The Healing Heights of Machu Picchu and Dear Madame Renaud
THE HEALING HEIGHTS OF MACHU PICCHU
Then up the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the barbed jungle’s thickets
until I reached you, Macchu Picchu.
—Pablo Neruda, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”
“And now we will go up to this temple of the Inca,” said Eddy, our crinkly-eyed guide. Quick and agile as lizards, my husband and two sons scuttled after him, their backpacks swinging, and disappeared around a corner.
My foot refused to move.
The trail, about eight inches wide, was carved into a cliff high in the Andes Mountains. This was a place called Pisac, where the air is dry and thin and chases the heartbeat like a wild animal. My foot reached out invisible tentacles and clung to the stone step from which it was supposed to spring. I tugged; it stayed.
I might have known. I am the woman who, twelve years earlier in the wilds of Anaheim, gingerly crept up the steps and wobbled across the rope bridge to ascend the steep incline of Tarzan’s Treehouse—and froze in this same way. Kellan and Brendan’s eyes were astonished rings as I, their mother, rapidly returned to solid ground.
It is I who suffered shaking spasms and cursed aloud when they leaned over the guardrail at Yellowstone Canyon, climbed slippery rocks under Yellowstone Waterfall, or dangled from the railing of Yellowstone Bridge to spot a jumping fish below.
I am the one who clung to the front rail of the chairlift with one hand while the other twisted the collar of Kellan’s ski jacket for a firmer grip; who waited impatiently below among roving pickpockets while Brendan climbed the steps of the Eiffel Tower; who flatly refused my husband’s invitation to join him for a whirl on the London Eye.
I am pretty sure I have acrophobia, an irrational fear of heights. Psychologists advise against avoidance, advocating slow exposure or even virtual reality, which has shown “significant progress when patients are confronted with real height circumstances.” Exaggeration, they say, is common in acrophobes. Eighteen inches, for example, could shrink to eight.
I’d planned this trip to celebrate both a high school and a college graduation and to honor John’s dream that began when he was four years old and saw the cover of National Geographic. I had been consumed with planning a flawless itinerary (Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, then Brazil) and worrying about the symptoms of altitude sickness or contaminated water or my terror of spiders. It had somehow slipped my mind that I was horrified of heights.
Until the first hour of the first day of the first week up there on the precipice in Pisac when in my marked distress, I suddenly recalled a line from Pablo Neruda’s poem, “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”:
- point out the rock on which you stumbled.
One good sneezing spasm, an earthquake, or a hefty gale might evoke Pablo’s musing to his imaginary Inca brother:
...the most consuming death:
from crimson cornices
and cataracting aqueducts
you plummeted like autumn
into a single death.
Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, was suffering from his own malaise in 1943. He’d been isolated and cynical, sunk deep in a hollow-eyed depression, sulking about man’s ominous dwindling each day like a black cup, sea of death. He paced the world alone, dying his own self-obsessed death, losing his poet’s heart, until he reached a dead end:
I had come to the cut of the blade, the narrowest
channel in air, the shroud of field and stone,
the interstellar void of ultimate steps
and the awesome spiral way
Then he traveled to Machu Picchu.
“The Heights of Macchu Picchu”, which he wrote two years later, inexplicably adding an extra “c”, reveals how he surrendered to the stone citadel in the sky: He first opened himself up and sensed it with every antenna in his body, then he imagined the Inca people living, laboring, loving, and finally he praised the place like a lover with two-phrase bursts of pure adoration.
We would be there in a few days. Meanwhile on our tour through the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River, dry-mouthed and wild-eyed, I hugged walls of granite, willing myself not to look down and tensed in terror as I rounded every corner. My body in a state of high alert, I was wearing myself out with worry and missing most of what Eddy was teaching us about the sacred sites of the Inca. The thought that this was the only chance I’d have to be in Peru for a very long time, possibly forever, made me fume with frustration.
Obviously it was far too late for slow exposure or simulated heights. I don’t do drugs, but in quest of any kind of relief I cast off my motherly mantle and began to slurp cup after cup of coca tea—I didn’t know it would take roughly two hundred times as many leaves to even begin to resemble the drug. My nerves were too frayed for the invigorating effects of coca tea, anyway.
Finally, desperate, I decided to emulate Neruda’s process: Be open, sense, imagine, praise. I did not expect to receive a promise in return.
We visited places where the agile Inca hauled, shaped, and molded rhinoceros-size boulders weighing as much as one hundred metric tons. We scaled more inclines at the Sacred Temple of the Sun at Ollantaytambo and explored the stone circle of terraces at Moray, which formed a kind of amphitheater. We crossed walkways that felt to me like balance beams above the salt pools of Maras. All the while, Eddy alerted us to dozens of incredible enigmas:
“There is the quarry over there [pointing across a ravine to another mountain two and a half miles away], and we don’t know how the Inca got the rocks up here to make the temple. The wheel was sacred to them and they would not have used it for transport.”
“They had enough grain in the storage structures built in the side of that mountain to last five years [pointing to a series of alcoves built directly into the side of another mountain].”
“These blocks have no mortar between them; the Inca engineers designed them to fit together with room to move. During many major earthquakes here in Peru, the colonial and modern structures collapsed and these remained.”
“The Inca people cut the rock and shaped it this precisely [Eddy stuck the corner of a credit card in a tiny crevice to show how tightly the blocks fit, a bit like Legos] and the only materials they had were gold, silver, copper, and bronze. That’s all. How did they cut into the stone?” His booming laugh echoed across the expanse of space as he slapped a rock. “We don’t know!”
These sacred ruins presented so many vivid images and unanswerable questions that I found myself consumed with the mysteries, following Eddy and my three lizards eagerly, if awkwardly, scampering up skyward staircases, only occasionally clutching at someone’s belt loop or shirt collar. By the time we boarded the train to Machu Picchu, the fear, although still there, had begun to fade into the background.
Interstellar eagle, vine-in-a-mist.
Forsaken bastion, blind scimitar.
Orion belt, ceremonial bread.
Torrential stairway, immeasurable eyelid.
We climbed off the train and boarded a bus that careened up to the place that had dwarfed Neruda’s human condition, where the condor’s shadow cruises as ravenous as would a pirate ship.
We faced Huayna, “Young Peak” in Quechua, the ancient language of the Inca. It looked like the sleeping back of a wooly green alpaca. Off in the distance clouds sauntered past snowy peaks against a backdrop of deep royal blue. We stood on Machu, “Old Peak”, a gigantic fortress of geometric precision. The stones were stacked in the outlines of a city, and grass and wild orchids grew on terraces that had once held corn, peppers, squash, potatoes, and lupine.
This green-blue kingdom in the air seemed to exist in a new, elevated dimension I’d never visited before. There were people scurrying around everywhere: Men strained as they carried heavy loads on their backs, mothers ushered children away from a group of llamas, a few elderly women leaned on their walking sticks, laughing. The very second Eddy mentioned details, these scenes of the Inca appeared in my mind and the atmosphere of the place (that essence that can never be shown in photographs or described in mere words) emerged for me.
“The roofs were once thatched, and the cooking fire would have been here in the center.” A woman gazed out the trapezoidal window, cradling a bowl holding ingredients for a meal, yellow peppers, potatoes, cuy (Guinea pig).
“Families lived and worked in community.” Children laughed and shouted as they jumped down steps, splashing in the stone-carved canals that carried water from mountain springs.
“Careful planning included architects, engineers, and astronomers.” Men huddled together around a torch, talking and gesturing with wide sweeps of their bare arms.
“Here is the Intihuatana, the Hitching Post of the Sun.” A crowd gathered in the chill of the morning. As the sun lit in a bright triangle upon the exact spot on which their eyes were riveted, a collective gasp hissed, followed by the whoosh of an exhale.
“There was a fountain here, and here, and here.” The soothing sound of tumbling water trickled and licked at the stone in a steady rhythm that never slowed or stopped.
While my being was busy being in this place, I could feel the remnants of my acrophobia float off like feathers: I stepped without measuring the distance to the edges, and I quit calculating cliffs. It was odd that it happened so fast, but I didn’t even notice; I climbed without resistance. In my state of reverie, I rose above the confines of my body and traveled beyond the jagged peaks into the sky. The higher, the better.
That was when that thing I had previously thought of as the mystique of travel—all that stuns, shakes and shrinks the self—transformed itself into a promise that if we open our senses and imaginations to a place, we can be flung far back in time, or sent spinning beyond our weak selves, or even sometimes healed of that which we hold on to that holds us back.
On those difficult heights, among those glorious, scattered ruins, I had found the principles of faith I needed to continue my poetry.
—Pablo Neruda, Memoirs
It was a mystery to me how it happened, but Machu Picchu seemed to cure my fear of heights in the same way it had changed Neruda.
Then we traveled to Brazil.
Dusk was descending at Posada Bromelias, a cluster of bungalows high on a hill in Mata Atlântica, the Atlantic Forest. I peered down the path into a deep, green universe burgeoning with sound and movement: choruses of chirps and croaks, buzzing and bizzing, glops and glugs and distant splashes and crashes, rustling, crunching, spinning, and swooping. The last threads of daylight revealed darting movements on vibrating feathered fronds and dark wings flapping and stretching. Through the fading light I could make out trunks rising up and vines hanging down.
The air was thick and moist with the heady scent of orchids and some kind of sweetness that slowed my blood and turned it to syrup. I imagined thousands of eyes in the form of dots, rings, slits, some heavily lidded and reptilian, some miniscule and beady, peering out at us from the foliage; and monkeys swinging from their tails on branches high above; and intricate, lacy webs that would glisten in the moonlight.
I felt the cold approach of another fear extending its eight letters towards the edge of my consciousness:
a r a c h n i d.
But it didn’t creep in; it stayed stuck in an insignificant misty fog outside of importance while I exalted in the overwhelming rhythm of this astonishing orchestra’s grand performance.
My foot did not hesitate as it stepped into the jungle.
DEAR MADAME RENAUD
She took on the grief of others. Six decades later, after she had been dead for twenty-two years, she did the same for me.
Madame Simone Renaud was the wife of the mayor of Sainte Mère Église, an obscure village in Normandy, France, the first town to be liberated on D-day. These two excerpts from actual letters to her written by American families, with all their imperfections and raw gratitude, introduce her well:
Harrisburg, Penns., Aug. 2nd. 1945.
c/o May. Renaud
St. Mère Église, France.
In the issue of Life magazine for Aug. 7th, 1944 it shows a picture of you placing flowers on the grave of Brig. Gen. Theo. Roosevelt, and we have just received word to-day from the War Department that our son was buried in this cemetery, my wife has kept this issue of the magazine ever since with the hope that she would receive word and somehow or other something seemed to tell her that this was where our boy was buried.
If I am not asking to much and in order to ease the suffering of a heartbroken Mother in this country would it be possible for you to look up the grave that I am listing below and place flowers on same, also if you could let my wife know that you have done this it would help. She is heartbroken over the loss of this boy…
Seattle, Washington. Feb. 4th, 1946
Dear Madame Renaud,
Your sweet letter arrived today. Most gracious lady, you are probably closer to us than any other person in this world, because you are so near physically and spiritually to our son…
Travel removes us from the robotic regularity of routine and the numbing nature of our usual surroundings. This can open an opportunity for characters of history’s great upheavals and healings to show us clearly the thirsty states of our own psyches. If we are lucky, we can, from someone far removed from us in time and space, learn new and unexpected ways to quench that thirst.
When this happens, travel heals.
On the way to the beaches of Normandy, I visited Sainte Mère Église, and Madame Simone Renaud’s story held up a mirror for me. Here is my own letter to her.
Dear Madame Renaud,
Last summer, I visited your hometown, Sainte Mère Église. The sky was infused with a tinge of purple so subtle it was almost imperceptible. I noticed the mannequin of a parachutist snagged on the stone wall of the church, and went inside to see the scarlet and cobalt stained-glass window showing an American paratrooper landing at the feet of the Madonna.
In a dappled prism of sunlight on stone, I lit a candle for my sister Allison’s soul. My hand trembled as the yellow flame flared on the wick. She had died five years before, but grief still sloshed inside me with the unpredictability of a rogue wave. I swallowed, feeling my throat block the tide.
Outside the church, a colorful market was set up on the village square, and I watched people from your country and mine mingle together, admiring colorful coats, tasting oniony bites of andouille sausage, and inhaling bunches of lavender.
I imagined you, sixty-four years earlier, under a sky of the same startling hue: the mayor’s wife, a tall woman whose blunt features were softened by a string of pearls, walking purposefully, your youngest son, Maurice, following behind in his short pants and rumpled coat.
Next I fancied I glimpsed you with freshly cut red flowers in the crux of your arm, your other hand digging in dark dirt, as rows of crosses waited in the distance. Grass stains seeped into your white wool stockings, and your face struggled as if your heart simultaneously sank and rose to block your throat.
Taking on the grief of another is not easily done. What made you do it?
The night of June 5, 1944, you were inside your house on the village square with your husband, Alexandre, and three sons. That night you were probably asleep in your beds when you heard a sudden burst of gunfire, explosions, and shouts. The invasion was no surprise—you’d been expecting the Americans to come; your suitcases were packed, and all five of you had been sleeping in your clothes for a week, waiting.
The town hall of Sainte Mère Églisee had been smothered by the German swastika for nearly four full years; there is no doubt that along with deprivation, fear had become part of your daily diet. When discussing a possible landing by the Allies, the Germans had warned Alexandre: “You can count your houses. All of your homes will be kaput.” So on this night, what you heard while crouched in the corner of your living room must have flooded your heart with terror.
The central position of your house gave you all what Maurice later called “front-row seats.” American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions fluttered down like giant snowflakes. Explosions and fires lit up the falling troopers, whom the Germans shot as they landed in the trees. Gunshots cracked and screams multiplied. While this chaos echoed, you must have tried to comfort your sons.
Right outside your door, boys not much older than your Paul who hid behind haystacks in the fields of Normandy were shot and fell with a thud. Boys far from their home were jerked out of approaching boats and sank into the icy sea, and were shoved off the cliffs they had just scaled to land in a lifeless heap on the wet sand below.
Finally, at 4:30 AM: silence. The American flag had replaced the Nazi spider. Sainte Mère Église was free.
The next day, June 6, you walked out of your house to what has been described as a macabre scene. Dead bodies littered the ground and hung from trees, each in a white silk cocoon. Townspeople used the parachutes as shrouds and hastily buried the dead; later the fabric was fashioned into dresses for the girls. After the long nightmare of Nazi occupation, this day must have overflowed with both joy and horror.
I wonder if that night as you watched your sons sleeping, you saw safety hover like a golden halo over their soft, rumpled hair and eyelashes upon healthy red cheeks. I can imagine you placing your palm on a small, warm chest and watching your hand rise and fall with each even breath. Perhaps you imagined the vast vacancy of a world without this son, the mingling of emptiness and pain that would slice through you if he died—and felt a great gush of gratitude to those American soldiers.
I can see you sitting on the edge of that bed, visualizing the mothers of those other boys. That must have been the moment you thought of one little thing you could do.
The next day you set off with an armful of blossoms, little Maurice in tow. One by one, you began tending those graves, and the people in your village followed suit. Life magazine ran a photo of you placing a bunch of red flowers on the grave of Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., President Theodore Roosevelt’s son. Letters began to arrive by the dozen, asking if you could find specific sites, which you faithfully did…and then went a step further.
You sat at your desk, which was becoming crowded with framed photos of American heroes, put a sheet of paper in your typewriter, and began to tap the keys. Soon, stacks of letters accumulated around your desk, for in the three temporary cemeteries in and near Sainte Mère Église, fifteen thousand U.S. troops were buried.
The families poured out their grief to you and you responded.
Every letter was answered, sending solace across the Atlantic Ocean, offering details of resting places to families who had no hope of coming to France and no idea when they could reclaim the bodies. Inside the envelopes you sprinkled a handful of the same dirt that covered their sons, brothers, or fathers, or slipped in a pressed petal, or maybe a photo of your boys helping to dig, plant, or tidy—like the one of Maurice at four years old hugging a cross with stenciled letters identifying JOHN J. LAVIN, NUMBER 13177340.
Tending the graves was a kindness; communicating with the bereaved was a sacrifice. It seems to me that just when your energy would have been most depleted by trying to raise your own family in a village ravaged by war, you took on more strain. The moment each soldier acquired an identity, you opened yourself up to some of his family’s pain.
I wondered if grief did to you what it always does to me: sucked strength and stamina from your core, filled your chest with a swirling tornado of pain, and left a rubbery residue inside your limbs. I thought the sorrow moved directly from the souls of those mothers, fathers, sisters, friends and lovers directly into yours, and in this way alleviated their suffering.
When I was in your village, Madame Renaud, I wanted you to do the same for me—with a desperation that took me by surprise. I felt your empathy flow into me.
My inner barometer that registers grief had steadily risen over the years; I knew it was all still in there. I’d measured out the sadness I expressed in precise doses so as not to bring people down, hiding the extent of my pain. I swallowed a lot.
Tears spilled out only when I was alone because I was afraid that the people who love me would become uncomfortable. It seemed they had: One night at dinner, I started to describe how Allison’s death had been beautiful in some ways. My husband and sons looked startled, then flustered, and I awkwardly changed the subject. On a road trip with friends, I said that I still felt attached to my sister, like we were little girls buckled together in the back seat of our car, and an uncomfortable silence descended. Lowering the mood like that always made me feel guilty; I didn’t want to overwhelm people.
Grief was a poison I feared was infectious, so I never pushed beyond those hesitant moments.
But looking at the photos of you through the years made me wonder if sharing my burden might, instead of merely draining my friends and family, provide them with something else as well. I noticed a change in your face that made me believe taking on all that sorrow of others transformed you: June 1945, you stand in the middle of a group of American GIs, smiling, but your forehead is lowered over exhausted eyes; in another photo, taken on the frozen ground of the cemetery, your blunt features appear heavy with sadness; but years later, in your sixties, sitting on a bench chatting with General Eisenhower, you look more fresh and reflective, as if your energy had been renewed; and a 1982 photo of you wearing a beret with the Airborne insignia shows a softer look tinged with gentleness.
To my eyes, your expression changed from careworn to content, as if easing the distress of all those families caused something to grow inside you. It’s as if because of your compassion you gained strength yourself.
This made me think the people who love me can take it if I share a bit of my swirling supply of sorrow. I’ve had the courage to say to my friend Christina, as we sat on the beach, looking out at sailboats like the one my sister and I grew up on, “This place makes me miss Allison.” In the moment of unsure silence, I knew it saddened my friend; but then I described us as little girls in our orange life jackets leaning over the side of the boat together, and when I opened my eyes Christina was smiling at me and we were in a place beyond silent self-consciousness, a place of comfort.
Gradually, I’ve revealed grieving weakness to my family, and the persistent pain of loss to my friends. When tears overflow, I no longer worry about being an excessive burden. As the people in my life have moved through awkwardness to true compassion, the level of sadness inside me has lowered steadily.
Madame Renaud, you are someone I never knew and you’ve been dead yourself for over twenty years, yet I thank you for your sacrifice, because you gave me a glimpse of what I needed. Somehow I feel you are reading this letter, and I imagine you inside your house on the village square in Sainte Mère Église, your three sons playing in the background, sitting at your desk with envelopes, paper, and red rose petals scattered across it, and tapping out a reply to me.