Wednesday, June 27, 2018


In a sermon I delivered Sunday about the story of Christ stilling a storm that threatened his life and that of the disciples, I mentioned Hurricane Lily, a big wind slated to hit New Iberia in 2002. At the time of the anticipated storm, the word went out that there wouldn't be enough body bags for victims of this hurricane when it hit New Iberia. But when the hurricane did hit, it seemed to come right up to New Iberia’s door and just stopped, a dead wind totally rebuked. It was a miraculous event and faithful Roman Catholics in the city declared: “That wasn’t the wind you heard from Lady Lily, it was the sound of Rosary beads clacking.” They took credit for their prayers stopping the awful wind at the door of the town. It was no small miracle and one that locals said probably rivaled Christ rebuking the wind in Mark’s Gospel.

But the story about faith and miracles listeners seemed to enjoy most on Sunday centered on a trunk that came across the ocean from Sicily. This past week I visited with a friend who had moved from Lafayette, Louisiana after retiring from her work as an English professor at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette to live near her son and his family in LaGrange Georgia. She had bought a beautiful home in a wooded area there and furnished it beautifully. But what attracted me in her carefully-appointed study was a huge trunk that served as a coffee table in the spacious room. The wood and the leather straps on this trunk had been restored, and it stood out among all the trappings. “It belonged to my grandparents,” my friend said. “All they owned was in that trunk when they left Sicily and arrived at Ellis Island. They never forgot the crossing and their early settlement in Bessemer, Alabama where my grandfather established a Mom and Pop grocery. It’s a reminder of how blessed my family is today because of their courage and faith in crossing over the ocean.” 

I kept eying that trunk, and the thought came to me that it was one of the metaphors for the sermon I’d preach on Sunday. Those Italian immigrants, who were devoted Roman Catholics, must have endured many storms and possessed strong faith when they crossed over and became rooted in this country. They must have believed that the struggling neighborhood in Bessemer would become a refuge for them… and it did. To that family, becoming established in this country was a miracle not unlike the one in Mark’s Gospel, one wrought by faith and symbolized by the huge trunk which held their faith and was passed on to several generations. However, as the poet Anne Porter wrote: “[perhaps] all their desperate long journey [had been] lost in joy and utterly forgotten…”

After I arrived home in Sewanee on Tuesday, I wrote the sermon and, then, this poem that will probably be included in a new volume of poetry I’m writing entitled Tracks.


She finished her morning prayers,
stepped down the gangplank 
and bent to kiss the earth.
She knew how it was to speak with God.

She had watched olives and grapes grow,
sitting in a courtyard beside a stone house
just large enough to hold her dreams
before she left the warm air of Sicily.

She recalled how she’d become bound,
heavy, like branches laden with fruit,
gazing out at dust and shadows,
finally making life inside a dream

and packing it away in the wooden trunk,
shutting it against pretending
there was no purpose for her.
Surely, she had thought, there was more.

I would like to see inside the trunk, 
imagining green bottles that had held olive oil,
wine corks, worn shoes, hardened and toes up,
fringed shawls of hope… and hopelessness,

visions of a world where her children 
would become less restless,
could live where freedom
had built a village exceeding the old one

and she could make good soup
because her pantry held all the ingredients,
not like the Old World
and scarcely enough to make scent.

She hardly recognizes the loss,
the shift in landscape that much past, 
except when she opens the trunk…

and lets someone out to tell her story.

Monday, June 25, 2018


Some mornings I get up wanting to write and feel a certain fogginess of mind and absence of subject matter that reminds me of E. B. White and his essay of “Writer at Work.” In March of 1927, he wrote that Edna Millay was contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C., and he quotes a Washington news story: “to have this tender poet here in cherry blossom time and to hear her version of this glorious spectacle [would be great].” E.B. White, who is obviously struggling to create his essay for the day, remarks that “Even the theme is laid out for her, like clean linen.”

E. B. White says that a writer is always straining his eyes, peering ahead and around so that when the moment of revelation comes, his eyes are poppy and tired and his sensitized mind has become fogged by the “too frequent half-stimuli of imagined sight…”

I sat here, reading those lines, waiting for my mind to clear, and wondered if there were new ridges there that prevented clear thoughts. What appeared to me was an actual vision of ridges —chenier ridges south of the Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana. I could almost smell the marshy air and see oak trees in the distance — old beach ridges or cheniers. The sand in the ridges is above the marsh so that oak trees abound in the dry soil there. According to an entry in Roadside Geology in Louisiana by Darwin Spearing, the ridge, Little Chenier, marked the position of a beach 2800 years ago. The town of Creole is strung out along another chenier where Chenier Perdue, 2500 years old, and Pumpkin Ridge, 2200 years old, merge.

The largest beach ridge plain in Louisiana is near the Caminada-Moreau Coast with as many as 70 sandy beach ridges that began to grow about 700 years ago. Of course like much of Louisiana coastland, the Caminada-Moreau coast continues to erode.

I’m more familiar with the ridges near Creole, Louisiana because I explored that territory when I was writing my book for young adults entitled Kajun Kween. Those ridges provided the setting for this tale about a young girl named Petite Marie Melancon who wasn’t so petite and who became the heroine in a comic strip. I have an envelope of photographs showing scenes of cheniers that includes a beautiful one which Dr. Sullivan snapped, and I framed for a wall of my study. There’s even an alligator in a corner of the photo, and it’s a scene that has not only inspired me while I was writing Kajun Kween, it became the cover of a book of. poetry entitled Old Ridges in which the opening poem describes the scenery I encountered back in the early 2,000s. 

Although the theme wasn’t “laid out for me, like clean linen,” as E. B. White wrote, my nostalgic thoughts sent me to the bookcase where I found Old Ridges and began to read:


Writing a story of persiflage
I found a place of legend,
a station of shade 
cool enough to wade in,
no voice, no sound,
an alligator hiding on the bank
sliding into murky water,
breaking the silence and the shade.

Further back, I could see ancient ridges,
oak groves, wild grapevines overarching
marshmallow, yucca, and oleander,
some distance from the Intracoastal Canal
where I once rode in a boat
bound for Cheniere au Tigre,
weaving through a network of canals
and anchoring at a wooden dock
that may have been near the old town.

We climbed an old-fashioned stile
astride a barbed wire fence,
searching for an abandoned hotel,
and found: the bones of a cow,
the feather of a crow,
the leaf of a toothache tree --

Old oaks stood sentinel, asking:
Do you think it’s too late?
I haven’t forgotten how it is
to die before dying,
consider my age,
consider this shade,
no voice, no sound.

What was I looking for?
The corpse of a cowboy lying
among bones of Brahma and Charolais?
a chest of Lafitte’s treasure?
the old watchtowers of WWII?
the tiger that mauled a boy a century before?

Hackberry trees grew among stands of oaks
and in the center of one grove,
a house of silvered cypress, 
torn screen on the sagging porch,
door ajar, as if someone had just departed,
the abandoned house among trees
buffeted and twisted by Gulf winds.
Like the trees, it seemed to say
I haven’t forgotten how it is
to die before dying,
consider my age,
consider this shade,
no voice, no sound

and a tiger lurks over the ridge.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

I’m writing a book of poetry about trains, and a few days ago, my botanist friend Vickie Sullivan and I traveled to western North Carolina and bought a ticket on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad that departs from Bryson City, North Carolina and returns the same day. The drive from Sewanee along the scenic trail through Nantahala River country is a winding one, and on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a slow drive due to rafters and kayakers making their way to the Ocoee River. Despite the congestion, I always feel uplifted when we enter western North Carolina and I see the looming Great Smokies.

During the trip, we followed the Blueway Trail at the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park — Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee, and Tuckasegee Rivers that flow into Fontana Lake, and I kept wishing for my old fly rod to do some backcasting. However, I’m sure that my limbs are no longer able to maneuver a float trip. 

We took the only train excursion offered the day after we arrived — the Nantahala Gorge Excursion — and saw much of the territory we’d been through five or six times during visits to western North Carolina. However, we got a closer look at Fontana Lake and traveled on the sky-high Fontana Trestle Bridge. The excursion that sounded like a well-traveled one was the “Shine and Dine Moonshine Experience” and was listed as the priciest experience on the schedule. True to its name, moonshine is the beverage featured during the train ride.

Our train ride was a unique adventure, but I’d been hoping to make the excursion that featured Dillsboro and the Cowee Tunnel filmed in the movie, The Fugitive. As this excursion wasn’t offered, we drove to Dillsboro and further to Silva the day following our train ride. Silva, a small town in the Plott Balsam Mountains, has become famous as a site filmed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and for scenes from the movie Deliverance. Of course, we wandered into the City Lights Bookstore where I discovered further information about the Cherokee Little People after I’d found a book entitled The Cherokee Little People Were Real by Mary A. Joyce in a Bryson City Bookstore. 

I haven’t been able to determine whether these Little People were real but the Cherokee Indians say that when they arrived in the southeastern U.S., a group of people they called the Little People lived underground and came out only at night, tended gardens and returned underground after harvesting their produce. The sun rays were too harsh for them so they constructed cities underground and came out of their caves to work by moonlight. For that reason, the Cherokee also called them “The Moon People." They had red whiskers, squinty eyes, and were hardly four feet tall. According to old-timers and farmers, the flood of 1940 exposed an artifact with a leprechaun-like face known as “Lead Head” that features one of the Little People. The Little People’s tunnels are said to have been found in Cullowhee on the site of Western Carolina University but several historians report that these tunnels and artifacts were covered up and university buildings were constructed over them.

We skirted the Western Carolina University campus but didn’t make any archaeological digs while there, although I would have liked a glimpse of the mysterious coin with a strange face on each side called “Lead Head” — a face that has Dr. Spock ears and a large nose resembling an Irish leprechaun.

The Little People are no longer alive, according to most researchers but the Cherokee remember stories about them and report that they influenced the way Cherokees learned to live in the mountains. They were so missed that the Cherokee came up with the idea of the Little People Spirit People. These spirits can be helpful but they are also mischievous. Cherokees say that the Little People brought the news of Jesus to them, telling them about his life and his crucifixion. They say that when the Little People heard about Jesus’ death, they wept and wherever their tears fell to the ground, they transformed into fairy crosses which are the unique cross-shaped gems found in the southern Appalachians.

In one of the books, I discovered entitled Living Stories of the Cherokee by Barbara R. Duncan, the author relates that the Little People don’t die. “They’re like spirits,/and they (the Cherokees) could implore them to come,/and there are some who have seen them./Now you can’t see them /unless they want you to see them./And if you see them,/there’s something going to happen/whether good or bad,/either way…and you can hear them, you know,/in different ways, walking and, you know,/they are not mischievous/they are protectors.”

Train photograph by Victoria Sullivan

Friday, June 1, 2018


The above program title is often abbreviated as SOIL lest its length deter young people from aspiring to become interns who share the rhythm and routine of praying and worshipping daily, working in the garden and grounds of the Convent of the Community of St. Mary at Sewanee, Tennessee, and cultivating a life that typifies the balance of the Benedictine Order. 

Visitors often see the interns weeding the Convent garden, planting lavender, and performing as acolytes and readers on the altar at the Convent of St. Mary. The intern program has been in motion for several years, and recently welcomed Eva Bogino from Maryland, a summer intern who will be living at St. Dorothy’s, a small cottage on the grounds of St. Mary, and following the Benedictine model of prayer, work, study, and rest. I understand she has deactivated all social media for the summer! And she’s plucky to come here during our monsoon season at Sewanee.

Long-term interns are usually college graduates who wish to expand their spiritual life and to discern how to use their gifts, interests, and experiences in service to others while living alongside the Sisters. Their tenure lasts from August 15th to mid-May. Summer interns live on the grounds of the Convent of St. Mary for a shorter period — mid-May to early, August — and may be undergraduates or young people who are at least 19 years of age. 

The two young people pictured above, Nathan Bourne and Eileen Schaeffer, were the convent’s first interns and are well remembered for informal hospitality dinners they cooked and served for members of the larger community of Sewanee during their internship. These two young people were outstanding models of the internship program, actively engaging in planting and harvesting lavender at the Convent of St. Mary for Thistle Farms in Nashville (a program that uses lavender in products made by survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction who are healed and empowered during a residency at the farm). 

Although Nathan and Eileen, like succeeding interns, engaged in agricultural pursuits, they also participated in study beyond the Convent and explored ways in which their faith connected with human communities and the natural world. Past newsletters from the Convent of St. Mary describe their work and their devotion to the Intern program. Copies of these newsletters are housed at the Convent of St. Mary. 

Short term interns in the SOIL program (also called The Organic Prayer Internship Program — TOPIP) have been provided with housing and some meals, and long-term interns are offered the same arrangement, as well as a modest weekly stipend. The "long-termers" sometimes work outside the St. Mary Community to make extra money.

Those of us who are associates and other members of the congregation who worship at the Convent of St. Mary love the engagement with these interns who are following their “Rule of Life” or mission: “Spiritual and personal growth and development and vocational discernment guided by the Benedictine model of prayer, work, study, and rest that is rooted in intentional communal living in harmony with the natural world, the Community of St. Mary, and the greater Sewanee Community.”

Prioress Madeleine Mary says she’s looking for new interns, and we who attend services in the Chapel at St. Mary and function as Associates look forward to welcoming these young people. Readers of this blog who know qualifying applicants, please guide them to the application form at the Community of St. Mary website:, or write to Prioress Madeleine Mary at the Community of St. Mary, Southern Province, 1100 St. Mary’s Lane, Sewanee, TN 37375. 

Photograph by Prioress Madeleine Mary