Alabama Living

The Myth of Water

Posted in Alabama Living on July 20th, 2016 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Award-winning poet Jeanie Thompson just released The Myth of Water: Poems from the Life of Helen Keller. I sat down with her recently to her life as a poet and how she was able to such a beautiful and moving collection of poems.

Jeanie Thompson's most recent collection of stunning poetry.

Jeanie Thompson’s most recent collection of stunning poetry.

What inspired you to write from Helen Keller’s point of view?

I was inspired to write from Helen Keller’s point of view after I read the biography Helen Keller: A Life by Dorothy Hermann.  The fact that Helen experienced one of her most heart-wrenching moments a few blocks from where I was living at the time I read about her life seemed like a sign to me as a writer. Then, of course, I withdrew from the idea because it seemed too obvious a subject to me.

What books, resources and people did you find most informative and helpful?

It was incredibly helpful to read Helen’s own writings (Helen Keller’s Journal, MidStream, and Teacher are three) to gather details, emotions, a sense of setting, and her sense of herself as a woman and a writer.

Did you know much about the depth and breadth of Keller’s life before you began? What did you discover about her you didn’t know before you started?

I think I had a slight sense of Helen’s spiritual power first — after reading A Light in My Darkness, which is considered her “religious” writing.  From there, I went to Hermann’s biography.  It was a process of learning, researching, discovering. I had no idea where I was going, or where I might end up.

Your goal in this collection is “to reveal a woman less known than the famous then the world citizen the public adored.” What do most people not know about Helen Keller? Do you touch upon any of these aspects in your poetry?

One of the main things people don’t know about Helen Keller is that she was an emotionally developed woman who had all the hopes and dreams any woman would have. Also, she was driven to help others overcome their disabilities.  Helen was a very public person because she chose to speak out when the time seemed right.  People have tried to tag her with labels like socialist, etc., but she really was a patriot of the soul.

In your introduction, you write, “Keller chose her very public life as much as it chose her.” What do you mean by that?

I suppose I meant that she was not afraid to go in front of the public to push for what she believed is right. Once a person goes on the path of public advocacy, it does become a chosen path.

How do you define what you describe as “historical person poems?”

Poems that reveal a character from history through short speeches, vignettes, or portraits that reveal personality. The closest analogue I can think of is the monologue or soliloquy in literature. These days poets are finding ways to express themselves through another character’s voice and work specific poetic techniques.

How did you choose which moments, events and relationships to explore from such an extraordinary life?

I chose moments that I felt I could’ve lived myself.  This is a more direct way of saying, moments with which I empathized.  If I don’t feel a very strong identification with material, I won’t be called to write a persona poem.

Was there an area or subject you wanted to explore but couldn’t for some reason?

I wanted to explore further her life as an older woman. Her books Midstream and Teacher (the bio of Annie Sullivan Macy) are much more reflective and revealing than The Story of My Life, which is so well known, but is a very young person’s book.

What was her relationship like with her mother? Father?  

I wish I had spent more time on Kate, Helen’s mother. I didn’t consciously decide not to write about that, but most people know the story of how Helen’s mother found Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, which ultimately led to Annie Sullivan traveling from Boston to Tuscumbia to take on the challenge of Helen Keller. So Kate Keller was indeed the catalytic hero.  My sense of Helen’s father is that he was from an older era, but he believed in his wife’s determination to help their daughter. If I had gone too deeply into the family, I don’t think I would’ve made it to the places I did go with the poems. I do regret that in some way, but there’s always time to write more poems and I have actually thought of a sequel in which I go back and pick up some of those threads I had to drop.

Poet and Director of the Alabama Writer's Forum: Jeanie Thompson

Poet and Director of the Alabama Writer’s Forum: Jeanie Thompson

You write much of Keller’s life was spent mourning the loss of Anne Sullivan. I thought some of the most powerful pieces were in the section  “Coming through Fire: Circa 1955.” How were you able to illuminate such a unique relationship with the images you used?

That’s a terrific question to ponder. I don’t know how exactly, but I can tell you that this was the last poem I wrote for the book. My dear friend Louie Skipper suggested that I needed one poem that would tie up the manuscript, would summarize in a way who Helen was and how she and Annie were entwined (he didn’t say it like that though!). So I looked through the book and pulled one poem and then wrote the rest around it. I remember letting myself go stylistically with this poem, returning to a much looser line. Also, I drew upon my own memories of landscapes that could’ve been scenes for Helen and Annie — in north Alabama by the Tennessee River and also in South Alabama, in Mobile, and on the Eastern Shore.  The image of the inside of the muscle shell being a gateway through touch into light was a gift of that process.  It’s awkward, cumbersome to discuss after the process, but I would have to say this is an extended, lyrical moment in the book for me, not just the longest poem. When I read it for my colleagues at Spalding (the first and only time I’ve read the whole poem aloud to date), the response shocked me.  Many women came up to me and told me how it moved them.  This really boosted my confidence that it was right for the book. Sometimes poetry needs to be long, meditative, and more engrossing to fully develop an idea or a relationship. We are so addicted to short blurts these days. I see the fragment, the truncated line being exhausted. That’s fine, but it shouldn’t erase the poet’s access to a more complex syntax and thought pattern, tempered by compression and style.

Why didn’t Peter Fagan show up when he was supposed to marry Keller?

I have no idea, but the biographies pose various theories and Helen herself deals with it sort of obliquely in Midstream.  She said that she had known a

“Little Island of Joy” through her love of Peter. I feel sure it was consummated, but again, I have no written evidence. She was 36 and he was 29. But an island suggests a surrounding ocean of separation to me. Many of the letters that might’ve shed some light perished when Helen’s home at Arcan Ridge burned years later. The main take-away for me is that something like this would never have happened if Helen had been born about 50 or 60 years later.  Her family sought to protect her, which is understandable, from what they thought was a threat. Unfortunately, she never got to find her way as a wife and mother.  And she does address that loss in her writing. The WHY of the situation wasn’t the point of the poems. I wanted to portray how she experienced and coped with the loss.

How were your skills as a writer and poet stretched writing from Keller’s point of view?

To some extent once I got the first three poems down, I felt comfortable with her persona. I have written in this mode since I was a graduate student — not to date myself but before “persona poems” we’re in vogue as they are now.  I find it very comfortable.  The trick for me was to decide how to use some received forms for Helen’s story.

What did you discover about yourself as a writer that you didn’t know before this project?

I discovered that I wanted to try things that ultimately didn’t fit and that I needed to trust the skills I had developed.

“In Terra Cotta” is a powerful way to end the collection. How did this idea find you?

When I saw a NY Times story about an art exhibition featuring items that survived the 911 attack in New York, there was a photograph of the terra cotta bust of Helen. It had been singed, but survived. This show traveled the country in several versions, and part of it came to Mobile, but unfortunately, the bust didn’t. I hope to see it one day at the relocated Helen Keller International office in NYC.  Many precious documents were consumed in that fire, but the bust of Helen, a gift from the Japanese, withstood terrorism — it seemed like a symbol of Helen’s fortitude and belief in mankind helping mankind.  For me, Helen was the embodiment of optimism. Not some sappy kind, but the urgent force that impels us to care about, and work for, others.



The Year of Decluttering and Finding Joy

Posted in Alabama Living on December 20th, 2015 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

For all decluttering warriors….

This year at the beginning of the year, I started a decluttering process with Katie Rogers. Our goal was to make considerable progress throughout all areas of my house. Katie subscribes to Marie Kondo’s philosophy. I’d never heard of her, but since then, everywhere you turn there she is! Katie and I worked in three-hour chunks for several weeks to accomplish most of our work before the Chinese New Year in February. We made great progress, and I’ve continued throughout the entire year to go deeper and deeper with my “stuff.”


 Decluttering is a birthing:

Decluttering is a process and by looking at your stuff, seeing what place it holds in your life and why, and by letting go of some of your stuff, you are giving birth to a new identity. As Anais Nin writes in her diary in 1944, “If one changes internally, one should not continue to live with the same objects.”

Each particular items requires a different send-off:

It’s interesting what happens to certain pieces or things. Some stuff you throw away immediately without hesitation, others you donate to the right place, and even others, you let sit for a while. For instance, Katie will challenge you to wear that red pair of shoes you’ve never worn, and if you don’t do so within a week, it needs to go. On the flip side of that are a few things I thought I wanted to give away I simply found a new spot for where I saw them in a new light and where they could be better appreciated.

The Garage: Before

The Garage: Before

Like babies dictating when they will enter your world, some item determine when they will leave you.

Some items stick with you for a bit longer until the universe responds with the best outcome for their new life. The dollhouse I grew up with and my mother had also played with growing up was something I struggled with. I finally made the decision to find a new home for it when I admitted to myself my daughter was growing up so fast she was already past that stage, and it made absolutely no sense to hang onto for that elusive day she may or may not have a daughter. I then texted several of my cousins numerous times, but for whatever reason, we couldn’t connect and it continued to sit in my garage until I went to a family party and another cousin came up and asked me about the dollhouse. He wanted to build one just like it for his grandkids. He was the perfect person to honor, treasure, and enjoy it so he came and got it the next day. Now it’s been given a new life and several happy girls are playing with it the way I used to enjoy it, and my mother did.

The Garage: After

The Garage: After


I struggled with things I kept that were given as gifts to me. I had as sense of obligation to keep them and felt guilty even thinking about getting rid of them. But what I realized is that when I saw that particular thing and it did not give me joy and only triggered a sense of resentment, it wasn’t worth keeping.

Declutter’s remorse.

I made a point to discuss what I was doing with my family, but there was a moment when I felt like I gave away something I shouldn’t have and it made me terribly uncomfortable. In fact, I had serious anxiety about it, but eventually after some time passed and several discussions with family members, I realized it was okay. A mistake hadn’t been made. Instead, difficult decisions had been faced. When I stopped avoiding what was right in front of me, I forced others to deal with their stuff as well. Sometimes, this wasn’t always pleasant!

What is the true currency of your life?

When you go through this process, you are faced with the issues of assigning and defining what is of value you to and why. You start to see how your sense of self worth is tied up with material objects. You are faced with the issue of ownership, and even the role you play in your family dynamics. I have played the role of archivist and museum curator and with that the task of collecting and maintaining lifetimes. This is a role I decided I needed to redefine and even let go off.

My storage unit before we cleared it.

My storage unit before we cleared it.

The experience counts, not the ribbons.

Somehow I had a handful of patches from my mother’s high school swim team. She’s 83. She told me to throw them away. This was all about the same time my daughter was collecting ribbons for her horse show championships. Lots of ribbons. They hang around every wall in her room. She’s twelve. By the time her horse showing career is done who knows how many ribbons she will have earned. Will she hold onto them? Do they matter? Yes and no. What matters is the courage, faith, strength and life lessons she’s learning from caring for an animal, facing physical challenges and emotional obstacles.

My storage unit after we finished.

My storage unit after we finished.

When we consider letting go, we can “see” our stuff honestly.

We “see” our stuff again with a deeper understanding. Hugo still had a trophy he earned for a pass and punt football challenge in 1974 when he was eleven. The first place winner had a chance to go on TV and meet “The Bear,” a memory emblazoned in his mind to this day as a highlight of his life. At the time an African American kid had won first place, but for some reason he couldn’t remember the boy had been disqualified on a “technicality.” Holding the trophy in his hand and reminiscing, he realized something he intuitively felt as a child. This was Birmingham, Alabama, so what Hugo felt as a child, he only now could articulate as an adult: That prize couldn’t be bestowed upon a black boy. First place was given to the white boy instead.

Your stuff will not save you from experiencing loss.

“Death is the stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to die before you die – and find that there is no death.” Eckart Tolle

When you face your stuff, you face your mortality. No matter how hard or long we hold onto the things that define us we will be erased, traces of our lives die with us. Our scribbles are lost. Our lives become artifacts in a dusty store, discards on a trash pile in a landfill, a quaint relic on someone’s shelf who collects antiques. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to stop the passage of time, to stop myself from dying and disappearing, to prevent the losses I must endure


There’s always beneficial or non-beneficial energy and beliefs connected to your stuff. The process can be therapeutic when you understand why you are really holding onto something. This can make you cry, laugh or get really angry.

When you shift in healthy ways, you can inspire others to shift.

I am much more aware of what I purchase and why, and I ask myself do I really want to bring this into my house and life?

Anything anyone else, especially furniture, someone had a sense of ownership over, I want out of my house.

Anything you keep in storage is “hidden debris,” those unconscious feelings you aren’t willing to look at yet.

The books in my house were the hardest tackle.

The books in my house were the hardest tackle.

I gave a way endless boxes of books.

I gave a way endless boxes of books.












A couple of more videos with Katie to share:

Selma: Fifty Years Later

Posted in Alabama Living on January 15th, 2015 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper, the woman who knocked out Sheriff Jim Clark after standing in line for hours to vote when he told her to leave and prodded her in the neck with a billy stick.

Oprah plays Annie Lee Cooper, the woman who knocked out Sheriff Jim Clark after standing in line for hours to vote when he told her to leave and prodded her in the neck with a billy stick.

Last spring, my photographer buddy Elizabeth DeRamus ( and I traveled to Selma, her hometown, during the filming of the movie “Selma” currently in theaters and now nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. We talked to actors, cameramen, bystanders, production crew and even had an Oprah sighting on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This March, as most people know, marks the 50th anniversary of Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday.” Half a century since the famous marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma remains a ghost town, the foundry crumbling, its magnificent homes abandoned, the Air Force Base almost empty for decades now, downtown a mere shadow of its glory days as a gem of the Confederacy and later the birthplace of historical civil rights legislation.

Today, many folks living in Selma are ready to move on, ready to forget the violent days preceding the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. During the filming the production the crew had a hard time finding white people to play the role as agitators. Many people here lived through those hard times and have no desire to repeat history. Who wants to be the face of white hate even when it’s a reenactment?

With a population hovering around 20,000 — almost half of what it was in 1965 – Dallas County is predominantly black. De facto segregation and a faltering economy define race relations, and while the state of affairs between blacks and whites has improved, an entrenched Confederate mythology dies hard, and tensions still simmer, manifested in battles over streets being named after Confederate war heroes or civil rights activists.

Last year activist Faya Rose Toure, was arrested at the city council meeting for protesting against the monument in the Old Live Oak Cemetery honoring the controversial Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument standing in the Confederate Circle at Old Live Oak Cemetery

Nathan Bedford Forrest Monument standing in the Confederate Circle at Old Live Oak Cemetery

Lifelong resident, Mary Lawrence, says changes have been made for the better, but life here is not as good as it could be. Watching the events being filmed in her hometown with her friend Rosetta Kent, owner Thunderbird Motel for the past 45 years, she shook her head, “We’re old enough to know it all. We don’t have to read about it.” Or see a movie like the rest of us to understand the sacrifices made.

















Smart Party

Posted in Alabama Living on October 14th, 2014 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

2014 Smart Party Honorees2014 Smart Party Honorees

The Women’s Fund and Smart Party

It’s hard to be a woman making a living and raising a family here in Birmingham where 41% of single mothers live below the poverty line, the median income for female-headed households is more than $20,000 below the living wage, and a lack of affordable childcare, housing, and education leaves many low-income women limited to part-time jobs and without enough resources to provide for their families.

Thank goodness for organizations like The Women’s Fund which last year helped 2,083 women and their children improve their economic security. Through community support, The Women’s Fund helps women move beyond poverty through collaboration, grantmaking, and advocacy. One of their newest programs, Collaboration Institute connects low-income single mothers with in-demand jobs while providing critical economic supports like childcare and education.

Next week they are hosting the Smart Party honoring many of the incredible women here in town making a change for the better in our community’s health. One hundred percent of the proceeds from Smart Party ticket sales and donations will benefit the programs of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. Here’s a look at the honorees!


2014 Smart Party Honorees:

Kay Bains, Partner, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP

Louise Beard, Tony award-winning Broadway producer

Constance Burnes, Director of Schools, Birmingham City Schools

Michele Elrod, Executive Vice President and Head of Marketing, Regions

Susan Greene, Executive Director, Norma Livingston Ovarian Cancer Foundation

Eileen Markstein, Managing Director, Markstein

Andrea McCaskey, Vice President, Human Resources, BioHorizons Implant Systems, Inc.

Kathy G. Mezrano, Founder and President, Kathy G. & Company


Join us at Smart Party 3.0 on October 16 – you could win a tour of Google New York!

Tickets and info:

Birmingham Survived the Ice Storm of 1982 and the 1993 “Storm of the Century” but “Elsa” is Different

Posted in Alabama Living on January 29th, 2014 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

From an outsider’s point of view the current crisis in Birmingham looks fairly simple. Southerners don’t know how to handle snow, and certainly not ice. Well, that’s true. We don’t carry snow chains and emergency kits in our trunks in case of the bitter cold.

My house in a snowstorm, 1937

My house in a snowstorm, 1937

But, if we have ample warning, we typically overprepare for any weather event, ravaging the bread and milk aisles at the Piggly Wiggly with a tornadic fury. In fact, we’ve heeded the most recent warnings from our trusty weatherman to the point we all felt a little ridiculous when, time and again, the schools closed and nothing happened.

We’ve experienced winter storms before: The January Ice Storm of 1982 left almost a million people without power, twenty dead, hundreds injured and millions of dollars in damage; the super freak snow storm in March 1993, dubbed “The Storm of the Century,” shut down the city for days. That’s when I heard thunder snow, a strange, muffled clap, about the same time the eighty-year old water oak plopped across the boxwoods in the front yard, the tip of its top limbs grazing the house.

This time is different, but no less dramatic, the temperature dropping so fast, within minutes the roads were impassable. Like the princess Elsa in the current Disney movie Frozen: in a flash, we were encased in ice fractals.

I made it home in the nick of time with Clint and Frances in tow. When Clint called and said school was out, I jumped in the car and headed to Altamont perched on top of Red Mountain. In the car slipping on ice, I watched my windshield wipers stick with flecks of ice. I realized then this was serious business, and I didn’t have a clue what to do. Driving up Morningside’s steep curves, my back windshield blanketed in snow, I could feel the window of opportunity closing. I only had a few minutes left to navigate my way safely.

The road in front of my house, circa 1978.

The road in front of my house, circa 1978.

By the time we drove in the driveway and got inside, the road in front of our house was jammed, cars spinning out everywhere. I called the police department. “The city is closed,” the dispatcher informed me. But people are stuck I insisted. “Honey, people are stuck all over the city.”

The forecasters had said there would be only a dusting I tried to explain to my brother Peter who called from California chuckling. Heck, the governor commanded all of the sand trucks and EMA folks go 100 miles south.

Peter wanted to know if my husband Hugo had delivered any babies in this storm like he sort of did twenty years ago. No emergency trips to rush his godchild’s mother to the hospital in his four wheel drive truck. But this Hometown Hero is spending the night at work with a stranded crew after helping one hitchhiker and several damsels in distress. In a strange twist, one of his partner’s sons found his way to our house after walking miles in the dangerous cold to spend the night with us. Along the way, he ate a snack and drank coffee someone had left in their mailbox for people in need.

With emergency crews elsewhere, here in Birmingham, people all over the city ran out of gas or ran out of nerve and abandoned cars in the middle of expressways transformed into frozen parking lots. My mother-in -law sat in her car for six hours and used half a tank of gas, only to travel 12 miles. She was lucky. She found a hotel.

That’s one anecdote out of hundreds of stories we will hear about stranded, cold, powerless people without their medicine, away from their families, caught off guard by this storm.

Southerners may not understand how to deal with snow and ice, but when this crisis is all said and done, the countless stories of kindness and generosity will be a testament to what we do know how to do: extend a helping hand and open heart to a stranger in need when within thirty minutes the world turns to ice.






The 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

Posted in Alabama Living on September 6th, 2013 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment
Sculpttor Elizabeth MacQueen working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

Sculpttor Elizabeth MacQueen working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

When you think of the state of Alabama, college football, cotton fields, demagogues, American Idol winners and Nascar come to mind. To this day, when you mention Birmingham, images of fire hoses and police dogs define our city’s past.

Fifty years ago on September 15, 1963, four girls preparing for Sunday morning church service died at the hands of white supremacists. I wasn’t even born yet. I certainly never studied this horrific event in school, learning the full impact of the civil rights movement as a college student viewing Birmingham from an outsider’s perspective. I only recently learned my mother wanted to join the march in Selma but, as a suburban housewife and mother of three boys, she was too afraid, worried about her safety.

That pivotal year, Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen was 14 years old, the same age as three of the four girls killed in the church bombing. Growing up in Mountain Brook, only a few miles from downtown, MacQueen, also lived a world apart from the violent demonstrations. At the time, MacQueen remembers, “I was told never to go over the mountain.” Red Mountain, that is, referred to by Paul Hemphill, author of Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son, as “the Berlin Wall.”

Today on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing, across the street in Kelly Ingram Park, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights monuments evoke these darker times. One monument still remains missing. Not for much longer.

In the spring of 2011, a Birmingham attorney (I’m proud to say my father-in law) was stunned to learn a monument to the four little girls didn’t exist when he read Carol McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched. He picked up the phone and called McKinstry, one of the survivors of that fateful day.

Their conversation led to a coalition of black and white individuals who commissioned Elizabeth MacQueen to create bronze, life-size statues in honor of Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair.

Now half a century later, an unlikely group has come together in a spirit of gratitude and reconciliation to commemorate four little girls whose untimely deaths have made the city once known as “Bombingham” a better place.

On Sept. 14, at 4:00 pm on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, MacQueen’s commemorative sculpture will be unveiled in Kelly Ingram Park, located catty corner to the church and adjacent to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Learn more about the event and the sculpture at

The corner where the Four Spirits monument will be placed.

The corner where the Four Spirits monument will be placed.

Ballad of Birmingham


“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”
“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”


“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”













A Blue Dot in a Red State

Posted in Alabama Living on November 5th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

I live in Romney country, a blue dot in a red state. One neighbor down the street has a “Fire Obama” sign; another has a “Obamanation” sticker plastered on the back window of the car. Winding through carpool every morning, I pass a sign that reads: “Fight back. Vote Republican.”

This morning when my daughter noted that today was the day before the election, I found myself telling her not to discuss the election with anyone. It’s like football talk around here I explained. No matter what you say or do, you will not convince an Alabama fan to become an Auburn fan, or vice versa.

I remembered her experience one day last month around the time of presidential the debates when her fourth grade class discussed the upcoming election. Frances and one other boy were the only two who supported Obama. The other nineteen children, astonished and puzzled, asked why. Frances retorted: “Don’t you want women to have rights?” I was proud when she told me this. I was also wary, worried about her speaking her voice, a different voice, in my suburban, well-heeled community.

The mood in this country seems to me as divisive as it must have been during the civil right movement. Just a couple of nights ago, the brand new signs commemorating the Freedom Riders Park in Anniston,  Alabama, were burned.

This year is the first time I haven’t staked my candidate’s sign in my front yard for all the world to see. I don’t trust people’s reactionary rage, even though in 2013, it will be fifty years ago since the beatings, burnings and bombings in Alabama.

Call me paranoid, but tomorrow, I will let my vote speak for itself.

Mentone: The Sedona of the South

Posted in Alabama Living on September 3rd, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Mentone, a place the Great God built,

Up near the sunlit sky,

There life is new and friends are true

   And days too quickly fly;

Where wearied souls regain their power

              And  sorrows leave in the night.

Where peace is born with each new morn,

       A haven of joy and delight.

                                                            Sidney Lanier

Mentone is one of those special places that if you happen to pass through and stop, you might decide to stay there. Many people have done just that. Over the years,  “Adventurers, poets, crafts-people, musicians, promoters, dreamers, people of religious fervency, farmers, coal miners, sawmillers, educators and a few bootleggers have found this spot” writes Zora Strayhorn In the History of Mentone. Indeed they have.

Today, an eclectic mix of folks call Mentone home: retirees, hippies, mountain mamas, artists of all stripes, shamans, Buddhists monks, entrepreneurs (meth labs don’t count), summer campers, writers, good old boys, hikers, cyclists, biker dudes, herbalists, energy healers—all individuals with an independent spirit, to say the least. Even the black bears have returned to Little River Canyon.

Here are a few of my favorite places and people. This list is by no means a comprehensive list! Just a sampling.

Founded in 1884, Mentone Springs Hotel ( is the oldest hotel in the state of Alabama. I especially like the hotel restaurant, Alice’s, where you’re guaranteed a good meal and live music on a wraparound porch overlooking town. Rumor has it the mineral springs, home to the healing waters that brought so many people here seeking refuge and rejuvenation in the first place, along the mountainside next to the hotel will re-open one day.

A stone’s throw from the hotel, you can find Jim Marbutt, owner of Kawliga, on the main street in the heart of town. Chainsaw in hand, he’s hard to miss, hanging out with his carved creatures. If you sit a spell, there’s no telling what kind of story he’ll conjure up to entertain you with—headless Hessian horsemen, tales of the war between the states as if it happened yesterday. My favorite piece he’s done lately is a bench with a catfish holding a rod on one side. A honeypot dangles from the end of his pole tantalizing the bear he’s trying to catch on the other side.

After listening to Jim, keep walking and you run into a coffee shop, art gallery and antiques shop all under one roof at Kamama  (, owned by Ray and Sandra Padgett, two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They first happened upon Mentone in the 1970s, and even owned the hotel for many years, renovating it on the weekends while they worked and lived in Atlanta. They’ve now retired here.

Miracle Pottery ( is located on Highway 117 on the right as you drive up the mountain into Mentone. You can’t miss the flashing sign. Valinda Miracle’s work is both beautiful and functional.  And, yes, her last name is really “Miracle.” In her new book, The Dead Don’t Bleed, Those Who Are Alive Do, that she also sells in the shop, she describes the many miracles in her life, overcoming one adversity after another, including a flesh-eating disease. This is a woman who will captivate you with her pottery and her stories. Now, my daughter Frances wasn’t so sure what to think the day we watched Valinda throw pots and talk to a group. When Valinda started describing one of the many times she came back from the dead after entering in the inner chamber’s of God’s kingdom, Frances decided it was time to go. Clearly, this is a woman with a powerful faith.

The beauty of Mentone is the abundance of spirituality and healing found here in the “Sedona of the South.” Go down to Valley Head and you can practice your faith in yourself by firewalking at Rock Ridge Retreat. Edwene Gaines, a Unitarian minister and the director, leads prosperity retreats. Who knew?

The natural beauty of the area is in and of itself a powerful, healing source. The falls at Desoto State Park ( are stunning, not to mention the great hiking trails and mountain bike paths. Nice cabins and tent camping as well.

Check out One World Adventure Company, for sure, to go canoeing, kayaking, or embarking on other outdoor adventures!

This is just a tiny taste of a what is truly a “haven of joy and delight.” Go to or to discover more.

The American Way of Death: A Checklist

Posted in Alabama Living on August 13th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Be the first to comment

Obsessive compulsive by nature, I’m the queen of lists. I am so OCD that even when I entertain, my friend’s son remarks as I prepare dinner, fuss over the table and urge him for the fifth time to serve himself plenty of food, “Thank you for being so obsessive compulsive about feeding us.”

But the other day when I got a checklist in the mail from my retirement fund in reference to being my husband’s beneficiary in the event of his death—something that actually hit too close to home recently with his Recession-induced heart palpitations—I was mortified by the oh-so-casual checklist. The only other time I truly feared my husband’s impending demise was when I was still sore from childbirth, holding a newborn, sleep deprived, full of such intense love I could barely breathe, suffocated by the imaginary prospect of raising this child I’d just introduced to the world without a father.

Unsettled, rereading the checklist, I realized even this queen of organization has some limits. I mean I’m all about being prepared, but jeez, are you kidding me? First on the list is the death certificate. Great. Exactly what I have in mind in the throes of grief. I suppose that’s the point, though. Better to know what to expect and have a list filed away so you can go on autopilot.

Okay, so I do get  the point. I’ve even been so bold as to advise someone dealing with a beloved one receiving hospice care to go ahead and write the obituary. Ugh. I actually said that, and they did. So how can I be so repulsed by this checklist? Aren’t I the one who nags my mother about having her affairs in order, asking her over lunch when she’s discussing her lifelong friend’s ailing health, what song she wants played at her funeral?  I have even asked her what she’s going to come back as so I know when she’s around. “A black crow,” she snapped. Hmm. Not the answer I wanted.

Strangely, I’ve always read the obituaries. Now that I’m hitting midlife and funerals are cropping up like mushrooms after a hard rain, I read them daily, that is until our local newspaper is only delivered three times a week. Reading the obituaries is a tactile experience, not an online one. I’ve always assumed studying the obituaries was simply the writer in me, scanning the horizon for a good story, intrigued by how we’ve lived our lives, how you sum it up in a few paragraphs. No, it’s more than that: my interest is partly due to how I, as an American, frame death.

How we do or don’t relate to death makes me think about about the essay, “The American Way of Death,” by Jessica Mitford that I read in my freshman reader in college, in which she describes the sterile business we Americans have made of funerals. We have quite an industry dealing with death after the fact, but we don’t prepare for it beforehand. Checklists notwithstanding.

Americans lack proper respect for death. We lack a unifying mythology of guides to take us across the river Styx and explain the process. We don’t have a Day of the Dead. In fact, it seems we do everything—spend too much, eat too much, drink too much—to numb ourselves to the fact of the matter that we are all on a boat in the ocean headed to that place on the horizon where it suddenly drops off and we’re plunged into the unknown. We acknowledge death only by our frenzied attempts to deny its ultimate power over us.

As my father was struggling with his last breaths, two nurses came in the hospital room to take him to his scheduled afternoon procedure. What that was now I’ve forgotten. My family was huddled around him, overcome with tears and shock, waves of powerlessness washing over us. I’m not a nurse but it was clear what we were experiencing, death rattle and all. However, one nurse kept trying to get him situated and ready to be wheeled down the hall for his procedure. It was time, darn it, and she had a schedule to keep. Death was staring her right in the eye and she didn’t see it. Finally, the other nurse caught this woman’s attention and gestured her hand across her throat. It’s over she signaled frantically before they left us in peace.

Before my father’s death, my greatest lessons about death came from my dogs. Seriously. With Samson, my husband and I were unable to face it and when we finally did, we were so stressed we didn’t create a calm environment for him to go, rushing him to the vet after work one day. When Delilah’s liver shut down, we couldn’t deny it was time, and we knew enough to insist the vet come to our house. Same with Chad who taught us when a dog lacks the will to get up from his bed to  do his business, it’s time. Our dog Max had a strange glint I would catch in his eye sometimes. We discovered he had a brain tumor. I learned then not to dismiss the odd things you notice.

When we first brought Sophie home, a full grown dog who’d lived in a cage her entire two years of life, I thought to myself as I watched her interact with the other dogs, I will have to bury her one day. Then I thought what a strange thought. We lost her a few months ago, but she gave us the gift of a beautiful, peaceful death. She showed us the best way to go: eat  your dinner and then crawl on your dog bed in your favorite spot in the kitchen and go to sleep surrounded by your family going about their evening as usual.

Why do I hate this checklist if I think we need to acknowledge death in a more thoughtful, ritualistic manner? Because it has no heart. It doesn’t reflect the magnitude of accepting the loss of someone we love. It doesn’t include what we will need most: a way to find ourselves again as we’re lost in our grief. When my father died, I tried to find books about grief. I found plenty of clinical studies but not any nonfiction about personal experiences. It’s sort of like childbirth in that way or even miscarriages. So many people go through this, but so few really tell their stories.

One book I read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve recently  read a wonderful memoir, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, with incredible resources listed at the end. Both books are ones I’d recommend at anytime to read. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis is also a beautiful classic about his spiritual  journey following his wife’s tragic death.

Maybe if we are able to acknowledge and honor death in a more mindful, respectful manner that has nothing to do with checklists, we can accept it with more grace when we experience the inevitable losses in our own lives.

Saucesito Verde

Posted in Alabama Living on August 8th, 2012 by Lanier Isom – Comments Off on Saucesito Verde

The best part about teaching school in my former life is seeing the incredible lives my former students create for themselves. So many have crafted a life dedicated to service, helping communities and individuals in need. Saving children from the sex trade in Thailand, holding citizens and lawmakers accountable for keeping Alabama’s rivers clean and safe, and providing an opportunity for Peruvian women to support themselves are just a few of the noble paths some of my former students have chosen.

Check out what Carrie Campbell is doing with Saucesito Verde, a cooperative of textile artisans made up of 15 women in the northern Peruvian Andes. These women prepare their own natural dyes and hand-craft woven, knitted and crocheted fabrics. Carrie has been working hard to connect these women to a market for their textiles. What began as a small idea to find retailers has grown, and last fall the group had the unique opportunity to make custom bags for a U.S. designer. This year Carrie has been working to grow a sustainable business model, secure supply chains, create and market new designs, and develop business connections. You can read about this cooperative and their progress at

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