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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‘Conscience Is a Jewish Invention’

V-E Day, painting by Geoff Bennett

V-E Day—Artist, Geoff Bennett

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Loss of Innocence

We are the joyous Hitler youth
We do not need any Christian virtue
Our leader is our savior
The Pope and Rabbi shall be gone
We want to be pagans once again….

Fanny, the narrator

I, Fanny McElroy

Omigosh! There have got to be things that little girls should not have to know about.

I get as much education sitting on the grass-green steps of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wraparound porch, drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade, than I get at school. More, probably, because at school we get the sanitized versions of things, whereas, usually, nothing but the truth is told on Sister Alma Rose’s porch, and truth is what I heard when Rabbi Feintech and Sister Alma Rose were talking one afternoon, which was May 8, which was the anniversary of V-E Day — Victory in Europe, the end of World War II in Europe. (Final victory in the Pacific would come a few months later.)

An American soldier stands near a wagon piled high with corpses outside the crematorium in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp

An American soldier stands near a wagon piled high with corpses outside the crematorium in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp (Wikipedia)

When I was telling Mama and Daddy, at supper, what I learned on Sister Alma Rose’s porch that day from Sister Alma Rose and her friend Rabbi Feintech, they both said that they had studied World War II in high school and in college and had never heard of German dictator Adolph Hitler’s diabolical reasoning for thinking every Jew in the world should be destroyed.

Too bad to be true?

Of course, I had to go to the library the very next day to look up all the things that Rabbi Feintech had told Sister Alma Rose, with me listening on, agape — or do I mean aghast? I was probably aghast AND agape. Anyway, I was hoping that Rabbi Feintech was making it all up, not that I would like to think poorly of Rabbi Feintech, I like him very much, he always remembers my name and treats me like an adult, or at least like a mature young lady, and they knew I was listening and they didn’t make me go away, which I guess is a kind of respect, they obviously thought that I could handle it, and I guess I will have to, just as all adults have learned horrible truths and still manage to brush their teeth and cook oatmeal and make sure their kids are taking their vitamins and argue about what color to paint the bathroom.

Hitler Youth Recruitment Poster

Hitler Youth Recruitment Poster; the text, translated, says, “Youth serves the leader. All ten year-olds into the Hitler Youth”

Hearing what Rabbi Feintech said not only about the incredibly brutal killing of six million European Jews but about Hitler’s reason for wanting to kill every Jew in the world… I felt dizzy and nauseated, the way I would have felt if he would have said, “Your parents are alien body-snatchers and they’re going to eat you alive at midnight.”

I’ve never had much of a sense of danger in the world, other than being careful when I cross the highway and not getting in cars with strange men who want to take me to get hot-fudge sundaes, et cetera. But learning that nobody in eastern Europe was safe who was Jewish, not babies, not old people, not big strong men like Daddy, not anyone, and all that they had been doing was living their lives, going about their daily business, working, celebrating, cooking, going to worship — the stuff we all do, except with not-as-nifty appliances and funny-looking cars. And I wondered if I would ever feel safe again.

Let only the strong survive

Okay, I’ve danced around the topic long enough. Here we go. Really. I think I can talk about it now. Whew!

Moses and the Ten Commandments

Moses and the Ten Commandments (Rembrandt 1659)

Hitler believed (and he was not alone, and it wasn’t even his idea in the first place) that all Jews must be killed because they had introduced monotheism (belief in one God rather than many) and the Ten Commandments and an ethical system, which was picked up later by the Christians, that emphasized love and compassion and taking care of the poor and the sick.

Hitler had no time for the poor and the sick. Below are Hitler’s own words:

The Ten Commandments have lost their validity…. Conscience is a Jewish invention. It is a blemish like circumcision.

It is right, Hitler believed, for the strong to survive and the weak to die. People should live as the animals in the jungle do. When lions hunt, the weakest among their prey are always the first victims.

I thought of the old people in the nursing home next to the Hilltop Hospital. Dr. Deirdre Barstow’s own mother, Mrs. Marjorie, lives there, and she seems to feel safe. Sometimes Mrs. Marjorie recognizes her daughter and sometimes she smiles a toothless smile and says to Dr. Deirdre, “Are you new here?” And Dr. Deirdre smiles back and sits down to feed her mother soup and pudding with a spoon and says, “No, Mama, we’ve known each other for a long time.”

The government pays for some of Mrs. Marjorie’s care, and it occurred to me that Adolph Hitler, if, God forbid, he were president of the United States, would not authorize funding to take care of helpless, weak old women in nursing homes.

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda Poster

No, Hitler wanted to set up a pagan “master race,” take over the world, and apply the law of the jungle: Only the strong survive.

‘It is in his soul’

At the library, I read this very sick and scary statement by Hitler:

If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition. If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it. Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy, by Robert Wistrich

This, I guess, is why Hitler didn’t feel that he had to kill all the Christians. If he killed the pope, he apparently believed that he would “kill” Christianity, and Christians, in his mind, not having “the Jewish spirit,” could be swayed to his nutso world view.

To be continued: The greatest weapon against the armies of hate


Burning Bridges

Journal of a Departed Friend, Part 3

Aristotle's **Metaphysics** (image by Peter Damian)

Aristotle's **Metaphysics** (image by Peter Damian)

Sister Alma Rose recently received part of a journal from the year 1985 that was bequeathed to her by an old friend. Here is an excerpt:


There is nothing permanent except change. —Heraclitus


Heraclitus, 535-475 BCE, by Johannes Moreelse

Heraclitus, 535-475 BCE, by Johannes Moreelse


O ye ancients, you had no idea! You, Heraclitus, what did you know in the sixth century BCE of lasers or nuclear power or even of sewing machines and polyester?

What of moving across the North American continent four times in ten years?

What of endemic divorce or heroin addiction or John Holmes, radioactive fallout, toxic waste, latchkey children, the microchip?

Integrated circuit of Atmel Diopsis 740 System on chip showing memory blocks, logic and input/output pads around the periphery

Integrated circuit of Atmel Diopsis 740 System on chip showing memory blocks, logic and input/output pads around the periphery

The Duke Prosper Oak, Belgium (photo by Jon-Paul Grandmont)

The Duke Prosper Oak, Belgium (photo by Jon-Paul Grandmont)

They have cut down the oak tree outside the bay window of the house where I grew up.  I suppose that it was causing problems with the plumbing or leaks into the basement. But it is surely gone, as are the mother and father who raised me there, the neighbors who chased me away from their rosebushes or held me on their laps and told stories, the misanthropic widow whose porch was always dark on Hallowe’en.

Little boys' walnut cache

Little boys' walnut cache

There is now, behind our house, a walnut tree, and every year the walnuts are not cracked and eaten, but gathered and stockpiled by little boys who pretend to be squirrels or chipmunks, or else the boys are pirates and the nuts become rubies and gold nuggets.

So many losses and so many gains, and who can slow the whirl to add them up, properly weighted, and say, “I have more,” or “I have less.”
“Time is a sort of river of passing events,” Marcus Aurelius has said, “and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing  brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.”
The Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting Hungary to Slovakia (photographer, Alan Ford)

The Maria Valeria Bridge, connecting Hungary to Slovakia (photographer, Alan Ford)

Well, maybe so, but I do a lot of swimming upstream and down trying to change things and being bashed with flotsam and jetsam in the process. I like the thought of the river, though, despite the bashing; it makes better poems about life than do caves and sailing ships.

Have you ever considered, Heraclitus, that maybe nothing changes except what is permanent?

* * *
River, when I stand aside and watch, billow up and pull me in.

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

Mr. Fixit

Journal of a Departed Friend, Part 2

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

Sister Alma Rose recently received part of a journal from the year 1985 that was bequeathed to her by an old friend. Here is an excerpt:


Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. — Matthew 7:7

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland

I wonder how many souls Christianity has lost because Jimmy asked God for a pony or a trip to Disneyland. There are surely many disillusioned Jimmies walking around, convinced that those biblical promises are all a crock. Maybe it wasn’t a pony that was asked for, but a healing or a job, which, when they don’t materialize, make cynics of would-be believers. 

The conventional wisdom is that God answers prayers but not always at the expected time or in the desired way, and that Jimmy eventually gets something better than a pony.


I don’t know, frankly, why some prayers seem to “succeed” where others “fail.” There is the skeptic’s view: that whatever happened would have happened anyway. And there is the pious view: that the “successful” prayer was offered in humility and faith.

The Raising of Lazarus (15th-century painting)

The Raising of Lazarus (15th-century painting)


And there is my view: that if I knew how to push God’s buttons, I’d have a good shot at divinity myself, and I don’t want that much responsibility. It’s as much as I can handle to keep up with the phone bill.

‘Shining Like the Sun’

Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

When a prayer is answered in a dramatic way, as in a spectacular healing or an impossible rescue, some believe that God has intervened in the natural order of things, and this is called a Miracle.

Well, I have seen miracles that are supremely “natural.” I won’t go into the  stunning (if somewhat gory) spectacle of childbirth, or snowflakes, or aurora borealis, except to say that the commonplace and the miraculous are not always mutually exclusive. Prayer and meditation offer visions of what is truly “natural,” not in the sense of being normal but in the sense of being true to nature. 


Meditation is a journey from the periphery to the center of life, and no one can say what all is to be found there. The late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and the author of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1956), writes, “There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.”

One’s view of what is real is limited to what one perceives, but allow that those perceptions are incomplete and distorted, and there is room in the “natural world” for unimagined possibilities.


Spirit, carry my meditation beyond all things seen and all things imagined into all things possible.


The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete



Proof of God?

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door...

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door...


Mystic Math

(The Truth Is in the Poetry)


Is it so foolish to deny that 2

plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

one thinks immediately of Julio

and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

they are four indeed — but one in the

directory, one phone, one family,

one house, one home.


How many syllables comprise a poem?

How many deities are in the Trinity?

How many personalities have you, or I

(not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

were moments unaccounted for — so many

billion galaxies to travel in for

one a bit unraveled)?


...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

And then there is the Christian marriage

ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

and during which the wedding guests affirm

that all are one in Christ.


One day, one night, together, they become —

a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

is 1, at least within the limits of

the English language — its vocabulary

vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.


fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

and bells and such — and all the men and

women, dignified in black and white,

with all their individual concerns —

one widowed just a year ago tonight,

another six years clean and sober; to

her left, an oboist whose brother was

indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

her right, a Pakistani having such

a frightful allergy attack — and the

conductor, who has just received a check

for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

but now she raises her baton — and

in that instant of anticipation, in

that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

many, would you say, have they become?


Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

begins… and in the audience,

a few may fidget, measuring

the minutes and intending to

retreat at intermission. Violinists

count the silent beats of idleness

between their passages, but, I imagine,

seldom ask themselves how many

notes they play in all, and just

as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

suppose there’s someone who, for fun

or scholarship, attempts to number all

the microbes in the hall, and further,

calculates the ratio of respirations that

occur between the second movement and

the third? For to be sure, it could

be quantified somewhere by some technology

or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

the symphony.


...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
or 20, but in turn you must forgive
the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
a truer truth than anything that can
be proven by addition — if it were
not so, than why would anybody bother?
What would be the joy of noticing
this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
pursue a proof because the numerals
insist on our attention? I am sure
the stars care nothing of our counting
them or our refraining from it. Finding
order in the universe, or else
imposing it, or otherwise competing
in a race with chaos, really has a single
benefit — it satisfies, however
temporarily, the spirit, and
the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
not in the paper that it’s written on
or in the composition of the particles
that dart about at rates astonishingly
great — as we believe, for so the eye
of science witnesses, and since we give
it credibility, we cannot disagree. 

...viruses or other microscopic entities....

...viruses and other microscopic entities....

It pleases us to cede authority

to science, even though we never see

the viruses and other microscopic

entities; but science offers remedies

for every manner of disease and warns

that to release a sneeze uncovered will

unleash a tyranny of demons; so

it seems, in our experience, and is

esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

because it matters. That’s the only

reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

fifty million. If the latter, is the

scientific effort fifty million times

more worthy? I don’t know.

You do the math.


by Sister Alma Rose

February 2006

“Galaxies” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC


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So Long, Cincinnati

 The News ≠ Life

The view from Sister Alma Rose's porch

The view from Sister Alma Rose's porch

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

When I got old enough to pay attention to the News and actually started reading the newspaper, I was depressed for months. I might be sitting in the shade of Sister Alma Rose’s massive grass-green porch with its grass-green wicker furniture on a quiet summer afternoon… drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s sublimely fresh and delicious lemonade with slices of lemon floating in the frosty glass… looking out over the rich farmland in the valley of the Turkey Hill River to the mountains beyond… and Sister Alma Rose might be hand-stitching a hem and whistling or humming, oblivious to all but the beauty and the soft breeze… and there I am, frowning about all the pesticides and herbicides polluting the valley and the river. Or I’d fret that any day now some big, heartless conglomerate would buy up all the farms and knock down all the charming old buildings in Hilltop and put up two or three Walgreens and a Home Depot and a Hooter’s. Unless everything got vaporized by a nuclear bomb first.


Sunset in the Turkey Hill Valley

I’d watch the sun sink into the mountains, turning the dazzling blue sky to golds and reds and purples, and all I could think about was the ozone layer or the possibility that Planet Earth might lie in the path of an asteroid, or maybe I mean a comet, zooming toward Cincinnati at approximately one skillion miles an hour and landing — THUD! BOOM! — So long, Cincinnati, which has just become teeny, tiny airborne particles of dust, Styrofoam, and polyester, blocking the sun and causing everyone in the western hemisphere to die from sunlight-deprivation poisoning or from inhaling pulverized truck parts or something.

lemons_in_strainerSuch was my cheery outlook the summer I was eleven. Mama and Daddy were worried about me. I overheard them discussing my moroseness one evening. They were sitting on the porch swing, holding hands and rocking gently, back and forth, back and forth on the swing, and I was just a few feet away, cross-legged on the ground, leaning against an old crabapple tree and watching the sky, keeping an eye out for asteroids and nuclear missiles. It was dark, and Mama and Daddy must have thought I’d gone to bed, because they weren’t even whispering.


The inner solar system with its asteroids

Mama said she thought my problem was “hormonal changes,” and Daddy made a choking noise in his throat and said, “She’s not old enough for… um… THAT, is she?” Mama laughed and told Daddy that she was just my age when THAT happened, and then they started talking about something else, but I felt microscopically better, knowing that Mama and Daddy were more worried about my hormones than they were about the Apocalypse.

But I still felt as if I were carrying around this tentacled, viscous lump of worry, so I spent almost all my free time with Sister Alma Rose — because I always feel a little safer with Sister Alma Rose — instead of with Pablo and my other friends, most of whom were also eleven and presumably struggling with their own hormones.

Your average, greedy, heartless-conglomerate kind of guy

Your average, greedy, heartless-conglomerate kind of guy

We were playing Monopoly on Sister Alma Rose’s porch one day, and I was mopey, and losing the game besides, and finally, in a snit, I toppled my heaps of Monopoly money and asked crossly, “Sister Alma Rose, do you read the newspaper? Because ever since I started reading the newspaper, I’ve been in a bad mood.”

“Why, Fanny,” said Sister Alma Rose calmly, “I gave y’all half of an angel-food cake with strawberries and whipped-cream frosting, from a recipe I found in the newspaper, and y’all weren’t the least little bit cranky.”

Sorghum (milo)

Sorghum (milo)

I smiled a little and said, “Sister Alma Rose, you know that I’m talking about the News, not the recipes and the sorghum futures. The News is full of greedy people behaving badly, and it’s beginning to seem like everyone in the world, just about, is greedy and behaves badly, of course not you or Mr. Truman LaFollette or Cousin Dulcie or Mama or Daddy or my brothers or Dr. Deirdre Barstow or most of the people in Hilltop… but everybody else.”

Sister Alma Rose set her lemonade down on a pretty green-and-cream-colored crocheted coaster and took both of my hands in hers, and I just about fell off my chair because the hand that had been holding the lemonade was ice-cold.

“Miss Fanny,” she said, very seriously, “the News is not Life. The News is sordid little patches of Life stitched up so it looks all of a piece.”

She was quiet for a minute, and then she said, “Miss Fanny, I think it’s time you and I paid a visit to the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs’.”

And then I really did smile, because there is practically nothing in this entire universe better than a visit to the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs’.

To be continued…


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Hale-Bopp Comet, 1997 (photo by Philipp Salzgeber)

Hale-Bopp Comet, 1997 (photo by Philipp Salzgeber)

Sister Alma Rose Walks with the Angels

The Rescuer Whose Name Is Grace


summer_trail_okThere is littleness in ghettos of the spirit; there are clusters of

anxiety for great and small potentialities; there

is a gnawing discontent, and there is greed, there is belligerence

whose appetite for prey is so immense it manufactures

enemies to butcher and devour. Here pain and anger

are allowed and unrestrained; envy and resentment are

infectious, and susceptible or even willing hosts become

diseased. This is Planet Earth, its denizens believe.

Luc Viatour

Photo: Luc Viatour


But there is one whose promise — “I have overcome the world” —

revealed a paradise where anyone who wishes can abide. And when

I chose to make my home where he is guardian and guide, I

saw that littleness is less than I supposed, for I was given eyes

with which to view the continents anew, and they were radiant. The

huddled masses dwell, I saw, in mere illusion; fog that

vanishes at dawn. I live among the angels and I wander

on green hills, and the inhabitants with whom I every day converse

are beauty, peace, vitality; are song and dance; are spirits that

rejoice in blessed certainty that everything they need will be

supplied, and more besides. This is where I live, but

even so, I often fall away, for there is a seductive quality in

self-indulgence and complaint. And then I have forgotten to

return, have thought I didn’t know the way, have even stopped

believing there was ever such a place. Infected by deceit

and heavy with the burden of a nothingness disguised as stone,

a monolith, I struggle for each breath and grapple with the lie that

I am all alone. But I am not invisible to those who wait at home.

Luc Viatour

Photo: Luc Viatour


They send a rescuer whose name is Grace, who never tires of carrying

the weary and the lost back to the place prepared for them eternities

ago. And the monstrosities are known for what they are — only shadows

that cannot abide the sun. I needn’t earn the bread and wine on

heaven’s table; all that is required is my acceptance. If

unswallowed, they cannot revive the tired and hungry prodigal.


Let this be my embracing of abundant grace; these words I

have received and written, and must give away to clear a

space for brighter blessings yet to come.


February 13, 2006

Luc Viatour

Photo: Luc Viatour

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The Mysteries

Was Mary a Virgin?

The Annunciation, by Fra' Filippo Lippi, 1443

The Annunciation, by Fra' Filippo Lippi, 1443

Sometimes when I ask Sister Alma Rose a question and she doesn’t want to answer, or (rarely) she doesn’t know the answer, she says, “Honey, it’s one of the Mysteries.” Usually it’s a question about God or the Afterlife. If it’s a scientific question, like why did God make cockroaches, Sister Alma Rose might take me to the library and we both learn about The Cockroach’s Place in the Ecosystem, and, even after I understand, I still think cockroaches were one of God’s Mistakes, like Muffy Shea, who picks her nose and eats her boogers ALL the TIME, even in French class.

Marine ecosystem near Hawaii, U.S. NOAA

Marine ecosystem near Hawaii, U.S. NOAA

Back when Pablo and I were 7 or 8 years old and we were playing Uno with Sister Alma Rose on her big wraparound porch with the grass-green floor and the grass-green wicker table and chairs, Pablo tells Sister Alma Rose that his mama and daddy have had a great big fight and they are not speaking to each other because Pablo’s daddy believes that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, exactly like it says in the Bible, and Pablo’s mama believes that Mary was absolutely not a virgin and that the Holy Spirit did not impregnate her, and the whole idea, Pablo’s mama says, is “sick and wrong,” and Pablo says it is getting so he hates the Christmas season because every year his mama and daddy don’t speak from the beginning of Advent until after Epiphany.

Adoration of the Magi, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio)

Epiphany: Adoration of the Magi, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 17th century (Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio)

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. —Luke 1:26-28

The Annunciation, from a mural in Ubisi, Georgia

The Annunciation, from a mural in Ubisi, Georgia

“Jesus wept!” says Sister Alma Rose in her Exasperated voice. “Honey, why can’t y’all’s mama and papa argue about money, like NORMAL people?”

She shuffles the Uno cards, making them bridge and then fall neatly into place with that snapping sound, which neither Pablo nor I can do and which we greatly admire.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

The week before, Pablo had asked Sister Alma Rose if Santa Claus was real. “Honey, ain’t nothin’ much realer’n Santa Claus,” she answers. But Pablo is not going to be put off with that. He has been hanging with the Wrong Crowd, which is to say, kids who don’t GET Santa Claus.

In fact, tears are welling up in Pablo’s eyes, and I have never seen Pablo cry, never, not even when he fell out of a tree and ruptured his spleen. “But Sister Alma Rose,” he persists, “who puts the Christmas presents under the tree and in our stockings?” He has noticed that the writing on the Santa gift tags looks exactly like his mama’s writing, plus last year she got careless and wrapped the Santa presents in the same wrapping paper she used for Pablo’s present for his teacher, Mrs. Blount, which was a cube of personalized sticky notes, the present, I mean, not Mrs. Blount.


An 1881 illustration by Thomas Nast who, with Clement Clarke Moore, helped to create the modern image of Santa Claus

“Honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “Santa Claus is one of the Mysteries. Do y’all want to take the mystery out of Christmas?”

Well, by now the tears have escaped and are coursing down Pablo’s face, making runnels in the dust that coats little boys’ faces when they have been playing outside. “No,” he sobs. “But someday I’m gonna grow up and get married and have children, and it’s gonna come Christmas Eve, and I’m not gonna know if I’m supposed to do anything or not!”

Sister Alma Rose promises Pablo that the Santa Claus Mystery will have been Revealed to him by that time, and Sister Alma’s promises are sacrosanct, so Pablo dries his eyes and we go to play in the dirt some more.

Many kinds of truth

But the following week, when we are playing Uno and Pablo is telling us about his mama and daddy’s annual argument, and Sister Alma Rose says, “Jesus wept!” and so forth, Pablo just looks at her and says, “So, Sister Alma Rose, who’s saying the truth, my mama or my daddy?”

“Honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “there are many kinds of truth. Let’s say y’all called up your sister Helen on the phone right now — she’s still living in Connecticut, right? — and y’all asked her what time it is. What would she say?”

“Well,” Pablo says, “it’s one hour later there than it is here. What time is it here?”

“It’s ten-fifteen in the morning,” says Mr. Truman Lafollette, who is setting down a tray of spiced apple cider instead of his usual crisp, tangy lemonade, because it is cool outdoors and the sun hasn’t yet made its way over the porch.

“Then I guess it’s eleven-fifteen in Connecticut,” I say, stirring my cider with a cinnamon stick.

“Well, then, honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “who is telling the truth: Helen, who would say it’s eleven-fifteen, or y’all, who’d say it’s ten-fifteen?”

“We’d both be right,” says Pablo, “but it’s because we’re in different places.”

Cinnamon sticks

Cinnamon sticks

“So, maybe,” says Sister Alma Rose, sipping her cider, which is still very hot, “y’all’s mama and papa are both right. They’re in different places, too, and speaking different languages.

“There’s story truth, you see, and there’s empirical truth, the kind you can prove in a laboratory. ‘Story truth’ is spiritually true, just as Jesus explained to the Pharisee named Nicodemus. Spiritual truth is eternal and everlasting and no matter how hard scientists try, they will never catch up with it.”

Some believe that Nicodemus was among those who removed the nails and took Jesus down from the cross; painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Some believe that Nicodemus was among those who removed the nails and took Jesus down from the cross; painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” —John 3:1-12

“Sister Alma Rose,” Pablo says, longsuffering, “you haven’t answered my question. Was Mary a virgin or wasn’t she?”

“Well, honey,” says Sister Alma Rose, “that’s one of the Mysteries, ain’t it? But if scientists could prove in a laboratory that Joseph of Nazareth was the biological father of Jesus, would it matter? Would it shake y’all’s faith? Would it make the Good News — that God came to earth and lived among us and revealed himself as Life and Love, and continues to do so, and, because he loves us, pays the price for our mistakes, so that we might, at any time and as often as we choose to claim his promise, be new and innocent again — would that Good News be tarnished and our joy be diminished? Not mine, to be sure; not mine.”


“Cinnamon sticks” from a photo © Luc Viatour, GFDL CC

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The Sea

barbadosbluePrayer is to the spirit as water is to the body — Source unknown

Swim in a River of Prayer

Before there was anything else on Earth, there was a great sea. Then the Creator reached out and touched the sea, and thus began life. A living thing thrived in the great sea, moving, moving, always toward life.

And the one became many, and the many grew in size and variety and beauty, and in something not quite like knowledge. The living things in the sea did not know the sea, because there was nothing else, only the endless water. They did not know that it was blue and green and beautiful. They did not know that without the sea they could not live. They did not know about the sun or the moon or the stars.

Then the Creator reached out again and caused a great upheaval of the Earth, and mountains rose up out of the sea. In time the rains and the sun and the tides gentled the mountains, and there were beaches and valleys. The sun raised water from the sea, and the wind blew the water over the land and baptized it with life — green and spreading, growing, and growing more, always toward life.

rainforestThen the tides threw creatures from the sea onto the dry land, and some were carried back into the deep, but one found both the sea and the land to be hospitable, and that one thrived, creeping upon the land and swimming in the sea.

And the one became many, and the many grew in size and variety and beauty, and in something not quite like knowledge, but rather in a sense of the difference between dry land and water. Moving, moving, always toward life, they found that streams flowed from the mountains to the sea, and they thrived in and alongside the streams, which came from the rain, which the sun raised from the sea.

The green things — spreading, growing, and growing more, always toward life — became broad and tall, and beckoned the creeping things to feast on their fruit. In time, the strongest of the creatures made claws to scale the trees, and some made wings out of their fins to soar over oceans and rivers and land . But even those who built nests and lived and bore their young in trees required water to survive, just as did the creatures who swam only in the sea.

farmlandafterrainAnd the dryland creatures became many, and the many grew in size and variety and beauty, and in something a little more like knowledge, until one arose from all the creatures who roamed the earth, and that one had knowledge and more; that one had understanding.

And the one became many, and the many grew in size and variety and strength and intelligence. But some of the people turned their intelligence toward small, inward things, and forgot about the sea, and with all their understanding, they did not know that they had come from the sea and required it to survive, just as did the creatures who swam only in the sea. They injured the streams, though they required them to survive. They injured the creatures who swam in the streams; they injured the air and the land and the sea; they blocked the sun — though they required all these things to survive.

eagle_creek_oregonIn their minds, they forgot about the eternal sea, though their hearts remembered, and pulsed with admonition. And the people were uneasy, because they believed that their minds were more powerful than their hearts. And so they defied their hearts, and thus they injured even the streams that flowed through their bodies, pulsing from their hearts with admonition.

But in every age, among all the peoples, there have been those who have remembered the eternal sea, who have known that, where pure streams cannot flow, living things shrivel and perish, and where the mind is not nourished by the heart, the mind withers and is sterile.

Those who remember are the teachers and sages, the Wise Ones, the Ancients, the embodied admonitions of the heart’s pulsing. They say to us, swim, always, in the remembered pure streams that flow to the sea. Immerse yourself always in that awareness, which is prayer. When you drink clear water, know it as a ceremony and celebrate the eternal sea, which is something that we know of God. For prayer is to the spirit as water is to the body… and those who immerse themselves in prayer will be continually refreshed and renewed.

* * *

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Krisha with the goddess Radha (18th-century painting)

Krisha with the goddess Radha (18th-century painting)

Sister Alma Rose’s Prescription for a Sore Throat

Sister Alma Rose is advancing my “meditation education.” Yesterday, I had a sore throat, and she had me lie still in her wonderful pink attic bedroom and listen to readings by Dr. Deepak Chopra from the Bhagavad-Gita [Sacred Verses, Healing Sounds, Volumes I and II: The Bhagavad Gita, Hymns of the Rig Veda (Chopra, Deepak)].

Sister Alma Rose said I would find these readings to be “very healing.” What I found them to be was “very confusing.” They were all about a conversation between Krishna, who, I think, represents God, and a guy named Arjuna, who is about to go into a battle, and among his enemies are his cousins, people he cares about. Krishna tells him that the souls of the people who die on the battlefield will live on — I think he means that they will be reincarnated or else they will go into the Supreme Realm.

Arjuna is not buying it, so Krishna goes on to explain about the paths of yoga, which doesn’t mean the postures and exercises that Mrs. McCallister teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays down at the library, it means harmony, union, integration, and balance. Anyway, these paths are (1) unselfish service devoted to God, (2) action without being concerned about “fruitage,” which means you’re not supposed to be “attached to” the outcomes of your actions, (3) meditation, and (4) knowledge — which comes from “transcending the ego, or ‘false self,’ and discovering the soul, the ‘true self,’” which is called Atman, which sounds like a superhero, and in a way I guess it is.

Krishna with Arjun

Krishna with Arjuna

Okay, so first of all I have to tell you, my sore throat went away, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with the Bhagavad-Gita or not. But then, since my throat didn’t hurt any more, I pestered Sister Alma Rose with a bunch of questions, which mainly amounted to, What’s In It for Me? I thought I was supposed to love myself, not lose myself. Sister Alma Rose has told me before that I can’t truly love others unless I first love myself.

The joy of unity and the pain of separation

So here’s what Sister Alma Rose said yesterday, in summary, and I’m still trying to sort it out, but I think it makes sense:

Arjuna and his fourth wife, Subhadra

Arjuna and his fourth wife, Subhadra

My ego, or false self, is limited by what I and other people believe about it, whereas the true self, the soul, experiences unlimited potential. The soul can’t help but share itself, because it’s where love resides in us mortals — it has a direct connection to God — and we become spontaneously loving when we experience our true selves. Love, and “action” that springs from love, is its own reward.

She reminded me of experiences I have had with the joy of unity and the pain of separation. Once I sang with a large regional chorus in a performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation oratorio, and it was such a beautiful thing that I got lost in it and totally forgot about whether I messed up the notes, which I knew I wouldn’t anyway because we had practiced it a thousand-million times. I felt, at the same time, completely and personally joyful and completely one with the chorus and orchestra and audience. That, Sister Alma Rose said, was a fleeting experience of the “perfect peace” of Nirvana — where everyone is totally in unity and totally their “authentic selves.” I am quoting Sister Alma Rose here, who also reminded me of how I felt when my daddy was in a bad car accident and how lost I felt when I thought he was going to die, because I loved him so much. Real love, says Sister Alma Rose, comes from the soul, and in the soul we can never be separated from another.

I thought about a woman who came to see Sister Alma Rose one summer afternoon, and in the warm breeze in the shade of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green porch, on a halcyon day that just makes you want to run and shout for the joy of being in the world, this woman was weeping because her son was a heroin addict, and she said she would gladly die if it would mean her son could have been spared the torment he was going through. I got a little glimpse of “selflessness” then, and I thought of all the promises I had made to God about how good I would be, even mucking out the barn and other stuff I hate, if my daddy could get well after his accident, though I don’t think that actually dying was on the list of sacrifices I was willing to make.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose said that our false selves take a lot of beating up before we realize how fragile and undependable they are, and that it can require many lifetimes before a person evolves to the place where she is willing to surrender her ego and embrace God, but that when you’re ready, you’re ready, and then you find indestructible happiness in harmony with the universe.

She said that people who go around “doing good” because it’s, like, a rule, don’t have their hearts in it, but that we all will evolve to where “good” is all we want to do, it flows from us like a river. And I thought about all the stuff I’m attached to, stuff that seems to be necessary to my happiness, and I said, that’s okay, I can wait. And Sister Alma Rose gave me a big suffocating hug and told me I had a beautiful aura that shines like the sun.

* * *

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