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.

 

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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Analog Traveling, Part I ~ Mr. Sibley’s Chain Gang

sibley1Crossing the Cimarron desert

While not precisely in the Middle of Nowhere, William Becknell found himself roaming the eastern slope of the southern Rockies in the fall of 1821, conducting trade with Indians in lieu of more lucrative, but forbidden, commerce with Mexico.

Encountering a group of Mexican soldiers one sun-soaked afternoon, Becknell learned that Mexico had won independence from Spain, and trade once again was possible. Seizing his opportunity, Becknell traveled directly to Santa Fe, arriving on November 16. It was a profitable decision:

After a month of trading, Becknell and his party left Santa Fe on December 13th. His investment of $300 in trading goods had returned approximately $6000 in coin. The men returned to Missouri safely in January, 1822.

Wealthier and more experienced, Becknell resolved to return to Santa Fe the following summer, but along a different route: rejecting the difficult mountain passes in favor of a diagonal dash across Kansas, through present-day Council Grove, Dodge City, and the Cimarron Desert. Continue reading

The Other Side of the Tracks

img_9607Arkansas Freight

Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.

Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.

Even the tracks provided entertainment.  Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
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How To Bribe A Bison

img_1943

Once on the open range west of Matfield Green, a turn to the north on M Road, followed by another turn west to 60 Road, will lead you to Cedar Creek, the ghost town of Wonsevu, and autumnal ditches filled with partridge pea.

Stop to admire the flowers or the rust-colored grasses sweeping over the hills, and a glint of light might catch your eye. From the road, it’s hard to determine the source. But this is open prairie, unfenced and accessible. Wade into the grasses and climb the hill, and you’ll discover a life-sized, perfectly detailed bison: a sculpture conveying all the strength and solidity of the iconic prairie animal.

Although the name of the sculptor remains a mystery, and I haven’t yet learned who commissioned the work, I like to imagine a rancher placing the bison on its hillside: perhaps as a tribute to early ranchers in the American West who helped to save the bison from extinction. Continue reading

Life’s Little Vacancies

Wichita, Kansas

Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.

By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.
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