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 

* * *  

The world's best Mother's Day cards, on 100% recycled cover stock

The world's best Mother's Day cards, on 100% recycled cover stock

Passing Through

Sh-h-h-h: Limeade

Mr. Truman LaFollette's Incomparable Limeade Recipe

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Inhaling God in deep breaths

It was the laziest possible of summer afternoons, and Sister Alma Rose and Father Dooley and I were enjoying Mr. Truman LaFollette’s new recipe, which was new only in the sense that it was limeade instead of lemonade, which Mr. Truman said: weren’t we getting tired of it, meaning his incomparable lemonade, and we emphatically informed him that we were not, and he finally confessed that he was getting a little bored with always making lemonade, and I have to say that his limeade is so crisp and refreshing that I will be a little sorry when he gets tired of limeade and goes back to lemonade, or maybe he will try something exotic, like papaya limeade, which, whatever he concocts will be delicious.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

I was happy and relaxed, but I had a mild premonition that something extraordinary was about to happen. I was just too whipped to have a strong premonition, or else I surely would have. Sister Alma Rose trusts and actually encourages my premonitions. “Heaven is talking to y’all, Girl,” she’ll say.

That morning, Sister Alma Rose had been up since before dawn “putting up” produce, tomatoes and peas, I think, and Father Dooley and I had ridden our bicycles to Beth Israel, which is the Reform synagogue in Hilltop, where we were taking a class called “The History of Judaism,” which is every weekday morning for three weeks, and I found it absolutely mesmerizing and was spending hours at the library reading everything I could find about Judaism, but on this particular day I had an extra lot of chores to do when I got home, and Father Dooley had an extra lot of confessions to hear, or something, and so we all felt as though we had earned an afternoon of lethargy, except that Sister Alma Rose was sitting at the grass-green wicker table shelling peas, which is her idea of doing nothing, while Father Dooley and I were sprawled bonelessly in the roomy grass-green wicker chairs with green-and-yellow flowered cushions. Or she might have been shelling beans. I remember reading somewhere that peas ARE beans, of a sort.(1)

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

Pablo had come and gone. He is taking French, which he does every summer, and he is in Advanced French now, so he and Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose chatted in French, of which I know only enough to expostulate on la plume de ma tante, a topic that soon loses its charm, but when the conversation changed to Judaism, in English, Pablo got up and cheerfully bid us au revoir and climbed onto his bicyclette and rode off. Not that Pablo is uninterested in Judaism, but we were discussing the medieval Inquisitions, and Pablo is very tender-hearted. He was almost inconsolable when his labrador, Myra, dragged a half-dead gecko into the house. A conversation about the cruelties of the Inquisitions would depress him for a week.

Pablo and I are pretty sympatico, and as he was leaving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Something’s up.” I nodded soberly.

Pilgrimage

The three of us were lounging in a comfortable, exhausted silence (except for Sister Alma Rose, who is always comfortable but never exhausted), enjoying the light breeze that floated across the shady porch, when we heard the crunch of feet on the gravel driveway, and I sat up and watched as a man approached, waving and smiling, and I knew that he had something to do with my premonition, and I said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in my head, because he was wearing cutoffs over exquisitely muscled legs and a very nice butt, and he had on a short-sleeved lightweight cotton plaid shirt, unbuttoned, that looked like vintage Eddie Bauer, and I could tell from his high-dollar shoes and backpack that he was a hard-core hiker, not to mention that he was neither sweating nor short of breath and he had just walked up a long, steep hill, which I knew because if he had been coming from the other direction we would have seen him on the road.

Peas in pods

Peas in pods. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons, by Gaetan Lee at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaetanlee/

It’s not unusual for strangers to visit Sister Alma Rose as they are passing through Hilltop, although usually they are from La Mesa or one of the other nearby towns, and they have heard of Sister Alma Rose, who has something of a reputation as a healer, a wise woman, an oddball, a guru, a saint, or one of the Ancients, depending on whom you ask, but if the person you ask is Sister Alma Rose, she will say she is a farmer. I had never seen this man before, I was positive, because I would have noticed him inasmuch as he looked almost exactly like Matthew McConaughey, or like Matthew McConaughey might have looked when he was nineteen, and I sort of but not devoutly wished that he would button his shirt because my newly discovered hormones were popping like fireworks in my chest. He was quite a package, with his hip, expensive hiker stuff and his suntanned not-too-hairy chest and sunstreaked, longish, curly hair and slightly cheeky grin, and his very, very blue and surprisingly sagacious eyes, and when he approached us on the porch he smiled directly at me and I smiled back and told myself very firmly to focus on him and not on whether my hair looked okay or did I have a parsley morsel on my teeth or was I drooling.

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey, not just eye candy

But when he reached the table he stuck his hand out to shake Sister Alma Rose’s hand, and he spoke to her with something like awe, saying, “Y’all must be Sister Alma Rose,” and I waited to see if he would wince, because Sister Alma Rose’s hands are large and strong and her handshake is legendary, and he didn’t wince but he did raise his eyebrows. The soft, gentlemanly Virginia drawl almost finished me off, though I was able to smile and cock a finger at him and say, “Richmond,” and he smiled back and cocked a finger at me and said, “Bingo.” I’m very good at accents.

Mystical encounters

He shook hands with Father Dooley and then with me, and introduced himself as “Henry the Hiker.” I introduced myself as “Fanny the Drooler,” and he gave me a very fetching wink. Sister Alma Rose graciously gestured to the empty chair, and Mr. Truman LaFollette appeared out of nowhere, which is sometimes disconcerting, especially since he is nearly seven feet tall, with a frosty glass of limeade, and then he was gone before Henry could shake hands with him. When you’re not used to Mr. Truman LaFollette and he makes his ephemeral lemonade appearance, or, in this case, his limeade appearance, it’s a bit like being served by a ghost, and I saw Henry shiver, very slightly, but then he smiled, and I noticed that his teeth were perfectly even and almost blindingly white, and parsley-free, and that he had freckles, for Pete’s sake, and I thought, I am done for.

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Because there was more to Henry than dazzling good looks. He was eye candy for sure, but he had an odd kind of quiet vitality, and life just rolled off him in waves. I never thought I’d say this, but even Sister Alma Rose seemed almost ordinary next to Henry.

He had just finished his first year as a seminary student (Princeton, Presbyterian), he told us, with a nod to Father Dooley, as if to say he didn’t have anything against clergy who were other than Presbyterian; and he had heard about Sister Alma Rose through our friend Ben, who had been Henry’s best friend since third grade, which indicated that he also didn’t have anything against black people, which was useful information because southerners sometimes have odd ideas about people whom Pablo refers to as “our darker equals,” ironically, because Pablo is very brown, as is Sister Alma Rose, for that matter.

Pable and I take this road to the library, though it adds a half-mile to the trip

He, Henry, was hiking on country roads with no particular route or destination, he said, other than his journey being in part “a pilgrimage” to meet Sister Alma Rose because Ben had told him that if anyone could help him clear his head, Sister Alma Rose could. His head needed clearing, he explained, because he had entered seminary confidently, with a definite calling, but after a year of study he felt that he had gained a lot of information but had lost his sense of closeness with God.

“I was a strange little kid,” he said, throwing us a killer grin, and, I surreptitiosly checked my chin for drool. “I was always praying. Not conspicuously, like falling down on my knees in the middle of a Little League game, but privately, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and feeling like whenever something was wrong I could go to God and be wrapped in love and made strong. 

“It just came naturally. I’d start to pray, at home or in church, and right away I was just lost in love, and I was surprised when I found out that it wasn’t the same for everyone else. But I was never embarrassed about it, and sometimes kids would call me ‘Holy Henry,’ but they weren’t being mean, so I’d just smile and say, ‘Alleluia,’ or, ‘Bless you, my child,’ or something, and everyone knew it was just who I was.”

He looked inquiringly at Father Dooley, who had been gazing at Henry with a kind of reverence. “Unusual,” Father Dooley said. “Yes, I’d say it’s very unusual for anyone, of any age, to have mystical encounters on demand. In my own experience, God has been accessible enough to keep me inspired… to keep me excited about my work and to enable me to genuinely love and feel honest compassion… and I often know that I have truly encountered God in prayer, but just as often I get up from prayer dissatisfied, as if one of us showed up and the other didn’t.”

I had never heard Father Dooley speak so earnestly, not even in class.

“Oh, yes!” Henry said, obviously grateful to be understood. “That’s just how it’s been with me, almost since I started seminary. The second thing you said, I mean. One of us not showing up.”

Like breathing

MOI, Fanny

MOI, Fanny

To my credit, I like to think, I had stopped seeing Henry as a sex object and had become absorbed in his story and sympathetic with his dilemma. I pray a lot, and I feel loved and nurtured when I pray, but my Close Encounters with God, the kind that Henry had routinely, have been like lightning bolts out of the blue, huge and unexpected and infrequent gifts of grace.

“It’s like breathing,” said Sister Alma Rose, breaking the silence. She was still shelling peas, and I was reminded of Pablo’s mother praying the rosary, a rhythmic, repetitive, tactile exercise, with the added benefit of the peas being living things just off the vines and smelling fresh and earthen.

Sister Alma Rose looked appraisingly at Henry, and then she nodded, as if something she’d suspected had been confirmed. I had the feeling that there was a secret between them, like they were both members of the Scottish Rite or something, but then Sister Alma Rose went back to shelling peas.

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

God always shows up for gratitude

“Y’all can’t be somewhere God isn’t,” she said to the peas, “because there isn’t any such a place. But y’all aren’t always aware of God, just like y’all aren’t always conscious of breathing. Then y’all go to pray, and it’s like y’all are inhaling God in deep breaths, and he fills y’all up and yet he still surrounds y’all.

“And then Henry, he goes to seminary and he learns about the mechanics of breathing and respiration, and how the air supplies oxygen to the lungs, and the oxygen gets into the bloodstream, and into every cell, where it’s exchanged for carbon dioxide, which the blood carries back to the lungs and then it, the carbon dioxide, gets exhaled. Cells can’t live without oxygen, so breathing and all is pretty important.

“But it happens automatically. It’s not a rule. If y’all tried to push oxygen into your bloodstream and then force it into your cells and exchange it for carbon dioxide, and so forth, thinking that if y’all worked hard at it y’all could make it special, maybe sacred, y’all are gonna most likely hyperventilate. Because it’s already been done for y’all. What y’all can do, in prayer, is wonder at it and accept it gratefully and praise God with every breath. God always shows up for gratitude.”

Vanished

For a while the only sound was the slight crackle of fresh pea (or bean) pods opening and the soft plop of peas (or beans) falling into the bowl. Then Henry asked Father Dooley a question about transubstantiation, and thus began a lively conversation to which Sister Alma Rose contributed now and again, and I closed my eyes and listened to the pleasant hum of their voices, like bees in a patch of clover, and when I opened my eyes, Henry and Father Dooley were gone and the sun was low in the sky.

Then Mr. Truman LaFollette was setting a plate of fresh fruit on a romaine lettuce leaf in front of me, with my favorite snack (if we’re not talking hot fudge), sharp cheddar cheese and Triscuits, just within reach.

“Y’all’s mama says y’all can stay for supper,” Mr. Truman LaFollette said, in a voice so seldom used I thought he must have to scrape the rust off. And then he evaporated before I could ask where Sister Alma Rose was.

She appeared a moment later, looking thoughtful, and before she sat down to her salad she carefully placed a yellowed newspaper clipping on the table to my left.

“Don’t y’all be dripping any strawberry juice on that,” she said, and then she bowed her head, so I did, too, and she said, “God of wonders, we thank y’all for the gifts both substantial and mystical that y’all shower upon us, and we ask that y’all help us use these gifts to grow strong and wise and generous. Amen.”

Strawberries

Mr. Truman LaFollette won't tell me where he gets such FRESH FRUIT

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling as she prayed, first because it always amused me to hear her address the Almighty as “y’all,” and second because her words invoked an image of strawberries and grapes and pineapple falling out of the sky.

“That’s it?” I said, surprised. Usually Sister Alma Rose prays until the food, if it started out hot, is tepid.

“It’s enough,” she said. “Read that newspaper, Missy.”

Without picking it up, I began reading the clipping, at the top of which was a two-column-wide black-and-white photo of a grinning Henry, flanked by a grinning Ben and a bemused-looking Portia, who is the daughter of Mr. Henry LaFollette and Sister Alma Rose’s cousin Dulcie, who had given birth to Portia back when she was Wanton and Wild, which is exactly what Portia is, though Dulcie has turned into a round, comfortable person who smells like talcum powder and who Does Good Deeds. Portia, I thought, was an odd person for either Ben or Henry to know. Sister Alma Rose once told me that Portia is an Aberration, one of the Ancients reincarnated who remembers nothing of her former life and has no idea that she has been sent to do anything other than seduce men and twirl in circles, looking and singing like a fairy child, in the woods.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915) that always makes me think of Portia

The story was dated July 28, 2000, and I was startled to see that Henry looked exactly as he had looked that afternoon, even wearing the same shirt (I couldn’t see his butt; unfortunately it had been cropped out of the photo).

Somewhere in Tennessee

‘Seminary student vanishes,’ read the headline. The story went on to say that Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., age 19, son of the newspaper’s executive editor and his, the editor’s, wife of twenty-two years, onetime film star Julianne Morgan, had begun a solo cross-country hike just after his classes had ended the second week in May. The photo had been taken as Henry was setting off. As promised, he telephoned either Ben or his parents at least three times a week, but the last phone call had been made on June 2, from somewhere in Tennessee. Of course, law-enforcement personnel in three states were searching vigilantly, blah, blah, blah, but they had found no trace of the missing boy, who had been in excellent health and spirits, with no history of mental illness, blah, blah, blah.

Jessica Lange lookalike

COVER GIRL: Julianne Morgan, a respected actress and Hollywood favorite, before she gave up her career for marriage and children

Scotch-taped to the story was a brief piece published on the five-year anniversary of Henry’s disappearance. There was a small photo of Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie, with Julianne looking youthful and serene and Henry Senior appearing haunted. Their son had been neither found nor heard from, though his mother said that he visited her in dreams and she was at peace, but apparently nobody paid much attention to Julianne, least of all her husband, who said that she was “in denial and receiving psychotherapy.”

I sighed and looked wide-eyed at Sister Alma Rose.

“Poor Julianne,” I said. “But NOT ‘poor Julianne,'” I added, on second thought, “because she knows that Henry is okay. She’s probably thinking, all right, send me to a shrink if you want, but I know something you don’t, and I’d tell you if you’d listen.”

Sister Alma Rose beamed at me, as if I’d proven the unified field theory.

“Ben never mentioned him,” I mused, “or Portia.”

Sister Alma Rose and I both knew that if Ben had been worried about his friend’s disappearance, he would have come to Sister Alma Rose. Therefore, Ben had somehow been in touch with Henry, or knew where he was.

The Angel Gabriel (by Guido Reni) resembles Henry a little bit

The possibilities eddied furiously in my head. Henry had been run over by a semi and had come back as an angel. Henry had been a collective illusion shared by Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose and me. Henry was one of the Ancients.

“Henry is one of the Ancients,” I almost shouted. That explained Portia’s being with him, sort of. And Sister Alma Rose had known. That explained the long, penetrating look she had given him.

“But why did he come to you? Was it just as he said? About wanting to feel close to God again?”

Sister Alma Rose ignored the latter two questions.

“He didn’t come to me, Fanny,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing it and probably breaking nine or ten small bones. “He came to y’all.”

The thing in me that had always thought I was weird and longed to be normal… it seemed to dissolve in that very moment.

“Oh, my,” I said, trying to take it in without knowing what “it” was, but sharply conscious that my hormones were alive and well and having an emergency convocation in what would someday, with luck, become my left breast. “What a world we live in.” And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the least idea what to do next.

lemons

(1) Common beans can be used for shell (or shelling) beans, which have the pods removed before they are cooked or dried. The term can be used to refer to other species of beans, such as lima beanssoybeanspeas, or fava beans, that have their shell removed before it is eaten. Nutritionally, shell beans are similar to dry beans, but in the kitchen are treated as a vegetable, often steamed, fried, or made into soups. Wikipedia

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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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Quickie

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The Empire of Alexander the Great, 4th century BCE; Jerusalem is shown just ENE of Gaza, lower right "corner" of the Mediterranean Sea; via Wikipedia

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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

I, Fanny

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Will Guilt Make You Good?

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Human nature
cannot be studied
in cities except
at a disadvantage —
a village is the place.
There you can
know your man
inside and out–
in a city you but
know his crust;
and his crust is
usually a lie
Mark Twain, 1883

I guess a
small-town
mayor is
sort of like a
community organizer
,”
except that
you have
actual
responsibilities

Sarah Palin, 2008

Your hometown
is where they
can’t figure out
how you did
as well as you
did
—Source unknown

What’s So Bad about Feeling Good? Part 1

My Hometown

From Canadian TV series MY HOMETOWN, Filmwest Associates

HILLTOP, U.S.A. — A lovely place. A peaceful place, as I have said. The fact that I am peeved at Eloise Mary Shea because her birthday-party invitation said to come in costume, and I went wrapped in alumninum foil, as a baked potato, you know, and no one else was in costume because she, Eloise Mary Shea…

…who, I happen to know, wears the same pair of underwear two days in a row, turning it wrong-side-out for the second day…

Eloise Mary Shea, third from left; I, Fanny, am taking the photograph

Eloise Mary Shea, third from left; I, Fanny, am taking the photograph

…had informed everyone personally that she’d changed her mind about costumes, but she “forgot” to tell me — anyway, I understand that my trifling I’ll-be-over-it-by-Thursday SNIT does, to some degree, send negative vibrations into the ether and thereby delays the dawning of the Age of Universal Peace and Love just that much more, but it doesn’t seem to have done much to the spiritual frequencies in Hilltop, because Hilltop is under a Peace Spell, like a soft blanket, which was probably doing its job of comforting and safe-keeping even during the silly Battle of the Barbers, which, after all, ended happily, with Mr. Henry now busier than bees on lilacs because, unlike Mr. Bill, who knew how to cut crew cuts, period, Mr. Henry’s not a one-haircut guy, plus Mr. Henry’s hands don’t shake so alarmingly that his customers are afraid he’s going to pierce an eardrum with his scissors, as they feared re Mr. Bill in the latter years.

Sedona at sunset; photo by Joseph Plotz

Sedona at sunset; photo by Joseph Plotz

‘Make love, not war’

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

Now, just because Hilltop is peaceful and somewhat out of the way, I would not want you to think that we are all self-delusional or backward, like those people residing in really isolated parts of Appalachia who misbelieve that the War Between the States is still a-ragin’. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: We do not marry our first cousins. Well, not any more. Not since Lettie and Bobby Lee Wallace and their six unbridled hellions — children, I meant to say — Jimmy Lee, Tommy Lee, Alice Lee, Maribel Lee, Robert E. Lee, and Curtis Lee. True story.

Earnest Fort House, Green County, Tennessee, 1780s; photo by Brian Stansberry

Appalachia: Earnest Fort House, Green County, Tennessee, 1780s; photo by Brian Stansberry

No. We are well informed, we are hip, and we are diverse.

The Vietnam War era, as recalled by Sister Alma Rose

According to Sister Alma Rose, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the young people of Hilltop went away to school (some to LaMesa State College, but as many to institutions such as Brown, William and Mary, Georgetown, Oberlin, and so forth), a number of them wandered off after graduation and forgot to call home to let their parents know they’d be late.

Did they prostrate themselves before their parents, kissing their feet and adoringly, gratefully, or even sneeringly saying, “Thank you, Mother and Father, for spending skillions of dollars to provide me with…

Healy Hall, Georgetown University; photo by Patrick Neil

Healy Hall, Georgetown University; photo by Patrick Neil

“(a) a fascist education devised to indoctrinate my cohort and me with propaganda about the history and government of the United States, which is an evil capitalist empire bent on world domination; or

“(b) a highly practical education that taught me to despise you and everything you stand for and through which I learned how to make pipe bombs and orate against capitalist materialism outside the White House, the United Nations, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention?”

NO,
THEY DID
NOT

Crim Dell Bridge, William & Mary

Crim Dell Bridge, William & Mary

If they wrote at all, they sent surly letters asking for rent money or travelers’ checks for a sojourn in Tibet, or perhaps Canada (who could blame them?). Eventually, many of them drifted back… sometimes contrite and in need of treatment for various addictions; sometimes pregnant or toting actual babies, who might be any of a variety of colors characteristic of humans (not green, like Kermit, though that would have been okay too).

Sister Alma Rose recalls that all the parents “killed the fatted calf” and welcomed their prodigals with open arms. She knows of only one instance in which the chastened young adults, their children, and any spouses or life partners who might have tagged along, were not forgiven, cherished, cared for, and put to work as soon as possible. The exception involved the sister of a boy who had been killed in Vietnam. The sister, Jeannette, who had changed her name to “Peace Feather,” and who, mystifyingly, wore a war bonnet and painted multicolored stripes across her face for all occasions, had been contemptuous of the Vietnam G.I.’s and had heaped abuse, at every opportunity, against the veterans. Even in her parents’ home, on their dime, she was unrepentant; and she was asked to leave, and nobody cared, except for possibly Peace Feather herself, though we hear that she has done well in Sedona, where she grooms cats and balances their chakras, but she still wears her war bonnet all the time, which is kind of sad, but, oh, well.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Return of the Prodigal Son

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Return of the Prodigal Son

Also in the late 1960s, all the kindly old ministers who patted you on the head and called you “Susie,” and who had baptized your grandparents, died, kind of in a clump. And the young ministers who took their places preached the Gospel of Social Justice. For these warriors against racism, ageism, classism, sexismhomophobiaxenophobia, speciesism, and whatever other phobias and –isms I’m forgetting…

…GUILT

was the weapon of choice (except in the case of Father Dooley, who was and still is a cupcake).

Astronaut John Bennett Harrington is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw nation

Astronaut John Bennett Herrington is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw nation

These clergymen (no women, yet, back then) were opposed to the war (like Sister Alma Rose); they supported racial and gender equality (like Sister Alma Rose). They wanted to Integrate Hilltop, I don’t know, import people in from Miami or something — until the new ministers looked around, says Sister Alma Rose, and saw that

all together, there were (and still are) more Asians, Indians (both kinds), black folks, brown folks (many being refugees from Central America), and combinations thereof, than there were and are white folks in Hilltop….

This “demographic,” says Sister Alma Rose, is unexpected in a town the size of Hilltop, and located where we are, and given the fact that there are no big companies headquartered here and luring folks with jobs. I, Fanny, think that our good fortune has something to do with The Ancients, but I always believe that The Ancients are involved when I can’t think of another explanation.

Crow warbonnet

Back to guilt. Sister Alma Rose does not believe in guilt. No, that’s not true at all. Guilt, she says, is “like sticking y’all’s foot in the fire. Oh, hell, that stuff’s HOT! Y’all pull your foot out, repair the damage as well as y’all can, and then let it heal. Y’all don’t poke and prod at it every ten minutes to see if it still hurts.”

Sister Alma Rose on guilt…
‘Guilt is a bad reason to do good’

…because it wastes so much energy. Guilt is uncomfortable, so most folks try to get rid of it, like they’d dig out a tick. How can y’all do the work of the Lord, or even empty the trash, if y’all are tuckered out from grappling with guilt?

Adultery

Adultery

Guilt trip, Type A

If y’all feel guilty because y’all did something wrong, and if y’all can fix it — like if y’all stole money, say — y’all can (1) pay it back with interest and (2) apologize. Maybe y’all won’t even have to (3) spend a few days in jail (well, unless you stole a WHOLE LOT of money; let’s just say you didn’t). (4) Resolve not to steal again, and (5) stick to your resolution. Then, by the grace of God, there’s no reason to feel guilty any more, is there?

Guilt trip, Type B

Now, if y’all feel guilty because y’all did something wrong and it can’t be undone — like a spot of adultery, say — then y’all should (1) quit, cold turkey; (2) resolve not to commit adultery again, and stick to your resolution. (3) As to whether y’all should confess your transgression to your spouse and ask for forgiveness, that’s between y’all and God. But (4) once y’all have established that y’all not only can refrain from adultery but can love and cherish your spouse, and live in mutual trust, then (5) there’s nothing to feel guilty about. (6) If guilt sticks to y’all anyway, unstick it off yourself and give it to God.

Parents: 'Where did we go wrong?'

Bad Lot: 'Where did we go wrong?'

Guilt trip, Type C

The hardest to get rid of is the kind of guilt that y’all do nothing to deserve in the first place — like if, in spite of y’all’s being the best parent y’all know how to be, one of y’all’s kids grows up to be a ne’er-do-well. Y’all will undoubtedly relive every moment of this kid’s childhood, and y’all will find mistakes because y’all are human, and y’all did not have Mary Poppins living at y’all’s house.

Y’all will have tried to fix the kid or paid lots of money for “professionals” to fix him, and then y’all tried to help him out and discovered that, omigosh, y’all were “enabling” him.

Y’all will have tried “tough love,” which is a breeding ground for parental guilt, and “tough love” won’t have done any good either, because Dad’s sticking to the program but Mom is slipping the kid Dutch apple pies, or worse…. Eventually the kid ends up in jail or disappears, or gets struck by lightning and goes to medical school and becomes a top proctologist. Who knows?

I know a nice married couple who raised four kids: two model daughters and a saintly son and a Bad Lot, addicted to cocaine, committing armed robbery, constantly pestering Mom and Dad for money, stealing from them. They moved across the country and didn’t offer a forwarding address to the Bad Lot. Sure, they felt guilty….

The Hague: Actors in a play about teenage angst

The Hague: Actors in a play about teenage angst

This kind of guilt is really sticky, and y’all might have to peel it off and give it over to God a whole slew of times, and rejoice in y’all’s new freedom, a whole slew of more times. The guilt tries to creep in through the back door, and it starts by whispering in y’all’s ear, “If only y’all had….” Well, y’all didn’t. In fact, y’all probably did better than y’all remember, but that’s beside the point. Just hand over to God this fresh batch of guilt, because it’s not like he has his hands full, or anything….

Sister Alma Rose believes that Freedom from Guilt is a gift of grace and is pretty much the whole point of the New Testament; it’s the Good News, the occasion for gratitude, the reason for joy, the excuse for a party; and it’s not just for Christians! Buddhists and people in other religious traditions (not that Buddhism is, strictly speaking, religious) know how to let the vast, intelligent universe redeem their guilt.

Take Judaism, for example. King David, or whoever authored Psalm 103, wrote this heartening, lyrical promise:

As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgression from us (Ps. 103:12)

Russian icon of St. David, the Prophet and King, 18th century (Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia)

The Gospel of Guilt, which most of Hilltop’s ministers in the 1960s and 1970s preached, is one of a bunch of reasons that Sister Alma Rose started worshiping in her own chapel, the one Daddy Pete built so long ago. At first it was just her and Mr. Truman LaFollette and a few neighbors, but now, on Sunday mornings, several dozen people might show up for worship at Hilltop Farm.

Not that Sister Alma Rose is sticking her head in the sand. She helps. No one has any idea, because she doesn’t advertise the good works she does.

“I do what I’m called to do,” she says, “what best uses my talents and gives me the greatest satisfaction. So will y’all someday.”

Guilt rides again

When Elizabeth Anna Stratton, Sister Alma Rose’s good friend since she, Elizabeth Anna, was a little girl, came back to Hilltop for a visit last month, and Elizabeth Anna asked Sister Alma Rose and me to go with her to the 7:30 a.m. Sunday service at the Presbyterian church, I thought, how bad can it be?

Child in  Darfur refugee camp, www.columbia.edu

Child in Darfur refugee camp, http://www.columbia.edu

Well, as Sister Alma Rose put it, “We got a us generous dose of the Gospel of Guilt,” to the point that I came out of that service feeling depressed and ashamed and ready to get on the next boat to Sudan or the next train to Chicago, where I’m sure, if I looked hard enough, I could find young people, and older people as well, using dangerous, addictive drugs, and I would say, “Stop that right now,” because, what do I know, I’m just a kid, and they would shoot me, or at least take my nice catalog clothes and my travelers’ checks, and it would be no more than I deserve. Because what right do I have, living in the bosom of a loving family, in a nice house with oak floors and central heating and a microwave, for God’s sake, eating plenty of wholesome food and probably throwing some of it away! and wearing nice clothes from the catalog when God knows there are rags aplenty, or I might consider a hairshirt — all this in a world where — according to the vituperative sermon given by the Reverend Ms. O’Donnell and directed at the “complacent middle class,” which is pretty much all of Hilltop —

The reality of drug addiction, www.outoftheherd.com

The reality of drug addiction, http://www.outoftheherd.com

…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 I think that I have a right to want anything at all and to be happy in a world of suffering?

A word about the Reverend Ms.O’Donnell

This is a woman who, by all appearances, ingests quite a bit more than “plenty of wholesome food,” in fact, a surplus, one might infer, which she evidently carries with her, dromedary-style, in case of a sudden and tragic potato-chip shortage; and who, according to Elizabeth Anna, was wearing a chichi suit from Lord & Taylor… and who also, after the service and the Coffee Fellowship, hopped into her classic T-Bird convertible, which, and my mother doesn’t even like cars, Mama would cheerfully exchange her own children for.

1957 Thunderbird convertible; photo, nminow via Wikipedia

1957 Thunderbird convertible; photo, nminow via Wikipedia

So much, I thought, for self-denial.

To be continued…

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