Today’s Word: mise-en-scène (noun) – In film production, mise-en-scène (meez-ahn-SEN) – French for “putting onto the stage” – refers to the arrangement of everything that the camera sees: the actors, the setting, the lighting, the props, etc. The French film director/screenwriter Bruno Dumont explains its importance this way: “The landscape is a reflection of the inner life. Since I can’t shoot the inner life… I can only really touch the inside through the mise-en-scène . So through the mise-en-scène of the outside we can explore the inside.”

 Did You Know?: If you plant an apple seed, it will likely grow a tree that produces a different type of apple.

 Worth Quoting: “Self-contempt…sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others.” – Eric Hoffer

 What I’m Reading Now: The Writing Life is the first Annie Dillard book I’ve read. It is a thin book, but not necessarily a quick read. You want to read it slowly because it’s finely written. You want to know it. And enjoy its many enjoyable bits. It’s about what the title announces: the writer’s life. Or, more exactly, Annie Dillard’s life as a writer. Her interest in her profession is mostly about the work. How it’s difficult. Why it’s difficult. And why it matters, if it matters. There’s a lot about how the struggle is less about the subject matter and more about the medium itself: the words and sentences and paragraphs and how they tend to shape the narrative. Another major theme is the often-unpleasant necessity to reduce, delete, and revise early words and sentences and paragraphs. These are issues that all true writers contend with.

 Something to Think About: Friendship

 Friendships formed in tribulation tend to be the deepest and most enduring. Even when life’s circumstances pull you apart for long periods of time, the reunions have that magical quality of beginning again just where they left off.

Such is most of the friendships I formed as a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad from 1973 to 1975. One of my friends from that period, Harry, sent me this memory about a mutual friend, Charlie, that I enjoyed. You know neither Harry nor Charlie, but I’m sure you have friendships like I have with them.

My Friend Charlie

A Story by Harry Birnholz

Charlie was a great friend and human being. I will miss our random encounters that, over nearly 45 years, would bring us together somewhere in Africa, the US, or the Balkans.

I think anyone who has spent time with Charlie knew what a funny, engaging, committed and full-of-life person he was. He would ask smart questions, would comfortably make fun of himself, and was always there to lend a helping hand. But I’ll bet there is one thing most of us did not know or hear Charlie talk about: his entry into the world of magic and Voodoo.

I can’t recall exactly when the topic first came up with Charlie, but undoubtedly, sometime in 1975, on one of his visits to my village when we were Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin. My recollection is that Charlie lived in a somewhat isolated location in a region renowned for its powerful magic. He stayed in the village or as we would say in Peace Corps, “en brousse” for an extended period of time. He was determined, and it was his nature, to want to integrate himself into the life and culture of the village. I think I had heard that his predecessor had been initiated into one of the magic cults of the region, giving him a certain credibility and legitimacy amongst the village elders. It was also a passport to better promote the use of the improved grain silos being introduced into the region to reduce crop loss due to insect and vermin infestation.

I recall asking Charlie about the stories I had heard about his predecessor entering the cult and then I began to understand that Charlie had become an initiate, too. He told me that it was almost expected of him by the elders of the village if he was going to become part of the village society. He would not let on much, but I understood that he saw it as a positive force. I understood from him that the initiation process was not a laughing matter and both physically and mentally demanding. As volunteers, living in Benin and interacting with our local counterparts and village neighbors, we came to understand the power and influence that magic and secret societies had on daily life.

Once in a while I would tease Charlie and ask if he could whip me up a magic potion or make a good luck amulet, commonly referred to as a “gris-gris.” He would laugh off my request and tell me this was not to be fooled with.

Sometime in the 1980’s I was on a visit in Washington DC and met up with Charlie at a bar in Adams-Morgan. We sat at the bar and ordered beer. (These were the days before Charlie decided to take alcohol out of his life.) The barman was black and had an accent that piqued our interest. We asked him where he was from and he said Benin. Quickly the conversation switched to Fon, the predominant language of southern Benin. The bartender was floored to hear this little bearded white guy speaking fluent Fon with a mastery of talking in proverbs.

At some point there was a change in the bartender’s demeanor; I noticed that he was lowering his head and not looking into Charlie’s eyes when responding to him, a sign of respect accorded to village elders and persons of importance. And without any request on our part, he was constantly refilling our drinks. When we finally got up to leave, the bartender refused to give us a bill and proceeded to go through a long ceremonial goodbye and bid us a safe return home. Charlie later told me that the bartender was from the region of Ouidah where Charlie had been a volunteer and that he understood that Charlie was bestowed by the village elders with a certain knowledge and power of magic. We never spoke about this again.