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…

A Lovely Young Woman

Green leaf on blue water

'Up the mountain'—the pool at the spring near the Upper Shrine*

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Digesting a Difficult Book

Beautiful redhead with freckles

Fanny at almost-13

Fanny, who will be 13 in August, is about to leave for Daylight, the almost-inaccessible mountaintop home of the Ancients, with her mentor, Sister Alma Rose, and Henry, the man she knows she will someday marry. Fanny has learned only recently that she is a reincarnation from the Ancients. She will live with them until she feels that she is ready to serve among the “Lowlanders,” doing the healing and peacemaking work that will become her mission.

coffeecup wingding

I am packed to go “up the mountain” — indefinitely, although Mama and Daddy will be allowed to visit because they’re “special,” and I can come home as often as I want, maybe via magic carpet, I’m not really sure. Sister Alma Rose and Henry will be taking me. Henry will stay as long as I do; Sister Alma Rose is keeping mum about her plans.

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

While we are waiting to leave, Sister Alma Rose has assigned me to read The Metaphysics of Mysticism, A Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross, by Geoffrey K. Mondello, a book of which “the goal… is unabashedly epistemological.” Whew! What if it had been gastronomical? Would I have been forced to eat the book? Would it have eaten me? And tidied up afterward?

It is heavy going; the author uses a lot of words such as solipsistic. And only occasionally can I infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context, because the context is full of words such as refractory (not to be confused with refectory, which is where St. John and his fellow Carmelites went to eat dinner).

And so I slog along, reading indoors at the computer so that I can easily look up words every three or four sentences, until it is just irresistibly gorgeous outside, when I lug the unabridged dictionary out to the garden or go read on Sister Alma Rose’s porch. Sometimes I think she forgets I’m only 12.

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Detail from Riding a Flying Carpet, by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1880

Visiting Cousin George

Mama was an only child and so was her cousin George. (Everyone I know just calls him “George,” even my little brothers.) George and his parents— Mama’s mother’s brother and his wife (“Big George” and Jake, I don’t know her real name) farmed outside of Hilltop when Mama and George were kids, so they were like siblings.

Now George lives in Chicago, but he is hardly ever there because he makes huge amounts of money as a freelance photographer who specializes in going with linguistic anthropologists to remote places like Papua New Guinea (where more than 850 indigenous languages are spoken!) and the Amazon rainforest. So when he is in the U.S., which is hardly ever, he comes to see Mama or she goes to Chicago, and since he was at home last week, and I was going to be leaving soon, Mama, Henry, and I all flew to Chicago. Henry bought our tickets, and I still don’t know where he gets all his money, even though his parents are rich, but they don’t know where he is, and I don’t understand that either. I’m sure he’ll tell me when he’s ready to tell me (this is the new, patient, serene Me talking). 

 
 
 

The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

The Amazon rainforest, Brazil

We didn’t tell George that I am going to Daylight, although if you could tell anyone and not be scoffed at, it would be George. We also didn’t exactly explain about Henry, but George takes everything in stride. His wife, Annette, used to go with him on long assignments, but she and their baby (Annette was five months’ pregnant) died on Borneo, not from some exotic jungle disease or snakebite or anything. She was standing at the edge of a four-foot embankment near a dry streambed when an insect flew into her eye, and she lost her footing and belly-flopped onto the hard ground, and she died of “multiple internal injuries” in a helicopter on the way to the hospital.

Being the observer

This tragedy happened while Mama was carrying me, so the baby, who was a girl, would be about my age. I used to wonder if I might be an unwelcome reminder of George’s unborn child— he always seemed to be scrutinizing me— but Sister Alma Rose has taught me to not be self-conscious but to observe rather than “feeling observed,” and when I started observing George I realized that he scrutinizes everybody, because he is actually interested. George is a person who lives in the moment. As Sister Alma Rose says, George remembers “where he is” (here) and “what time it is” (now). He’s kind and sensitive but not at all sentimental. He probably doesn’t know it, but he practices “mindfulness.”

Sexy blonde with cigarette, leather outfit, and fur stole

Daddy thinks Carla's a spy

George’s girlfriend, Carla, swears like a sailor and is physically the kind of woman who could have been called a “blond bombshell” in an earlier era. Carla might be a little on the flashy side for high society, and you might assume that she was no rocket scientist, but you’d be wrong because that’s exactly what she is, an aerospace engineer who was an associate professor at some university with initials like M.I.T. but not M.I.T., but now she’s a handsomely paid consultant with ultra-ultra security clearance, and she loves to talk but she doesn’t talk about her work. Carla lives in George’s apartment when he’s away and when he’s home. Daddy doesn’t approve, not that anybody asked him.

George is a self-professed Christian who says he has seen God’s grace “up close and personal” too many times to doubt its reality. It was grace, he says, that brought him and Carla together and that keeps their relationship strong though they both travel a lot and sometimes Carla can’t tell even George where she’s going.

Sultry beautiful blond woman

...Dagmar WAS a spy...

Daddy thinks Carla’s a spy. That’s because a long time ago, just before Mama and Daddy got married, there was a woman called Dagmar who was another “blond bombshell,” and she worked at the Diner and chewed gum and had this Bronx accent, and Daddy told Mama, “She’s a spy,” and Mama said, “What would a spy be doing in Hilltop?” and Daddy said, “Keeping a low profile,” and Mama laughed because Dagmar would have stood out anywhere, but it turned out that Daddy was right and Dagmar was a spy for the Russians or the Chinese or something. Daddy said she was less like a waitress than like somebody playing a waitress on television, and the gum-chewing and Bronx accent were “overkill.”

Loving is the main thing

Coffee in a light-blue mug

...a wonderful time drinking coffee...

Our day in Chicago ended too soon. We all had a wonderful time drinking coffee and eating George’s “culinary specialty,” fruit salad made with cream cheese and marshmallow cream and it is just to die for, if everyone had left the room I would have been compelled to eat it all.

As Sister Alma Rose has told me over and over until it finally sunk in, you cannot be loving when you are being an “observee” instead of an observer.  And loving is the main thing. So I got over myself; I relaxed and observed instead of being self-conscious and feeling as if all eyes were on me. It was fabulous, wonderful, liberating… liberating most of all. And when we left, George told Mama he thought I had “grown into a lovely young woman.” I didn’t need George’s approval any more, but it felt good. Validating. “The truth shall make you free.” **

 * Green leaf on blue water, vnwallpapers.com
** John 8:32

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