Love Leaps

SOMETIMES I THINK of Sister Alma Rose as being God’s Lap on Earth. She is large, brown, and solid, like the earth itself. In her presence there is comfort, capaciousness, and embrace; and when she actually hugs you, physically, you feel a tsunami of love, peace, and hope – which makes her sound like a wave-borne Christmas card, but those feelings come with wings, and the energy surge lasts at least until the next time you are hugged by Sister Alma Rose, or until you learn to treasure yourself as God and Sister Alma Rose treasure you.


Me, Fanny McElroy

This is true for me, at least, and for everyone I know who has ever been hugged by Sister Alma Rose… though a Sister Alma Rose hug can literally leave you breathless, particularly if you are a certain height. No one, as far as I know, has ever collapsed during or after such an embrace, but I’d be lying if I said there’s never been some lightheadedness in the experience.

…All of which I put forth to explain why it is startling to see Sister Alma Rose weep. I’ve certainly known her to be angry, in brief but definitely daunting eruptions, but discovering tears on that face, which nearly always radiates the joy and serenity of a pure heart and a love-drenched soul, is… well, stunning – far more so than if James Bond, for example, were to break down sobbing when confronting Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. One thing Sister Alma Rose and James Bond have in common – and the only thing I can think of at the moment, apart from their being larger-than-life human beings (quasi-human, in the case of James Bond) – is the sense of authority and competence they exude.

Father Dooley and his friend


One October morning, unseasonably warm from a sun that seemed to still be straining summerward, Pablo and I (who were probably twelve at the time) were playing chess, dismally, I have to say, on Sister Alma Rose’s wonderful grass-green wraparound porch (a kind of metaphor for Sister Alma Rose herself, I often think). The little mutt, terrier mixed with mongrel, who had followed Pablo home from school the day before, was sleeping at our feet. Mr. Truman LaFollette had just brought out, in his silent, unobtrusive way, a pitcher of his incomparable lemonade and two big tumblers filled with ice. Sister Alma Rose was just inside the kitchen door, doing something culinary with butternut squash, I think. It was a sublimely peaceful moment, though the chess was desultory and we were ready to do something, anything, else – held in place by the sweet sunlight and the lively conversation of a pair of cardinals.

Thus bemused, we didn’t notice Father Dooley and a young woman I’d never met approaching until they were actually beside us on the porch. Mr. Truman LaFollette, with his spooky prescience, was already placing three more ice-filled tumblers on the big green table. Sister Alma Rose was right behind him. She and Father Dooley and the pretty stranger all sat down beside us at the same time, as if someone had called a meeting, although I know that they didn’t have an appointment, per se, because Sister Alma Rose had gleefully set aside the day for her “early harvest,” or it might have been her “late harvest.” I know next to nothing about butternut squash.

Father Dooley jovially introduced his companion as “Tina” and explained that they had formed a friendship through Alcoholics Anonymous and that he thought it was “a good idea” for Tina and Sister Alma Rose to meet. This surprised no one, because (a) we had known for years that Father Dooley was a recovering alcoholic, (b) Father Dooley gathers friends the way marmalade attracts bees, and (c) it’s always a good idea for anyone to become acquainted with Sister Alma Rose… nor did Pablo and I imagine for a moment that we should delicately depart and give the other three some privacy. It’s like we were part of Sister Alma Rose’s posse, you see, and people who came to visit Sister Alma Rose always seemed to understand that.

So the character of the gathering around Sister Alma Rose’s sturdy outdoor table wasn’t particularly unusual. What was extraordinary from the sitting-down moment was the vibes. To put it more elegantly, when Tina and I locked eyes there was a strange certainty – on my part and I was sure on hers as well – that we had been connected since time began. I don’t know how else to explain the electricity that flowed between us.

Tina’s story

On the surface, Tina’s background and mine could hardly have been less alike. I was born in a small, quiet town to parents who wanted me, loved and nurtured me, supported my interests, indulged my whims, and allowed my independence when it was wise to do so. Tina’s birth in an urban slum had scarcely been noticed by her alcoholic mother and heroin-addicted father. She was, almost literally, a throwaway.

Young as I was, I had visited Tina’s world, or one much like it. I’d been up close and personal with addicts and amorality and all manner of sordidness and uncompromising poverty. This is another story for another time. The important difference between Tina, at thirty, and me, at twelve, was that at the end of the day I always had a safe, cheerful dwelling to go home to. Tina, clean and sober for less than a year, had only recently found the comparative security of a shelter for the homeless.

Schooled in my family’s openness and Sister Alma Rose’s serenity and resilience, I am rarely horrified, but I was unprepared for the account of brutality I was about to hear. At Father Dooley’s invitation, Tina began her bleak narrative, but with an acceptance and a composure that seemed ever more remarkable as her story unfolded.

“I was an alcoholic by the time I was three,” she told us calmly. “I was younger than that when my father started raping me. Whenever he came around, I hid, but he found me. There was always alcohol in the house, even when there was no milk or bread. I learned very early that it dulled the pain and the fear.”

Mercifully, in my memory the details of Tina’s biography have dimmed. Trying to recall them is agonizing. I know that Tina and her siblings had lived among numerous relatives, each home more dysfunctional than the last. Her mother had routinely sold Tina’s “services” for crack cocaine. An aunt introduced her to a toxic array of street drugs.

What might have set Tina apart was an instinct to care for her younger brothers and sisters and, beginning in her early teens, for her own children. She didn’t say, but I suppose she went to school. I suppose there were ineffectual social-service interventions. Whatever the case, she learned to read and write. How she became so marvelously poised and articulate is a mystery. She spoke like Willa Cather writes. It astonished me.

At one point, I glanced at Sister Alma Rose. Her face was tranquil, but I saw the tears. She didn’t try to hide them. She didn’t even blot them with her apron. It occurred to me that she too had “recognized” Tina.

By the grace of God

When Tina could free herself and the children she protected the best she could, they became squatters, sleeping in abandoned buildings and eventually settling in a community of sorts, chronically homeless people making shift under a bridge. Worldly as I believed myself to be, I didn’t know that people actually live under bridges. Tina told us that, despite occasional attempts to roust them, the authorities pretty much looked the other way. Churches sometimes brought them food, blankets, and clothes.

An alcoholic and a drug addict, Tina managed to support her family by selling drugs. I don’t know how or where she met Craig, a thoroughly decent man who weaned her from the street and steered her to A.A. Father Dooley told us that Tina went to A.A. meetings every morning. At first, Craig drove her there directly from her job as a waitress at an all-night restaurant. At some point she got a driver’s license and a pickup truck and took charge of her transportation to work and meetings, never missing a day.

Ten months after she told us her story, Tina and Craig were married. Father Dooley says it remains “a solid marriage.

“They’re devoted to each other,” he told me not long ago.

I’ve never heard what became of Tina’s younger siblings or her children, some having been placed in foster care when Tina started rehab. It was her wish to reclaim them all, “by the grace of God.” Given her faith and determination, I’d be surprised if she didn’t succeed.

“Life throws all kinds of rubbish in your path, Fanny McElroy,” Sister Alma Rose once told me. “It puts up what looks like prison walls you can’t see over or around. Love leaps over them all.”

Country road

Walking into town

That enchanted sense of connection with Tina has never left me. As she and Father Dooley were saying their goodbyes on Sister Alma Rose’s magical grass-green porch, I took her aside. I’m not sure what words came to me, except that I “recognized” her.

“You’re an angel from Heaven,” I think I said, “or at least a very old soul. I know we’ll meet again.”

“Yes,” she said. “God is good.”

“Fanny McElroy,” I said to myself, “I believe you’re going to cry.”

It’s easy to say “God is good” when your life is rolling along like a wind-propelled tumbleweed and the worst thing you have to worry about is getting a below-average grade on a test you didn’t study for – which was pretty much the case for me when I was twelve. Coming from Tina, who had pretty much just landed on solid ground… whose yesterdays were grim and whose tomorrows were murkier than most… it was life-affirming. It was miraculous. It gave me strength and hope I would one day cling to.

“God is good indeed,” I said, with little idea of the magnificent truth of it, and walked home with Pablo and his little dog.

Poem D


Belated tribute to Dan Campbell, 1913-1985

Originally posted on Write Light:

Des Moines, Iowa, early 20th century; Dad was born in Des Moines in 1913

Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics atAlpha Inventions

The Morris Chair

Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking.Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Students: Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can. Here are a few for free: assonance, metaphor, simile, apostrophe….

Dad (left) and his brothers, around 1940

The Morris Chair

for Dan Campbell, 1913-1985

Once ordinary oak and textile, it
became your incarnation’s residence
of preference, your citadel, in fact; and
since its frame…

View original 146 more words

Love Your Neighbor, Love Yourself

The Ancients… on Being Happy and Loving Oneself

Happiness is the highest form of satisfaction… the key to fulfillment… and your most important responsibility to yourself and the rest of the universe. [1] Your well-being contributes to the planet’s health in ways that are now being measured by scientists who study coherence, or “global order.”

This is not to say you shouldn’t be emotionally honest. Sadness, anger, unpleasant feelings will arise. Robert Holden, one of the leading experts on happiness, suggests that “emotions want to be felt”; giving them due respect will allow them to fade away, whereas denying them is the surest way to make them stick. But Holden, success coach Michael Neill, and many other authorities agree that happiness is our natural, “unconditioned” state of being.

Contented sleeping baby and puppy

Happy by Default

Seeking happiness is instinctive

I can’t choose to pursue happiness any more than I can choose to grow toenails. All my cells, every body process leans into the equilibrium that is happiness.

If I am drowning in misery I reach for happiness automatically – or at least for relief from suffering, which might look like happiness from the vortex of the black lagoon. I can’t help striving to find safety. The instinct is the same as if I were in a smoke-filled room gasping for oxygen.

Happiness comes more easily if we love ourselves. This too is instinctive, but many of us were taught that loving ourselves is selfish, wrong, immoral, un-Christian, sinful… and sometimes, as a result, the natural impulse toward healthy love, compassion, and respect for the self was scrubbed away.

Freedom Riders (1961) courageously manifested white support for civil rights (photo: Florida State Archives)

Freedom Riders (1961) courageously manifested white support for civil rights (photo: Florida State Archives)

I struggled for years, in my late teens and twenties, with guilt brought on by merely wanting something – anything, from a boyfriend to a frivolous pair of socks. My parents — paragons of healthy balance and sensible self-care — were mystified by my chronic, debilitating guilt, which reached crisis proportions in the late 1960s, spurred by a pathological extremism that afflicted many white middle-class college students in that era.

In 1966 I attended a lecture at Stanford University given by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who was – and here I’m quoting a Yale undergraduate who was well acquainted with Coffin –

the type of Christian minister who saw a higher calling in “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.”  The “comfortable” were, of course, Yale students.  By and large, they came from prosperous middle- class families.  Their youth had been spent in well-furnished classrooms rather than [streets and alleys. Coffin robed them metaphorically in hair shirts] … because of how they were raised. —

Toxic guilt

In 1969 and 1970 I served on a racial-justice speakers’ panel sponsored by the Presbytery of Missouri River Valley of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our mission, truth be told, was to dispense guilt with a heavy hand among white congregations in the Omaha area… converting wealthy Presbyterians steeped in shame into philanthropic progressive Presbyterians working out their salvation by promoting fair and affordable housing,  job and education opportunities, public-policy initiatives, and other measures serving the needs of poor African Americans and other minorities in the vicinity.

The objectives were laudable, but guilt proved not to be a reliable incentive… and by this time I was so deeply immersed in my own guilt; so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threats to our country both domestic and international; and so thoroughly distanced from my own wants, needs, interests, and abilities, that I fell headlong into severe clinical depression and spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

talk therapy

Talk therapy (photo:

Back then, the few antidepressant drugs on the market were rarely used and psychiatrists relied principally on talk therapy. My doctor, Bob Young, was one of the nation’s foremost psychiatrists and, under his care, I quickly unlearned the ethics of self-abnegation and began to practice greater kindness toward myself and, spontaneously, toward others as well.

Dr. Young’s teaching shared much with the view expressed almost twenty years later by Marianne Williamson when she wrote, in her 1992 book, A Return to Love,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Health and healing through meditation

I was still in my early twenties when I came to understand the wisdom of loving myself, which invariably leads to spontaneous generosity in the matter of love. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t until I began a daily meditation practice decades later that I realized how brutally I sometimes treated myself – scolding and berating myself for failing to meet my own standards, not quite understanding that I could love myself even when I behaved unwisely, and expending a lot of energy on worry and procrastination. From time to time I fell back into the habit of indiscriminate people-pleasing… valuing myself according to the pats and strokes and other gestures of appreciation I got from my “admirers,” as I naively thought of them. 

You are a gift to the universe

A ‘mirror affirmation’

When I began meditating in 1995, I wasn’t really aware of the ways in which I had been cheating myself of love, life, and abundance. Events and circumstances since then, however, have shown me how much I’ve grown thanks to meditation. Difficulties that would have crippled me twenty years ago have been manageable and I’ve been able to see the lessons in them.

To be continued…

[1]      “Ten Life-Enriching Affirmations and How They Can Transform Your Life,” by Athena Staik,

        When happy, your brain functions in ways that optimally support your mental and physical health….

        See also “Nourishing the Collective Heart,” by Deborah Rozeman, HeartMath, Rozeman introduces the Global Coherence Initiative, which is investigating potential beneficial effects of positive coherent emotional states on, e.g., the earth’s energetic fields.

What the Ancients Wear

Laundry (Wash It), Essay (Write It), Melon Patch (Weed It), Tikkun Olam (Work It), & More from My To-Do List

Alice Learns to Bake?

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“What in the world do y’all wear up there?” Pablo asked me the last time I was home. I’d arrived in what looked like a white cotton nightie — long and plain, crisp and clean as new snow — with a light-blue-and-white-checked pinafore-style apron over it. Bit of  “Alice in Wonderland Goes to Baking School,” I mused as I unloaded my backpack… or, better, reminiscent of the Von Trapp children.

Absently I sang a few bars of Dîtes-moi pourquoi…” before I remembered:

Nothing wasted…

The dress and apron had once served as a sort of uniform at a 19th-century convent orphanage. Earlier still, the dress fabric had been bed sheets, and dozens of tablecloths had given their lives so the orphan girls could have aprons, which, I think, were more than decorative.

In Mama and Daddy’s living room, I was spinning gleefully in dizzying circles, generous fold upon fold of white cotton spreading out around me… managing heroically to avoid tripping on the hem… and loving the country quaintness of the dress and pinafore… though if Pablo had knocked on the front door five minutes later I’d have already changed into Levi’s and a flannel shirt, which I prefer to voluminous dresses, especially white dresses, no matter where I’m staying.

But nowhere on earth, not even at the United Nations, are you likely to see a more eclectic assortment of clothing styles than on the Ridge. Visitors and newcomers, expecting to find the Ancients living and dressing like Quakers or Mennonites… or huddled in caves, clad in animal skins… gape at the array of red-and-gold saris, white turbans, and Italian suits… along with the odd pinafore and the preponderance of jeans and flannel shirts.

What is of ultimate concern to me?

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Pablo and I spent the warm afternoon on Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wraparound porch. I had been assigned a short essay: an answer to the question “What is of ultimate concern to me?”

Pablo worked on his own essay, because that’s the sort of thing Pablo considers fun. Sister Alma Rose shelled peas and looked at our drafts, as we had asked her to. She knows better than we do when we are bullshitting, which is to say, writing what we think will please our mentors rather than what is in our hearts.

Here is my draft, about 60-percent complete. I’ll spend all the time it takes, because one certainly desires to know what is of ultimate concern to one, n’est-ce pas?

TO FOLLOW MY BLISS, joyfully occupy my place in the universe, effortlessly expand to accept and release streams of love always… thus to nourish the world… thus to swim in the tide of abundance (in the spiritual sense, but I wouldn’t say no to a cushy cabin cruiser and a circle of friends and maybe a roasted chicken).

Without my striving or struggling, my ultimate concern is to get out of God’s way so that God’s love can flow through me unobstructed. I pray, “God, surprise me.” I open my heart to accept the blessed assignment of repairing the world (tikkun olam, in the Kabbalah; or even, à la Gregg Braden, attuning my heartbeat to that of the planet — many metaphors are helpful).

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I could have said merely “to love one another” (Mother Teresa: “Spread love everywhere you go”), but there is also the clearing away of barriers and stumbling blocks.

Or I could have said “to love God and have no other Gods,” but that too means waking up and shedding addictions to stuff, to people and their regard, and to cream-cheese pie with hot fudge on the side… while remaining capable of enjoying cream-cheese pie and so forth.

The Ancients, most of them, are not ascetics. You will not see obesity on the Ridge, but there is no shortage of cream-cheese pie. Sugary desserts are enjoyed in moderation, usually after a meal.

After I’d been a year on the Mountain, immoderate displays of obscenely sweet pastries and frozen treats turned my stomach; but not so long ago, I could stick a spoon into a just-opened jar of hot fudge… slip into a trance… and emerge from it with an empty jar, a sticky chin, and a seriously offended stomach.

Love is not one of my attributes. It is my essence, as it is yours. When I move with confidence and courage and in integrity, no matter what I do I am love in motion and cannot help but bless the world.

So simple a message, and I still forget, and my mentors won’t allow me to tattoo it on my forehead….

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Coffee Bliss

Coffee Beans Growing on Costa Rican Plantation

I. A Gratitude Prayer

Thank you, God, for saxophones, Alaskan
salmon, Richard Gere, and some
environmentalists. And dental floss, the kind
on little pointed sticks.

Wooden coffee grinder

A new old-fashioned coffee grinder (

Thank you, wise and whimsical
Creator, for the color brown
and all its rich and earthy variations—ecru,
beige, tan, terra-cotta, coffee, chestnut,
chocolate, cinnamon, mahogany, and burnt

And ancient secrets, mysteries, and lore.

Back in my onetime bedroom with its
balcony and tall, broad windows, I felt
utterly replete from mid-March through
September in the early mornings from the
hour the dark receded and the cardinals
started cheering, through the dawn and in
the tumbling roly-poly breeze (before it
turned cold in the autumn and I had to close
the storms and sashes), cha-cha-cha-ing with
each other, sun and wind, and having placed
my bed against the sill I needed only turn my
head to see the spectacle or better yet to sit
and sway and feel the pleasant stirring on my
neck as daylight filled the room like
shortcake baking. Thanks
for that.

Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup (

Then comes to bask, the cat

I’m grateful for those stubborn plants, grape
ivy, for example, and those orange lilies no
one seems to like once they have staked a
claim on half the flower bed, and irises and
hostas, lilies of the valley, mums late
summer, yellow, red, and gold… grateful, in
the main, for flowers.

And all the person-power that’s invested in a
single Sunday newspaper. The Great Escape,
my favorite film, or up there, anyway.
Fiestaware, especially those chunky bowls
and small juice pitchers, disklike.

Mom and Dad (great picks), my sister,
brother, kids and nieces, grandchildren and
in-laws. Lite cream cheese. The U.S. mail, a
bargain, like the telephone. A hundred years
ago, who would have known?

—to be continued

…and then forget to breathe


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. —Reinhold Niebuhr

The young sink easily from head to heart like birds through low clouds, wings spread in an ecstasy of power, flipping, fluttering the tips instinctively — now dipping with the currents — now resting on prevailing winds. But they forget to think, they disengage the brain, lost in sensation, craving more of it. For all their wishing to, they were not born to soar as eagles do—not
yet, but someday, as a gift of grace, perhaps.

Solitary hawks surveilling circle low but hunt this field in vain and so with great and mighty clapping of their wings they race like arrows on the upward arc and pierce the misty layers of the sky; but even they don’t dare enrage the gods by flying where the air is thin, the ether delicate, where all their strength and skill and their sly wit are impotent.

Not yet wise, the young enlist intelligence, depend on it, and then forget to breathe. The mind is only half a navigator. Intuition is the needed complement, or else the course is set without respect to joy. The head considers well the destination; it’s the heart that loves the voyage, praising Heaven for the ocean and the


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