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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
- “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.”