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, www.columbia.edu

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

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

The reality of drug addiction, www.outoftheherd.com

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

…families are being driven from their homes and living in filthy camps where children starve, and little boys are being abducted to fight in revolutions they don’t understand, and young men and women are smoking crack cocaine, and mothers are selling their daughters into prostitution in exchange for money to feed their addictions, and I think that I have a right to want anything at all and to be happy in a world of suffering?

A word about the Reverend Ms.O’Donnell

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

1957 Thunderbird convertible; photo, nminow via Wikipedia

1957 Thunderbird convertible; photo, nminow via Wikipedia

So much, I thought, for self-denial.

To be continued…

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Demon Lady Number Two

Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. —Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

The Gospel According to Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the Banker’s Widow

Some people just have way too much time on their hands, Sister Alma Rose is always saying. 

Sister Alma Rose is so full of love that it spills out of her like a tumble of wild roses on a venerable trellis. I don’t claim to be able to see people’s auras — though I wish I could, and angels, too — but Sister Alma Rose simply shines. She even glows in the dark — not like a ghost, or a firefly, or something radioactive… more like a wisp of cloud as it slides past the moon.


Not that she’s a pushover. I’ve seen her good and mad a couple of times, such as when she and Cousin Dulcie were making plans to steal Janet, who is now Sister Alma Rose’s yellow labrador, and, further, to put the fear of God into the old drunk who used to beat her (Janet, I  mean, not Sister Alma Rose). But then, after Janet was safe, she (Sister Alma Rose, I mean, not Janet) prayed for that pathetic old man.



My third-grade teacher was so mean I called her Demon Lady. Now I can’t even remember her real name. Let’s say it’s Mrs. Pflug (it was one of those names that always make me think of sinus drainage). She hated children, and she especially hated me, and I wondered why someone who was practically allergic to kids became a schoolteacher. She always called me “Frannie” because, she said, “Fanny” was “a hideous and nasty name.” And when we had square-dancing on Wednesdays, if there were more girls than boys (which there almost always were), she’d make me sit out, every time, without fail.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Well, the Demon Lady was Troubled, and, as troubled people in Hilltop usually do, she made her way up the hill to talk to Sister Alma Rose. And the next time I plopped down on one of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker chairs on her grass-green porch and started complaining about the Demon Lady, Sister Alma Rose put up a hand to stop me.

“I know I can trust y’all, Fanny, to keep this to yourself,” she said. “That poor woman had two daughters, and she was driving them somewhere and ran a red light, and a truck smashed into her car and killed one of those little girls and the other one was brain-damaged and paralyzed and lives in the nursing home in La Mesa. Y’all remind her of the daughter who died, Fanny. She told me that.”

I just sat there, with one tear dribbling down my face, feeling sad and guilty. Sister Alma Rose took my hand and squeezed it so tight I thought I’d faint. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know her own strength.

“There’s a lesson here, Miss Fanny,” she said, mercifully letting go of my hand, which had gone numb. “Don’t never take nothing personal. Shine love and light on the person who wrongs you. Everyone has a story.”

Meddling in the name of the Lord

I tried to remember that advice when Miss Price and Miss Haggarty almost got fired from teaching, though, technically, it was Miss Price and Miss Haggarty who had cause for grievance, not me. As everyone knows, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty have been together for thirty years, and they are Beloved in Hilltop, which has a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward these dear and generous women, though anybody who doesn’t have beet paste for brains knows that they’re not just a couple of old-maid schoolteachers who happen to live together for convenience, but Hilltop folks don’t think much, any more, about their intimate personal lives. They are very much a part of the mainstream in Hilltop, where almost everybody is good-hearted and chooses to see Miss Price and Miss Haggarty as a couple of grown-up Girl Scouts rather than Deviants Living in Sin…

Miss Price

Miss Price

…except for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the banker’s widow, Demon Lady Number Two, who is just plain mean-spirited, even Sister Alma Rose says so. She didn’t have time to do much mischief when Mr. Bert Mortimer was alive and they had children at home, identical twins, Maureen and Darla, who were nice girls in spite of their mother’s unrelenting attempts to turn them into May-Belle-Mortimer clones. Probably in self-defense, Maureen and Darla married men who lived in New Zealand — I am perfectly serious — and then Mr. Bert Mortimer died, and May Belle grieved for about forty-five minutes and then turned her attention to Cleansing Hilltop of Sin.

Miss Haggarty

Miss Haggarty

Unfortunately, Mrs. May Belle Mortimer was on the school board and had a particular animosity toward Miss Price and Miss Haggarty. The lavish parties she used to give when Mr. Mortimer was alive were the only parties in Hilltop to which Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were never invited. If Maureen or Darla was assigned to one of their classes, May Belle would try to get them transferred to different classes, until Maureen and Darla put their collective feet down and refused to budge.


About ten miles south of Hilltop there is a lovely golf course and park on a small lake — big enough for sailboats, but not so big that you couldn’t walk all the way around it in a couple of hours. As cruel fate would have it, May Belle was driving to her A-frame cabin, which she always referred to, with haughty ostentation, as “Mortimer Cottage,” one Saturday morning in April — the first warm, glittery, delicious-smelling spring day of the year — when she spotted Miss Price and Miss Haggarty walking along the lake path, holding hands.

Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

I can only imagine how ecstatic May Belle must have been as she pulled into the Bathhouse parking lot (tucking her petal-pink Town Car behind a clump of spirea), grabbed her fancy-schmancy camera with the telephoto lens, and surreptitiously, as if she were Sherlock-Frigging-Holmes, who never used a camera as far as I know, but anyway, May Belle took a slew of photographs of two kindhearted women, without a care in the world, walking hand-in-hand on a gorgeous spring morning; and naturally she presented these photographs at the next school-board meeting, announcing that the photos proved that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were Perverts Consigned to Hell “and should be dismissed from their teaching positions before they can infect our daughters with their insidious lechery.”

Nobody said a word, though a couple of school-board members laughed out loud, according to what Mr. Archie Appleby, president of the school board, told Sister Alma Rose. May Belle continued to loom triumphantly in the silence, until she looked around and saw that everyone had sort of inched away from her, lest they become infected by May Belle’s insidious spitefulness.

“I move that we fire these practitioners of base depravity — immediately,” May Belle said in defiant rage. No one seconded the motion.

“Well,” she said, perching a little unsteadily on the nearest chair, “I guess I’ll have to take this matter to the state department of education.”

“Why don’t you just do that, May Belle,” said Mr. Appleby with quiet menace. “But first — May Belle, you got your camera with you?”

May Belle said that her camera was in the car and Mr. Appleby asked her to please go get it, so she did, and when she came back in, all the other school-board members, the teachers and principals who were in attendance, and the newspaper reporter who always came to the school-board meetings, were standing in a circle holding hands — men with men, men with women, women with women.

“If you’re going to the state department of education,” said Mr. Appleby, “you might as well not have to make two trips.” Mrs. May Belle Mortimer just stood there like a statue, Mr. Appleby told Sister Alma Rose, for what seemed like half an hour. He said, chuckling, that he had been afraid he would have to kiss Kevin O’Hara, the reporter, on the lips to break through May Belle’s paralysis, but eventually she just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

Heart beams

I wish I could say that the incident cured May Belle’s homophobia and that she and Miss Price and Miss Haggarty became fast friends, but that isn’t what happened. Had May Belle shown any kindness or remorse, she would have been forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. As it was, she closed up her house and “Mortimer Cottage” and went to New Zealand “indefinitely.”

Sister Alma Rose believes that there are some people, or more likely, she says, they are androids or extraterrestrials (like the slimy giant cockroach from Men in Black), who are evil through and through, without souls. “Mrs. May Belle Mortimer is not one of those beings,” Sister Alma Rose told me, “but I think she’s going to need a few more lifetimes to scrape the crust off her heart. There’s a lot of bad karma that’ll need redemption.”

And Sister Alma Rose and I prayed for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer. I was a little worried that our warm, loving thoughts wouldn’t make it all the way to New Zealand, especially mine, which were tepid rather than warm, and if they weren’t precisely loving, at least I no longer wished that May Belle would be stricken with an agonizing and fatal disease involving flesh-eating bacteria.

“Our prayers and compassion will be carried on angels’ wings, wherever they need to be received,” said Sister Alma Rose… and the glow of the setting sun seemed to cling to Sister Alma Rose for a long, long time after dusk became dark and the crickets began their evening litany.

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound, New Zealand


The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

I Give Up

Sister Alma Rose Prays for Surrender


Take possession of my heart, O precious
Father-Mother, for I do not use it
well. It’s true, I open it a crack
now and again, but then I do not know quite
what to do, and so I put the shutters
back and hide here in my room, where I have
pallid and opaque reminders of your
glory, second-hand, like faded Polaroids
from nineteen-hundred-fifty-two.

I have withheld my heart from you because I
was afraid that I might join the tiresome
Bible-thumping choir, forever quoting
Scripture, but reflexively, too weary
sloshing in the mire of modern thought to
hunt for truth among the crocodiles and
other predators of souls who talk of
love but practice judgment in their
robes of smug superiority.

Among your attributes is love; I cannot
manufacture it; you are the only vendor,
and the only price is the detritus of a
broken life — and that, you condescend to
carry off, as humble as the man who
hauls old, rusted cars away and sells
the useful parts among the heaps of junk. And
what becomes of the corroded pieces, well, I’m
loath to say; perhaps they are recycled into
sunbeams by your alchemy; perhaps they
are what burns in hell, but only to be
purified for further usefulness or cast as
mountains, valleys, pastures…. maybe ground to
earth… for distant universes, other
Edens, other births. Amen


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Sister Alma Rose’s Daily Prayer

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We Are Healers and Disciples

Prayer… is the conduit through which God’s power, grace, and light are released into a dark world. Long ago, Chinese theologian Watchman Nee said, “Our prayers lay the track down on which God’s power can come. Like a mighty locomotive, his power is irresistible, but it cannot reach us without rails….” Prayer forms the bridge between earth’s need and heaven’s unending supply of grace. A Busy Woman’s Guide to Prayer: Forget the Guilt and Find the Gift, by Cheri Fuller

Father-Mother God Almighty, you have
shaped for us so wonderful a place, and
grasshopper_in_buttercupyet we war for every inch, this acre,
this enchanted space, as though we had, our-
selves, created it out of the ether.

Once you made me; make me once again, a
new creation, every morning new, that
I might shine with your reflected grace, and,
too, no longer burdened with the weight of
karmic retribution, spread my wings and
fly among the planets and the stars.

O, Father-Mother, send me to embrace with
healing light my brothers and my sisters.
Send me to them now and I shall kiss each
brow, and sprinkle lavender and pearls, and
they will feel the cure, a gentle sting, no
more than that — for surely, God, once shriven,
I am naught but pure and holy love, a
moment only, living unencumbered,
free of gravity — a ray of sun.

enchanted_shore Your
love is weightless; one might bear it blithely,
just as driftwood rises to the surface
of the sea. Direct me, Mother-Father,
to the sons and daughters, restless in the
night from pain or grieving. You can hear them,
God, though they complain in solitude. But
here, I see that you have summoned angels —
guards, companions, watchers, whom I know fromwaterfall_mountains
other nations, other lives. God, bless our
going and returning. All you’ve taught to
us of healing or of letting go; of
being merciful or saying no; of
finding the divinity in all — the
learning’s etched upon our spirits, for we
are your children, healers and disciples;
joyfully we undertake to serve in
all the paths you take and bid us follow.


All photos © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC


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Sister Alma Rose Walks with the Angels

The Rescuer Whose Name Is Grace


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

anxiety for great and small potentialities; there

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

whose appetite for prey is so immense it manufactures

enemies to butcher and devour. Here pain and anger

are allowed and unrestrained; envy and resentment are

infectious, and susceptible or even willing hosts become

diseased. This is Planet Earth, its denizens believe.

Luc Viatour

Photo: Luc Viatour


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rejoice in blessed certainty that everything they need will be

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

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

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

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

believing there was ever such a place. Infected by deceit

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

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

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

Luc Viatour

Photo: Luc Viatour


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

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

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

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

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

unswallowed, they cannot revive the tired and hungry prodigal.


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

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

space for brighter blessings yet to come.


February 13, 2006

Luc Viatour

Photo: Luc Viatour

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Pray for Peace

Christmas in the Trenches

Australian infantry wearing gas masks, Ypres, 1917

Australian infantry wearing gas masks, Ypres, 1917

Q. Dear Sister Alma Rose: How can we end all wars?

A. Honey, if Sister Alma Rose knew the answer to that question, they’d make her a queen and give her a palace. Or hang her on a cross.

Perhaps y’all have heard the story of “Christmas in the Trenches”:

The “Christmas truce” is a term used to describe several brief, unofficial cessations of hostilities that occurred on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day between German and British or French troops in World War I, particularly that between British and German troops stationed along the Western Front during Christmas 1914. In 1915 there was a similar Christmas truce between German and French troops, and during Easter 1916 a truce also existed on the Eastern Front. —Wikipedia

It is said that after the particular truce described in the song “Christmas in the Trenches” (by folksinger/songwriter John McCutcheon), the soldiers were unable to or refused to fight and had to be sent home. Sister Alma Rose does not know whether this is true, nor does she know whether it makes them heroes or fools (cowards they certainly were not), nor should it reflect on the courage and honor of those who stayed and fought, or of those who do so till this day.

Mohandas Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi

Sister Alma Rose remembers the so-called antiwar movement of the 1960s with great sadness. The most zealous of those in the movement were as much at war with “the Establishment” and “the military-industrial complex” as the United States was at war with North Vietnam. They had forgotten the truth articulated through the ages by wise men and women — wiser, perhaps, than Sister Alma Rose(!)….

Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me….
Sy Miller and Jill Jackson

You must be the change you want to see in the world.  —Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi

The most potent weapons against war, Sister Alma Rose believes, are inner peace and prayer.

End first the war within —
The din of clashing tides;
The stormy seas no Nature wrought
Are drowning you inside.

Be thankful, as you ought,
For every simple gift —
The shaft of sun, the drenching rain,
The swallow and the swift;

The cycles that, unseen,
Will thaw the frozen pond
And loose the seaward-bounding stream
To quench the thirsty ground.

“Know thyself”; your dreams
And inclinations feed;
For when you hand your talents ‘round,
’Tis God’s own voice you heed.

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Five Minutes Well Spent

Make This Your Morning Prayer

I’ve seen many renditions of this bittersweet song with video. I prefer the Nanci Griffith audio, but the video here, by Mark Castle, is ALMOST perfect.

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Sticky Kisses


Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

I never had to think much about homosexuality until George and Tony moved to Hilltop. Tony is a nurse and George is a woodworker. He makes the most beautiful things out of wood that you ever saw, and he can fix anything. Miss Price took George her granny’s rocker to be “repaired” — it was literally in shards, probably twenty pieces, and George reassembled it, and now to look at it you would never know it had been broken, that’s how well he put it back together.

Miss Price

Miss Price

The little town of Hilltop is not exactly a magnet for homosexuals, although “everybody knows” that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty, who are teachers at Hilltop Elementary School and who have been together for more than thirty years, are lesbians. But they were born and raised in Hilltop, and just about everybody under 50 was taught by Miss Price and Miss Haggarty, and Miss Price makes the best cinnamon rolls in the entire world, and Miss Haggarty tithes at the Lutheran church and crochets afghans, and so, because they are loved, it is easy to think of them as a pair of elderly spinsters who happen to live together rather than as a “couple,” and nobody minds, including, I imagine, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty.

But it was different with George and Tony. George, too, was born and raised in Hilltop, but he left years and years ago and went to live in St. Louis. When George’s mother and father (Mr. and Mrs. Douglas, who used to own the Hilltop Steak House and then sold it to the Connors, who were vegetarians, so that was a bit of a mystery, and then they, the Douglases, retired, and then Mrs. Douglas died from a blood infection or something); anyway, when the Douglases came back from St. Louis, Mr. Douglas railed at anybody who would listen — about George, and how he was a “sissy” and how he and Tony had “matching wedding rings,” which made Mr. Douglas “want to barf,” and how George, was, in Mr. Douglas’s exact words, “no son of mine.” Mrs. Douglas just wept.


Miss Haggarty

George had had a much-older brother, Jimmy, who was killed in the war in Vietnam, and one April afternoon, Mrs. Douglas (before she died), trudged up the hill to confer with Sister Alma Rose, and they sat talking on the grass-green porch and drinking Mr. Truman Lafollette’s heavenly lemonade, and Mrs. Douglas told Sister Alma Rose that she had already lost one son and she wasn’t going to lose another, and she wanted to go visit George but she was afraid she’d burn forever in Hell, because of what the Bible says, about homosexuality and about being disobedient to your husband, though if George was going to be burning in Hell too, at least she, Mrs. Douglas, would be with George, and what did Sister Alma Rose think?

Judge not, less’n y’all be judged

Everybody in Hilltop knows that Sister Alma Rose knows the Bible backward and forward, and the first thing she said to Mrs. Douglas was, “The Gospel of Matthew admonishes, ‘Judge not, less’n y’all be judged.’” Then she said that nowhere does the Bible condemn loving, monogamous relationships but rather “licentiousness” and “fornication,” and that even if homosexuality itself were a sin, for which she, Sister Alma Rose, could find “no substantiation” in the Bible (and here she talked about the homosexual relationship between King David, before he was king, and Jonathan, son of Saul), “did the Lord, or did he not, make of himself the ultimate sacrifice for our sins?”

Sister Alma Rose, though she did not say so to Mrs. Douglas, believes in reincarnation. She has told me that it is “not unbiblical” to think that all roads lead to Heaven and all the people on all those roads arrive there after many lifetimes, and, she adds enigmatically, “I ought to know.”

In any case, Mrs. Douglas, defying Mr. Douglas, visited George and Tony in St. Louis at least twice a year, and she became quite fond of Tony and called him her “other son.” And then, well, she died, and Mr. Douglas said, bitterly, that it was “a judgment upon her.”

Tony and George

Tony and George

George and Tony came to Hilltop for the funeral. At the reception afterward, which was in the ballroom, for Pete’s sake, of the Douglases’ huge dark-green Victorian house, about half the guests (along with Mr. Douglas) ignored them completely, the other half were warm and friendly, and somebody spray-painted obscenities (in neon yellow) on their beautiful cherry-red Ford F-250 extended-cab pickup truck with its sleek red-and-chrome slide-on camper. When George and Tony left to go back to St. Louis the next day, the spray-painting was gone and the truck looked as shiny and new as it had when they arrived, and nobody, except possibly Sister Alma Rose, who knows everything, is sure how that happened.

About a year after Mrs. Douglas died, Mr. Douglas was found to have Parkinson’s disease, and he blamed Mrs. Douglas for that, saying it was “a judgment she brought upon” their house. For a while he did okay on his own, but then he got to the point where he couldn’t put an eating utensil into his mouth without all the food falling off first, and Dr. Deirdre Barstow told him that if he didn’t go to live in the Hilltop Nursing Home he would die of starvation or else fall down the stairs and kill himself that way, and Mr. Douglas said he’d rather starve to death than live in “that place,” meaning the Hilltop Nursing Home, which, he said, was full of “crazy old people and the stench of their incontinence.” He said, “I’ll be damned if I won’t die in the same house I was born in,” to which Dr. Deirdre Barstow replied, “Well, Doug [which is what most adults call Mr. Douglas], you very well might, but the only way I’ll allow you to stay here is if George and Tony move in and take care of you, because the house is falling apart and so are you.” Dr. Deirdre Barstow can be a little scary.



Well, Mr. Douglas was between a rock and a hard place. He told Dr. Deirdre Barstow that he’d just go out to the wreck of a building that used to be a carriage house, and he’d get his shotgun and blow his brains out. He was half-starved and was so unsteady on his feet that the attempt itself would have been suicide, Dr. Deirdre Barstow told Sister Alma Rose, but she, Dr. Barstow, was sure that he, Mr. Douglas, would try it anyway, so she put Mr. Douglas in the hospital for a few days, and she called George on the phone and told him what was what.

Three days later, Sister Alma Rose and I, on our way home from Ninghong’s little store, watched as the red pickup truck and camper pulled into the Douglases’ driveway and three people got out: George, Tony, and Tony’s very pregnant twin sister, Petra, who had been raped (Sister Alma Rose told me later) by one of her father’s drinking buddies. Tony and Petra’s dad and mom had insisted that Petra have an abortion, but Petra refused, saying, “A baby’s a baby,” and so her parents, who had six other children, had thrown her out of the house and disowned her, as they had disowned Tony years before.

Little Doug

Tony and Petra looked a great deal alike. They were exotically beautiful, with thick, curly black hair and smooth olive skin, high cheekbones, full lips, and strong, stubborn chins. I had time to notice this as Sister Alma Rose was tugging me across the street to “give them a proper welcome, because they won’t get one in that house,” gesturing with her head toward the dark-green Victorian.

Out in the driveway, Sister Alma Rose hugged George, and then Tony, and then Petra, and then they all hugged me. George thought he might have to break in to the house, but Dr. Deirdre Barstow drove up in her little Volkswagen Beetle just then with Mr. Douglas, and Sister Alma Rose and I went on our way. Petra’s coming was “providential,” Sister Alma Rose told me, though I couldn’t see how Providence could have had any part in a pregnancy that resulted from a rape.

Little Doug

Little Doug

A week later, when Sister Alma Rose and I were playing canasta on the big porch after supper at Hilltop Farm, we saw George and Dr. Deirdre Barstow walking up the long driveway past the virgin oak grassland, which is Sister Alma Rose’s pride and joy. Mr. Truman Lafollette appeared out of thin air, I do not know how that large man comes and goes so stealthily, with two glasses full of ice cubes, and he poured lemonade from the pitcher into the glasses and placed them on the wicker table by the two empty wicker chairs, and then he disappeared like a chimera, and George took a huge, greedy gulp before he set it down and smiled.

“Are y’all settled in?” asked Sister Alma Rose. “How is y’all’s papa?”

“Besotted,” George said with a grin, “over Petra. He calls her ‘Rocky’ and lets her win at chess.”

“Ah,” said Sister Alma Rose.

Dr. Deirdre Barstow, who had also sat down and who was sipping her lemonade with ladylike dignity, smiled broadly. “You wouldn’t believe the change in Doug,” she said. “I don’t mind admitting that Tony knows much more about advances in Parkinson’s treatment than I do. Petra’s a terrific cook and not much of a nurse, and Tony’s a superlative nurse and can barely boil water, so they do sort of a tag-team nursing job on Doug, while George is putting the carriage house back together and fixing up the main house.”

George chuckled. “At first, I think Dad just squinted and tried to pretend that Petra and Tony were the same person,” he said, “but now he calls irritably for Tony when he wants help getting down the stairs so he can sit on the porch. I mostly stay out of the way, and he doesn’t say much to me, but when he does, he calls me ‘Sonny,’ like in the old days.”

Anyway, between the medicine Dr. Deirdre Barstow had prescribed, based on Tony’s recommendation and her own research, and Petra’s “terrific” cooking, Mr. Douglas’s condition improved so much that, when Petra had her baby boy, Mr. Douglas visited her in the hospital, supported on one side by his son and on the other by Tony.

Sticky kisses

“Little Doug” is two years old now, and he calls Mr. Douglas “Grandpa.” The dark-green Victorian house, with new cream-colored shutters and with its refurbished carriage house, is a showplace. Mr. Douglas no longer needs Tony’s ministrations twenty-four hours a day, so Tony works in Dr. Deirdre Barstow’s office, and none of her patients seems to mind, even the burly macho buffalo-plaid-flannel-shirt-and-feed-store-cap types who used to fall down laughing at Mr. Douglas’s “homo” jokes. 

Mr. Douglas, it must be said, still doesn’t understand why George doesn’t marry Petra “and make an honest woman of her.” But he plays chess with Tony, although he won’t let Tony win as he does Petra. And whenever Little Doug goes somewhere with Petra, even for an hour or two, Mr. Douglas frets until they get home. Then he calls for Little Doug. “Get over here right now,” he growls, “and give your grandpa some sweetness.” And Little Doug, who always gets a lollipop on his outings with Petra, climbs into Mr. Douglas’s lap and covers his face with sticky kisses. And Mr. Douglas doesn’t even wipe them off.

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New Every Morning

Sister Alma Rose Q & A

Dear Sister Alma Rose — Are you Born Again? —Wondering in Walla Walla

Forever Innocent

Forever Innocent

Dear Wondering — Oh, my, yes. As often as possible. Sister Alma Rose is new every morning — every minute, when she thinks about it….

Every time she thanks God for what is instead of fretting about what ain’t….

Every time she plunges into the still, healing waters of meditation and finds the unblemished soul….

Every time she packs her guilt and regrets, her worries and fears, into a prayer, and the angels scoop down and pick it right up and carry it away like a leaf on the wind….

Every time she opens her heart….

And here’s the astonishing thing: It’s never too late. There’s never a wrong time to reclaim y’all’s innocence.

Cleaning Baked-On Meanness

God, please let me not forget you when I’m feeling small or slighted or inept; and help me find delight in great achievements, mine or otherwise, and if a person I despise is recognized for some accomplishment I find astonishing (because, perhaps, I deem the credit to be mine), chastise me first for the despising, second for the pride, and then let my resentment burn until I plead for mercy, maybe longer. (If it doesn’t kill me it will make me stronger.)

The self-absorbed soon pay for failing to appreciate another’s greatness. They inflate their own importance and grow corpulent, so bloated that their eyes no longer open. Then they float away, and no one notices, or if they do, forget to mourn.

So move whatever bars the door aside and scrub my spirit clean of malice, jealousy, and pettiness. It’s an extraordinary mess you’ll find. An unsuspecting guest, just popping by, would stop and stare, and suddenly remember a forgotten obligation. “Look at the time,” he’d say. “I’ve got to fly,” and match the statement with the deed.

You’ll need more than a feather duster here to penetrate the grime; a vat of lye, perhaps, or hydrochloric acid must be liberally applied to baked-on meanness such as mine, accumulated since approximately June of Nineteen-Fifty-Five, when Jimmy Hoffa was alive — in fact, for all I know, he’s living still, stuffed in a sack beneath my bed, tied up and gagged and old and ill — worse yet, tied up beneath my bed, and dead.

I am reminded of an oven I attacked one Saturday, so black and thick with grease that you could only bake one cookie at a time. I scraped and chiseled, used a brush with metal bristles, left ammonia vaporizing in the oven overnight, and after many days of sweat and strife, I thought I saw a shiny spot — those tiny white-on-granite-colored dots and speckles, seeming to be taken by surprise, closing their little granite eyes against the unaccustomed light.

And thus, I fear most mightily, you’ll find my spirit, crushed beneath the weight of wickedness accumulated over decades, unregretted, unconfessed when it was fresh and could have just been sponged away. For I’ve been greedy when I needed nothing, feasted without gratitude and, still unsatisfied, I asked for more, and more besides, instead of being glad to be alive instead of lying underneath somebody’s bed, five decades dead.

May 2006

“Cleaning Baked-On Meanness,” from Unfamiliar Territory, © 2006, Mary Campbell and Zero Gravity

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Sister Alma Rose’s Morning Prayer: Saints and Angels, Pray for Us

Saints and angels, pray for us, and intercede,
that we may by the God of grace be blessed. For
you have seen the face of the Almighty; you
approach and comprehend the beauty of the
Holy One, much more than we, so limited in
vision and so fragile in belief. Or is it that we
see and do not know the Author of Creation
—in the shoulder of a hill as it reclines in the
embrace of Mother Earth, or in the still, deep,
sparkling pools of strangers’ eyes?

If only we could be the children we abandoned
long ago in favor of sophistication and of
freedom — though we soon enough were
disillusioned as to liberty. We found it
burdensome and wished we could be caged
again and innocent, surprised by joy.

For Paradise regained we pray — to be divested

of the heavy armor we have learned to wear,

believing it protected us; to shed anxiety, regret,

and guilt; to be instead aware of who and where

we are this very moment, undistracted by the

future or the past — to be, in fact, reborn, with

nothing added or subtracted, as when we were



This we are promised: God’s forgiveness,

seventy times seven, even more, surpassing our

transgressions. Are we not given morning to

remind us that we too, who dare to be, are daily

new? Why are we reluctant, then, to but accept

the full abundance of our blessedness? We

hesitate — it is unearned — forgetting grace.


But God is greater yet than everything the world

can tell us. Darkly through a glass we glimpse

eternity, perhaps, though half in wonder, half in



O Saints and Angels, show us how we might

approach the vast, the mystical and holy

presence that is Love; and as we stumble on the

path your purity illuminates, O Saints and

Angels, pray for us that we be undeceived of

evil, of disease and violence and death. For we

would walk behind him, pale reflections of his

glory, each to another, and would bind our will

to his direction, on our pilgrimage to Heaven.


Originally published in Unfamiliar Territory, Part 1, by Mary Campbell, ã 2007, Zero Gravity, LifeIsPoetry.net