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.”

Grounded

There are resources and sustaining energies that are available to all of us when we align our bodies with the earth. Knowledgeable healers have an understanding of the great value of being grounded is to each of us in our overall health and well being….. A common practice that is used by healers to assist clients who tend to be “spacey” to become more grounded is to guide them through a simple guided visualization. The healer will ask the client to imagine being a tree. By imagination of extending his roots into the ground the client’s anxieties are lessened and they are better able to draw healing energies from the earth source. —About.com Holistic Healing

The Buddha sat in serene and humble dignity on the ground, with the sky above him and around him, as if to show us that in meditation you sit with an open, skylike attitude of mind, yet remain present, earthed, and grounded. The sky is our absolute nature, which has no barriers and is boundless, and the ground is our reality, our relative, ordinary condition. The posture we take when we meditate signifies that we are linking absolute and relative, sky and ground, heaven and earth, like two wings of a bird, integrating the skylike deathless nature of a mind and the ground of our transient, mortal nature. —Sogyal Rinpoche, Meditation

Sister Alma Rose, Recumbent

Sister Alma Rose likes to meditate lying down.

Most experienced meditators believe that posture is exceedingly important in meditation. Sister Alma Rose don’t quarrel with that. She would adore to sit like the nubile white girl in the photo. Several lifetimes ago, she rather looked like the nubile white girl in the photo, with them picturesque collarbones and dancer’s legs.

The idea is to sit comfortably, in a chair or on the floor or the ground, perhaps on a cushion, such that it is easy to envision a golden cord connecting the meditator with the sky, the chakras aligned, and a “root” extending from the root chakra to the center of the earth.

Sister Alma Rose has a bony butt

Sister Alma Rose is exceedingly comfortable in her skin, and she has ample amounts of skin in which to be comfortable. Sister Alma Rose has a lap in which small children can hide from their predators, and a bosom formed to serve as a cozy anchor for the babies who like to splay themselves across her naturally padded shoulders. Sister Alma Rose’s buns, however, are inexplicably skinny. Sometimes she sits on a cushion to meditate, oftimes on her bed, leaning against pillows lest her back or her bony butt complain before her meditation is satisfyingly concluded.

But Sister Alma Rose is most comfortable meditating when she is lying on her side in the bed. Comfort is exceedingly important in meditation. Indeed, some forms of meditation are meant to be practiced lying down. But oftimes, when she is engaged in a meditation practice for which it is recommended that the meditator be sitting, Sister Alma Rose cheats and lies on her back or, if she is very tired, on her side. Occasionally, but not usually, Sister Alma Rose falls asleep while meditating. What better frame of mind in which to rest?

Sister Alma Rose believes that the “golden cord” is not a “cast-iron cord” for a good reason, and she knows that roots bend and snake their way to their sources of water and nutrients in the earth. If meditating is uncomfortable — if y’all are fighting with your body during y’all’s meditation — why, then, meditating becomes a chore instead of a folding of oneself into the timeless embrace of the Creator. Sister Alma Rose often meditates several times a day, and she has reaped the many blessings that accrue from the consistent practice of meditation. (See “Why Meditate? The Beautiful Benefits of Meditation.”)

Sister Alma Rose suspects that people with disabilities that prevent them from sitting on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion are not denied access to meditation practices that are windows opened to heaven. If y’all want to meditate standing on y’all’s head or dancing naked in the creek (practitioner discretion advised), by all means do so. Many pathways lead to God, and they are not all at a 90-degree angle to the surface of the planet.

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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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