A thousand feet above the spiky landscape of Cappadocia, the balloon maneuver finally worked for me. My friend Kathrin had told me about it once, when in my late 20s I was having a tough time.
We sat propped against floor pillows in Kathrin’s Chelsea apartment. She listened to my rambling angst, then interrupted.
“You need to meditate,” she said. “It’ll free your mind, give you inner calm.” She described the method: “Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. When a thought intrudes, notice it. Then let it go. Let it drift away like a cloud.”
I crossed my legs, palms turned upward on my knees, and tried hard. But my clouds all hung around. They twisted and turned, billowed and piled up. Some turned into thunderheads. None of them drifted away.
After several tries Kathrin said, “O.K. You need something more concrete. Picture a huge hot air balloon with a basket below. You’re in the basket as the balloon takes off. When a worry pops up, write its name in big black letters on one of the sandbags in the basket. Then toss the sandbag overboard and watch it disappear as your balloon gets lighter and rises.”
I liked this idea, but my attempts to use it failed. I would heave overboard the sandbag labeled “Love-life” or “Career” and it would start to drop. But every time, I’d manage to haul it back up to the balloon through sheer force of will. I would look at it, heft it in my hands, squish it this way and that. The sandbag stayed in the basket. My balloon went nowhere.
For forty years my meditative life stayed stalled. Occasionally I’d try the measured breathing, the focused visualization of calm woodland scenes, of clouds and balloons. The scurrying mice of my thoughts didn’t seem to care. They scampered on, ignoring the scenery.
Last October I traveled to Turkey at a time when my life was in disarray. Jerry, my husband, had undergone a hospitalization and then admission to a skilled nursing facility. His Parkinson’s dementia had worsened. He was combative with nurses and doctors, unruly even with me. This was to be a permanent move.
The facility was lovely, with views of the Hudson River, tablecloths and flowers in the dining room, a quiet courtyard, a harpist sometimes playing in the evening. But the facts of life in a population of mostly demented residents were inescapable. While spending time with Jerry, I’d watch the others, and they began to haunt me. Even when I was not there I kept seeing the patients at lunch in the sunlit room:
- Dorothy, a tiny nonagenarian in a neck brace, clamps one hand over her brow as she struggles to stab the cut-up pieces of pizza with her fork. She doesn’t speak.
- Fanny raps on the table with her fist: “I need to get to the Number 6 IRT train now. My husband is waiting.” Her eyes blaze.
- Veronica, legs wrapped in bandages, weeps softly as she fondles her Beanie Babies kept safe in a small cardboard box propped on her stomach.
- Quincy, a former sportsman, between bites of ground chicken, slaps at an exercise ball held by an aide. He uses the side of the one hand that escaped his stroke.
- Jerry, the Ph.D. chemist and my mate of 43 years, grimaces and tugs at his sodden Depends that no one has yet had a chance to change.
Still, I decided to take my trip. It was booked and paid for, and I was exhausted from months of hospitals, doctors, and crises. My son and daughter promised to visit their dad in his new residence. So off I went.
The nursing home images, however, came with me – on the long plane ride, on dusty tour buses, on the sailboat cruising the Mediterranean, and along the Roman road at Ephesus. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy myself. I threaded my way through the spice markets of Istanbul, jounced along in a farmer’s tractor in the country, and held hands with two blue-uniformed schoolgirls as they sang the Turkish national anthem. It was all compelling and distracting, but quite different faces, smells, and sounds came back to me in quiet moments at night.
And then, before I knew it, the trip was almost over. Our last stop was in Cappadocia, a land of fantastic volcanic deposits that wind, water, and time have carved into valleys and ravines of weird spires and chimneys. A hot air balloon ride over this landscape was scheduled for our last day.
There was a mix-up that morning and I had to be rushed late to the balloon launch-site in a rickety cab. The balloon crew hoisted me over the side of the basket into a narrow compartment next to a heavyset woman. The fire was already lit, the balloon half inflated. I clutched the side of the basket as we gently bumped once, twice, then rose into the air. We took off close to the cliff-face of the first ravine, where the tumbled array of volcanic towers revealed themselves. There was a collective gasp from all of us in the basket. The panorama below and the light-and-shadow show put on by the rising sun left me quite literally breathless.
The operator shut down the firing mechanism, and we plunged into silence and glided into a stately dance with all the other launched balloons. We moved higher; they moved lower. We swooped over to brush by some giant tower of lava; they in red, blue, yellow hid from us in the next ravine. We cast a huge shadow on a dome-like formation; they popped up or raced away. In the basket, we oohed and aahed. Our cameras clicked.
But fifteen minutes or so into our flight I was brought up short. I had company with me in this basket — and not just other tourists. Here were Dorothy, Fanny, Veronica, Quincy, and Jerry — especially Jerry. And in addition to their faces, there were objects: the nurse’s medication cart, the pureed food, the elevated toilet seat, the insulin syringe. Suddenly my flight was in danger. These intruders threatened to leach the color from the landscape below, to agitate the air currents, to wreck the silence.
And then it happened. I made Kathrin’s balloon maneuver work, but in an unexpected way. First, I labeled some mental sandbags “pureed spinach,” “blood pressure cuff,” “latex gloves.” Though no one saw, I flung each one overboard and watched as it became tiny and crashed on the volcanic rock far below.
For the others, the faces that were so sorrowful and vexing — for them I had another solution. Dorothy I placed aboard a red balloon (she unclenched that hand on her forehead). I put Fanny on a blue one (it wasn’t the Number 6 train but she seemed satisfied). Veronica and all her small stuffed animals took off on a purple balloon (maybe she would think it a kind of Noah’s ark). Quincy stood tall below a black and silver balloon, arms stretched wide in a victory V.
As for Jerry, I decided to make room for him right next to me in the basket. I turned over my camera to him and he grinned. And yes, our balloon, along with the sun, did rise a little higher.
Helen Goodman lives and writes in Pound Ridge, NY. She has written pieces about being a caregiver for her husband, but also about experiences as a child and young adult. She has no interest in writing a lengthy narrative of her life. Rather, she chooses a specific time or event that is a vivid memory. Sometimes, when she writes about it, she discovers why it was important to her. If she’s lucky, she says, it becomes a good story.