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Workshop_of_Filippo_Lippi_-_Madonna_and_Child_-_1446-1447

Madonna and Child, Filippo Lippi and Workshop, 1447-1448

Meditation for the Fourteenth Day of Lent

This day I will be smarter than I was the day before.
I will learn about Colombia or Filippo Lippi or
Frederick Douglass or the Great Barrier Reef, and I
will study how to open up my heart.

This day I will be kinder than I was the day before. I
will not say Perhaps I should…. No, I shall do.
Somebody needs what I can give: a smile, but not
just that; a call, but more than that; a mitzvah, and
another. I will go to see my sister and will wrap her
in my arms and say I love you fifty times.

This day I will be stronger than I was the day
before. I shall lunch on crisp romaine and grated
cheddar cheese and pomegranate juice, with
butterscotch pudding for dessert, and I will walk a
mile no matter if it snows.

This day I will listen to more music—Aaron
Copland’s Saturday Night Waltz plays on the radio
as I write—and I will contemplate chords and
arpeggios and the key of B flat major.

This day I will be prayerful, more than I was
yesterday, and meditate and drink in God’s own
gentleness, petitioning for naught but love and
peace, for what else does a person need once one
has been hauled out of the pit?

And I will be more grateful than I’ve ever been
before, because another vast and malleable day is
added to my years, a day of scattered sunlight and
of friendship and of spring’s slow, adamant
approach, a day in which I count breaths and say
Thank you for each one, a day in which I hear my
neighbor crooning to her baby girl and I recall with
transient glee and startling precision my half-
century-ago young motherhood.

This day I will be more astonished than I was the
day before, because how can I fail to be surprised
when, all my plans and projects notwithstanding, I
don’t have the ghost of an idea what the next hour
holds?

This day I will love my life more than I loved it the
day before, because there is no future in loving the
past—a beautiful garden, to be sure, but one that is
frozen in memory. Only this day do new grasses
emerge from moist earth. Only now do sweet,
warm winds lift dry leaves and ruffle my hair, stroke
my face, and tell me their secrets. Only this day
grows according to my purpose, and God’s grace.

 

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The Breath Prayer

fountain

Prayer Is to the Spirit as Water Is to the Body

In the church lost-and-found I came across a lovely little book: The Breath of Life: A Simple Way to Pray, by Ron DelBene. The author describes an ancient practice called “the breath prayer” and explains how to use it.

You know how you sometimes hear a song or a jingle (often an annoying one) and you just can’t get it out of your head? That’s kind of how the breath prayer works, except that it’s not “annoying,” because it’s one you devise yourself, based on your deepest need.

The breath prayer is a short, simple petition to God that works its way through your mind and heart to the core of your being. The author emphasizes that everyone must develop his or her own breath prayer. He gives examples, such as, “O God, let me feel your love.” He suggests ways to remember to say it, because reminders are necessary at first. He says that it is not a mantra, at least not in the way people often tend to think of mantras—but it really is a mantra, in the purest sense: sacred words that “protect the mind” (the literal translation of mantra).

From what does the mind need protection? Fear, a sense of isolation, irritability, anxiety, depression, cynicism, aimlessness, guilt, impatience—all manner of mischief, really.

Father DelBene, an Episcopal priest, recommends adopting a short, rhythmic prayer, six or eight syllables, that you can repeat while walking or doing other sorts of exercise, while waiting in traffic or standing in line at the market. I like to say it silently, synchronized with my breathing, when I’m falling asleep. It’s a lot better than the flotsam and jetsam that often bump around in your mind when you get into bed and turn off the light—the stuff you didn’t get done today, the stuff you need to do tomorrow….

Someone has said, “Prayer is to the spirit as water is to the body.” Drink up!

Why I Pray

13th century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

13th-century Madonna with Child in the Italo-Byzantine style

More often than not, I pray out of desperation.

I’ve reached the end of my rope. I summon all my resources, and they come up short. My emotions have taken possession of me, body and spirit. I’m angry at someone else and disgusted with myself. I’m drowning in depression, overcome by anxiety, paralyzed by fear. I throw myself into God’s lap, bury my face in God’s shoulder, and cry out, “Help me, Father, for I cannot help myself” or “Get me the hell out of here!”—words to that effect.

I usually refer to God as “Mother-Father” when invoking God-as-parent, but in the throes of hopelessness, Father is often the appellation from my heart. I don’t know what that says about my family of origin—both Mom and Dad were always there for us to lean on. Probably it stems from my earliest prayers, from the time I first understood that I could present my ugliest, most self-absorbed, least honorable self to the Creator and be embraced with unconditional love and limitless compassion—and in the 1950s, in my Christian community, we prayed to God the Father.

Sometimes, however, I need a supernatural mother. Though I wasn’t raised Catholic, I turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when I’m suffering parental pain. In extremity, I don’t worry about whether my prayer is theologically correct or if I’m committing sacrilege.

In fact, praying is the one thing I do without wondering if I’m doing it wrong. All I need when I show up is honesty. I can pray in my pajamas. I can use unholy language. I can blame and curse and carry on. I can think, as Anne Lamott puts it, “such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Anne Lamott has written much on how our brokenness allows God to heal us. “On the spiritual path,” she writes, “all the dreck and misery is transformed, maybe not that same day, but still transformed into spiritual fuel or insight.” There’s a great deal of dreck on my spiritual path.

I pray to confess and repent.

In the safety of God’s presence and the assurance of God’s forgiveness, I open the closets where the skeletons and monsters are. I bring them into the open and give them a once-over. When I know what they look like, I can steer clear of them. They are not “me.”

I pray for stuff.

I’m not ashamed to say that I come to God with wish lists. I pray for prosperity but also for compassion. I pray for healing—for myself and for others—but I also pray for the greater blessing. I might want a motorcycle. God might want me to have a pickup truck. I’ll take the pickup truck if it’s offered, trusting that I’ll know the reasons for it down the road.

I pray not so much to change God’s mind as to keep tabs on my own. I lay my petitions before God in order to remember what I want, which is ultimately who I am. Following the path of least resistance won’t take me to my destination. Left to chance and circumstance, my hopes and dreams will get lost in the distractions and emergencies of day-to-day living. They’ll succumb to entropy and gravity if I don’t tend to them. Pretty soon, I’ll forget where I meant to go in the beginning. It’s okay if my goals change and my passions evolve. I just don’t want it to happen because I lost track of them.

I make a ritual of love.

Jan Havicksz Steen The prayer before the meal

Jan Havicksz Steen, The Prayer before the Meal

Out of love and compassion, I offer prayers of intercession. Where I feel less than loving, I pray that my hostility and fear will be transformed.

Any number of physicians now agree with Dr. Larry Dossey that to exclude prayer from their practices is as negligent as to withhold medicine. Some believe in the power of thought to heal or to harm. Prayer, they say, is a form of thought that heals, whereas hate and fear are unhealthy for the bodies that hold those feelings and for those around them. Whatever the scientific rationale, one study reports that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe in the power of prayer to improve the course of illness. When I pray out of love, I am certain that in some way I bring sacred energy to the situation. Because my love is tainted with distrust and insecurity, I ask God to filter out the toxins and pollutants. Hate can’t keep its footing in the honest intention to shine more brightly in the world.

Thus, when I pray, I cultivate a spirit of gratitude. I practice thankfulness as I once practiced the piano—to form a habit that is more dependable with every repetition. I make gratitude a ritual—deliberately bringing joy into my field of awareness until it’s all but effortless. I believe in ritual. Some find it tedious. For me, it brings both comfort and inspiration.

I love the idea of the Rosary: the intention to pray announced with the sign of the cross; the tactile familiarity of the beads; the well-known phrases—“Give us this day our daily bread…. Hail, Mary, full of grace… pray for us sinners…. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end….” Orthodox Jews recite approximately a hundred benedictions every day. There are worse ways to spend one’s time than these.

I pray to invoke all that is sacred, regardless of where it resides.

Fra_Angelico,_Fra_Filippo_Lippi,_The_Adoration_of_the_Magi

The Adoration of the Magi, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi

Some sincerely spiritual people believe that each of us embodies all holiness. Whether or not it’s true, to me it feels lonely. My primordial self believes in mystical forces and sacred powers that come only when they are called. It is said that angels will not violate our free will. Maybe it’s my dinosaur intelligence speaking, or maybe I’m hedging my bets, just in case Michael really is the angel of protection or of my life’s purpose, as Doreen Virtue claims.

I am a monotheist. I believe in one God, whose essence is love. How God dispatches helpers or emissaries transcends my human understanding. In fact, almost everything about the Divine is beyond my ken. Knowing, to the extent such things can be known, that God is love and God is supreme, I consider it not only possible but likely that God sends angels and other benign spirits to guide and protect us.

I pray to rest my spirit.

Prayer is not meditation, whose benefits are well documented. Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and the risk of heart attack and stroke, and to improve creative thinking, compassion, and emotional well-being. I promote meditation at every opportunity, and I meditate regularly.

Prayer is a different practice, though I bring elements of meditation into my time of prayer. I try not to make praying a mental exercise with discrete steps and a checklist. When I’m troubled, I might literally pray without ceasing. When I feel fear or antipathy, or when someone says, “Pray for me,” I pray right then and there. When I sit down with my prayer list, I begin mechanically—prayer is, among other things, a discipline—but at some point I let go. I pray to enter the collective unconscious, to immerse myself in life’s mighty ocean.  I let the prayer be bigger than I am. I lean back on the the universe, as one leans on the water when learning to swim, and trust that it will always hold me up.

In the mystical communion that is prayer, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve prayed for five minutes or an hour, whether I’ve prayed daily since childhood or I’ve never consciously uttered a prayer in my entire life. My spirit rests and is refreshed, and it arises pure and new. Love cleanses me and fills me, and I am indestructible. This is why I pray: To invoke the mystery of transformation; to love as God loves; and to walk in the world with fearlessness and grace.

 

Virgin Mary in prayer by Sassoferrato 17th century

Virgin Mary in prayer, by Sassoferrato, 17th century

WHY I PRAY
Act One

I pray for many reasons. Let me say at once: I’m
not above presenting God with this and that
request. But better yet, because it never fails: I
pray to give my mind a rest. The second I’m
awake—before I even make the bed—it races off
without premeditation. Where to go, and for
what purpose? Whom to benefit? It doesn’t
care. To be in motion is its sine qua non. If it
hopes in passing for a map to manifest, or for
some audible advice on navigation—”Stop”; ”Go
right”; “Go left”—that must suffice for caution,
and for prayer. At length it pauses, takes a
breath because it must (exhaustion trumps
intemperance) and—thus deactivated, and
belatedly remembering that haste makes
wreckage, cringing at the thought and
wondering what finer things it might have
done with less velocity and more compassion—
makes a small apology to Heaven.

“God,” it says,
“I did my best. Please fix it.” Then it doubts,
regrets its course, and promises thenceforth to
be more circumspect and not to ever leap
before it looks again. And this is when I catch
up and my mind pretends it hasn’t wasted an
entire day behaving like a cocker spaniel
wearing roller skates and never mind the frail
old gentlemen and soft-pink roses, daddies
walking babies safe in sturdy strollers; never
mind the halt, the lame, the twilight, and the
stolen kiss it passed because it couldn’t stop in
flight to pray. Look what you’ve done, I say. See
what you didn’t do?
My mind and I survey the
damage. It’s… not awful. Not by half. Expecting
a calamity, we got a gift.  While we were out
attacking entropy, we might have missed the
chance to be delighted by the shadows and the
rabbits and the white moon fading in the west,
but we did more than just not die today. We
lived, and it was effortless.

Mary Campbell
April 2, 2016

 

Murder Threats on YouTube

Rock engravings in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating from ten thousand years BCE

Rock engravings in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating from ten thousand years BCE

Because of the greatness of your strength,
your enemies, O God Almighty, cringe before you.
Before you all the earth shall bow,
shall sing to you, sing to your name!”
Let our joy then be in you,
for you, God, rule forever.
Your eyes keep watch over the nations;
let rebels not rise against you. —from Ps. 66

Free Speech or Hate Speech?

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Loreena McKennitt 2009

Loreena McKennitt 2009

Sister Alma Rose is appalled. She doesn’t like being appalled. It’s not her style… though she suspects that Loreena McKennitt would be appalled as well.

On May 18 (“The Purest Race” in Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word), our dear friend Fanny McElroy cited vitriolic antisemitic comments related to a “sophisticated, beautifully crafted” fan-created video found on the popular media-sharing website YouTube. Fanny discovered the antisemitic comments when she added her own comments, praising the video’s creator for beautiful work. The video accompanied  folk-singer Loreena McKennitt’s song “Night Ride Across the Caucasus,” first recorded on McKennitt’s 1997 album The Book of Secrets.

In just a few minutes’ browsing of other videos, Fanny came across murder threats against Zionists, Chinese, and people of unspecified race or ethnicity.

Click here for video, comments, background, and a brief, anonymous survey on how you feel about these threats and other comments. You can, of course, view the information without taking the survey. It is short, however, only four yes-or-no questions; and your anonymity is guaranteed if you choose not to enter your name. 

Children's puppet theater

In keeping with the Caucasus region’s tradition of children’s puppet theater, “Stories from Our Yard” uses locally-designed puppets to deliver its message

What does YouTube permit?

Here is an excerpt from YouTube’s Community Guidelines:

We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But we don’t  permit hate speech (…which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/ gender identity). [Emphasis ours] …Predatory behavior,  stalking, threats, harassment, intimidation, invading privacy, revealing other people’s personal information,  and inciting others to commit violent acts or to violate the Terms of Use are taken very seriously. Anyone caught doing these things may be permanently banned from YouTube.

Wedding dance, Georgia, the Caucasus region

Wedding dance, Georgia, the Caucasus region (Source: ConcordTravel.ge)

Fanny says that the principal subject of McKennitt’s song, according to McKennitt’s album insert, is alchemy, while the video seems to depict a traditional wedding among the peoples of the Caucasus (more at “The Purest Race“).  “The video makes artistic use,” says Fanny, “of what appears to be, but probably isn’t, old black-and-white footage, blurry, flickering… mixed with vivid new footage. Some of the same landmarks appear in ‘old’ and ‘new’ footage, which consist mostly of wedding scenes, dancing, and people on horseback, probably underscoring the continuity of culture over time. It is beautifully done, with — I think the phrase is ‘high production values.'”

Endangered Ateni Sioni church in Georgia dates from the 7th century

Endangered Ateni Sioni church in Georgia dates from the 7th century

The antisemitic comments on YouTube refer to neither alchemy nor wedding, Fanny reports, but rather to the nationalist biases and aspirations of the “Caucasians” (that is, the peoples of the Caucasus).

On May 17, Fanny flagged the comments and reported them according to prescribed YouTube procedure, informing YouTube that the comments violated YouTube Community Guidelines. She resubmitted her objections a few days later. To date (June 8), YouTube has not deleted the comments and has not responded to Fanny’s report.

Fanny writes,

Please. This is important. We are asking you to take a brief (4-item) survey (anonymous unless you choose to give your name) about vitriolic anti-Semitic & anti-Chinese YouTube messages. You’ll see a mere handful of ugly postings, but such messages are abundant on YouTube in defiance of YouTube guidelines.

Is this abuse of free speech? A big unfunny joke? Were the rules changed when my back was turned? Or is it felt that people not allowed to speak openly will go underground? I imagine there’s already plenty of “underground.” Please take the survey and share this request with others. Thank you…. Fanny

MOI, Fanny

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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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Serenity Shots

A Cottage in a Cornfield, oil on canvas, John Constable 1776-1837

A Cottage in a Cornfield, oil on canvas, John Constable 1776-1837

An Indelicate Incident

The parade of people who march into and out of Sister Alma Rose’s little world is endlessly fascinating. I know why they come, at least some of them: You cannot help feeling safe with Sister Alma Rose. She just sends out these vibes: “Everything will be okay,” or, rather, “everything is fine, as it should be, right now.” She inoculates people with serenity.  

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821

Sister Alma Rose does not expend energy needlessly, by which I mean, (a) she never worries, though occasionally she catches herself “fretting,” but she snaps right out of it, and (b) she is absolutely unconcerned about what people think of her— not in an in-your-face sort of way; it would just never occur to her to try to crawl into someone else’s brain.  

There’s a book I have not read (there are still a few of them out there) called What You Think of Me Is None of My Business (which is one of those books, like Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, for which the title is so instructive that you almost feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth without actually reading the book)…. Where was I? Oh, I think that Sister Alma Rose could have written that book, because she doesn’t ever speculate about what people think of her, like, does my hair look okay, or, I wonder if she likes me.  

Book: What You Think of Me Is None of My Business

Terry Cole-Whittaker earned a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1973 and was ordained as a minister of the United Church of Religious Science in 1975. She left that denomination to found an independent New Thought church in San Diego

That being the case, she is never embarrassed. Here is something that happened, which, if it had happened to me then, I was in fourth grade at the time, would have sent me bolting to my room vowing never to emerge, picturing myself at age 73, that eccentric McElroy spinster who hadn’t been seen since the Embarrassing Incident sixty-four years earlier:  

Let me start out by saying that Sister Alma Rose never, ever naps. She is almost never “poorly” with a cold or the flu or aches and pains. I asked her once if she had always been so healthy, in her past lives, and she laughed and said that she had been an invalid during the Renaissance but that in each successive life she gets healthier and happier, which led me to wonder if people are always reincarnated forward in time, and she said that usually, when you die in one life, you are born into another at the same moment, and that she had always lived in this universe, on Planet Earth, which is usual but there are exceptions. I will have to remember to ask Henry about that, and about whether you are simultaneously a fetus and an independently living, breathing human being who is about to die. 

It was about six weeks after Daddy’s accident, a breathtakingly beautiful September afternoon, and Daddy wanted to walk across the road to see Sister Alma Rose. 

PICTURE OF SERENITY. Girl in the Garden at Bellevue, Édouard Manet 1832-1883. Manet, a French painter, was one of the first nineteenth-century artists to approach modern-life subjects [and]... was a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism

PICTURE OF SERENITY. Girl in the Garden at Bellevue, Édouard Manet 1832-1883. Manet, a French painter, was one of the first nineteenth-century artists to approach modern-life subjects and represent the transition from Realism to Impressionism (Manet article, Wikipedia)

This was something Daddy and I traditionally did on those rare afternoons when he came in early from the fields, although of course he hadn’t been working since the accident; his brothers were taking care of the farm.  

The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826

The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826

I held Daddy’s hand protectively and we walked across the road, which is still brick as it winds out of Hilltop and climbs and curves to Sister Alma Rose’s farm and then on to La Mesa. We were a little surprised not to see Sister Alma Rose on the porch, shelling peas or whatever it is she does— her hands are always busy— but Mr. Truman LaFollette was washing the grass-green wicker furniture with soapy water, and he looked up at us and almost smiled, he is in general very grave, and said in his deep voice that always sounds rusty from disuse that Sister Alma Rose was in the kitchen.  

Caught napping

So we went around to the side door that opens into the pantry and the kitchen is just beyond, and she wasn’t there. I said, “Maybe she’s in the chapel,” which was on the other side of the parlor, so we turned into the parlor, and there she was, lying on that big old scratchy brown sofa with her back to us, and my first thought was that she was dead because I had never in my life seen Sister Alma Rose lying down.  

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802

Dedham Vale, John Constable, 1802

Daddy whispered, “I think she’s sleeping,” but I went closer to make sure she was breathing, and just then she woke up and turned her head toward us and started to smile, but the smile was interrupted by a violent sneeze, maybe you have experienced one of those, where the sneeze just takes possession of your entire body, so it wasn’t just an ordinary sneeze, it was one of those HONK fart-sneezes that is impossible to ignore or pretend you didn’t hear, especially since Sister Alma Rose’s backside was still turned inelegantly toward us and also, within a few seconds, something I can describe only as green swamp fog pervaded the atmosphere in the room.  

Peppermint, Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897

Peppermint, Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897— Peppermint is effective in treating certain stomach ailments; discuss with your doctor before using

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I didn’t dare look at Daddy. But Sister Alma Rose just chuckled and said, “Well, for pity’s sake,” she said, “pardon me,” and she stood up gracefully and glided across the room and gently herded Daddy and me onto the porch, saying, “Let’s just go out here where the air’s a bit fresher,” chuckling again, and then, obviously not giving it another thought, she expressed great pleasure at seeing Daddy looking so well, and we all temporarily forgot about the HONK fart-sneeze, although I tucked the incident away in my head to tell Mama and maybe Pablo.  

We didn’t stay long, because Sister Alma Rose did indeed have a cold and she said that she thought that she would treat herself and spend the rest of the afternoon in bed, reading or napping and letting Mr. Truman LaFollette fuss over her and bring her chicken soup and peppermint tea with honey.  

Sister Alma Rose recovered quickly, but “the incident” was never to be forgotten, despite Sister Alma Rose’s aplomb. Just the other night, after my brothers, Yo and Angelo, were in bed, Mama and Daddy and I were waiting for Henry so that we could play Scrabble, and I recalled “the incident,” and Daddy blushed like a teenager, and Mama laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.  

Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow; John Constable, 1821

Hampstead Heath, Looking Towards Harrow; John Constable, 1821

“I read recently that people ‘break wind’ an average of fifteen times a day,” I said to Mama and Daddy. “I’m actually surprised that people don’t fart… you know, audibly… more often, especially when they eat broccoli or something.”  

“God is merciful,” Daddy said piously, and then grinned and confessed that he’d wondered the same thing.  

“Well, even if Sister Alma Rose weren’t who she is,” Mama said, “and I can’t believe we’re having this conversation— even if Sister Alma Rose weren’t the most gracious and self-possessed human being on this earth, I guess if you’ve lived as long as she has, and so many times, you’ve seen— and heard— it all, and you grow up beyond embarrassment.”  

“I can vouch for that,” Henry said, letting himself in through the screen door and making disgusting fart sounds with his mouth— which I can’t do, it’s mostly a guy thing— and cracking everyone up.  

Clearing the air

I still can hardly believe I actually got these Scrabble letters (“tiles,” I think, is the proper word for them)— maybe Henry switched letters on me with this sleight-of-hand thing he does— but Daddy had made the word L-A-T-E-R and I was able to add F-L-A-T-U to the front of it. Mama and Daddy burst out laughing, but Henry narrowed his eyes at me and said, “It would be O-R, not E-R, if there were even such a word, which there is NOT,” and of course he was right.  

Henry and Daddy have discovered that, by bizarre coincidence, of which, Sister Alma Rose claims, there is no such thing, they both like to smoke a particular blend of perique pipe tobacco. Since perique is grown only in Saint James Parish, Louisiana, it’s not available at your 24-hour convenience store, or, for that matter, anywhere in Hilltop. Daddy was getting it by mail order from a company in Vermont until Henry showed up with an apparently inexhaustible supply, but they still smoke it sparingly, as if it were gold dust. It smells wonderful.  

Lake District Scene, John Constable

Lake District Scene, John Constable

So they were out on the porch sharing a testosterone moment, and Mama and I were tidying up as we womenfolk have done since we all lived in caves.  

Something was off, though. Mama had been unusually quiet since Henry got there, and Henry and Daddy were outside longer than usual, and there was an uneasiness growing in me that I couldn’t explain away. And then Henry and Daddy came inside and we all sat down, and that’s when I learned that Henry and Sister Alma Rose and I would be going “up the mountain” to Daylight on the first of May.  

Blue Ridge Mountain Road

The Road to Daylight

 
 

John Constable, 1776-1837, English Romantic painter

John Constable, 1776-1837, English Romantic painter

John Constable (11 June 1776 – 31 March 1837) was an English Romantic painter. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home – now known as “Constable Country”- which he invested with an intensity of affection. “I should paint my own places best”, he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling”.  

His most famous paintings include Dedham Vale of 1802 and The Hay Wain of 1821. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in British art, he was never financially successful and did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. He sold more paintings in France than in his native England. —John Constable: The Complete Works 

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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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