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.

Why Not Meditate?

War Is Not a Road to Peace

This video is so persuasive I can’t even poke at it, except to complain that the speaker makes frequent use of the nonword preventative to convey the more compact and euphonious preventive…

Big Stone Gap

Big Stone Gap, Virginia

Big Stone Gap, Virginia

For your recreational and mindful reading…

Big Stone Gap

Another view of Big Stone Gap, in the heart of coal-mining country (twchoir.com)

I’ve been doing a lot of waiting lately, something I do very well under most circumstances, but I was ready for a Good Read. I like to go into Quality Thrift, one of Hilltop’s two used-goods stores and by far the better of the two because Mona and Del Maloney, the owners, have an antique shop as well (Quality Antiques). They go on buying trips and bring home truckloads of antiques and “junque,” as they refer to the odds and ends often thrown in for free when they make substantial purchases at estate sales.

If they relied only on estate sales, the book selection would run to romance novels, religious books, and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Fortunately, for me anyway (though I have a weakness for mindless mysteries and for the better romance novels by first-class authors such as Nora Roberts and Kristin Hannah, but not necessarily in large-type editions, which for some reason make me feel like I should read v-e-r-y slowly, placing my index finger under each word), Mona and Del catch the library sales and the yard sales, especially in the spring, when people want to free themselves of the burden of STUFF that seems to gather and multiply in their homes during the winter.

Big Stone Gap, by Adriana Trigiani

Big Stone Gap

(I don’t have anything against Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, by the way. Mama used to subscribe and she and Daddy would read all the books and if there was one they really liked they’d buy the unabridged version.)

So you never know what you’ll find, bookwise, at Quality Thrift. Sometimes the books I pick up are Very Serious slice-of-life sorts of novels in which all the characters are adrift and are so badly flawed that the story amounts to people pretty much stumbling over themselves and each other and finally dying and you don’t care. I used to feel honor-bound to finish every book I started and then I’d go around in a funk for a day or two trying to Figure Things Out. Now I’ll read a chapter or two, say (mentally) Get Over Yourself to the author, and move on.

The paperbacks are just a quarter, so I donate the ones that don’t make the cut back to Quality Thrift. (The Maloneys’ antique store does quite well; the Quality Thrift profits go to the no-kill animal shelter in La Mesa.) As the books are five for a dollar (that is, five for the price of four), I don’t mind taking a chance, and that’s what I did with Big Stone Gap, by Adriana Trigiani, an author I had never heard of. If nothing else, I thought as I glanced at the synopsis on the back cover, I could enjoy an imaginary sojourn in the beautiful and mysterious Appalachians, as I did with the lovely book Christy, by Catherine Marshall, and as I do whenever Uncle Lester surprises us with a visit.

Big Stone Gap is a real town of about five thousand in the extreme southwest corner of Virginia. Adriana Trigiani actually grew up in Big Stone Gap among people with names like Fleeta (and her husband, Portly), Worley Olinger, Spec (the ambulance driver), Dicie Sturgill, and Pee Wee Poteet — hopeful, likable people who, if they died, you’d care, just as you care about the narrator, Ave Maria Mulligan, the self-styled town spinster, who is much more attractive and interesting than she thinks she is.

Author Adriana Trigiani

Author Adriana Trigiani

But, you see, she has never been mindful. That’s what this charming book is about — the Big Push that life gives Ave (pronounced AH-vay) Maria into Mindfulness.

“I took care of everything,” she says to herself at one point. “I was so busy, I didn’t think about what I was doing or where the years were going. I just did what was expected of me.”

I actually am enjoying this book so much that I am refusing to finish it. My paperback edition has 306 pages and I’m on page 295 and I’m going to fix myself a nice lunch of baked salmon and buttered asparagus before I read the next page, and after that maybe I’ll have a dish of apple crisp with real whipped cream and then read another page and by the time I finish the book I will have gained fifty or sixty pounds….

The June Tolliver House & Folk Art Center in Big Stone Gap. June Tolliver was the heroine in the 1908 novel THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE by Big Stone Gap native John Fox, Jr.

The June Tolliver House & Folk Art Center in Big Stone Gap. June Tolliver was the heroine in the 1908 novel THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE by Big Stone Gap native John Fox, Jr.

Fanny McElroy

Moi, Fanny

Check this out! Sister Alma Rose told me she wrote romance novels in another life. I said, “Sister Alma Rose, I don’t know how that could be, because you’re, like, one hundred and fifty years old and before that there was no such thing as a romance novel,” and she grinned and said, “Tells how much y’all know,” which only made me more confused than I already am about reincarnation and past lives, and I followed her into the kitchen and said, “Sister Alma Rose, is there such a thing as a future past life?” and she said, “Honey, there’s things y’all need to learn now and things for later, and this is one for later,” and she handed me a huge oatmeal-raisin cookie, to shut me up, I think.

————–

Learn about mindfulness meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Serenity

Riverside Lookout

This is one of my favorite contemplation spots

Editor’s note: I’ve been trying for weeks to use Typekit fonts, with zero success, but I don’t get frustrated. No, indeed. I nip frustration in the Sister Alma Rosebud. I SO Am Mindful! Omigosh! I am radiant with mindfulness and only a little peeved at the Typekit people, whose instructions are, to say the least, pitiful

Mindfulness Is the Real Deal

My grandmother once said of a friend of hers, Mrs. McPhail, that she “rolled with the punches.” I liked that metaphor. When I was a really little kid, I did NOT roll with the punches. I got knocked out, bruised, and bloodied. A LOT, not literally, I just did not play well with others, and my parents disciplined me for throwing toy trucks at kids and for being “oppositional” with them. And I screamed bloody murder every time.

Pretty teenaged redheaded girl

Moi, Fanny

Then Sister Alma Rose taught me a form of meditation — I was maybe 7 or 8 — that mainly focused on not taking stuff personally (even when it was personal), like getting teased about my hair — certain people taunted me with “Orangehead!” — or about my name (“Fanny is a butthead” was the least offensive phrase flung in my direction for a time) — or being excluded from Mary Louise Hobbs’s birthday bash, which was an ice-skating party and I was a good ice-skater, which is probably why I wasn’t invited, but it didn’t matter, because I didn’t take it personally, because people learn pretty fast that it’s no fun to be mean to other people who don’t react, and the bonus is they sort of open up to you and you get to know their other qualities.

The Church of What’s Happening Now

Kids love Mr. Tim's toys

If you have been paying attention, you know about poor Mrs. Ana and Mr. Tim. Mrs. Ana is still in the hospital, in a coma, and Mr. Tim has no memory of getting snockered and bashing her in the head or of someone else coming into the toy shop and clocking that dear woman. The current theory is that Mr. Tim was “set up,” because no one wants to think ill of kindly, softhearted Mr. Tim, who makes custom toys just exactly the way children want them. Please. Mr. Tim and Mrs. Ana were CPAs in a previous life, and they were successful and prosperous but they didn’t engage in nefarious practices like cheating their clients or “offing” their rivals, which, as far as they know, they didn’t have any, so it remains a lovely little mystery for people to wonder and theorize about, although it would be MORE lovely if Mrs. Ana would wake up and tell the world what happened that bizarre morning, though THAT would ruin the fun of the wonderers and theorizers.

[Sister Alma Rose has pulled the plug on the rumors that (a) Mr. Tim has a “side dish” in La Mesa who got drunk with Mr. Tim until he passed out and then broke an entire shelf of Hall pottery on her head, and (b) Mr. Tim has a brain-wasting disease — Dr. Deirdre, however, did have her neurologist friend come over from La Mesa and examine Mr. Tim for dementia, and he, the neurologist, concluded that Mr. Tim’s mind is clear as a bell. Now, what does that mean? “Clear as a bell”? Why not “clear as a cloudless sky”? Please.]

RAISED BY FOREST FAIRIES. Father Dooley and Dr. Deirdre and I were sitting in comfy grass-green rattan chairs with floral cushions on Sister Alma Rose’s magical grass-green wrap-around porch just yesterday, in the afternoon, which, I’ll do some research but I’m sure it was the most splendid afternoon in history. (Splendid is an odd word, isn’t it? You hear it a lot on the Ridge among the Ancients, I suppose because some of them might have arrived straight from the 1930s, at least that’s my guess.)

Fairies in Victorian art

The Forest Fairies

A glass of Mr. Truman LaFollette’s incomparable lemonade was sitting on the table in front of me, and it must have got there by magic because Mr. Truman LaFollette is off chasing his fey fairy-child, Portia, who could be anywhere, though she feels most at home in the forest. Portia is not like the rest of us. Oh, I suppose there are other Portias out there, God help us, but Portia was born without inhibitions and lacking any sense of danger, and she has wandered more or less at will since she learned to walk — not that Mr. Truman LaFollette hasn’t tried to keep her at home, but she always escapes and cannot be found, and I am almost convinced that the Forest Fairies look out for her and feed her and protect her from being devoured by wolves, because the last time I saw her — every once in a while she wanders back our way — she was rosy-cheeked and voluptuous and displayed no wolf-bite marks, but Mr. LaFollette is frantically searching for her right now because he doesn’t want her to get pregnant. Again.

THE MIDDLE WAY. And that’s what we were talking about when Dr. Deirdre mentioned mindfulness. People who are well schooled in mindfulness do not become frantic, she commented, “and Mr. Truman LaFollette is one of the Ancients and ought to trust in Providence and practice detachment.” Dr. Deirdre is a serious meditator and also a Methodist.. “walking,” as she explains, “the Middle Way.” I simply adore her.

Father Dooley mentioned J. Krisnamurti, the famous sage who was always unruffled and serene because, as he put it, “I don’t mind what happens,” and Father Dooley said that he was “not ready, spiritually, to be quite THAT detached” and he was profoundly grateful for the Buddha’s wisdom in allowing the Middle Way. Dr. Deirdre replied that she has to practice detachment because almost all her patients are people whom she knows well and she could not do her job if she were pulled into their suffering, but she is exceedingly attached to the St. Louis Cardinals and has a baseball signed by Stan Musial in a Plexiglas cube in her office.

“But I no longer let the St. Louis Cardinals’ wins and losses fling me from joy to despair,” she said with a little laugh, “just as I don’t allow my nephew’s struggle with addiction make my heart pound and drive me to drugs… prescribed tranquilizers, I mean, though I always carry my little bottle of Rescue Remedy.

That's Dr. Deirdre--the woman on the left, of course, wearing the mask

“When I’m meditating and worry intrudes, instead of clutching, instead of fighting it off, it becomes my mantra. I turn my compassionate attention away from my breathing toward my mental state, which is worrying, and I look at it and silently repeat ‘worrying, worrying, worrying,” for as long as I need to. That way it doesn’t grab me by the throat and have me creating dire scenarios for the future. And you can learn to function this way, you see, not just during the time you are meditating but all the time.”

Thanksgiving? No, thanks

“Last November,” she said, “I was supposed to prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner for fourteen people in my home. The house was a mess. I mean it was a disaster. It should have been condemned. I’d had emergency after emergency during the time I’d set aside to clean, and, I’m telling you, I was stepping over dog poop Thanksgiving morning. Poor Jerry. There was no one home to let him out.

Puppy under a blanket

Poor Jerry

“And staying down the street at the bed-and-breakfast were all those aunts and uncles and cousins expecting a royal feast, and I hadn’t even bought a turkey, and there were clothes growing mold in the washing machine and dog poop on the floor and maybe a can of sardines in the cupboard, and I’m thinking, I am NOT Jesus Christ and I canNOT feed fourteen people on one can of sardines and half of a soggy cantaloupe.

“So I panicked, and I actually picked up the phone to call the inn and have Marlene, the owner, you know, tell my family that I had some dreadful and highly contagious viral infection and no one could come near me, because, of course, I wasn’t sick, really, but it would be a horrible thing if my relatives came to my house and it weren’t spotless and the meal weren’t perfect, and the REASON it would be so horrible was… and I couldn’t think of a reason. I could, in fact, clean up the dog poop, rewash the laundry and put it in the dryer, and serve turkey TV dinners, and we’d still all enjoy each other, unless I spoiled it by being embarrassed or upset.”

Window, tulips in vase, white lace curtains

...at the bed-and-breakfast...

“Is that what you did?” asked Father Dooley, impressed. “Serve turkey TV dinners?”

“No,” said Dr. Deirdre. “Actually, I literally wept with relief after I made arrangements with Marlene to buy Thanksgiving dinner for everyone at the inn. Around two o’clock I walked down to the inn, ate a delicious, traditional Thanksgiving dinner that I didn’t have to cook or clean up after, which I enjoy when there’s no dog poop on the floor, and I had a wonderful time with my family, except for Uncle Skinny, who chews and farts and leers… and then, after dinner and one glass of wine, I went home, meditated, cleaned the house (my mantra was “cleaning, cleaning, cleaning…”), and had everyone over on the Friday, the next day, you know, to watch college football games and eat cheese and crackers and drink this wine punch I make that’s mostly fruit juice and just a little wine.

Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods

...murky future...

“The point is, you can see what happens when you let a thought or a feeling attach itself to you and pull you away from the present and into this murky future where something just awful is surely going to happen related to that thought or feeling, which is just, after all, one of the gazillions of thoughts and feelings that are part of life rolling by.”

to be continued…

Café Inmediatamente

Tchaikowsky's last home

LET’S REVIVE THE PRACTICE AND ART OF LETTER-WRITING. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy Russian widow, and the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky exchanged more than a thousand letters between 1877 and 1890 without ever meeting. Pictured above is Tchaikowsky’s last home (at Klin, northwest of Moscow). The composer died in 1893

Letters from Henry

Adventures in serendipity and exercises in navigating nonsequiturs

She stopped, just stopped in the middle of the drive. Just to look, and to think, and remember. Inside was warmth, fires burning with the crackle of real wood. Everything in her life had somehow navigated her here. Whatever the horrors had been, the pain and blood, whatever dogged her dreams like a hound, had brought her here. She believed that…. She had this because she’d survived the other. J. D. Robb (pseudonym for Nora Roberts), Memory in Death

"Come In, We're Open" antique sign

A battered old OPEN sign like the one at the farmhouse. Source: http://virtualspace.nclude.us

RECAPPING MY LAST ENTRY, which related my walk into town with Sister Alma Rose to visit Mr. Tim and Mrs. Ana, the toy- and dollmakers: When we arrived at their beautifully restored old farmhouse-workshop-store, the cheery, battered old sign practically sang out COME IN We’re OPEN!

But something was off. It was too quiet… no skritch of sawing or sanding, no sewing machine clattering, no voices conversing about dolls or trains, boats that really sail or  airplanes that really fly. We pulled open the fancy Victorian screen door, wood-framed with an old-fashioned spring that yanked the door shut behind us with a good, solid slam.

Two kids at a pond on a summer day
…boats that really sailed

In the few seconds it took for my eyes to adjust to indoor light, I didn’t see anyone. Then a flash of white caught my eye, and the glint of sun on glass. Mr. Tim was on the floor leaning against the big counter by one of the west windows, paler than I’ve ever seen him, his face as white as the bib apron he wore, his blue-jeaned legs splayed like a broken doll’s. He took a long, greedy swallow from a brown liquor bottle — no label (Was he a bootlegger?) — arranged his face in a parody of a smile, and tried to get up but succeeded only in flipping over and ending up face-down on the pine plank floor.

“Mr. Tim!” I moaned. “You’re snockered!”

I should have mentioned that Mr. Tim has always been a teetotaler. Seeing him blotto on the floor was discomposing, like surprising your second-grade teacher and the church youth pastor in a steamy lip-lock. In my memory Mr. Tim had always been upright, his back straight and strong as a chimney, his eyes scanning my face anxiously to make sure that the doll or dollhouse or kite was precisely what I had requested, which it always was, only better.

Cute blonde toddler with stuffed dog on wheels

Not wanting to watch him grope for his dignity, I skittered around Mr. Tim and into the kitchen hoping to find coffee while Sister Alma Rose looked around for Mrs. Ana. I was scooping coffee into the filter basket when I heard her startled exclamation — “Sweet Jesus” — which, coming from Sister Alma Rose, is a prayer, not an oath. I hurried to pour water into the coffee maker and push the BREW button and ran back into the front room, where Mrs. Ana was out cold by the basement door. 

There was a large lump purpling on her left temple and Sister Alma Rose was telephoning for an ambulance, muttering a prayer and motioning me away from Mrs. Ana. I had poured a cup of coffee, took a restorative sip, put an ice cube in it, and was force-feeding it to Mr. Tim when the ambulance came and whisked both of them away.

A redheaded Cabbage Patch Kid

...too much like a Cabbage Patch Kid (Source: http://www.CabbagePatchKids.com

Dr. Deirdre had followed the ambulance in her VW bug. Holding onto the coffee cup for dear life, I slipped into the back seat. Gracefully for a large woman, Sister Alma Rose squeezed into the front, and five minutes later we were sitting on the cold marble benches in the hospital lobby being grilled by Police Sergeant McCaslin, if the man’s tentative, apologetic, and mostly irrelevant questions could be considered “grilling.” Sergeant McCaslin looks too much like a Cabbage Patch Kid to be scary. Then again, there’s never any crime in Hilltop. Unless today turned out to be an exception.

We sat in the second-floor waiting room, where the morning sun streamed benignly through mullioned windows, the trim painted shiny hospital white. We could hear snippets of Sergeant McCaslin’s questioning of Mr. Tim, who, we supposed, would suffer little more than a nasty hangover for his sins — physically, in any case. As for Mrs. Ana, we had no idea what to expect. We didn’t want to dwell on the bleak possibilities, though the words HEAD INJURY flickered in my mind like a police-car flasher.

Mullioned windows

Mullioned windows. The mullions are the pieces--in this case, of wood, painted white--that divide the larger window into two or more panes

Sister Alma Rose prayed and prayed and prayed. Whether she sat, walked, or looked out the window, she had her praying face on. I prayed for a good five minutes, then reached into my jacket pocket and took out Henry’s last letter — for comfort — already crumpled from numerous rereadings.

Dear One… I miss you… the way I miss fresh, crisp apples in February, with some sadness but even more anticipation [followed by more endearments, which I give you leave to imagine]….

Spanish Word of the Day is fugarse (para casarse) = elope. Fine, but as a casual speaker of Spanish, mostly in situations involving commerce, I seldom have a need to mention elopement or to hear it talked about. Yesterday’s and the previous day’s words were only slightly more basic: (el) formato = formatting and (el) formato = format. When I learned French, it was all la plume de ma tante and je vais bien, merci. Ah, the good old days of vapid conversation in an unfamiliar language….

Hall china antique coffeemaker, an especially elegant one of all porcelain

Mama coveted this spectacular antique coffeemaker -- a Hall porcelain Drip-O-Lator. Mama has a Hall Drip-O-Lator whose "guts" are aluminum, and she loves it, but she salivated over this porcelain one. It was reasonably priced but still too expensive for my blood, and Daddy's as well....

One of the things I miss most when you are gone — something I have never taken for granted, and I never will — is your rapping, tapping, rapping at my door every morning and the sight of your just-scrubbed face in a sort of mist created by the steam from the two cups of coffee you are carrying. I’m almost surprised that some Lowlander with an entrepreneurial bent has not developed a lucrative business around delivering morning coffee on demand. Sure, there are coffeemakers on timers, but I’m definitely not the only person for whom the mood of the first few hours of the day is soured by the early-morning recollection of having forgotten to set the timer or prepare the coffee, filter, water, etc., before going to bed the night before. You might discuss this with Johann, although this sort of enterprise might not be well suited to bicycle delivery….

Your plan to buy a motorscooter is excellent, my love, and I know I don’t need to tell you to be careful and to always wear a helmet, which, of course, I wouldn’t even mention if I weren’t trying to tell you to be careful and to always wear a helmet. Maybe I can figure out a way for you to bring it with you when you come back up. [There are no cars or trucks on the Ridge except for farm vehicles, but a small percentage of the population ride motorbikes, golf-cart-type vehicles, and a few other low-powered varieties of motorized transport.]

Since I am without you on my rambles, I am practicing walking meditation quite a bit, the type that you showed me.* Once I got out of the hyperawareness habit and focused just on the sensation of foot meeting ground, I pronounced a thousand blessings upon you. I love you not only because of the coffee delivery but also because you are such a charming combination of ageless wisdom and age-related naiveté. You will never grow cynical, sweet Fanny….

I folded the letter and put it back into my pocket, meaning to read the rest of it that afternoon when I sat down to answer it. Our letters are exchanged via Sister Alma Rose. I don’t have the faintest idea how mail and other stuff gets transported to and from the Ridge. Maybe by quantum leap á la Harry Potter. It wouldn’t surprise me.

The Ancients’ Waiting Meditation

How to meditate and firm your calves at the same time

People who live on the Mountain — by which I mean the Ancients, of course — rarely stand in lines the way we Lowlanders do, waiting to buy movie tickets or pay for groceries or have a spin on a ferris wheel. If the Ancients are going to queue up it has to be for something really, really worth waiting for —

Alice and Stieg Norlander’s wild-cherry dairy sorbet.  

Friends Eating Ice Cream

Everyone loves the Norlanders' dairy desserts

To think about Alice and Stieg’s delectable wild-cherry sorbet is to find your feet moving in the direction of the dairy without your head being involved in the process. Savoring that sorbet is a religious experience. So, yes, on a warm Saturday evening on the Ridge, people’s minds turn to thoughts of Alice and Stieg Norlander’s wild-cherry dairy sorbet.

Folks generally don’t mind waiting in line at the dairy, because all their friends and neighbors are there, and people even bring guitars and blankets and picnic baskets, like all-nighters camped out to buy Rolling Stones tickets during one of the band’s rare tours.

If the line is only moderately long, you are likely to witness a curious phenomenon: sorbet customers bouncing on their toes as they wait, much as dance students do as a beginning-of-class warmup. Henry explained this to me soon after I arrived on the Ridge, pointing out that it helps you be patient while you’re waiting for something OR it can be a simple way to meditate almost any time and any place.

View from the Empire State Building's 86th-floor observation deck

View from the Empire State Building's 86th-floor observation deck

Ground yourself, standing straight but relaxed, with your feet far enough apart to give stability. Rest your attention on the bottoms of your feet and the supporting ground underneath. Ideally, you’re barefoot and outdoors, but you could do this meditation wearing cowboy boots and standing on the Empire State Building’s observation deck. Well away from the edge, if you don’t mind. I know, they have those fences. Just saying….

Now roll up onto the balls of your feet by lifting your heels just an inch or two off the ground. Repeat, finding a comfortable rhythm. Your knees should be straight but not locked. Don’t rise any higher than is comfortable. Your calves will pay you back the next day if you do. Relax into the rhythm and go for five minutes the first time, gradually working up to ten.

This little meditation helps me feel both courageous and supported. For the second or two that your heels are in the air you are metaphorically flying — risking, adventuring, and “rising above.” The sensation of the heels meeting the earth again is like going home, having a base… having, so to speak, both feet on the ground.

Physically, you’ll tone and strengthen your legs and improve your balance.

* Sister Alma Rose’s Walking Meditation

during which “each footprint is an impression of the peace and love you feel for the universe”

Before she begins a walking meditation, Sister Alma Rose prays fervently for several people she knows who’d gleefully give up all their worldly goods for the ability to walk at all, even to Hilltop and back in the wind and sleet.

The way Sister Alma Rose practices walking meditation is much like the way she does sitting meditation, except that she focuses on the sensation of encountering the edge of the earth with the soles of her feet. (For you chakra balancers, this can be a form of grounding meditation in that one foot or the other is always on the ground, Mother Earth nourishing the root chakra.) It is the repetitive, rhythmic intersection of self and surface that induces the meditative state, rather than the cycle of inhaling and exhaling… with the additional benefit of motion.

Bare feet walking outdoors“Y’all are headed toward a destination,” Sister Alma Rose explains, “though the place is irrelevant and should not be allowed to intrude on the focus of y’all’s meditation.”

Sister Alma Rose offers this caution to walking meditators: “Leave space in y’all’s outer awareness for some of the more aggressive external stimuli — automobiles, rampaging wildebeests, and the like.”

Mother God

Marriage_at_Cana_by_Giotto

The Marriage at Cana, by Giotto

Sister Alma Rose Prays the Rosary and Other Snarfles of Information about Sister Alma Rose

I have decided to be Sister Alma Rose’s Boswell. Please do not snicker, it will make me very cross. Sister Alma Rose is an Exceedingly Remarkable Human Being, and almost everything she does is memorable, probably when she trims her nose hairs it is memorable, although (a) I do not know whether or not Sister Alma Rose has renegade nose hairs, and (b) if she does, I am not present when she trims or plucks or however one extracts nose hairs, and (c) I do not at all like the direction we are going here, enough about nose hairs.

Sister Alma Rose prays to Mary the Mother of Jesus

Rosary

Image via Wikipedia

Sister Alma Rose is not a Roman Catholic but she uses the Rosary in prayer, although not in the approved Roman Catholic fashion, which is very complicated and involves Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous). My friend Pablo is a Roman Catholic, and he goes to Confession as often as he needs to, even when he has ordinary sinful thoughts, such as, “I could just kill Yolanda,” who is his older sister, and who is so annoying that there are times when I could cheerfully strangle her with her own Rosary, though I believe that that is not an approved Roman Catholic use of the Rosary, and anyway, I only think about it, I would never do it, so how can it be so wrong?

Confessional

Confessional; image by celesteh via Flickr

I have asked God in my prayers to heal me of my antipathy toward Yolanda, who floats around in a miasma of piety and has been known to wear as many as three Rosaries and has consigned Pablo to hell for (a) saying “shit,” (b) refusing to make and serve lemonade for Yolanda and her equally annoying boy friend, Hans, (c) and so forth; but, as I have said, Pablo goes to Confession, and the priest, who undoubtedly knows Yolanda and sympathizes with Pablo, gives him, I don’t know, ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers as his penance, and Pablo, who knows more than the priest does of the depth of his loathing for Yolanda, doubles it.

Pablo and I suspect that Hans and Yolanda have had Carnal Knowledge of one another and we wonder if she has been forthcoming of this particular sin in Confession; I say no, Pablo says yes.

Hail, Mary, Full of Grace

An Our Father is the Lord’s Prayer, truncated; Catholics use trespasses instead of debts, and then they quit and start over, if they are praying the Rosary.

A Hail Mary is as follows:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen

Madonna and Child, Pompeo Batoni, 1742

Madonna and Child, Pompeo Batoni, 1742

Sister Alma Rose prays the Our Father and the Hail Mary when she prays the Rosary, but the resemblance to Roman Catholic tradition ends there. As we all know, Sister Alma Rose’s spirituality is somewhat eclectic, and her praying of the Rosary includes a litany of her own devising. If there were any who dared criticize Sister Alma Rose, they would be strict and solemn religionists and Sister Alma Rose would not care.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Yolanda has been heard muttering words to the effect that Sister Alma Rose is profaning the Rosary, which is silly, because there are no Rosaries in the Bible and a Rosary is an inanimate object with only so much power as the pray-er invests it with.

Sister Alma Rose Q & A

Pablo and I sat with Sister Alma Rose on her wonderful porch one Saturday afternoon in October, drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s delectable dark chocolate cocoa with marshmallows because it was a bit cool for lemonade. I had my notepad and a Rollerball pen in turquoise, and I asked Sister Alma Rose some questions and she answered them.

Me: Why do you pray to Mary the Mother of Jesus?

Sister Alma Rose: Well, Miss Fanny, one of the reasons that the Roman Catholic Church has elevated Mary the Mother of Jesus almost to divine status is that many of the peoples whom the Church was trying to convert in the early days practiced goddess worship, often associating the goddess with the earth—and even today we speak of “Mother Nature.” Those long-ago Christian missionaries knew that the better they could weave pagan and Christian traditions, the more likely the pagans were to accept Christianity.

Pablo — consigned to Hell?

Pablo — consigned to Hell?

I believe that women, in particular, need a feminine presence to pray to, one who represents the feminine attributes of our Father-Mother God. Some people are reluctant to pray to God the Creator; he is too big, he is unknowable. So they pray to saints and angels, who have been blessed with intimate knowledge of God and who will carry the people’s prayers to heaven.

Me: Thank you, Sister Alma Rose. Now then, how do you use the Rosary in a way that is different from how Catholics use the Rosary?

Sister Alma Rose: Well, Miss Fanny, as you know, I pray Hail Marys and Our Fathers using the Rosary. The circle of beads and the repetitive prayers are a form of meditation, the Our Father or Hail Mary being a mantra.

I would not say that I go into a trance, precisely, but rather that I let go of everything, worries and regrets and anxieties, until I feel purified and made ready to present my prayers to God. Then each bead becomes a prayer, first of praise and thanksgiving, then of petition or intercession—prayers for individuals who are sick, who are in torment, who grieve for loved ones, et cetera—and for myself, to ask God that my endeavors be not willful or prideful but loving and pure. And then I offer prayers of thanksgiving, that God has answered my prayers, knowing my need even before it was presented to him.

Me: Do you feel that you are using the Rosary inappropriately?

Sister Alma Rose: Prayer is never inappropriate.

And thus endeth my interview with Sister Alma Rose, and she proceeds to place two packs of cards on the table because she has promised to teach us to play bridge, because Pablo’s parents and mine play bridge together, and we think it is very grown-up, and it must be fascinating and intense because during bridge is the only time my father smokes cigarettes and takes the Lord’s Name In Vain.

Miscellaneous Playing Cards

Image by incurable_hippie via Flickr

 

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Mr. Fixit

Journal of a Departed Friend, Part 2

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

Sister Alma Rose recently received part of a journal from the year 1985 that was bequeathed to her by an old friend. Here is an excerpt:

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Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. — Matthew 7:7

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland

I wonder how many souls Christianity has lost because Jimmy asked God for a pony or a trip to Disneyland. There are surely many disillusioned Jimmies walking around, convinced that those biblical promises are all a crock. Maybe it wasn’t a pony that was asked for, but a healing or a job, which, when they don’t materialize, make cynics of would-be believers. 

The conventional wisdom is that God answers prayers but not always at the expected time or in the desired way, and that Jimmy eventually gets something better than a pony.

 

I don’t know, frankly, why some prayers seem to “succeed” where others “fail.” There is the skeptic’s view: that whatever happened would have happened anyway. And there is the pious view: that the “successful” prayer was offered in humility and faith.

The Raising of Lazarus (15th-century painting)

The Raising of Lazarus (15th-century painting)

 

And there is my view: that if I knew how to push God’s buttons, I’d have a good shot at divinity myself, and I don’t want that much responsibility. It’s as much as I can handle to keep up with the phone bill.

‘Shining Like the Sun’

Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

When a prayer is answered in a dramatic way, as in a spectacular healing or an impossible rescue, some believe that God has intervened in the natural order of things, and this is called a Miracle.

Well, I have seen miracles that are supremely “natural.” I won’t go into the  stunning (if somewhat gory) spectacle of childbirth, or snowflakes, or aurora borealis, except to say that the commonplace and the miraculous are not always mutually exclusive. Prayer and meditation offer visions of what is truly “natural,” not in the sense of being normal but in the sense of being true to nature. 

 

Meditation is a journey from the periphery to the center of life, and no one can say what all is to be found there. The late Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and the author of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1956), writes, “There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.”

One’s view of what is real is limited to what one perceives, but allow that those perceptions are incomplete and distorted, and there is room in the “natural world” for unimagined possibilities.

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Spirit, carry my meditation beyond all things seen and all things imagined into all things possible.

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The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

 

 

Proof of God?

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door...

One thinks of Julio and Jeanne next door...

 

Mystic Math

(The Truth Is in the Poetry)

 

Is it so foolish to deny that 2

plus 2 must always equal 4? Because

one thinks immediately of Julio

and Jeanne next door, with twins, Celine and

quiet Jim — not counting Thor, the sheltie,

they are four indeed — but one in the

directory, one phone, one family,

one house, one home.

 

How many syllables comprise a poem?

How many deities are in the Trinity?

How many personalities have you, or I

(not in the psychopathic sense, of course,

although one wouldn’t know, would one, if there

were moments unaccounted for — so many

billion galaxies to travel in for

one a bit unraveled)?

 

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

...so many billion galaxies to travel in....

And then there is the Christian marriage

ceremony, wherein 1 plus 1 make 1,

and during which the wedding guests affirm

that all are one in Christ.

 

One day, one night, together, they become —

a day. Once more, the sum of 1 plus 1

is 1, at least within the limits of

the English language — its vocabulary

vast, indeed, although, alas, not infinite.

 

fiddlepm_chair_istockAnd think of all those violins, violas,

cellos, basses, trumpets, clarinets,

trombones, and horns and cymbals, harps

and bells and such — and all the men and

women, dignified in black and white,

with all their individual concerns —

one widowed just a year ago tonight,

another six years clean and sober; to

her left, an oboist whose brother was

indicted yesterday for tax evasion; on

her right, a Pakistani having such

a frightful allergy attack — and the

conductor, who has just received a check

for twenty thousand dollars from the lottery—

but now she raises her baton — and

in that instant of anticipation, in

that sacred, silent metamorphosis, how

many, would you say, have they become?

 

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Ludwig van Beethoven, an 1804 portrait

Four notes — three quick, one slow — are played:

the Fifth (but first, perhaps, in pure

and simple glory) symphony of Beethoven

begins… and in the audience,

a few may fidget, measuring

the minutes and intending to

retreat at intermission. Violinists

count the silent beats of idleness

between their passages, but, I imagine,

seldom ask themselves how many

notes they play in all, and just

as well, it wouldn’t change a thing. Do you

suppose there’s someone who, for fun

or scholarship, attempts to number all

the microbes in the hall, and further,

calculates the ratio of respirations that

occur between the second movement and

the third? For to be sure, it could

be quantified somewhere by some technology

or other. Fortunately, no one cares.

And that’s the point. They came, you see, to hear

the symphony.

 

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

...the stars care nothing of our counting them....

Therefore, you’ll get no argument from me that 2 plus 2 are 4, not 3 or 17
or 20, but in turn you must forgive
the solecism I commit, suggesting there’s
a truer truth than anything that can
be proven by addition — if it were
not so, than why would anybody bother?
What would be the joy of noticing
this pattern or that symmetry? Do we
pursue a proof because the numerals
insist on our attention? I am sure
the stars care nothing of our counting
them or our refraining from it. Finding
order in the universe, or else
imposing it, or otherwise competing
in a race with chaos, really has a single
benefit — it satisfies, however
temporarily, the spirit, and
the truth, you find, is in the poetry,
not in the paper that it’s written on
or in the composition of the particles
that dart about at rates astonishingly
great — as we believe, for so the eye
of science witnesses, and since we give
it credibility, we cannot disagree. 

...viruses or other microscopic entities....

...viruses and other microscopic entities....

It pleases us to cede authority

to science, even though we never see

the viruses and other microscopic

entities; but science offers remedies

for every manner of disease and warns

that to release a sneeze uncovered will

unleash a tyranny of demons; so

it seems, in our experience, and is

esteemed as fact, no longer theory…

because it matters. That’s the only

reason — saves a life, perhaps, or

fifty million. If the latter, is the

scientific effort fifty million times

more worthy? I don’t know.

You do the math.

 

by Sister Alma Rose

February 2006

“Galaxies” and “stars” images © Luc Viatour GFDL/CC

fall_road-78x96

Publish your Little Book in an easy little way
A Prayer for Every Morning
FREE Learn to Meditate
Request Prayer and Pray for Others
Sample diverse blogs at Alpha Inventions, Condron.us

 

 

Rest in Me

Sister Alma Rose’s Morning Prayer

tree_of_love_st_francis_med_soc_aus

From the Meditation Society of Australia, http://meditation.org.au

I Am a Trillion Suns

I am a trillion suns, each radiating love;
they cannot help themselves, for they are made of
God’s own holy light. Oh, that I might always
know thee, Father-Mother, in each breath and
deed and motion; how I need thee! Oh, that I
might find thee, both within and in the other. When
the dazzling world doth strike my spirit blind, O,
God, remind me that thou art my sight; my senses
are but shadows of omniscience. Thou art my
vision, and the longing in my heart is all for
thee, Creator and Sustainer. Thou alone art
strong; my strength derives from thine. Thou
alone art peace; my striving is for naught. The
transient world has taught us fear and enmity,
when all that’s needed is to stop and hear thine
admonition: “Thou art mine. Now rest in me.”

* * *

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A Prayer for Every Morning
FREE Learn to Meditate
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Why Meditate? The Beautiful Benefits of Meditation

Blackeyed Susans along a Nebraska Road
Meditation is – can be – so many things. There are meditations to relax you or to energize you; meditations for visualization and manifestation; meditations to empty your mind or to focus it. The more entrepreneurial among us have made meditation a commodity designed to cure the ills of a selected audience, which is a nice way of saying that some meditation resources are sham.

Meditation, at its most basic, is resting the mind. Most of us garden-variety meditators can’t empty the mind completely, but we can, at least for a few minutes, give it a respite.

Everybody has problems. The mind is usually engaged in solving those problems, and the problem-solving process often entails stress, anxiety, regret, maybe some guilt, maybe even depression and hopelessness if we lack the resources we believe will solve the problems: health, energy, money, ideas, courage, influence, whatever.

Stress, anxiety, regret, guilt, and depression weigh on us. They sap our energy and cloud our thinking, becoming fuel for more stress, anxiety, regret, and so forth. They are colloquially and aptly called “baggage.”

Nebraska Sunset; Geese flying north over Lake McConaughy

 

Meditation sets the baggage aside

In 1976, my daughter, Marian, and I were rushing through Washington’s Union Station, hurrying to catch the Broadway Limited, which was departing early. We were loaded down with suitcases and Christmas presents for our visit to our family in Omaha.

Marian was eight years old and was carrying everything she could manage, but I had the heavy stuff, both arms straining until I had to stop and give my muscles a break. After thirty seconds or so, I could pick the bags and packages up again and forge ahead, and then my arms would insist on being rested again. My arms were very vocal about it, and they refused to accommodate me until I let them have their little reprieve.

Our psyches don’t complain as clearly as our muscles. Headaches, backaches, stomach aches we can ignore or medicate. But if we keep going on overload, mentally or emotionally, something’s gotta give.

Meditation, like restful sleep, is a way of setting the baggage aside and giving our psyches a break. During the time we’re meditating, there’s no past to regret; there’s no future to worry about; there’s only now, and right now, everything is all right.

There’s no such thing as meditating badly

The only “bad meditation” is one that carries unrealistic expectations, so don’t go out and buy a “meditation kit,” CD, or book that promises wealth, romance, or power. Meditation is good for you—for body, mind, and spirit; for relationships and work and problem-solving and achieving your goals. But your life won’t change overnight, and anyway, expectations are about the future, and meditation is about this moment.

If you’re new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first to interrupt your churning thoughts, but there are some excellent and simple techniques to deal with them. For now, I’ll just give you three axioms to hold on to:

1.      The intention to meditate is a giant step in the right direction.

2.      Thirty seconds of meditation is better than no meditation at all.

3.      It’s not how often your mind wanders that’s important, it’s how many times you return to the meditation, gently and without beating yourself up. It is, as Jack Kornfield says, like training a puppy. You don’t yell or scold; you just keep at it, patiently and compassionately.

When I worked at the University of Arizona, our department invited one of the trainers from the wellness center to give a presentation on “becoming fit.” The presentation was excellent and inspiring. It was especially motivational for me because the presenter emphasized “starting where you are.” If you want to walk or run on a treadmill, she said, and you can only manage two minutes, do the two minutes.

 

I had recently had a baby, and I wanted to start riding my bicycle to work—a five-mile journey that sloped gently uphill most of the way. So for a few days I rode my bike around the neighborhood, which was very flat. One morning I decided that I’d start for work on my bicycle, ride as far as I could manage, then lock the bike to a lamppost or something and take the bus the rest of the way. To my surprise, the five-mile trip was relatively easy and I locked my bike to the bike rack outside the Administration Building. My legs were spaghetti, but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, coupled with the knowledge that the trip home would be all downhill.

So just start. Begin with thirty seconds. Try to add a little time each day. Be patient. Don’t scold yourself if you miss a day, or a week. One of the purposes of meditation is to learn compassion for yourself and, by extension, for others.

The benefits of meditation

The potential benefits are almost too numerous to mention, and to some extent they depend on what form of meditation you adopt. But – again, we’re talking about very basic meditation here – a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, including heart rate and blood pressure. It can be a vacation from emotional turmoil, and you can learn to make that “vacation” into a way of life, making the attitudes you cultivate during meditation into a habitual way of being.

Meditation cultivates compassion, the ability to love, and acceptance: of yourself, of other people, of your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to change your circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. But through meditation you can learn to be at peace wherever you are even when you’d rather be somewhere else.

It might seem paradoxical, but through meditation you can become both (a) your best self, genuine, unique, distinctive, and (b) in harmony with your environment, however you define it: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your home, your neighborhood, trees, buildings, stars, the universe. You can, at the same time, know your limitations and continually test them.

There are “nonreligious” forms of meditation, but I believe that meditation is intrinsically spiritual. It requires a leap of faith to part with your ego, and that is exactly what meditation requires. Whether you’re practicing Christian meditation, Jewish meditation (Kabbalah, perhaps), Sufi meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation, or the Meditation of Not Being in a Plummeting Aircraft, the movement is always out of Matter into Spirit. For me, in any case, meditation is communion with the Divine.

Find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net