‘Uncategorized’ Category Archives

28
Sep

Fangirling

by Jan in Uncategorized

IMG_7429 IMG_7432 I said I wouldn’t do again, but I did.

Thursday afternoon, my husband, 12-year-old daughter, one of her friends and I loaded up the car and drove to New Orleans to see a concert at the Superdome. Years ago, an adventure with a pre-twerking Miley Cyrus at the Cajundome had forced me to proclaim, “No more concerts.” Then there was Taylor Swift. And again, I said, “Never again.”

I kept my word until last week. Going to a One Direction concert at the Superdome is not for the faint of heart, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me. My husband, on the other hand, is a man of mercy and was always planning on taking the girls. I’ll confess that I toyed with the notion of selling my ticket. Finally, one of my friends shamed me when she said sending my husband on his own to the Superdome with a crowd of 50,000 mostly screaming pre-teens was grounds for divorce, in her book. Plus, I realized that this could be the last time one of my girls wants to take a trip like this with parents in tow.

A band called Five Seconds of Summer opened for One Direction. Our seats were one section down from the nosebleed, and I knew from the start that this event was not going to be a stroke of acoustical genius. If you didn’t know the words by heart (and fortunately, most everyone there did), you had no shot at understanding what anyone was singing or saying. For the record, the sound of tens of thousand girls screaming does something horrible to one’s auditory system. Fortunately, I brought earplugs, in a lovely shade of purple.

Once the openers finished, we sat for a solid 90 minutes waiting for One Direction. They played dance music like “Put a ring on it” and “Summer Loving” from Grease during the waiting period. Our daughter and her friend danced the whole time. Conversing with anyone was impossible. So I played a word game. My husband and I wrote each other an occasional note.

Finally, the moment arrived, and the five-boy band hit the stage and runway. You’ll be pleased to know that, according to Zane, Harry and Liam, we were their loudest crowd ever. After the concert, my daughter mentioned this thrice with great pride. When it occurred to her that they might say this to every crowd, she didn’t wilt at all, convinced in the honest ways of the boys with long hair. For one of the early songs, the stadium went dark, and thousands of points of light lit up the space like the Milky Way over the ocean. My husband leaned over and yelled, “Back in the day, we did this with lighters. Now, they do it with cell phones. I’m uncertain which habit is worse.”

Other than that, the only spoken sentence that I understood for certain happened during a fluke of sound waves clarity. One of the band members yelled, “This place is absolutely epic.”

In case you’re not in the know about One Direction, they’re mostly from England, with an Irish dude thrown in for good measure. They’re all beautiful boys, and they sing well too. Their lyrics are largely uplifting: “Don’t forget where you belong.” “Don’t let up.” “Live while we’re young.”

When they started playing the song that goes, “You don’t know you’re beautiful — and that’s what makes you beautiful,” the 20-something beside me, whom I didn’t know and hadn’t spoken to (because speaking was impossible), handed me her phone and motioned for me to video the performance. She wanted to dance. So I did. I even cut from the stage to her and her friend dancing – hoping they could see that, in fact, they are rather beautiful.

Truth be told, had it not been for the terrible sound quality, the screaming and the grown woman in front of me who was sporting a sequined bow the size of a young t-rex, going to see One Direction was an enjoyable evening. Even still, I’m thinking One Direction, live and in person, was a once in a lifetime deal.

1
Sep

Translating wisdom gained too late

by Jan in Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 12.12.24 PM

More than 30 years ago, a group of church ladies invited my best friend to speak about her experience as a summer missionary abroad to their women’s prayer group. The ladies lived about 30 miles from where my friend and I were in school. She invited me to join her that evening — and I did.
For some reason, the lady who introduced my friend to the group began talking about soap. For reasons lost to time, this woman was on a personal mission to educate others, starting with her prayer group, to the dreadfulness and terrors soap causes the human body. Instead, she was a fan of a particular soap-less cleanser. I had never heard such and was fascinated.
This soap-hater also happened to be a new mother. At one point in her tirade against soap, she mentioned her infant baby boy, and said, “And soap will never touch my son’s body.” (For the record, I believe she was also a new distributor of a cleanser that contained no soap.)
My friend and I were college-aged girls, the youngest in the room. No one else seemed to think this woman was off her rocker in the least, but my friend and I didn’t dare make eye contact. We knew we would lose it if we did. Throughout our drive back that night, we said repeatedly in as dramatic tones as possible, “Soap will never touch my son’s body.”
We still say it to this day, in fact, — and have wondered through the years just how many times soap has touched her son’s body.
I share that story because I have a confession. While it wasn’t about soap, I became that kind of woman for a few years about my first child’s education.
I will own it. I was a crazy person. Much like the soap-abhorring lady who introduced my friend years ago, I thought every decision I made about my child mattered so much. I guess no one can tell women like that, “Hey, cool it. Your son will use soap one day — and he will be OK.” Or “Hey, cool it. Your daughter will not be prepared for her SATs by the time she’s 11 — and she will be OK.”
A young parent I know and love recently agonized over the decision of where to send his three-year-old son to school. He mentioned one option that met the family’s every need, but the school used the same curriculum for both three and four-year-olds. He was concerned about how bored his son would be when he was four.
I heard my years-ago self in his words and voice. I knew I would have had the same concerns. I would have moved heaven and earth for my child to be in what I perceived as the best educational option. I also knew I probably wouldn’t have listened to someone who tried to tell me otherwise.
Intellectually, surely I knew back then that children being in loving, supportive educational environments is just as, if not more, important that the educational latest bells and whistles. Additionally, surely I knew that what happens at home, including reading, play and conversation, makes an even bigger difference than what happens a couple of mornings a week at pre-school.
Even though I knew it, I was chasing something back then, thinking I had to get every aspect just right. In retrospect, I wish I would have chilled out more — and I wish I could share my now realization to lessen the stress of other parents going through similar situations now.
On the other hand, perchance the gift of past-tense awareness is about something bigger. Maybe it’s not about realizing something too late or sharing wisdom with anyone else.
Perhaps it’s an opportunity to use the wisdom gained too late for one situation just in time for another.

24
Aug

Three Dog Night gets it right

by Jan in Uncategorized

One of the twins who lived in the room next to me my freshman year in college posted a link to Three Dog’s Night Joy to the World on Facebook Thursday. I’m not sure why she did but hearing that song again started a journey.

Back about the time that song came out, Dayna, the girl who lived next door to my grandmother, was three years older than me. She knew all the words. Her older sister may have even had the album. I could tell the words Dayna was singing were cool and, therefore, necessary to learn. So I did.

Any song that starts with the words, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” has got to be a winner. Once the verses and chorus words were in my head and our debate settled over whether or not it was appropriate for me to sing “straight shooting son of a gun,” I have a disconcerting memory of obnoxiously singing said song most everywhere I went for about a year and a half. The lyrics seemed kind of churchy, so I felt like no one around me would mind too much. I belted out, “If I was the king of the world, I’d tell you what I’d do,” and then whispered the next line about throwing “away the cars, and the bars and the wars and I’d make sweet love to you.” I thought in very general terms back then — and knew I had no business singing about bars.

When I watched the video last week, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face remembering the first day I knew those words and ran through Dayna’s backyard singing it to the top of my lungs. I was unsure if it was the first or second pop song I learned by heart. The other being, “Let it Be,” by the Beatles, which my second grade class learned in Mr. McClung’s weekly music lesson around the same time.

Mr. McClung was the local Methodist music minister who taught school music classes a couple days a week. For 1971, in a small town in Mississippi, I now realize that Mr. McClung was rather progressive. At that point, I didn’t give much thought to what he was. He was the teacher and a preacher, of sorts, and that was that. We learned “Let it Be” in class and eventually performed it for the majority of the school and town. I could take you to the exact spot on the stage where I stood when we sang, because as we sang, my 7-year-old self recognized the sounds of my classmates’ voices as being something beautiful. That moment was probably the first spiritual experience I had ever had.

After Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World made me smile this morning. I decided to post my friend’s link to it on my Facebook page and tag three of my second-grade classmates to see if they remembered our long-ago performance of “Let it Be”. Brian Kaskie, now a Catholic priest, was the first to respond. He remembered our performance and Mr. McClung’s introduction of it and its lyrics to our class. Brian says Mr. McClung asked if there were any Catholics in the class. So, he raised his hand, and Mr. McClung then asked if Brian would explain the significance of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. He wishes he remembered what he said.

Then our friend and classmate, Eric Chancellor, now a pilot wrote, “I remember Mr. McClung. I remember the song. I don’t remember you running and singing. But I can picture it. Something very funny I remember is you, Jan, asking if you could have a bite of Felix Garcia’s Baby Ruth bar, slobbering on it, then him not taking it back. Great way to get a candy bar!”

Thankfully, I don’t remember slobbering over Felix’s Baby Ruth bar and am mortified at the thought. I asked Felix to send his address. When the weather cools, I’d like to repay him a long overdue candy bar. Felix responded with, “Can’t say I remember this incident, but then, the mind has a way of protecting itself from terrible memories. That, plus sometimes disease.” Which is exactly what I was thinking.

Eric’s troubling, but good-natured memory made me wonder what else I did through the years that I couldn’t recall but needed to make amends for. Brian chimed in with, “I’m sure we all have plenty to answer for from our youth! And think about our sins of omission, when we could have done something good and did not!”

We can never repay it all, can we? Whether it’s Baby Ruths from long ago or on a much grander scale, what can we do now? Maybe Three Dog Night provides the answer. Joy to the world. All the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Joy to you and me.

Indeed, we need to live as open as possible — with joyful abandon, taking every opportunity to share happiness, taking care of each other and the world around us.

29
Jun

Ghostman on first

by Jan in Uncategorized

kickball

Every now and then, when I hear a certain song, I am immediately transported to another time and place. Music has done that to me for as long as I remember. But the other day something happened that occurs much less frequently. I heard someone say a single word and I had the same sensation. At the sound of that word, I was a nine-year-old, running bases in my grandmother’s side yard.
The word was “ghostman.”
Unlike the current soccer hoopla the World Cup frenzy has caused, the primary game neighborhood kids and I used to play that involved kicking a ball was kickball.
Friends along the East Coast tell me kickball is cool again. I say, “Again,” like it was actually cool at some point in the past, which may or may not be true. Even so, we played it throughout childhood. Kickball was the game of last resort.
It was, and I presume still is, a flexible game. The bases work — even when they’re haphazardly placed, close together or far apart. The only equipment you really need is a ball. The details of the ball are negotiable.
Do kids today make do when playing outdoor games? Do they even play kickball? Do they know the magic the word ghostman conjures?
The other excellent thing about kickball of yore was that the game could accommodate however many people we had. If we had 15 people, that was great — one team had seven and the other eight. More often, we had fewer players, but we could make that work too.
In fact, many times, I played kickball as a team of one against my childhood friend Dayna — and those are the memories the word ghostman brought to the surface.
When playing with minimal teammates, kickball required certain adaptations, and ghostmen or ghost runners played critical roles in our game. Granted, ghostmen were a heck of a lot better at offence than defense, which meant that winning the toss was critical in a game of one-on-one kickball. With the help of a ghostman or two (or even three, if you played your cards right) the top half of the first inning could last longer than back-to-back episodes of Gilligan’s Island.
For the uninitiated, here are the brass tacks of ghostmen: your first player kicks the ball and runs toward first. If the runner makes it safely and it’s time for the next kicker, the runner on the most advanced base has to yell, “Ghostman on first (or second or third).”
Once that critical sentence was yelled and acknowledged by the other team — then and only then, the player would leave the base (leaving base without the yelling and acknowledgement could result in being tagged out) and go back to home to kick again. With the new kicker in place, the process would repeat. The defense had the opportunity to get either the next runner out at first or a force out for the ghostman at another base. For the record, ghostmen run at the same pace as the real runner. The defensive player simply has to get to base before the real runner makes it to first. If the runner and ghostman both make it to base safely and no one runs home, then a runner has to repeat the process.
Ghostman memories made me wistful. Just the word reminded me of a time when everyone around me knew, respected and operated within the rules. Ghostmen required a degree of honor I miss. They also reminded me of everyone being willing to make a situation work for one and all, regardless of what we had or what we didn’t. And finally, I dream of the days when I could leave my ghostman safe on first, assured he will continue the job. Then I jog back home and start on the next task, knowing ghostman was on my team and would work just as hard as I did.
Go, ghostman, go.

23
Jun

Keep calm and keep on reading

by Jan in Uncategorized

Greer reading on stairsResenting the go-go pace of life does no one any good unless they take action. Through the years, I’ve found a successful combination to a respite from a world that’s going too fast.
First, I start really evaluating the invitations that come my way and say no to a lot more of them. Secondly, I start reading more. Specifically, I try to read at least one book every two weeks. That may be too much reading for some, but the act of reading, in and of itself, forces stillness — regardless of your goal.
In the spirit of inspiring some of you to find a healthier pace of life and do something good for your brain, I’ve put together a list of recommended summer reading.
I polled fellow readers with the question, “If you had to recommend one book that people should read this summer, which one would it be and why?” They reminded me of some great choices to share.
Finding the right book to read can be tricky — especially when you’re recommending for those who don’t read often. The stakes are high stakes. I’ve put two weeks of thought into the following list and hope it helps you to find the right book for you. Finding the right book for others is not a one-size fits all proposition. I’ve evaluated various recommendations and taken the liberty to advise which books might be best for different groups of readers. The best case scenario is that you’ll find more than one that’s right for you.

If you want to feel more connected to the younger crowd and need a lesson in recognizing joy, love and beauty, read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

If you’re needing a bit of adventure in your life and are looking for encouragement in the face of defeat, read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

If you’re looking for a manly read, read Lonesome Dove (women like it too, but men tend to love it). The tale is funny and the characters resonate, because, as my friend Matt Jones says, “all of them, in one form or another, live within you.”

If you prefer non-fiction and you’re interested in gaining insight into our nation’s current immigration struggle, read The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands by Margaret Regan.

If, for whatever reasons, you can’t take a trip this summer and you really want to, read one of the following: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Hawaii or Poland by James Michener or Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Those four books are great summer reads. With intensely wonderful storytelling, each of the lengthy books has the ability to transport you to a different time and place.

If you work at any level in the medical field — or you like non-fiction and are interested in learning about a collision of cultures, read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.

If you’re a fan of Latin American literature or are interested in reading contemporary classics, try One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Prize winner.

Read Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (and I can’t fully explain my reasoning here, but here goes) if you’re going through a tumultuous time. Maybe it’s because I read the book when I was going through a turbulent time and there was something, in the chaos of the story, that I found comforting and stabilizing.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck is an old favorite. If you missed it somewhere along the way or remember enjoying reading it decades ago, it’s worth a re-visit, especially if you’re interested in understanding more about the Chinese culture.

If you’re just looking for a good old-fashioned love story that is beautiful and unstressful to read, try Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

If you’ve read every book on this list and still need a recommendation and like a good “who done it?”, read The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling. Rowling published the book under a pen name presumably to see how it would do without the force of Harry Potter behind it. With great pacing and character development, the book (which targets adult readers) is a wonderful read. Expect Rowling’s primary sleuth Cormoran Strike to become a force on his own — no wizardry required.

Happy summer and happy reading. Slow down and enjoy it!

8
Jun

Finding the right rain

by Jan in Uncategorized

rain fun

Unless lightning and thundering are shaking the rafters, I love the rain. Lately, I’ve had lots to love.
These days, when I’m dodging raindrops trying to remain as dry as possible as I run toward my car or a door, I often think about a night long ago when it was raining cats and dogs. It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was at cheerleader camp.
The rain that night was a real gully washer. Everyone started running for cover. However, at some point mid-run, I realized I was as soaked as I could ever get, why hurry further?
My friends were initially confused when I stopped running. Then I explained and it didn’t take much persuading for four of them to adopt my attitude. From that point, “Why not just play in the rain?” wasn’t far away.
At first, we began dancing under a streetlight in the middle of an empty parking lot. It was a closed campus. No cars would be heading our way. The parking lot was our paradise. We noticed the water formed rivulets coming from various directions rushing toward drains. We began to wonder if we could create a human dam to build a small pond. We used our bodies like building blocks and formed a variety of structures to temporarily hold the water back. The five of us lay head to toe across sections of the parking lot and created a shallow wade pool.
I remember being deliriously happy rolling around that empty parking lot in the rain. I remember how the hot asphalt smelled as the rain cooled it. I remember how the raindrops weren’t cold or hot that night. I remember the way I could see the rain falling where the bright streetlight was streaming. I remember the way the wet tasted like summer. And I remember the juxtaposition of the gritty asphalt compared to our slicky, wet bodies as we piled up to block the water.
If you’ve ever played in rainwater that way, you understand the fun we had. If you haven’t, the next time the right rain comes, find the right friends and give it a try.
That night was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. The rest of the people hurrying by, of course, looked at us like we were crazy. I doubt any of them remembers that night. But for those of us who spent about an hour dancing under a streetlight and stopping rushing water with our arms, legs and torsos, the night was enchanted — and we remember it well.
I recall my thinking as I made the decision that night to play in the rain. It’s only water. I bathe in it every day. I swim in it often. I drink it. I wash my clothes in it. If it’s not lightning, what harm can the rain really do? All I have to do when I get inside is towel off and change clothes. I can do that.
Sometimes these days, I stand at the edge of a storm, dreading to run out in the rain and those thoughts begin to trickle in. It’s only water…. Unfortunately, too often these days, I follow that thought with the long list of places I have to go and people I have to see. For whatever reasons, I don’t have time to get wet and change clothes.
But before this summer is done, I’m going to play in the rain.

1
Jun

A Little Free Library tour

by Jan in Uncategorized

Marion and Robert Rosser speak with Little Free Library founder Todd Bol, in their front yard in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Marion and Robert Rosser speak with Little Free Library founder Todd Bol, in their front yard in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Back on one of those cold, icy days in February, I first encountered a Little Free Library while on a walk not far from home. I was delighted by the charming structure and the whole idea of “Take a book. Return a book.” I took pictures and walked home as quickly as I could to learn more about Little Free Libraries.
The next week I wrote a column about the wonder of Little Free Libraries. I had learned that the total of Little Free Libraries around the world was approaching 15,000 — I couldn’t believe I was so late to the game!
A few days after my column ran, I was then delighted to get emails from all sorts of people interested in Little Free Libraries — including the steward of the library I had written about and a man named Todd Bol, in Wisconsin, who founded the Little Free Library movement.
I was hooked from the moment I laid eyes on that first structure, but the response from others only strengthened my interest. In celebration of my birthday, my husband built me lovely Little Free Library. Last weekend, he put it in our front yard.
In perfect timing, on Monday, I was surprised to hear from Bol, the Little Free Library founder, again. He emailed to say that he was headed to Louisiana and wondered if we could meet, go to dinner and take a tour of Little Free Libraries in the area.
I was game!
In my Little Free Library education, I had learned that after UL’s architecture program had a Little Free Library contest that many of the student-created structures were put up and not registered with the international organization, based in Wisconsin (which maps all the registered libraries across the world). So, I out a call on Facebook for advice on where many of the little box, birdhouse looking libraries are located. People responded with great enthusiasm.
I collected the info and when Bol arrived in town Thursday afternoon, we started our whirlwind tour of the area.
The main thing I learned during our tour is that anybody who will go to the trouble of putting up and maintaining a box full of books for others to read and enjoy makes it quickly around the bases in the category of “ people I want to know and be friends with.”
Our first stop happened to be the home of one of the first people I met in Lafayette, Catherine Schoeffler Comeaux. Bol and I pulled up in front of her home and he proceeded to knock on the front door with Little Free Library gifts in hand. From that point on the evening was like something out of a movie. When she opened the door, he explained that he was Todd Bol. Before he finished the sentence, she shouted, “You started the Little Free Libraries!” She was as excited as I was. He gave her a variety of bookmarks and knickknacks, we chatted for a few minutes and then were off to our next Little Free Library.
All total, we visited eight Little Free Libraries in Lafayette. Only two other people answered the door. We were pretty sure some of the others were home, but most folks these days are hesitant to answer the door to a stranger with pamphlets in hand.
However, our stop near Oaklawn Park, at one of the loveliest little structures I’ve ever seen, reaffirmed everything I knew in my heart about book lovers. Robert Rosser built the beautiful red schoolhouse structure at his wife, Marion’s, suggestion. Complete with a working bell in the belfry and a backdoor (and separate room) for children’s books, the Rosser’s Little Free Library was clearly an act of love. The couple has lived in the house for nearly 50 years and agrees that the Little Free Library has caused a wonderful hubbub in their lives and neighborhood.
All in all, it was a wonderful, restorative night full of the good stuff that makes me happy to be human.
For more information about Little Free Libraries, go to www.littlefreelibrary.org

27
May

Long Story Short: Headed in the same direction

by Jan in Uncategorized

about to board train in Milan IMG_4098

I just returned home from a 24-day trip across the sea. Literally. We sailed across the Atlantic and then I traveled for a bit in Europe.

I am happy to be home. Happy to sleep in my own bed. Happy to sit at the dinner table with my whole family and hear about their lives. Happy to give my feet a rest.

My trip included many of my favorite things — including time with friends in places I’ve never been.

After we docked in Barcelona, my husband headed home. I took a flight to Milan where friends picked me up, and we headed to Campioni d’Italia, a town of 1,500 nestled on Lake Lugano at the foothills of the Alps. It was picturesque and perfect. Campioni is in Italy, even though it’s located about 30 miles inside the Swiss border on Lake Lugano.

Until friends moved there last year, I had no idea that there was a tiny island of Italy, so to speak, inside Switzerland at the foothills of the Alps.

During my visit, I spoke to a fourth-grade class at The American School in Lugano where my friends’ children are students. I led the students, from all over the world, in a poetry writing exercise.

Here’s a sampling of pieces some of the 10-year-old children wrote about their favorite places:

Italy

Italy tastes like pizza.

Italy looks like history museum.

Italy smells like gas.

Italy sounds like a roaring engine.

Italy feels like being in a smoking room.

Spain

Spain tastes like paella.

Spain smells like sea.

Spain looks like a beautiful sea.

Spain sounds like people speaking Spanish.

Spain feels like sweet home.

Louisiana

Louisiana tastes like crawfish.

Louisiana smells like gumbo.

Louisiana looks like swamps and cane fields.

Louisiana sounds like Cajun music.

Louisiana feels like home.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan tastes like my mom’s chicken soup.

Kazakhstan smells like nature.

Kazakhstan looks like a peaceful village.

Kazakhstan sounds like a busy street.

Kazakhstan feels like my homeland.

Lancaster

Lancaster looks like a lake full of fish.

Lancaster feels like a piece of ice dripping.

Lancaster smells like fish.

Lancaster sounds like the tide hitting land.

Lancaster tastes like salty water.

Moscow

Moscow tastes like rotten cotton candy.

Moscow smells like oil factories.

Moscow sounds like people shouting, insulting each other on the streets.

Moscow looks like an abandoned city.

Moscow feels like home.

Sitting there listening to tiny voices sharing the details of their favorite places, in a variety of accents, warmed my heart.

Eventually, my friends drove me to Milan to catch a train toward Nice, France, to visit other friends.

Milan’s train station is big, beautiful and bustling. When I found the correct platform to catch my train, the narrow peninsula to board the train was crowded with all sorts of people. I asked two people for directions as to which car to board. Both helped and also warned me to be very careful because of a large number of pickpockets and groups of people up to no good.

As I boarded the train, one of the groups of people who seemed highly suspicious entered the same car. I followed them down the narrow hallway. When the five of them went into the compartment where I was headed…well, my mama didn’t raise no fool.

I simply decided to go into the compartment beside it. A young couple came in behind me. I realized I was sitting in one of their seats and asked if they spoke English so I could explain. They were, in fact, Americans, and asked where I was from. I said, “Lafayette, Louisiana.”

They both gasped.

“We got married in Broussard. I’m from Lake Charles,” the guy said.

“We lived in Lafayette for a while,” the girl said. “You may know my family.”

She went on to explain that her uncle Nabil Loli owns Cedar Grocery in Lafayette. What are the chances? One of the first stories I ever wrote for this newspaper was about Nabil and his dad, this girl’s grandfather, in a celebration of Father’s Day.

“I’m Harley Hebert,” the young man said.

“And I’m Natalie,” added his wife.

And we were off toward the coast. The potential thugs cleared out of the train, and Harley helped me get my luggage situated in my correct spot.

Every time I experience something along these lines, I think about a lady I met more than 20 years ago on a snowy night in Slovakia. We too were travelers headed in the same direction. When she insisted on giving me a ticket for the bus that I needed to take to my final destination, I protested her generosity. She then said, “The world is small, and we must be kind when we can.”

With those words, she changed my life. In that moment, I realized how much nicer everything was when I worked with people instead of against them. Over and over again, I have learned how right she was.

20
Apr

The face of a father

by Jan in Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.42.44 PMEaster always reminds me of my time in Slovakia, where I spent 1993 teaching English. I lived in a small village near the Polish border and tromped through more snow that winter than most folks in Louisiana have or ever will see. Snow was often up to my waist. Maybe the coming out of such a cold winter is part of why Easter is such a big deal to Slovaks.
They prepare for it for weeks, including small table centerpieces where they plant grass or wheat seeds and have these living arrangements growing throughout Lent. Families sit around the tables each night and watch the seedlings emerge into beautiful plants. Then, on Easter Sunday, teenage boys traditionally go in groups to the homes of their female classmates and proceed to throw large quantities of water on the girls. The girls retaliate by chasing the boys around with switches. Seriously, that water throwing-switch chasing thing is a major part of Easter in Slovakia.
But this year, I’ve also spent time thinking about a church I visited in 2011 when I returned to Slovakia for the wedding of one of my former students. Prior to the wedding, I visited a small village near Zilina, Slovakia, to spend time with the family of another of my former students. This student was one of the brightest I taught and is now a computer wizard building web sites for companies around the world, but when I taught him long ago, he was a lanky 11-year-old.
He isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the years that have passed. After Communism ended in the early 1990s and through the process of restitution, many Slovak families were able to re-acquire properties they had owned prior to the Soviet Communist regime. This family had lived in an apartment in 1993. In the years since, they’ve relocated part of the year to their family home in the small mountain village where they continue to work to restore it.
The village, nestled beside the Mala Fatra National Park, is quiet and peaceful. Every day I was there, shortly before dusk, we took a long walk around its hills and valleys. During one of our walks, we found ourselves standing in front of the village church. Like many buildings of Slovakia, it was freshly painted a pale yellow. It was contemporary architecture and featured a large crucifix on an exterior wall, near the front of the church. I must have commented on the large crucifix, because my friends began to tell me its story.
At some point in the not-so distant past, one of the community’s favorite and most famous sons, offered to donate a new crucifix to the church. The man had grown up in the village and gone on to become a rather famous sculptor. His family remained in the village, and the church was eager to accept the offer.
So, the sculptor began to work on the large piece.
When it was finally unveiled inside the church in its place of prominence, my friends told me the village was abuzz. I’m uncertain how much time passed before the rumblings became public, but apparently, some in the church thought the sculpture’s face of Christ bore a striking resemblance to the father of the sculptor — a man they all knew.
According to my friends, some of the church members said, “I don’t want to go to church, look up and feel like I’m worshiping my neighbor.”
And, as sometimes happens in churches, the issue became quite contentious. Finally, the crucifix was removed and hidden away, and the church decided to commission another sculptor to create a new crucifix.
So he did, and they placed it inside the church where the original piece had once hung.
Years passed, and things settled done. Somehow the church eventually decided to hang the original crucifix outside.
My friends and I stood there quietly looking at the crucifix, when one of them spoke.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “They say the sculptor of the crucifix now hanging inside the church also based the face of Christ on his own father. The difference is that none of these people know him.”
The story has stuck with me. There are many ways to look at it, but for me, I can’t help thinking of Victor Hugo and a line from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

18
Apr

The highs and lows of childhood remembered

by Jan in Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 2.15.58 PMThe summer after second grade, Laura Ledford’s mother was still the leader of our Brownie Scout troop. That summer was the first year we went to Girl Scout Day Camp.
Today, this camp would violate at least a hundred public and child safety codes, but attending this day camp was a rite of passage in my hometown. It existed on the sheer will of half a dozen women. How they gained permission to take 100 or so girls out in the middle of the woods, with no facilities for a week remains a mystery, but they did.
This camp was run with the precision of the Swiss train system. There was order. There were traditions. And there were latrines to be dug.
We believed this camp would last every summer of our lives — or at least through childhood (and really, that’s all that mattered). The camp ended up continuing only one year more after that summer. I’m not sure why, but probably the same reason these things always end. Putting it together takes a force of nature. And in our case, the force of nature’s children were aging out. This camp had a major impact on my life and perspective. I struggle to believe that I only spent five days there.
Early in the summer, girls between the ages of 7 and 18 from our town went to the camp for one week. We arrived shortly after the crack of dawn and stayed until 3 in the afternoon. It is important to note that the rest of the year, this area was not a camp. It was simply a small patch of land in the middle of the woods within walking distance of Moore Tower — the most exciting landmark in the area (used to keep a lookout for fires in the Bienville National Forest).
Moore Tower, an oversized erector set with steps zigzagging around its sides leading to a room the size of a Hyundai, was the center of much intrigue and lore. Climbing the tower was a rite of passage. Moore Tower was off limits. Only forest rangers could climb its hallowed steps. But every now and then, with a permission process akin to passing a Congressional budget, a group would earn the special right to climb to the top.
Seriously. Climbing Moore Tower was epic. I cannot emphasize enough what a big deal it was — doing so opened all kinds of doors for a girl of seven or eight, or even nine or 10.
At the camp, each of the five or so levels of Scouts had its own area. An elaborate system of paths (that we made by trampling tall grass and briars) connected the various camps.
The primary task of the week for the different troops was to dig a latrine for each camp. There was also the weeklong competition to see who could create the best camp, which basically boiled down to who had the best latrine. Occasionally, we came together to have sing downs — Mrs. Strode would divide us into groups and give us a category like “girls’ names.” On cue, each group would sing an appropriate song until there was only one group left singing. The camp-wide sing downs were fun, but mostly we stayed in our areas and worked on the latrine. We also created elaborate rows and boxes of pine straw buildings (with imaginary walls) to build our camp.
And, we waited for Thursday.
On Thursday, every group of Scouts would be escorted by our very own forest ranger all the way up the steps of Moore Tower. Per my eight-year-old understanding, this is the way things happened every year.
On Thursday, because we were the youngest troop, we were the last troop to climb Moore Tower. The older the troop, the earlier/cooler in the day they were allowed to climb the tower.
I remember not being able to sleep the night before because I was so excited about the prospect of climbing Moore Tower. My fellow troop mates and I waited with butterflies in our stomachs for our cue to climb. Every conversation was about the feat ahead of us. We recounted every story anyone had ever told us about climbing Moore Tower. We wondered how many steps we would have to take to reach the top.
And we waited.
And waited.
It seemed like we were waiting to long to me, and I wanted to go check, but Mrs. Ledford assured us all our turn was coming.
So, we waited some more. Surely, the forest ranger would come for us soon.
We heard tales from other troops about their escapades up and down the tower. One girl fell down the steps and surely almost died.
And we waited some more.
Finally, one of our leaders went to see to the whereabouts of the forest ranger. The moment she walked back into our pine straw estate, I knew something was wrong — and I was right.
The forest ranger was gone.
The leader of the troop ahead of us, for reasons she will surely take to her grave, told the ranger that her troop was the last to go up the tower. And he left — taking all of our tower dreams with him.
We wept.
I mean, we seriously wept. That moment was as disappointing as any I had ever experienced in my life. With our hopes trounced, we didn’t care so much about the beauty of our immaculate, pine straw imaginary walled camp — or even our glorious latrine.
It had all been for naught. Moore Tower was outside our grasp.
I could tell the adults had no way of understanding what not getting to climb that tower did to us. In retrospect, I believe that may have been the day a mistrust of authority took hold in me — and the day I decided that if it were within my power, I would do my best never to disappoint a kid. Of course, I have failed and that too along the way, but I have have that reminder to be vigilant to do my best.