Helen Keller



Ivy Green, Tuscumbia Alabama

When on a pilgrimage it is best to let serendipity be your guide. I initially planned to go directly home after visiting the Ave Maria Grotto but at the hotel was a flier for Helen Keller’s childhood home. Looking on the map I realized that it was only a little over an hour north of Cullman, Alabama and I could easily fit it in to the afternoon before heading back to Tennessee.

After a visit to the bookstore at the Grotto and a stop by the ATM, I headed north to Tuscumbia, Alabama, in the northwest corner of the state. The rolling hills and white trees, bright sunshine and bucolic farms passed quickly and I was soon in the charming old southern town. Ivy Green, the home of Colonel and Mrs. Arthur Keller sat on the edge of town, built in 1830, originally on a 640 acre plantation and one of the first homes in the area.

Ivy Green has always been in the Keller family and still has much of the original furniture and beautiful worn pine floors. One of the rooms has been turned into a mini museum and the back porch is the even tinier reception area. There are still 10 acres surrounding the house, kitchen and summer home.


Helen Keller was born in 1880 at Ivy Green, and was perfectly healthy until around 19 months old when she developed a fever that left her deaf and blind. Her parents took her to many doctors who could not provide any answers until a meeting with Alexander Graham Bell who suggested they find a teacher for young Helen instead of a cure. The Perkins Institute for the Blind sent one of their former students, Anne Sullivan, only 20, to be Helen’s teacher. The first month of Anne’s time with Helen has been immortalized by the play The Miracle Worker; the 1962 movie adaptation won numerous Academy awards. According to the docent at Ivy Green, it is a very accurate depiction of those first difficult weeks when Helen, 6, who had no language or manners, resisted this intruder into her dark, silent world.

Finally after a month Helen had a breakthrough and realized that the shapes Anne was making into her hand were words, that there was a way to communicate. It is such a remarkable story of victory for both Anne and Helen, now an integral part of the history of the United States and a triumph of the human spirit. Helen was the first deaf/blind person to earn a college degree and went on to have a career writing and lecturing around the world. This little girl who had no language went on to use language brilliantly.


I have known this story all of my life and now was so excited to be visiting the place Helen broke through her world of darkness and silence to give incredible light and inspiration. I loved seeing the dining room where this wild little girl was tamed, the tiny house where Anne had long days to get Helen to accept her and the simple water pump where Helen learned her first word. This is a place of hope for all of us that with love and perseverance we can over come the toughest challenges and open our hearts to love.

The best and most beautiful things in the world can not be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart. —-Helen Keller

I headed home across northern Alabama, through Huntsville, past the rockets at the Space Center, along the beautiful lakes, all while listening to the words of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. More cassette tapes that had interviews from 1979 but contained answers I was looking for. Recordings made so long ago but perfectly important that day. It had been a full day of happiness and inspiration from two dear souls, Helen and Bother Joseph, that overcame so much to leave us all their bright light. It was also the first anniversary of my father’s passing. He would have loved my little adventure. I arrived home late that night and opened my computer to check on some emails when my father’s picture popped up in the corner as a facebook notice. “Do you know Millard Smith”. I said “yes I do!” A sweet message that he was OK and all was right with the world.


Ave Marie Grotto



I never quite know where or when the call for the next pilgrimage will come. My latest call came from a place not usually associated with the sacred, The Wall Street Journal. In the afternoon I get a cup of coffee and sit down to catch up on the day’s news. In the personal section there is a monthly column called “Dream Spaces”. The writer was talking about going to a place called the Ave Marie Grotto. The story peaked my interest and I looked it up and realized it was in the neighboring state of Alabama. A few days later my friend Val was talking about her upcoming college tour with her son to Alabama and had some time between appointments. I suggested she look to see how close the Grotto was to her route. Within an hour not only was she going to visit the Grotto but I was too. The hotel was booked and two weeks later I was headed to Alabama on a mini pilgrimage.

Spring had arrived during the night and the pure white pear trees, purple redbuds and the daffodils made the drive a delight of its own. The spring colors were extra vivid against the background of bares limbs and brown grass. I took my time and stopped at my favorite used bookstore. I had found some old cassette tapes in my closet and used this delightful archaic technology to listen to Alan Watts tell stories of the Zen masters. The new spring day and Zen, what a perfect combination.


Ave Marie Grotto is located in Cullman, Alabama, in the northern part of the state on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery. The Grotto is a four acre park of over 120 miniature buildings, reproductions of some of the most sacred places on earth. It was built by Brother Joseph Zoettl, at first as a hobby but then as a true devotion. Brother Joseph was born in Bavaria in 1878 but came to Alabama as a young man to fulfill his dream of being a Benedictine. An injury kept him from becoming a priest so he was assigned to work in the boiler room. He started to collect rocks and used them to make miniature buildings of Jerusalem. Working only from photographs, Brother Joseph started making elaborate scale reproductions and shrines. The monastery moved the buildings to a nearby abandoned quarry and built a large grotto for a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Children from around the world started to send Brother Joseph objects to include in his creations: marbles, shells, rocks, glass, china.


The next day was glorious and we had the Grotto to ourselves. The meandering path wound down beside delightful buildings including a fairy house for Hansel and Gretel until I arrived at the hillside of pure enchantment. First, there are the missions of California and then a few steps later you are in Rome, on the other side of the Grotto you walk through Jerusalem. After that, I headed to Lourdes and the tower of Babel and then Fatima. The tiny spring flowers were blooming amongst the tiny buildings and the azalea bushes provided a flaming backdrop. The grotto’s resident cat was taking her morning nap near the statue of Brother Joseph. I had to walk through the park a second time to just begin to take in the magic of this holy place.

Brother Joseph was a tiny man who left a large spiritual legacy. Everyday he tended the boiler and built his dream: stone and shell, found objects and imagination. He left a legacy of pure devotion, a perfect dream space to enter the timeless. When he died he only had one possession, the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux, his spiritual inspiration. She said “May you trust God, that you are exactly where you are meant to be”. No doubt Brother Joseph lived the life he was meant to live, and one early spring morning I was where I was meant, to be inspired by his love and devotion.





blue sky and wheat fields

Welcome Miss Minimalist readers!   Thanks for visiting today.   I write about my adventures in the world, my mind and my heart.  Please join me on the many journeys that make life so rich and joyful.    If you are interested in my Camino pilgrimage you can find the daily posts in the archives under May and June 2014.

For my readers go to http://www.missminimalist.com and read about how minimalism is one of my guiding lights that helps me navigate life and gives me time and space for exploration of all our beautiful world has to offer.

Minimalism—post from Miss Minimalist

From the outside looking in you would never guess that in my heart I’m a minimalist. You would never guess that minimalism is part of my daily philosophy, part of my way of being. When I was a new mother 25 years ago I realized that keeping things simple was the way I could keep the house clean, have time for my babies, have time for me and let me stay home with my children. Back in the 90’s there were some resources, Don Aslett, The Tightwad Gazette, Elaine St. James. Minimalism blogs didn’t invent the world of simple but definitely accelerated the movement.

I kept our lives simple living close to schools, choosing only a few outside activities, simple wardrobes, edited toys. I had lots of time to read and walk and help my daughters pursue their passion. Then came the big move. Three years ago we had a week’s notice to move to a family home. My husband’s and his brother’s businesses where on the property and my mother-in-law needed care. There was no choice but to move to a very large home filled with 60 year of stuff collected by people traumatized by the Depression and poverty in their past. Now I was traumatized by having to deal with so much.

I turned more intently to minimalism to help me survive a house that hadn’t been purged or updated since 1968. It was minimalism that helped me be ruthless in removing the truly useless, in uncovering the beautiful things that were left to be used and enjoyed rather than neglected. I gave away as much as a could to charity and friends and found the relatives that would cherish the heirlooms and made a vow never to do this to my children.

I got it almost all done when fate had me do it again two years later. My parents large house had to be downsized and moved in ten days. I purged and packed what my mother needed for her small apartment and then set up a family flea market so my mother’s beautiful things became cherished by her family.

For the third time I now have the basement cleaned out, the closets functioning, the kitchen tidy. I will never get to downsize to the little cottage of my dreams but I do live a scaled down minimalist life in the context of a seemingly non minimalist world. My clothes take up a small fraction of the walk-in closest so the rest of the space is a cozy home office. Many of the rooms are closed off and only need an occasion cleaning but are ready for large family and friend gatherings which bring us all so much joy. Our daily lives are in a few rooms that are clutter free and easy to manage

I don’t know how I would have managed without minimalism as my guide. I combined three houses into one in two years and lived to tell the story, to make the important and beautiful shine, to move the family forward into the future with the best of the past.

Minimalism helped me survive intense materialism by keeping me focused on the essentials and reminded me I wasn’t alone in my quest. The landscaping is simplified so my husband can easily mow the now park-like yard and uses the time as a meditation. I have the housework down to a couple of hours a week and don’t need any help. One daughter has very limited dishes and has conquered her messy kitchen. My other daughter has a micro apartment so she can walk to work. Minimalism has changed us all so we can honor the past and still live the life we like.

Two years ago my youngest daughter and I packed a change of clothes and walked across Spain on the Camino. Five weeks of life as a modern pilgrim with only the essentials, we will never be the same. Pilgrims carry only the things that serve their journey. My home serves my journey everyday, it is be a place of refuge for myself and others. Minimalism has helped heal the past of the trauma of lack and have transformed it into an abundant life.