Sometimes it grieves me that so few photos remain from my years in Liberia. The realities of West Africa at the time – inadequate film storage, poor processing, the nature of the film itself – have resulted in most photographs fading into darkness, leaving nothing but indistinct smiles and a memory. The traditional blacksmith who forged iron “country money” is gone, as are the piles of cocoa pods, the gaggle of “money buses” with their marvelous painted slogans (“God Bless the Woman that Born Me”, “The Wicked Will Fall”) and stacks of Russian waxed toilet paper in the Gbarnga store.
Still, there are treasures. In one photo, my father stands next to a village chief, both men solemn with the responsibilities of formal gift-exchange. In another, my mother follows my father along a narrow bush path, watching him as he tries to pretend he doesn’t see the line of bare-breasted women coming from the village to greet them. (more…)
In kindergarten, we were overwhelmed. In first grade, we forged alliances. By second grade, we were in the middle of the fray, taunting fourth, fifth and even sixth-graders with impunity. “So’s your old man!” “Your mother wears combat boots!” “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater!”
As our vocabularies developed we grew bolder and moved on to true insults. “When they were giving out brains, you thought they said canes and said, ‘I don’t need one!’”
Even at that age, the ability to give and fend off a good insult became the measure of our mettle. We enjoyed participating in a tradition reaching back to Shakespeare and beyond, a tradition marvelously and creatively maintained by sharp-tongued repartee artists closer to our time. (more…)
In 1950′s small town Iowa, Mardi Gras was barely a rumor. We’d read now and then of the bead-tossing, the parades, the exotic French Quarter celebrations with their hints of unspeakable, masked misbehavior. But we were midwesterners, with midwestern sensibilities, and gave little thought to those far-away customs.
Even neighbors who traveled to New Orleans seemed to consider Mardi Gras a purely native ritual, disconnected from their experience of the city. Their souvenirs – long, gray-green sweeps of Spanish moss, Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s, recordings of Sweet Emma Barrett’s piano and Willie Humphrey’s exquisite clarinet – were the stuff of any vacation. As we listened to their jazz and looked at their photos, New Orleans’ life seemed normal enough, recognizable despite its differences. On the other hand, Mardi Gras seemed odd, slightly degenerate, part of a world of drunkenness and debauchery best avoided by reasonable people. (more…)
Down at the cut, beyond the banks of the sullen, dark-flowing river and its silent, receptive bay, silt-heavy waters tumble and settle into the ocean’s spilling froth.
Anchored by chains of sea-grass, dunes drag and shift in the wind, while along a sepentine ribbon of hard, reflective sand, treasures abound. Portuguese Men of War, sargassum weed and a sea bean or two lie covered in spume. Shells and echoes of shells move in tandem with the waves - angel wing, bay scallop, lightening whelk and coquina – often worn, more often broken after crossing the bars which parallel the coast.
When the tide recedes and sandbars lie exposed, less common treasures invite a second look – sand dollars, an embossed candle, sea-glass in shades of pistachio and almond. One day I noticed a bit of amethyst flashing in the sunlight – a tiny dot of brilliant, intense color. Assuming a shard of plastic or a broken fishing lure, I bent, and saw the truth. It was a shell – a tiny, perfect snail. (more…)