Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Art show supports water of life

Matty, Heather & Paulette
PANAMA CITY — The parking lot was full and the lobby was crowded last Friday evening at Northstar Church, where literally hundreds of people gathered for the fourth annual Art Show and Sale.

“Art speaks in a language all its own,” said a post at the Northstar website promoting the event. “It has the power to provoke, inspire, and give hope. It is a powerful force that rules the Internet, the airwaves, and demands the square footage of thousands of museums and private galleries. Art is important to us as individuals and to our culture, and we believe it should be celebrated.”

Art was celebrated last week in the form of paintings, mixed media, photographs and drawings created by many of the area’s better-known talents — including Jennifer Bonaventura, Heather Clements, Matty Jankowski, Heather Parker and Paulette Perlman — as well as many lesser-known names and student artists. The show included 314 pieces; 47 pieces sold for a total of $2,566.

Of the sales, 90 percent of the money went directly to the artists, while 10 percent was kept to support the church’s mission to Kiu, a village in Kenya.

“We have an ongoing relationship with the village of Kiu,” said Lee Baker, arts pastor at the church. “A couple of years ago, we built the bore pump there, then installed solar panels to power the pump. This year, they’re installing tanks on top of a hill — every year, it gets bigger.”

Kayla & Nick
According to information provided by Northstar, the community of Kiu is a market town divided by a major east-west rail line. Buying and selling of produce is the major economy, with basket and rope weaving also contributing. The village has eight churches, one school and a small medical clinic located at the center of the community on the five-acre grounds of the African Inland Church. The clinic serves people from Kiu and neighboring villages.

“The village is big,” Baker said. “We couldn’t walk across it easily, because of terrain and how extensive it was.”

Access to water is a major issue in the community and people often walk hours to fetch their daily water. The water project was started in 2010 and is nearing completion. With access to clean water on the horizon, the leadership council is shifting their focus to the significant educational challenges that exist in the community.

Meanwhile, church members plan to return later this year to lend a hand.

“We will be working in the community of Kiu with projects that can range from the construction of a water project or school, digging ditches, laying water pipe, building stone walls and putting up fences,” the church website says. “Whatever it may be, we will be working directly with the Kenyan people and the relationships with them are more important than the project.”


(This is my Undercurrents column for this week.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Four Years

A lot can happen.

In four years, an economy can collapse and begin to recover. Presidents (and other officials) can change with the terms. Infants become toddlers become little people. Olympics return. February gets an extra day.

Pain fades. Memory becomes ever more treasured.

Today marks four years since we were awakened on a sunny Saturday morning by a phone call from the Florida Highway Patrol. Debra answered the phone. The man asked us to come over to Donna Williams' home. She had asked him to call us when he arrived to inform her that her daughter had been killed in a car accident overnight.

(I have sat here for several minutes, now, trying to decide what more there is to say about that morning that hasn't been said before. I believe there are volumes still to write. Moments that stretched like millenia. But I don't think I can approach those moments here, now.)

Here are other entries about Marisa on this blog (minus those somehow lost in the three-year gap of missing entries from Jan. 2006 to Jan. 2009). And here is her final entry on her Myspace, the story of her best friend and how she loved him and why. (And the extra Mom and Dad and Sister he brought into her life. ... And I'm crying right now.)

And following is a column I wrote in the days immediately after her death, originally published March 2, 2008:

All that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect, and in her eyes

Let me tell you about this girl I know.
I can’t recall how we met. I do remember my son, then a junior at Bay High, saying that Marisa was helping him with his math, and I said, “Who?” and he said something like, “She’s a drama kid.” But it seems no mere chance that the time our troubled lives began to get on track and start making sense coincided with her appearance.

Few anecdotes here, though. I’d need a warehouse of ink and paper to tell each story, and still they wouldn’t explain the complexity and (paradoxical) simplicity of her heart, mind and spirit. In fact, I don’t doubt that whenever I write from now on, some part of me will be writing about Marisa.
So descriptions instead, the briefest sketch to fit the page, though I wonder how one may capture a dream with words.

Beautiful in every way. Lightning wit. A smile that makes the world stop spinning. Rain boots and scarves. Silly accents. Accomplished hugger. Radiant. Made of pure love.
Sneaks across the lawn and crouches by the door (or just outside the front windows) and then calls on her cell phone to ask if she can visit. Says she’d have crawled back across the yard to her car if she’d been told no.

Forgives. Trusts. Leaves messages just to say “I love you” or “I’m coming to kidnap your child” or “I’m with the squirrel police and I have a warrant to search your house.” Rescues stray dogs and turtles in the street. Befriends strangers. Always asks questions, when her shining eyes tell you that she already has the answers to any mystery you could ever imagine.

Likes Bradbury and Vonnegut. Boondock Saints. Lucero. Johnny Depp. Power tools. Apple juice in Mason jars. Red Twizzlers. Miyazaki. Crayons. Puppies and kittens. Leg warmers, striped stockings and toe socks. Barrettes. Taking photos. Playgrounds in the middle of the night. Couch pile-ons. Naps.

Thoughtful. Bold. Gentle. Funky. Mischievous. Tolerant. Sweet. Acerbic. Delightful. Strong. Giving. Spontaneous. Willing. Capable. Funny. Real. Creative. Soft. Driven. Precocious. Perky. Deep. Courageous.

Hogs the shrimp at parties. Teaches friends to levitate. Wears an apron and flour “war paint” when she bakes cookies. Rules movie nights punctuated by Reefer Madness or Rocky Horror sing-alongs.

Secretly leaves gel hearts on your car. Quotes Moulin Rouge on her bathroom mirror: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Artist. Actress. Model. Techie.
Explorer. Instigator. Peacemaker. Dreamer.
Daughter. Sister. Auntie. Friend.

And so suddenly she exits the stage, her scenes unfinished, lines unspoken — and though we know beyond any doubt that she is one of God’s shining lights, she always has been and always will, that she watches us struggle and loves us from afar, still we ache at an emptiness only she can fill, the sense only she can bring to the world.

We hold our children close and gather in numbers to share our pitiful strength, and we watch for her in the stars and on the breeze, and listen for her in the sound of music and laughter of children, and find her in the widest skies and on the cool blue waves that sparkle like her eyes, full of answers and mystery.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Books Alive 2012 photo post

So Books Alive was last weekend. And you are there:
Robert Leleux and his mother, Jessica

Leleux, Melissa Conroy, and me

Leleux, Conroy at After School Program
Leleux, Olivia Byrd, Michael Morris, Kathie Bennett

Ruth Corley, Lori Carver, Pat Sabiston
Lynne Hinton and Debra Simmons
Frank Walker gets a Bday cake from Jackie Papke
Leleux session Saturday a.m.
Jeff Shaara session

Morris session

Find out more here:
Books Alive
Robert Leleux
Melissa Conroy
Lynne Hinton
Michael Morris
Olivia (deBelle Byrd) Cooley
Jeff Shaara
Kathie Bennett

>See more photos at my Facebook page<

>Read my blog this week about the visiting authors, "Secret Stories of the Soul"<

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Author carries family storytelling to new level

Michael at 2008 Books Alive.
PANAMA CITY — Some people are born to be storytellers. They may work in the fields or run a store or paint houses for a living, but when they speak, they spin tales.

Michael Morris is such a storyteller. Born and raised in Perry, where he claims he was a “C student at best,” he had the good fortune to be encouraged by a teacher to become a writer. (Some of us who thought we could be writers had teachers who encouraged us to seek treatment instead. But enough about me.)

Michael said he never took the idea seriously — writers didn’t come from places like Perry, he thought — so he pursued a career in public affairs, later working as a state senator’s aide and then a pharmaceutical salesman. But the stories wouldn’t go away until he found their shapes and described them in print. He says he “became a writer” at 31.

Michael now lives in Birmingham, Ala. He’s the author of the novels “A Place Called Wiregrass” and “Slow Way Home,” as well as an authorized novella based on the Grammy nominated song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” His short stories have appeared in the anthologies “Stories From The Blue Moon Cafe II” and “Not Safe, But Good II.” (Learn more at

He has made the trip to Panama City for Books Alive and other workshops several times in the past few years, visiting local schools, speaking to writers’ groups and otherwise finding time to encourage fledgling writers.

We met in 2008 at a gathering of the Books Alive authors and volunteers. Barbara Clemons introduced us. She said he was someone I would want to know, and as usual, she was right.

“It’s always great to be with my friends in Panama City,” Michael said in a recent Facebook exchange when I asked him about this weekend’s visit for Books Alive, where he will once again be a featured presenter. “I feel like I probably have more friends in Panama City now than I have in Birmingham.”

Michael has a new novel due in September, “Man in the Blue Moon,” which he has been working on for a few years now. I first heard him discuss it during a National Novel Writing Month workshop at Florida State University Panama City in 2009.

“It’s set in Apalachicola during 1918, and Panama City has a cameo in the novel too,” he said this week. “The story is based on a story my grandfather (who was raised in Wewa) used to tell.”

When Michael’s grandfather was 10, he said, a man was shipped in a crate via steamboat down the Apalachicola River to his family’s store in Apalach. The man was allegedly on the run for killing his wife and her lover. The man claimed he was innocent and that his in-laws were hunting him down for vengeance.

“My grandfather was one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever known,” Michael said. “Through the years, I had him retell the story many times, to sort out fact from fiction. The bare bones of the story never changed. He died last year at 101 — the same year I found a publisher for the novel. He died knowing that I had completed it.”

His story lives on through the storyteller, and really, that’s all any of us can hope for.

(This is my Undercurrents column for Feb. 9, 2012.)