Lagniappe and Life

There should have been no reason to cry.

In the house on the road to the Amite river, with memories of Verlinda Harrell’s ferry stirring in the breeze and the old Baton Rouge-Springfield road still leading down to the crossing, the pace of life was slow — easy and enjoyable.

Part of a world perfectly designed for childhood wandering, its Spanish moss-draped oaks invited climbing, and the tire dangling from its sturdy limb seemed to demand swinging. On cots arrayed across the screened-in sleeping porch, we dreamed our dreams on mattresses filled with moss in the sweet, magnolia scented air.

In season, we picked lemons, or pecans. In spring, we ate our way through dewberry patches down to the river, where cypress and tupelo drank from the easy current, shadowing and protecting the creatures passing among them.

In such a world, there should have been no reason to cry.

And yet I stood in my great-aunt’s kitchen, tears streaming down my face, undone by profound and obvious misery. Seeing my distress, Aunt Fannie said, “Good heavens, child. Did you hurt yourself?” I wasn’t hurt — at least, not in the way she meant it. I shook my head. “Come see, then. Let’s have some lemonade, and go out on the gallery.”

With lemonade to enjoy, the tears soon stopped. “Now,” she said. “Tell me. What’s troubling you?” Reluctantly, I confessed. “I don’t want to take a nap.” “A nap?” she said. “Who told you to take a nap?” “Beulah. She said I had to lay down and nap.”

Absent-mindedly brushing away one of the dogs, Fannie stood up and headed into the house. “Drink your lemonade. I’ll ask what she said.”

In less time than it took to finish the lemonade, Fannie and Beulah were back, and both were laughing. A common Louisiana phrase, combined with Beulah’s lovely but noticeable accent, had led to misunderstanding. When she offered me a tidbit from the kitchen and said, “Take this for lagniappe,” I interpreted her words as a suggestion that I should “take a nap.” 

I endured years of good-natured teasing about my confusion, until the teasers were taken by death and the incident forgotten. But the word had become embedded into my vocabulary. Eventually, I began to truly appreciate the usefulness and beauty of that unusual word: lagniappe.

The word itself is French Creole, rooted in the Spanish la ñapa —a gift — which itself may be related to the Quechuan yapa  — something added, or a gift.

The word began to appear in the south, particularly in New Orleans, around the mid-1800s; merchants used it to describe small extras, or bonuses, given to customers.

The best early description of the word was written by Mark Twain in his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi:

We picked up one excellent word — a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word –“lagniappe”. They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said.
We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth.
It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.
The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying “Give me something for lagniappe”. The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.
When you are invited to drink — and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, “What? Again? No, I’ve had enough,” the other party says, “But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe.”
If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says, “F’r lagniappe, sah,” and gets you another cup without extra charge.

The meaning of the word has continued to spread. Dan Gill, garden correspondent for The Times-Picayune, once wrote that “Spanish moss is atmospheric lagniappe in Louisiana landscapes.”

His clever phrase points to a larger truth. Just as shopkeepers, restaurateurs, family, or friends will extend lagniappe from time to time, so the world offers us lagniappe: unexpected and wholly undeserved gifts that lead to delight and appreciation.

Piles of vividly colored milo in Kansas; a ladies’ tresses orchid in Arkansas; the aerial courting display of a great white egret in Texas: each in its own way is lagniappe, the “something extra” that adds beauty and interest to our lives.

In her characteristic way, Annie Dillard suggests the existence of lagniappe in nature when she writes:

This, then, is the extravagant landscape of the world: given with pizzazz, given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.

That sense of extravagance, that exuberance and beauty I see everywhere in nature  has led me develop a new blog site titled, “Lagniappe: Images and Incidentals.” As I say there:

I love to write, and “The Task at Hand” always will be my primary site: my place for essays, stories, and poetry. On the other hand, photography has opened new worlds to me. Now and then, I take special delight in a photo, and have wanted a place to post those I enjoy.

Now, I have that place. A link to “Lagniappe” is available at the top of this page, just as a link to “The Task At Hand” is found in the same spot on the new page.

In certain circles, it’s considered poor form to laugh at our own jokes, and I suppose some might consider it in bad taste to enjoy our own work.  But I do take pleasure in many of my photos, and I hope you do, too.

They’re for lagniappe.

Comments always are welcome. To hear “lagniappe” spoken, click here.

 

Learning to “Cowgirl Up”

Ready to Ride

If that’s a “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels tapping across polished granite toward the exit, there’s no question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just the Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, concerts, and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone.

With the Rodeo in town, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort turns up wearing boots and overblown belt buckles. People who generally equate beef with the ribeye on their plate begin discussing the finer points of Longhorn breeding. Local broadcasters trail  behind trailriders, sopping up stories like so much sausage gravy, while dance studios cope with a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.

It’s Rodeo Fever, and even a Yankee can catch it. After moving to Houston, I discovered I had no immunity. After all, as a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, a ballerina, or a nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl.

I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I tuned in to the noon market reports not because I cared about corn futures, but because I wanted to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite, and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If Roy liked Dale Evans? I could learn to like her, too.

I watched them on television, and collected their comic books. I carried my school-day sandwich in a Roy Rogers lunch box, and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, incessant whining wore down my parents, and I received a passionately longed-for black-and-white cowgirl outfit: minus the boots, but with a lovely pair of six-shooters and a beautiful, faux tooled-leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers sang as parody in their Streets of Laredo,  I believed to be true:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.

I had my outfit, and loved it so much that I outgrew it before I stopped wearing it. Still, despite the outfit, I was no cowgirl. It took a new life in Texas to move me beyond childhood fantasy to a deeper appreciation of what being a cowgirl might entail.

Long before I became friends with some real Texas cowgirls, I began to hear stories of the famous ones. In the Coastal Bend,  Louise O’Connor, a fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834, published a first book, Cryin’ for Daylight. The title came from a statement made by Will King, an itinerant cowhand: “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come.”

Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most insistent bit of advice – always saddle your own horse – became the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of women who’d never touched a real horse. When I found her words painted on a cedar board that had been washed or purposely wedged into a pile of rocks along a deserted stretch of the Sabinal River, I smiled, knowing she would have been pleased.

And then there was Hallie Stillwell, who continued to ranch in Texas’s unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death. Through a combination of classic sharp-shooting, political skill, quite ordinary town jobs, and the syndication of a newspaper column, she managed to become one of the largest of the larger-than-life ranch women who populate the American West.

My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon,” still can be spotted on Texas streets, since it was imprinted on tee-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville,


It’s true that, as author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.”  But one of first women ranchers I knew personally had known Hallie and, as she put it, “Hallie really knew what it meant to cowgirl up.”

At the time, I had no idea what she meant by the phrase. Later, I was told that it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute — “cowboy up” — meaning that the rider was seated up on the back of a bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open.

Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning, suggesting someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge: physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. Used as an exhortation, “cowboy up!” means, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”

One of the most vivid examples of a woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming. During the year of her reign, she traveled the country, delighting crowds with her considerable riding skills.

In 1920, she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days. During her visit, the NY Times reported she would entertain 15,000 Girl Scouts during their annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, of course, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. From all accounts, Helen Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. With no email, Twitter, Facebook, or Skype to help her out, she coped in the same way that previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.

This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk, was used by Debbie Little-Wilson as the basis for her print, St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email.  When I saw Debbie’s Cowgirl Saints series, there was no question that St. Helen, along with Debbie’s interpretation of her importance, would have to come home with me.

While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.

Today, St. Helen’s artfully enhanced image hangs above my computer desk, next to the postcard which inspired it, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. Helen Bonham never had a computer, and I never got my horse and saddle, but we both benefited from traditions still living in the far reaches of an unfenced country: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness, and flat hard work so necessary for life in a real world.

It may even be that roping calves and wrangling words have more in common than we imagine. Certainly, the solitude of riding the range and the solitude of writing are related, and the fact that so many cowgirls, ranch hands, and vaqueros also are accomplished songwriters, historians, and poets stands as evidence.

In any event, the Smothers Brothers’ humorous parody makes the point obliquely: an “outfit” is neither necessary nor sufficient for successfully riding the range. As generations of ranch women have made clear, all that is needed for success is a good horse, a clear eye, a steady hand, and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up”.

Comments always are welcome.

Remembering That Purple Poem

hurivirgaSome years ago,  I published “The Sentinel,” an essay about Florida environmentalist Charles Torrey Simpson and a pair of shells I found washed onto a Texas beach.

The shells, a deep, rich purple, are known in scientific circles as Janthina janthina. Elegant, tiny sea snails, they form great rafts, then float around the world. When Simpson found such a raft in the Florida Keys, he chronicled his experience, and through his notebook entry I was able to identify my own bits of purple.

Soon after I posted about Simpson, one of my readers offered a request.  Her love of all things purple had been stirred by the piece, and she wanted a “purple poem.”  At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a poet, and demurred. As it turned out, she did think of me as a poet, and was convinced  I could produce some verse for her. Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron

heronwingbwr 

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings
open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself —
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn’t a miracle
but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
“Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”
~  Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, is mine.

Life With A Five-Year-Old Princess

princess2Princess at Teter Rock, Kansas ~ 2013

When the lovely, straw-colored Toyota came into my life, friends giggled at my choice of name. “Princess?” they asked. “Aren’t you afraid naming it ‘Princess’ is going to cause trouble down the road? What if it ends up expecting to be pampered, and demands new parts and service every other month?”

Politely but firmly, I corrected them. “She. Princess is a ‘she’, not an ‘it.’ And she’s going to be just fine.” 

In fact, she has been fine. We’ve shared five years without any mechanical difficulties, and the rock-shattered windshields and dent from the flying ice chest were easily enough repaired. Two nearly-destroyed rocker panels — chewed up by squirrels, or rats, or El Chupacabra — had to be replaced, but the insurance adjuster wasn’t curious. “It happens more often than you’d think,” she said. “There are weird things going on out there.”Finding Princess was less weird than serendipitous. While traveling to Iowa in 2011, I nearly missed what appeared to be a child’s playhouse tucked into a bend of the highway just outside Coalgate, Oklahoma. Its red stone walls flickered in the rising light, complementing the hand-lettered sign.

For rent?  I thought as I passed by. Furnished?

princesshouse The Coalgate, Oklahoma cottage ~ 2011

I turned around, headed back, and parked in an open patch of dirt. A house to the east appeared vacant, though an air conditioner hummed in a slightly larger brick cabin to the west. 

Camera in hand, I walked around the car for a better look at the cottage, and found myself startled by an unexpected detail.

Above the battered door, a carved stone lintel betokened human presence; friendship and welcome; affection; familial bonds.  Beautiful in its simplicity, it brought tears to my eyes and unexpected longing to my heart. Instantly, I wanted that cabin.

Common sense suggested it wouldn’t be the best place to live. The highway passed only fifty feet from the front door, and it did lack a few amenities, like window glass and a floor. But the roof looked solid, and the thick, compacted vines covering the walls would help keep the stones in place as the mortar crumbled away.

Walking around the building, I pondered. No, I thought, not a home. But maybe a fine place to write.

Under the spell of those clasped hands I imagined a table, chairs, and a coffee pot. In the silence I dreamed the burble of vine-wrens and the soughing of tires on pavement. Sniffing the air, I caught the swirling dust and dessication of early autumn drought, the fragrance of leather-bound farm sale books,  and the scent of freshly-mown hay.

In a space so perfect, thoughts would heap up like roiling summer clouds and words stream down like rain. Or so I imagined.


Later, back on my real-world highway but still entranced by a vision of perfection, I remembered Annie Dillard’s words on writing spaces:

Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window.
Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder-block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. This pine shed under trees is not quite so good as the cinder-block study, but it will do.

Clearly, her cinder-block cell served Dillard well, but not everyone requires — or delights in — such a spartan environment. Harper Lee moved to New York. Flannery O’Connor gravitated toward writers colonies, but thrived after returning to her family’s farm in Georgia. T.S. Eliot embedded himself into the literary life of England, while Wendell Berry returned to Kentucky and contented himself with wielding both a plow and a pen.

No doubt each of us functions best in a particular environment, and the places we choose can encourage productive work as much as any dictionary or thesaurus. Some favor cafés; some seek out libraries. Some prefer isolation; others find the bustle of open, public spaces stimulating.

As for the act of writing itself, Claire Tomalin, biographer of Jane Austen, once said, “All you need if you are a writer is a desk, a pencil and, of course, a great brain.” I presume she’d allow for a little paper, too. But different approaches to the writing process are as natural as preference in matters of place.

Some compose by hand, while others depend exclusively on computers. Some enjoy the sensory experience of inked words flowing across leather-bound pages, but at least one poet in the world contents himself with a cheap ruled tablet and a clutch of number 2 pencils.

Whatever our preferences, we can’t help but hope that, once satisfied, they will move us toward writing satisfaction: keeping our imaginations lively, our spirits enriched, and our words flowing.

paintingThe Coalgate cottage ~ June White, 2012

Today, I’m entirely satisfied with my own writing space: a desk, a computer, piles of reference books, and a window. And, despite having had to move on from fantasies about my Oklahoma writing cottage, the cottage now hangs on my wall.

When reader June White saw its photo in 2012, she decided to paint it for me. After the painting arrived, I was amused to see that she’d eliminated the “For Rent” sign, and asked her about it. “Well,” she said, “even if someone else moves in, or the forces of progress bulldoze the place, it still will be yours — at least, in a way. So, you don’t need the sign.” 

When I passed through Coalgate in 2011, I’d been driving the automotive equivalent of that red stone cottage for more years than I care to remember. Perfectly acceptable for in-town driving, the car had begun to feel as though the wheels might fall off. Repairs were becoming more frequent and more expensive. Strange noises erupted, accompanied by inexplicable vibrations.

Eventually, I was forced to confront an unfortunate truth. No longer a care-giver, freed to indulge my appetite for travel, I had no dependable means of transportation. Humph, I said to no one in particular. I’ll have to think about that.

Home again from Iowa and distracted by the return to work and routine, I gave no more thought to a new car until, in an inexplicable frenzy of certitude, I acted. I knew what I wanted, and I knew where to find it. When I brought Princess home and left her to bask in the sunlight, I was certain we’d be happy. I was right.

princess1Princess in western Kansas, 2016

For some, a dependable car might not seem a neccesary writing tool. Some would call it a distraction, or even a means of escape from the demands of paper and pen. But for a history-lover, a curiosity-seeker, and a wanderer at heart, the roads of the world beckon as surely as the pages of an open book.  With Princess, I’m able to read those pages, and enjoy the stories they contain.

Much of what piques my interest demands research, and much of my research stirs a deeper curiosity. Sometimes, satisfying that curiosity requires more than books. It requires replacing search engines with a real engine; that is, it requires travel.

Beyond that, I’ve always found my own best answer to writers’ block is a good engine block. Freedom to run the roads with confidence, hearing the music of life and sensing its rhythms around me, is an experience like no other. 

And if, one day, I should happen upon Space and Time holding hands and hitch-hiking together across the country? So much the better. I’ll happily offer them a ride.

princess3Princess on the high Plains, 2016

Comments always are welcome.

Analog traveling, Part 2 ~ Landmark and Lifemarks

pawneeblackPawnee Rock ~ George Sibley’s “remarkable rocky point”

Tempting though it may be to imagine early Santa Fe trail surveyors as a grim, distance-obsessed lot, pressing across the plains in sixty-six foot increments while their lagging chainmen whined and complained, there was more to life on the trail than measured miles and weary feet.

Survey parties camped each night by necessity, but occasionally they stayed in the same spot for several days: a decision sometimes dictated by  circumstance — a swollen river, delayed messages, Indian threats — but just as often occasioned by pleasant surprises. Rich grasses, good timber, or an abundance of game were gifts along a dangerous, difficult road, and gifts were not to be received lightly.
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