CREATIVE HEROES: Marie Constantin

11 02 2016

Marie Constantin, photographer, home renovator, fiddler, lives a creative life. She lives in the present moment, sees the holy in the world around her, and infuses her life with joy. She has a loud laugh and her friends hear it often. We also hear righteous indignation when she sees injustice. Her creative soul radiates her humble joy. I immediately thought of Marie when I thought of starting a series on Creative Heroes.

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Mother Teresa
As I start to write this, Marie’s photo of Mother Teresa is on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The journey of how it got there is about her living a creative life. Marie makes a living as a photographer. I met her when I hired her for a photo shoot, when she was fresh back from a trip to India where she went to volunteer for Mother Teresa.

She learned early in her photographic career that she needed to spend her volunteer hours doing something other than photography. Marie would often volunteer at the soup kitchen run by Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity. Her helping out at the soup kitchen led to friendships with the nuns. They invited Marie to go to the Mother House in Calcutta. She went as a volunteer to do whatever was needed. What later evolved was whenever Mother Teresa was in this country, Marie was asked to photograph Mother Teresa attending to the business of the order. She got to know this remarkable woman up close and personal.

Not long after Mother Teresa died, Marie got a message from someone with a thick Spanish accent, which she promptly ignored. Fortunately the caller was persistent and they eventually connected. It was the Vatican and they wanted to use a photo she had taken for Mother Teresa’s Beatification. CBS Sunday Morning told the story of Mother Teresa through Marie’s eyes. I watched Marie on this national news program the morning of the Beatification. She was in St. Peter’s Square being interviewed with the huge billboard size photo she took, behind her hanging from the Basilica. Now that Mother Teresa is being fast tracked to sainthood, it’s still Marie’s photo that is the official Vatican image.

Marie's photo at Mother Teresa's Beatification

Marie’s photo at Mother Teresa’s Beatification

What makes Marie’s Mother Teresa story so powerful as a creative journey, is that it started a recharge from her day job as a photographer. That down time from work enhanced her professional life in a huge and unexpected way.

Living a Creative Life
The same creative energy she brings to her professional life fills her whole life. She bought a run down craftsman home in Baton Rouge’s oldest neighborhood that she saw potential in. Today she sees her home as living in a work of art and it’s on the Historic Registry. She’s bartered her photography skills for things like a stained glass door and she used color experts, designers and craftsmen to help actualize her vision. One of my favorite spots in town is sitting on the big swing on her wraparound porch, having a glass of wine, watching the world go by, while we solve the problems of the world. She has built a community of creative people who inspire her and who are inspired by her.

She also loves the rich culture of south Louisiana. She turned a fishing camp outside of town on the mighty Atchafalaya River into a Zen oasis and named it the Flying Alligator. It’s complete with a swinging bed and an outside shower. It took her a year, with her chain saw and lawn mower, to cut a trail through the woods. It’s a magical place where one can find solitude and meditation within nature.

Marie on stump

Marie Laughing

Marie at the Flying Alligator

It’s also a place where friends and family gather for eating, drinking and music. She decided to learn the fiddle a few years back. She went deep into Cajun country to find authentic teachers. She’s now friends with Grammy-award winning musicians and it’s common for a bunch of musicians to jam together on her camp’s big screened in porch.

The pier in front of her camp is named Flyin' Alligator waterfront lounge

The pier in front of her camp is named Flyin’ Alligator waterfront lounge

Marie can be seen in a traditional Mardi Gras costume made by her Cajun friends at the pink-flamingo-filled Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade that rolls by her craftsman home. Or she can be seen taking a photographic portrait of Louisiana’s new Governor. She brings the same joy and passion to both.

Mother Teresa said, “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” Marie’s life is a joyful, creative net. She is a creative hero.

Click here to watch an extended conversation with Marie on creativity.

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CREATIVE HEROES
Click here for
The Birth of an Idea

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Coincidences

7 05 2015

I once read that a coincidence was the Divine tapping you on the shoulder to softly say, “I’m here with you.” Since my mother’s death last month my life has been filled with these mini-miracles. My guilty pleasure is the reality show, Long Island Medium, so I know that I’m not the only one who believes this.

My family in in the late 80's.

My family in the 80’s.

  • My Dad died nearly 20 years ago. My Mom had his ashes placed in a crypt in a tranquil cemetery not far from his old business. Mom liked that he was placed high enough to get a glimpse of his old purple building. Mom was clear that she wanted her body donated to the LSU Med School, but we never discussed what to do when her ashes would eventually be sent to me. So I called the cemetery to inquire about the details of having her interred. I got a call the following day that there was amazingly, a place right next to my Dad’s. I felt a quiet peace settle over me, my Mom was taken care of, and now both my parents were still taking care of their only child.
My Mom, Jimmie Dee, on the cover of a trade magazine feautring the family business.

My Mom, Jimmie Dee, on the cover of a trade magazine featuring the family business.

  • I’m part of a historical Baton Rouge Facebook group. My family had a popular business, McLeod’s, during my growing up years. My dad did his own commercials and is still remembered by many. It’s not uncommon for my Dad or the business to get a mention. A week after my Mom passed away, a photo of her, not my dad, popped up in my FB feed. It was in her sassy red wig phase on the cover of an obscure 1969 trade magazine. Whoever posted it did not know that my mom had just died. People I did not know filled my day commenting sweet remembrances of her and the family business.
Walking to school with my “groovy” booksack.

First day of 4th grade. Walking to school with my “groovy” book sack.

  • At Mom’s memorial service, our minister read from the blog stories I’d written about her. He repeated my favorite Mother Teresa quote, “Do little things with great love” and then opened up the podium for anyone who had a story to share. An older woman made her way to the front of the sanctuary. My sweetie learned over and whispered, “who that?” and I replied, “ I have no idea.” The first words out of her mouth were, “I was Connie’s fourth grade teacher.” She said my mom had showed her such kindness the year I was her student. She was a young teacher and it was her first year at the school. All the parents wanted their child in the older, favorite teacher’s class, and she drew my name. My mom befriended her and invited her and her husband into our home. I have no memory of their unique friendship. But the small kindnesses’ my mom showed her—nearly five decades ago—stayed with that teacher for her entire life. Another small kindness done with great love.
i used my mom in several ads and commercials over the years.

I used my mom in several ads and commercials over the years.

  • I recently got an unexpected freelance job. My life has been hectic this year taking care of mom and this was the only paying work, outside of my day job, that I’ve taken on. It came from a Facebook comment from a Florida friend who had a South Carolina friend who was in need of a graphic designer. This friend of a friend needed a quick turnaround and I had the time because weather had suddenly cancelled my weekend plans. Before I called the prospective client, I looked up the small South Carolina town because it was one I had never heard of. According to Wikipedia, the largest employer in the town was named…McLeodmy name. When I told my perspective client, she was also surprised by the name connection. She remarked that the chair of her Board worked for McLeod. When I told her I could get her job done that weekend because I wasn’t going to French Quarter Fest, she really understood…because she’s originally from New Orleans. I knew this was work I was destined to get and I did.
Celebrating a birthday together

Celebrating a birthday together

But the most significant cosmic happening has to do with timing. My adult daughter and I are both only children. There has been a strong maternal bond between the three generations. We recognized at Christmas Mom’s mental health had hit a sudden, rapid decline. We cherished that holiday with the unspoken understanding that it may be our last together. Two months later my daughter moved back home. That was the same day Mom went into hospice care. Between us, we visited her most every day until the end of her life. And she responded to us and knew us up until the end.

Now in hindsight I realize that my baby girl will only be home for a few short months. She plans to move to Chicago next month to follow her dreams. We were meant to be close together during this transitional time in all our lives.

As hard as the last several months have been, I have felt supported and lifted up by love. My Mom will always remain a drama queen and I treasure the gifts she is sending me. I feel the connection from the generations that have come before me and I feel the Divine love that will flow into the generations that come after me.

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

It’s no coincidence that I’m posting this for Mother’s Day. I honor my maternal lineage: I am Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrinne, daughter of Minnie Mae; mother of Jade Lee-Mei.





Do Little Things with Great Love

2 02 2015

1ooo Voices for Compassion is a group I recently joined. 1000voicesA bunch of writers plan to write about compassion and caring to help make the world a better place. Little did I know when I signed up that it would be me writing about being compassion’s recipient.

compassion

My Mom was just accepted into hospice care. In the last two months my 86-year-old Mom’s mind has become as frail and fragile as her body. She lives in a nursing home and is well cared for. Hospice will provide another level of care. She’s been a drama queen and southern belle—a dangerous combination—who’s been feisty and smart, had a great sassy sense of style, and a wicked sense of humor. She now drifts in and out of lucid moments. In her hallucinations she is powerful, in charge, directing unseen people and telling them what to do. Her phone had to be unplugged last week because she called 911 from her bedside phone and told them she was being held hostage. I understand that in a way she is being held hostage by a body and mind that won’t act like she wants it to.

Morning
I was in the middle of an intensely busy workday when I got the call that Mom’s health had taken a sudden turn for the worse. I work for a woman’s specialty hospital; it is a compassionate place not only for patients, but also for employees. I was told to go be with my mother. I’m grateful that I work for an organization that at its very core understands the importance of family.

I was expecting a quiet day spent at Mom’s bedside. I knew what she needed most was my presence. What was unexpected was the flood of love and compassion that washed over both of us throughout the day. Not only did family come to visit, but also mom’s nurses, aides, social workers, administrators, and even the beautician came by to check on her. I got a tight hug from everyone whose life has been touched by Mom and they wanted to check on me too. I’m use to being the strong one and the decision maker. The concern for me left me tearful. I knew that I was being sent divine gifts and I embraced my tears and vulnerability with every hug I received.

Afternoon
I met with hospice after Mom’s nurses suggested a consult. The hospice nurse spent time going over the details of what hospice care is. I’ve always heard great things about hospice, but I was astounded to learn how much they also care for the patient’s family. I did not know they were there for me as well as my parent. The two nurses I met were the embodiment of warmth and compassion, even their voices were gentle and calming. They treated me as tenderly with their questions as they treated Mom when they examined her.

Evening
My daughter and her cat were boomeranging back home from living across town during all this. She plans to save her money and take off to follow her dreams in a few months. Between transporting carloads of stuff from apartment to home, she would stop to check on her Nana and me. We are both only children and both have close mother/daughter bonds. We have both been able to tell my mom how much we love her. Nothing has been left unsaid.

My daughter and I both realize that the next few months will be a special time for three generations to connect as we all transition to new chapters in our different, yet connected journeys.

By the end of the day, I knew that the time for my mom’s exit had not come. Mom was center stage yet again, surrounded by an audience telling her how much they loved her. She is not yet ready to leave the stage.

The Following Day
Mother Teresa said, ‘’do little things with great love.” Mom is feeling stronger and is more lucid today. She loves when I write about her on my blog. She takes great delight in hearing her own wild woman stories and she loves everyone’s comments. I’m going to read to her the stories of her life. It’s a small thing, but it’ll be done with great love.

Mothers and daughters, our maternal lineage

I honor my maternal lineage: I am Connie Lee, daughter of Jimmie Dee, daughter of Jimmie Corrine, daughter of Minnie Mae; mother of Jade Lee-Mei.

More Mom Stories
Wild Woman
Going Blond
A Mother Moment
Maw Maw’s Naked Lady Bowls
The Sandwich Generation

Today many writers, videographers and artists have created their own stories of compassion and are using #1000Speak to spread the word. You also can click on the link here and read what others have to say. 





Two Movies and One Small Act of Kindness

23 08 2013

The Butler
I just saw the movie “The Butler,” an excellent movie, with a star-studded cast and Oscar-worthy performances. I appreciated how they told the civil rights story through the real life of one man from his impoverished youth, through the service industry ranks, to becoming butler for eight presidents in the White House.

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Creative Intermission: There’s a powerful scene when the butler’s son becomes an early Freedom Rider and is assaulted as he participates in a sit-in at an all-white section of a lunch counter in the 60’s segregated south. This scene is cut with the staff at a formal White House dinner preparing and serving the meal. This powerful juxtaposing of these two different events visually speaks volumes.

The movie made apparent how far we have come in this battle for equal rights. I know there is still work to be done and there may always be racism and injustice in the world, but “The Butler” gave me hope that we are moving in the right direction.

I work in a large office building; there are around 100 people who work in this space. There is one woman, Deborah, whose job it is to keep the workplace clean. I thought of her in the scenes when the butler was learning his trade and learned to be invisible. Deborah has that same invisible ability. She stealthily slips in to empty our trashcans and dust and vacuum, while we work. She doesn’t distract us from our jobs and heads rarely look up from computers when she slips in.

The Black Stallion
It was a rare conversation with Deborah and my office-mates, when we learned that she loves to fish and ride horses. This led to a conversation about movies about horses. We asked her if she had ever seen “The Black Stallion.” This movie came out decades ago and was produced by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s is a stunningly beautiful film.

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Creative Intermission:  A young boy and the wild horse are stranded on a deserted island. The scene that has stayed with me since this movie premiered in 1979 is shot from underwater as boy and horse learn to trust each other. You see the horse’s four legs and the boy’s two legs as they play in the surf. As time goes by, you no longer see the legs of the boy, you know he is now atop his companion, the black stallion. They have come to trust each other.

Deborah was excited to learn of this movie and was ready to run out and buy it. We told her it was an old movie and that she’d have to find it online. What became slowly apparent to me is that she doesn’t have a computer and buying something online is a foreign concept. Shortly after the conversation with Deborah, I read my friend, Lisa Froman of Tao Flashes blog post on doing random acts of kindness.  So I went online and ordered this movie and gave it to Deborah.

This simple act opened a door that allowed us to see each other. I was able to thank her for her hard work and she now saw me too. I’m now someone she has a small connection with, not just some woman with her head buried in that box on a desk. We are no longer invisible to each other anymore. We smile and ask about each other’s day and our weekend plans.

Small random acts of kindness…as Mother Teresa said, “do little things with great love.” I believe it’s what moves us forward.

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Luzianna Friday Nite

22 07 2012

Friday night was the absolute best part of living here in South Louisiana. This post will also be an ode to one of my favorite people in the world, Marie Constantin because I spent Friday at Marie’s camp on the Atchafalaya River (about 45 minutes from my house).

Marie is a great photographer. I first met her many years ago when I hired her for a long forgotten job. She was fresh back from India. She had been invited by the local Missionaries of Charity order  to go back to the Mother House in Calcutta. This is the order that Mother Teresa founded. Marie got to know Mother Teresa up close and personal and was one of two personnel photographers whenever Mother was in the States. I like to say I moved closer to God by knowing Marie, there’s now just 3 degrees of separation; me › Marie › Mother Teresa › God. One of Marie’s photos was selected by the Vatican to be the official photo for Mother Teresa’s Beatification. CBS Sunday Morning did a story on it and there was Marie the day of the Beatification in St. Peter’s Square with her billboard size photo behind her.  The wonderful life lesson I learned and try to live by via Marie from Mother Teresa is to do little things with great love.

Marie has named her camp the Flying Alligator and the pier is the Flying Alligator Riverside Lounge. She has created a little zen oasis that is at the same time a Louisiana-style real fishing camp. Her design style is less is more and everything she has there is perfectly placed from her crab trap ceiling light to the Christmas lights that adorn her porch and pier. It is creative, fun, quirky, hip and all indigenous to where we live.

The Flying Alligator

The Flying Alligator Riverside Lounge

People are drawn to Marie and a party at the Flying Alligator is a great gumbo of interesting people. There’s often some family from far away, there’s the heavily tattooed Cajun in the wife beater t-shirt, there’s lawyers, artists, doctors, a priest, nuns and lots of energetic kids running wild. From the very young to the young at heart, there’s folks who know each other and others who know no one but Marie.

Marie decided to learn the fiddle a few years ago. She’s played for me on occasion and it brings me right back to my daughter’s early band days (you parents out there know what I mean). She gets lessons from somewhere deep in Cajun country and has gotten to know some amazing Cajun musicians along the way. And there they were —Grammy award winners, Mitch Reed, Jimmy Breaux and Randy Abshire—playing on her big screened-in porch. Part of their payment was to make sure there was a bottle of Jack Daniels within arm’s reach. They did a set with Marie on her fiddle and kids playing spoons, washboards and whatever instruments were lying around. The songs were sung in Cajun French and there was simply a timelessness to the evening. Listening to the music on a screen-in porch with friends—this could have been 100 years ago. I’ve found the best spot at the camp to listen and watch the goings-on…the hanging bed!

Hanging out on the hanging bed

It’s a step back in time and yet it’s still how we live here. Everyone who comes brings food and drink—after all, eating and drinking is what we do best down here. There are bales of hay and camp chairs for sitting. Kids fly in and out with a slap of the screen door. You hear a parent telling their kid to get out of Miss Marie’s outdoor shower. There’s been a rain and even though it’s made our hair a little wild, it’s washed away the intense heat of the day. There’s a bonfire glowing outside, sausage burning on the grill and people are wandering from porch to pier where the view is classic Louisiana. A huge powerful river flowing swiftly by with flying white egrets glowing against the early evening sky.  The sounds of music and friends laughing hanging in the air.

Louisiana is not always an easy state to live in—I’m not blind to its problems—but man, it was easy living Friday night.

Back story from Marie:

Connie—I will tell you our family was destroyed years ago by a rift….  Because of this, I named the camp the Flying Alligator…because Alligator’s can’t fly and our family couldn’t heal.  So I thought, maybe if I get this camp and fix it up, some family member will want to come and play and maybe we can heal and be a family once again.  Well, my niece Wendy came to the last party and she had such a magical time, she and her boyfriend got engaged on the swinging bed.  Some of my friends were quite surprised to meet Wendy because they didn’t know I had a family…like I hatched from an egg or something.  And this time my nephew Jason and his family came and had a most extraordinary time.  Jacob (another nephew) is scheduled to come in the fall and we’ll go hunting together.

I tried to make the camp magical and so I had my workman create a single size swinging bed.  But my dog wouldn’t fit in bed with me, so we turned that one into a swinging couch and made a new double size swinging bed…as you know.  Other magical things I put to heal my family are the outdoor shower and the Crab Apple trail (I used my chain saw and lawn mower and it took me a year to cut a trail through the woods.)  And now we have the Pier (the Flying Alligator Riverside Lounge).  By the way, Father Paul Counce, pastor of Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, came up with that one along with Becky Kirk and Steve Davison.

Mother Teresa used to say that there is another kind of poverty that is harder to make go away than hunger.  With hunger, you give a piece of bread and it’s gone, she would say. But with this other poverty—hurt in the family—it is very hard to make go away. “Find Calcutta in your own home…in your own family,” she would admonish.   She would tell people not to travel all over the world, but to “find Calcutta at home first.”  Thinking about all this is why I do what I do at the camp.  I’m fighting a different kind of poverty.