Sharing the Joy
When I was nine years old, I saw an ad for the American Greetings Company on the back of a comic book I had bought for 10¢ at the Century Pharmacy. It took up the entire page and was mostly a showcase illustrating all the different “prizes” you could win by selling Christmas cards. All sorts of toys for boys were pictured there, as well as a range of sporting equipment – from fishing rods to baseball gloves – the creators of the ad assumed would appeal to their audience: any boy young and gullible enough to take the deal. I was too old for the toys, and disinclined to pursue athletics any more than they were already being thrown at me, but there, right in the middle of the page and much to my fascination, was a picture of a working printing press! Now that caught my eye, and heart. What a great thing! I could write and print a newspaper for all my friends in Century!
I’ve never been one to hesitate once I make up my mind about something (both a curse and a blessing inherited from my father), and in no time at all I had filled out the coupon, addressed and stamped an envelope taken from the stash on Mama’s desk, and was on my way out the door. It was such a great, grown up feeling as I walked down the block to the Post Office to send it off all the way to some exotic place called White Plains, NY (New York!). I was absolutely sure that, whatever it took, enough of our friends and neighbors would buy Christmas cards to earn me that printing press, and I couldn’t wait to get started on my publishing career. I was inspired.
Now, you might suspect I had some Murdochian plan to produce a scandal sheet that would reveal all the neighborhood secrets, and if I were writing a comedy, that might well be the turn this story would take, but the plain truth of it is that I just wanted to share the joy, so much joy.
First, there was the joy of living in that place and time with all the people I had learned to love in the two short years we had been there. If you’ve been keeping up with my stories, you already know that for my first seven years we lived six hours north of Century, deep in the Bankhead National Forest, with nary a neighbor child my age for miles around, so, except for infrequent visits with distant cousins, I had both the luxury and peculiarity of becoming relatively fully formed without benefit of any peer interaction whatever. But in Century, things were very different and I loved it. Only a few months before I sent off that coupon, we had moved from our “company house” right across from the Alger-Sullivan offices into a new house about a block up the street built for us by Uncle Joe and his construction crew – all the way down from Birmingham – and for the first time in my life, really, I had playmates! It was still just Mimi and me at home, but now we had Sandi and Bubba Briggs on one side and Pam and Jan Wood on the other, and in no time at all – largely at my instigation – we had founded an imaginary town called Woosonbriville in the wooded acres behind our house where make-believe walls were raked-up pine straw and furnishings were well-placed, left-over bricks. It was a magical place where anything the mind could conceive would spring up instantly as long as we all believed, and for the next few years we spent many afternoons in our happy kingdom until darkness dropped the curtain and Mama called from the kitchen door. We loved our little town so!
Secondly, there was the joy of all my adult friendships, both old and new. Many other families had moved from Grayson to Century when we did as Mr. Clancy transferred his most valued employees to his new great enterprise. Ma Bray, perhaps the best listener I’ve ever known, had lived only two doors away from us in Grayson and was only three doors away in Century. Other previous neighbors, the Myerses, DeWitts and Campbells to name just a few, were also within a stone’s throw, so there was no letup in my love of these down-to-earth people who from my earliest days in isolated Grayson had been both occasional surrogate parents and my only possible friends. Grayson was so tiny and safe it was really more enclave than town, and almost as soon as I could walk I started dropping in on everyone – Ma, Aint Ethel, Miz Graham, Maggie Myers – whenever I felt like it. I was almost always welcomed with big smiles as soon as they saw me through the screen door, so by the time we moved to Century – almost equally as safe for wandering children – I was fairly fearless when it came to popping in on people I liked.
And, as it turned out, Century was running over with likable candidates, so my network soon included several more extraordinary friends, though I readily admit that I hardly realized at the time just how special they were, or how blessed I was to fall within their reach. They included Miss Eva Vaughn, a collector of dahlias whose fifty years as the Century postmistress was fully documented in her dim, dusty and impressive front hall where her twelve signed and framed oversized Presidential appointments – one every four years from Woodrow Wilson in 1912 through Eisenhower in ’56 – took pride of place.
Then, there was the expansive Senator George Robinson (Robin) Swift, who became particularly dear to me in spite of the sixty-year disparity in our ages. He was an old and gracious soul who always gave me his complete attention whenever I visited his office. Appointed some years earlier by Governor Chauncey Sparks of Alabama to serve out the term of Senator John H. Bankhead, II (who had died suddenly in office), Senator Swift had served with distinction, but then rather remarkably turned down the subsequent nomination out of hand when it was offered, saying he preferred the honest living of his Atmore, AL sawmill to the corruption he had found in Washington. By the time I met him, he had already retired and turned the Swift Lumber Company over to his three sons, but then had been enticed out of his reverie to head up Alger Tenants in Common, the holding company for the million acres of Alger pinelands being harvested under Daddy’s supervision, so their offices were in the same building and I missed no opportunity to visit him. (It may occur to you, as it does to me, that it sounds like I was a real pest, but I am consoled in this thought by a wonderful hand-written letter I received from the Senator’s wife, Margharita, just shortly after he died in 1972, relating just how much joy my friendship had given to him in those long-ago days. I was moved to tears then, and still think of him with great love in my heart.)
And there were others, including (but not limited to):
– Miss Nellie Moylan, the pay-mistress for Alger (and my first Catholic), and her sister, Miss Mary – two perfectly pixilated Southern spinsters – who lived in a ramshackle dogtrot house with Bassett hounds so fat they swept the floor when they waddled;
– Miss Irene Whigham (who was called that by everyone even though she was long married by the time we knew her), whose aristocratic – even Edwardian – mien came naturally long before she had realized seven million “1957 dollars” in the sale of the mill and town to Mr. Clancy. An inveterate birder and our next door neighbor for the two years before we moved into our new house, she served on the Board of the National Audubon Society, had original Elephant Folio Audubon prints adorning her walls, and, when I was around, always instructed her cook, Maggie, to please leave some cake batter in the bottom of the bowl so I’d have more to lick;
– Her husband, Doc Whigham, the town pharmacist, who cooked up the best cherry syrup I’ve ever tasted for his soda fountain;
– And not least by any means, Miz Audra Leach, who gave me Coca-Colas (forbidden fruit at our house) and my first book of poetry (Ogden Nash, of course) and who – perhaps more than anyone else in town – seemed to see me for who I truly was and find something there worth encouraging.
What joy I shared with each of these adults, and what joy they each returned to me!
Then, of course, thirdly, all this joy flowed easily from the wellspring of joy ever flowing from my increasingly solid friendship with Jesus that had begun with those visits to my tea table in Grayson about the time of my fifth birthday, and been cemented in some steadfast ways in the years since, including, just months before my Christmas card adventure, my baptism and early confirmation in the Methodist Church. This was all instigated when I discovered that our dear preacher, Brother Charles Langford, was to be moved rather arbitrarily to another church. We were new Methodists, so it was the first time I had been confronted by the denominational habit of moving all the preachers around every couple of years out of deference to the circuit-riding ministry of founder John Wesley, and I was crestfallen when I learned Brother Langford would be moving on. I had found him to be a man of great spirit and acceptance – head and shoulders above any other preacher we had ever known – and I frankly didn’t trust that the next one would be as true to my faith as he was. I may have been only nine, but if anyone was going to preside at my confirmation, I wanted it to be him, even if it meant doing it three years early. Ultimately, after my appeals to parents and Brother Barnes, the District Superintendent (who also just happened to be one of Daddy’s long-time best friends), Brother Langford consented to do it if the Bishop approved, which is how, in May of 1959, I ended up taking four private weekly confirmation classes to be baptized in the Methodist way – with a sprinkle of water from a silver Revere bowl donated years before by Miss Irene – and on his farewell Sunday that June, was confirmed in the Methodist Church.
So, yes, there was a lot of joy in little Tommy’s life, a lot of joy to spread around. And it was Joy with a capital letter – not delight, or glee, or giddiness, but real Joy, the sort of Joy that can only be borne on the wings of human relationships as they are lived under the loving Fatherhood of God. Of course, I can see now just how odd this sounds – how beyond anything normal for one so young – but I can only chalk it up to having spent all those years in the company of naught but my angels, Jesus, and the spirits of the forest. And, Joy Profound like that, heartfelt joy, yearns to be shared, to be shouted from rooftops even as it is pondered in the heart. Just ask Handel, or Beethoven, or Pope Francis! All I needed was that printing press!
Now, being no fool, I saw no reason to tell my parents about my plans to sell Christmas cards. It would seem that, even then, I was more inclined to act first and apologize later than to ask permission. It was clear enough to my nine-year-old mind that showing initiative in a good cause was to be encouraged, as it always had been by everyone I knew, so I could see no red flags to discourage me from acting, and it never really even occurred to me that there might be any pushback. It all just seemed so perfect, how could anyone object?
Two weeks later, along about the middle of November, I came home from school one afternoon to find a big – really big – cardboard box sitting on my bed, and a most curious mother. I think she actually assumed, at first, that it had been sent to me in error, but I soon confirmed by my delight that it had, indeed, been ordered by me. She was not, as the English say, “best pleased,” but she held her fire behind her glower until Daddy got home, assuming, I’m sure, that he would be equally “disappointed.” (For the record, I’m sure, looking back, what most concerned her was the idea that our neighbors – all of them friends and coworkers in that “one company town” – would feel obligated to buy from me. She always made it very clear to us that her greatest parental fear was that we might impose ourselves upon anyone, at any time, for any reason, which I’m sure was a reflection of her own upbringing.)
Much to her chagrin, however, it turned out that Daddy was impressed with my bold confidence, and even I was surprised at how successfully I was able to make my case. I explained how excited I was about starting a neighborhood newspaper and that selling the cards was all in my quest to acquire the means to do so. And, as we looked through my “sales kit” with its “good,” “better,” and “best” sample books, a supply of order forms, and at least a couple of dozen boxes of “generic” cards that could be sold directly, I think he was actually impressed with its quality.
And, as it turned out, my first foray at door-to-door sales was a huge success. Almost everyone I approached bought at least something (except Mabel Bird, who would only send cards with an avian theme, and I didn’t have any of those) and I did get my printing press, though this, too, was a lesson to be learned. It turned out that to print anything at all required slipping teensy rubber type, letter-by-letter and space-by-space, into little metal rows – each one a line of type – and it took me more than a week, working every afternoon after school, just to set up one page. In the end, I only printed one two-page edition, but even that is probably more than most little boys with similar ideas were able to do. Those were the days before Xerox or even mimeograph machines, so it was the printing press or nothing, and my dream of starting a newspaper would just have to wait till my means and ends might finally meet. (Nevertheless, my efforts had succeeded in proving something else to me: that I could sell. And, the next year, I chose as my prize a plastic fly-rod that worked perfectly well but was about as challenging as a bicycle with training wheels. Then I finally discovered, in year three, the beauty of earning an actual commission (an option from the start, if one cared to look). From then on, it was smooth selling as our neighbors learned to expect my reappearance every fall – armed with my satchelful of samples – and I easily underwrote my entire Christmas gift list for the next several years by way of White Plains, NY.)
Now, I’m telling you all this because for some time it has occurred to me that while I did begin this blog a year ago with three fundamental essays about what I believe, I have never really set out my specific motivations, and if you’re going to call your digital periodical “In Praise of Angels,” it probably makes sense, at some point, to at least let your readers in on the reasons why. Well, again, it’s all about the Joy. The stimulus that moved me to answer that comic book ad all those years ago felt exactly the same as the one that moves me today.
There’s a wonderful old song sung by church youth everywhere that goes: “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” and it has always been one of my favorites because I feel those words right down to my toes, and what I love most in life – what motivates me best – is sharing that joy with others in any way I can. Sometimes that means the joy of cooking, sometimes the joy of writing a poem, sometimes that means wrapping your arms around a loved one to lift them up in times of sadness or to embrace them in times of rejoicing. And always, always, for me at least, it means the joy of cooperating fully and fulfillingly with my angels. Oh, how I do love my angels.
They’re always there, you know, paying attention, recording our every move, easing the way and sending subtle influences to help us along, to help us flower. If you’ve been following my posts for the past year, you already know about the day my angels saved my life from ending in the Sipsey River, of how they joined me for tea as a five year old and, together, we welcomed Jesus to join us around our tea table and He became my first and foremost human Friend, of my climb up the fire tower to see the view, and their timely gift to me: my astonishing, ever ready suit of scared-proof clothes. And, if you happened to read “Uncut Diamonds” which details my appreciation of just how precious we are in the eyes of the Father, and why that might be so, you can even understand how I could be so presumptuous as to believe He would dedicate so much time and effort, assign so many personalities, simply to the observation and over-care of such stumbling, bumbling creatures as we consistently seem to be from our point of view on the ground.
Angel Gifts come in many forms, and almost always without a sound. They are the synchronicities that startle us, the coincidences that amaze, the perfect timings, close calls and personal touchstones that only we can see or know, but always, at least, inspire from deep within us a feeling that we must be on the right track, in the right place at the right time; that generate a spurt of internal gratitude to the cosmos, not knowing how it happens, or why it works, or perceiving even a little bit the delight of our angels who have been so invisibly instrumental in shaping our lives. Even when we visit with others who, like we, believe in angels, we rarely take a moment in our fellowship to think of them as being right there within reach, to realize that we are not the only ones in the room, merely the material tip of a vast and otherwise unseen spiritual universe.
Once, twenty years ago, or so, while staying with friends in Middletown, NY, I went for a walk late one afternoon and found myself standing on the edge of a frog pond in the mating season. There must have been thousands of frogs there because their calls were so loud, so filled with amphibious yearning, that had I been there with someone else, conversation would have been impossible. It was truly a din of frogs, and yet, try as I might, I couldn’t find a single one.
I knew they were there. I could even hear that some of them were within only a few feet of where I stood. Granted, there were lily pads covering most of the water’s surface and cat-o-nine-tails surrounding it, but still, surely I should be able to see them. Surely. So I just stood there, letting their shrill soprano voices wash over me, and continued to look, and look, and look some more until, finally, out of the corner of my eye, something moved. Yes! There, on a pad about ten feet away, green-on-green and nearly invisible, I saw a frog. One frog. But at least I had proved that the frogs could be seen if you just looked in the right way, for the right things, for the movement of those little throats. And then, there! Yes! A second one! And then oh, there, a third, and then a forth, and oh, lookathere! They’re everywhere! Suddenly my blindness was vision; suddenly the multitude of frogs came out of the mist and all was made plain. How could I have been so blind so shortly before, and now could see them all? Yet that was exactly how it happened.
If I hadn’t known by their calls that those frogs were there, I would never have seen them at all, and, dear reader, angels and their gifts are the much same, only there are no mating calls to alert you nor signposts to guide you, no heavenly hosts asinging… not even a harp (though I did once, many years ago, hear some indescribable, inexplicable chimes in that place between waking and sleeping that were like nothing else I’ve ever heard; more beautiful than any sound from an earthly instrument could ever be). And, in my case, it turns out that I was truly blessed to have so many years of glorious solitude in the forest – before television and without playmates to distract me – where I could get to know my angels in the guise of my imaginary friends, could see my first frogs early and often, if you will, and experience their loving, guiding hands.
And, as a result, by the time I ordered those Christmas cards, I had long since become accustomed to following their subtle gestures, sensing their leading, as one fully settled in my faith and my friendships with Jesus. Would I have ordered those Christmas cards without their prodding? I doubt it. Would I have spent so much time as a child in the company of those elders I found wise and just and loving without their guidance? Most likely not, since it always provoked my parents and puzzled my peers. Would I have insisted upon a piano when I was ten? Or the flute at eleven? Would I have read every biography in the library just to find out the one common denominator their protagonists shared that made them worthy of such recognition? (Answer: every one of them took a major risk at some time in her or his life.) I cannot say what I would have done without the influence of my angels because I have never known their absence, but I truly believe they were, early on, doing their best to keep me reaching beyond my grasp, striving beyond my understanding, and risking love for everyone I encountered. You see, once you have seen the frogs, you can never go back.
These days, I rejoice in the company of my angels from the start to finish of every day. Oh, I’m not always thinking about them, or even consciously aware of them, but just under the surface the awareness flows. Some years ago, now, I invited them to join me in my prayers and so, in my mind, we join daily in an imaginary friendship circle to raise our thanks to our mutual Father for His countless gifts, to ask for His guidance that we might follow His will, and together we appeal for His blessings upon all our cousins in two hundred countries, a thousand cities, a millions towns – all seven billion of us; the entire human family of Jesus, Himself. And, to this end, we also appeal to all the other angels everywhere that as they accompany their charges in every corner of the planet, they may find ways to raise the veil and show glimmers of the light; to ignite the Joy Profound in every possible heart.
The hardest thing of all to believe is just how much God loves us. The hardest thing of all to accept is that we are even worth His time. But I believe He loves us so much He created an entire material universe just that we might be born. I believe He is so involved in our lives that He actually implants a part of Himself into each and every soul. And, I believe he cares so much He has even created great hosts of angels just to ensure that we have every opportunity to grow into His likeness, that our steps may ever be led into the trails of His blazing and our Hearts ever ready to be inspired by His astounding generosity.
And, by His grace, I believe it has been my great good fortune to perceive my angelic companions from a very early age – to have seen my first frog as a toddler – and with that understanding – and the love it has generated – has come responsibility: the duty to raise my voice, through this wondrous new medium, In Praise of Angels.
Thank you for coming along. Thank you for sharing the joy! Lots more to come….
 https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/uncle-jesus/ “Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary
 As in the Halleluiah Chorus, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (“Ode to Joy”), and Pope Francis called his first major edict as Pope “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel” which makes the point that the best way to evangelize is to attract through natural joy that flows from seeking to do God’s will in our lives rather than through proselytization, which he has, time and again, railed against.
 I. https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/uncle-jesus/ ; II. https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/03/09/the-living-water-boson/ ; and III. https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/uncut-diamonds/
 https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/uncle-jesus/ “Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary
 https://inpraiseofangels.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/uncle-jesus/ “The First Thread: ‘Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’”