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It is good to be safe. It is better to be strong. It is best to be bold in the power of God. —Sister Alma Rose
‘Everything Is New’
Sister Alma Rose loves the vicissitudes of the natural world, large and small. She is elated when Mother Nature shows her fangs — not, of course, when there is devastation, but when there is that wild violence in the sky, the winds that turn umbrellas inside-out, the blizzards, even the heaviness of heat and humidity in August.
Ladybug, also called ladybird
She is equally fascinated by a tiny red ladybug on a bright-green leaf, by a swelling iris bud that wasn’t there yesterday… by moss and mushrooms… by the iridescent yellow-green web, that lasts only a day or so, of treetops in the valley below in springtime. I caught her weeping early one evening — Sister Alma Rose never weeps — because the cicadas had started their scritching, which signals the beginning of the end of summer.
Iris sanguinea (photo: BS Thurner Hof)
She might be on a first-name basis with every blade of grass in her faerie-garden, and feel physical pain when sturdy foliage is trampled by careless feet, but she is no friend of the dandelion or the bindweed, any more than she honors the heartbeats of roaches (and is it really necessary for there to be four thousand roach species?) or centipedes, though she concedes their essential place in the natural cycle.
Where there is human habitation, Sister Alma Rose says, “Voracious weeds and sly creeping things thrive only in entropy and neglect.”
Br’er Rabbit, the Anchorite
One of Hilltop’s most colorful citizens is a 30-ish man whose whose real name is Arthur Arthur but who goes by the name “Br’er Rabbit, the Anchorite.” That is how he introduces himself: “How do you do? I am Br’er Rabbit, the Anchorite.”
St. Anthony the Great, father of Christian monasticism and early anchorite
Br’er Rabbit is so pale you could probably see his internal organs through his skin, except that you can’t see much of his skin because he wears robes made out of sheets that he buys at the Hilltop Thrift Shoppe. He cuts a hole in the sheet so that he can pull it over his head, and he fastens up the sides with big safety pins. When the sheet is white, it always makes me think of some kid bursting into his house after school and yelling, “Mom, I forgot to tell you, I’m going to a Halloween party in half an hour and I need a ghost costume.”
But Br’er Rabbit can’t always get white sheets at the Hilltop Thrift Shoppe, and I have seen him in Dukes of Hazzard robes and Care Bear robes and even Dora the Explorer robes, which he wears with as much dignity as it is possible to muster when you are clothed in a cartoon sheet held together with safety pins.
Me, Fanny McElroy
Br’er Rabbit is not quite an anchorite in the medieval sense. He lives in a tidy little house owned by the Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church, but it is hardly a “cell” of the type that anchorites have historically inhabited, and Br’er Rabbit is allowed to come and go, unlike in the old days, when anchorites had to stay in their cells, although some anchorites lived as hermits in forests and fended for themselves, growing their own food and so forth.
But Br’er Rabbit does the work of the anchorite, which is to pray as a profession, I guess you’d say; and to look at him, aglow in his pallor and his Care Bear robe, you can easily believe that he has a direct line to God.
An anchorite's cell
Here is the thing about Br’er Rabbit, though: He has vowed to “harm no living thing.” He has a small solarium where he grows herbs and flowers and other plants, and I have sat in that room with Sister Alma Rose and Br’er Rabbit when the room was knee-deep in crazed leaping and chirping crickets, which seems to delight Br’er Rabbit but which I find very unnerving, especially when one hops onto my face, and I wonder if I have unknowingly sprayed myself with cricket pheromones, and sometimes I feel cross enough to say, though I never do, “Br’er Rabbit, I know that you take antibiotics when you have a bacterial infection, and your kitchen and bathroom reek of Clorox, which kills a gazillion bacteria with a single swipe,” but I love dear, gentle Br’er Rabbit and, anyway, I don’t want him to stop praying for me, not that he would, he is far too kind, even though he does murder bacteria.
A growing colony of E. coli cells (A false-colored image from fluorescence microscopy of a growing colony of E coli cells. Taken from "Aging and Death in E. coli" Citation: (2005) Aging and Death in E. coli. PLoS Biol 3(2): e58 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030058 the discussion of a research paper by Stewart EJ, Madden R, Paul G, Taddei F (2005). "Aging and death in an organism that reproduces by morphologically symmetric division" PLoS Biol. 3 (2): e45)
Sister Alma Rose likes to pray and meditate with Br’er Rabbit, and she usually asks me to go with her, and I usually do, and if you are thinking, “Why would a normal kid want to spend two hours praying with a guy decked out in Dora the Explorer sheets instead of going to the mall with her friends or playing volleyball or SOMETHING?” the only answers I can give you are (a) Hilltop doesn’t have a mall, and (b) listening to Br’er Rabbit and Sister Alma Rose pray is like lying on a beach on a warm afternoon and hearing the waves lap the shore and being lulled into a sort of certainty that, even though you woke up with three new pustulating zits this morning, everything is going to be okay.
‘Like the first morning’
It was in just such a dreamy haze of contentment that Sister Alma Rose and I began our trek up the hill toward home from Br’er Rabbit’s little house on what had been a spectacular October afternoon, but in the time that Sister Alma Rose and I had spent with Br’er Rabbit, the temperature had dropped ten degrees or so and the sky had darkened and the wind was whipping the dry leaves into small tornadoes. Thunder and lightning had been comfortably distant when we started out, but during our twenty-minute walk the storm moved ever closer and the wind blew ever harder and colder, tugging at our clothes and throwing dust in our faces.
Sister Alma Rose was practically dancing with excitement. I have no fear of storms, but I enjoy them more when I’m not soaked to the skin, so I made a mad dash for Sister Alma Rose’s porch, while she all but did pirouettes up the driveway, and just as she sat down in her grass-green wicker chair the rain began, and it was not a benign little “let’s go walking in the rain” type of shower, it was a gullywasher.
“Just imagine, Fanny,” Sister Alma Rose said contemplatively, “that y’all had never witnessed a storm before… never seen lightning or heard thunder or watched the wind thrash the trees.”
“I’d run screaming to Daddy and make him hide with me under the bed,” I said. But knowing, as I do, that storms come and go and that they are usually beneficial; and having some knowledge of storms and lightning and electricity and how to count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder to calculate how far away the center of the storm is, all of which Daddy has explained to his children, taking all of us out onto the porch during violent weather; I do not mind thunderstorms unless the electric power goes out, and even then, Mama lights candles like it’s Christmas at church and Daddy builds a fire in the fireplace if it’s chilly, and it’s like we’re pioneers and I feel as if I should be embroidering a sampler or something.
Thunderstorm over Arlington, Virginia (photo: POSTDLF)
But this time, taking my cue from Sister Alma Rose, inspired by her wonderment, I watched the turbulent sky with new eyes and enjoyed the earthy fragrance of rain soaking the dusty ground, and it was kind of like watching a scary movie (PG-13 scary, not R-scary), when the hairs of your arms stand on end but you know, because you’re eating popcorn and licorice twists and you keep having to stand up and let people by who have to go to the bathroom, that it’s just a movie and everything will turn out all right in the end.
Anyhow, what Sister Alma Rose is trying to teach me is to always look at the world with new eyes and to greet every morning as if it is the first morning, and to notice things I might otherwise take for granted, like how the sun shifts in the sky so that the light is different every day. With so much to be astonished by, Sister Alma Rose says, there is no reason for anybody ever to be bored.
Here is a secret about Sister Alma Rose: She wears Crocs.