What Is the Good News?

El_Greco_-_Christ_Healing_the_Blind_-_WGA10420

El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind

Meditation for the Thirteenth Day of Lent

Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:2)

HOPE AND NEW LIFE. Turn away from evil and embrace the Good News.

Christ really has been raised from death—the first one of all those who will be raised. Death comes to people because of what one man did. But now there is resurrection from death because of another man. I mean that in Adam all of us die. And in the same way, in Christ all of us will be made alive again. (I Corinthians 15:20-22)

ETERNAL LIFE. The body dies and decays; the spirit lives on.

I gave you the message that I received. I told you the most important truths: that Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. (I Corinthians 15:3)

FREEDOM. If we had to pay a fine for every unkind thought or angry word, we would all live in a culvert. But, having done the best we can to right our wrongs, we needn’t carry guilt and shame around with us, punishing ourselves for our sins and hating our sinfulness. Indeed, these take a toll on our bodies as well as our hearts and minds. They paralyze our ability to love. In Christ we are given innocence at any time we choose to claim it. In the resurrection we are set free to experience joy, which blesses us and all whom we encounter.

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5)

HEALING. Physicians have told me they see miracles all the time. That the body inclines toward healing is a miracle in itself. The body and mind want to be healthy. Torn skin scars over, and scars fade. Broken lives are mended. Broken relationships are restored. These are laws of nature lived through Christ.

“In the winter, seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time, the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul.” (Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God)

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)

VICTORY. God is supreme. Good is greater than evil. If we didn’t believe this in one form or another, we wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. Every minute of every day would be lived in dread of calamity.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33) Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)

PEACE. Much misery arises when we try to control everything—ourselves, other people, circumstances…. Who, having gained a measure of power, does not seek even greater power? When we realize how little we can truly control, we can lean on the infinite strength of God. Thus are we free to live and love in this moment.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

HAPPINESS. The Spirit brings “mystic sweet communion” with Almighty God. By sowing its seeds, in prayer and meditation, we will harvest well-being in all its spiritual dimensions. Having that, what more can we ask? What else do we need for happiness?

Jesus replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

LOVE. We don’t have to wait for love to rush in and sweep us off our feet. You and I can make a decision to walk in the way of love… the love of God, the love of others, and the love that our Sunday-school teachers failed to mention: the love of ourselves. There is nothing noble or generous about neglecting our own needs or being easily manipulated.

Jesus “did not command self-love; he assumed it and made it the measure of neighbor love: ‘As you would that men do to you, do so to them.’” (John Piper, desiringgod.org)

Little Things

Antonio-da-Correggio-The-Nativity-c-1529-1530

Antonio da Correggio, The Nativity, c. 1529-1530

A tiny flame is all you need
to build a fire; a tiny seed
becomes a great and mighty tree;
a tiny babe, Divinity.

One little thought grows wings to fly
across the wide, unbroken sky.
One little child who wonders why
can change the world; and you and I

can take one step, and then one more,
until we climb, and then we soar.
A little breach becomes a door
to worlds no one has seen before.

The grandest things begin so small.
A tiny babe, the one we call
the Christ, will lift us when we fall,
for he was born to save us all.

Three Kings

Byzantine depiction of the Three Magi in a 6th-century mosaic at Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

Byzantine depiction of the Three Magi in a 6th-century mosaic at Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

The planet sighed, then held its breath,
while in the town of Bethlehem
a virgin bore a baby boy.
A star appeared, much brighter than
its sisters in the galaxy.
Three Zoroastrians began
a journey, guided by the light.
They traveled night and day from distant
eastern lands, it’s said—and to
Jerusalem at first they came
and told King Herod when they had
espied the star. Who were these men?
Magicians? Kings? Of royal birth?
Some say that they were Balthasar
from Ethiopia, and with him,
noble Melchior from Persia,
Gaspar, king of India.
Tradition tells us that they knelt
in meek obeisance to the babe.
They gave him gold and aromatic
frankincense and myrrh, as if
to say, As spreads the fragrance of
these oils, so shall thy love, O holy
child.
And they adored him, did
these men who journeyed ‘neath the star;
they worshiped him while shepherds knelt
and angels sang; and all their riches
were as naught beside the glory
of the newborn Prince of Peace.
We call the day that they arrived
Epiphany—God manifest.

What did they know, these mighty kings,
to undertake the perils of
a journey from a far-off land?
What did they see upon his brow
and in his mien—Mary’s son—
and what was whispered on his breath?
Did they know then that he had come
to free the prisoners of fear
and save the world from sin and death?

Dear God, we shall adore him too,
the baby boy in Bethlehem.
Three kings set out to see the Christ;
shall we do less than these good men?

Amen.

And Showed the Face of God

Pietro_Perugino_Polyptych_Albani_Torlonia_c1491

Pietro Perugino, Polyptych Albani Torlonia, c. 1491

Why was the holy child born?
Why did Divinity adopt
a human form and walk the hills
of Galilee? Why did he lift
the weak and heal the blind, why did
he cleanse the lepers, cast out demons?
Why did Jesus Christ speak truth
to power, hastening his own
demise? The world would never be
the same, because this wise and gentle
prophet told the multitudes
to set aside the ancient laws,
obeying just this one: Be love.
And in the groves and orchards, on
the mountainsides; along the shore
and in the desert; in the temple
and among the poor, despised,
despairing—those whom he called brother,
sister, child—this carpenter
who owned no property except
the garment that he wore, the sandals
on his feet, gave all: love, hope, mercy…
life and breath… the promise of
Emmanuel—God with us; God
within us. Those whom he restores
to innocence are rich indeed,
beyond the grasp of death and free
from grief and dark despair.
Why did he come? To heal our hearts.
He heals us still. Because he came
one holy night in Bethlehem
and grew in grace and walked the hills
of Galilee—the Word made flesh—
because he came and showed the face
of God—the world would never be
the same, and never shall again.

 

Ring the Christmas Bells

isabella-breviary-adoration-of-magi

Ring the Christmas bells, ring in Emmanuel
today. A child is born in Bethlehem amid the
creatures in the stable. Humble his
surroundings, yet he comes to rule the hearts of
people ‘round the world. Are you afraid?
Give to the holy one your fears. And do you
weep? Give him your tears; he makes of them
your baptism. Return to purity, O children.
Come, oh, come to him.

Ring the Christmas bells, ring in the victory
of joy and peace. A child is born in Bethlehem,
and creatures give him homage. Kings adore
him; precious are the gifts they bring. Now sing
for him a lullaby; sing him to sleep. Sing this:
Sweet Jesus, God among us, Lord Emmanuel.
So innocent is he, yet he accepts our sin and
our distress. Return to bliss, O children.
Come, oh, come to him.

Ring the Christmas bells, ring in the hope of
better days to be. A child is born in Bethlehem,
a world transformed his gift to you and me.
He is the Morning Star; the very sun bows
down to him, and through his tender mercy
what was old and weary now is new again.
Give him your tears, and they become your
baptism. Return to innocence, O children.
Come, oh, come to him.

It Is Finished

All that perishes is done, its temporality
expired, its finite span come to an end.
Love dawns, and darkness runs for cover,
scattering to its mysterious retreats,
its caverns damp and chill and inhospitable to all
except the twisted denizens of night. But light
now floods the caves and crevices, and darkness
has no place to hide.

It is finished. Now everything begins, and
what now is, what has begun, is born of love
and cannot die. Remember this, in winters
that descend untimely, blighted by disease
or grief, when pain extinguishes anticipation,
faith is tested and found wanting, hope is lost.
But hopelessness is finished, and despair died
on the cross.

Now everything begins, and we reside
in that eternal morning where the sun
forever rises, lavishing magnificent
abundance on the living—energy for
what we are and what we shall become.

Like seeds dropped carelessly among dry weeds,
for what seemed an eternity we waited, tiny
miracles of life and possibility. We waited
comfortlessly, frozen, numb below the crust
of earth where we’d arrived, not understanding
why or how, borne by which wind or for what
purpose. There we lay, absurdly small and
weak, without the power to exchange our
situation with what we aspired to be—the oak,
the grapevine, even (if we had no other choice)
the common milkweed—anything alive
and free. We waited, with our destinies
obscure, obeying the imperative of life, until
the earth around us warmed and softened,
waking our imaginations. Smothering in
darkness, blind but sensing that the equinox
had come and gone—the sun returned at
last and lengthening the days—how urgently
we longed to break our bonds and dance.
And still we waited, waited on, exhilarated,
frightened, eager to explore; we would have
chosen to emerge before our time, too soon
discarding our protection but for intuition’s
wise reluctance, warning of another killing
frost… and so we waited, waited on, until
we thought that we must climb out of the
grave or die. Denied, we grew impatient, tried
to plan how it would be, and doubted our
ability to push through the detritus of
innumerable seasons, layers of debris that
moldered as we slept—dead grass; damp,
matted leaves; entangled roots of ancient trees
compounded by neglect and entropy… a feast
for worms, perhaps… for us, a trap, impenetrable
by such means as we possessed, without
momentum, drained of will, and utterly unequal
to the task.

So suddenly the moment comes, we are astonished
by the ease of our ascent despite our lack of
preparation, effortlessly rising through the loam
into the gentle light while slender threads roam
underground, revealing infinite supply.  Around us,
pomegranate, lavender, mesquite, and rose bloom
copiously, bearing fruit and indiscriminately offering
their attributes to creatures winged or crawling, great
or minuscule. We have been here before, astride
the grand continuum, awakening in spring, disporting
gleefully on endless-seeming summer afternoons, then
wonderfully ripening, as if we had reserved our true
magnificence for this extravagant display, this final
surge of life before the cycle of decay begins.

But we shall not descend again. Nature now is
satisfied, her laws suspended. She requires nothing
further from us. It is finished, and there will be
no more winters. Without limit, light becoming life
eternally, joy flows in rivers; bliss crowns the forests,
fields, and groves; and we have just begun to live.

All is as the Gospel promised:

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.*

It has begun, will be—and we shine on. Amen.

_IT-IS-FINISHED-LAKESIDE___

* From the Canticle of Zechariah, Luke 1:78-79
“It is finished” (John 19:30)

A Lovely Young Woman

Green leaf on blue water

'Up the mountain'—the pool at the spring near the Upper Shrine*

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Digesting a Difficult Book

Beautiful redhead with freckles

Fanny at almost-13

Fanny, who will be 13 in August, is about to leave for Daylight, the almost-inaccessible mountaintop home of the Ancients, with her mentor, Sister Alma Rose, and Henry, the man she knows she will someday marry. Fanny has learned only recently that she is a reincarnation from the Ancients. She will live with them until she feels that she is ready to serve among the “Lowlanders,” doing the healing and peacemaking work that will become her mission.

coffeecup wingding

I am packed to go “up the mountain” — indefinitely, although Mama and Daddy will be allowed to visit because they’re “special,” and I can come home as often as I want, maybe via magic carpet, I’m not really sure. Sister Alma Rose and Henry will be taking me. Henry will stay as long as I do; Sister Alma Rose is keeping mum about her plans.

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

While we are waiting to leave, Sister Alma Rose has assigned me to read The Metaphysics of Mysticism, A Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross, by Geoffrey K. Mondello, a book of which “the goal… is unabashedly epistemological.” Whew! What if it had been gastronomical? Would I have been forced to eat the book? Would it have eaten me? And tidied up afterward?

It is heavy going; the author uses a lot of words such as solipsistic. And only occasionally can I infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context, because the context is full of words such as refractory (not to be confused with refectory, which is where St. John and his fellow Carmelites went to eat dinner).

And so I slog along, reading indoors at the computer so that I can easily look up words every three or four sentences, until it is just irresistibly gorgeous outside, when I lug the unabridged dictionary out to the garden or go read on Sister Alma Rose’s porch. Sometimes I think she forgets I’m only 12.

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Visiting Cousin George

Mama was an only child and so was her cousin George. (Everyone I know just calls him “George,” even my little brothers.) George and his parents— Mama’s mother’s brother and his wife (“Big George” and Jake, I don’t know her real name) farmed outside of Hilltop when Mama and George were kids, so they were like siblings.

Now George lives in Chicago, but he is hardly ever there because he makes huge amounts of money as a freelance photographer who specializes in going with linguistic anthropologists to remote places like Papua New Guinea (where more than 850 indigenous languages are spoken!) and the Amazon rainforest. So when he is in the U.S., which is hardly ever, he comes to see Mama or she goes to Chicago, and since he was at home last week, and I was going to be leaving soon, Mama, Henry, and I all flew to Chicago. Henry bought our tickets, and I still don’t know where he gets all his money, even though his parents are rich, but they don’t know where he is, and I don’t understand that either. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to tell me (this is the new, patient, serene Me talking). 

 
 
 

The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

The Amazon rainforest, Brazil

We didn’t tell George that I am going to Daylight, although if you could tell anyone and not be scoffed at, it would be George. We also didn’t exactly explain about Henry, but George takes everything in stride. His wife, Annette, used to go with him on long assignments, but she and their baby (Annette was five months’ pregnant) died on Borneo, not from some exotic jungle disease or snakebite or anything. She was standing at the edge of a four-foot embankment near a dry streambed when an insect flew into her eye, and she lost her footing and belly-flopped onto the hard ground, and she died of “multiple internal injuries” in a helicopter on the way to the hospital.

Being the observer

This tragedy happened while Mama was carrying me, so the baby, who was a girl, would be about my age. I used to wonder if I might be an unwelcome reminder of George’s unborn child— he always seemed to be scrutinizing me— but Sister Alma Rose has taught me to not be self-conscious but to observe rather than “feeling observed,” and when I started observing George I realized that he scrutinizes everybody, because he is actually interested. George is a person who lives in the moment. As Sister Alma Rose says, George remembers “where he is” (here) and “what time it is” (now). He’s kind and sensitive but not at all sentimental. He probably doesn’t know it, but he practices “mindfulness.”

Sexy blonde with cigarette, leather outfit, and fur stole

Daddy thinks Carla's a spy

George’s girlfriend, Carla, swears like a sailor and is physically the kind of woman who could have been called a “blond bombshell” in an earlier era. Carla might be a little on the flashy side for high society, and you might assume that she was no rocket scientist, but you’d be wrong because that’s exactly what she is, an aerospace engineer who was an associate professor at some university with initials like M.I.T. but not M.I.T., but now she’s a handsomely paid consultant with ultra-ultra security clearance, and she loves to talk but she doesn’t talk about her work. Carla lives in George’s apartment when he’s away and when he’s home. Daddy doesn’t approve, not that anybody asked him.

George is a self-professed Christian who says he has seen God’s grace “up close and personal” too many times to doubt its reality. It was grace, he says, that brought him and Carla together and that keeps their relationship strong though they both travel a lot and sometimes Carla can’t tell even George where she’s going.

Sultry beautiful blond woman

...Dagmar WAS a spy...

Daddy thinks Carla’s a spy. That’s because a long time ago, just before Mama and Daddy got married, there was a woman called Dagmar who was another “blond bombshell,” and she worked at the Diner and chewed gum and had this Bronx accent, and Daddy told Mama, “She’s a spy,” and Mama said, “What would a spy be doing in Hilltop?” and Daddy said, “Keeping a low profile,” and Mama laughed because Dagmar would have stood out anywhere, but it turned out that Daddy was right and Dagmar was a spy for the Russians or the Chinese or something. Daddy said she was less like a waitress than like somebody playing a waitress on television, and the gum-chewing and Bronx accent were “overkill.”

Loving is the main thing

Coffee in a light-blue mug

...a wonderful time drinking coffee...

Our day in Chicago ended too soon. We all had a wonderful time drinking coffee and eating George’s “culinary specialty,” fruit salad made with cream cheese and marshmallow cream and it is just to die for, if everyone had left the room I would have been compelled to eat it all.

As Sister Alma Rose has told me over and over until it finally sunk in, you cannot be loving when you are being an “observee” instead of an observer.  And loving is the main thing. So I got over myself; I relaxed and observed instead of being self-conscious and feeling as if all eyes were on me. It was fabulous, wonderful, liberating… liberating most of all. And when we left, George told Mama he thought I had “grown into a lovely young woman.” I didn’t need George’s approval any more, but it felt good. Validating. “The truth shall make you free.” **

 * Green leaf on blue water, vnwallpapers.com
** John 8:32

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Sister Alma Rose Finds God Beneath the Bed

Sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree

...in the filtered sunlight

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Remembering to breathe

Green, green countryside, dotted with evergreen and deciduous trees, bisected by a paved country road that curves and climbs with the landscape

All roads lead to Heaven

Sister Alma Rose uncharacteristically threw the newspaper down in disgust. Raising her eyes toward Heaven, she sighed deeply.

“I try, Lord. Y’all know how hard I’ve tried. This animosity weighs heavy on me, and I am truly sorry, but I am so very, very weary of atheists.”

Sister Alma Rose is like a deep, clear stream flowing with love. I forget sometimes that she is human, too.

“Sister Alma Rose,” I chided, “you’ve taught me that unbelievers are just on a different road than we are and their journey to God is just beginning.”

Pretty girl, about 12 years old

I, Fanny

“Yes, Fanny McElroy,” she smiled, “y’all are right, of course. Sometimes it just seems like these folks are taking giant steps backward, and if they keep on that way they’re just gonna take one step too many and fall back into the crick, and right now I just don’t feel like fishing them out.”

“You’d better go pray, Sister Alma Rose,” I said soberly.

She beamed at me and disappeared into the house. “And meditate,” I called after her.

Later I found her in the chapel, and she handed me this sheet of paper, covered with her handwriting, which is big and she makes her letters real rounded.

Biracial toddler out with his dad, practicing his walking.

...We cleave to him because we cling to life

IF GOD ISN’T

Some say, “There is no God,” as if they had
looked everywhere, beneath the beds, in every
room, in all the corners and the closets.

Some say, “God is dead,” assuming, one
supposes, that there used to be a God and now
there’s not, perhaps he failed to take his
antioxidants and got pneumonia and
succumbed. Then all the lights went out. Love
fled the universe. How odd I didn’t notice.

Atheist — a scary word, invoking images of iris
petals wilted, sweet-faced shelties’ tails gone
still, and all the patients dying in the hospital.
Cold, cold wind no longer softly stirring leaves
on cottonwoods to start them chattering in
muted voices, whispering the secrets of the
universe, and fluttering, bright green and silver,
in the filtered sunlight. Now the wind is without
mercy, angry, for it’s lost its destination, willful,
but without an object, turning all the foliage
brown for spite, the way a spoiled child might
sweep a tray of heirloom china to the floor and
grasp a moments’ satisfaction in the shattering,
but instantly it passes and the child is discontent
again and looking frantically for more.

But no. Not even this. For if God isn’t, nothing lives.

In the end, it comes down to semantics, if one
knows Love and Life and dares to breathe, which
is an affirmation. Love, and Life, and Inspiration are
his synonyms, whose name is lost in mystery. And
yet we know him by sublime emotion, we could
even find him in the exercise of reason; and we
cleave to him because we cling to Life.

So look for him, ye seekers all, beneath the bed,
in cobwebs, kings and counts and cabbages, and
cups of chocolate. Behold! You’ve found his hiding
place! For if God isn’t, nothing is.

A row of cottonwood trees, probably a windbreak once

...cottonwoods chattering in muted voices

Sister Alma Rose is full of surprises sometimes.

* * *

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Daylight

Two Girls with Their Shelties - Victorian Images

Victorian art showing two little girls with their best friends

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The Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends

So, Henry has been to see me. Henry from the past, Henry from the Ancients, Henry from Richmond, Henry the Hiker, Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., who vanished ten years ago. And being with Henry is the biggest and best thing in my life, and I can’t talk about it.

Girl with art project

Marianna in fourth grade

Oh, I can talk to Mama and Daddy, and Sister Alma Rose, but then I have to go to school and act like I’m interested that Kevin Olander has been walking Marianna Dempsey home after cheerleading. Well, that’s actually not a very good example of trivial junior-high gossip, because I AM sort of interested, because Kevin Olander is very cute and very shy, and Marianna is a real sweetheart and we were inseparable in fourth grade, when we had the same teacher, and she is that rare specimen of junior-high girl who is truly kind and neither knows nor cares what people, in general, think of her.

Sister Alma Rose gives me assignments, and the one I’m working on right now is what she calls the Sacrament of Being a Good Friend to Your Friends. “It takes a little bit of effort to keep up y’all’s friendships with youngsters* y’all don’t run into regularly,” she said, “not counting Pablo, who’s always around. But keep a-hold of those who love and don’t compete with y’all, and the other way ’round, by which I mean y’all want them to be happy and don’t begrudge them their successes. Those friendships are rare, and they’re sacred.”

Sometimes it’s just a real treat to listen to Sister Alma Rose talk.

Peter the Creep

Marianna is the friend I cherish most when I’m feeling… I don’t know the right word— not “excluded,” because I’m the one who’s avoiding people— “separate,” maybe, like I’m 12 going on 57, when I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about spiritual stuff, and meditating especially intensely, and none of this is of interest to my other school friends, not even Pablo.

Marianna is a Christian Scientist and totally into spirituality. She sees everyone as a perfect child of a perfect God who does not create imperfection. But she doesn’t take herself too seriously. I mean, she takes Christian Science seriously, because she’s seen and experienced all these amazing healings, but she says, very dryly, “Fanny, you might find this hard to believe, but I don’t always manifest perfect love.”

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

A typical American fire escape; SoHo, Manhattan

Then she giggles. “I really have to work at seeing Peter Gaines as a perfect child of God.” She doesn’t say “Peter the Creep,” which everyone calls him because he’s just creepy. Whenever there’s a fire drill, he makes sure he’s one of the first kids out so he can stand under the iron-bar steps that are the fire escapes and look up girls’ skirts until one of the teachers makes him go stand across the street in the practice field, which is where we’re supposed to go. And he’s been seen a bunch of times standing outside girls’ houses at night, being a peeping Tom with these high-dollar binoculars he has, including Marianna’s house.

The rest of the time he’s just there, not talking to anyone, sort of shuffling to his classes, and, in each of them, effortlessly committing every spoken and written word to memory and always getting straight A’s. Marianna tried to talk to him once, asking him a question about the subjunctive mood or something, which they were studying in their English class, and he just stared at  her with distaste, “like I was a particularly loathsome beetle,” she said.

Something so heinous

Sunny Victorian parlor

She and I talked to Sister Alma Rose about him one day when we went to her house after school seeking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incredible limeade.

“How can someone that intelligent be that clueless?” I asked.

“There has to be a reason for a boy to be so warped at such a young age,” she said, “but this is how sex offenders start out. They don’t just change from healthy into sick human beings when they’re 30.”

Sister Alma Rose made us pray for him — I mean, we wanted to, and we did, silently, for quite a while. It was hard at first, because he was, after all, Peter the Creep, and I couldn’t get past that until I thought of him as a newborn, a gurgling infant, a toddler, taking those first, unsteady steps, all bright eyes and wondering at the big, wide world, and reminded myself that his true self was still that fresh and innocent.

I was sure that Sister Alma Rose would go and talk to his parents, and, of course, she did, and they are just regular nice people— they own the sheet-music and musical-instrument store in Hillside— and they were “concerned” about both Peter and his older sister, Alice, who, it turns out, was bulimic, though her parents didn’t know that until after. I can only imagine what family dinners were like at their house. But Peter and Alice were getting good grades and their parents convinced themselves that the kids were just “going through a phase.”

WAKE UP, MOMS AND DADS! Your 12-year-old son has no friends and has no interests and he is a zombie most of the time. Your teenage daughter is five-foot-five and weighs 87 pounds. IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION HERE?

Well, after a lot of gentle but persistent pressure on Sister Alma Rose’s part, a lot of patient conversations with Peter and Alice, and a lot of just plain snooping, Sister Alma Rose uncovered something so heinous I don’t even know how to put it into words… so disturbing that she would tell Marianna and me about it only with our parents’ permission and with our parents actually with us, gathered in our cheerful, sunny living room.

Okay, here goes

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Interpol Headquarters, Lyon, France. Photo: Massimiliano Mariani

Peter and Alice have an aunt and uncle — their mom’s brother and his wife — who are called Hector and Carol Mote and who owned the music store in La Mesa. When the music store in Hilltop came available, the Motes urged the Gaineses to buy it and move from Chicago to Hilltop— which, they assured Mr. and Mrs. Gaines, was such a picturesque small town… so wholesome, so much safer than Chicago.

The Motes’ store was much bigger and busier than the Gaineses’ in Hilltop, because of there being a music college in La Mesa, so the Motes “hired” Peter and Alice, and paid them well, to “help in the stock room” on Saturdays, starting when Peter was 9 and Alice was 10.

But they didn’t work in the stock room. They “worked” in the plush master bedroom of the Motes’ house behind the store, where they not only were sexually abused(1) by the Motes but also were forced to do things with each other, which kindly Uncle Hector recorded on video,(2) and he sold the videos to people all over the world, which made it an FBI matter (also a matter for the U.S. Customs Service and possibly Interpol!) when Sister Alma Rose blew the whistle.

Pretty little red-haired girl with freckles

Me, Fanny

“How could they force them?” Marianna asked, and her voice sounded so strange that my eyes, which had been glued to Sister Alma Rose, slid over to Marianna, looking like a wounded bird between her mom and dad, and her mom had her arm around Marianna’s shoulders and was stroking her hair, and her dad looked dangerous, like an angry wolf might look protecting its cub. Or do wolves have pups? Anyway, Marianna was holding tight to her dad’s hand and very quietly sobbing her heart out.

“With threats,” Sister Alma Rose said gently, “to tell the children’s folks all sorts of lies— that they had caught the children together in bed, or that Alice had seduced her uncle— that kind of thing. And y’all need to understand that the abuse had been going on, during family visits, since before Peter and Alice were even in kindergarten.”

I made it to the bathroom just in time to lose the lunch I was wishing I hadn’t eaten. When I was done retching, Mama cleaned my sweaty face with a warm washcloth and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. She looked a question at me, and I said, “No, I want to hear the rest.” I rinsed the bad taste out of my mouth as well as I could and went into the living room and sat down on the love seat next to Mama. Daddy, on the other side of me in “Only His” Chair, gave my shoulders a squeeze and handed me a peppermint. What a dad!

Then Marianna and I both started laughing. It wasn’t hysteria, it was our mutual realization— through some kind of cosmic connection, I guess, but it was as clear as a fingersnap— that we’d both been expelling toxins, Marianna washing them away with tears and I upchucking them out. Sorry, but that’s what it was.

Why friendships are sacred

Okay, so now, as I write this, the Motes are in prison, “but folks like them ain’t safe in or out of the penitentiary,” Sister Alma Rose said. She rarely says ain’t any more unless she’s “in a state,” and I was pretty sure she wasn’t losing any sleep over whatever peril the Motes might be facing.

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Lexington, Kentucky, is "horse country." Photo: Wes Blevins

Peter and Alice were long gone, even before our family conclave. Mama told me that the Gaineses’ house had been sold, as had both of the music stores, and Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were moving to Lexington, Kentucky, where Mr. Gaines’s parents and brothers lived with their families.

“But where are the kids?” I asked, wondering what kind of counseling could erase all those years of abuse and shame and secrecy.

“They’re in the best place they could possibly be,” Mama said with a wistful smile, “the most beautiful place in the world, a place where you take in healing and kindness and wholesomeness with every breath. They’re in Daylight.”

I knew where she meant, the place where the Ancients live when they’re not Out in the World, but I’d never heard it given a name (Henry just says, “up the mountain”), and I’d also never heard of anyone going there who wasn’t from the Ancients, and I told Mama that, and she smiled that wistful smile again.

“I was there,” she said simply. “After my father died, and Mama drank herself to death in front of my eyes and I went to pieces, Daddy Pete took me up. You’ll go yourself, of course, probably sooner rather than later, and you’ll never want to leave, but you’ll know you can go up there whenever you need to, and you’ll be full of zeal to come back and help mend the broken world.”

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

Asparagus: German botanical illustration

A week or so after our gathering, Sister Alma Rose gave a little party in honor of Marianna and me. It was just the three of us and Mr. Truman LaFollette, but we devoured baked salmon and tender asparagus spears and Sister Alma Rose’s famous fruit salad that’s like dessert, and warm, dark homemade bread, and then we had dessert, chocolate mousse so rich that the small piece was almost more than I could handle, although I can pretty much always find room for more chocolate.

Then Sister Alma Rose explained how Marianna’s and my friendship had started something that would bless the world for a very long time. I thought that was giving it more than its due, and started to say so, but Sister Alma Rose shushed me.

“The two of y’all was thrown together in fourth grade,” she said, “but you’ve gone out of your way to keep on being friends. Now, if y’all weren’t who you are, y’all would have paid no attention to Peter Gaines. He was easy to ignore, like everybody else did. Marianna, y’all made an effort to see him for what he is, a perfect child of God. Even so, if y’all hadn’t talked about him with each other, and then come to me, Peter Gaines and his sister probably would have fallen through the cracks. The parents are in denial, nobody else notices or cares, and those youngsters grow up and they’re just full of poison.

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

The Mother Church; the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston

“Now, think not only of them and the hell their lives would have been,” she went on, “but think of the people who might have been harmed by them but who won’t be, now, because of y’all. Think of Peter and Alice’s parents, who will recover because their children got help before someone else was hurt. Think of them two in prison, who won’t be brutalizing any more innocents. And think of all the circles of lives around these, like ripples. Poison travels fast and far.”

“But it’s not like we did something hard or made any sacrifices,” Marianna protested.

“Y’all made a choice,” said Sister Alma Rose, taking Marianna’s hand, and, Lord, I hoped she wouldn’t squeeze it and turn those delicate bones into little bitty Chiclets. “Instead of taking the path of least resistance, y’all chose to notice, to pray, and to act. Poison travels fast,” she repeated, “but love travels faster.”

I decided to wait for another time, when we weren’t celebrating, to ask Marianna and Sister Alma Rose if they were able to see the Motes as God’s perfect, innocent children. It’s still hard for me to use the words love and Peter Gaines in the same sentence. But I guess we did what Marianna calls “the loving thing,” and that, it seems, can change more than just our little corner of the world….

*The first time Sister Alma Rose referred to my friends and me as youngsters, I tried to explain that the only adults who use words like youngster are those who have little or no rapport with kids, which is definitely not the case with Sister Alma Rose. She laughed and said we’re lucky she doesn’t call us younglings, which was au courant before the seventeenth century, when youngster came into general use.

(1) Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors…. Wikipedia

(2) Children of all ages, including infants, are abused in the production of pornography internationally. The United States Department of Justice estimates that pornographers have recorded the abuse of more than one million children in the United States alone. —Wikipedia

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Dancing with Angels

Sunset on the sea

A Tim Tidwell (age 9) escapade: The tide was going out, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and Tim and his little boat, which he'd taken without permission, were just a dot on the horizon, halfway to China

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Raising Tim

Terri Tidwell had gone completely gray by 40. To be fair, Tim Tidwell, Terri’s son, didn’t put all those gray hairs there, just most of them.

Fanny, the author

I, Fanny McElroy

Terri has three other children, now grown, and had two husbands: Chip, whom she divorced, and Arthur, Tim’s daddy, whom she buried. Arthur was dead at the time, as luck would have it. Three days earlier he’d been walking across the street and was run over by a drunk driver (who was uninjured), someone traveling on the highway who didn’t slow down when he reached the narrow brick street in downtown Hilltop.

It was sad, because Arthur was a fine fellow, but I think his untimely death kept Terri out of prison, because she was on the point of murdering his dreadful mother, who, after Arthur died, went to live with Arthur’s brother and his family. God bless ’em.

Everyone likes Tim…

Confident young man, handsome

Sister Alma Rose says Tim is 'too foxy for his own good'

…even the three mothers of his three children. He’s approaching 30, but since he’s been drinking since junior high as a way of dealing with pretty much everything, he’s emotionally stuck in junior high—at least that’s Sister Alma Rose’s assessment. So he’s kind of everybody’s little brother — handsome, funny, full of mischief, and, when he’s been drinking, either game for some escapade beyond mischief, or else just plain mean.

When Terri feels like she wants to run his life or else “enable” him in some way, she talks to Sister Alma Rose. “Y’all stay out of God’s way,” Sister Alma Rose tells her. “God has big plans for that boy.”

A recovering codependent

Attractive middle-aged woman

Terri, after her makeover that included collagen cheek implants; Sister Alma Rose says, "You go, Girl"

So, with Sister Alma Rose’s constant support, Terri doesn’t enable, and she doesn’t tell Tim what to do; she gives him calm advice when he asks for it and leaves it up to him whether or not to follow it. She doesn’t make appointments for him to see therapists (as she used to), and she doesn’t call him every day to make sure he’s not in jail. She has surrendered Tim and his fate to God, so she’s learned to stop worrying. And she doesn’t feel guilty or wonder what she might or might not have done during his childhood that could have made Tim happier and more well-adjusted.

And he’s not a happy guy, and Terri suffers with him. That’s a habit she hasn’t been able to shake.

Angels or hysteria?

Last week, Terri had a bizarre experience that she told Sister Alma Rose was either an encounter with angels or a very elaborate hallucination.  We were sitting at Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker table on her grass-green wraparound porch, and Terri had made copies for each of us, which made me feel very grown up, of her poetic account of the incident:

Peach rose

Terri's poem

Pink rose

“Sister Alma Rose,” I said, after Terri had left, whistling cheerfully as she walked toward the road, because Sister Alma Rose and I not only affirmed her experience but also shed a few tears with her, in the way of women, of sisters, which I am just beginning to understand —

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

“I mean, I know that Terri’s angels were real, she’s not crazy or making things up, and I know she’s feeling reassured about Tim being in their ‘custody,’ — and maybe it shouldn’t matter, but I just wonder where this all took place. In a room in her house, or in her mind, or a dream, or was she transported to heaven, or what?”

“Fanny, my love,” said Sister Alma Rose, placing her broad, brown forehead against my freckled one, “y’all’s training starts right now. There are many dimensions y’all have never experienced, or else you weren’t aware of it. Scientists, now, they work in dozens of dimensions, but only in the realm of math and physics.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

The classic fantasy novel for kids AND grownups, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

“Y’all remember the experience in your daddy’s hospital room, when y’all saw your future self and you were standing above the room and walking down them stairs?”

Oh, wow, did I ever. “That’s something I’m never likely to forget,” I said.

“Well, now, I’ve been in that hospital room dozens of times, and I’ve never seen it with the ceiling gone out of it and a flight of steps leading up to nowhere.”

“Oh!” I said, understanding. “It was really us, and it was really happening, but it was in another dimension. Like we slipped through a tessaract,” I added, thinking of Madeleine L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites.

“Sort of like that,” Sister Alma Rose agreed. “And Fanny, do y’all remember the young man who was standing beside your grownup self?” she asked with a twinkle.

“Oh, sure,” I said, “because I remember it flashed through my mind that he looked a lot like Matthew McCon— Well, I’ll be a flat rabbit on toast,” I said, looking with wonder, and a little embarrassment, at Sister Alma Rose.

“It was Henry,” I whispered in awe. “The man in my future is Henry.”

* * *