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.”

I’m Walkin’

fatsdomino1992concertfrancerolandgodefroyphotog

Fats Domino, performing in Normandy, 1992; photo by Roland Godefroy

Walking Meditation and a Little Bit of Rock-and-Roll History 

Do y’all remember Fats Domino’s 1957 hit “I’m Walkin'”?* No, of course y’all don’t. Y’all are ages younger than Sister Alma Rose… though there was a revival of interest in the song, and the singer, when 2005’s Hurricane Katrina destroyed Fats Domino’s house in New Orleans.

Here’s a priceless and poignant video of an “I’m Walkin'” duet featuring Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson

…poignant, in that this was one of Nelson’s last recorded performances. He was killed in a 1985 plane crash at age 45. (There’s no truth to the rumor that a fire in the cabin, supposedly ignited by Nelson and others while freebasing, caused the crash.) And poignant, in that Nelson’s cover of Domino’s “I’m Walkin'” was Nelson’s debut single. **

The young Nelson family, late 1940s (top to bottom -- Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky)

The young Nelson family, late 1940s (top to bottom -- Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky)

(Notice, in the video, how Nelson vocally defers to Domino. Ricky’s just singing harmony. His voice and his body language are both saying, this is Fats Domino’s song.)

Making a virtue of necessity

Sister Alma Rose ran out of baking soda this morning. She was mildly annoyed, on account of she was baking, and baking soda was needed for both the baking and the cleaning-up afterward.

Normally, Sister Alma Rose enjoys walking to the town of Hilltop and back up to Hilltop Farm, but it was cold this morning and the sky was spitting and there was no one to go with her for company, Cousin Dulcie being away and Fanny McElroy at school. Sister Alma Rose, however, always endeavors to make a virtue of necessity, and so she decided to undertake her trek as a Walking Meditation, in 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.

WalkingThe way Sister Alma Rose practices walking meditation is much like the way she does breathing meditation, except that she focuses on the sensation of encountering the edge of the earth with the soles of her feet. (For you chakra aficionados, 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, though the place is irrelevant and should not be allowed to intrude on the meditation.

Some folks do their walking meditation in a pastoral or parklike setting, with acute awareness of birdcalls and flowers and foliage. Others let these external stimuli float in and out of their awareness, returning their focus always to the metrical sensation of walking… of the tangent of physical body with physical planet.

Elvis Presley, early in his career

Elvis Presley, early in his career

Sister Alma Rose would offer y’all two cautions if y’all are beginning a walking meditation:

  1. Leave space in y’all’s outer awareness for some of the more aggressive “external stimuli” — automobiles, rampaging elephants, and the like.
  2. Don’t forget to buy the baking soda.

* * *

* Sister Alma Rose heard, on the public-radio program American Routes (November 28, 2007), an account of the transition from rhythm & blues, once called “black music” or “race music,” to rock & roll — an amalgamation of gospel, folk music, country music, blues (especially jump blues), swing, boogie-woogie, and, of course, R&B, according to Wikipedia. Prominent performers during and after this transition were Bo DiddleyBuddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard — among many others.

During the mid-1950s, entrepreneurial music pioneers saw a vast potential audience for a slightly blander variety of “black music” among white teenagers. There was a particularly fascinating bit of audio in the American Routes broadcast in which Little Richard is being coached to alter the signature R&B syncopation by singing on the down beat (I think the song was “Lucille“… or it might have been “Slippin’ and Slidin’“) — dumbing the music down, in a sense, so that white kids could dance to it. The segment was brief — but long enough to capture a few false starts on Little Richard’s part before he got the hang of it.

It was a pivotal time in the evolution of American popular music, when white performers (most notably Elvis Presley) emulated black musicians, and black performers (the great gospel artist Sam Cooke among them) were being urged to sing “whiter,” and crooners such as Frank Sinatra and onetime barber Perry Como still managed to churn out a few hits. During the 1960s, the Rolling Stones would be among the British bands to revive “black music’s” blues rhythms in the U.S., helping pave the way for the raw vocals of Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Sam Cooke (photo by Frank Driggs) was only 33 when he was shot and killed, under mysterious circumstances, in 1964

Sam Cooke (photo by Frank Driggs) was only 33 when he was shot and killed, under mysterious circumstances, in 1964

** Ricky Nelson became a “teen idol” when he started singing and playing the guitar on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, featuring his real-life parents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and his brother, David. Ozzie Nelson was best known as a bandleader in the 1930s and 1940s. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on the radio from 1944 to 1954 and on television from 1952 to 1966.

Serious critics underestimated Ricky’s musicianship, as they had Elvis Presley’s, from the first. It seems that when a singer or a band is enormously popular (as was true of the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, and the BeeGees), their innovations and other contributions to the genre are ignored, except in retrospect. Ricky Nelson, influenced by Carl Perkins, eventually found his niche in rockabilly, after his “chart career came to a dramatic halt in the wake of the British Invasion…. In the mid-1960s, Nelson began to move toward country music, becoming a pioneer in the country-rock genre. He was one of the early influences of the so-called California Sound (which would include singers like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and bands like the Eagles). Yet Nelson himself did not reach the Top 40 again until 1970, when he recorded Bob Dylan‘s ‘She Belongs to Me’ with the Stone Canyon Band.” —Wikipedia

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