I live in a writers’ sanctuary, a nineteenth century three-story house overlooking the James and Tye Rivers. The back stairway off my kitchen leads to my office and bedrooms; a long narrow hall on the second floor separates my quarters from the writers’ section of the house. When the house is empty of visiting writers I like to wander through the rooms and reacquaint myself with the many books. Most of the books are my deceased husband’s or mine collected over the years. Over time, more books appear, publications of past resident writers and donated books, books left behind.
Last week on a rainy afternoon, I ramble through the retreat and linger in a room named The Dove Room. Its walls are painted a pale gray and a little bird sculpture sits on the desk. (I chose not to name the rooms after famous dead writers. Literary names on retreat rooms feel daunting and somewhat cheesy.)
In the Dove Room The Habit of Being, Letters of Flannery O’Connor, my old copy, lies on the fireplace mantel. The book seems to invite me to look inside. I recognize my long ago underlining in green ink of certain passages. These moments of peering back into the past through a favorite book is a conjuring of a younger self. A book, once loved, also provides solace. The author George Saunders observes that the time we live in now is “a degraded era, bombarded by facile, shallow, agenda-laced, too rapidly disseminated information bursts.”
The Habit of Being is quite thick, 615 pages and as I read my underlined-green-inked sentences, turning the pages, suddenly a large index card falls out. What’s this?
On the card, Dear Nancy, in red ink. A lost letter inside the pages of a book! (I know I shouldn’t overdo exclamation points, but I was very excited at my discovery.)
The letter continues:
I don’t know if you’ll find this note here—This is one of my favorites. I read in and out of it the last 3 weeks. You called today and we talked for hours about Kenyon and your parents and your son—You are such a blessing in my life, Love, S— “
I wonder. The writer was inspired to write this letter and then slip her message of love and gratitude into a “bottle” as it were, very much aware that Nancy, her writing teacher and mentor, may never read it.
The first thought that occurs to me is the obvious one: I should remember to express appreciation to those I love before it’s too late. I often cringe at the memory of my boyfriend’s mother when she was ill and her death certain. One afternoon she read out loud a letter written by a young woman who had visited her many times. It was a letter of appreciation. I remember how she held the letter so tenderly and how her face was lit from within as she read. I wince at the memory because I never wrote or even expressed to her what she meant to me before she died.
But this letter I held in my hand was intentionally “hidden.” The writer cast her love on the waters, with no expectation of return. This kind of act has not occurred to me and I wonder about it. Maybe it’s a form of prayer, a sweet habit, an attitude or quality of mind, yes, a habit of being. It may be the very thing that would do me some good to practice these days before I check email or turn on the news.
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