By: Pat Austin
NEW IBERIA, LA – One of the things about life that is always good to remember is that we never stop learning. Life has that amazing capacity to surprise us at any given moment and while those surprises are not always good, most of the time they are if we take the time to look. You just have to enjoy the journey, you know?
The good people of New Iberia, Louisiana held their annual Books Along the Teche Literary Festival this past weekend; this was my second year to attend the festival which is in its fifth year. The weekend is filled with amazing events: a bus tour of hometown hero James Lee Burke’s featured places from his Dave Robicheaux novels, a swamp tour, a reception at Shadows-on-the-Teche plantation, an author’s book fair, a Live Oak walk, a bouree tournament…it goes on and on.
The highlight of the weekend is a presentation by a “great Southern writer.” Last year was Ernest Gaines; this year we got to hear the lovely Rebecca Wells, author of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and several other books, most featuring the Ya-Ya ladies.
Miss Wells was simply charming. I’ve read the books and enjoyed them; I did not see the movie. I knew that she had been a stage actress prior to her literary success, but really, I had no idea how engaging she was going to be.
She held the stage for about an hour and a half, joking, talking, telling stories, and reading from her work in progress. She spent about twenty minutes answering questions and then after a short break she signed copies of her books.
But she made a true fan out of me when I saw how she spent time, real time, with each person who came up to her to get a book signed. She talked to everyone.
Now, here’s the thing. Shortly after her books began to take off in the late 1990s, Rebecca Wells was diagnosed with Lyme disease. She became gravely ill:
She began having dizzy spells which caused her to fall, and over time she became hypersensitive to sound. Then she developed respiratory infections, freezing hands and feet, and a multi-chemical sensitivity that made even the slightest whiff of perfume almost unbearable. For over a year, she was tethered to an oxygen tank in her home near Seattle for at least two hours a day.
She has fought back to an amazing degree but the effects of her disease are apparent: she is still sensitive to light. She still gets uncomfortably cold and she tires easily.
At the Books Along the Teche event, she gave everything she had to her performance; as she read from her new book, she performed each character. It was beautiful….it was just poetry to hear! But before she could come back out and sign books, she had to take a brief rest. She was clearly drawn, and tired, but there she was, talking to people, building connections.
Later that evening as we all gathered at the outdoor pavilion for cochon de lait, jambalaya, fried shrimp, and Cajun dancing, we assumed Rebecca Wells was recovering in her hotel from her day, but we were wrong. About halfway through the event, in came Rebecca Wells, waving, smiling, and ready to dance with the locals. She stayed about an hour, talking to people and so totally not acting like a celebrity. She danced with the local people, she sat down and talked to people, and was obviously happy to be back in her home state of Louisiana.
From her, I learned that you don’t have to let the bad things hold you down. You can fight back. You don’t have to give up. You can always be nice to people; you can be kind. Things are not always just about you. Remember where you came from. Give back. Be encouraging. Every day is a blessing. Live every moment of your life because life is short. Be grateful. Be true to your roots.
Rebecca Wells is so much more to me now than just an author who published what has become a classic bit of Southern literature. She’s an inspiration.