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.

Murder Threats on YouTube

Rock engravings in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating from ten thousand years BCE

Rock engravings in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating from ten thousand years BCE

Because of the greatness of your strength,
your enemies, O God Almighty, cringe before you.
Before you all the earth shall bow,
shall sing to you, sing to your name!”
Let our joy then be in you,
for you, God, rule forever.
Your eyes keep watch over the nations;
let rebels not rise against you. —from Ps. 66

Free Speech or Hate Speech?

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Loreena McKennitt 2009

Loreena McKennitt 2009

Sister Alma Rose is appalled. She doesn’t like being appalled. It’s not her style… though she suspects that Loreena McKennitt would be appalled as well.

On May 18 (“The Purest Race” in Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word), our dear friend Fanny McElroy cited vitriolic antisemitic comments related to a “sophisticated, beautifully crafted” fan-created video found on the popular media-sharing website YouTube. Fanny discovered the antisemitic comments when she added her own comments, praising the video’s creator for beautiful work. The video accompanied  folk-singer Loreena McKennitt’s song “Night Ride Across the Caucasus,” first recorded on McKennitt’s 1997 album The Book of Secrets.

In just a few minutes’ browsing of other videos, Fanny came across murder threats against Zionists, Chinese, and people of unspecified race or ethnicity.

Click here for video, comments, background, and a brief, anonymous survey on how you feel about these threats and other comments. You can, of course, view the information without taking the survey. It is short, however, only four yes-or-no questions; and your anonymity is guaranteed if you choose not to enter your name. 

Children's puppet theater

In keeping with the Caucasus region’s tradition of children’s puppet theater, “Stories from Our Yard” uses locally-designed puppets to deliver its message

What does YouTube permit?

Here is an excerpt from YouTube’s Community Guidelines:

We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But we don’t  permit hate speech (…which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/ gender identity). [Emphasis ours] …Predatory behavior,  stalking, threats, harassment, intimidation, invading privacy, revealing other people’s personal information,  and inciting others to commit violent acts or to violate the Terms of Use are taken very seriously. Anyone caught doing these things may be permanently banned from YouTube.

Wedding dance, Georgia, the Caucasus region

Wedding dance, Georgia, the Caucasus region (Source: ConcordTravel.ge)

Fanny says that the principal subject of McKennitt’s song, according to McKennitt’s album insert, is alchemy, while the video seems to depict a traditional wedding among the peoples of the Caucasus (more at “The Purest Race“).  “The video makes artistic use,” says Fanny, “of what appears to be, but probably isn’t, old black-and-white footage, blurry, flickering… mixed with vivid new footage. Some of the same landmarks appear in ‘old’ and ‘new’ footage, which consist mostly of wedding scenes, dancing, and people on horseback, probably underscoring the continuity of culture over time. It is beautifully done, with — I think the phrase is ‘high production values.'”

Endangered Ateni Sioni church in Georgia dates from the 7th century

Endangered Ateni Sioni church in Georgia dates from the 7th century

The antisemitic comments on YouTube refer to neither alchemy nor wedding, Fanny reports, but rather to the nationalist biases and aspirations of the “Caucasians” (that is, the peoples of the Caucasus).

On May 17, Fanny flagged the comments and reported them according to prescribed YouTube procedure, informing YouTube that the comments violated YouTube Community Guidelines. She resubmitted her objections a few days later. To date (June 8), YouTube has not deleted the comments and has not responded to Fanny’s report.

Fanny writes,

Please. This is important. We are asking you to take a brief (4-item) survey (anonymous unless you choose to give your name) about vitriolic anti-Semitic & anti-Chinese YouTube messages. You’ll see a mere handful of ugly postings, but such messages are abundant on YouTube in defiance of YouTube guidelines.

Is this abuse of free speech? A big unfunny joke? Were the rules changed when my back was turned? Or is it felt that people not allowed to speak openly will go underground? I imagine there’s already plenty of “underground.” Please take the survey and share this request with others. Thank you…. Fanny

MOI, Fanny

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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

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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

Will Guilt Make You Good?

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

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

Sarah Palin, 2008

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

What’s So Bad about Feeling Good? Part 1

My Hometown

From Canadian TV series MY HOMETOWN, Filmwest Associates

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

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

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

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

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

Sedona at sunset; photo by Joseph Plotz

Sedona at sunset; photo by Joseph Plotz

‘Make love, not war’

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

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

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

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

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

The Vietnam War era, as recalled by Sister Alma Rose

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

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

Healy Hall, Georgetown University; photo by Patrick Neil

Healy Hall, Georgetown University; photo by Patrick Neil

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

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

NO,
THEY DID
NOT

Crim Dell Bridge, William & Mary

Crim Dell Bridge, William & Mary

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

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

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Return of the Prodigal Son

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Return of the Prodigal Son

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

…GUILT

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crow warbonnet

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

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

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

Adultery

Adultery

Guilt trip, Type A

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

Guilt trip, Type B

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

Parents: 'Where did we go wrong?'

Bad Lot: 'Where did we go wrong?'

Guilt trip, Type C

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

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

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

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

The Hague: Actors in a play about teenage angst

The Hague: Actors in a play about teenage angst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt rides again

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

Child in  Darfur refugee camp, www.columbia.edu

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

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

The reality of drug addiction, www.outoftheherd.com

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

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

A word about the Reverend Ms.O’Donnell

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

1957 Thunderbird convertible; photo, nminow via Wikipedia

1957 Thunderbird convertible; photo, nminow via Wikipedia

So much, I thought, for self-denial.

To be continued…

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The Guru

Country Road

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

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Sister Alma Rose is on vacation

All Paths Converge in the End

by Mary Campbell

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

Journey to Bliss

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

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

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

Bristol Maraton, 2006; photo by Steve Gregory

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

Prayers are powerful

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

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

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott

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

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

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

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

* * *

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    The Mysteries

    jesus_6th_c_mosaic

    A 6th-century mosaic of Jesus

    When asked which is the “greatest” of God’s commandments, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Matthew 22:37-39

    Who Is Jesus?

    Sister Alma Rose prays to Jesus. I have heard her. “O Jesus, have mercy!” she’ll say when there’s a calamity. But if you ask her if she’s Jewish, she says yes, she is, which is also what she answers when asked if she is a Buddhist, which I know because I was with her at Polly Ellen’s when she quoted from the Gospel of Buddha

    Painting of the Buddha at the Deer Park (photo by Kay Ess)

    Painting of the Buddha at the Deer Park (photo by Kay Ess)

    The deva said,

    What is the greatest gain?

    What is the greatest loss?

    Which armour is invulnerable?

    What is the best weapon?

    The Blessed One replied,

    The greatest gain is to give to others;

    the greatest loss is to greedily receive without gratitude;

    an invulnerable armor is patience;

    the best weapon is wisdom.

    …and Polly Ellen said, “Sister Alma Rose, are you a Buddhist?” and Sister Alma Rose said she was.

    “But I thought you were a Christian,” Polly Ellen said.

    “I am,” said Sister Alma Rose serenely.

    Polly Ellen turned to me and said, “Fanny, do you know Jesus?”

    I never know quite what to say when people ask me if I “know Jesus” or if I have “been saved.” The short answer is Yes, but I don’t think we’re having the same conversation.  I mean, I don’t think my “yes” means what the other person thinks it means.

    I was sure that Polly Ellen and I weren’t having the same conversation when she asked me to give my “testimony.”

    “Why don’t you go first,” I suggested, and could have bit my tongue off. Sister Alma Rose just smiled and settled a little farther back in her chair.

    Polly Ellen’s testimony

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Don’t worry if there are things you don’t understand about Jesus. I have been learning about who Jesus is all my life, and I still don’t understand. It is one of the mysteries, and that’s okay. Mysteries are exciting. Someday, all the mysteries will be explained. I don’t mind waiting.

    Polly Ellen

    Polly Ellen

    When I was a little girl, I didn’t like Jesus very much. In fact, I was quite afraid of him. Most of what I knew about Jesus I learned in Sunday school. I went to Sunday school every week because I was a very serious little girl and I wanted very seriously to be good.

    Even after my family stopped going to church, I kept going to Sunday school to learn how to be good. I asked my brother why we had stopped going to church as a family, and he said it was because Mom and Dad thought the minister at our church was a big poophead. This is not a word I think you should use. I’m just telling you what my brother said.

    The Sermon on the Mount, painted by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d.1890)

    The Sermon on the Mount, painted by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d.1890)

    At Sunday school, the teachers would have us memorize a little piece of the Bible, and it usually was about something Jesus wanted us to do that wasn’t fun. “Give all your stuff to the poor and follow me.” “Love your enemies.” “Do good to those who hate you.” These verses were from the part of the Bible called the Gospel, which means “good news.” But I couldn’t figure out what was so good about it.

    The Sunday school teachers said that Jesus didn’t want me to be selfish and that I should care more for other people, ALL the other people in the world, than I cared about myself. This was hard for me to understand, because I knew these Sunday school teachers, and they all lived in big fancy houses and had expensive cars, and also, they wouldn’t let black people come to our church.

    Cupola painting depicting Heaven and Hell, Il Duomo (begun in 1296), Florence, Italy

    Cupola painting depicting Heaven and Hell, Il Duomo (begun in 1296), Florence, Italy

    But still, I grew up feeling more or less guilty most of the time because I was selfish. The only good thing about it was that I was always nice to everybody, even geeks and nerds and people who smelled bad, and so I got to be Homecoming Queen because geeks and nerds vote too.

    A starving Biafran child in the late 1960s

    A starving Biafran child in the late 1960s

    By the time I was a grownup, I was sure that I was a horrible person and that God couldn’t possibly love me enough to want me with him in heaven. Sometimes I would start to feel happy, but then I would catch myself and remember that I wasn’t supposed to be happy, not as long as there was a single person in the world who was poor or sick or suffering in any way.

    Now I am almost always happy. And I will tell you why.

    Many years ago, I met a very wise woman named Margaret, who read Jesus’ words to me out of the Bible. She read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verse 39: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

    Jesus at the Marriage at Cana, fresco by Giotto (Giotta de Bondone), early 1300s
    Jesus at the Marriage at Cana, fresco by Giotto (Giotto di Bondone), early 1300s

    “Jesus doesn’t want you to love your neighbor instead of yourself,” Margaret said. “He wants you to love yourself too. If you let him, he will fill you full of love — enough for yourself and the whole rest of the world.”

    Then she read to me from Matthew, chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Do not worry.”

    “Pray, and give your worries to God,” Margaret said.

    And so I think that the Good News, which Jesus taught, is that you don’t have to be perfect. In fact, any time you want to, you can give your mistakes and your fears and your worries to God, and God will put love in the place where your fears and worries used to be, and God will guide you in the way that you should go, because God loves you and wants you to be happy. That’s why God made you in the first place.

    * * *

    By the time Polly Ellen finished her testimony, tears were rolling down my face — tears of pity, thinking of Polly Ellen making herself so unhappy all those years because she thought she needed to carry the weight of the world… tears of joy, because the Polly Ellen I have always known is like a merry sprite, shining and humming and dancing through life.

    When Polly Ellen walked with us out onto her porch to say goodbye, I gave her a big hug. “I am so grateful for you, Polly Ellen,” I said, and she held me tight and a little bit extra long, and when Sister Alma Rose and I were walking up the hill toward home, Sister Alma Rose handed me her clean, ancient floral hankie, which had been very neatly mended in several places, and I wondered if Sister Alma Rose is the only person in the world who still mends raggedy old hankies and darns her socks.

    * * *

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    Sister Alma Rose’s Prayer for Guilt and Regret

    Eleventh Hour

    Too late to step aside from misery, the lashes of experience endured
    and struck again, before the flesh begins to mend; too late for all the
    yesterdays misspent — I turn to you, O God.

    Too late to follow where you would have led, to reconcile the enmity
    or raise the dead; too late for sympathy to curb a spate of bitter
    words that burn their way into the heart, where they find tinder
    easy to convert to hate, consuming everything that waited helplessly
    to be redeemed.

    Too late to do as Mother said, to eat my peas and carrots and forswear
    ambrosia in the form of Baby Ruth and Butterfinger meals instead
    of sustenance that deeply satisfies and nourishes and heals.

    Too late to save a penny for a rainy day, though roiling clouds
    foretell tomorrow’s storm; too late to scorn temptation, to reflect
    that what I spend on this or that alluring bagatelle could purchase
    pleasure more enduring and profound. Too late for wisdom now to
    temper or forestall an ill-considered whim, to mediate despair and
    mania. Too late to choose a sane and reasoned course when seized
    by circumstances daunting in their urgency. Too late to save some
    candles for emergencies and their peremptory demands.

    Perversely born unwise and unprepared for life, equipped with
    little but the instinct to survive and with a physical response to
    stimuli, how is it that, unreasoning, immobile, nearly blind, we human
    creatures do not die upon the birthing bed? It might be said,
    Too early we emerge.

    And yet the baby’s urge to eat and drink is fed; her need for
    warmth is met; her incoherent cry for something she cannot
    supply is heard. She doesn’t wonder why, not then; she just accepts
    the nourishment, and when her thirst and hunger are assuaged, she
    sleeps with no anxiety for all the days ahead, nor does she lie awake
    and rue her lack of understanding or her randomly expressed demands.

    O God, I place my yesterdays and my tomorrows in your hands.

    Read about Sister Alma Rose in The Ancients, Part 1: Daddy Pete, by Mary Campbell, at www.LifeIsPoetry.net. Find more prayer-poems in Unfamiliar Territory, by Mary Campbell, at lulu.com.

     

    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

    formed.

     

    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

    fear.

     

    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.

    Ì

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