Small Comfort

A Prayer of Gratitude.

tuscanysunriseGod who made us and sustains us— God,
immortal and mysterious— God, synonymous,
and more, with life, love, beauty, and the peace
that passes understanding:

When we are ungrateful, even our complaints are manifest of
sweet abundance: air and water; bread and butter; shelter from
the cold; and your embrace when we surrender deep in prayer—
as babies, weary even of exploring all the wonders of the world, its
lights and colors, sounds and textures, burrow into Mother’s shoulder,
fearless in her equanimity.

Yet we fancy ourselves victims of ungentle circumstance now and
again. Perhaps a small annoyance, not attended to, becomes infected.
Swollen, red, and tender to the touch, it spreads to the extremities,
and farther — others suffer the contagion. Thus can friends on Saturday
be enemies on Sunday, and, by Monday, legion.

Gratitude does not require the sky to be forever blue, or that the sun
appear at every moment we consider opportune. Not every day is halcyon,
not every month is June, and there are bitter winds that penetrate each
layer of protection, entering through skin and bone to pierce the heart. Small
comfort then to know that even when the sun’s invisible behind the storm
or hidden by the circle of the Earth, it shines as bright and will be visible
precisely when it ought to be. Small comfort too are food and shelter —
even friends, if friends remain (we might have driven them away).
A few are stubborn: let them in, for they can rub our feet and startle languid
faculties awake — the ones that sense not heat or cold but grace.

IT-IS-FINISHED-LAKESIDEWe are not patient, though, no matter that we’ve had our share of
warm, fair days and peaceful nights. We hear the thunder of a distant
storm; we witness human cruelty, we wonder at the blind impartiality
of nature, and we are bewildered at the magnitude of evil, at the
unpredictable caprice of fate, or doom. Disaster may be out of sight but
looms in some malicious posture, poised to strike when least expected.
So we watch and worry, like a sentry whose antagonist has neither form nor
name; and we neglect whatever bounty has accrued in our distraction.

We forget to feast. We lack the energy and appetite for our accustomed
satisfaction. Those who suffer and survive have told us they were somehow
more alive than when the breezes were benevolent and calm. They learned
to be astonished that amid catastrophe and cataclysm, life goes on.

You have warned us to beware the sleek vocabulary of the
merchants of salvation.

When they speak, their words are vacant. When they pray, their
prayers are memorized and animated, artful, eloquent, and uninspired.
Their lines are well rehearsed, but had they truly died and been
redeemed, their phrases would reflect (it seems to me, and I
have been there) something of the grave; not so articulate —
there are no words; would be forever fresh, a quiet wonder— if
they had been saved. If one has been to the abyss and fallen in,
then one is humble, having little need to understand, no reason to
pontificate… but rather one is moved to celebrate the mystery
and to be newly grateful, day by day by day.

Having suffered condemnation, having been appraised and
come up short, and having then been lifted and embraced —
one cannot judge, cannot condemn. The court has been adjourned
and all the prisoners released. We have no jurisdiction; it is
not our place to round the sinners up and put them back again.
Our duty, then, is light and brings us joy: To know as friend a
stranger, one who will, like each of us, be tried; and one thing
more: To gratefully remember how the tide that swept us out to
sea — when we, in mortal danger, cried out, “Save me!”—
pulled us gently to the shore.
Tree in the mist

Today I Didn’t Break My Arm

 

Window, tulips in vase, white lace curtains

…at the bed-and-breakfast…

Dear God,

Today I didn’t break my arm

nor did I rupture my appendix.

I got up at six a.m.

and probably will go to bed

before eleven, certainly

by midnight, at the latest.

 

I read a book—a hundred pages.

I had supper with a friend.

I didn’t grumble very much

about the pang of emptiness

I feel at times when I come home

and here I am—alone again.

Tomorrow I shall grumble less.

 

I didn’t lie. I didn’t cheat.

I didn’t steal. I did my bit

for peace. I wish I had a dog—

but that’s a problem I can fix.

There’s glass on all my windows

and a carpet on my floor.

I have a clean and pleasant kitchen

and some dishes in the cupboard.

There are those who’d miss me if I didn’t

call them every week or two.

I care about them, so I do.

 

It rained this afternoon, a pleasant

interlude before the heat.

There’s food in the refrigerator,

shoes for both my feet; and there

are blankets on the bed. And if

there isn’t money in the bank,

I’m thankful for the stuff I bought

instead.

 

Tomorrow I’ll have company.

It’s Mrs. Beaman’s day to clean,

pick up a bag of groceries,

and wash the towels and the sheets.

I’ll have an opportunity

to write a letter to a friend

who’s happy when she hears from me

but understands my tendency

to undertake too many things.

 

I have my health, and never take

such things for granted any more.

I’ve no excuses to complain

and every cause to celebrate

the sunshine, and the April storm.

 

Thank you for another day,

dear God, and let the people say:

Amen.

 

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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Moving Right Along

Purple Flowering Shrub to illustrate prayer "The Shrub"Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions

The Shrub:
Prayer for a Happy Home and for Difficult Transitions

Glory be to you, Creator and Redeemer, Father-Mother of us all

It was as if I’d one leg that had put down
deep, good roots—the rest of me was flailing,
not in an endeavor to escape, No! but to stay
there, stay forever; not for freedom, but for
safety, so I did believe. “I can’t!” I cried. My
tears were shed to no avail, for they (the
gardeners) merely hauled me out, to plant me
in some other yard. I thought I’d die;
however, as it happened, though the roots
were bared and some were torn and I called
out in pain (while they pretended not to
listen, but I knew they cared), the roots ran
broad and shallow, and not deep at all, and I
can keep my foot and all my toes, it seems.

Red Clover to illustrate poem "The Shrub - Prayer for Happy Home and Difficult Transitions"

Well, they were not mean-spirited or so
unkind as just to leave me to the task and
drop me any-old-where; they asked, and I
said, “There, please.” There they stopped, and
sent me in with my valises, oh, so many! and
they went away. I didn’t mind so much,
although I wish it all had happened faster, for
I sit here yet with my belongings strewn at
random… nor do my legs, quite tender from
the struggle, function right. The touchy, easily
offended, mewling voice, in protest, whispers,
“This is wrong.” But it’s too late; I silence it.

Blue Sheer Curtain Window Toothbrushes to illustrate prayer-poem

My troubles found me, with that radar that
they have, and seemed to double in the
interim. But by your grace, O God, I shall win all
the little victories and overcome the obstacles,
with them, with the detritus, the unholy mess,
eventually, I’m not sure how, but I don’t need to
be… in you, there’s no uncertainty. This morning,
anyway, I hear a pair of cardinals calling to
each other, far away, then nearer, or else
bolder, and the sun is warm upon my hair, my
neck, my shoulders; it’s enough and more for
now.

Images: vnwallpapers.net
except as noted

Hurry Up and Listen

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Sister Alma Rose Insists…

Omigosh. If it’s still December 3 when y’all read this, go immediately to the Morning Prayer at DivineOffice.org and listen to…

Hymn: Amazing Grace by Jane Chifley And Pat McGrath from their album Traditional Catholic Hymns – Lifeboat 14

Sister Alma Rose could dig up only one album by Lifeboat 14 — Who Will Adore Him? (2004) — upon which “Amazing Grace” could not be found.  She looked on several sites and finally discovered this description of the band at Eternity Music:

It’s finally here! Who Will Adore Him? is a CD by Lifeboat 14 containing a mixture of rock, folk, serenade and country. It’s taken a long time and is worth every moment of listening.

Music that will rock you. Music about Mary and the Blessed sacrament. Music that’s Australian. Music that’s Catholic.

You won’t find anything but faith on this CD.

Every Lifeboat 14 album has different artists performing…. The band was founded by Jane Chifley.

Sister Alma Rose sampled several cuts from the album, but none was as clean, elegant, and simply lovely as the unpretentious duet “Amazing Grace.”

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Catholic Things part 2

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Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

‘Pray Without Ceasing’

From ancient times the Church has had the custom of celebrating each day the liturgy of the hours. In this way the Church fulfills the Lord’s precept to pray without ceasing, at once offering its praise to God the Father and interceding for the salvation of the world. —Office of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship

Fanny McElroy

I, Fanny McElroy

When I, Fanny McElroy, first discovered The Brother Cadfael Mysteries, by Ellis Peters, I ripped through them like a scairt rabbit about to be et by a hawk, as Sister Alma Rose says her Daddy Pete says, or maybe it’s “a hawk after a scairt rabbit.” Anyway, I read them fast. And then there weren’t any more, because Ellis Peters died, so for the longest time I put off reading the final book, the twentieth, because I didn’t want to say goodbye to Brother Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey during the 12th century, but I found other books to read because I had become fascinated by all things medieval and all things Roman Catholic.

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

Compline — Coronation of the Virgin

I loved Brother Cadfael’s irreverent way of being genuinely and truly religious, his painstaking cultivation of herbs for healing, his humor and his kindness. And the way he told the time not by the clock but by the Canonical Hours for Prayer — Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and so forth. Sister Alma Rose has specific times for prayer during the day, and if I am at her house when one of those times comes, we go into her chapel and pray together, and sometimes we pray out loud, sometimes we don’t, and she reads a psalm and we sing a hymn — harmonizing rather nicely, if I do say so — but the thing is, she always seems to know what she’s doing, I mean there aren’t any awkward “what should we do now?” moments. And now I know why.

The Liturgy of the Hours

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

Book of Hours, Paris, c. 1410

One lazy summer afternoon I was sitting on the steps of Sister Alma Rose’s great green wraparound porch half-listening to Sister Alma Rose talking with Father Dooley and his sister Bernadette, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and who is a willowy, fair-haired, freckled young woman who has, as she says, “quite enough money,” and her occupation is Doer of Good Deeds, and she would have become a nun, she told us, but she wanted to get married and have children, which she hasn’t, yet, but she’s only something like twenty-two, so she spends her time visiting the sick and does what she calls “healing prayer work,” and sometimes she takes in the homeless, temporarily, like mothers with children running from an abusive man, that sort of thing, not scary people or drug addicts.

Versicle: Poem on a Stick?

So I’m sitting there, drowsy with the sun and the hum of a summer afternoon, and I perk up when I hear Bernadette say “Compline,” so I get up from the step and go over to the green wicker table and sit in the one vacant green wicker chair and listen to Bernadette talking about the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office, I have no idea why, but Catholics have funny names for everything, like antiphon and breviary and versicle, which is not “a poem on a stick,” as I suggested, and everyone laughed, which was very gratifying because when one thinks that one is being very clever, it’s good to know that others think so too.

The Hours of Jeanne D'Evreaux

The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreaux

I think that everyone was surprised by my fascination with such a dry subject as the Divine Office, which I had thought was something from long ago… well, which it is, but it is still practiced, or “celebrated,” as Father Dooley says, and he as a priest is obligated to “celebrate” the Liturgy of the Hours, but it is a joy to him, he says, and Bernadette also “celebrates” the Liturgy of the Hours, and Sister Alma Rose says that her daily prayer times are “based on” the Liturgy of the Hours. “Fanny McElroy,” she says, “y’all have been celebrating it with me for years,” and then she laughs and pours me a glass of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade.

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1410

Sister Alma Rose is not Catholic (she has referred to herself as “a Christian Jewish Buddhist,” probably offending adherents of all three religions, but she doesn’t mind — like J. Krishnamurti, she doesn’t mind much of anything, she says, and she is certainly the most serene person I have ever known, though in a crisis she becomes very exercised and shouts prayers to Heaven).

I am not a Catholic either, but there are many things I like about Catholicism, and here is one of them: For two thousand years or so, in spite of corruption and scandal and competition from other religions, and popes who had mistresses and children, and bishops who plotted royal assassinations, and so forth, the Catholic Church has inspired, comforted, counseled, educated, and healed. Irish monks preserved the knowledge from Roman and Greek antiquity by copying a huge lot of documents by hand (read How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, by Thomas Cahill).

Sister Alma Rose has told me about the vile perverted priests who prey on young boys, but I don’t think that those sick men’s transgressions erase all the good that the church has done. And I love the idea of Confession, and the Rosary, and having one’s own personal saint, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, with her woman’s wisdom and her tender heart, and, of course, the Liturgy of the Hours. And, basically, that Catholic worship has gone on uninterrupted for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Some facts about the Liturgy of the Hours

So I ask a thousand questions, and here is some of what I find out about the Divine Office:

It sprang from Jewish prayer practices (“Seven times a day I praise you,” it says in the Psalms)

It began rather simply, with reading or chanting psalms; reading from the Old Testament, the  Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and epistles; and canticles, which are basically hymns from the Bible but not usually from the psalms.

By the end of the fifth century, the Canonical Hours were — and this is a lot of praying and involves getting up in the middle of the night

  • Matins (during the night), sometimes referred to as Vigils or Nocturns, or in monastic usage the Night Office; it is now called the Office of Readings
  • Lauds or Dawn Prayer (at Dawn)
  • Prime or Early Morning Prayer (First Hour = 6 a.m.)
  • Terce (rhymes with “purse”) or Mid-Morning Prayer (Third Hour = 9 a.m.)
  • Sext (rhymes with “next”) or Midday Prayer (Sixth Hour = 12 noon)
  • None (rhymes with “John”?) or Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Ninth Hour = 3 p.m.)
  • Vespers or Evening Prayer (“at the lighting of the lamps”)
  • Compline (KOM-plin) or Night Prayer (before retiring)

Wow! Don’t you love it that the time for Vespers is “at the lighting of the lamps”?

The complete Liturgy of the Hours is contained in the Roman Breviary. Most of the pictures on this page are from personal breviaries made for wealthy people in the Middle Ages.

Très Riches Heures calendar page

Très Riches Heures calendar page

All hours begin with Ps. 69-70 v.2, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me,” and then the doxology:  “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”

The Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer may consist of

  • opening versicle (a short verse said or sung by a priest or minister in public worship and followed by a response from the congregation) or (for morning prayer) the invitatory (Psalm 94)
  • a hymn, composed by the Church
  • two psalms, or parts of psalms with a scriptural canticle. At Morning Prayer, this consists of a psalm of praise, a canticle from the Old Testament, followed by another psalm. At Evening Prayer this consists of two psalms, or one psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle taken from the New Testament.
  • a short passage from scripture
  • a responsory (chant or anthem recited after a reading in a church service) typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
  • a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus [Blessed be]) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat: The “Song of Mary” from the Gospel of Luke, Magnificat anima mea Dominum = My soul doth magnify the Lord) for evening prayer

    Russian Orthodox icon, Zechariah

    Zechariah, Russian Orthodox icon

Nativity from an Antiphon

Nativity from an Antiphon

It looks complicated, doesn’t it? But I have to tell you, it is refreshing and renewing to drop everything at 3 p.m. or whatever because that is the time you have set aside for prayer. And if you’re not Catholic, you can develop your own structure for prayer and praise, as Sister Alma Rose has done, she created a sort of hybrid of the Divine Office, and Father Dooley says that’s fine with him, he encourages everyone to pray in the way that suits them best, as long as there’s no mutilation of poultry and stuff like that.

Well, you can buy the complete Liturgy of the Hours in four volumes for more money than I have in my piggy bank, which last time I counted was $97.13, I am saving for a school trip to walk the Appalachian Trail, but there are less expensive books, such as those that have only the Morning Prayer and the Evening Prayer.

There is much, much more to be told about the subject, but Bernadette had to leave to go back to Grand Rapids and her Good Works, which she does out of love and not to earn points toward Heaven or anything like that. So I will just tell you that I, Fanny, “celebrate” the Hours four times a day using the website DivineOffice.org, which has an audio version with beautiful music, and there are other websites with text versions. Sometimes I pray with Mama, and sometimes with Sister Alma Rose, and sometimes it’s just I, Fanny.

Even if you are not a Christian, you might enjoy this prayer discipline, which is principally made up of psalms anyway, though the references to Jesus Christ Our Savior might make you cringe, I don’t know. What I do know is that I need and enjoy discipline and structure in my prayer life, and for me, Fanny McElroy, the Divine Office is the beginning of that discipline and structure.

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

Chant; Troparion; hook-and-banner notation

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Will Guilt Make You Good? (conclusion)

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Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Every Tiny Leaf

This, as I have said, is a true story, and, as I hope you will recall from Part 1 of this story, because I am NOT not going to explain THE ENTIRE EPISODE all over again, Sister Alma Rose and her friend Elizabeth Anna Stratton (who is 65 years old) and I went to the 7:30 a.m. service at the Presbyterian church last month because Elizabeth Anna is trying to decide whether she wants to come back to Hilltop and live in the wonderful house in the country that she inherited from her parents, who are deceased…

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

…and the minister giving the sermon, who I hope is just an interim minister whose term of service ended yesterday, because if she is not, the only people left at the Presbyterian church are going to be the hard-of-hearing, no disrespect intended, inasmuch as the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell is the kind of minister who preaches austerity out of the left side of her mouth while the right side is practicing conspicuous consumption at Bergdorf Goodman, otherwise maybe I could buy into the guilt trip she was laying on the…

…“complacent middle class,” which is pretty much all of Hilltop — …[while] families are being driven from their homes and living in filthy camps where children starve, and little boys are being abducted to fight in revolutions they don’t understand, and young men and women are smoking crack cocaine, and mothers are selling their daughters into prostitution in exchange for money to feed their addictions

and maybe I could drop everything and go take care of all that, and still arrive before the bell on Monday morning at Hilltop Elementary School, where I am in seventh grade — IF the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell had, herself, not been wearing six or seven hundred dollars on her back and driving a beautifully restored 1957 Thunderbird convertible (for which my own mama would sell ME [but only to the nicest people]), although I suppose it is possible, theoretically, in the Land of the Seriously Deluded, that the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell’s clothes and the car were borrowed and she actually returned them to the borrowee that very morning in exchange for her hairshirt and pack mule.

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Well, we were not questioning the tragedies she spoke of, which are all too real, but after we left the church, Sister Alma Rose was mostly concerned about Elizabeth Anna, who in her youth had suffered what I’m told was called at that time a “nervous breakdown,” brought on by guilt starting when she was a little girl, and prolonged by anxiety that caused her to not speak for six months and to be unable to leave her parents’ house for five years, and for THAT story you can read Part 2, because I am done with the recap that I said I was not going to provide in the first place.

Letters to Vietnam

Elizabeth Anna had invited Sister Alma Rose and me to have lunch at the family home, which I had seen only from the outside, but I had prepared myself to be cool and sophisticated and to not gawk at the seriously fabulous interior, where the first thing we saw was a fountain, the kind you want to throw pennies into, which was covered and surrounded with one-inch ceramic tiles, dark blue and shiny, but I did not gawk, I only gaped, which I was not aware of until drool landed on the toes sticking out of my sandals. I estimate that seventy-five thousand oak trees and three hundred thousand ceramic-tile trees gave their lives for the floors and the wainscoting and the bathrooms, et cetera, in that house that was not so much IMPRESSIVE as it was simply BEAUTIFUL but in a COMFORTABLE way that doesn’t make it feel like a museum but rather like a cozy living space that happened to have cost 78 bazillion dollars to build.

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

During lunch, which I will not even begin to describe… well… no, I won’t even start…. During lunch, Elizabeth Anna told me that Sister Alma Rose had visited her many times while she was housebound, and I interrupted and said, “I’ll just BET she did,” and Sister Alma Rose gave me a Look but Elizabeth Anna just laughed, and went on to say that Sister Alma Rose had told her (which you will know if you know anything about Sister Alma Rose) that every tiny leaf in the universe is necessary and has a purpose, and the tiny leaf is not asked to be a rock or a stream but to do its necessary Leaf Job, and that it is the same with people, and that we must try to find where our Talents and Desires and the Needs of the Universe (which, Sister Alma Rose pointed out, is the same thing as the Will of God, though I am not sure what the antecedent of which is) coincide, so that some people are saxophone players and delight themselves and other people that way, and some people are called to serve the Indigenous People in the Amazon rainforest, and if that is their calling you could not pry them away with, um, whatever large things are out there that are used to pry people away from their calling.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

While Elizabeth Anna was recovering at home, she started writing letters to men and women serving in Vietnam, because the war was going on at that time, and she wrote thousands of letters, she lost count at two thousand, but I don’t mean to say that she wrote to thousands of different people, because many of the letters were sent in reply to those she received, and over and over again the writers told her how much her letters meant to them, that her letters were all they had to look forward to, and it was the knowledge that she was meeting a need AND doing something deeply satisfying that, more than anything else, made it possible for her to think that it was all right for her to be taking up space in the world, breathing air, eating paté, and so forth, and I am joking about the paté, but I was going to say, before I became enamored of my own rapierlike wit, that Elizabeth Anna received several proposals of marriage, all of which she regretfully (as she wrote to her correspondents) declined, because she did not plan ever to marry, and she never has.

A G.I. in Vietnam

A G.I. in Vietnam

Her parents worried that Elizabeth Anna might be plunged back into her depression when, as was inevitable, some of her correspondents were killed, but her Trained Psychiatric Nurse, wonderful Eleanor, told them that it was more likely that Elizabeth Anna would be happy that she was able to help them while they were living, which indeed turned out to be the case, and then Elizabeth Anna wrote letters to their families. Elizabeth Anna told us that sometimes she knew that someone had died, because that person had written regularly and then suddenly stopped, but more often the people whom Elizabeth Anna wrote to had asked a buddy to be sure to write to Elizabeth Anna if  “something should happen” because they wanted her to know that they loved her, in the way that you can love someone who has shared her life with you in letters and has let you share your life with her, and more often than not the “buddy” became Elizabeth Anna’s correspondent.

After the war, people continued to write to her, but she told us she was glad when the letters stopped, because it usually meant that the person had resumed “a meaningful life” back at home, though not always, so Elizabeth Anna always sort of checked in on those who stopped writing to make sure that they weren’t suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Then, for about three years, Elizabeth Anna and Eleanor traveled, visiting the veterans who had become her pen pals who were having a rough time, making sure they were getting good care, which Elizabeth Anna very often paid for herself, partly as a tribute to Eleanor, who had helped her, Elizabeth Anna, so much during the dark night of her soul; and when Elizabeth Anna showed symptoms of making a veteran’s despair her own, she had Eleanor to remind her of what her “boundaries” were, because, as has been said, Elizabeth Anna would be of no use to anyone if she were once again sitting in her bedroom not speaking and eating nothing but Gerber vanilla baby pudding.

Back into the light

After Elizabeth Anna’s father died, she and her mother and Eleanor went to live in Wales, which was something Elizabeth Anna had always wanted to do, and for a while Elizabeth Anna didn’t do any Good Deeds, at least in a scheduled way, the three of them just traveled, touring castles and having picnics in the wonderfully picturesque Welsh countryside, and hiking, and taking a boat to Ireland, et cetera.

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

And Eleanor ended up marrying a Welsh gentleman, who was in business with sheep, I mean, of course, that his business had something to do with sheep, and then Elizabeth Anna’s mother died after an illness of just a few weeks, when she was “in hospital,” as they say in the U.K., and for the next five years Elizabeth Anna stayed in that village, just a five-minute walk from Eleanor, and lived in an old cottage and gardened in the summer, and did whatever it is that Welsh people who live in old cottages do to stay warm in the winter, but, summer and winter, Elizabeth Anna volunteered in that hospital, visiting and talking with people of all ages who were going to die. And if they were afraid, Elizabeth Anna told them that there was nothing to fear, because she, herself, had died and had been for a while in a black tunnel where she could not see anything but the dark, and that the Grace of God had pulled her back into the light, which had been there all along, and then she had never known such joy, and it had never left her.

And now I am afraid that Elizabeth Anna will go back to Wales, because she has Eleanor and many other friends there, but I told her while we were eating lunch that, even in Hilltop, home of the complacent middle class, there are people who are suffering the long, dark night of the soul, but that if she decided to go back anyway, could I live in her house?

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna

* * *

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I, Fanny

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