Moving Right Along

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue Sheer Curtain Window Toothbrushes to illustrate prayer-poem

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

except as noted


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.


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

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.”


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.”


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.


(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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Annagrammatica's Unusual Exceptional Remarkable Valentines
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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
mayor is
sort of like a
community organizer
except that
you have

Sarah Palin, 2008

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


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…


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?



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,

Child in Darfur refugee camp,

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,

The reality of drug addiction,

…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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The Guru

Country Road

Image by annamon (Livin' la Vida Loca) via Flickr

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Sister Alma Rose is on vacation

All Paths Converge in the End

by Mary Campbell

A real spiritual teacher assists you in finding Yourself. They help you find, not their truth, but your own Truth Within. Teacher is a mediocre word for someone who does this; spiritual sponsor would be a more accurate description. Or reciprociter. Personally, I’d call them Friends and Family, that’s Who We Are. In Equality, who has greater Equality? The one who knows more than somebody else, or the one who shares what they understand? —Will on Care2

Journey to Bliss

The gift of any true teacher to his or her student is (1) to impart a love of learning and (2) to supply, or point to, resources… then to sit back and watch the student devour the resources and look for more.

The teacher walks a fine line, as does the writer. At what point does information become dogma? I believe that the tenacity with which some “teachers” impose their views on others has to do with a belief in mortality. “Gotta hurry and get my perpetually angry 35-year-old son on medication, or into meditation and on a spiritual path. His anger is ruining his life.”

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

But everything snaps into place when you understand that everyone is already on a spiritual path. Your path, and my son’s, will undoubtedly be different from my path, and I can accept that, even be joyful about it, because I know that the spiritual journey spans uncounted lifetimes, and that all paths converge in the end.

Prayers are powerful

Many pray for my son and their prayers are powerful. Occasionally I am sad to see my son struggle, every day, just to be. His brother and his sister both seem to have slipped, with varying degrees of ease, into their “place in creation.”

But I also see spiritual progress in my son, and it has been many years since I have despaired of him. When he was a little boy — who did not know the meaning of serenity — I tried to impose my remedies (my truth) upon him, because his chronic anger and unhappiness broke my heart. This is what mothers do, a lot — try to fix people, especially their children — until they (the mothers) have used themselves up.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

So, making a virtue of necessity, I surrendered him to God, I practiced not worrying until not worrying became a habit, and in the process I came I understand that we are all in different places on our journey to bliss, and that there are no wrong paths, merely detours.

Many people have asked me how I learned to stop worrying, how I ceased feeling guilty and having regrets. Well, as someone whom I once had to study in World Lit. said, “I have been to the abyss.” When a hand finally reached down to pull me out, I promised God that I would always be happy and I would never fret about anything again.

I have died and been reborn — quite a number of times, actually.

GraceAnne Lamott writes, “means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had no way to get there on your own.”

* * *

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    Life 101

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    Sister Alma Rose is on vacation. Mary Campbell is filling in for her this week

    Guest Column: How to Live Right

    by Mary Campbell


    ONE — Everybody —  people who don’t even know you — wants to tell you how to live. Some of the stuff is useful and necessary, like YOU DON’T HAVE TO GIVE YOUR BABY A BATH EVERY DAY, and those little fluorescent lamps last forever, but you can’t just throw them in the trash when they DO burn out. Some of it will “resonate” with you, as meditation did for me. But all the advice about spirituality, about exercise, about diet, about environmental responsibility, and so forth, can make you crazy. And they keep changing it…. Omigosh, how many grams of protein have I had today? Oh, hey, this is Alaskan salmon, is that the poison kind with mercury? Were the salmon humanely treated? Shit, I don’t have time to go to the gym. Coffee and red wine are chock full of antioxidants? Who knew? I’m supposed to do my laundry at night? Is this my day to water the grass? Probably shouldn’t even HAVE grass….   RELAX. The way I see it, we have as many lifetimes as we need to get it right.

    TWO — KEEP AN OPEN MIND. How do you know there’s no such thing as a leprechaun?


    Image via Wikipedia

    THREE — WRITE DOWN YOUR WILD IDEAS, your bursts of inspiration. You’ll think of a thousand reasons why they won’t work, and you’ll discard them… at your peril. They’re like geysers: They come from the depths. They’re your Self talking to your self. So keep track of them, even if you’re not ready to act on them.

    FOUR — COLLECT SOMETHING, like coins or stamps or antique butter chips (little tiny plates for pats of butter), or colored bottles. See, it’s fun and you meet interesting people, but the best thing is that your friends and family will know what to get you for Christmas and your birthday.

    FIVE — WRITE NOTES, REAL ONES, ON PAPER, or send cards, whatever, in the actual U.S. mail. It might seem quaint, but it’s a thoughtful going-out-of-your-way sort of thing… a mitzvah, if you will. (By the by, I sell GREAT cards for all occasions, including packs of Random Cards of Kindness, at

    Photo by EspritSIX — LIGHTEN UP, IN EVERY WAY. Bring light into your environment – physically, mentally, whatever lifts your spirit: music, flowers, bright prints in pretty frames, lace curtains, whimsical lamps, people who make you laugh. The flip side is, don’t let negative people come in and steal your joy. I allow people with problems ten minutes to vent, and that’s it. Any more than that contaminates your space, and you have to have a priest or shaman or somebody come in and expel the negativity and do a house blessing.

    SEVEN — This is important, and it will serve you well: BECOME AN EXPERT IN SOMETHING OR SOMEONE: Jesse Owens, protein in human nutrition, the Isle of Man, the reign of King Henry VIII, making your own “green” housekeeping products, growing tomatoes, U.S. vice presidents, reiki — whatever turns you on. That woman wrote an entire best-selling book about commas (Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!), for heaven’s sake. I, personally, am an expert on so many things that it’s unmanageable. I need to sharpen my focus and hone my expertise on, say, mindfulness meditation or the use of the em dash. The point is, the object of your expertise is its own little universe, and if you study it to frigging DEATH you will become not only smart but wise. The other point is, it’s satisfying and energizing to keep learning new stuff. And finally, the main point is, it’s a good way to market your “brand,” personally or professionally. You can write articles or books, speak at the Kiwanis luncheon, teach at a community college, put up an authoritative website or blog, sell stuff… the possibilities are virtually endless.

    The Isle Of Man

    The Isle of Man; image by Simon Collison via Flickr

    EIGHT — TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE (Join AAA before you go)

    NINE — (Optional) MOVE TO BISBEE, ARIZONA. Population, about six thousand. It’s one of those arty towns where antique stores and taverns and galleries abound. It’s also the county seat of Cochise County. Bisbee is actually built into the side of a mountain, so it’s charmingly hilly. Only 82 miles from Tucson, Bisbee boasts a much milder climate because of the elevation. Mexico is a stone’s throw from Bisbee. Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold, and silver mining town in 1880, and named in honor of Judge DeWitt Bisbee, one of the financial backers of the adjacent Copper Queen Mine…. In the May-June 2000 issue of Modern Maturity, the AARP highlighted the what they called the most “alive” places to retire in the U.S. Bisbee was a runner-up as one of the “quirkiest” towns in America… Bisbee is noted for its “gay friendliness”….Wikipedia

    Bisbee, Arizona 1990

    Bisbee, Arizona, 1990; image by PhillipC via Flickr

    TEN — (Optional) LET’S GET THE PAPER COMPANIES TO STOP BLEACHING EVERYTHING. Why bleach toilet paper, for example? It’s just going to get yucky. The same with napkins, paper towels, and so forth. It’s an absolutely unnecessary and environmentally harmful practice, and we should start an Internet campaign via e-mail, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to get consumers to start demanding unbleached household paper products, as of today.


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    The Eloise Cure

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    Isn't she lovely?

    Isn't she lovely?

    Praise God for all the people who spread kindness
    quietly, who every day make
    sweeter by a note, a call — What does it
    take to do the things you’ve always meant to
    do but never took the time; too busy,
    overladen with responsibility, with
    this committee, that event, the social
    whirl; but aren’t we meant to feed His sheep?

    Small kindnesses can save
    the world. Thank God for them. Amen

    Tea with Eloise

    tea_roomYesterday, Sister Alma Rose and I had tea with Eloise. We met at the Hilltop Tea Room, which is very sophisticated for Hilltop, which is to say that all the plants are real and not plastic. The tablecloth fabrics are different colorful French Provincial prints, the dishes are unmatching white china, very beautiful, and for ambient music the owner, Mrs. Fern Feeney (really, that is her name), plays Beethoven and Mozart rather than sanitized versions of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” performed by the Orchestra of All Our Music Sounds the Same.

    tearoom_ouytdoor_diningIt was a beautiful morning, and we decided to have our tea and scones on the patio, where there are a tinkly fountain and enormous potted plants filled with daisies and moss rose and petunias and asparagus ferns and begonias, and that stringy stuff, moss, or something.

    French provincial-style drape

    French provincial-style drape

    I always, always, always thank God, up close and personal, for Eloise. If I were on my deathbed, bleeding from all orifices, with a temperature of a hundred and ten, delirious and retching — and Sister Alma Rose said, “Fanny McElroy, let’s go have tea with Eloise,” I would be instantly cured. I would “rise, pick up [my] bed, and walk,” as Jesus told the paralytic, but I’m sure the paralytic’s bed did not have an antique carved-oak headboard and footboard and two mattresses, so I am speaking figuratively, not literally.

    frenchch_provincial_tea_thingsHere is what I love about Eloise: She is truly, genuinely, deep-down kind. If you need something, she is right there, whether the “something” is a kidney donation or $10 to get your eyebrows waxed.

    Eloise got married in her mid-30s, for the first (and last) time, to the guy (Duncan) who is tied for Second Most Wonderful Man in the World (first most wonderful is my dad), who is 10 years younger than Eloise (Duncan, not my dad), and when Eloise was creeping up on 40, she and Duncan had a baby boy and, a few years later, a baby girl, who are adorable,

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    smart, funny kids, and Duncan and Eloise do not ask me to baby-sit as often as they could, even though I wouldn’t let them pay me because I love the kids and I also love Duncan and Eloise’s unpretentious 90-year-old house with oak floors and enormous double-hung windows, the kind where the rope is always breaking in the guts of the window frame, where you can’t get to it, so you have to prop the window up with a tire iron or something.

    PattiLabelle1A number of years ago, Eloise and her family, including her grandparents, Ellen and Rick, were dining in some swank Kansas City hotel when Patti Labelle slipped into the room. Eloise said, quietly, to the assembled family, “Patti Labelle just walked in.”

    Ellen, thrilled but not, unfortunately, beyond words, bellowed to Rick, who was hard of hearing, “Look, Rick! It’s Patti O’Dell!”

    Who?” Rick bellowed back.

    “PAT-tee O-DELL!” Ellen screeched, an octave higher and eighty decibels louder, in tones Patti might have envied, were she a lesser person.

    Eloise’s dark side?

    I have a story on Eloise, something she did when she was five years old and had to stay home from kindergarten because she was sick, so she was sitting on the front porch watching all the other kids walk home from school, and she was very crabby, and a little girl from Eloise’s kindergarten class walked by, and Eloise yelled at that little girl, at the top of her (Eloise’s) lungs, the absolutely most inventive bit of profanity you can think of.

    An elegant spittoon

    An elegant spittoon

    But I am not going to tell you what it was, except to say that, based on that oh-so-cleverly articulated word alone, you would think that Eloise would have taken the Wrong Path and would have grown up to be a sniper-terrorist-Nazi-Satanist instead of the smart, generous, beautiful, delightful woman that she is.

    Here is proof of Eloise’s wonderfulness: She has only one auntie, and every few weeks she takes her auntie to coffee, and her auntie, whose name is Augusta, hates the world because she, Augusta, has ugly warts, and she chews tobacco and curses loudly and is always scratching her private places, where there are, no doubt, fleas or something worse, I don’t want to know, and she rarely smiles, which is a good thing, because, when she does, there are bits of chewing tobacco between her teeth, of which there are seven (I counted) and they (Augusta’s teeth) resemble kidney beans, and when she wants the waitress, she yells, “Girlie!” really loud, and when the waitress refills Augusta’s coffee cup, Augusta always says, “leave room for my medicine, Girlie,” and then she pours something vile and alcoholic from the flask she always carries… and Eloise loves her anyway.


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    To the Soul

    Journal of a Departed Friend, Part 1


    An antique journal (Renaissance?)

    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:


    Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain
    or freed a human soul.
    —Mark Twain

    Blackeyed Susan growing wild along a country road

    Blackeyed Susan growing wild along a country road

    Where is it, then, this human soul 
    (if, indeed, there is such a place,
    a spring of pure motives and selfless love,
    a sanctuary of rest from struggle and anxiety)?

    “I can’t explain myself,
    I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice,
    “because I’m not myself, you see.”


    I control what I wear and what I eat,
    when I rake leaves and how I set my
    house in order. The soul is a place of uncontrol (I believe) where yet is not chaos but cosmic arrangement. It is
    a place of selflessness from which
    emanates the genuine Self, and it is
    THIS Self that I fear and that I
    hide from, behind activity and blind
    allegiances and alcohol and
    organization and television… that I
    bury and cover with the borrowed
    skins of the souls of others,
    calling them Identity.

    Rainbow (photo source unknown)

    Rainbow (photo source unknown)

    But this Soul, this Self, will not be
    denied; it draws one irresistibly. 
    I have found demons and have
    unmasked them, and at each turn I
    wonder if there are more-fearsome
    demons and angrier fiends. I have
    seen the sun disarm them and the
    rain dissolve them, and I believe a little
    less in the strength of demons and
    more in the power of the sun and the rain.

    Glasswing butterfly

    Glasswing butterfly

    It doesn’t do any good to run away,
    after all. It is like the man whose
    suspenders are caught on the doorknob: The faster he runs, the suddener his return. “No matter where you go,” it is truly said, “there you are.” 




    O, Power, embolden my encounter with the soul.


    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete


    A Meeting of Spirits



    Sister Alma Rose and I flew (on an airplane) to a wedding last week. Sister Alma Rose said it was okay for me to write about it as long as I didn’t use people’s real names. I don’t know why; it wasn’t like it was supposed to be a SECRET or anything. I mean, they sent out scores of wedding invitations, and the invitations didn’t say, “You’re invited to a wedding, here’s the place, here’s the time, but we can’t tell you who the bride and groom are. It will be a SURPRISE!”



    Sister Alma Rose, however, usually has a good reason for saying what she says and doing what she does, so I will use pseudonyms for everyone as she requested.

    The groom, “Lance” (not his real name), is Sister Alma Rose’s godson. Lance and his bride, “Alexandra,” had lived together for four years with their beautiful son, “Rex.” Sister Alma Rose did not understand why they waited so long to get married — Sister Alma Rose is a big fan of marriage, plus she absolutely adores Alexandra, as evidenced by paying her the highest possible compliment of allowing her (Alexandra) to marry her (Sister Alma Rose’s) godson — but anyway, Lance said that now they can put a big tattoo on Rex’s forehead that says LEGITIMATE. That Lance, he is such a jokester.

    'Rex' (spring 2008)

    'Rex' (spring 2008)

    Lance and Alexandra had a secular wedding. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know the meaning of secular. She considers practically everything to be sacred — picking your nose, cleaning the oven, whatever — and she told me that when two people pay thousands of dollars to make a commitment in the presence of their friends and families to become married, and, with their son and any subsequent children, to be a family… and then immediately celebrate that union by eating dolled-up chicken breasts and sweet little salads with pansy petals in them, drinking inordinate amounts of wine, and dancing endlessly to music played by a cornball deejay who made sly, unfunny witticisms about “the wedding night,” and so forth… there is no way that that ceremony and that celebration are not sacred.

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    But, Sister Alma Rose goes on to say, every true friendship, sometimes even a chance encounter, can be “a meeting of spirits” and therefore sacred.

    In any event, the marriage took place in a lovely garden and the reception was in the adjacent ballroom. I guess a lot of people get married there, because there were two efficient “wedding planners” at the rehearsal, which was the night before the wedding, and the wedding planners were telling everybody when to walk down the aisle and where to sit, and nobody was paying attention because everyone had temporarily reverted to seventh grade, and we all assumed that something would go wrong anyway, which, if it doesn’t, it’s not a real wedding and there’s nothing to talk about for years and years afterward, and besides, there was going to be a lavish party involving lots of food, beer, and wine immediately after the rehearsal, so let’s get this over with, was the prevailing attitude.

    'Christine,' 'Max,' and 'Claire'

    'Christine,' 'Max,' and 'Claire'

    The lavish party was at Lance’s “Aunt Amelia” and “Uncle César’s” lavish house, about which I remember nothing except that it was lavish and there seemed to be a lot of gorgeous marble everywhere. The reason I don’t remember much about the house is that it was so full of happy people, each one kinder and more gracious than the next, which was a miracle in and of itself, because in a gathering of that type you can expect an assortment of ex-spouses and current spouses and significant others and “blended families” and so forth. But everyone seemed to have left his or her baggage at the door, because, as Sister Alma Rose said, (1) no one wanted to mar the occasion for Lance and Alexandra, (2) all the current and former couples are, for the most part, mature adults (except on solemn occasions like weddings and funerals) and get along pretty well anyway, and (3) the bride and groom and the hosts set the tone for the party, the tone being, as Sister Alma Rose put it, “generosity of spirit.” The hosts were Lance’s dad, “Ken,” and Ken’s wife, Tomoko (and that IS her real name because I can’t think of any other Japanese women’s names at the moment), Lance’s “Aunt Savannah” and “Uncle George,” and, of course, Aunt Amelia and Uncle César.

    The groomsmen — 'Jeremy,' 'Max,' and 'Tom'

    Men in black: groomsmen 'Jeremy,' 'Max,' and 'Tom'

    After the party, the glowing bride-to-be and her friend “Christine” took Christine’s daughter, “Claire,” and Rex to the hotel where they had a room. Claire’s dad is Lance’s brother, “Max,” who stayed at Lance and Alexandra’s house with his sweetie, “Justine,” and their one-year-old son, “little Max.” Are you following along here? Sister Alma Rose and I stayed there, too, along with several other delightful people, and it was just… well, delightful. Even the day of the wedding was pretty relaxed, until everyone realized how late it had gotten and all dove for the shower at once because we were supposed to be at the wedding place by 4:30 for “pictures,” which, of course, took ages and consisted mostly of waiting and trying to not sweat.

    'Lance' and his new father-in-law, 'Mike'

    'Lance' and his new father-in-law, 'Mike'

    Lance’s mom’s name is “Peggy” (not really). For the actual wedding, Lance escorted her to the front row to sit next to Ken and Tomoko. Then Lance went and stood at the “altar,” so to speak, so handsome and grown up in his pinstripe suit, and Peggy broke into heaving sobs, and of course, although Peggy and Ken have a cordial relationship for two people who used to be married and haven’t seen each other for ten years, she couldn’t very well bury her face in Ken’s shoulder. Sister Alma Rose was about to go up and sit next to Peggy (“Every groom’s mom needs a shoulder to sob on,” she whispered to me) when there was a pleasant distraction.

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    'Claire' and 'Rex'

    Lance’s irrepressible best man, “Tom,” entered with Alexandra’s sister “Jeanne” on his arm, and Tom is such a goof, and I mean that in the nicest possible way because I adore Tom, that he had talked Jeanne into walking down the aisle in that kind of step-touch, step-touch way of walking that I don’t think anybody does any more, not even in church processionals or at graduations, so Tom and Jeanne cracked everybody up and Peggy stopped sobbing.

    She got a little weepy again when her grandchildren Rex and Claire, both age 4, ringbearer and flower girl respectively, ambled down the aisle. Claire apparently forgot that she was supposed to be scattering flower petals until she got to the front, so she just sort of poured them into a little pile by Peggy’s feet and went over to sit with her mom.

    Grandpa 'Ken,' 'Max Jr.' and Grandma Tomoko

    Grandpa 'Ken,' 'Max Jr.' and Grandma Tomoko

    The officiant — I guess that’s what you call the person who performs the marriage ceremony if he or she is not a minister — was wearing a toupee, which was not very well affixed, and it sort of slid precariously around on his head, looking like a wandering tribe of spiders, and Sister Alma Rose and I got the giggles, and the officiant talked on and on about nothing, which, if it’s not a religious ceremony, what is there to talk about anyway? And we’d think he was just about done secularly sermonizing, and he’d take a deep breath and go off in another direction, and he kept stuttering, and I thought that Sister Alma Rose was going to cause herself grievous bodily harm, she was trying so hard not to laugh out loud, but she just coughed a lot instead, as though she were trying to dislodge an entire yam from her throat.

    'Tom,' 'Alexandra,' and 'Celeste'

    'Tom,' 'Alexandra,' and 'Celeste'

    AT LONG LAST, when the officiant asked Lance the usual wedding questions, such as, do you, Lance, take Alexandra, blah, blah, Lance answered, “ABSOLUTELY,” in no uncertain terms. Alexandra gave the more conventional “I DO,” but just as loudly, so that nobody present, or within a radius of three blocks, was left in doubt of their commitment, which was sealed with a very lavish kiss.

    But the best was yet to come — the dinner, the champagne toasts, the wedding cake, and the dancing. Even though the deejay was a complete dweeb, as I have said, he was really into being a deejay, and at one point all the dancing stopped and the deejay, along with Alexandra’s other sister, “Felicia,” and the three groomsmen, did this choreographed skit to music from the movie Grease, completely unrehearsed and very silly and fun.

    Alexandra danced all night, and she was stunning. I’m not intuitive the way Sister Alma Rose is — she sees auras and stuff — but I turned to Sister Alma Rose at one point and said, “There’s so much love in here you could cut it with a knife.” And Sister Alma Rose agreed.
    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Emotional boot camp

    Sister Alma Rose mostly talked to Peggy, who was still in shock brought on by seeing both of her sons in pinstripe suits.

    'Alexandra's' sister 'Jeanne'

    'Alexandra's' sister 'Jeanne'

    “For ten years,” Peggy said with a sigh, “I had a sweet-natured daughter and wondered what all the fuss was about when it came to parenting. Then I had Max, and eighteen months later I had Lance, and the very first time I put Lance into his playpen, Max dropped one of those big Tonka dump trucks onto Lance’s head, and I should have seen it as a harbinger [except she pronounced it “hairbringer”] of things to come [which is, of course, redundant]. When the boys were teenagers and the phone rang in the middle of the night and I picked it up and a voice said, ‘Is this Mrs. Jones?’ [not her real last name], I would say, ‘That depends,’ or, ‘Who wants to know?’ I spent so much time in courtrooms and principals’ offices and teacher conferences that I bought a couple of modest Amish-looking dark-colored dresses with white Peter Pan collars and referred to them as my ‘mother-of-the-felon’ wardrobe.

    'Max Jr.'

    'Max Jr.'

    “Raising children,” Peggy told Sister Alma Rose, “is like emotional boot camp. I don’t think that most people, before they become parents, have any idea how far they can stretch without breaking… or that, if they DO break, God puts the pieces back together.

    “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, though,” Peggy said wistfully, “being a mom is the best, and I’d gladly do it all again, except without Tonka trucks.”

    We took an early-morning flight home, and Sister Alma Rose was so tired that she fell asleep several times right there in her seat on the plane and woke herself up saying something that related to whatever she was dreaming about while she slept. The first time, she said, loudly, “It’s TEN dollars, not THIRTY dollars,” and the second time, she sat up very straight and announced, “I am NEVER going to go into REAL estate.”

    Now we are home, and I am missing Lance and Alexandra and Rex a whole lot, and so I went outside and made a big chalk arrow on the sidewalk and then under it I wrote, “This way to Lance and Alexandra and Rex’s house,” and for now it’s enough just to know that we’re all on the same planet.


    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete



    An Evening with the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs

    …continued from “the News ≠ Life


    There are two circumstances under which it is impossible to remain depressed:



    1. Listening to an expert fiddler play “the Arkansas Traveler
    2. Spending an evening (or afternoon, or ten minutes) with the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs
    Even though I’m a kid, Mr. and Ms. Cavendish-Stolarskyj have mercifully asked me to call them by their first names, which are, respectively, Andy and Belinda, and their teen-age children are Alexander, who is called “Rusty,” and Priscilla, who is called “Priscilla.”
    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    I think that “Priscilla” is a beautiful name, but Priscilla went through a phase when she wanted to be called “Paris,” and her parents told her that if she wanted to be named after a capital of Europe she could have her choice of Ljubljana, Bratislava, or Zagreb. I told her not to expect much sympathy from me, having been named after Fanny Mendelssohn.

    Recently the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs invited Sister Alma Rose and me to have dinner with them and with Belinda’s father, who is called “Bob.” Andy was going to pick us up at 5:30 at Sister Alma Rose’s house.



    On the appointed evening, I moped across the street and up the hill to Sister Alma Rose’s porch, and she was watching the stars come out in the eastern sky. The sun had just set, and, as the sky darkened in the east, the pinprick lights shone one at a time, and then there was nothing but huge clumps of stars in the darkness, and I squinted, trying to see if any of them were actually asteroids hurtling toward Cincinnati or St. Louis.

    I was tired and in a funk, and I hadn’t quite finished my homework, and I was trying to think of a way to tell Sister Alma Rose to go without me, when a set of headlights turned off the road and into the long driveway, with a car behind them, being driven by Andy, and it was too late. Scowling a little, I climbed into the back seat and snapped my seat belt closed, and Sister Alma Rose did the same (not the scowling part, though; Sister Alma Rose almost never scowls) in the front passenger seat, and Andy made some ridiculous pun about Sister Alma Rose having brought her Fanny, and we all laughed hysterically, and suddenly I felt lighter than I had in weeks.

    An indoor compost bin

    An indoor compost bin

    The Cavendish-Stolarskyjs are very Good Citizens. Both of their cars are Hybrids, which means they can run on gasoline or electricity and so they get about a skillion miles per gallon and don’t throw much crud into the atmosphere. And they (the Caventish-Stolarskys) Compost and Recycle everything. I’ll bet the only thing the garbage truck picks up at their house on Tuesday mornings is a couple of butter wrappers and a used tissue. One of these days, I expect I’ll go to their house and see a forest of wind turbines in their back yard.

    Let me tell you about their house. The first thing you notice when you enter is that it is a cheerful house inhabited by cheerful people who like each other and laugh a lot. The second thing you notice is that it is very lovely — not professional-interior-decorator lovely but warm-and-comfortable lovely.

    Actually, before you get to the lovely part, you must walk through a room in which there is something that looks like an ancient table set for eight, with at least a third of the dishes broken. I immediately thought of Pompeii and looked around for well-preserved frescoes. “This,” said Andy, “is where Rusty’s band practices.”

    Bratislava Castle and Old Town (photo by Ramon L. Garcia)

    Bratislava Castle and Old Town (photo by Ramon L. Garcia)

    I knew that Rusty played the guitar. “What do the other band members play?” I asked.

    “The table,” said Andy, and he shepherded me back to the computer room, or it might have been NASA headquarters, with monitors and keyboards every few feet. Andy found a video of Rusty and his band performing, and, sure enough, Rusty was playing the guitar and about six other guys were banging with silverware on plates and glasses of water, in a trained-percussionist manner, not like a hungry baby with a spoon and a Peter Rabbit bowl. I had expected the band to sound like a large restaurant kitchen during the dinner hour, but it (the band) was really quite good.

    Neither Andy nor Rusty can open his mouth without saying something clever and witty. Rusty, like his dad, like all the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs, in fact, is a genius — so much so that I think he (Rusty) has cloned himself, because nobody could do all the things he does, and do them so well, unless he were at least two people. Get this! Rusty designed and sewed all the costumes for his school’s production of Romeo and Juliet last year, plus, for the prom, he made his date’s dress and his own tuxedo. Plus he plays the piano. Plus he is president of his senior class. Plus, like the rest of the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs, he is kind, friendly, and fun to look at.



    While Andy and I were viewing videos of Rusty and his various bands — Rusty and the Dishbreakers, Rusty and the Telephone-Cable-Wire Quartet, and so forth — Priscilla started practicing the piano in the next room. I thought I was listening to a CD, her playing was so smooth and expressive, until she stopped to work on a series of measures over again, several times, such as is seldom heard on a CD, unless it is a CD of someone practicing the piano.

    A friend of mine who goes to Priscilla’s high school told me that everyone considers Priscilla to be a “hottie,” not meaning that she is a “woman of easy virtue” but rather that she is very beautiful and popular.

    You know how creative people are always being told to “think outside the box”? I believe that it would be more of a challenge to the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs to think inside the box. Not that they are eccentric; they are simply unafraid to use their gifts. They make me think of what Nelson Mandela (the first democratically elected State President of South Africa) said at his inauguration speech in 1994:

    We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone.

    Nelson Mandela

    Nelson Mandela

    I have not said much about Belinda because I don’t know where to begin. She is my hero. I told Sister Alma Rose I wanted to grow up to be just like Belinda, and Sister Alma Rose said, “Better y’all should grow up to be just like Fanny. Belinda is one of a kind.” Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

    Belinda fixed us the most delicious meal I have ever eaten. It was vegetarian enchilada casserole, broccoli and carrots perfectly cooked al dente, and pumpkin flan for dessert. She pronounced it FLAN, rhyming with BRAN, and I said, “Oh, I love flan,” rhyming it with DON, and Belinda said, “Oh, is it pronounced FLAHN? Then I guess we are having POOMPKIN FLAHN,” and I thought that was the most hilarious thing I had ever heard, and I still giggle when I think about it.

    The other person at dinner was Belinda’s dad, Bob, who operates a nonprofit organization that engages prison inmates in the construction of low-price, high-quality houses, such that they, themselves, can afford to buy the houses and live in them once they are released from prison. Get this! Bob went to law school and graduated after he retired!

    The Cavendish-Stolarskyjs' flower garden

    The Cavendish-Stolarskyjs' flower garden

    Sister Alma Rose and Bob struck up a lively conversation after dinner. “He don’t seem old enough to be Belinda’s father,” Sister Alma Rose told me later, “but he reminds me of my own Daddy Pete. Everything he says is interesting and well-thought-out… no idle chatter….”

    Here is what I think about the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs: They “make manifest the glory of God” that is within them, not by going around conspiculously do-gooding but rather by remaining alert to ways of being “brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous” that bless the world. And if they can be so full of life — which one CAN’T be if one is forever scanning the skies for nuclear missiles — then I certainly can too.

    P.S. I forgot to mention that they gave me a scratching post for my kitties, which Andy, who is an architect, made himself, so I am sure that I have the only architect-designed-and-constructed cat scratching apparatus in Hilltop. Plus they gave me a “cat shelf” that now sits on top of my computer monitor, which is warm so Tim and Henry like it, AND some of the leftover casserole, AND a grapefruit for good measure.

    In my mopey days, which are now a thing of the past, if someone had TOLD me about a family like the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs, either I wouldn’t have believed that person or I would have hated the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs on general principles. But it is impossible not to love the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs. If you are so unfortunate as to not live in Hilltop, look around your own community. There are Good People everywhere.


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