…and then forget to breathe

Navigating

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. —Reinhold Niebuhr


The young sink easily from head to heart like birds through low clouds, wings spread in an ecstasy of power, flipping, fluttering the tips instinctively — now dipping with the currents — now resting on prevailing winds. But they forget to think, they disengage the brain, lost in sensation, craving more of it. For all their wishing to, they were not born to soar as eagles do—not
yet, but someday, as a gift of grace, perhaps.

Solitary hawks surveilling circle low but hunt this field in vain and so with great and mighty clapping of their wings they race like arrows on the upward arc and pierce the misty layers of the sky; but even they don’t dare enrage the gods by flying where the air is thin, the ether delicate, where all their strength and skill and their sly wit are impotent.

Not yet wise, the young enlist intelligence, depend on it, and then forget to breathe. The mind is only half a navigator. Intuition is the needed complement, or else the course is set without respect to joy. The head considers well the destination; it’s the heart that loves the voyage, praising Heaven for the ocean and the
waves.

 ***

Annagrammatica card sale

Everybody’s Magic

country road

'Henry was hiking on country roads, with no particular route or destination'

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Secrets of the Ancients Revealed

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

(Continued from previous post…) So I went home and began babbling to Mama — my little brothers were off spending a few days with Aunt Belle and her monsters, excuse me, her dear little ones, Tigger and Anja, who are just freely expressing their unspoiled innocence when they yank on your hair and stomp on other kids’ toys if they’re not allowed to play with them, and Aunt Belle, who is dear and kind and rather vague and stares in an unfocused way at Tigger and Anja like she’s not quite sure who they are or how they got there, literally wrings her hands — and then I had to start babbling all over again when Daddy came in, but he wanted a shower first, which was probably good because it gave me a chance to gather my thoughts, and then, wearing clean Levi’s and a purple (which is not Daddy’s color, it makes him look sallow) “Kansas State University Athletic Department” T-shirt and holding a bottle of Harp beer, he sat in the blue Morris chair that is Only His (Daddy says that by now the chair is perfectly molded to his butt)…

Antimacassar

My grandmother crocheted antimacassars and placed them on the "headrest" parts of chairs to prevent men's hair oil, specifically "Macassar Oil," from soiling the chair

…and Mama sat beside him in her grandmother Dolly’s overstuffed rocking chair, which I don’t know why she likes it because the upholstery is cow-patty brown and scratchy and covered with doilies and, I swear, an antimacassar, unlike Mama, who was, of course, not covered with doilies but was, rather, aglow in a white sundress with huge red polka dots and who was, uncharacteristically, drinking a glass of Rhine wine mixed with pineapple juice and a dab of peach brandy (a delicious punch she made for the wedding shower she hosted for her piano student Clarissa Whitney earlier that day, otherwise Mama rarely drinks alcohol, but gosh that punch is crisp and refreshing, and yes, I was given permission to have a small sip)…

(I really was)

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

…and she and Daddy held hands and looked at me expectantly, as if I were about to deliver the State of the Union address, so I said, “My fellow Americans,” and then launched into the story of Henry the Hiker and told them, Mama and Daddy, I mean, that he, Henry, is the spit and image of Matthew McConaughey, and about my premonition, and Pablo’s, and the 2000 newspaper article, with the photo of Henry, Ben, and Portia, reporting Henry’s disappearance, and my suspicion, confirmed by Sister Alma Rose, that Henry was one of the Ancients, and then Sister Alma Rose’s cryptic comment, which she refused to elaborate on, that Henry had not come to see her, Sister Alma Rose, but rather to see me, Fanny McElroy, 12 years old last October 4.

“What would he want with me?” I asked in great perplexity. “Oh, I know! He’s come to give me tennis lessons!”

Helen Keller, 1904

Helen Keller, 1904

That was supposed to be a joke, but no one laughed. Mama and Daddy had exchanged “significant glances” a few times, but they didn’t seem surprised by my “shocking revelations.” Sometimes I almost think Mama and Sister Alma Rose have this mental-telepathy thing going, because I can tell Mama about something that happened at Sister Alma Rose’s and it’s like she already knows, though either of them would die before they would betray a confidence, so I’m thinking Vulcan Mind Meld or else a convergence of highly developed women’s intuition.

Pray without ceasing

Growing up, I had known about the Ancients, in the same way you know about stuff like the Italian Riviera, and plantain (the fruit, not the weed), and Helen Keller: It’s out there (except for Helen Keller), and you have a vague idea what it is, and someday maybe you’ll care, but for now it’s just a Frito in the Massive Smorgasbord of Knowledge. In our house, if you had an odd sock, it was, like, “Maybe the Ancients took the other one,” and I used to think of them as Gollum-like creatures who slithered around and stole your homework or fiddled with your carburetor so your truck wouldn’t start — sort of like poltergeists in the flesh.

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

But from time to time I would overhear somebody — Mama or Daddy, Sister Alma Rose or Cousin Dulcie — saying “the Ancients” in a conversation that was respectful in tone, even reverential. So I came to believe that the Ancients were real people and somehow near, and eventually I just knew without being told that Sister Alma Rose and Cousin Dulcie had come from the Ancients, and, of course, dear, misguided Portia, who is fey, which means

(a) slightly insane
(b) elfin: suggestive of an elf in strangeness and otherworldliness; “thunderbolts quivered with elfin flares of heat lightning”; “the fey quality was there, the ability to see the moon at midday” — John Mason Brown
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

NOTHING AT ALL LIKE THE ANCIENTS: Gollum, as depicted in the most recent film version of The Lord of the Rings

Portia notwithstanding, knowing about the Ancients has always given me a warm, safe feeling, like these almost-angels are keeping an eye on things while we clueless more-mortal mortals lurch around trying to make sense of our lives and, ideally, help other people be more comfortable in their skin, but often not succeeding, as evidenced by the number of times (average 12.7 per day) that you hear someone whine, “But I was JUST trying to HELP.”

Sister Alma Rose seldom discusses the Ancients with me, but she has told me one thing I love: that they literally pray without ceasing — so I can be conversing with Sister Alma Rose, and I have her full attention, but at the same time, in another part of her brain, or maybe in her heart, or her gallbladder (an organ not possessed, according to Wikipedia, by lampreys), I don’t understand the physiology of it, she is praying for me, or praying that she’ll understand what I’m saying, et cetera, and she says that anyone can do this praying without ceasing, you don’t have to be a monk or an Old One, and it brings great peace and health and vigor, and, of course, love, and you never, ever worry. I’m working on that.

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles. Photo: Drow Male

* * *

So when I finished telling Mama and Daddy about Henry, et cetera, Mama announced that she had decided that the time had come to tell me as much as she could about the Ancients, and my heart did a little cardiac happy dance and in my mind was the cover of some magazine like People with Mama’s picture and the teaser “SECRETS OF THE ANCIENTS REVEALED.”

Or not. In any case, I sat cross-legged on the ottoman and scooched it over near Mama and Daddy and waited for Mama to begin. What you will read below are Mama’s words, minus the “ums,” et cetera, though I think she must have been practicing because she hardly had to stop to scratch or sneeze, or lose her place and find it again, or anything….

The Legend of the Ancients

Little girl, all dressed up, playing in clover

'Get in touch with your inner child'

There are many tales about the Ancients, or the Old Ones [see “The Old Ones,” below], and most of them contain at least SOME truth. So shut down your skeptic’s brain and pay attention, with a willingness to be enchanted. “Get in touch with your inner child,” because this is a lovely story, and it is mostly true. I know, because I was there.

The Old Ones, in one form or another, exist in every culture, but this story is about the Old Ones in North America because the author has personal experience with them. It is said that they have been on this continent for at least three thousand years, but the author cannot verify that.

Mountains of the Ancients?

Mountains of the Ancients?

According to one legend, many centuries ago a group of mystically inclined Indians created a village at the top of the highest mountain they could find and dedicated themselves to Knowing God. Since they could not at the same time dedicate themselves to learning the warriors’ ways, they needed to make their homes in a safe, secluded place, and they wanted to be close to the sky.

Over the millenia, they learned the arts and sciences that were revealed to them, and, because God was in their hearts and they were compassionate, some of them left the mountain community and went down to live quietly among the valley people, teaching and healing. 

BlueRidgeMountainRoad-Istock

No one can find them unless they want to be found

A small group of Europeans — just a handful of families, the story goes — with much the same vision stumbled upon the Indian village in their search for a mountain refuge. (No one today seems to know how they got to North America from Europe.) The Europeans and the Indians compared notes, in a manner of speaking, and found that the Europeans knew a great deal that the Indians did not, and the Indians knew much that the Europeans did not, so that by combining their knowledge they became more powerful and more compassionate, and the two communities became one.

MotherDaughter

They are...

They are still there, in that original settlement. No one — no person, no army, no camera or satellite — can find them unless they want to be found. Small groups and individuals have been led there — escaped slaves and refugees as well as mystics, gifted healers, and gypsies.

They are a beautiful people, physically and spiritually. Many have golden brown skin, wavy chestnut hair, and whiskey-brown eyes, though it is not unusual to see a blue-eyed blond in the village.

Dad Lifting Young Son

...a beautiful people

The Ancients are fully human, though they use more than the five senses you and I were taught about; in fact, all their senses are highly developed, including intuition, the so-called sixth sense, as well as manifestation, healing, and tapping the collective unconscious. They can literally make quantum leaps, and time travel is old hat to them, though, by unanimous agreement, they do not visit the future.

None of this is “supernatural.” It is simply science, advanced knowledge, mastered by people who are in continuous communication with God. The author has been told that as long as the Ancients remain in their mountain home, they age very slowly. They are completely self-sufficient in providing shelter, clothing, herbal cures and other forms of healing, and food. Meditation is a way of life. Prayer comes naturally, easily… it is second nature. Negative stress is practically unknown.

Reincarnation — ‘enormous compassion’

But the mountaintop home of the Ancients is no Shangri-La. Like their “Ancient” brothers and sisters throughout the world, they live in harmony and bear good will toward all people. They dwell apart but journey into the larger world to bring peace and healing. As in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,

…they are moved by enormous compassion to be
reborn again and again in order to help all
living creatures discover in themselves
complete freedom from pain and
suffering….  —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Blonde in Autumn Grain Field

The Ancients are exuberant by nature; Portia is no exception

The mission of the Ancients is to share their gentle wisdom with all humanity, so they come, singly or as families, to live among us, often but not always in rural areas. They are your neighbors, teachers, mechanics, clergy, hair stylists, carpenters, architects, and landscapers.

Some stay for a year, others for a hundred or more. The latter have, apparently, exceptional tolerance for pollution, artificial pesticides, questionable food additives, the blare of media, and the accelerated lifestyle; but there is no question that they age much faster “down here” than “up there,” in spite of the serenity they gain from habitual prayer and meditation, which are, however, powerful protection from mental and physical illness and deterioration.

The Ancients believe, in a nutshell, (a) that the attributes they have developed and strengthened over countless lifetimes can and must be transmitted “down here” to certain people — those who are intelligent, intuitive, and generous of spirit — and (b) that, beginning with these people, peace, love, and joy will spread over all the earth.

Dad carrying young daughter on shoulders

...reincarnated through a family "down here"

The author has been told that from time to time one of the ancients is reincarnated through a family “down here”; such children might or might not remember their past lives among the Ancients. These little ones are usually looked after and mentored by one or more of the Ancients dwelling nearby for just that purpose.

The author has only a vague idea of how all this works, since she was not privy to the secrets of reincarnation among the Ancients. She was told, however, that most “reincarnates,” at an early age, remember their past lives.

The light sensor

The Ancients claim that everyone has, on his or her head, at the crown, a sensory receptor for light. This receptor opens and closes, like an eye, but on the general population it is practically invisible. If there is no hair on the head to cover it and someone happens to notice it, that person thinks little of it, believing it to be a freckle or a small mole.

man-with-outstretched-arms

'Flooding the body with light'

But the Ancients have “exercised” this receptor for hundreds and hundreds of years, for the purpose of flooding the body with light for healing, and it has evolved into a larger circular “discoloration” about half an inch in diameter and very slightly raised. This, apparently, is the only outward difference between the Ancients and “ordinary” people.

Having my head examined

Mama stopped talking and took a sip of her drink.

Fanny McElroy at about age 4

Sister Alma Rose has always known that I was 'unusual'

“Dear One, we’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you all this,” Daddy said, taking my face gently between his hands, “though Sister Alma Rose has been urging us along for the past month or two. You’ve been a happy, well-adjusted child, you see, and there was no need, and a small part of us — a very small part — hoped that she was wrong. But you’ve been drawn more and more to Sister Alma Rose, who’s known since she first laid eyes on you as a newborn that you were… um… unusual.”

My heart was thumping wildly. I was about to be told something important, crossing an invisible line that would change my life, in a good way but also challenging… a quest, maybe, like Frodo’s with the One Ring, but not so dangerous and not, I devoutly hoped, involving a fiery-eyed wizard and the undead on winged chargers.

Brand-new puppies

All must leave the warmth, familiarity, and perceived safety of the womb

For a moment, more than anything, I wanted to stay on the not-knowing side of the line and go on as I always had, but that would be impossible, just as it is impossible for a baby to refuse to be born.

I didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t wait to hear it. I needed to hear it, because it would lead me to my place in Creation, and nothing would bring more good to the world or more satisfaction to my spirit than doing what God had meant for me to do.

And then I knew. I lifted my hand and held it over my head, above the crown. The feeling of warmth was unmistakable. I slipped my fingers under my hair and I could feel the raised half-inch circle.

“I’m one of them, aren’t I?” I asked, my voice shaking, looking at Mama, then Daddy, for confirmation, and their eyes told me all. “I’m one of the Ancients.”

Young girl happily dancing

One of the Ancients...

Sidebar: The Old Ones—Other Legends

A great many older religions may believe that Old Ones are the beings that existed at the creation of the universe and everything in it, possibly considered to be minor gods or deities or… co-existing with gods…. In The Dark Tower series written by Stephen King, the Old Ones (also sometimes called Great Old Ones) were a highly advanced civilization, called the Imperium, that ruled the All-World many centuries, or possibly millennia ago…. In The Dark Is Rising sequence by the British author Susan Cooper, the Old Ones are agents of the Light, born as men and women, whose task is to prevent the Powers of the Dark from taking control of the world.

“They are immortal but are not Gods and most do not appear different than late middle age humans…. Their abilities include time-travel, shape-shifting, and ability to speak and understand various languages without having learned them….

Madeleine L'engle's Murry Family series

Madeleine L'Engle's Murry Family series

“In Madeleine L’Engle‘s… science fantasy books about the Murry family, [the]… Old Ones are similar to the ones in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series—humans born with unusual mystical powers and dedicated to a never-ending struggle against the powers of darkness and evil. In both series, the Old Ones are associated with an Old Music.” —Wikipedia

* * *

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Passing Through

Sh-h-h-h: Limeade

Mr. Truman LaFollette's Incomparable Limeade Recipe

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Inhaling God in deep breaths

It was the laziest possible of summer afternoons, and Sister Alma Rose and Father Dooley and I were enjoying Mr. Truman LaFollette’s new recipe, which was new only in the sense that it was limeade instead of lemonade, which Mr. Truman said: weren’t we getting tired of it, meaning his incomparable lemonade, and we emphatically informed him that we were not, and he finally confessed that he was getting a little bored with always making lemonade, and I have to say that his limeade is so crisp and refreshing that I will be a little sorry when he gets tired of limeade and goes back to lemonade, or maybe he will try something exotic, like papaya limeade, which, whatever he concocts will be delicious.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

I was happy and relaxed, but I had a mild premonition that something extraordinary was about to happen. I was just too whipped to have a strong premonition, or else I surely would have. Sister Alma Rose trusts and actually encourages my premonitions. “Heaven is talking to y’all, Girl,” she’ll say.

That morning, Sister Alma Rose had been up since before dawn “putting up” produce, tomatoes and peas, I think, and Father Dooley and I had ridden our bicycles to Beth Israel, which is the Reform synagogue in Hilltop, where we were taking a class called “The History of Judaism,” which is every weekday morning for three weeks, and I found it absolutely mesmerizing and was spending hours at the library reading everything I could find about Judaism, but on this particular day I had an extra lot of chores to do when I got home, and Father Dooley had an extra lot of confessions to hear, or something, and so we all felt as though we had earned an afternoon of lethargy, except that Sister Alma Rose was sitting at the grass-green wicker table shelling peas, which is her idea of doing nothing, while Father Dooley and I were sprawled bonelessly in the roomy grass-green wicker chairs with green-and-yellow flowered cushions. Or she might have been shelling beans. I remember reading somewhere that peas ARE beans, of a sort.(1)

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

Pablo had come and gone. He is taking French, which he does every summer, and he is in Advanced French now, so he and Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose chatted in French, of which I know only enough to expostulate on la plume de ma tante, a topic that soon loses its charm, but when the conversation changed to Judaism, in English, Pablo got up and cheerfully bid us au revoir and climbed onto his bicyclette and rode off. Not that Pablo is uninterested in Judaism, but we were discussing the medieval Inquisitions, and Pablo is very tender-hearted. He was almost inconsolable when his labrador, Myra, dragged a half-dead gecko into the house. A conversation about the cruelties of the Inquisitions would depress him for a week.

Pablo and I are pretty sympatico, and as he was leaving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Something’s up.” I nodded soberly.

Pilgrimage

The three of us were lounging in a comfortable, exhausted silence (except for Sister Alma Rose, who is always comfortable but never exhausted), enjoying the light breeze that floated across the shady porch, when we heard the crunch of feet on the gravel driveway, and I sat up and watched as a man approached, waving and smiling, and I knew that he had something to do with my premonition, and I said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in my head, because he was wearing cutoffs over exquisitely muscled legs and a very nice butt, and he had on a short-sleeved lightweight cotton plaid shirt, unbuttoned, that looked like vintage Eddie Bauer, and I could tell from his high-dollar shoes and backpack that he was a hard-core hiker, not to mention that he was neither sweating nor short of breath and he had just walked up a long, steep hill, which I knew because if he had been coming from the other direction we would have seen him on the road.

Peas in pods

Peas in pods. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons, by Gaetan Lee at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaetanlee/

It’s not unusual for strangers to visit Sister Alma Rose as they are passing through Hilltop, although usually they are from La Mesa or one of the other nearby towns, and they have heard of Sister Alma Rose, who has something of a reputation as a healer, a wise woman, an oddball, a guru, a saint, or one of the Ancients, depending on whom you ask, but if the person you ask is Sister Alma Rose, she will say she is a farmer. I had never seen this man before, I was positive, because I would have noticed him inasmuch as he looked almost exactly like Matthew McConaughey, or like Matthew McConaughey might have looked when he was nineteen, and I sort of but not devoutly wished that he would button his shirt because my newly discovered hormones were popping like fireworks in my chest. He was quite a package, with his hip, expensive hiker stuff and his suntanned not-too-hairy chest and sunstreaked, longish, curly hair and slightly cheeky grin, and his very, very blue and surprisingly sagacious eyes, and when he approached us on the porch he smiled directly at me and I smiled back and told myself very firmly to focus on him and not on whether my hair looked okay or did I have a parsley morsel on my teeth or was I drooling.

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey, not just eye candy

But when he reached the table he stuck his hand out to shake Sister Alma Rose’s hand, and he spoke to her with something like awe, saying, “Y’all must be Sister Alma Rose,” and I waited to see if he would wince, because Sister Alma Rose’s hands are large and strong and her handshake is legendary, and he didn’t wince but he did raise his eyebrows. The soft, gentlemanly Virginia drawl almost finished me off, though I was able to smile and cock a finger at him and say, “Richmond,” and he smiled back and cocked a finger at me and said, “Bingo.” I’m very good at accents.

Mystical encounters

He shook hands with Father Dooley and then with me, and introduced himself as “Henry the Hiker.” I introduced myself as “Fanny the Drooler,” and he gave me a very fetching wink. Sister Alma Rose graciously gestured to the empty chair, and Mr. Truman LaFollette appeared out of nowhere, which is sometimes disconcerting, especially since he is nearly seven feet tall, with a frosty glass of limeade, and then he was gone before Henry could shake hands with him. When you’re not used to Mr. Truman LaFollette and he makes his ephemeral lemonade appearance, or, in this case, his limeade appearance, it’s a bit like being served by a ghost, and I saw Henry shiver, very slightly, but then he smiled, and I noticed that his teeth were perfectly even and almost blindingly white, and parsley-free, and that he had freckles, for Pete’s sake, and I thought, I am done for.

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Because there was more to Henry than dazzling good looks. He was eye candy for sure, but he had an odd kind of quiet vitality, and life just rolled off him in waves. I never thought I’d say this, but even Sister Alma Rose seemed almost ordinary next to Henry.

He had just finished his first year as a seminary student (Princeton, Presbyterian), he told us, with a nod to Father Dooley, as if to say he didn’t have anything against clergy who were other than Presbyterian; and he had heard about Sister Alma Rose through our friend Ben, who had been Henry’s best friend since third grade, which indicated that he also didn’t have anything against black people, which was useful information because southerners sometimes have odd ideas about people whom Pablo refers to as “our darker equals,” ironically, because Pablo is very brown, as is Sister Alma Rose, for that matter.

Pable and I take this road to the library, though it adds a half-mile to the trip

He, Henry, was hiking on country roads with no particular route or destination, he said, other than his journey being in part “a pilgrimage” to meet Sister Alma Rose because Ben had told him that if anyone could help him clear his head, Sister Alma Rose could. His head needed clearing, he explained, because he had entered seminary confidently, with a definite calling, but after a year of study he felt that he had gained a lot of information but had lost his sense of closeness with God.

“I was a strange little kid,” he said, throwing us a killer grin, and, I surreptitiosly checked my chin for drool. “I was always praying. Not conspicuously, like falling down on my knees in the middle of a Little League game, but privately, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and feeling like whenever something was wrong I could go to God and be wrapped in love and made strong. 

“It just came naturally. I’d start to pray, at home or in church, and right away I was just lost in love, and I was surprised when I found out that it wasn’t the same for everyone else. But I was never embarrassed about it, and sometimes kids would call me ‘Holy Henry,’ but they weren’t being mean, so I’d just smile and say, ‘Alleluia,’ or, ‘Bless you, my child,’ or something, and everyone knew it was just who I was.”

He looked inquiringly at Father Dooley, who had been gazing at Henry with a kind of reverence. “Unusual,” Father Dooley said. “Yes, I’d say it’s very unusual for anyone, of any age, to have mystical encounters on demand. In my own experience, God has been accessible enough to keep me inspired… to keep me excited about my work and to enable me to genuinely love and feel honest compassion… and I often know that I have truly encountered God in prayer, but just as often I get up from prayer dissatisfied, as if one of us showed up and the other didn’t.”

I had never heard Father Dooley speak so earnestly, not even in class.

“Oh, yes!” Henry said, obviously grateful to be understood. “That’s just how it’s been with me, almost since I started seminary. The second thing you said, I mean. One of us not showing up.”

Like breathing

MOI, Fanny

MOI, Fanny

To my credit, I like to think, I had stopped seeing Henry as a sex object and had become absorbed in his story and sympathetic with his dilemma. I pray a lot, and I feel loved and nurtured when I pray, but my Close Encounters with God, the kind that Henry had routinely, have been like lightning bolts out of the blue, huge and unexpected and infrequent gifts of grace.

“It’s like breathing,” said Sister Alma Rose, breaking the silence. She was still shelling peas, and I was reminded of Pablo’s mother praying the rosary, a rhythmic, repetitive, tactile exercise, with the added benefit of the peas being living things just off the vines and smelling fresh and earthen.

Sister Alma Rose looked appraisingly at Henry, and then she nodded, as if something she’d suspected had been confirmed. I had the feeling that there was a secret between them, like they were both members of the Scottish Rite or something, but then Sister Alma Rose went back to shelling peas.

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

God always shows up for gratitude

“Y’all can’t be somewhere God isn’t,” she said to the peas, “because there isn’t any such a place. But y’all aren’t always aware of God, just like y’all aren’t always conscious of breathing. Then y’all go to pray, and it’s like y’all are inhaling God in deep breaths, and he fills y’all up and yet he still surrounds y’all.

“And then Henry, he goes to seminary and he learns about the mechanics of breathing and respiration, and how the air supplies oxygen to the lungs, and the oxygen gets into the bloodstream, and into every cell, where it’s exchanged for carbon dioxide, which the blood carries back to the lungs and then it, the carbon dioxide, gets exhaled. Cells can’t live without oxygen, so breathing and all is pretty important.

“But it happens automatically. It’s not a rule. If y’all tried to push oxygen into your bloodstream and then force it into your cells and exchange it for carbon dioxide, and so forth, thinking that if y’all worked hard at it y’all could make it special, maybe sacred, y’all are gonna most likely hyperventilate. Because it’s already been done for y’all. What y’all can do, in prayer, is wonder at it and accept it gratefully and praise God with every breath. God always shows up for gratitude.”

Vanished

For a while the only sound was the slight crackle of fresh pea (or bean) pods opening and the soft plop of peas (or beans) falling into the bowl. Then Henry asked Father Dooley a question about transubstantiation, and thus began a lively conversation to which Sister Alma Rose contributed now and again, and I closed my eyes and listened to the pleasant hum of their voices, like bees in a patch of clover, and when I opened my eyes, Henry and Father Dooley were gone and the sun was low in the sky.

Then Mr. Truman LaFollette was setting a plate of fresh fruit on a romaine lettuce leaf in front of me, with my favorite snack (if we’re not talking hot fudge), sharp cheddar cheese and Triscuits, just within reach.

“Y’all’s mama says y’all can stay for supper,” Mr. Truman LaFollette said, in a voice so seldom used I thought he must have to scrape the rust off. And then he evaporated before I could ask where Sister Alma Rose was.

She appeared a moment later, looking thoughtful, and before she sat down to her salad she carefully placed a yellowed newspaper clipping on the table to my left.

“Don’t y’all be dripping any strawberry juice on that,” she said, and then she bowed her head, so I did, too, and she said, “God of wonders, we thank y’all for the gifts both substantial and mystical that y’all shower upon us, and we ask that y’all help us use these gifts to grow strong and wise and generous. Amen.”

Strawberries

Mr. Truman LaFollette won't tell me where he gets such FRESH FRUIT

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling as she prayed, first because it always amused me to hear her address the Almighty as “y’all,” and second because her words invoked an image of strawberries and grapes and pineapple falling out of the sky.

“That’s it?” I said, surprised. Usually Sister Alma Rose prays until the food, if it started out hot, is tepid.

“It’s enough,” she said. “Read that newspaper, Missy.”

Without picking it up, I began reading the clipping, at the top of which was a two-column-wide black-and-white photo of a grinning Henry, flanked by a grinning Ben and a bemused-looking Portia, who is the daughter of Mr. Henry LaFollette and Sister Alma Rose’s cousin Dulcie, who had given birth to Portia back when she was Wanton and Wild, which is exactly what Portia is, though Dulcie has turned into a round, comfortable person who smells like talcum powder and who Does Good Deeds. Portia, I thought, was an odd person for either Ben or Henry to know. Sister Alma Rose once told me that Portia is an Aberration, one of the Ancients reincarnated who remembers nothing of her former life and has no idea that she has been sent to do anything other than seduce men and twirl in circles, looking and singing like a fairy child, in the woods.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915) that always makes me think of Portia

The story was dated July 28, 2000, and I was startled to see that Henry looked exactly as he had looked that afternoon, even wearing the same shirt (I couldn’t see his butt; unfortunately it had been cropped out of the photo).

Somewhere in Tennessee

‘Seminary student vanishes,’ read the headline. The story went on to say that Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., age 19, son of the newspaper’s executive editor and his, the editor’s, wife of twenty-two years, onetime film star Julianne Morgan, had begun a solo cross-country hike just after his classes had ended the second week in May. The photo had been taken as Henry was setting off. As promised, he telephoned either Ben or his parents at least three times a week, but the last phone call had been made on June 2, from somewhere in Tennessee. Of course, law-enforcement personnel in three states were searching vigilantly, blah, blah, blah, but they had found no trace of the missing boy, who had been in excellent health and spirits, with no history of mental illness, blah, blah, blah.

Jessica Lange lookalike

COVER GIRL: Julianne Morgan, a respected actress and Hollywood favorite, before she gave up her career for marriage and children

Scotch-taped to the story was a brief piece published on the five-year anniversary of Henry’s disappearance. There was a small photo of Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie, with Julianne looking youthful and serene and Henry Senior appearing haunted. Their son had been neither found nor heard from, though his mother said that he visited her in dreams and she was at peace, but apparently nobody paid much attention to Julianne, least of all her husband, who said that she was “in denial and receiving psychotherapy.”

I sighed and looked wide-eyed at Sister Alma Rose.

“Poor Julianne,” I said. “But NOT ‘poor Julianne,'” I added, on second thought, “because she knows that Henry is okay. She’s probably thinking, all right, send me to a shrink if you want, but I know something you don’t, and I’d tell you if you’d listen.”

Sister Alma Rose beamed at me, as if I’d proven the unified field theory.

“Ben never mentioned him,” I mused, “or Portia.”

Sister Alma Rose and I both knew that if Ben had been worried about his friend’s disappearance, he would have come to Sister Alma Rose. Therefore, Ben had somehow been in touch with Henry, or knew where he was.

The Angel Gabriel (by Guido Reni) resembles Henry a little bit

The possibilities eddied furiously in my head. Henry had been run over by a semi and had come back as an angel. Henry had been a collective illusion shared by Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose and me. Henry was one of the Ancients.

“Henry is one of the Ancients,” I almost shouted. That explained Portia’s being with him, sort of. And Sister Alma Rose had known. That explained the long, penetrating look she had given him.

“But why did he come to you? Was it just as he said? About wanting to feel close to God again?”

Sister Alma Rose ignored the latter two questions.

“He didn’t come to me, Fanny,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing it and probably breaking nine or ten small bones. “He came to y’all.”

The thing in me that had always thought I was weird and longed to be normal… it seemed to dissolve in that very moment.

“Oh, my,” I said, trying to take it in without knowing what “it” was, but sharply conscious that my hormones were alive and well and having an emergency convocation in what would someday, with luck, become my left breast. “What a world we live in.” And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the least idea what to do next.

lemons

(1) Common beans can be used for shell (or shelling) beans, which have the pods removed before they are cooked or dried. The term can be used to refer to other species of beans, such as lima beanssoybeanspeas, or fava beans, that have their shell removed before it is eaten. Nutritionally, shell beans are similar to dry beans, but in the kitchen are treated as a vegetable, often steamed, fried, or made into soups. Wikipedia

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