Love Your Neighbor, Love Yourself

The Ancients… on Being Happy and Loving Oneself

Happiness is the highest form of satisfaction… the key to fulfillment… and your most important responsibility to yourself and the rest of the universe. [1] Your well-being contributes to the planet’s health in ways that are now being measured by scientists who study coherence, or “global order.”

This is not to say you shouldn’t be emotionally honest. Sadness, anger, unpleasant feelings will arise. Robert Holden, one of the leading experts on happiness, suggests that “emotions want to be felt”; giving them due respect will allow them to fade away, whereas denying them is the surest way to make them stick. But Holden, success coach Michael Neill, and many other authorities agree that happiness is our natural, “unconditioned” state of being.

Contented sleeping baby and puppy

Happy by Default

Seeking happiness is instinctive

I can’t choose to pursue happiness any more than I can choose to grow toenails. All my cells, every body process leans into the equilibrium that is happiness.

If I am drowning in misery I reach for happiness automatically – or at least for relief from suffering, which might look like happiness from the vortex of the black lagoon. I can’t help striving to find safety. The instinct is the same as if I were in a smoke-filled room gasping for oxygen.

Happiness comes more easily if we love ourselves. This too is instinctive, but many of us were taught that loving ourselves is selfish, wrong, immoral, un-Christian, sinful… and sometimes, as a result, the natural impulse toward healthy love, compassion, and respect for the self was scrubbed away.

Freedom Riders (1961) courageously manifested white support for civil rights (photo: Florida State Archives)

Freedom Riders (1961) courageously manifested white support for civil rights (photo: Florida State Archives)

I struggled for years, in my late teens and twenties, with guilt brought on by merely wanting something – anything, from a boyfriend to a frivolous pair of socks. My parents — paragons of healthy balance and sensible self-care — were mystified by my chronic, debilitating guilt, which reached crisis proportions in the late 1960s, spurred by a pathological extremism that afflicted many white middle-class college students in that era.

In 1966 I attended a lecture at Stanford University given by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who was – and here I’m quoting a Yale undergraduate who was well acquainted with Coffin –

the type of Christian minister who saw a higher calling in “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.”  The “comfortable” were, of course, Yale students.  By and large, they came from prosperous middle- class families.  Their youth had been spent in well-furnished classrooms rather than [streets and alleys. Coffin robed them metaphorically in hair shirts] … because of how they were raised. —www.identityindependence.com/coffin.html

Toxic guilt

In 1969 and 1970 I served on a racial-justice speakers’ panel sponsored by the Presbytery of Missouri River Valley of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our mission, truth be told, was to dispense guilt with a heavy hand among white congregations in the Omaha area… converting wealthy Presbyterians steeped in shame into philanthropic progressive Presbyterians working out their salvation by promoting fair and affordable housing,  job and education opportunities, public-policy initiatives, and other measures serving the needs of poor African Americans and other minorities in the vicinity.

The objectives were laudable, but guilt proved not to be a reliable incentive… and by this time I was so deeply immersed in my own guilt; so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threats to our country both domestic and international; and so thoroughly distanced from my own wants, needs, interests, and abilities, that I fell headlong into severe clinical depression and spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

talk therapy

Talk therapy (photo: anxiety.org)

Back then, the few antidepressant drugs on the market were rarely used and psychiatrists relied principally on talk therapy. My doctor, Bob Young, was one of the nation’s foremost psychiatrists and, under his care, I quickly unlearned the ethics of self-abnegation and began to practice greater kindness toward myself and, spontaneously, toward others as well.

Dr. Young’s teaching shared much with the view expressed almost twenty years later by Marianne Williamson when she wrote, in her 1992 book, A Return to Love,

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ 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’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Health and healing through meditation

I was still in my early twenties when I came to understand the wisdom of loving myself, which invariably leads to spontaneous generosity in the matter of love. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t until I began a daily meditation practice decades later that I realized how brutally I sometimes treated myself – scolding and berating myself for failing to meet my own standards, not quite understanding that I could love myself even when I behaved unwisely, and expending a lot of energy on worry and procrastination. From time to time I fell back into the habit of indiscriminate people-pleasing… valuing myself according to the pats and strokes and other gestures of appreciation I got from my “admirers,” as I naively thought of them. 

You are a gift to the universe

A ‘mirror affirmation’

When I began meditating in 1995, I wasn’t really aware of the ways in which I had been cheating myself of love, life, and abundance. Events and circumstances since then, however, have shown me how much I’ve grown thanks to meditation. Difficulties that would have crippled me twenty years ago have been manageable and I’ve been able to see the lessons in them.

To be continued…


[1]      “Ten Life-Enriching Affirmations and How They Can Transform Your Life,” by Athena Staik, PsychCentral.com.

        When happy, your brain functions in ways that optimally support your mental and physical health….

        See also “Nourishing the Collective Heart,” by Deborah Rozeman, HeartMath, Care2.com. Rozeman introduces the Global Coherence Initiative, which is investigating potential beneficial effects of positive coherent emotional states on, e.g., the earth’s energetic fields.

Dancing with Angels

Sunset on the sea

A Tim Tidwell (age 9) escapade: The tide was going out, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and Tim and his little boat, which he'd taken without permission, were just a dot on the horizon, halfway to China

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Raising Tim

Terri Tidwell had gone completely gray by 40. To be fair, Tim Tidwell, Terri’s son, didn’t put all those gray hairs there, just most of them.

Fanny, the author

I, Fanny McElroy

Terri has three other children, now grown, and had two husbands: Chip, whom she divorced, and Arthur, Tim’s daddy, whom she buried. Arthur was dead at the time, as luck would have it. Three days earlier he’d been walking across the street and was run over by a drunk driver (who was uninjured), someone traveling on the highway who didn’t slow down when he reached the narrow brick street in downtown Hilltop.

It was sad, because Arthur was a fine fellow, but I think his untimely death kept Terri out of prison, because she was on the point of murdering his dreadful mother, who, after Arthur died, went to live with Arthur’s brother and his family. God bless ’em.

Everyone likes Tim…

Confident young man, handsome

Sister Alma Rose says Tim is 'too foxy for his own good'

…even the three mothers of his three children. He’s approaching 30, but since he’s been drinking since junior high as a way of dealing with pretty much everything, he’s emotionally stuck in junior high—at least that’s Sister Alma Rose’s assessment. So he’s kind of everybody’s little brother — handsome, funny, full of mischief, and, when he’s been drinking, either game for some escapade beyond mischief, or else just plain mean.

When Terri feels like she wants to run his life or else “enable” him in some way, she talks to Sister Alma Rose. “Y’all stay out of God’s way,” Sister Alma Rose tells her. “God has big plans for that boy.”

A recovering codependent

Attractive middle-aged woman

Terri, after her makeover that included collagen cheek implants; Sister Alma Rose says, "You go, Girl"

So, with Sister Alma Rose’s constant support, Terri doesn’t enable, and she doesn’t tell Tim what to do; she gives him calm advice when he asks for it and leaves it up to him whether or not to follow it. She doesn’t make appointments for him to see therapists (as she used to), and she doesn’t call him every day to make sure he’s not in jail. She has surrendered Tim and his fate to God, so she’s learned to stop worrying. And she doesn’t feel guilty or wonder what she might or might not have done during his childhood that could have made Tim happier and more well-adjusted.

And he’s not a happy guy, and Terri suffers with him. That’s a habit she hasn’t been able to shake.

Angels or hysteria?

Last week, Terri had a bizarre experience that she told Sister Alma Rose was either an encounter with angels or a very elaborate hallucination.  We were sitting at Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker table on her grass-green wraparound porch, and Terri had made copies for each of us, which made me feel very grown up, of her poetic account of the incident:

Peach rose

Terri's poem

Pink rose

“Sister Alma Rose,” I said, after Terri had left, whistling cheerfully as she walked toward the road, because Sister Alma Rose and I not only affirmed her experience but also shed a few tears with her, in the way of women, of sisters, which I am just beginning to understand —

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

Medieval rendering of angels; source unknown

“I mean, I know that Terri’s angels were real, she’s not crazy or making things up, and I know she’s feeling reassured about Tim being in their ‘custody,’ — and maybe it shouldn’t matter, but I just wonder where this all took place. In a room in her house, or in her mind, or a dream, or was she transported to heaven, or what?”

“Fanny, my love,” said Sister Alma Rose, placing her broad, brown forehead against my freckled one, “y’all’s training starts right now. There are many dimensions y’all have never experienced, or else you weren’t aware of it. Scientists, now, they work in dozens of dimensions, but only in the realm of math and physics.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

The classic fantasy novel for kids AND grownups, A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

“Y’all remember the experience in your daddy’s hospital room, when y’all saw your future self and you were standing above the room and walking down them stairs?”

Oh, wow, did I ever. “That’s something I’m never likely to forget,” I said.

“Well, now, I’ve been in that hospital room dozens of times, and I’ve never seen it with the ceiling gone out of it and a flight of steps leading up to nowhere.”

“Oh!” I said, understanding. “It was really us, and it was really happening, but it was in another dimension. Like we slipped through a tessaract,” I added, thinking of Madeleine L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites.

“Sort of like that,” Sister Alma Rose agreed. “And Fanny, do y’all remember the young man who was standing beside your grownup self?” she asked with a twinkle.

“Oh, sure,” I said, “because I remember it flashed through my mind that he looked a lot like Matthew McCon— Well, I’ll be a flat rabbit on toast,” I said, looking with wonder, and a little embarrassment, at Sister Alma Rose.

“It was Henry,” I whispered in awe. “The man in my future is Henry.”

* * *


Will Guilt Make You Good? (conclusion)

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Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Skellig2008 via Flickr

Every Tiny Leaf

This, as I have said, is a true story, and, as I hope you will recall from Part 1 of this story, because I am NOT not going to explain THE ENTIRE EPISODE all over again, Sister Alma Rose and her friend Elizabeth Anna Stratton (who is 65 years old) and I went to the 7:30 a.m. service at the Presbyterian church last month because Elizabeth Anna is trying to decide whether she wants to come back to Hilltop and live in the wonderful house in the country that she inherited from her parents, who are deceased…

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

…and the minister giving the sermon, who I hope is just an interim minister whose term of service ended yesterday, because if she is not, the only people left at the Presbyterian church are going to be the hard-of-hearing, no disrespect intended, inasmuch as the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell is the kind of minister who preaches austerity out of the left side of her mouth while the right side is practicing conspicuous consumption at Bergdorf Goodman, otherwise maybe I could buy into the guilt trip she was laying on the…

…“complacent middle class,” which is pretty much all of Hilltop — …[while] families are being driven from their homes and living in filthy camps where children starve, and little boys are being abducted to fight in revolutions they don’t understand, and young men and women are smoking crack cocaine, and mothers are selling their daughters into prostitution in exchange for money to feed their addictions

and maybe I could drop everything and go take care of all that, and still arrive before the bell on Monday morning at Hilltop Elementary School, where I am in seventh grade — IF the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell had, herself, not been wearing six or seven hundred dollars on her back and driving a beautifully restored 1957 Thunderbird convertible (for which my own mama would sell ME [but only to the nicest people]), although I suppose it is possible, theoretically, in the Land of the Seriously Deluded, that the Rev. Ms. O’Donnell’s clothes and the car were borrowed and she actually returned them to the borrowee that very morning in exchange for her hairshirt and pack mule.

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Elizabeth Anna's sickroom

Well, we were not questioning the tragedies she spoke of, which are all too real, but after we left the church, Sister Alma Rose was mostly concerned about Elizabeth Anna, who in her youth had suffered what I’m told was called at that time a “nervous breakdown,” brought on by guilt starting when she was a little girl, and prolonged by anxiety that caused her to not speak for six months and to be unable to leave her parents’ house for five years, and for THAT story you can read Part 2, because I am done with the recap that I said I was not going to provide in the first place.

Letters to Vietnam

Elizabeth Anna had invited Sister Alma Rose and me to have lunch at the family home, which I had seen only from the outside, but I had prepared myself to be cool and sophisticated and to not gawk at the seriously fabulous interior, where the first thing we saw was a fountain, the kind you want to throw pennies into, which was covered and surrounded with one-inch ceramic tiles, dark blue and shiny, but I did not gawk, I only gaped, which I was not aware of until drool landed on the toes sticking out of my sandals. I estimate that seventy-five thousand oak trees and three hundred thousand ceramic-tile trees gave their lives for the floors and the wainscoting and the bathrooms, et cetera, in that house that was not so much IMPRESSIVE as it was simply BEAUTIFUL but in a COMFORTABLE way that doesn’t make it feel like a museum but rather like a cozy living space that happened to have cost 78 bazillion dollars to build.

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

Acacia leaves and thorns; photo by Stan Shebs

During lunch, which I will not even begin to describe… well… no, I won’t even start…. During lunch, Elizabeth Anna told me that Sister Alma Rose had visited her many times while she was housebound, and I interrupted and said, “I’ll just BET she did,” and Sister Alma Rose gave me a Look but Elizabeth Anna just laughed, and went on to say that Sister Alma Rose had told her (which you will know if you know anything about Sister Alma Rose) that every tiny leaf in the universe is necessary and has a purpose, and the tiny leaf is not asked to be a rock or a stream but to do its necessary Leaf Job, and that it is the same with people, and that we must try to find where our Talents and Desires and the Needs of the Universe (which, Sister Alma Rose pointed out, is the same thing as the Will of God, though I am not sure what the antecedent of which is) coincide, so that some people are saxophone players and delight themselves and other people that way, and some people are called to serve the Indigenous People in the Amazon rainforest, and if that is their calling you could not pry them away with, um, whatever large things are out there that are used to pry people away from their calling.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

While Elizabeth Anna was recovering at home, she started writing letters to men and women serving in Vietnam, because the war was going on at that time, and she wrote thousands of letters, she lost count at two thousand, but I don’t mean to say that she wrote to thousands of different people, because many of the letters were sent in reply to those she received, and over and over again the writers told her how much her letters meant to them, that her letters were all they had to look forward to, and it was the knowledge that she was meeting a need AND doing something deeply satisfying that, more than anything else, made it possible for her to think that it was all right for her to be taking up space in the world, breathing air, eating paté, and so forth, and I am joking about the paté, but I was going to say, before I became enamored of my own rapierlike wit, that Elizabeth Anna received several proposals of marriage, all of which she regretfully (as she wrote to her correspondents) declined, because she did not plan ever to marry, and she never has.

A G.I. in Vietnam

A G.I. in Vietnam

Her parents worried that Elizabeth Anna might be plunged back into her depression when, as was inevitable, some of her correspondents were killed, but her Trained Psychiatric Nurse, wonderful Eleanor, told them that it was more likely that Elizabeth Anna would be happy that she was able to help them while they were living, which indeed turned out to be the case, and then Elizabeth Anna wrote letters to their families. Elizabeth Anna told us that sometimes she knew that someone had died, because that person had written regularly and then suddenly stopped, but more often the people whom Elizabeth Anna wrote to had asked a buddy to be sure to write to Elizabeth Anna if  “something should happen” because they wanted her to know that they loved her, in the way that you can love someone who has shared her life with you in letters and has let you share your life with her, and more often than not the “buddy” became Elizabeth Anna’s correspondent.

After the war, people continued to write to her, but she told us she was glad when the letters stopped, because it usually meant that the person had resumed “a meaningful life” back at home, though not always, so Elizabeth Anna always sort of checked in on those who stopped writing to make sure that they weren’t suffering from what we now know as PTSD.

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Memorial Chapel, Walter Reed Army Medical Center

Then, for about three years, Elizabeth Anna and Eleanor traveled, visiting the veterans who had become her pen pals who were having a rough time, making sure they were getting good care, which Elizabeth Anna very often paid for herself, partly as a tribute to Eleanor, who had helped her, Elizabeth Anna, so much during the dark night of her soul; and when Elizabeth Anna showed symptoms of making a veteran’s despair her own, she had Eleanor to remind her of what her “boundaries” were, because, as has been said, Elizabeth Anna would be of no use to anyone if she were once again sitting in her bedroom not speaking and eating nothing but Gerber vanilla baby pudding.

Back into the light

After Elizabeth Anna’s father died, she and her mother and Eleanor went to live in Wales, which was something Elizabeth Anna had always wanted to do, and for a while Elizabeth Anna didn’t do any Good Deeds, at least in a scheduled way, the three of them just traveled, touring castles and having picnics in the wonderfully picturesque Welsh countryside, and hiking, and taking a boat to Ireland, et cetera.

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

St. David's Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

And Eleanor ended up marrying a Welsh gentleman, who was in business with sheep, I mean, of course, that his business had something to do with sheep, and then Elizabeth Anna’s mother died after an illness of just a few weeks, when she was “in hospital,” as they say in the U.K., and for the next five years Elizabeth Anna stayed in that village, just a five-minute walk from Eleanor, and lived in an old cottage and gardened in the summer, and did whatever it is that Welsh people who live in old cottages do to stay warm in the winter, but, summer and winter, Elizabeth Anna volunteered in that hospital, visiting and talking with people of all ages who were going to die. And if they were afraid, Elizabeth Anna told them that there was nothing to fear, because she, herself, had died and had been for a while in a black tunnel where she could not see anything but the dark, and that the Grace of God had pulled her back into the light, which had been there all along, and then she had never known such joy, and it had never left her.

And now I am afraid that Elizabeth Anna will go back to Wales, because she has Eleanor and many other friends there, but I told her while we were eating lunch that, even in Hilltop, home of the complacent middle class, there are people who are suffering the long, dark night of the soul, but that if she decided to go back anyway, could I live in her house?

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna

* * *

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I, Fanny

I, Fanny

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Will Guilt Make You Good? (cont.)

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Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

GRACE means you’re in a different universe
from where you had been stuck,
when you had no way to get there
on your own.
—Anne Lamott, Plan B

What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 2 of a True Story

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna today

Sister Alma Rose’s friend Elizabeth Anna is 65 years old. As I mentioned in “What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 1,” Elizabeth Anna, who has been living in Wales or some place for the past several years, came back to Hilltop last month for a visit, and to decide if she wanted to move into the house outside of Hilltop where she was born and raised, which is a fabulous mansion with servants and poultry and some sheep and cows and lots of horses, not in the mansion, of course, although Elizabeth Anna says that it would have been just fine with her daddy if the horses had lived in the house, because he was a breeder of racehorses, like his daddy, and his daddy before him, et cetera, but he is deceased and so is Elizabeth Anna’s mother…

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

…who was descended from the Welsh noble Owen Tudor, whose wonderful Welsh name was Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr, of which I am sure the pronunciation is not as silly as it looks, but the important thing about Lord Tudor, or whatever they called him, is…

…he was the grandfather of King Henry VII of England, who was the first Tudor on the throne, and after him came his son, King Henry VIII, he of the six wives, and then Henry died and his heir, a poor, sick little boy whom nobody really cared about because his mother, Jane Seymour, was dead, had to be the king, under the name of Edward VI, while powerful men ran the show and otherwise neglected him, and when he died his half-sister Mary became Queen Mary I, who started out being popular but, unlike her half-sister Elizabeth, Mary didn’t think that she could rule without a king, so she married King Philip II of Spain, and then, of course, she was supposed to have a bunch of strapping sons, but she was unable to do that, and Philip was canoodling with Elizabeth when he wasn’t away fighting in some war, and Mary became bitter and dogmatic, and she was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” because she had hundreds of people burned at the stake for not being Catholic

… and then she died and Henry’s bastard daughter Queen Elizabeth I was crowned and things in England got back to the way they ought to be for the forty-five years or so that she was queen, until she died in 1603, and that, unfortunately, was it for the Tudors.

Catherine_of_Valois

Catherine of Valois

But Elizabeth Anna is not exactly related to the kings and queens, just Owen Tudor, who had children like there was no tomorrow, including but not limited to six children with his secret wife, Catherine of Valois, who was also married to King Henry V of England, and this is the honest truth, but in medieval England that sort of goings-on was just about normal for the aristocratic set, as was the way Owen died, which was being beheaded.

Elizabeth Anna’s burden

Now, here is what Sister Alma Rose told me about Elizabeth Anna, and this is a true story:  She has had a very unhappy life. Her preposterously wealthy parents — who actually lived rather simply themselves, no fancy cruises, no showy diamonds or rubies or furs, and who were also very generous to the poor and suffering — were determined not to spoil this pretty little girl, though she was their only child and though she was growing up on a fabulous estate in a stunning house surrounded by rolling hills on which to ride her horse, Robin, named after Robin Hood, the legendary English outlaw, who, in the 12th century or thereabouts, stole from the rich and gave to the poor, according to folklore. And that maybe ought to have set off warning bells, not Robin Hood, but Elizabeth Anna’s naming her horse after him.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

“Her folks taught her to be generous and to share,” Sister Alma Rose recalled, “and she was such a serious, conscientious little thing, she was always inviting the poor children of Hilltop to her house and stuffing them full of homemade bread and muffins and cream-cheese pie her mama fixed, and giving the little girls her pretty dresses and her dolls. And, Fanny, don’t y’all know that one day her mama heard Elizabeth Anna weeping piteously, and she asked what was the trouble all about, and Elizabeth Anna said, first off, that she, Elizabeth Anna, was the most selfish girl ever born and Jesus must hate her because she would never let the children ride her horse, Robin, and the other thing she was sad about was, she said, that she had given practically everything she had to the poor children until she was literally wearing the same too-small dress to school every day, but the little girls never wore the clothes she gave them and they still lived in their poor falling-down houses and they still weren’t getting enough to eat and Elizabeth Anna didn’t know what to do. And, Fanny, I have to tell you, a jealous, spiteful woman in her church, whom I went and had a chat with when I found out what she done, was just making everything worse, and Elizabeth Anna always came out of Sunday school trying to hide her tears.

Children in India, from www.colorado.edu

Children in India, from http://www.colorado.edu

“She told her mama that in the Sunday school class, her teacher was unkind to Elizabeth Anna because she was a little rich girl and she should be ashamed of being wealthy when children were naked and starving all over the world and here was Elizabeth Anna with her mansion and her horses and her rich parents who could give her everything she wanted.

‘Somebody should have helped

“This was a child who tried to take all the troubles of the world on her little shoulders at the cost of her own joy, and somebody should have helped her long before they did. But folks looked at her and all they saw was a little girl who could have anything that money could buy.

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

“Of course, coming of age in the 1960s, as Elizabeth Anna did, she was ripe for recruitment into the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and she was beaten and arrested more than once trying to help black folks register to vote, and her mama and daddy was so proud of her, not understanding. Because it was a wonderful thing that was done that summer, but Elizabeth Anna never should have been part of it, because she wasn’t strong. All she did was she got more and more depressed. She looked around and saw the pitiful way that many folks lived, and she felt like however hard she worked and however much she gave, it would never be enough. She told me it seemed like every time she did something to help one poor, desperate soul, ten more sprang up in their place.

Elizabeth Anna's sunroom

Elizabeth Anna's solarium

“And at the end of that summer Elizabeth Anna’s mama and daddy got a phone call saying that poor Elizabeth Anna had tried to kill herself with pills, which nobody knew where she got them, but somebody had found her passed out on the floor of where she and a bunch of kids was living, and got her to the hospital, and as soon as she was out of danger her dear mama and daddy took her home. They moved her bed into the big solarium, which was windows on three sides, and they filled the room with ferns and Elizabeth Anna’s pretty furniture and all her books, and that was where Elizabeth Anna lived for the next five years, with a psychiatric nurse called Eleanor, who was an angel if there ever was one, staying with her.”

‘Suffering is suffering’

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Sister Alma Rose told me that for the first six months Elizabeth Anna didn’t say a word. She just sat in her chair, dressed in a beautiful old-fashioned white cotton nightie, looking out the window while Eleanor washed her and braided her hair and talked to her as if Elizabeth Anna were paying attention, which she might or might not have been. And sometimes Eleanor would say things like, “How much good would you be doing in the world if you had died? And look at you now, as sick with guilt as you’ve made yourself, could you even take a pen in your hand and write one single letter to a soldier in Vietnam? Or serve one single meal in a soup kitchen?”

Eleanor had her own pretty bedroom right beside the solarium. She told Elizabeth Anna’s mama that she, Eleanor, had been a social worker and she had loved the work, having, she said, “a stronger sense of who I was than that sad little girl in there ever had” (gesturing to the solarium) and being “called to the job out of love and not out of guilt.

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

“I quit because the bureaucrats and the regulations and the paperwork kept me from doing my real job,” Eleanor said, and then she went to school to become a psychiatric nurse, “and that was a calling too.

“Suffering is suffering,” Eleanor said, “whether the sufferer is rich or poor or black or white.”

After a year or so back home, Elizabeth Anna, who now says she rose from the dead by a miracle of God’s grace alone, because she sure couldn’t help herself — Elizabeth Anna asked Eleanor if she could find out about someone serving in Vietnam who wasn’t getting any mail, and Eleanor did, and that was the first of thousands of letters that Elizabeth Anna wrote to men and woman in uniform.

To be continued…

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

Lost and Found

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Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

You are healed when you can say to yourself, “I matter, I belong, I am worthy, I am safe, I can express myself, I am loved. —Deepak Chopra, The Deeper Wound: Recovering the Soul from Fear and Suffering, 100 Days of Healing

While I am sleeping, you silently carry off all my suffering and my sordid past in your beautiful hands. —Hafiz

The Suicide Note

God is good,” says Pastor Alexis.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose’s dear friend Pastor Alexis got ordained as a minister online and started her own church, Pilgrim Chapel, five years ago. Anybody can go there, it doesn’t matter what religion they are or what they believe about God.

Before she became a minister, Pastor Alexis thought constantly about suicide. “I once was lost,” she says with a grin, “but now I’m found.”

She wrote a long suicide note ahead of time, in case she ever did take the plunge, so to speak. This (below) is it… in all its sadness and beauty….

My name is Alexis, and I am sitting on the balcony of my apartment, twenty-three stories above a narrow red-brick street in a quiet residential neighborhood. My art-deco-era building is an anomaly among the tidy old frame and stucco houses with their privet hedges and children’s swing sets.

The wall that encloses my balcony is three feet high and about eighteen inches wide. I have sat on the wall many times, next to the pots of thriving geraniums and trailing lime-green ivy, my bare legs and feet dangling — half-hoping, half-fearing that someone will come along and give me a small shove. That’s all it would take: just a slight, accidental bump. I believe in reincarnation, and I am ready to be a child again.But I always swing my legs back over the wall, plant my feet on the warm concrete, sit at the pretty white wicker table, and drink the lemonade I have brought out in a large Thermos. I have remembered that there is something left undone. Perhaps I have not dusted, or finished a crossword puzzle, or called my niece this week. If my life is going to end, I want what I leave behind to be tidy.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

* * *

I had what most people would consider a happy childhood in a happy home. My parents were proud of me (I was an eager learner) and told me I could be anything I wanted to be – a minister, a U.S. senator, an arc welder — anything, as long as it made me happy. They were warm and affectionate, and I knew that I was loved.

That’s the way I see it when I look back, but there’s a layer of fear, like gray film, over it, as if I’m looking outside through a screen door. The fear began with my mother’s “nervous breakdowns” and my dad’s frequent business trips… with the times Mom spent a couple of weeks in the hospital, or when she’d check into a hotel for the sole purpose of drinking herself as near to death as she dared to go. She was sick for two years, when I was 4 and 5.

Sometimes, when Dad was out of town and Mom was sitting in the darkened living room, in the overstuffed chair, her legs splayed on the ottoman… drinking red wine, which turned her tongue and lips blue and carried her into oblivion… I pulled a blanket and a pillow out of the linen cupboard on the second-floor landing, dragged them downstairs and into the living room, covered Mom with the blanket, and tried to arrange her limp torso so that her head rested on the pillow. Then I put her cigarettes and lighter in a kitchen cabinet, so that she wouldn’t burn the house down.

I didn’t know that Mom drank because my sister had a serious heart condition and might die any minute, although she never did… and because my brother had barely survived polio… and because Mom’s own mother had died of pernicious anemia while Mom, too, was ill with polio… and because Dad traveled so much and was unavailable to share all the burdens. I just knew that I felt unprotected when Mom binged and Dad was out of town.

fcc_outsideI started going to the Presbyterian church two blocks away, alone, when I was 5 — drawn, I think, by the glorious music and the grand old sanctuary with its elaborately carved oak and its sparkling, intricate stained-glass windows, and also by the reassurance of ritual and continuity. The Sunday-school teachers, on the other hand, made Jesus sound like a jail warden, and I was afraid of him, and of going to Hell. But when he came to me in dreams, he wore Levi’s and a plaid shirt, and he was kind and comforting.

One midsummer evening, my mother announced at the dinner table that she was under doctor’s orders to quit drinking. She smiled broadly, dazzlingly, and said, “I have had my last drink.” It was the happiest day of my life.

It lasted for a few months, this feeling of security, this belief in happy endings, this euphoria. And then, early one Sunday morning, after I had spent the night at my cousin Lucy’s house, Aunt Cecily dropped me off on her way to church. She watched as I climbed the forty-seven steps to the big tile-floored front porch, and she waved goodbye as I pushed open the gleaming mahogany door, which was never locked.

I closed the door and inhaled a miasma of cigarette smoke laced with stale beer and something ripe and pungent. I am sure that my heart stopped, and that when it started beating again I wanted more than anything to turn around, go back out the door, and run. Anywhere. Just away from there. Away from what I might find when I turned the corner into the living room.

In the end, there was nothing else to do, so I stepped into the living room and all but tripped over Mom’s feet. She was passed out, face down, on the ottoman, her toothpick legs sticking out on one side, her head and arms dangling from the other side, a pool of vomit between her hands where they brushed the floor.

Feelings whose names I didn’t know suffocated me: revulsion, disappointment, panic, and something worse. I think of it now, perhaps melodramatically, as a loss of innocence.

That summer morning, I had no time to rage or mourn. I knew that my older brother and sister would be of no help; they were still asleep, and in any case they were inured to Mom’s binges. Dad was somewhere in western Nebraska doing a bank audit. I was on my own.

Something in me pitied my mother and was terrified. When I tried to wake her, she rolled over onto the floor. Her arm landed in the vomit, which splashed onto my feet and my white cotton pants, covering most of one leg.

Dr. Prentice, Mom’s psychiatrist, lived two doors away with Mrs. Prentice and their son, Frankie, who was my best friend. I ran out of our house through the back door, up the alley, through the Prentices’ back yard, and into their kitchen. Dr. and Mrs. Prentice were sitting at their white-enamel table, reading the Sunday paper and drinking coffee. Vomit dripped off my pants onto the shiny red linoleum floor. I stood there panting, unable to speak.

“Is something wrong with your mom?” Dr. Prentice asked gently. I just nodded, and he got up, kissed the top of my head, and left the room. Mrs. Prentice took me upstairs and helped me wash my feet and gave me a clean pair of Frankie’s pants to wear. She said that I could play in the guest room until Frankie woke up and that I could eat lunch there and play with Frankie all day. I looked out one of the guest-room windows and watched Dr. Prentice, carrying his black doctor bag, walk across the front yard and down the street toward our house.

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

Late that afternoon, Dad came to the Prentices’ to pick me up. Mom was in the hospital, he said. Thelma, our housekeeper, would stay with us until Mom came home. Thelma had worked two days a week for us since I was an infant. She was big and brown and solid and safe. She liked to refer to herself as my mammy. That’s the way things were back then.

Secretly I hoped that Mom would stay in the hospital forever. With Thelma, there were cheerfulness and peace and order. She ironed our sheets, and they felt smooth and smelled wonderful. She baked homemade bread and sweet-potato pie. My clothes were always clean and pressed and folded neatly in my dresser drawer. Thelma vacuumed and dusted, and she scrubbed the blue-linoleum kitchen floor and waxed it by hand, then polished it until it shone. And in the evenings, she sat me on her ample lap and held me tight and told true stories that her grandmother had told her about life in the Old South.

Mom was in the hospital for a month, and when she came home she’d gained a few pounds and her cheeks had some color that had been missing before. She had medicine she could take if she felt overwhelmed, but she didn’t use it very often. I knew, because when she had taken the medicine she slept late and we had to fix our own breakfast. She didn’t quit drinking, but she kept to her daily limit of two glasses of wine. Dad went to work at a different CPA firm, where the head partner promised that there would be no out-of-town travel.

At last, when I was about to start school, there was beginning to be an atmosphere of normalcy and predictability in our home. I buried my fear, but it never went away. I was always steeling myself against the next disappointment.

Our house was a gathering place, as some houses tend to be and no one is sure why. Mom enjoyed a houseful of kids — my sister’s friends, my brother’s, mine. Everyone loved her. She had become strong and healthy and competent. And still I was afraid.

It wasn’t until I was a wife and mother myself that I understood Mom’s despair. When I suffered my own breakdown at 22, Dr. Prentice and Mom helped me through it. Some time during my high-school years, Mom had become my hero, my role model. Dad had always been my rock.

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I heard Mom tell Aunt Cecily that, if anything happened to Dad, she knew that I would take care of her. I never had to. Mom died of a stroke when she was 59. Dad had a fatal heart attack five years later.

* * *

I married Lou when I was 24, four years before Mom died. Together Lou and I raised three happy, healthy children. Lou was a philanderer, and I knew it, but he was also a wise and loving father and we made a fine parenting team. We needed each other for that, and the kids needed us both, and, for me, that was enough.

Lou died of cancer five years ago, and I grieved. The children are married, with families and careers. They are scattered throughout the country, and I see them twice a year. My grandchildren are always shy with me at first; they don’t know me, and they certainly don’t need me.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

lemonadeAlmost every day I take my coffee or my lemonade onto the balcony. I sit on the little wall and wonder, with some detachment, what it would be like to just push off with my feet and go sailing into the air. Maybe tomorrow, I think. Today I need to launder the bedding.

* * *

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    Cloned?

    An Evening with the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs

    …continued from “the News ≠ Life

    piano

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

    Belinda

    Belinda

    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.

    Andy

    Andy

    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.

    Priscilla

    Priscilla

    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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    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.

    istock_sunrise_mountaintop_above_clouds

    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.

    asteroids_inner_solar_system

    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)

    Forever Pregnant

    The Unselfish Automobile and the Good Christian

    Detail from "Views of a Fetus in the Womb," da Vinci

    Detail from "Views of a Fetus in the Womb," da Vinci

    When I was a child in Presbyterian Sunday school, I was taught that being a good Christian means being unselfish. Somehow I interpreted this to mean that my wants and needs were unimportant… that I had been put on earth exclusively to Serve Others.

    This was a troubling concept, but it didn’t cause much of a problem until I was out of my teens. During one’s adolescence, it’s almost impossible not to be self-centered and self-aware. I think it’s a hormonal thing.

    By the time I was twenty, I was married with an infant. Self-abnegation is a poor basis for marriage and motherhood. I was a slave to my husband and my baby. I was unhappy – but wasn’t that okay, since God wanted me to Serve Others and to be Unselfish?

    At that time I owned a 1960 Mercury Comet. Like me, my Mercury had been created to serve. It was unselfish. But in order to serve, its basic needs had to be met. It needed fuel. It had a hydraulic clutch (or something) that needed to be filled from time to time. It needed regular oil changes. It required maintenance and occasional repairs.

    Eventually I learned that I too required maintenance and occasional repairs. Without receiving, I became unable to give.

    Over the years, I have found that giving and receiving are inseparable. Think of a lake that has an outlet — a stream flowing out of it — but no source of fresh water. Soon the lake will dry up. It will no longer be able to sustain fish or waterfowl. It will have no beauty to be enjoyed. It will be unable to cool and entertain swimmers on hot summer days.

    When I discovered that I, like the Mercury Comet and the lake, had needs that could not be ignored, I learned a great deal about myself and about how the world works. Knowing myself better, I took better care of myself. I made wiser choices. I was happier, and so were the people around me.

    I now believe that people — women and men alike — should always treat themselves as if they are pregnant. Caring for oneself beautifully and wisely during pregnancy is, as it happens, the best way to care for one’s developing fetus. And I believe that there is a sense in which we are all, always, “pregnant” with our future selves. We carry inside us the embryo of what we will become.

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    Sister Alma Rose’s Prayer for a Time of Sadness

    Great God, Redeemer, Our Shelter in Joy and Sadness — I read today that “sadness is a is a cleanser, a clearing, a healthy rain needed in every emotional climate…. Rejoice in the rains… of sadness. See it as part of the larger cycles. But be careful when the snake of sadness feeds upon itself, resulting in a stuck or escalating sadness that feels like emotional quicksand.” (Bradford Keeney, Shamanic Christianity, on spiritualityandpractice.com)

    People bring their sadness to me. They want me to take it away. They say, “Sister Alma Rose, y’all seem happy all the time. Tell me your secret.”

    O God, you know how wrong they are. I tell them, “I am not happy all the time. Who could be happy all the time when there is suffering all around? I serve where I can, I pray where I can’t.”

    Sometimes I am sad. Never do I despair. Only you, God,  can see around the corners. So I ask “What if?” only when I am creating, never when I am thinking about the past or contemplating the future. I have no guilt, no regrets, no worries. You have offered to take them, by your grace. Why should I refuse such a gift?

    People bring their worries to me. They say, “I pray, and God doesn’t answer.” I tell them,

    Prayer’s like planting vegetable seeds.

    You poke them in the ground in spring

    and pull the weeds that would surround

    and choke them as they germinate. In

    short, you have to nourish them with

    food and water; then you wait, but not

    so long, it only seems that way. Be patient;

    soon the strongest grow and

    flower. Then a nubbin of zucchini , pepper,

    bean, or pumpkin peeks out from the

    foliage, and you feel like it’s your

    birthday. Woe to any cheeky rabbit

    who perceives a meal in store and

    tries to steal your marvelous romaine

    before it’s ready to be harvested. 

    Some will fail, some won’t come up at

    all, but they enrich the soil to nurture

    seeds you plant another season.

    If the seeds don’t grow the way you think

    they should, is that a reason to believe that

    planting seeds won’t do you
    any good?

    — from Unfamiliar Territory, LifeIsPoetry.net

     

    Sadness is one of your great gifts, I praise you for it, God. Sadness is filling, like molasses bread. It ain’t birthday cake, it ain’t strawberry fondue… but it ain’t emptiness, like depression or despair.

     

    And like molasses bread, sadness, too shall pass. Amen.

    ———–

    Most of the time we cry for the things which do not cry for us.Rohit Sharma
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