Thursday, December 22, 2016


Every Christmas, I receive a card from the Piney Woods School near Jackson, Mississippi, a country school to which I've been sending a small donation for fifteen or more years. I had never seen the school until this Fall when we made our return trip to New Iberia, Louisiana after spending spring and summer in Sewanee, Tennessee. Before veering off course to see the school, we visited the library in Brandon, Mississippi to research more about the birthplace of my great-grandmother, Dora Runnels Greenlaw, as I'm writing a book of poetry about the "redneck" side of my family entitled Sifting Red Dirt. I was surprised to learn that the Piney Woods Country School was less than an hour's drive from Brandon.

The Piney Woods School, the largest of only four historical African-American schools in the United States, encompasses 2,000 acres in the midst of piney woods south of Jackson and was established in 1909 for children of field hands, some of whom were former slaves. It has also been highly touted as a place for at-risk students who are trained to develop a work ethic by teachers who utilize the disciplines of a "boot camp." Piney Woods School was first used as an institution for blind African-American children, but the blind students were later moved to nearby Jackson, and since its inception as a school for African-American males, the school has become co-educational.

In addition to regular studies, the students work at least ten hours a week on campus with livestock and crops or as teaching assistants and office workers, and 98% of them graduate from the secondary school and pursue college studies. Many of them have degrees from Harvard, the University of the South, Princeton, Amherst College, Smith, University of Chicago, and other outstanding U.S. universities. The concept of work/study reminded me of Booker T. Washington's ideas for Tuskegee Institute (1881). During the early years of this institute in Alabama, students made bricks, built barns, grew their own crops, and learned trades. Of course, today, this university rivals other major U.S. universities in academics, but in its early life, Washington focused on teaching the students how to sustain themselves through agriculture and to develop trade skills that would lift them out of poverty.

When we drove through the Piney Woods campus, it was fall break and almost deserted of students, but we saw enough of the campus buildings, a lovely rock amphitheater, and one of the five lakes edging this instructional farm campus. I was disappointed that administrative offices were closed because I would have enjoyed a tour of the entire acreage. However, I later wrote a poem about Piney Woods School, the last verse of which is included here:


We made the circle,
passed the lake of once-turbulent water,
Mexicans, Caribbeans, Africans
now working a self-sufficient farm,
chores coupled with classes,
my modest check helping bury the past,
soil rich with the blood of slavery
and a shadow rising with the moon
above red mounds...
the darkness of Collective Conscience.

The image above is a photograph of a glass piece created by Karen Bourque, artist, Church Point, Louisiana, to be used as a cover for Sifting Red Dirt.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


I once lived in a dusty, sparsely populated town in West Texas called Electra, a place that had been an oil boom town. Electra, named for a wealthy rancher's daughter, was located at the edge of a ranch originally owned by Daniel Waggoner, expanded to include a half million acres. As my friend, Janis Rice Grogan, says in All of My Life With You, "bars and churches vied for first place as centers of social life" there. My husband and I had moved to this barren place described as "having only a barbed wire fence between it and the North Pole," for his assignment as an engineer with Texaco, and Jan lived across the street from me — my closest friend among a handful in this small town. In her memoir, Jan speaks of the loneliness of this west Texas town and of the hour daily she and I spent together, discussing books. Both of us were not writing much then, but I think that our literary hour every morning probably helped spark a lifelong interest in book writing — for both of us.

While the major part of my writing has been in the realm of poetry, Jan has been working on this narration about her life with Gene Grogan, a petroleum engineer with Cities Service, beginning in Oklahoma and Texas and expanding to cover five continents. For almost sixty years, Jan and I have enjoyed a wonderful friendship, and I've been privy to many chapters of her memoir along the way. In All of My Life With You, Jan relates that the Grogan family moved nineteen times during the duration of her marriage to Gene — from the U.S. to Muscat, with assignments in New York, London, Bogota, Argentina, Nairobi, Aberdeen, and other oilfield sites. She also records Gene's rise in the oil industry from a field petroleum engineer with Cities Service to President of Occidental Oman Oil Company.

With three children in tow, Jan follows her husband to both exotic and dangerous foreign posts, sometimes enduring life in places like Comodoro Rivadavia in southern Argentina where four trees struggled for life in a city of 100,000, and "the wind always blew from the land toward the sea and a few times a year it could reach 150 miles an hour. Normal rainfall was ten inches but in 1963 over forty inches fell, turning the unpaved roads into quagmires..." When Jan left this country to wait for the arrival of her third child in the United States, she relates that she knelt down at the bottom of the airplane's steps and kissed the ground, vowing never to leave the U.S. again. However, she would renege on that vow for almost forty more years, following Gene around the world and to journey's end in Washington, D.C. where she now lives.

This memoir is not just the chronicle of an American woman's odyssey around the world, it's a love story about a successful marriage that prompted me to say at one time, "Gene is the perfect husband," because he was perhaps the most devoted, caring husband I observed during the times I visited the couple. It's also a book about the couple's faith that sustained them during dangerous encounters abroad. Gene was in charge of Occidental's North Sea operation in 1988 when Occidental's oil platform in the North Sea blew up, an incident dubbed the worst oil field accident in the history of the petroleum industry. One hundred sixty-seven men died in that explosion and its aftermath. In a poignant account of the accident, Jan records the visit of the famous oil-well firefighter Red Adair who extinguished the fire still blazing on the remains of Piper Alpha oil platform.

Jan, Diane, Gene, London 1973
All of My Life With You is a fascinating armchair tour of the world told by a courageous woman of faith who followed her husband on a journey that she says exemplifies Robert Frost's "Road Not Taken." Jan writes in a highly accessible style, exposing the reader to the Grogan's diverse religious encounters, as well as political situations. This is an engaging family saga filled with stories about people of differing backgrounds and cultures that inevitably impacted the Grogan family's tolerance and respect for diversity. It's also a tribute to Gene Grogan, "the perfect husband" whom Jan describes as possessing all the attributes of the Eagle Scout that he was: trustworthy, loyal, friendly, brave, reverent, etc. and, she adds, "also intelligent, exuberant and sensitive." During the last years of Gene's life, he suffered from Alzheimers, and his children observed that the disease robbed him of language and memory but his witty and playful personality remained intact.

The elegant eulogy Gene's son Patrick preached at Gene's funeral in December 2013 at St. Alban's in Washington, D.C. is included in All of My Life With You. Also, the moving "Epilogue" featuring part of the service of Compline from a New Zealand Prayer Book, creates a meet conclusion to this eloquent narrative. Family pictures are an added bonus.

Jan Rice Grogan was awarded a Medical Technology degree from the University of Oklahoma and earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

For armchair travelers and memoir readers, this is a must read.

Friday, December 9, 2016


In the midst of critical downturns lately, I began creating some light verse called The Everyday Journal, poems lighter in content than most of the poetry I write. I also re-acquainted myself with the King of Light Verse, Ogden Nash, beginning with breakfast non-rhymes (in contrast to Nash's penchant for rhyming) and concluding with the second cup of coffee.

I had fun unwinding with light verse, and this morning I re-read a few Nash poems for inspiration. Nash, by the way, began making up his droll rhymes at age six and often crafted his own words when rhyming words didn't suffice for his comical verse. He dropped out of Harvard after one year and went to New York a few years later to sell bonds, but admitted that in two years he sold only one bond to his godmother.

Nash then began writing ads for streetcars and later spent three months working on the editorial staff for The New Yorker. After he married Frances Leonard, his fortunes began to pick up, and he published his first collection of poetry, Hard Lines, which brought him national attention. In his spare time, Nash appeared on radio comedy shows, but he was also respected by the literary crowd who wrote and critiqued more serious poetry. Theatre-goers may remember Nash's lyrics from the Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus.

The verse by Nash that I read this morning is entitled "The Anatomy of Happiness," and was longer than his usual snippets ("Candy is dandy/but liquor is quicker"). The long piece of verse spoke to my condition: "...Miracles don't happen every day,/But here's hoping they may,/Because then everybody would be happy except the people who pride themselves on creating their own happiness who as soon as they see everybody who didn't create their own happiness become happy they would probably grieve over sharing their own heretofore private sublimity,/A condition which I could face with equanimity."

An example of one of my non-rhyming poems from The Everyday Journal regarding the efficacy of chaos:


At lunch, she plays a podcast --
how chaos begets creativity,
"I have a dream," the spontaneous result,
a Civil Rights speech
carefully prepared and thrust aside
as Martin Luther King takes in
his people's heartbreak and struggle
and goes off line,
one of the finest pieces of rhetoric
delivered about the light of freedom,
eloquence born in chaos.

This broadcast plays while I am eating
black-eyed peas and rice,
digesting a poor man's fare
to be in touch with struggle,
rain still falling, puddling the yard.
The day is gray and unsettled enough
to engender creativity
in lieu of reading Trump's Tweets,
which bring up visions of him playing
an old army bugle, flatulent notes rising
on the threat of a massive flash flood.

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Rain falls here in New Iberia early this morning, and I am thankful for the patter of it on the roof. I check the weather forecasts for Sewanee and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the former where I live part of the year, and the latter having been damaged by forest fires in the Great Smokies. I’m relieved to see reports of rain in Gatlinburg where so many acres of the town and forests have been destroyed.

For four weeks now, I’ve been plagued by bronchitis from the ash in the air because of burning in the sugar cane fields, many times thinking we should travel to our second home at Sewanee where the air would be less polluted. However, a friend who has just returned from Sewanee says that the air there is also polluted with smoke drifting over from the fires in the Smokies. 

Rain is a blessing right now in many parts of the country and I turn to a book of blessings To Bless the Space Between Us, by John O’Donohue for his thoughts about living in a world infused with blessings of both home and landscape. About clean air, he writes: 

Let us bless the invigoration
Of clean, fresh air.
The gentleness of air
That holds and slows the rain,
Lets it fall down…In the name of the air,
The breeze,
And the wind,
May our souls
Stay in rhythm
With eternal

I was fascinated about a story O’Donohue told regarding the power of intention and of blessing people, habitats, happenings… An ongoing experiment took place in an American university in which there is a sealed-off room containing a coin-flipping machine. Day and night the machine flips coins. The results usually show fifty percent heads and fifty percent tails. Near this room there is another one that invites people in. Each person is requested to make an intention — heads or tails? After they make their choice, they are asked to write it down on a page that is placed in a sealed envelope and addressed to the research team. The results showed that if a person wished for heads, the machine ended up flipping up to 75 percent majority of heads and vice versa. The team found that the distance that the power of the intention to influence the outcome held for up to a hundred and fifty mile radius surrounding the room in which the experiment took place. O’Donohue poses the question that if human intention can substantially influence the outcome of a cold, neutral coin-flipping machine, how much more can our human intentions achieve as we relate to one another? He writes: "Goethe says that once the commitment is made, destiny conspires with us to support and realize it."

And as the rain falls, I read the succinct lines of the poet who created this book of gracious invocations: 

Let us bless the humility of water,
always willing to take the shape
Of whatever otherness holds it…Blessed be water,
Our first mother. 

And I add: Blessed be the flow of renewal in the rain and air as they become transformative agents in our anxious world.

Painting by my deceased brother Paul who loved the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the fresh air of northern California.