Museum of the Cherokee Indian

My mother loved Indians. More accurately, she loved the traditional characterization of the Indians in American arts and crafts. It was a romantic view of the people who were inhabiting North America when Europeans began to migrate west and “settle” on the continent. My mother was not interested in bows and arrows, spears, or war paint. She collected inexpensive artwork (prints, plates, figurines, etc.) featuring lovely brown-skinned people in traditional Indian attire as they were portrayed by Hollywood, for the most part. I would be the last to criticize her taste because some of the pieces she decorated our house with were indeed beautiful. She probably didn’t know much about the history of the numerous nations and tribes that were scattered all across North America, and she didn’t need to in order to appreciate her image of the Indian.

When I was young, one of our family’s favorite vacation spots was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist mecca in the Great Smoky Mountains with attractions, miniature golf, sky-lifts, and shops selling everything from taffy to stuffed black bears. To get to Gatlingburg, we had to go through the smaller town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is also the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We always stopped in Cherokee because, in the 1960s, it was a place of wonder where local residents used about the only thing they had, their history and heritage, as a way to scrape out a living. The town had live bears wasting away in cages, shops filled with Chinese-manufactured Indian souvenirs, and the occasional celebrity walking around the town to be photographed with visitors. I had my picture taken with Jon Provost, whose name probably means nothing to most folks today, but to a young lad in the late 1960s, he was an almost grown-up version of a television hero: Timmy Martin, the boy who had a dog named Lassie.

I also remember that, along the roadside passing through Cherokee, there would always be local men, young and old, dressed up like Hollywood Indians. They wore leather loincloths and moccasins, were often shirtless, had their faces decorated with paint, and usually had full feather headdresses (for the record, the Cherokee traditionally did not wear full feather headdresses at all). Vacationers were expected to pay them for a photograph, and looking back, I can only hope that this type of enterprise was not their only source of income, although it certainly may have been. The town of Cherokee today still has a vestige of the tourist trap atmosphere of the mid-20th century, but much of the most deplorable exploitation I remember from my childhood is gone. Some would argue what has taken its place is just as bad. The tribe owns a fairly large casino resort in Cherokee operated by Caesars Entertainment under the brand Harrah’s. The Eastern Cherokee do not live on a reservation, which is defined as land given by the federal government to a tribe. They own 57,000 acres of land which they bought in the 1800s and which is now owned by them but held in trust by the federal government.

There is an attraction in Cherokee that has moved away from the trappings of my childhood memories and beyond my mother’s fantasies of the “noble savage.” It is a temporary refuge from the slot machines, the gift shops, and the traffic. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers a cultural and historical overview of the people of the southern Appalachian Mountains going back 13,000 years. Contrary to popular opinion about appropriate nomenclature, it is actually more acceptable and accurate to use the term “American Indians” than “Native Americans” when referring to the tribes that occupied the western hemisphere before European exploration began. Combining interactive video with intriguing displays, the museum invites visitors to take a self-guided tour complete with computer-generated imagery, special effects, and an extensive artifact collection.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The museum’s interpretation is divided into two permanent exhibits: “Story of the Cherokee” and “Emissaries of Peace.” The first exhibit follows the history of the Cherokee from the early origins when mastodons roamed the region, through the Woodland and Mississippian periods, contact with Old World explorers and conquerors, the tragic Trail of Tears removal, and up to the present day.  The second exhibit tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and how he took Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III. These narratives are told through animation, audio-visual presentations, life-sized figures, artwork, and priceless artifacts.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a tourist trap designed only for entertainment or to perpetuate stereotypes about Indians portrayed in early motion pictures. It is managed by knowledgeable professionals who care about the Cherokee people’s heritage and dignity as an independent tribe. The executive director, James “Bo” Taylor, earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in Cherokee Studies from Western Carolina University. He has learned the Cherokee dances, which he performs regularly, and can read and write the Cherokee language. Taylor also teaches the Cherokee language in intensive ten-day immersion classes. The museum’s education director, Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, earned her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1983. She has written and edited award-winning books about Cherokee history and culture, including Living Stories of the Cherokee and Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (with co-author Brett Riggs).

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

In addition to exhibits, the museum offers workshops, performances, guided tours of the region, publications, and classes. The museum archives is a repository of thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts, personal papers, and digital collections, all of which are accessible to museum members and qualified scholars. Visitors to the museum can spend an hour or two strolling through the halls, or a day or two becoming completely immersed in the displays and collections. This facility is a real treasure and not to be missed by those who are truly interested in the story of the Cherokee Indians, or as they originally called themselves, Aniyunwiya, “the principal people.” Enjoy the casino, but take a break from the tables and check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and make sure to use part of your winnings to purchase a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop.

Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.

Art and Social Change

Do artists have a social responsibility?  That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of  Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia.  The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia.  Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.

Jen Delos Reyes
Jen Delos Reyes

The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York.  In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.

Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency.  Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios.  The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.  All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.

Symposium logo
Symposium logo

Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation.  Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century.  Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.

During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis.  Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words:  “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery.  But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge.  The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist?  The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”

In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  Does art exist in a vacuum?  Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day?  The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution.  What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act.  Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created.  Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.

“To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art . . . this is what man’s journey is about, I think.” –Lillian Smith, The Journey

Edward Clark Potter

Enfield, Connecticut, is often associated with the manufacture of gunpowder and weapons, but it is also the place where Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edward Clark Potter, born in 1857, was raised in this small township just across the border from southern Massachusetts.  Educated in local schools and at the Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, young Edward defied his mother’s plans for him to enter the ministry and instead enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts for three semesters before heading to Boston in 1879 to study art.  A few years later he moved to Vermont to work at a marble quarry, overseeing stone cutting  there for Daniel Chester French, an established sculptor working in Boston.  In the late 1880s Potter studied in Paris with figure sculptor Antonin Mercié and animal specialist Emmanuel Frémiet.  He returned to the United States in 1890 and married May Dumont of Washington, D.C.  The couple started a family back in Potter’s hometown of Enfield.  His friend and mentor Daniel French encouraged Potter’s interest in modeling animals, and the young artist eventually earned a reputation as one of America’s leading animaliers by the turn of the twentieth century.

Potter and French collaborated on numerous commissioned projects, mostly statues of famous personalities on horseback with Potter being responsible for sculpting the horses.  Potter’s own five equestrian groups, including those representing Henry Warner Slocum and Philip Kearny, demonstrated his growing talent and ability to express the unity between the rider and his horse.  Potter won a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Universal Exposition in 1904 for the equestrian De Soto Sighting the “Father of the Waters.”  When his statue of a Civil War bugler on horseback was unveiled in 1915 in Brookline, Massachusetts, it was praised as innovative and unconventional.

Edward Clark Potter
Edward Clark Potter

Potter and his family preferred to stay in the rural countryside, where he could take care of the animals he raised and used as his subjects for sculpting.  However, Potter also enjoyed his proximity to New York where he was involved in the art community.  He was a charter member of the National Sculpture Society and took a leadership role in the National Academy of Design.  He also made significant original artistic contributions to New York City, including a marble statue of Zoroaster on the cornice of the New York Appellate Court House in Madison Square.  Surprisingly, his most famous sculpting contribution to New York, or any place for that matter, did not come in the form of a person or a horse.

Around 1910 Potter received a commission of $8,000 on the recommendation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s foremost sculptors of the day.  Potter teamed up with the Piccirilli Brothers, renowned marble carvers, to create two statues constructed of Tennessee pink marble.  The two pieces were originally named  Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, but sometime in the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named them Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt the citizens of New York would need to survive the economic depression.  Architecture critic Paul Goldberger praised the pieces as “New York’s most lovable public sculpture.”  These two majestic lions flank the Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street entrance to the New York Public Library.  Patience still guards the south side of the Library’s steps, and Fortitude maintains his position to the north.  As a tribute to the Lions’ popularity and all that they stand for, the Library adopted these figures as its mascots. They are trademarked by the Library, represented in its logo, and featured at major occasions.

To learn more, consult Top Cats: the Life and Times of The New York Public Library Lions by Susan G. Larkin. This publication surveys their history through photographs, cartoons, prints, original drawings, memorabilia, and lively tales.

Self Portrait with Tree by Jaume Plensa

Public art is a standard feature in most large cities across the U.S. and in much of the world.  Art that is made freely available for everyone to enjoy in public places takes many forms: painting, photography, architecture, sculpture, graffiti, and even performance.  Like many tourists, I tend to take photographs of public art when I am visiting cities, and I have collected images from New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Rome, and London to name a few.  One of the more interesting pieces I found may not be so well known, although the artist is rather prolific.  One evening in 2011 when my wife and I were walking the streets of Chicago headed out for dinner, we wondered through a section of the city known as Streeterville, a neighborhood roughly east of the Magnificent Mile that serves as the gateway to the Navy Pier.  I was struck by a piece of bronze sculpture we saw at the northern end of Streeterville, at E. Chestnut Street next to the landmark Hancock Center.

Self Portrait with Tree, Jaume Plensa
Self Portrait with Tree, Jaume Plensa

When I first saw Jaume Plensa’s “Self Portrait with Tree” on the sidewalk, my first thought was to make a joke, an annoying habit of mine.  I turned to my wife and said, “Now that is truly a man of letters.”  My apologies — please keep reading.  Plensa is one of the featured artists of the Richard Gray Gallery.  With its main location on North Michigan Avenue and another on Madison Avenue in New York, Richard Gray Gallery is mostly a collector’s gallery and focuses its attention on attracting buyers.  According to the gallery’s website, Plensa is one of the world’s foremost sculptors working in the public space, with over 30 projects spanning the globe in such cities as Chicago, Dubai, London, Liverpool, Nice, Tokyo, Toronto, and Vancouver. He was born in 1955 in Barcelona, where he studied at the Llotja School of Art and Design and at the Sant Jordi School of Fine Art.  A significant part of Plensa’s work is in the field of sculpture in the public space. Installed in cities in Spain, France, Japan, England, Korea, Germany, Canada, USA, etc., these pieces have won many prizes and citations, including the Mash Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.

Plensa has used the theme of the seated figure for many installments, and he has repeated the tree-hugging sculpture in various locations around the world.  Some of the pieces are colossal.  Another thread running through Plensa’s work is the use of letters and symbols to fabricate the figure.  For these particular pieces, he works in an assortment of materials including bronze, stainless steel, and stone.  The Self Portrait in Streeterville is especially interesting because of the letters in full relief on the seated figure’s body, like the type hammers of an old manual typewriter.  The technique lends a bit of nostalgia to the piece.  You can learn more about the work of Jaume Plensa at his website at http://www.jaumeplensa.com/.

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.

Santa Fe’s Open-Air Opera

My wife and I made a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico during the summer of 2014.  She had been to the town several times, but I had not.  We both love art, culture, and the southwest, and Santa Fe is one of those places where all three intersect.  We stayed in a lovely, rambling house just off Canyon Road, which placed us in walking distance from the major downtown attractions and more art galleries than anyone could possibly explore in a year’s time — alas, we were there for less than a week.

We also took some excursions outside the town to places like Taos, a famous haven for artists.  I went out to the center of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 7th highest bridge in the United States and the 82nd highest bridge in the world.  We ate incredible, authentic Mexican food at a little roadside taco stand.  We flew in and out of Albuquerque, so we were able to see some of the state’s desert landscape on the road between the two locations.

We met up with some friends one evening who live in Albuquerque who routinely make the drive up to Santa Fe to attend the opera located just outside town.  They invited us to go with them.  I was not raised with any exposure, appreciation, or understanding of opera.  I was raised with the music of the Allman Brothers  (outside of church, that is); the singing of Elton John; the acting of Robert Redford.  The closest I came to an opera performance was a Bugs Bunny cartoon or a Disney movie.  Even as an adult, although I am more familiar with famous operas, I still don’t know much about the art form.  Unfortunately, my cultural horizons don’t expand very far beyond literature and the thick forests of popular music, theater, and cinema.

For those who fall into this same category, I have good news.  There is a place you can go to appreciate opera even if you have no interest in it whatsoever.  The Santa Fe Opera House has been attracting audiences to watch performances and take in the magnificent views of the mountain ranges of northern New Mexico since 1957.  According to its website, more than 2,000 performances of 164 different operas have been given here, including fourteen world premieres and 45 American premieres.  Many singers whose names are now found on the rosters of the world’s leading opera houses began their careers in Santa Fe.  The company was founded by the late John Crosby, a young conductor from New York, who had an idea of starting an opera company to give American singers an opportunity to learn and perform new roles in a setting that allowed ample time to rehearse and prepare each production.

The Crosby Theater was built in 1998 and takes the idea of “open air” to a whole new level.  The modern structure features white sail-like wind baffles, a clerestory window for light, and a backstage that is almost completely open.  The sides of the theater are also open, so the audience can see the mountain peeks rising many miles away.  The breathtaking views are enough to distract even the most devoted opera enthusiast, but for someone like me who is a bit less than enthusiastic, this venue became the attraction.  We had a lovely dinner on the grounds of the opera before the performance.  The show we saw was a comedy, all in another language, of course.  There were hilarious parts, the orchestral music was excellent, and I ended up enjoying it more than I had anticipated.  Still, I can’t imagine a stage performance anywhere in the world that could be more impressive than the setting of the expansive desert as night approaches.  If you love opera, you have to go to the Santa Fe Opera.  If you don’t love opera, this is where you need to go to start appreciating it.

Santa Fe Opera House
Santa Fe Opera House

A Writer By Any Other Name

One of the most gifted short story writers of the 20th century has a name that is rather unusual, although as a tribute to her talent, it is not as uncommon as it was during her lifetime.  There is a growing population of women, most under the age of thirty I would imagine, with the first name Flannery.  Those who are familiar with the life of the famous Georgia writer know that “Flannery” was a family surname and her middle name.  Her full name was Mary Flannery O’Connor.  However, when she went away to graduate school and eventually enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she decided to drop her first name and began signing all her work simply as “Flannery.”   Further, she requested that friends, relatives, and even her own mother refrain from calling her Mary Flannery, the double-name style that was so typical of women in the early to mid-20th century in the American South.  From that point on, she would be Flannery O’Connor.

It is impossible to know how much thought or even strategy went into Flannery O’Connor’s decision to abandon her first name.  Considering that she was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was a dutiful daughter of the Church, it would not have been a choice made lightly or carelessly.  Indeed, someone so committed to the faith would need a very good reason to drop the name of the mother of Christ, especially considering that she was adopting a much more masculine forename or Christian name — the irony is obvious.  Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, resisted for a while but finally gave in to her daughter’s demands.  Years later, O’Connor claimed that she made the name change primarily for the sake of her career as a writer.  She explained to friends that no one would want to read anything written by someone named Mary O’Connor, which to her sounded like the name of an Irish wash woman.

On second thought, readers of O’Connor know that she was incredibly deliberate in her craft as a writer.  By the time O’Connor hands us a story, there is not a single word or mark of punctuation left on the page that doesn’t need to be there.  Those steel blue eyes served as windows into a brilliant mind with a razor-sharp wit.  Flannery O’Connor had wanted to be a writer from a very early age.  As a child, she wrote stories, illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession.

I am convinced that when O’Connor began writing in Iowa in the mid-1940s, she also started to envision herself as a successful author.  Knowing that she would soon be sending manuscripts off to prospective agents and publishers, she no doubt understood her disadvantage of being a female who wanted to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession.  To avoid having her manuscripts ignored or trashed immediately, she needed for editors to think they were reading the work of a man, and a name like Flannery gave her that edge.  Certainly the content of her fiction would not have given her gender away!  The strategy worked.  Letters she received from editors in response to her early submissions were addressed “Dear Mr. O’Connor.”  One early editor, upon learning O’Connor’s identity, still doubted that the stories were written by a woman at all.

Beyond the androgyny factor, a name like Flannery O’Connor gave the writer another distinct advantage, one that is often fabricated now by entertainers from a multitude of genres.  Having an unusual name goes a long way toward establishing memorable identity.  After all, how many writers do you know named Twain?  Poe?  Steinbeck?  Faulkner?  Of course, those are last names, and isn’t it amazing how often readers don’t refer to O’Connor by her more common last name, but by her iconic first name?  Fast forward to the age of pop culture.  It isn’t difficult to remember names like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Eminem, T-Pain, or Beyonce.  Who needs a last name?  Atypical works, and it works well.

Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of 39 from complications of lupus, the disease that had taken her father’s life when she was only 15.  Her mother outlived her by about 30 years.  I don’t know if O’Connor chose the wording for her tombstone or not.  Perhaps Regina O’Connor had the last word with her only child this time.  Maybe the inscription was dictated by the custom of the Church, the community, or family tradition. Whatever the case may be, O’Connor is laid to rest with her full name restored as a memorial to a literary genius.  Those of us who admire her work will always respect her wishes and remember her as Flannery O’Connor.  A writer by any other name is, well, someone else entirely.

Flannery O'Connor's grave
Flannery O’Connor’s grave

Where the Grapes are Grown

About six years ago, my wife and I were on a business trip in Savannah, Georgia, with her boss.  We decided to have dinner at one of the best restaurants in the historic section of the city, a place called the Olde Pink House on Abercorn Street.  We didn’t have reservations but were fortunate enough to get a table in the basement bar, where there was a fire blazing in a large fireplace, and the light in the room was soft and low.  It was a very relaxed setting, with an old world kind of atmosphere, which is exactly what one should expect in one of the South’s oldest cities.  Our waiter was quite knowledgeable about their wine selection, so we asked him to decant a nice, dry wine to go with dinner.  He brought the bottle to the table, poured half the contents through the filter into the large decanter, swirled the liquid to release the bouquet, and allowed us to smell the wine before he poured each of us a glass.  I have now forgotten the variety (probably a merlot), but I do remember that it was just about the best glass of wine I had ever tasted.  We asked him about the brand, and he told us it was a Hess.  We had never heard of it, but we were determined to find out more about the winery.

Hess Winery
Entrance to Hess Winery

The Hess Collection winery is in the Mount Veeder area of Napa Valley in California.  Grapes have been cultivated on the property at least as far back as the 1870s.  From 1900 to 1929, the property was owned by Colonel Theodore Gier, who built a three-story building that would eventually hold the Hess Collection’s historic barrel chai and art gallery.  After a few more owners and continued development and expansion through the 20th century, a man named Donald Hess purchased 900 acres on Mount Veeder to begin the Hess Collection.  Over 600 acres are set aside as undeveloped land to support wildlife corridors, fish-friendly farming practices, and biodiversity.  The Hess Collection opened to the public in June, 1989, following a two-year renovation of the facility which includes 13,000 square feet of Donald Hess’s personal contemporary art collection.

In 2011, my wife and I took a fabulous vacation to San Francisco, which included several side trips.  One of our excursions was a drive up to Napa to pay a visit to the Hess Collection winery.  It was magnificent.  In addition to tasting several varieties and buying a case to take home with us, we also visited the incredible art gallery and gardens.  According to the website, “Donald Hess began collecting art in 1966. Today, the Hess Collection houses less than a quarter of a collection that is shown in museums worldwide. His collecting style is a personal endeavor driven by passion rather than monetary investment or current trends. He develops a close dialogue with an artist to better understand what drives him or her to create and he carefully limits his focus as a collector to 20 living artists whose work he faithfully supports long term. As is evident by the caliber of the collection, he collects with the uncanny ability to acquire works by lesser known artists who often go on to become well known and respected in their disciplines. His typical commitment to an artist spans decades and various stages of his career.”

Hess Winery garden
Gardens at Hess Winery

My wife and I drink wine fairly often.  We are nowhere close to being authorities, and we are certainly not wine snobs.  Grocery store brands work fine for us most of the time.  Our favorable impression of the wine we had that evening at the Olde Pink House may have had more to do with the company and the dining experience than the sophistication of our palates, but we liked it enough to search out where the grapes are grown, which gave us an even deeper appreciation for the brand.  The story of Donald Hess and his enterprise, which he has now passed down to the next generations, is a fascinating one.   Seeing the actual vineyards where a great bottle of wine originates presented us with a wonderful moment of connection that I’m sure we will remember for a long time.