Elizabeth Shipley “Betty” (Moss) Pickett left her body in a state of peace during the night of Wednesday, February 6, 2019, at her home in Punta Gorda, Florida. She was 86’d.*
Betty was born March 2, 1932 at the Fort Drum military base near Watertown, New York, the middle child of Rowland and Virginia (Shipley) Moss. All of her formative years were spent at an historic Shipley family homestead outside Lebanon, Kansas, about four miles due east of the monument marking the geographic center of the conterminous 48 states.
According to family lore, Shipley women used middle names to preserve a matrilineal heritage dating to 11th century England. It is also said that amongst these women were a long line of religious mystics and loyal heretics of the Church of England, including many early Quakers. The latter part has never been corroborated by independent study, but it’s a great story, and knowing Betty as I do, I believe it.
In 1941, with Rowland about to be sent to the European theater of World War II, Virginia consoled young Betty with a spontaneous teaching about angels that would watch over her father and bring him home. (They did.) Though previously an agnostic, Virginia said the insight “opened the door to an inward passageway I had never glimpsed before,” and suddenly the 31-year-old housewife became an autodidactic theologian and contemplative mystic, unbeknownst to everyone except her curious middle child.
Twenty years later, after speaking openly about her beliefs for the first time at a funeral, Virginia began hosting informal gatherings of intrigued fellow seekers at the farm. Betty was among the most eager students, and before long she was leading the discussions of an eclectic, pantheistic metatheology alongside her mother. Aside from being steeped in their self-styled nondual logic evocative of Advaita Vedanta, the ideas they shared couldn’t really be pinned down as Eastern or Western in influence, which seemed appropriate considering their place of origin.
The gathering place became known as “The Middle of Everywhere,” in honor of Lebanon’s nickname.
“The Middle of Everywhere saved me from spiritual starvation,” wrote Apollo Gonsalves, a longtime community member. “It was like an island of misfit seekers in the bland wasteland of Christian conformity. But the lessons were also entirely practical. Virginia and Betty’s insights were never dressed up in flowery New Age hocus-pocus. It was meaty stuff you could really use. We still chopped wood and carried water, we just did it on a farm in the American Heartland instead of Japan.”
“It never really got more formal than those first meetings were,” Betty once reflected. ”We never advertised it or tried to define it —it was something like an Eastern Orthodox monastery, something like an ashram, something like a hippie crashpad, but not just like any of those. ‘A home for wayward Perennialists’ was maybe the best description anyone ever offered. [That was Betty’s niece, Vera d’Angelo, one of her more avid students.] It started with that first small core of locals, and then their friends would show up, and then their friends…we never lacked for people despite never looking for any!”
In 1969, to accommodate the growing number of visitors from afar, Betty and her husband Walter Pickett, a lawyer and “rabid birder” according to Betty, opened the “Wing and a Prayer” bed-and-breakfast inn in Smith Center, Kansas. This began a 40-year run for Betty as head proprietor of the inn, where she plied her extraordinary self-taught culinary skills. (She had previously honed them as head chef of Smith Center’s Oasis Restaurant, an acclaimed diner within the “food desert” all around it.)
“Betcha didn’t know this,” said Betty, “but central Kansas and Nebraska are a birding hotbed. So Walter developed a side business leading local expeditions. We would host his people at the B&B too, along with the ragtag pilgrims who came out to the farm. It was a fascinating mix of people for sure.”
Betty and Walter raised five sons in Smith Center (Betty was also a mother to Vera, whom the family officially adopted when she was orphaned at age 15). Her oldest son John described her mothering as “angelic, with saint-like perseverance in the face of the unthinkable more than once.”
In their older years, Betty and Walter made annual trips to birding conferences across the globe. Betty always introduced herself to her fellow travelers as a “non-birding spouse.” When asked why she didn’t bird, her standard reply, without a hint of derision, was, “I prefer a good walk.”
The Middle of Everywhere, both the farm and the heretic asylum, closed up shop in 2006, about a year after Virginia left her body at the age of 95. When Walter passed away in 2009, just after their 56th wedding anniversary, Betty sold the inn and moved to Florida to live next to her sister along the shore of the Peace River. On most days, Betty could be found paddling her kayak down the many tributary creeks, trying to remember all the names and descriptions Walter rattled off when they birded the Everglades.
Betty was preceded in “flying away” by her parents; her husband Walter; her brother, Alastair Moss; and her sons, Matthew, Peter, and Paul Pickett.
She “leaves behind an enchanted crew” (also her words) consisting of: her sister, Ione Shipley Moss Sundqvist of Punta Gorda; her sons and daughters-in-law, John and Wendy Pickett of Denver, Colorado, and Elijah and Rhonda Pickett of Ensenada, Mexico; her daughter-in-law Alea Pickett of Oahu, Hawaii; her niece/daughter, Vera Shipley Moss d’Angelo, her husband Joseph, and their partners, Estelle Boncoeur and Melody and Tyrell Weaver, all of Brooklyn, New York; her niece Magdalene Shipley Sundqvist O’Leary and her husband Connor of Des Moines, Iowa; her nephew, Oliver Sundqvist of Kansas City; her seven grandchildren and eight grand-nephews and -nieces; and her honorary sons, JP Reville of Ithaca, New York, and Waldo Noesta of Punta Gorda, who still owe her a couple books.
Thank you, Betty, for everything.
*In one of our last conversations, Betty said that if she didn’t make it to her next birthday, I should say she was “86’d.” She said that anyone who has worked in restaurants would get it.