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.”

Our Place in Creation

Sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions

Be Gentle with Yourself

Illuminata — A Return to Prayer, by Marianne Williamson

Illuminata — A Return to Prayer, by Marianne Williamson

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 is 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 other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. —Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles

* * *

Dear Sister Alma Rose ~ Some time in my 50s I figured out that we spend the first half of life discovering that we’re not the center of the universe (“Don’t show off,” “Share your toys,” “Be a team player”) and the second half discovering that we ARE. Being a woman, I don’t know if this is QUITE as true for men, but I suspect it’s close.

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

A Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson

In any case, for some of us this realization comes at the time when we’re no longer responsible for running the family… and it IS, of course, by the way, important for kids, during the “first half” of life, to learn to be attuned to other people’s needs, to make compromises without throwing themselves away or kicking the dog.

These days, all the New Age wisdom, which I study, along with lots of other wisdom, is about “being gentle with yourself” and “not beating yourself up” (I love Susan Piver on this in How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy), and, necessarily, figuring out what you WANT, when your WANTS have been on the back burner, by choice or necessity.

Doing what you WANT is one of the compensations of middle age (unless you’re in an icky marriage or have grown children who are parasites) — THEN the first challenge is to realize that you have choices. I think the sudden freedom is too scary for many people; they like their lives to be structured around other people’s needs and wants… or, at least, that kind of life feels familiar and safe, and they don’t aspire to joy, self-discovery, a pair of wings….

We are conditioned to suppress our gifts… until we see them as GIFTS… and find ways to use them that give us great joy. When that happens, we are benefiting “humanity” in the way that is MEANT, speaking metaphysically; we have found “our place in Creation.”

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver

How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver

Don’t you agree, Sister Alma Rose? Signed, Free in Fredericksburg

Dear Free—What y’all say is true and wise. But Sister Alma Rose believes that children can be raised to be independent and self-aware. So often, children are admonished to be “unselfish,” but as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche has said in his marvelous book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, “Everybody wants to be happy.”  We just can’t help it. The difficulty is figuring out what balance of “selfish” and “selfless” acts and compromises will bring us the greatest satisfaction.

Every choice we make, regardless of our age, is the choice we believe will bring us closest to happiness. Sometimes we’re wrong. Children figure out pretty fast that if they hog all the toys, yes, they have all the toys, but nobody else will want to play with them.Rinpoche_The_Joy_of_Living

Take care of y’all’s self

Sister Alma Rose might not use the phrase “center of the universe,” as y’all did, but she understands what y’all mean. Lovely Cheryl Richardson has written a book called The Art of Extreme Self-Care: Transform Your Life One Month at a Time. Sister Alma Rose has not read this book, but she is inspired merely by the title (just as the brilliant book title Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff hardly makes it necessary to read the book).

Sister Alma Rose supposes — although, as mentioned, she has not read the book — that Cheryl Richardson advises her readers to refrain from guilt and worry, and to be aware of those times when y’all’s stress levels threaten to push y’all over the edge. Sister Alma Rose also supposes that taking a nice, long, relaxing bath with bath salts that smell like a summer flower garden, or, sometimes, cucumbers, is not the only antidote to dangerous stress that Cheryl Richardson recommends, if at all.

Sister Alma Rose believes it’s a damn shame that folks have to be reminded to stop doing the things that make them sick.

The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by Cheryl Richardson

The Art of Extreme Self-Care, by Cheryl Richardson

Find y’all’s balance

Sister Alma Rose has found, in her exceedingly long life, and this is just one of many (of Sister Alma Rose’s lives, that is), that y’all must always endeavor to have a life in balance, in which there is time for y’all to do what y’all love, even if y’all have nineteen children and a herd of pet llamas. And even children should learn to meditate, in order to find their true and genuine selves, which will unfailingly lead them to their dharma, their unique and particular path of joy and righteousness.

May God bless you, and when God shows y’all that path with neon signs and balloons and arrows and horns and whistles, as God is wont to do, may y’all be paying attention and not picking y’all’s nose or watching Gilligan’s Island reruns.

llama

New! Only $9.95. Great gift! Click on image for details.

The_Rules_frontcover

So Long, Cincinnati

 The News ≠ Life

The view from Sister Alma Rose's porch

The view from Sister Alma Rose's porch

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

When I got old enough to pay attention to the News and actually started reading the newspaper, I was depressed for months. I might be sitting in the shade of Sister Alma Rose’s massive grass-green porch with its grass-green wicker furniture on a quiet summer afternoon… drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s sublimely fresh and delicious lemonade with slices of lemon floating in the frosty glass… looking out over the rich farmland in the valley of the Turkey Hill River to the mountains beyond… and Sister Alma Rose might be hand-stitching a hem and whistling or humming, oblivious to all but the beauty and the soft breeze… and there I am, frowning about all the pesticides and herbicides polluting the valley and the river. Or I’d fret that any day now some big, heartless conglomerate would buy up all the farms and knock down all the charming old buildings in Hilltop and put up two or three Walgreens and a Home Depot and a Hooter’s. Unless everything got vaporized by a nuclear bomb first.

istock_sunrise_mountaintop_above_clouds

Sunset in the Turkey Hill Valley

I’d watch the sun sink into the mountains, turning the dazzling blue sky to golds and reds and purples, and all I could think about was the ozone layer or the possibility that Planet Earth might lie in the path of an asteroid, or maybe I mean a comet, zooming toward Cincinnati at approximately one skillion miles an hour and landing — THUD! BOOM! — So long, Cincinnati, which has just become teeny, tiny airborne particles of dust, Styrofoam, and polyester, blocking the sun and causing everyone in the western hemisphere to die from sunlight-deprivation poisoning or from inhaling pulverized truck parts or something.

lemons_in_strainerSuch was my cheery outlook the summer I was eleven. Mama and Daddy were worried about me. I overheard them discussing my moroseness one evening. They were sitting on the porch swing, holding hands and rocking gently, back and forth, back and forth on the swing, and I was just a few feet away, cross-legged on the ground, leaning against an old crabapple tree and watching the sky, keeping an eye out for asteroids and nuclear missiles. It was dark, and Mama and Daddy must have thought I’d gone to bed, because they weren’t even whispering.

asteroids_inner_solar_system

The inner solar system with its asteroids

Mama said she thought my problem was “hormonal changes,” and Daddy made a choking noise in his throat and said, “She’s not old enough for… um… THAT, is she?” Mama laughed and told Daddy that she was just my age when THAT happened, and then they started talking about something else, but I felt microscopically better, knowing that Mama and Daddy were more worried about my hormones than they were about the Apocalypse.

But I still felt as if I were carrying around this tentacled, viscous lump of worry, so I spent almost all my free time with Sister Alma Rose — because I always feel a little safer with Sister Alma Rose — instead of with Pablo and my other friends, most of whom were also eleven and presumably struggling with their own hormones.

Your average, greedy, heartless-conglomerate kind of guy

Your average, greedy, heartless-conglomerate kind of guy

We were playing Monopoly on Sister Alma Rose’s porch one day, and I was mopey, and losing the game besides, and finally, in a snit, I toppled my heaps of Monopoly money and asked crossly, “Sister Alma Rose, do you read the newspaper? Because ever since I started reading the newspaper, I’ve been in a bad mood.”

“Why, Fanny,” said Sister Alma Rose calmly, “I gave y’all half of an angel-food cake with strawberries and whipped-cream frosting, from a recipe I found in the newspaper, and y’all weren’t the least little bit cranky.”

Sorghum (milo)

Sorghum (milo)

I smiled a little and said, “Sister Alma Rose, you know that I’m talking about the News, not the recipes and the sorghum futures. The News is full of greedy people behaving badly, and it’s beginning to seem like everyone in the world, just about, is greedy and behaves badly, of course not you or Mr. Truman LaFollette or Cousin Dulcie or Mama or Daddy or my brothers or Dr. Deirdre Barstow or most of the people in Hilltop… but everybody else.”

Sister Alma Rose set her lemonade down on a pretty green-and-cream-colored crocheted coaster and took both of my hands in hers, and I just about fell off my chair because the hand that had been holding the lemonade was ice-cold.

“Miss Fanny,” she said, very seriously, “the News is not Life. The News is sordid little patches of Life stitched up so it looks all of a piece.”

She was quiet for a minute, and then she said, “Miss Fanny, I think it’s time you and I paid a visit to the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs’.”

And then I really did smile, because there is practically nothing in this entire universe better than a visit to the Cavendish-Stolarskyjs’.

To be continued…

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Hale-Bopp Comet, 1997 (photo by Philipp Salzgeber)

Hale-Bopp Comet, 1997 (photo by Philipp Salzgeber)

Santa Clues

Christmas Can Be Cancer-Causing

jackolanternDear Sister Alma Rose – Every year at about this time I get a little crazy. It starts when carved pumpkins appear on people’s front porches. The jack-o-lanterns seem to be sneering at me. “We’re pumpkins,” I can almost hear them hissing, “like, you know, in pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, which will be here VERY SOON, and close upon its heels will be the HOLIDAY SEASON, and you haven’t even STARTED your Christmas CHORES.” Then they laugh this eerie laugh. “HA-hahahaha.” And they’re right. Or, they would be if pumpkins could talk. But their gap-toothed mouths don’t actually MOVE. Although I’m almost sure I saw one of them blink.

stockings_mantleI kind of go all out for Christmas. I make dozens of jars of Sherry’s Cherry-Vanilla Marmalade for friends. I make and send more than a hundred individually cross-stitched Christmas cards, each with a handwritten note. I write, illustrate, print, and bind about a dozen books for the children in my extended family. I’m an enthusiastic bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. I make and shop for gifts, not just for my own family and friends, but also for our Adopt-a-Family families (we have five this year). I stencil all the wrapping paper myself, on 100-percent recycled unbleached newsprint. And, of course, we have our annual Holiday Open House, which requires two full days of cleaning, decorating, baking, and cooking. I don’t actually grind my own wheat or use honey from my own beehives, but I’ve thought about it. Oh, and I sing in a community choir that gives three public performances, and of course there are extra rehearsals, plus I organize the children’s Christmas pageant at church, and make all the costumes. There’s more, but you get the idea, don’t you, Sister Alma Rose? The month of December is one big panic attack. What should I do? —Signed, Burned Out in Buffalo

Dear BOIB — Y’all need to give Sister Alma Rose a minute or two. Y’all have caused her to have a panic attack.

Okay, Sister Alma Rose has recovered.

blood_testingIt’s too late to point out that y’all could have done three-fourths of y’all’s “chores” back in August… although, Sister Alma Rose supposes, y’all probably run around in a minor-league frenzy the rest of the year too.

Fortunately, Sister Alma Rose has several helpful suggestions. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. MELTDOWN

On or about December 1, break a leg or contract a temporarily debilitating but not life-threatening illness, such as mononucleosis — anything that will require y’all to spend about three weeks in bed….

snowflakePROS: (a) Y’all will have time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and the Winter Solstice, which is, briefly, the returning of the Light and the reminder that Life will soon emerge from the frozen earth even though you forgot to mulch the rosebushes. (b) Y’all will discover that the world won’t come to an end simply because you haven’t made marmalade or cross-stitched cards or sewed pageant costumes. (c) Y’all will get some much-needed rest. (d) Y’all won’t make yourself and everybody around you miserable with the stress generated by your crazed, obsessive activity (see Table 1).

CONS: Y’all’s injury or illness has to be genuine. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know of a reliable way to break one’s leg without putting the rest of one’s limbs and one’s internal organs in jeopardy (as would be the case, for example, if y’all hurled yourself out of a third-story window) unless y’all just whack at y’all’s leg with a ball-peen hammer, which y’all might be able to do if y’all have fortified yourself with immense quantities of hard cider. But what if y’all’s hubby walked into the room in which y’all were hammering away at your tibia? He’d likely say something like, “Darling, why are y’all butchering y’all’s shin?” and y’all would gibber, being under the influence of the hard cider, you know, and y’all’s husband might thereupon insist that you take a prolonged “vacation” at a “special hotel” where everybody wears white and where none of the “guests” is issued sharp objects, not even a plastic fork.

As for contracting mononucleosis, even supposing y’all were able to find someone who had the disease (perhaps by taking out a classified ad) and who could be persuaded to cough directly into y’all’s face… mononucleosis is nothing to mess with, inasmuch as in rare cases it can produce complications such as meningitis and possibly death, which, though it does solve the wrapping-paper problem, is perhaps an inordinately high price to pay.

christmas_house2. MINIMIZE

Substitute Welch’s Grape Jelly for Sherry’s Cherry-Vanilla Marmalade. Find oversized bathrobes for the children to wear at the Christmas pageant. Give fruit baskets to the adults on y’all’s list, money to the older children (a dollar per year, agewise), and diapers to the babies. For the fruit baskets, don’t even THINK about growing the fruit yourself in y’all’s backyard. Have a BYOB potluck open house. Do NOT make cross-stitched Christmas cards; they only cause the recipients to feel guilty when they throw them away. Send postcards instead. That way y’all don’t even have to seal envelopes.

3. MATHEMATICS

Calculate the health effects of y’all’s holiday activities. Make an Excel table, per the following example:

christmas_activity_health_effects

As this table clearly and scientifically demonstrates, y’all are NOT doing yourself or the world any favors by maintaining this frantic holiday pace. Furthermore, the table doesn’t account for a great number of other Seasonal risks: indebtedness comparable to that of General Motors, toxic mall ambience further polluted by continuous replays of Chipmunks Christmas album, antagonistic attitude of people who don’t celebrate Christmas and don’t think anybody else should either, danger of cat upsetting Christmas tree and spilling water that shorts out electronic Christmas presents already wrapped with arithmetical precision, as if going to be inspected by army drill sergeant, and set under tree, etc.

christmastreePlease do not misunderstand. Sister Alma Rose adores Christmas. She loves every tacky song, even “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as sung, a little peevishly, it must be said, by Burl Ives. She enjoys glittery parties and judiciously spiked punch. She likes over-the-top outdoor decorations that are visible to the naked eye from Saturn (never mind that there are, as far as we know, no eyes, naked or otherwise, on Saturn). She is crazy about making and giving and receiving gifts. She doesn’t even mind that for a month or so the entire town of Hilltop is transformed into a giant red plastic Thing.

Sister Alma Rose realizes, however, that even she has limitations. When celebration crosses the line into consternation, a highly contagious upper-respiratory infection cannot be far behind. She recommends that y’all follow Sister Alma Rose’s example, which, when in doubt, is always an excellent practice, and particularly so during the Holidays: minimize the stress factor, maximize the joy factor, and never, ever, do all your shopping on Christmas Eve at Bob’s Pharmacy, which Sister Alma Rose once did, and everybody received sinus irrigators.

christmas_ornaments

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Meditation: Where to Start

Sister Alma Rose Q & A: How to Meditate

A wise man once said, “God is the most obvious fact of human existence.”
You, Ruler of Creation, are so big we can’t see
around you, so
we think we can’t
see you. Be obvious to us today, O God. Amen

Q: Dear Sister Alma Rose—I want to start practicing prayer-meditation. There are so many websites, and books, and videos, and CDs, I don’t know where to start. Can you give me a quick tutorial on the basics?

Buddhist Gardens

Buddhist Gardens

A. Sister Alma Rose can, of course, do so. She will not, at this time, describe the differences between prayer and meditation, particularly so-called nonreligious meditation, an oxymoron at which Sister Alma Rose turns up her rather astonishing nose, if she do say so herself.

Meditation is like pure Christianity in several ways. Y’all are born again every time you choose to be. Y’all let go. Let go of the past, let go of the future. Give them to God. Everything is Right Here, Right Now, and it’s all okay, it’s all fine, because it’s the only way it can be, right here, right now.

Begin meditation at whatever pace suits y’all: one minute, several times a day; a half-hour, twice a day; whenever y’all can steal some time away from the hubbub and find a comfortable, quiet place.

Some meditation instructors will tell y’all to take a shower or a bath first, to clean up your mess, to create a “special” place for meditation, to sit in a certain way, and to not fall asleep. Sister Alma Rose says: That’s all well and good, if you want meditation to become just another project, like going to the gym, rather than a way of life, a way of being. If Sister Alma Rose followed all those rules, she’d meditate maybe every third leap year. Sister Alma Rose has a planet to run. She can meditate on a city bus during rush hour.

Meditation step by step

Sister Alma Rose recommends y’all start with a simple breathing meditation. This is as basic as it gets. Breathing.

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

  • Get as comfortable as possible, in as quiet a place as possible. If y’all can get comfortable sitting with your back straight on a pillow on the floor, or on a chair, not slouching, with y’all’s head tilted slightly down, why, that’s dandy. If y’all want to lie down, for Dirty Gertie’s sake lie down.
  • Relax. Just saying the word relax to yourself is immensely powerful.
  • Close your eyes. Don’t scrunch them closed. Just an easy-and-relaxed closed.
  • Inhale and exhale through your nose, comfortably, rhythmically.
  • Get in the habit of inhaling from y’all’s diaphragm (or abdomen), so that your in-breaths are deep and lung-filling. Abdominal breathing is, in itself, relaxing. (If y’all can’t get the hang of it, place your hand flat across your navel and inhale so that your hand moves outward.)
  • Y’all are in a sort of porous cocoon of pure white light. You can think of it as your “energy field.” Sister Alma Rose sees it as God’s loving, healing light. Breathe in the light.
  • The more senses y’all engage during your meditation, the less likely y’all will get distracted. See the healing light being inhaled. When y’all exhale, feel the healing light permeate your body with warmth, like a caress: to the tips of y’all’s fingers and toes and the top of y’all’s head; through your skin, muscle, bone, all the way to your internal organs and every cell in y’all’s body.* Smell and taste the light. Hear the ebb and flow of your breath, like an ocean tide.
  • If y’all can’t manage all that, just let your attention rest on your breath.
    • Meditation author and teacher Susan Piver
    • Meditation author and teacher Susan Piver
  • Don’t worry if your mind wanders. If a thought or a feeling intrudes, notice it, but don’t follow it. Jack Kornfield suggests y’all bow to it. If you do get tangled up in thoughts and emotions, gently bring your attention back to y’all’s breathing. As Susan Piver says, it doesn’t matter if it’s been ten seconds or an hour. Don’t beat yourself up. Show lovingkindness to yourself. Do not get discouraged. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche reassures us that “the intention to meditate” is enough. If y’all genuinely intend to meditate, you can’t mess it up.
  • If y’all are distracted by pain or discomfort, let it be the focus of your meditation. Take your attention away from your breathing and settle it on your pain. Y’all do that, it’ll likely go away.
  • Try to meditate for a few minutes every day. Set a timer, if y’all want to. Gradually, steadily add to your time a bit, or to the number of times you meditate per day. But if a week goes by, or a month, without your meditating, y’all haven’t failed. Just start again. You get an eternity of second chances.

    The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

    The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

In a nutshell

  • Get comfortable and close y’all’s eyes. Relax.
  • Rest y’all’s  attention on the sensations of comfortable, rhythmic breathing, from the diaphragm, in and out through the nose.
  • If thoughts or emotions break in, notice them but try not to follow them. (Sister Alma Rose thinks of this process as a scuba diver’s watching through goggles as fish swim in and out of view.)
  • As soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, gently, lovingly bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • Always, in meditation, treat yourself with love and gentleness. When you are through meditating, the lovingkindness will remain, and you’ll be kinder to yourself and others.

Other ways to start meditating

* Warming your fingers and toes is actually a common form of do-it-yourself biofeedback for relaxation. Use an instant-read thermometer or an old-fashioned mercury thermometer. Hold it between y’all’s fingers for a while, until it reaches your body temperature. (An instant-read thermometer will do so immediately.) Then focus y’all’s attention on the fingers holding the thermometer. Y’all can try to warm your fingertips, or y’all can just “notice” them. Either should do the trick. You’ll feel a tingling in y’all’s fingers—that’s the blood flowing in. The temperature recorded on the thermometer will rise.

When you’re stressed, y’all’s system goes into “fight or flight” mode and the blood rushes to your heart. By consciously directing the blood away from y’all’s heart, toward your extremities, y’all’s heart slows down and y’all relax.

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Lunchtime Meditation

Sister Alma Rose Glows

Visualization can be a form of meditation. Y’all know what it means to visualize, right? It’s a bit like imagining, but it’s more like pretending.

Here’s what Sister Alma Rose is trying to say: When you ”visualize yourself as a ray of light,” don’t stand a ways off and look at a ray of light and imagine it’s you. Y’all got to be that ray of light. Crawl inside it and soak it up until you are the ray of light.

Here’s the easiest meditation-visualization practice in the world:

Glow.

Glowing is especially useful when you’re in an uncomfortable social situation. Sister Alma Rose’s little friend Noreen occasionally has to travel with her boss, usually by car. They don’t have a lot to say to each other. The silences used to make Noreen uneasy, and she’d grope around for things to talk about. Now, whenever silence settles between them, she just… well, she glows. From her toes and fingertips to her face and the top of her head.

Sometimes she visualizes a warm, golden light entering through her crown, the middle of her forehead, or her heart. Other times, she feels the warmth and radiance emerge from inside.

Easy does it

One of the problems with a lot of guided visualizations is that they don’t make sense. A popular and generally helpful healing CD has y’all floating on a pink cloud, which then deposits y’all on a beach, where you bask in the sun for a while, and then you walk uphill and discover you’re carrying a big bag of rocks. In another meditation, called the Daisy Pond, y’all are supposed to walk down some steps, down a hall, through a door, and out into a lovely natural setting where there’s a giant daisy in the middle of a pond, into which y’all are supposed to propel yourself and get cozy. Sister Alma Rose just can’t feature it. Daisies are too fragile. A big red rose might work, but not a daisy.

In the lunchtime meditation, Sister Alma Rose is going to ask y’all to inhale a healing white light. Sister Alma Rose has experimented with different ways of doing this. Sometimes she’s in the Valley of the Sunrise and she’s breathing-in the first rays of dawn. Sometimes she’s in a kind of light-cocoon. Sometimes she’s a star.

If Sister Alma Rose is in a chilly place, like outside on her porch when there’s a cool breeze, she feels the light entering from above, like a thin shining stream.

Do what works for you. If you have a headache, it might help to feel the light entering where the pain is sharpest. If you’re grieving, you may want to feel the light coming into your heart.

Sit or lie down comfortably, where y’all can be undisturbed for ten minutes or so. Close your eyes and begin breathing easily from your diaphragm. As you inhale, feel the healing white light enter. Feel the warmth and a bit of tingling where the light enters your body.

Float in the rhythm of your breathing for a minute or two. Then feel the light penetrate and massage every part of your body. Lean into it, relax in it, surrender to it. Every inhalation brings in new, clean light; every exhalation sends the light surging through skin, muscle, bone, heart, lungs, stomach, down to your very cells. If y’all have pain, send the light to where the pain is, surrounding it with love and compassion. Don’t fight it. Just let the light do its work.

If your mind wanders, acknowledge the thoughts or feelings but don’t follow them. Gently, compassionately, return your attention to breathing-in the light. Don’t scold yourself. As one of the Masters says, the intention to meditate is enough for now.

This type of meditation is like a warm bath. It surrounds y’all and fills you with warmth and comfort. It cleanses and heals. It reassures you that right now, right here, everything is as it needs to be. And it is. Oh, yes, it is.

———–

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Sister Alma Rose: Ride the Sky

Editor’s note: More than twenty years ago, I learned to counteract the stress-induced “fight-or-flight response,” which causes your blood to rush to your heart and which, if unrelieved, raises your pulse rate and creates tension or anxiety.

 

A psychologist taught me this simple biofeedback exercise: You simply hold a small thermometer between your fingers and wait a few minutes until the mercury reaches your current temperature; then you purposefully raise the temperature. It’s easier than it might seem. Resting your attention on a part of your body can induce the blood to flow there, and away from the heart. It doesn’t take much practice to feel the blood flowing into your fingers, to feel them warming and tingling. Pretty soon you can toss the thermometer.

 

This exercise calms you in at least two ways: by relieving the pressure of blood in the chest and by making you focus on something other than the source of stress. Variations of this technique are used in many forms of meditation.

 

In guided meditation, you’re often instructed to focus on your breathing and to feel your breath circulate throughout your body. I’ve done this for years, and I’ve found it especially useful in relieving headaches and muscle pain. Today, however, I practiced this technique while listening to music through a particularly good set of earphones. The music, called “Meditative Music Collection,” was composed by Kevin MacLeod, and I found it at theChristianMeditator.com.

 

“White bread” was my initial response to the music. “Hypnotic” is more accurate, I now realize. I’m hooked. Listening to this music, breathing from the diaphragm in rhythm with it, and feeling my breath flow from the center of my forehead to the tips of my fingers and toes—it was a magic-carpet ride. I never wanted it to end. It seemed a bit like cheating—Is meditation supposed to feel better than sex? And this was pure hedonism. But maybe the reason so many of us need so desperately to meditate is that we take ourselves and our responsibilities too seriously. We all need to lighten up.

 

I’ve done the best I could to translate the experience into words, but I highly recommend that you not take my “words” for it. Try it. You’ll like it.

Transported by the Music of the Ancients

I’m not sure exactly where I’ve been, but I can
hardly wait to go again—I, the one who lightly
treads because the brittle crust of earth might
shatter at my step, who hesitates to breathe, in
case I use more than my share of precious air—
just now that very I, the same, leaned back
against the sky, and what a ride, oh, what a
ride, it gave me. Such a glutton I became for
earth and air and light. Why, I inhaled a
hundred million stars, I do believe, and felt
them penetrate the scaly cells within that I’ve
maltreated through the years and in a shudder
of vibration make them smooth and firm and
youthful once again… oh, healing river,
sweet rejuvenation, current running through
the wires, and then I know the motion isn’t just
inside… at first a cradle sways, then by a
chariot I’m borne, and suddenly I’m like a
mermaid gliding in the warm, clear sea, where
I can breathe, I find, and I don’t mind the near
proximity of squid or shark, or fear what might
be hidden in the dark. The rhythm’s
irresistible, the sense of being borne to safety,
safe in transit, pure contentment mixed with
longing for unspecified delights, and I can
wait, because the song is getting stronger, I
can’t steer it with my breath or bones, and yet I
have no fear: I’m not alone; the wind that
carries me and whispers in my ear is wiser far
than I, the spirit is benign, and I am satisfied;
the destination doesn’t matter—I’m already
home.

 

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