Instant Tranquilizer

Ground Yourself

Miss Haggarty

Miss Haggarty

Miss Haggarty was in the hospital with spinal meningitis, and Miss Price was not coping well. I didn’t blame her. Miss Haggarty was unconscious and was breathing with the aid of a ventilator. Dr. Deirdre Barstow had told Miss Price that Miss Haggarty’s condition was “dangerous” and that, if she survived, she might be deaf or she might have brain damage. Dr. Deirdre Barstow doesn’t pull her punches.

Miss Price

Miss Price

As I believe I have already said, Miss Haggarty and Miss Price have been together for more than thirty years. Miss Haggarty is calm and rather quiet and very kind, and Miss Price, even though she makes the best cinnamon rolls in the entire world, is something of a bulldozer. Sister Alma Rose says that Miss Price is “all butter inside” and that her tough exterior isn’t her real self, it’s just a tool she uses to get her way, partly because Miss Haggarty is “a marshmallow” and Miss Price thinks she has to take care of her, Miss Haggarty, or she’d be “squished like a bug,” although Sister Alma Rose believes that Miss Haggarty actually is the stronger of the two.

Miss Price had not eaten or slept for two days — she’d been at Miss Haggarty’s bedside ever since Miss Haggarty was admitted to the hospital. She told Dr. Deirdre Barstow that she couldn’t possibly go home, and she refused to take any medicine to calm her down or help her sleep. Finally Dr. Deirdre Barstow told her that her being at the hospital, as agitated as she was, was hurting Miss Haggarty more than it was helping her, and she, Dr. Deirdre Barstow, ORDERED Miss Price to pack a suitcase and stay with Sister Alma Rose while Miss Haggarty was in the hospital.

The Wild Turkey River at sunset

The Wild Turkey River at sunset

Miss Price and Miss Haggarty have known each other all their lives.  Miss Price grew up on the farm that is adjacent to ours on the north, stretching all the way down to the Wild Turkey River, and now the land is farmed by her brother’s family. Miss Haggarty was an only child whose daddy had owned the old Farmer’s State Bank. Her mama and daddy had taken a train trip to some famous canyon in Mexico — it was supposed to be their second honeymoon — and the train had gone off the tracks and just rolled down the mountain and everybody died who was in that train. Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were both in graduate school then, and Miss Price started taking care of Miss Haggarty, and she’s been taking care of her ever since.

The pull of the land

After they earned their master’s degrees, they could have gone anywhere to teach school — certainly at a much higher salary than teachers were paid in Hilltop — but Miss Price said she couldn’t live anywhere else. “It’s the pull of the land,” she would say with a smile when anyone asked why they had come back to this tiny out-of-the-way community, where everybody knew everybody else’s business and where there had been, at one time, a great deal of whispering about Miss Haggarty and Miss Price. But the town had quickly embraced them — they were irresistibly delightful, and besides, they were very fine teachers — and the whispering stopped.

lemons_in_strainerAnd now here was crusty Miss Price on Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green porch, almost hysterical from worry and lack of sleep. It was a splendid evening in mid-June and the sun hadn’t even set when the full moon rose like a huge platter in the eastern sky. I was sitting on the steps and beginning to wonder if I ought to go home and leave Miss Price and Sister Alma Rose alone, but then Mr. Truman LaFollette, obeying whatever telepathy he and Sister Alma Rose use to communicate, brought me a large tumbler of lemonade with fresh lemon slices floating in it and placed glasses of iced tea with lemon slices on the grass-green wicker table in front of both Sister Alma Rose and Miss Price.

Valeriana officinalis (photo by Kurt Stueber)

Valeriana officinalis (photo by Kurt Stueber)

I had heard of “gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands,” but I’d never actually seen anyone do those things until now. I’m sure there were calming herbs in the iced tea — chamomile, certainly, perhaps valerian, and I don’t know what else — because after a bit Miss Price calmed down enough to sob, thoroughly and loudly, but at least she was sitting still and had ceased to gnash.

Cosmos in Sister Alma Rose's flower garden

Cosmos in Sister Alma Rose's flower garden

Finally Sister Alma Rose stood and walked around the table to Miss Price and put her large, gentle hands high on Miss Price’s back, unobtrusively massaging away the tightness of Miss Price’s neck and shoulder muscles. “Lavinia,” she said — “Lavinia” is Miss Price’s first name — “come with me for a minute. I want to show y’all something in the garden before it gets dark.”

I looked at Sister Alma Rose with a question in my eyes, and she nodded slightly, which I understood to be her way of saying that I should follow at a discreet distance. My relationship with Sister Alma Rose has never been easy to explain, but on this particular evening I felt, as I have at other times, that it was in part a sort of apprenticeship and, furthermore, that somehow I became invisible to the people who came to pour their hearts out to Sister Alma Rose.

The beating of the heart of Mother Earth

Hollyhock flowers

Hollyhock flowers

Miss Price had her face buried in her hands, and she shook her head slightly, but Sister Alma Rose has a way of insisting against which there is no defense. Miss Price rose unsteadily out of her chair and, leaning heavily on Sister Alma Rose, allowed herself to be guided to the lovely flower garden in the back of the house.

In the rays of the setting sun, the flowers were neon-bright, and even Miss Price was momentarily awed by the spectacle of wild roses, hollyhocks, chrysanthemums, bachelor’s buttons, and other varieties I couldn’t name. The light breeze carried the sweet scent of honeysuckle that tumbled over the arched trellis. But the sight and scent of such beauty seemed to make Miss Price even more emotional, and her ample torso was soon heaving with sobs again.



Sister Alma Rose steered Miss Price to a small raised bed of violets that encircled an ancient cottonwood. There they rested, and I plopped down on the ground nearby. Miss Price sat in what we used to call Indian style, though I’m not sure if it’s polite to use that expression any more. Miss Price was wearing immaculate khaki pants. She leaned back against the smooth, wide trunk of the cottonwood, and sighed enormously.

Sister Alma Rose was muttering something — prayers, I thought — but she didn’t seem to care if Miss Price could hear her or not. Miss Price sat very still, with her eyes closed, supported by the earth and the tree, and she seemed almost to melt into them and take root herself. There was enchantment in the night air; the moon shone on Miss Price as if to ease away the worry lines on her face.

It was so peaceful. Only crickets broke the silence, and maybe the odd field mouse. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do or of anywhere I’d rather be than sitting on the grass, between the night sky and the cool ground alongside Sister Alma Rose’s fragrant garden. 

“Do y’all hear it?” asked Sister Alma Rose softly after a bit. Miss Price opened her eyes and nodded and smiled.

“What is it?” I asked. “What do you hear?”

Miss Price seemed to notice me for the first time, and she smiled again.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

“Why, Fanny, it’s one of the things we can’t teach you in school.” Her voice was low and soft, but it carried easily through the darkness. “It’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth.”


 “Gounding yourself” before meditating, or as a meditation on its own, can bring instant relief from panic or anxiety. You don’t have to be sitting on the actual GROUND. Sit or lie anywhere that allows you to feel connected to the earth. It’s a little more difficult if you’re in a high-rise penthouse, but it can be done.

Be conscious of how Mother Earth supports you. Relax every muscle and sink into whatever surface you’re sitting or lying on. Many meditators visualize a golden cord that originates high, high above, passes through the body, and pushes itself through to the center of the earth.

On a nice day, in your own yard or in a park, find a tree to lean against and enjoy the sensation of being grounded and supported by the earth. This is an excellent way to “collect yourself” when your thoughts and worries break their restraints and lead you into a fruitless and exhausting cycle of “what ifs” and “if onlys.”

Some meditators let the light from above course through them and “push” their worries and their woes into the ground, where they become compost.

Find a link for grounding meditation on the Zero Gravity website.

Recommended reading

Section 27: A Century on a Family Farm
by Mil Penner
From product review: Smack in the middle of Kansas, Section 27 in McPherson County has been occupied by the Penner family since 1874. Although few of the area’s residents have direct ties to the past, Mil Penner still farms the land that his family has worked for over 125 years. His account of daily life on a Mennonite family farm near Inman. Kansas, retells a universal story of the American heartland sharpened by personal accounts of one family’s enduring relationship to the land.

 * * *

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The Secret Sisterhood of Healing

Laughter is carbonated holiness.Anne Lamott

When Sister Alma Rose was ailing, a dear friend sent her this get-well card. Sister Alma Rose is grateful for deeply spiritual people who do not take themselves too seriously.


Blaise confronting the Roman governor

Blaise confronting the Roman governor

When someone we care about is sick, the Secret Sisterhood of Healing conducts a Healing Ritual.
1. We sit solemnly in a circle with a candle in the center.
2. One of us solemnly lights the candle. 3. The candle solemnly burns. It drips wax on the carpet. That’s what candles do. 4. We extinguish the candle in disgust. Solemnity goes out the window. 5. We join hands and pray — to God, to Jesus, to St. Blaise the Hieromartyr (he is normally in charge of Deliverance from Cattle Plague, but we like his name), to the angels — to Whoever Is On Duty, is the long and short of it.

6. We beg, we bargain, we cajole, we threaten. Then we shut up and listen. Whoever Is On Duty makes small wounds in our hearts so that the love can seep in. Then we pray more, with greater power and not so much whining. 7. Next comes the ritual Casserole-Baking, involving expensive organic ingredients like wild barley from the mountainsides of Tibet, etc., plus exotic and hideous mushrooms from Madame Sasha’s Hideous Mushroom Emporium, kosher lentils, special healing garlic (or else hyacinth bulbs, we cannot tell them apart), etc. After we bake the “casserole” in a 520-degree oven for 47.5 minutes, as prescribed in the ancient Ritual Casserole Cookbook, the bottom half-inch looks like volcanic rock.

Exotic Mushroom

Exotic Mushroom

8. So we have the ritual Throwing of the Casserole into the Dumpster. No one ever receives one of our casseroles. They are for Ritual Scorching and Discarding only, as a kind of purging of our spirits, to make our prayers more pure and loving. It didn’t start out that way, but it’s how we justify the expense…. 9. Then we have the ritual Sacrifice of the Sacramental Wine, which is a closely guarded secret. Dynamite Cabernet, incidentally, by the by, à propos of nothing, is a lovely, mellow dry red, sinfully smooth.* 10. The more beloved our heal-ee, the greater the Sacrifice of the Sacramental Wine. In your case, all the Sisters fell asleep on the floor, waking now and again to pray quite fervently, speaking in tongues or moaning in agony, we are never sure. 11. Our good friend the Rev. Bruce Hurley once told us that God Sorts Out Our Prayers. We certainly hope and trust that this is the case. 12. From that day forward we hold you in our hearts and pray unceasingly that you will be blessed with joy, peace, and glowing good health.


With much love, on behalf of the Sisterhood…


* Two-Buck Chuck is an economical and tasty alternative.

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Good Vibrations

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The essence of meditation is also the essence of art. —Claudio Naranjo

Meditation and music cannot be separated.Sri Chinmoy

The essence of sound healing is the re-tuning of the human instrument, correcting at whatever level those frequencies, which have become weakened or gone out of tune. This is done on the basis of resonance, be it sympathetic vibrations or the power of forced resonance. Basically, whatever part of us that is ailing can be awakened by harmonious sound sources and remember at what frequency it should be vibrating. This can occur at the physical level (from cells to muscles to organs), the subtle level (changing negative psychology), and the causal level (create permanent positive changes in one’s nature). James D’Angelo, in “Healing Vibrations”

Meditate with Frequency

Dear Sister Alma Rose – My meditation teacher says that we should not listen to music while meditating. Yet there are hundreds of “meditation music” CDs out there. I do not have a quiet place to meditate – I live in a noisy part of a noisy city – so I like to listen to music when I meditate. What do you think? -Musically Inclined in Muskegon

Dear MIM – Sister Alma Rose has found that meditation, with all its meanings and misleadings, can seem exceedingly complicated. But it is very simple, actually. When y’all meditate, y’all are surrendering yourself to the flow of the river of life, the waters from the divine Source.

Kobe Bryant — In a Zone

Kobe Bryant — In a Zone

Whatever the reason for meditating – to relax, to reduce blood pressure, to quit smoking or using strong drink – the meditation itself is supposed to be done without expectation. Y’all are not to be thinking, oh, goody, I’m lowering my blood pressure, I’m making myself healthier, and et cetera. In meditation, we let go of all thought, and simply ride on the breath; or, in some traditions, we watch our thoughts and feelings drift by, observe them, and know that they are not us. They are, as Eckhart Tolle explains, “content,” not “essence,” and deep meditation reveals to us the secret, essential self, the soul, the inner light.

Y’all’s meditation teacher might suggest that y’all get yourself some of them fancy headphones that block out sound or play “white noise,” or that y’all listen to recorded nature sounds (rain, birdsong, the surf, and et cetera) while meditating.

There is some music whose purveyors claim is scientifically engineered to produce alpha brain waves. The alpha state “is the state of brain activity characterized by waves ranging from 8 to 13 cycles per second. Resembling a light trance, it is the condition one experiences during meditation, daydreaming, just prior to sleep (hypnagogic), and just after waking (hypnopompic).” (New Age Glossary)

Alpha state brainwaves are slower then beta (our active state) and the frequency ranges from 8 to 14 cycles per second. It is a state of “aware relaxation” and it brings numerous advantages:

  • calms your body and mind while it maintains alertness
  • stimulates imagination, intuition and higher awareness
  • creates detachment from the outcome and increases dowsing accuracy
  • improves your mental processes – concentration, clarity of thinking, decision making, memory
  • frees up more of your potential and helps you achieve your goals in life
  • allows you to sleep better, fall asleep easily, stay asleep right through the night

Some meditation practitioners, in the Buddhist lineages particularly, might say that listening to music is antithetical to meditation… that music induces an “artificial” sense of well-being, freeing us from the need to peel off the layers of “content” to reach the “essence.”

So let’s not listen to them.

Buddhist Gardens

Buddhist Gardens

Sister Alma Rose is not saying that they are wrong. In fact, meditation is a means of being “present,” of “living in the moment,” that at some point becomes a way of life, so that y’all are at peace in any situation, and not all situations evolve in the presence of soul-stirring music. Sister Alma Rose is sure that Kobe Bryant is utterly and completely “present” — “in the zone,” Sister Alma Rose believes is the expression —when he is hitting three-pointers with ease and grace, but Kobe Bryant does not demonstrate ease and grace in every circumstance.

It was hypothesized, at one time, that LSD was a viable shortcut to ecstasy. Look how well that worked out. On the other hand,

peyote [has been] used for 10,000 years as an Indian religious sacrament.

Peyote–officially known to botanists as Lophophora williamsii–grows naturally only in… four counties [in Texas]…. For non-Indians, possession is illegal and punishable by stiff narcotics laws. But the religious use of peyote is allowed for members of the Native American Church, a pan-tribal religion derived from the practices of native peoples who inhabited what is now southern Texas and northern Mexico.

The peyote church, as it is sometimes called, began to spread through Indian country in the late 1870s. Adherents eat peyote in a powdery form or drink it in tea during communal sessions that last from evening until dawn. Members of the 400,000-member church do not report feeling a high–pharmacologists say actual hallucinations are uncommon–but rather a period of intense inward reflection. “To me it’s a medicine,” says Earl Arkinson, the church president, a Chippewa-Cree Indian from Montana who is a police chief in his other life. “It’s a spiritual feeling.”

Peyote cactus in the wild

Peyote cactus in the wild

Sister Alma Rose is not – let’s be crystal clear, here – not advocating the use of LSD, peyote (members of the Native American Church excepted), or any other drug – natural or synthetic, legal or illegal. With LSD, y’all are more likely to see y’all’s eyeballs in the sink than to find peace and serenity. Sister Alma Rose knows of what she speaks. In fact, Sister Alma Rose has digressed egregiously from the original point, which was the use of music in meditation.

Sister Alma Rose agrees with James D’Angelo when he says that “if the universe is [a]… finely tuned multitude of vibration frequencies, then using the principle of ‘as above, so below,’ each of us is the same…. The essence of sound healing is the re-tuning of the human instrument, correcting at whatever level those frequencies which have become weakened or gone out of tune.”

So let us say that listening to certain types of music in a meditative way is form of meditation or an alternative to meditation. Sister Alma Rose enjoys meditating to the music of two composers in particular: Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and Kitarō.

  • Get y’alls self comfortable and relax thoroughly. Sister Alma Rose relaxes her skin, muscles, internal organs, and bones, bit by bit, from the scalp down by imagining that she is lying in the sun and her body is like warm butter. This metaphor may bring to mind the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy throws water on her in the Wizard of Oz movie – “I’m melting, I’m melting.” Please do not think of Sister Alma Rose in those terms. Sister Alma Rose will know, and she will send flying monkeys after y’all.
  • Meditate in silence for a few minutes, focusing on your breathing and relaxing a little more with every “out” breath.
  • Turn on your music – Sister Alma Rose uses headphones – and tune y’all’s body to its vibrations. (See “Make a Habit of It.”)
  • Imagine y’all’s body as a big symphony hall, or, better yet, an outdoor amphitheater, that “contains” the music. Ideally, y’all will have a sense of your body expanding and growing lighter as the music fills it and merges with the “vibration frequencies” of the universe.
  • …Or simply inhale the harmony and beauty, and exhale discord….
Y’all might find that y’all have a tendency to breathe in rhythm with the music. If the music is very fast, y’all could just about hyperventilate, and if it’s too slow, y’all might turn blue. So choose music that isn’t veryveryfast or v-e-r-y s-l-o-w, and breathe naturally.

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Of Kabbalah and Kings

The Power to Change the Universe

Rabbi Isaac Luria

Rabbi Isaac Luria 1534-1572

The most influential teacher of Kabbalah was undoubtedly Rabbi Isaac Luria [1534-1572]. According to Luria, things went terribly awry at the moment of creation. The world we live in, he said, is made of the fragments of the universe that God had intended to create, but which literally burst while He was assembling it. Some of these shards still carry traces of the divine light. So long as they are polluted by matter, those sparks are the source of evil….

In Luria’s teachings, the Jewish ethical obligation to purify oneself and “repair the world” (known as tikkun olam) was taken literally. Every good deed [mitzvah] that a Jew committed, every mandated prayer and ritual obligation that he or she performed, each of the 613 Torah commandments fulfilled, freed one of those stray sparks from the gross, corrupting matter it was trapped in and returned it to God, purging a little bit of evil from the world…. Prayer and observance were not just passive gestures of piety and obedience; they were part of the divine work of creation — they had the power to change the universe. The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, by Arthur Goldwag, p. 11

MITZVAH (plural MITZVOT) — literally “commandment,” that is, the law commanded by God. Throughout the ages the term has also come to mean “good deed,” since by definition everything God commands is for the good of the people. —, accessed September 27, 2008

Have you mitzvah’ed today?

Random Card of Kindness #1, front

Sister Alma Rose don’t know if Creation happened exactly like Rabbi Luria figured it. She don’t much care. She wasn’t there at the time, at least not in her current form. She’s here now, though, and pretty dang pleased about it, all in all.

But she loves the idea of the mitzvah: purifying oneself and repairing the world. Small and large acts of kindness — making phone calls to ailing friends, sending Random Cards of Kindness * to people in the military and folks at random (Sister Alma Rose picks them from the phone book), sitting in her grass-green rocker on the spacious grass-green-painted porch of the big house at Hilltop Farm and listening to people pour out their troubles, praying for the sick and the bereaved — these have “the power to change the universe.”

You don’t have to be a Kabbalist to perform a mitzvah every day. Make a big pot of Sister Alma Rose’s special Mitzvah Soup and give it to someone you love. **

Mitzvah Soup

I call this “Mitzvah Soup” because it is full of healing, so taking a quart of it to a sick friend is a satisfying mitzvah. I also call it “Kitchen Sink Soup” because you can throw in Everything but the Kitchen Sink. It’s a good recipe for when you’re cleaning out your refrigerator and freezer.

Random Card of Kindness #1, inside

Random Card of Kindness #1, inside

Ingredients (quantities are approximate)

  • 1 to 2 cups dried beans. You can use any combination of navy, kidney, and pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and black beans. Go light on the black beans; they have a strong flavor and can make the soup look like mud. If you use split peas or lentils, add them later; they cook more quickly than the beans and get mushy.
  • 1/2 cup wild rice (white and brown rice get mushy too)
  • 4 or more skinless, boneless chicken or turkey breasts. The very best are Schwan’s frozen mesquite chicken breasts. I thaw and lightly brown them in the microwave, then cut to bite-size.
  • 3 to 4 cups frozen, fresh, or canned mixed vegetables. If canned, use the liquid too. I usually use whatever I have around. One medium-size potato, scrubbed, unpeeled, and cubed thickens the soup. Zucchini, celery, green beans, corn, peas, and other mild-tasting vegetables are good. Snow peas add a nice texture. Use broccoli sparingly if at all. Too many carrots can overpower the flavor as well. I’ve used spinach chopped very small (otherwise it looks like seaweed), a tomato… anything that doesn’t have a strong taste (I find beets, cabbage, eggplant, and yams much too strong).
  • Dried chicken broth, enough for 3 quarts of soup. I use “Better than Bouillon,” which is kind of a paste and has to be refrigerated after it’s opened.
  • 1 small chopped white or yellow onion, raw or, better, sautéed in olive oil.
  • Garlic. I use a couple of small cloves or about two teaspoons of the kind that comes in a jar.
  • Seasonings: You shouldn’t need to add salt. A handful of Trader Joe’s 21-Seasoning Salute is perfect; otherwise, I use lots of black pepper, a dash of cayenne, sweet basil, and a couple of bay leaves. Also: parsley, chili powder, cumin, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of cloves, a pinch of dried rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, and a tablespoon of brown sugar or honey.
  • Nice to add if you have them: chopped mushrooms, leeks, green and red pepper, barley, chopped fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, and lemon balm, a splash of liquid mesquite flavoring


Cover the beans with water, bring to a boil, let boil for 2 minutes, then soak (covered) for 2 hours or overnight. I add a teaspoon of baking soda when I set the beans aside to soak to make the beans less gas-inducing.

peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas

Mixed legumes: peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas

Drain and rinse the beans well and rinse out the kettle. Put the beans back in the kettle with about 3 quarts of water. Add the chicken broth, the chicken in bite-size pieces, the rice, the onions and garlic, and the seasonings. Simmer (covered) for an hour.

Add the vegetables, chopped, and simmer for another hour or until the vegetables are tender and the soup has thickened a bit. If the flavor isn’t as full as you like it, try adding more Worcestershire sauce or chicken broth.

The quantities, as I said, are approximate. It’s hard to make a mistake. Just keep tasting it and add this or that till you’re satisfied. My biggest flops have come from an excess of carrots, broccoli, or black beans.

Mitzvah Soup

Mitzvah Soup

Prayer Soup

Cooking for someone you love is a sacred thing. Think of it as a prayer ritual. Start with gratitude — for your family, or the friend you’re helping to heal; for the bounty and your ability to put it to good purpose; for good smells and tastes and for variety.

Pray for your friend’s health as you add ingredients:

Garlic, leeks, and onions are high in flavonoidsphytochemicals for healthy cholesterol levels. Highly colored vegetables are rich in other phytochemicals with benefits including cancer prevention. Parsley and peppers are high in vitamin C. Rosemary is said to aid memory. Dried beans, peas, and lentils are little jewels of nutrition. With little or no fat and no cholesterol, they are rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, iron, and folate. Research suggests they reduce “bad” cholesterol, help prevent certain cancers, and normalize blood sugar. Tomatoes get their red color from lycopene, which is cancer-protective. Chicken and beans supply protein, which, along with complex carbohydrates, provide sustained energy. Turkey contains a substance that can ease depression.

There’s so much more! I haven’t even started on mushrooms. Plus this soup tastes great! Thank you, God. Amen. Let’s eat! —from Unfamiliar Territory, by Mary Campbell, 2006 ***

* Shameless self-promotion

** Sister Alma Rose does not mean to trivialize Kabbalah, the centuries of scholarship it represents, or the intricacies of its practice. She is well aware that taking an eggplant casserole, no matter how lovingly prepared, to a new neighbor is not, in the strictest sense, a mitzvah. She is fairly sure that there is nothing in the Torah about eggplant. She hopes she will be forgiven for taking a page, as it were, from the Zohar and embracing the concept that acts of kindness and self-purification do, indeed, change the universe.

*** More shameless self-promotion

Sunset over Padre Island, 1974 (National Park Service)

Sunset over Padre Island, 1974 (National Park Service)






Dear Sister Alma Rose — Our church has replaced all our hymnals with new gender-neutral ones. “King of glory” has become “clothed in glory,” and nowhere will you find the word Lord, not even in “Holy, holy, holy; Lord God Almighty.” Now it’s “God the Almighty.” Even in the responsive readings, the words Him and He have been replaced with God, as in Psalm 11: “God provides food for those who fear God; God is ever mindful of God’s covenant. God has shown God’s people the power of God’s works,…” and so on, and so on, and so-frigging-ON. Plus, they excised all the thees and thous, and then the hymns don’t rhyme and they think up stupid new words. How do you feel about this? —Politically Incorrect on Padre Island

Dear P.I. — Sister Alma Rose feels that you should praise God for Padre Island and not worry about too much else.


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We Meet the Blood Brother of Jesus

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On the way to town

On the way to town

A Walk into Town

This morning I got up early and went across the street to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse because we had planned to walk into town. She had made cheese omelets and fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee for our breakfast, and as we sat down to eat, the sun was clearing the long row of poplars east of the house, and I waited for Sister Alma Rose to say a prayer, as she always does, and this is what she said this morning:

This is the day that You, our Creator, have made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Thank you for air to breathe and water to drink and bread on the table. That is enough, for us, for today. Praise the Great Source of all life, of all universes, who pours forth love. Amen.


Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm

Now, when Sister Alma Rose meets someone for the first time, she always says, “How do you do? I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm”—using all her names, you see, like in the Middle Ages when people said, “How, now! I am Will the Wainwright from the Swampy Glen, forsooth.” And folks would call him “Will Wright” or “Will O’Glen” or something, to distinguish him from Will the Cooper from the New Town on the Southern Bank of the River Muddlebury….

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose is rather prim in the matter of introductions, but she manages to be gracious and warm at the same time. I introduced her to Daddy’s Auntie Pru—or, rather, I introduced Auntie Pru to Sister Alma Rose, because Sister Alma Rose is the elder of the two—one rainy morning on Sister Alma Rose’s big wraparound porch.

Sister Alma Rose extended her strong, capacious right hand and closed it firmly around Auntie Pru’s small, bony one, and then Sister Alma Rose placed her left hand on top of their clasped hands and squeezed, causing Auntie Pru to wince, and it looked for all the world like a Venus flytrap devouring a moth.

Then Sister Alma Rose smiled, and the rain stopped and the sun came out. I am perfectly serious.

“How do you do?” she said. “I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm,” which Auntie Pru already knew because I had just said so.

Cucumber Sandwiches

Cucumber sandwiches, Yum! Image by pirate johnny via Flickr

But when Sister Alma Rose and I are chatting comfortably, after lunching on cucumber sandwiches made with barley bread and cream cheese, perhaps, on that wonderful porch, with its floor of wide wooden planks painted gray and with sky-blue soffit as the ceiling, she might say, “Sister Alma Rose has some cold lemonade in the icebox [she’s never gotten used to saying refrigerator] and I think there’s just enough for the two of us.”

That’s the shortest her name gets: “Sister Alma Rose.” Nobody would dream of calling her “Sister Alma” or just “Alma” or “Alma Rose” or, Heaven forbid, “Rosie.”

A lot of kids ask me about Sister Alma Rose

“Fanny McElroy,” they say, “is ‘Rosalie’ Sister Alma Rose’s last name? What does she look like up close? Is she really, really old and wrinkled? Is she rich?

“Why does she always wear those big dresses?” they want to know. “Who takes care of the farm? Is it that giant? Is he her boy friend? Is Sister Alma Rose Portia’s mama? Where does Portia go when she goes away?”

I usually say, “Why don’t you go call on Sister Alma Rose yourself? She’ll give you fresh-squeezed lemonade, and you can see what she looks like and maybe you’ll meet Mr. Truman LaFollette, who is Portia’s daddy. Ask him to say, ‘Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum,’ if you like. And if you are feeling extremely rude, you can ask how old Sister Alma Rose is and how much money she has and where she gets it.”

Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm

Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm

But they don’t go — not yet — though Sister Alma Rose is almost always sitting on her wraparound porch in a big wicker rocking chair painted grass-green, the same color as the green shutters on the enormous white house her grandfather built (the shutters that Mr. Truman LaFollette took down to paint and never put back up), the same color as the wrought-iron rail around the widow’s walk at the very top of the very tall house on the crest of the long hill that starts its upward course at the Wild Turkey River.

If Sister Alma Rose doesn’t have a visitor, she knits or crochets, and she reads a lot of books about geography and anthropology. She is fascinated by people who live in faraway jungles and on islands where life hasn’t changed for hundreds and hundreds of years.

The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch

The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch

But often she just sits and gazes contentedly at the countryside, a queen surveying her realm, as if God made the rich, rolling farmland and the slate-blue bluffs, the foothills covered with wild clover and goldenrod, the creek and the frogs and the clear blue pond, all just for her; and she smiles her gratitude.*

A Walk into Town

One hazy summer morning, when it was still cool but the air was heavy and promised afternoon heat, Sister Alma Rose and I walked into Hilltop early, just as the shops were opening. It is a downhill walk to get there, so of course it is uphill all the way home, and I was already looking forward to lemonade and canasta on Sister Alma Rose’s porch.

Ning's magical pathway

Ning's magical pathway

Sister Alma Rose was going to buy tang kuei from her friend Ninghong, though Sister Alma Rose calls her “Jia Ning.” I don’t know why. Ning sells Chinese food and herbs out of the front room of her house on Poplar Street. It is one of the oldest and loveliest houses in Hilltop, but it might have been built yesterday, as sturdy and neat as it is. The tiny front yard is planted entirely in flowers—deep-coral hibiscus, white oleander, pink roses, yellow and red hollyhocks, and honeysuckle and orange trumpet vines draped over twin arches next to twin weeping willows that shade the large porch. In stark contrast, the house is a delicate eggshell shade, inside and out. The porch is cluttered with old-fashioned white-enameled outdoor furniture—a glider and chairs with deep-red cushions, and small café tables. On this particular morning, a man is sitting on the glider, singing to himself. He stops singing to smile at us, and his smile is sweet and warm, despite the conspiculous paucity of teeth.

We open the front door, with its lovely oval of etched glass, and a bell tinkles. Ning is in the front room opening cartons with a box-cutter and setting the contents—bright yellow boxes of tea—on tidy shelves. Ning’s front room is one of my favorite rooms in all the world. The tall, narrow windows on three walls are open, and there is a heady mix of fragrances—the ginger and the teas and a breath of honeysuckle on the damp breeze. The wide-planked pine floor is polished like the surface of a lake.

Ginger root

Ginger root

Ning emerges from behind the huge pine counter, as shiny as the floor, and squeezes my cheeks between her small, strong hands, kissing my forehead. “Good morning, sweet Fanny McElroy,” she says in unaccented English. Sister Alma Rose has told me that Ning was born in Hilltop, but the two of them always converse in Chinese—Mandarin, I think. Sister Alma Rose takes Ning’s little hands in hers, and I wince, as I always do, expecting to hear the crunch of bones, but Ning only laughs delightedly.

The bell rings again, and we turn to see Ning’s mama holding the door open while Ning’s grandmama shuffles in, leaning heavily on a shiny black cane and smiling. I couldn’t say, precisely, but I think that Ning’s grandmama has just a few more teeth than the man on the porch. Ning’s mama is carrying a box, and when she sets it on the counter I see that it is filled with dozens of small drawstring bags made from colorful fabrics—purple, red, green, and yellow, some flowered, some striped.

Ning is out of tang kuei, but her nephew will deliver it to Sister Alma Rose tomorrow. Ning and her mama and grandmama and Sister Alma Rose chatter for a bit in Chinese, and then Sister Alma Rose takes my arm and guides me to the door, and I turn and say zàijiàn, which means “goodbye” and which is the only thing I know how to say in Chinese, and Sister Alma Rose smiles her approval, and then we are on the porch.

The man with the missing teeth is still sitting on the glider. He is wearing what looks like a basketball uniform, dark green, and his skin is a dusky black. He smiles at us, and we smile back. I notice that the whites of his eyes are mottled with red and that the hand he raises in greeting is unsteady.

“Do you have a dollar for me today?” he asks. At least I think that’s what he is saying, but he has a thick accent and his speech is as unsteady as his hand. Sister Alma Rose reaches into her pocket and pulls out two quarters, places them into his hand, and then takes both of his hands and squeezes them, as is her way. I have a quarter and a dime in my coin purse, and I give them to him, and he holds onto my hand for a moment and looks deep into my eyes and says, “I am the blood brother of Jesus. Do you see the blood in my eyes? That is Jesus’ blood.” At least I think that’s what he is saying.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons

“God bless you, then,” I say politely, and then Sister Alma Rose and I begin our trek up the hill toward home and Mr. Truman LaFollette’s lovely lemonade. It is already uncomfortably warm.

“Sister Alma Rose,” I say, “do you know that man? What does he mean, he is the blood brother of Jesus?”

She only smiles, so I go on, “Do you think he is a toper?” That’s what Uncle Lester calls someone who drinks too much alcohol. “Should we have given him the money? Maybe he’ll spend it on liquor.”

Sister Alma Rose takes my hand, gently, for a change. “God tells us to give to the poor, Fanny. It is between them and God what they do with what we give them.

“I have seen this man before. He is from Ethiopia, and he has had much trouble. It is good that he can smile. It is good that people smile back. A great deal is exchanged in smiles from the heart, Miss Fanny.”

“But what did he mean,” I persist, “when he said he is the blood brother of Jesus? Can that be true?”

“Well, Fanny,” says Sister Alma Rose, “it is not a lie. That I can tell y’all. But it is a mystery. Not all angels have wings.”

She is quiet for a moment. Then she says, in her teacher voice, “Did y’all know, Fanny, that everyone on earth is your relative? We are all at least fiftieth cousins. And did y’all know that, in no more than one year, y’all breathe in oxygen atoms that have been in the lungs of everyone alive and everyone who has ever lived?” **

We walked the rest of the way to Sister Alma Rose’s front porch in silence. Sister Alma Rose might be my twenty-ninth cousin three times removed, I thought. And perhaps the man on Ning’s porch is an angel of God.


* From The Ancients, Part 1: Daddy Pete, by Mary Campbell
** From the 2005 book Pronoia, by Rob Brezsny


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AARP Says ‘Drink More Coffee’

Great book! Available on or contact

AARP Says Drink More Coffee

(AARP, January-February 2007 issue, p. 40)

The steaming cup that wakes you up can also keep you healthy. Research shows that coffee protects against a variety of ailments from cavities to colon cancer. And some studies suggest that the more you drink, the better. The beverage lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes and can protect your liver from damage, too. Caffeine gets the credit for some of coffee s magic powers, including protection against Parkinson s disease and gallstones. But coffee s main benefit comes from its wealth of antioxidants. In fact, the coffee bean, which is technically a berry, has one of the highest antioxidant contents of all berries, says Tomas de Paulis, Ph.D., formerly of the Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies. That s why, drop for drop, coffee has more of these nutrients than even red wine. If you have osteoporosis, be sure to follow your doctor s advice for calcium supplementation, because in some studies, coffee drinking has raised the risk of bone fractures.

Wednesday January 3, 2007 – 03:49pm (PST) Edit | Delete | Comments: 1


Do You Have a Code? Sister Alma Rose Q & A


Q. Dear Sister Alma Rose–I am self-employed and work at home. Because I am a night owl, my workday begins at about 10 p.m., and I usually turn in between 8 and 10 a.m. The problem is, I don’t know what to wear. I mean, should I work in pajamas and then change into daytime clothes for… well, you know, for daytime? Or should I just wear sweats all the time, day and night? Here’s another thing: I don’t know when to eat breakfast. I mean, it’s not like anyone else would know, but it just feels funny having baked salmon and creamed spinach while the Today show is on. –Signed, Pale and Wan in Oregon

A. Dear PWO–Sister Alma Rose thinks you should get out more. It doesn’t matter what your dress code is, as long as you have one. Otherwise you’ll find yourself wearing the same set of sweats day after day, night after night… losing track of the hours, the weeks, the months… letting the mail and the newspapers pile up… neglecting your friends and family… slithering around in caves and lagoons looking for your ”Pretty”….

If you had any kind of social life, you wouldn’t need to ask Sister Alma Rose what to wear, or when to have baked salmon versus Malt-O-Meal. She suspects that once you have restored some balance to your life, these little matters will resolve themselves and you can apply your energy to things that matter, such as world hunger.


Sister Alma Rose does not recommend wearing Levi’s to bed, especially if you sleep on your stomach. You’ll end up with a permanent Levi’s-button indentation in your stomach. Nor should you don professional office attire, such as a natty little black suit and pumps with three-inch heels, when you’re working at home at 4 a.m. Your clients are unlikely to pop by and besides, Sister Alma Rose believes that pantyhose should never, ever be worn, including at gunpoint.

Friday November 24, 2006 – 11:42am (PST) Edit | Delete | Comments: 0


Sister Alma Rose Q & A: Gotta Dance!


Q. Dear Sister Alma Rose I take tap-dancing lessons once a week. I have now missed three lessons in a row. Even when I plan my entire week around this one lesson, I just don’t get there. Not only do I feel that this is rude and disrespectful to my instructor, and that I am missing out on something I really enjoy, I also know that my instructor feels that I am a very promising dancer. She has told me that my dancing puts her in mind of Savion Glover had he been born “stiff, uncoordinated, and a different species, e.g., tortoise or bison.” I hope you can help! Sincerely, Uncoordinated in Utah

A. Dear UIU Did she really say “e.g.”?

Q. Of course not! Nobody has said “e.g.” since Tiberius! “E.g.” is Latin!

A. Sister Alma Rose is sorry to hear that you are having difficulty meeting your goals. She assumes that you have ruled out the more obvious explanations for your lethargy, e.g.

  • Anemia due to blood loss as a result of having been run through with a bayonet
  • Coma as a result of, in spite of the WARNING on the bottles, mixing chlorine bleach, ammonia, and other cleaning products “just to see what happens”

If you have eliminated these possibilities and you get plenty of sleep; eat seven servings of terrible-tasting vegetables per day such as brussels sprouts; ingest no lactose, fructose, glucose, sucrose, or anything else ending in “-ose” (e.g., mangose); go for a brisk 45-minute walk twice a day; are “regular” in your “hygiene”; meditate often and practice yoga, imaging, receptiveness, gratitude, and breathing; and are experiencing absolutely no stress Sister Alma Rose would say you are just lazy.


Please do not think Sister Alma Rose is unsympathetic. She understands that one’s self-esteem is inversely proportional to the gap between one’s intentions and one’s success at fulfilling them, although in her case this “gap” is purely hypothetical. This is especially true if these “intentions” involve commitments to others.

Sister Alma Rose’s advice, for the moment, is that you reexamine your general health, double-checking for, e.g., bayonets and coma under the supervision of a board-certified physician. Meanwhile, avoid making commitments. If you are invited to a party or asked to take on a task, reply by saying, “Perhaps,” or, “We’ll just have to see.” You could smile in a dreamy, mysterious way, as if it is not you but the Demigods of the Sky and the River that will determine where you will be at any given point in time. (Practice doing this in a mirror until you can do it with assurance or you might alarm your children, who will teach you a new definition of the word commitment.)

Friday November 10, 2006 – 12:23pm (PST) Edit | Delete | Comments: 0



Birthday Berry Protocol

Sister Alma Rose Q & A

Q. Dear Sister Alma Rose–I know you have answered this question many times before. I apologize for bothering you with it again, especially since it is the type of thing that is never likely to happen to me or anyone I know… but just in case, and purely hypothetically:

If someone who is lovely, delightful, and charming–your daughter, for example–comes to visit you on your birthday along with, oh, say, her husband and four children, your brother, and a close friend… and she brings you a large, luscious birthday cake laden with cream cheese and raspberries… and she serves you a massive piece of this cake and leaves three huge pieces in your refrigerator… and everyone sings “Happy Birthday,” and you blow out imaginary candles because the relevant number of real candles would require six cakes of comparable size plus the entire surface of a grand piano… and after a lovely birthday celebration everyone leaves and you promptly eat the three “extra” pieces of cake, which, inasmuch as you have never experienced anything as tasty and delectable as this cake, merely serve as an appetizer…

If, in the unlikely event something like this should happen to you, wouldn’t you disown your daughter and cut her out of your will and spread malicious gossip about her and go to her house at midnight and run the garden hose into the basement window and turn it on full blast (for starters), and put up a sign by the window announcing “Spider Jubilee Tonight”– in retribution for her not having left you the entire cake and possibly a second backup cake, inasmuch as it was, after all, your birthday, even if she had given you as a birthday present two tickets to “An Evening with David Sedaris,” which you went to, even though you were very put out with your (hypothetical) daughter, because “An Evening with David Sedaris” is at least ten thousand times more enjoyable than “An Evening of Flying to Paris on Your Own Personal Jet with Richard Gere and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a Ten-Thousand-Dollar Gift Certificate Redeemable at Any Parisian Retail Establishment”?

A. Yes