  I could sit on the porch and imagine that I’m a female version of F. Scott Fitzgerald “taking the mountain air,” and dream about being a hotel magnate with the money I’ve made from writing the Great American Novel. 
The picture above is extracted from the cover painting of Iran In A Persian Market, my first published book (1980).  The painting was rendered by Oscar Ortiz, now deceased.

Friday, August 16, 2013


As I lived in the Mideast for two years back in the 70’s, I’m aware that life in that corner of the world can provide rich material for a novel, a book of non-fiction or poetry. I’ve written three books about my sojourn in Iran, and frequently contemplate finishing another novel about the country that I lived in during the reign of the Shahanshah. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Perle Besserman’s newest novel, Widow Zion, incorporates her descriptions of and experiences in the Mideast and as writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem.
Published by Pinyon Publishing a few weeks ago, Widow Zion is a serious read about the complex Middle East. The novel quickly moves a prosperous Jewish American widow from New York and Miami to a Holy Land Tour in the chaotic world of Jerusalem during the years that Clinton sponsored the Camp David peace talks between Arafat and Rabin and the struggle between Jews and Arabs at that time. The apt quotation by Toni Craven preceding the beginning of the novel sets the scene for the contemporary battle between Palestine and Israel: “That Zion is a devastated mother is understandable; that she is a widow raises a troubling question; who and where is her husband?”
The disturbing adventures of Stella, a widow who seeks love amid this Mideast background following the death of her husband and the suicide of her beloved son, reveal a woman who seems to possess more romantic notions than good sense. Stella discards all vestiges of her former life, except her enormous wealth, and attempts to seduce Aryeh, her guide, in explorations of Jerusalem. Aryeh grieves the death of his wife, suffers from the effects of Israel’s endless battles, and daily ruminates about family destroyed during the Holocaust. Leo, Aryeh’s cousin who is a Holocaust survivor, tries to persuade Aryeh to pursue Stella for material gain, but he also introduces the spiritual aspects of this novel through his beliefs about tikkun or the re-ordering of a broken world.
I was alarmed by the widow throwing away all caution in her search for love–offering bribes, co-habiting with a black panther who abuses her, and finally succumbing to a stranger at her hotel, leaving us to wonder whether she found authentic love in this troubled world of the Mideast or experienced some kind of spiritual epiphany within this complicated construct.
Besserman’s descriptions of Jerusalem are stunning–she writes with the insights of a poet and the exactness of a journalist; e.g., “They walked slowly, Stella Richter occasionally stopping to comment on the creeping vines on every porch, the marigolds and pansies sprouting wildly, out of the cracks in the pavement, and the many pregnant cats that crossed their path. It took them almost forty-five minutes to walk all the way down to the Sea of Galilee (thought it should have taken no more than twenty) through the closed market smelling of fish and roasted sunflower seeds, past the movie theater, where Aryeh inquired about the performance schedule of the John Wayne Western in English with Hebrew sub-titles. Stella Richter had grown overheated with exertion and was panting–not unusual for a normally sedentary woman her age, which Aryeh estimated as sixty, his own…”
Besserman also introduces cultural differences among the nationalities milling about in Jerusalem, and I was amused at her description of differences between the Americans and the Brits when Aryeh makes the statement that because of their linguistic ties, Americans and British share a common cultural base. “The professor had shaken his wiry head and said, “No. They’re not the same at all. The difference between them, the big difference, is that the British draw boundaries between people and the Americans don’t…An American will meet you on a train for the first time and ask you what you do for a living or how much money you have in the bank or if you sleep in the nude. An Englishman will never ask you such personal question–not even after you’ve known him for a long time. The only thing I’ve heard them ask right away is, ‘What school did you attend?’ That is a very important piece of information with the British; it helps them distinguish between the people who count and those who don’t…”
Woven throughout the novel is the implicit message of universal spiritual emptiness that pervades most contemporary cultures and the hope that civilizations will resolve their differences and undergo spiritual renewal despite prevailing wars that beset Israel and the entire Mideast.
In reviewing this richly-textured novel, I couldn’t improve on the succinct blurb on the back cover, touting it as a story “based on the centuries’-old struggle between Jews and Arabs in its current Palestinian/Israeli incarnation–[a] contemporary re-telling of the ancient biblical story of exile and return that reveals the source of the so-called “clash of civilizations,” which lies within the Jewish Diaspora itself…”
Widow Zion is an arresting novel in which “the entire scene has become dreamlike, a heat-shimmering mirage,” written by a cosmopolitan author who has worked in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages.  She has written two previous novels, Pilgrimage and Kabuki Boy, and two story collections, Marriage and Other Travesties of Love and Yeshivo Girl. Besserman holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films.
For those readers who have lived in the Mideast, Widow Zion is a “must read.” Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Friday, August 9, 2013


Heartwood, SW Virginia's Artisan Gateway
Abingdon, Virginia

Tennessee is a long, narrow state that is bordered by eight states with interesting sites that can be reached within a four or five hour drive from Sewanee, Tennessee where we reside half the year.  The bordering states that we don't frequent because they entail longer drives are Arkansas and Missouri, but during the past six years we've covered the art scenes in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Virginia. 

We've just returned from Abingdon, Virginia where the Virginia Highlands Festival went on for sixteen days.  The Festival, dubbed "The Jewel of the Blue Ridge," showcased Appalachian arts and crafts – juried arts shows, antiques markets, Celtic and Blue Grass music, tours of the famous William King Museum, quilting exhibits, and, of course, the famous Barter Theatre.

The Barter Theatre is eight decades old and is touted as the most famous stage in Virginia, as well as winner of the Tony Award for Regional Theatre.  During the Highlands Festival, the Barter featured a full venue of plays, and we enjoyed The Blonde, The Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, a one-woman performance in which Tricia Matthews played the parts of a wife, a husband, a lover, a child, a neighbor, and a shop girl in two acts.  We've seen a lot of Little Theatre plays, but this was a stunning professional performance by a versatile female actress who is the resident acting coach at the Barter Theatre when she isn't performing.   Her acting performances are diverse, ranging from Amanda in The Glass Menagerie to Miss Hanningan in Annie.

Although "The Heartland" featured the biggest array of crafts in Abingdon, we spent more time sampling the farm-grown food and playing the CD's of blue grass music – we had missed the usual Thursday night performance by famous and soon-to-be famous blue grass musicians. Docents encouraged us to follow "The Crooked Road," Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, 333 miles through the mountains of southwest Virginia where there are miles of music venues and wayside exhibits, but we didn't venture that far afield.

I was attracted to the exhibit of the Virginia dulcimer in the William King Museum and stood before a video of blue grass music that featured dulcimers, creating my own lyrics while the musicians did their bowing, strumming, and picking.  "You should write lyrics for country music," my friend Victoria told me as I improvised lyrics.  "Yes, Nashville is full of wannabes like me who think their spontaneous song making will catapult them to Grand Ole Opry fame," I said wryly, but went on singing improvisations in a high, lonesome-sounding voice reminiscent of blue grass performers.  I'm sure the docent who had greeted us when we entered the museum caught my act on her desk monitor!

The dulcimer, a teardrop-shaped instrument, arrived in Virginia via immigrants from Germany, Scotland, and England, and since my Scots ancestors settled near Fredericksburg, Virginia, I suppose I could claim some inheritance of appreciation for the dulcimer.  One dulcimer in the exhibit was reserved for strummers, so I picked a tune with it and wished that I had been able to attend an earlier lecture about this fascinating musical instrument.

Wm. King Museum graffiti on
storage building
Another intriguing exhibit at the William King Museum, entitled "UNshelved," featured artists who're interested in textbook images – seeing books as art objects and working on paper in alternative ways.  They're billed as collectors of images, publications, stories that inform their artistic work.  One artist, Nick DeFord, collects maps and books, mixes art supplies with office supplies, references art history, popular culture, and places where mysterious events take place in his exhibit.  Travis Head of Blacksburg, Virginia, uses his sketchbooks for exhibits, documenting events from his life through notes and meticulous drawings that reminded me of Da Vinci's notebooks.  As we left the museum, a docent told us to notice the arresting graffiti mural on a storage building that an artist had done, using spray paint in cans.

This account only highlights a few of the attractions at The Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon, Virginia, but it was refreshing to visit a hotbed of Appalachian culture and a community of vibrant artists, even though we developed a case of "visual overwhelm."  Festival administrators attributed the success of the 65th Anniversary Celebration to the all-volunteer committee members who helped visitors explore "The Jewel of the Blue Ridge." 

Monday, August 5, 2013


I have on my desk this morning the latest publication of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado: Magical, Fantastical, Alphabetical Soup, Mini Fictions, Prose Poems, & Rants by Chuck Taylor. The author of this volume invites readers not to be “weighted down by too many predetermined notions of what narrative should be,” and I felt free enough this morning to pursue the book straight through from A to Z. As I turned the pages, I was reminded of Montaigne who described his unique daydream-like writing: “I cannot keep my subject still...it goes along…staggering with a natural drunkenness…” Montaigne’s rumination aptly describes the natural flow of Taylor’s writing.
That last statement isn’t a negative assessment of his work. I think he has the kind of genuine vision attributed to the poet Charles Simic, moving us through surrealism and a sometimes dark view of human problems: hunger, poverty, violence, while managing to transform the everyday world into a place of mystery, “everything teetering on the edge of everything/With a polite smile...” as Simic says.
Taylor begins his alphabetical soup with a prose poem entitled “Artist of Shadows,” propelling us into the inner sanctum of a writer with a description that is familiar to many writers who take their insomnia to the computer and begin to compose: “the lamp lit, the fan running – white noise to block exterior sounds – the blinds shut tight; artist of the shadows of heart, the strange beatings inside, the mind waking with extraordinary thoughts, worries best kept to oneself, the others in the house sleeping…a tough old ox alone, artist of the shadows, his books on the wall…his laptop’s blue glow, tap, tap, words on the screen out in the night onto the Web for other artists of shadows who seek what they do not know…”
By the time I reached the letter “C,” I was smiling, as Taylor cruises along in his cool Chrysler convertible and crushes a chicken in his path, lamenting that he’s always quoting Albert Schweitzer concerning reverence for life. He pulls off the road to examine his car for remnants of the bird, only to discover moths and butterfly bits of wings, then sets these remains on a pyre of twigs and lights it. As he imagines himself an Indian, he sings mourning songs in the dark and “dreams respect for the living and the dead.” Profundity and wit combine in two pages of a prose poem that will delight those who like to hear the sound of a sardonic voice within wise revelations.
In one of the most humorous mini essays in Magical,Fantastical, Alphabetical Soup, Taylor exhorts everyone, at least once in their lives, to wear a dress, citing the example of Sinclair Lewis who once put on an evening gown to impress flappers. He defines the dress as being the opposite of armor, touting that it displays vulnerability and trust and that the world doesn’t deserve women wearing dresses. “The world contains way too much dope, rape, destruction, and war,” he writes. “But women don’t think about it. They persevere, they continue to love, leaving themselves open for what begins life and what bears life, when they step out into the light wearing, like petals of a sunflower opening, a dangerous dress.” This prose is a “wow” piece of symbolism and wisdom.
Taylor’s prose poem entitled “Nature” reveals his perception that a relationship with nature is a necessary part of the awakening of consciousness and a surrender to stillness, “…the astonishment, the reality you hold in the moment, that you are not mortal.” The beautiful photograph on the cover of Magical, Fantastical, Alphabetical Soup taken by Taylor and designed by Susan Elliott reflects his perceptions about the natural world.
Youth, love, war, nature, Taylor covers both the surreal and ordinary, the social and political landscapes of American life, probing spiritual and moral concerns with irony, poetic skill, and philosophical insight . This book is indeed a magical, fantastical read, and Gary Entsminger at Pinyon has done it again by providing us with the work of a unique writer. Taylor’s prose poems and mini stories contain startling imagery and metaphors in a style reminiscent of those beat writers who freed themselves from the traditional canon of literature. He moves us from the staleness of form that permeates a civilization preoccupied with form into the light of the present moment wearing Simic’s “polite smile.”
Chuck Taylor has been a balloon clown, a soft water salesman, janitor, laundry worker, children’s magician, nursery school teacher, bookseller, and publisher. He operates an independent literary press, Slough, and teaches creative writing, Beat Literature, and American Nature Writing at Texas A&M. His book of poems, What Do You Want, Blood? was awarded the Austin Book Award.

Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.