The Dreams of a Child…

It was something I’d put off for years, and it would likely take even more years to accomplish, but it couldn’t be avoided any longer – I had to clear out the cellar.

I was tempted to toss everything into the bin and just be done with it. But then I thought, what if there’s something hidden in all these boxes I haven’t looked at in years that I might actually want?

And so it began, the process of putting on gloves and opening up box after box of old papers, letters, magazines, photographs and, for lack of a better word, stuff – as in the stuffing, the inner guts of what filled my cellar.

I hauled a few boxes out onto my front porch and began. Almost everything went right into the bin, but when I came across an old scrapbook of postcards I had put together when I was just eight or nine years old, I paused a moment to look at it. I hadn’t opened it up since I was a kid.

It was old and musty and I never liked the cover anyway. One quick look, I thought, then toss it.

Between sips of tea, I went through the pages. Childish handwriting labeled the countries — Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Spane, Greece, Floridia, Africa & America.

I didn’t remember many of the postcards, much less how they came to me – but I come from a family of travelers, so the collection wasn’t a total surprise.

Take the postcards from Denmark, for example. My Danish grandparents lived in Copenhagen and we visited them there, spending a few days on Skagen, a very cold beach in northern Denmark.

Scan 3 (1).jpgMom and I returned to that same beach together many years later….

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Then there were a couple from Paris, where I would live for a summer, ten years later, working as a au pair, or nanny. I whizzed around the Arc de Triomphe, beautifully lit up, very late one night, clinging to a friend on the back of a motorcycle.

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I kept turning the pages.

There were postcards from Zurich, which I explored briefly in my twenties, en route to a week of skiing with friends …

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… and from Italy, where I would spend time during two different careers –

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several days wandering around Venice for textile design in the 80s, and then again a decade later to other parts of Italy to shoot a documentary film.

A forgotten postcard from my sister who was hitchhiking in Greece one summer – I was in Athens just last year, for my nephew’s wedding.

And on and on….

The more pages I turned, the stranger it got. I caught my breath, slowly realizing that I had been to almost every single place (except Ireland and the Philippines) that I had pasted a postcard from as a little girl. It was eerie how prophetic this scrapbook turned out to be, despite sitting in the darkest corners of my homes for so many years, neglected. As if it was just quietly waiting….

I kept going. There were postcards from Mount Vernon in the collection –

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I don’t remember them at all. And as a kid growing up in London, I would not even have known what Mt Vernon was at that age – and yet I ended up living in the Mt Vernon area for several of my married-with-kids  years.

As to the postcard of the pounding surf in Coastal Carolina?

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The kids and I enjoyed a number of holidays on the beaches of North Carolina when they were little …

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… and Zoë returned there to attend the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Scan 4.jpgThere were postcards from Switzerland, where I would visit Zoë, who moved to Geneva a few days after her graduation.

And there were postcards of birds and other exotic animals from Africa where my cousins lived at the time, and where I would spend a few weeks researching a book on my grandmother’s life, many years later.

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How very strange that a simple postcard collection became a sort of childish vision board – an illustrated map of many of the very places I would travel to over the coming decades.

And also a prediction, I soon realized, of where I would end up living in my 50s.

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Apart from “Floridia,” (where both my mother and sister would eventually settle for ten years), this is the only American state included in the scrapbook.

There’s no writing on the back, I have no idea how they got there or who might have sent them to me.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I took a break from the mustiness and memories and went inside for a bite to eat.

Later that afternoon, a torn fragment of an article slipped out from another pile I was going through. I held it up to see what it was. It seemed to be part of a book review — not the whole thing, just part of it.

And on it, these words were underlined:

The dreams of a child become the journeys of a woman.

Loosing the Muses… A tale of Heartbreak, Irony and Reinvention

Mom and I had plans to go to the movies together that night.

I arrived to pick her up right on time, but when she opened her door, I noticed her face had a strange expression on it.

“Just a minute,” she said, turning her back on me. She returned a moment later, with a newspaper clipping in her hand, her face a study in anxiety.

Wondering what news could possibly take the place of ‘hello,’ I scanned the torn fragment she handed me.

And then my heart just stopped.

It was a New York Times review of the book I had been working on for several years – a psychological non-fiction study of muses and their relationships with artists. A New York Times book review of my book! I had dreamed of this very moment many times.

Only, in my dreams, the review always had my name on it, not someone else’s. And definitely not an author who, up until that point, had only written novels.

I’d been sold out.

I was crushed, devastated, breathless…. my dream, my breakthrough project, my years of research and work – and there it was, with someone else’s name on it.

The book was a unique take on a rather obscure topic, could someone else have had the same idea?

In the days to come, I received phone calls and emails from friends around the country who were well aware of what I’d been working on, and who were all wondering – hey, isn’t that your book?

I spent three long days walking along the Potomac River trying to catch my breath, trying to reconstruct what could possibly have happened. My Washington, DC-based agent had sent my book proposal to an editor in New York for a second opinion. The editor’s harsh and skeptical critique left me unable to write much of anything for almost two years. I realized now that she must have liked the concept and my outline enough, however, to pass it along to someone else – someone with a recognizable name.

Through bitter tears of frustration, I berated myself for being too thin-skinned and not continuing to work on the book I believed in, despite the criticisms. It was my concept, inspired by my own circumstances, I should have kept going. It felt like someone had taken my autobiography and put their own name on it.

All of this happened 17 years ago, back in 2000 – the year that fell between the year my sister died and the year the twin towers in New York City were struck by planes, forever changing the world. I was broke and single, trying to get by as a freelancer in the capricious and challenging world of film and television, while raising two kids.

Reading my journal from that year – a journal of hope and dreams, a journal of aspirations and frustrations – I want to reach out to 2000 Kristin, who seems now like a little sister to me, and tell her not to give up.

2017 Kristin wants to whisper in the ear of 2000 Kristin and say, “Don’t let this experience jade you. You are resilient! You will soon create a new and better book project. You will continue to make a living in film and television for many years to come. You will blossom into a professional photographer and travel to Belize, Barcelona, New Orleans, Iceland, Mexico and Greece. You will spend Christmas in Finland with your son who is a university student there. You will have adventures in Geneva, Copenhagen and the Pacific Northwest with your daughter. You will move to Asheville and live in the mountains. Your kids will be fine, and you will find love again.”

But at the time, the hardships kept coming. A beloved uncle and mentor, who had been a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. My own father’s health began to falter. The IRS was hounding me. The bills mounted up with no steady work in sight.

But the kids were fine and somehow I kept going.

And then one day, a former client rang with a question about a film I had written and co-produced for him the previous year. Once we caught up on that, he asked me how things were going.

Under normal circumstances, I would never have ‘unloaded’ my miseries upon a client. But times were anything but normal. I admitted I was having some trouble finding work and wasn’t sure how or if I could even make it through the next month.

“May I offer some advice?” he asked gently.

Here was a self-made, multi-millionaire offering me advice, maybe even a grant for a new film, I thought hopefully. I hesitated only a second before responding.

“Sure!” I said, curious to hear whatever he had to say.

He chuckled softly. (Had I said something funny?!)

And his suggestion came as a great surprise.

“Kristin, let go, and let God,” he said simply.

That’s it?! I wanted to scream. How’s that going to pay the bills? I’m not a church-going person and his words offered neither consolation nor inspiration. So I thanked him politely and ended the call as quickly as possible, disappointed and feeling even more adrift and alone than before.

But those five little words continued to resonate in my mind throughout the evening and by the time I was ready for bed, I thought to myself – oh, what the hell? It’s not like you have any other options right now. Give yourself a night off from the worries and pressures of being in charge. And so, I let go.

The following morning, the phone rang again. It was Dr Bill Baker, the general manager of WNET, the New York City PBS station.

“Kristin!” he said, skipping the usual pleasantries. “I have a project I want you on right away. Are you available? It’s called, The Face: Jesus in Art!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Naked with a Dragon in Finland

I am sitting naked on a small wooden rack at the top of some imposingly steep cement steps in a darkened bunker. The stranger sitting next to me, also naked, is beating my back with a handful of frozen birch branches. The skin on my face is on fire as an enormous blast of hot steam envelopes the two of us, and others nearby.

A surreal nightmare?

No.

This is a fairly typical scene during Christmas Eve in Finland, the most popular day of the year at Kotiharjun Sauna, Helsinki’s only public sauna with a traditional wood-fired furnace.

I don’t understand a word of Finnish, but what I have come to realize is that each time the door to this Dickensian inferno opens, yet another naked woman will appear and she will shout something up to the unclothed Nordic goddesses around me that sounds like, “Hallu wat ko min umm canta loosa loh hee kar meh?”

[The correct spelling is probably more like “Haluatko minun kääntyä löysä lohikäärmeen?” which I think must mean, “Do you want me to turn lose the dragon?]

To which comes a chorus of replies: “Kyllä kiitos, emme voi saada tarpeeksi, että kuuma lohikäärme hengitys,” which apparently means something like, “Yes please, we can’t get enough of that hot dragon breath,” because each naked newcomer will then reach up toward the top of the enormous furnace glowering in the corner of the bunker and yank down on a lever releasing a tsunami of skin-scorching steam so dense it momentarily obliterates my ability to see the dozens of other naked bodies assembled in various states of quiet submission around me.

What I think of as dragon’s breath, the Finns actually call löyly – originally meaning spirit of life, but these days interpreted as ‘a cloud of sauna steam’ puffed out to purify the body and calm the mind.

This is how many Finns begin their Christmas Eve celebrations – which tells you a lot about the Finnish practice of physical and mental cleansing, and the Finns themselves.

The relationship between Finns and their saunas goes back more than one thousand years.

In addition to purifying the mind, ‘taking sauna,’ as they say here, has been credited with driving out diseases. Back in the day, women gave birth in saunas. And there are even claims that unhappy love affairs have been settled with love spells cast in an enveloping blast of löyly.

The ratio of saunas to Finns these days is one sauna for every 2.75 people. There are more saunas than cars in Finland. Which makes it kind of hard to avoid. But then, why would you want to?

Most public saunas disappeared with the introduction of shared saunas within apartment buildings, but Kotiharjun Sauna still operates daily. Built in 1928 in the heart of Helsinki’s Kallio district, the old workers neighborhood, it doesn’t appear to have changed much during its 90 years of existence.

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There are separate saunas for the men and women, vintage wooden lockers in the dressing & relaxing room, and a cooler of chilled drinks as you come in the door. It is not a luxury spa, but it is so much more fascinating for its spareness and authenticity. And it is the only public sauna in Helsinki that is heated with wood.

Today, there’s a free drink on the house for everyone just because it is Christmas Eve. I help myself to a Finnish beer, which I sip on in the locker room draped in a towel between visits to the sauna as I glance through the photos in a Finnish magazine about (what else?) saunas. The hardier souls, male and female, lounge atop a stone wall on the sidewalk outside the sauna, basking in the below-freezing temperatures.

I came here with my son, Leif, who is studying in Finland. Swapping tales on our walk home, it turns out that he and I both inadvertently broke several rules of sauna etiquette.

The main culprit was the vihta, the bundle of fresh birch branches you ‘gently’ whip yourself (or others) with. (It may sound like an odd thing to do, but my skin did feel quite lovely and tingly afterwards.)

Breach #1: Unable to ask any questions in Finnish, and not wishing to disturb the meditative state of those around me, I grabbed a ‘used’ bunch of somewhat wilted branches abandoned on a windowsill, not realizing I could purchase a fresh vihta from the freezer downstairs as I came in. Breach #2: I dipped my branches into another woman’s bucket of water (collective quiet gasp) when I should have gotten my own. Breach #3 Leif simply picked up someone else’s branches (while still in use) in order to flail his own legs and back. Fortunately, the Finns are a good-natured lot and everyone was very tolerant of our beginners’ mistakes.

Eager for another round of Finnish style of physical and mental cleansing, my son and I return a few days later for a pre-flight sauna the afternoon of my departure from Helsinki.

The woman behind the check-in counter smiles.

“Weren’t you here a few days ago?” she asks, seemingly pleased to see us again. Contrary to stereotype, she is eager to talk and explain the Finnish people and culture to us.

“Were you surprised at how talkative the men are in the sauna?” she asks my son about his Christmas Eve experience.

Leif nods. It was a surprise, given the reputation Finns have for being shy and recalcitrant, keeping space between themselves and others at the tram stops, preferring to look down at their shoes rather than make eye contact or small talk.

“The sauna is the only place Finnish men talk,” she says laughing. “And it’s because they don’t have their wives and girlfriends talking to them, telling them what to say and what to think!”

It is said that in Finland, more important decisions get made in saunas than in regular meetings. According to Visit Finland’s website, taking sauna together offers the opportunity for special bonding experiences – which have nothing to do with sex.

Leif and I get our departure cues mixed up. As I come down the stairs, dressed and ready to go, Leif comes out of the men’s locker room wearing nothing but his towel and heads out to join other semi-naked people drinking beer on the sidewalk outside in the freezing air.

As he turns to leave, I notice a stray birch leaf on his shoulder.

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[art: Russian Venus in banya by Boris Kustodiev]

Lohikeitto (Finnish Salmon Dill Soup)

Imagine hot, tasty morsels of salmon melting in your mouth alongside soft buttery potatoes, creamy soup and fresh dill….

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just the thing to warm you up on a cold winter afternoon, right?

The day after Christmas, feeling a bit chilled, Leif and I wandered into Kappeli Café in search of a cup of hot coffee.

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Kappeli is a magical glass palace built in 1867 in the Esplanadi park in the heart of Helsinki.

And while they did have nice hot coffee, what we also found was an astonishingly delicious salmon & dill soup called Lohikeitto (pronounced: loh-he-kay-toh).

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Back home in Asheville, hoping to duplicate this lovely memory of Helsinki, I was delighted to find a good recipe for Lohikeitto on Nigel from New Zealand’s wonderful website, “Alternative Finland.”

This will make a delightful addition to our winter meals in Appalachia. Let me know if you try it!

Hyvää ruokahalua! (Enjoy your meal!)

Breakfast by Candlelight

What better way to begin a gloomy dark December morning than with an intimate breakfast for two by candlelight?

With the winter solstice nearly upon us, it’s a good time to appreciate why people in Denmark burn more candles per capita than people in any other country.

A Gypsy Named Emmanuel & the House of My Dreams (part one)

The door opened slowly to reveal a frowning man, perhaps in his early 40s. He wore a dark t-shirt and jeans. His build was slender, but muscular. He had dark hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and short beard. Tattoos covered his arms. The word “Gypsy” was inked in large flowing script across his throat.

Ahh, so many moments had led me to this one.

I’d seen photos online.

The images occupied my thoughts, teasing my imagination.

At night I dreamed about it.

I became a stalker. Every drive into town was detoured to take me past this place I hadn’t even realized existed only a week earlier.

And now I was standing on the front porch of the house of my dreams. And I wanted it.

But the brokers of house dreams had told me I couldn’t buy this one until my own little house on the hillside was sold. Unfortunately, my house wasn’t on the market. It wasn’t even ready to be on the market.

I knew I couldn’t wait that long. I did not want someone else to get the house I felt so irrationally drawn to. Not knowing what to do, I began stalking the house to see if anyone else was hanging around it, possibly interested….  I thought of little else.

And then one morning at the yoga studio, while I was lying on my mat in semi-delirious savasana after ninety minutes of hot poses, a simple thought penetrated the haze in my mind: Why not just knock on the door and tell the owner I want to buy his house?

Under the circumstances, it seemed an entirely reasonable thought.

Still in a post-yogic trance, I drove directly to the house from the studio without stopping to change out of my sweaty yoga clothes or tidy my appearance. I must have looked a mess.

Moments later, there I was, standing on the magical porch of the house of my dreams. I raised my hand and knocked on the black front door.

There was the sound of footsteps and then the door opened. The frowning and tattooed “Gypsy” stood before me.

Yes?  he said.

I thought I heard a slight accent, but couldn’t identify it.

“Hello,” I said. “I’d like to buy your house.”

His dark eyes regarded me without expression for a very long moment.

And then, “Would you like to come in?” he asked, opening the door a bit wider.

“Thank you, I would,” I replied, and stepped inside, leaving the sunshine behind me.

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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe & Other Messages from Coffee Shops

I appreciate a nudge from the universe every so often. This being Asheville, it doesn’t give up if you don’t notice the first time.

One day last week, Zoë and I were chatting over cups of coffee & chai at the local coffee shop, when I noticed a young girl working intently at her laptop on a nearby former piece of tree.

There were words written on her arm, but only a few peeked out from under her sleeve, teasing me with this unfinished thought…

Do I dare disturb…

was her name Jay? ask zoë

 

“Mum, don’t,” said Zoë, knowing what was about to happen.

“I won’t bother her,” I promised, “unless she looks up.”

Just in case, I had my camera ready.

“Do I dare disturb the universe,” the girl with the long ginger hair told me moments later, when I did actually dare to disturb her – ignoring the dark clouds of disapproval on my daughter’s face.

“It’s a quote from T S Eliot.”

She told me these words have special meaning for her and for how she’s charting out the rest of her life – once she completes her Masters Degree in writing from a nearby university.

Unable to shake the quote from my head, I looked it up and found the words in a line from the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
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This morning, I read the rest of the poem, startled to remember seeing the last words somewhere before…
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…
***

 

Oddly enough, I had seen those words on another person in another coffee shop, two and a half years ago in New Orleans.

 

i have measured out my life in coffee spoons

 

Two like minds in two different coffee shops? Sure, of course.

But also a persistent nudge, or reminder, from the universe to get going with whatever it is I will dare to disturb.

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The adventure in which I did not get eaten by “The Hillbilly Psychic”

My daughter Zoë is visiting, so it occurred to me this might be a good time to visit Angela, “the Hillbilly Psychic.”

Ten years have passed since I first made the drive to the small town of Marion, which lies in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for a consultation with Angela.

Back then, Angela was living in a trailer. There was a peaceful water fountain in the room where she received visitors which helped calm the atmosphere – as the visit, with its repeated emergency phone interruptions, was anything but peaceful.

Most of what Angela told me didn’t resonate at the time (or even later) – with the exception of one comment. And the perspective-changing accuracy of that one thing was enough to make me curious to see her again – and this time, bring Zoë with me.

Things have changed over the past ten years. Angela now lives in a cute little house on the outskirts of the downtown historic area.

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Inside the Angela’s new (old) house, there is a wonder of treasures from different parts of the world. Elephants and giraffes cavort around the fireplace. A world map, a spinning globe and a cuckoo clock add to the international affect.

Angela doesn’t talk much about her past much but – this being Appalachia – the walls up offer a few clues…

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For a time, Angela was a regular on WNCW, an NPR radio station licensed to Isothermal Community College. She’s also appeared in a film or two, including the horror, sci-fi thriller, “Alien Abduction.”

Dodging her small but surly guard dog, Martin,

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Zoë and I settle ourselves on a comfortable couch while Angela fusses over a newly purchased freezer she’s concerned isn’t performing right. (She was preoccupied with a missing child the last time I saw her.)

Eventually she settles down and focuses on our visit.

“What’s your birthday?” she asks Zoë, then appears lost in thought for a moment after Zoë tells her.

“Okay, if I tell you something that doesn’t make sense, just wait, because it will. And if you have questions, ferGodssake, just ask me!”

Getting into her zone, Angela says Zoë looks and feels young, but she’s actually an onion – someone with many layers. She has the vibe of someone from LA or New York City, someone who mingles with the rich & famous.

[Zoë actually works for a small tugboat engine repair shop and a craft brewery in Seattle.]

“Wait, that’s interesting,” Angela says suddenly. “Is it okay if I get weird today?”

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We nod.

“You feel like the kind of people who do something creative, who bring beauty into the world,” Angela declares. “Your totem animal is a chameleon.”

“You become what you need to be,” she continues, “but the truth is behind your eyes. You hide in the light. And anytime you see a chameleon, you will know that is where you need to be.”

I like these words and think this sounds rather on target. I glance over at Zoë who is smiling politely, not wanting to give Angela either clues or encouragement. Angela’s other dog, Roger, is snoozing on her lap.

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“You have a moving vibe about you,” Angela continues, zeroing in on my daughter’s peripatetic ways.

And then…

“Wait a minute,” Angela says suddenly, looking at her. “I’m feeling a “B” … Brian?”

Zoë and I freeze.

Of all the names in all the psychic parlors in the world, she happens to come up with the exact name of someone Zoë recently met and has been obsessing over. How the heck... ?

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But Angela doesn’t offer up any further insight.

“You have a travel vibe,” she continues, still addressing Zoë. “You’re on the threshold of a brand new life. Keep a vision of what you hope for. Money is somewhat of an issue – it’s always feast or famine for you – but it will be more stable, and feastie, over time.”

Turning her attention to me, she asks my birthday.

By now, Martin-the-guard-dog, somewhat calmed, has draped himself protectively over Angela’s leg.

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Looking at the two of us, Angela declares there is an elastic – meaning able to stretch great distances – bond between us.

That is true. Zoë and I have often been in different countries or on opposite sides of the US, but always close.

“You have a tough vibe,” she says, looking back at me.

I’m not surprised to hear this but would certainly rather be emoting a travel or creativity vibe.

“Yup,” she continues cheerfully, “I’m sorry to say this, but you’d be the last one I’d eat,  you know, if I was on a desert island and had to eat someonebecause you’d be all sinewy.”

Even by hillbilly standards, that’s a pretty weird thought.

She sees my expression and quickly assures me, “You feel a little beat up to me, but you have a real good core.”

After another moment, she continues.

“There’s a male spirit who has passed over, who’s watching over you. You’re getting a lot of help from the other side. I also feel a woman, I think it’s a grandmother,” she says.

[My thoughts immediately turn to the presence I feel while I’m working on a book I’m writing about, yes, my grandmother.]

“But you need more sleep!” she says to me. “And more order in your life! You have tension in the back of your neck and upper shoulders. You need to go to the ocean, or somewhere near water – it will be good for your spirit.”

[An invitation to a wedding on the Greek Riviera will arrive shortly after this visit.]

You have psychic dreams,” she says after another pause.

[Now she really has my interest, I’m liking the sound of this.]

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“You are starting another cycle … This is the year to resolve conflicts over money or work, get it sorted out. I don’t know for sure, but I feel that’s what I’m supposed to say, and I’m not taking it back,” she states defiantly.

“You’re in a relationship,” she says to me. “Are you married?

I am in a relationship, I respond, but we’re not married.

“It feels like you are,” she replies.

[In order not to give clues, I’m not wearing the ring he gave me. Zoë has it on her finger.]

Angela asks for Tom’s first name and birthday.

I tell her and she ponders the ceiling for a moment, then tells me a few things about Tom, mentioning that we are in a ‘bubble’ – eerily using the exact same word I had just used to describe our relationship to Zoë that very morning.

She describes certain characteristics of Tom’s, all of which are surprisingly accurate. She say she feels his mother very strongly.

[Ten days later, Tom’s mother will be hospitalized unexpectedly for an irregular heart beat.]

I ask her again about the psychic dreams.

“Pay attention to the images that come to you first thing in the morning,” she advises.

[Does she know I keep a journal by the side of my bed with the word,dormiveglia” – Italian for “waking dreams” – written on it?]

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“Pay attention, she repeats, “because you’re so busy other times, so this is when it comes through. Pay attention! The more you pay attention, the more it grows.”

“And you,” she says, turning her attention back to Zoë, “you are highly empathetic. You have to shake off the emotions of others.”

Then she says,”I feel a wedding!”

Zoë starts to shake her head, but I say, wait a minute – what just happened last night?

Oh right, Zoë says. A friend asked me to be her bridesmaid last night. [Another lucky guess, Zoë says later.]

The Hillbilly’s Psychic’s last words to us are that I feel very “Asheville-like” to her (whatever that means in her mind.) And Zoë is still the chameleon – trying to pass as uncomplicated, but not.

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Zoë plays with the sleeping dog in her lap.

“You’ll know someone else long before they know you,” Angela says. “Continue on with what you do for the bread & butter, but I expect a creative vibe to burst through at some point. It feels like you’re not done yet with that.”

[Zoë was a film studies major.]

“Anyway, I’m just a messenger … I don’t know….” she concludes happily.

Angela doesn’t name a fee, but donations are accepted. Ten years ago, she immediately stuffed the cash I gave her down into her bra, into “the bank of Angela” she said, laughing.

These days, Angela uses someone else to take the money for her.

When I offer payment, she gestures to a statue of a turbaned Indian holding a small tray next to her wide screen television.

“I had an Indian fellow in here not too long ago, and I worried he might take offense,” she says, laughing.

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“But he didn’t.”

Another big laugh.

Finding a Magical Japanese Dragon on the Appalachian Trail

I’m pretty sure I’ve told you Appalachia can be a magical place – especially when you least expect it.

A few months back, while hiking in the Smokies, Tom and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a collection of woodland trolls.

But on today’s hike – roughly 1969 miles south of Katahdin, Maine – the magical encounter was with a burly hiker with the unlikely name of “Cupcake.”

"Cupcake"

Does this man look like a cupcake to you?

Not at all, right?

No matter. Experienced AT thru-hiker and blogger Evans Prater explains that trail names often describe a quirk, habit, or funny mishap a hiker has endured. These nicknames add to the sense of uniqueness of each hiker – to the sense of escape, personal discovery and soul searching each individual is on the Trail to experience. Hikers are are given the freedom of a new life and a new identity by the simple act of changing their names.

In the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, there is a split second when you first look at something, a moment when all you experience is the form the universe has created. And it is in this gap of thought that the key to presence, awareness, and peace exists – an acceptance of the universe just as it actually is – nameless, formless.

And so it was with “Cupcake.” I did not ask him how he got his name or who gave it to him. It didn’t matter to me.

I was more interested in the stories in his trail weary skin – especially the fantastic, colorful creature crawling up his leg, baring its sharp fangs at me.

Qilin

 

“It’s a Kirin,” Cupcake explained, “a Japanese mythological creature.”

Japanese? I asked.

“I’m a quarter Japanese,” replied the burly red-haired Scottish lumberjack-looking dude matter-of-factly – as if I was unable to tell from his appearance.

Research later revealed that Kirin is the Japanese form of the Chinese “qilin.” The kirin is often depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail instead of the tail of a lion. It is also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot.

Kirins are said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. They are usually depicted with raised forelegs, flames around their bodies and wings to help them fly across the sky – all of which may help inspire weary hikers on a 2,190 mile trek.

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They are extremely gentle creatures and never step on grass and insects as they move around – very much in keeping with the philosophy of nature-respecting, long distance hikers.

A Kirin is also a good omen – thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. They appear when all is right with the world.

And so it was this afternoon, as we briefly crossed paths on the Appalachian Trail and compared body art – one a day-hiker with flowers on her leg; the other a thru-hiker committed to months on the AT with a Japanese dragon on his.

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A brief exchange stories, the sighting of a magical creature, hours spent in fresh air and the ancient beauty of the Smokies.

Moments when all was right with the world.

lunch on top of the smokies

 

 

 

Wishing Cupcake good trail karma over his next two thousand miles …

cupcake scaling charlie's bunion

… and whatever lies beyond.

 

 

Naked in Denmark (part two) ~ The Magic of Not Being in Control

Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.


Come to the edge, he said.
And so they came.


And he pushed them.
And they flew…

Guillaume Apollinaire

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The edge I was standing on that morning was the coast of Denmark. I could just barely make out the silhouette of Sweden across the dark waters.

Be not afraid, I thought to myself. Then, in the midst of a small gathering of people, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water.

Ohmygod … so very cold.

No breath.

A few long moments later, I emerged from the water.

My skin felt astonishing –

lit from within

– like it was lit from within by a thousand fairy lights. A Scandinavian mermaid.

According to Karen (my Danish cousin who does this all the time), I can now say that I am a Viking – and not just genetically – but by virtue of having experienced the polar opposite of Danish hygge (roughly translated as coziness) when I jumped into an icy cold sea completely naked.

Why naked, you might ask? Because, as Karen explains it, it is so cold here in the winter that if you wore a bathing suit, it would freeze to your skin the moment you immerse in the frigid waters, and the only way to remove your suit would be to have it cut off. Being the egalitarian and practical people they are, the Danes therefore decided to do away with bathing suits altogether.

The day I became a Viking began innocently enough with cups of hot, dark coffee and fresh bread with cheese and jam in the kitchen of Karen’s cosy farmhouse –

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one of my favorite places in the world.

Karen looked at me and said – Okay, is this the morning you become a Viking?

I have been coming to this beautiful old family farmhouse since I was a kid. The first time, my mother left me there for several days on my own and not knowing a word of Danish other than the basics – chocolade (chocolate)
kransekage (a delicious almond cake)
farvel (goodbye) and tak (thanks.)

Kristin & karen @ sandbjerg 1963

Karen taught me a few more Danish words – farm, cat, rock, house.

Each morning, we rode bicycles across the countryside to attend Karen’s school – a completely bewildering experience for me, isolated as I was by the language.

At night, I lay in bed in a tiny bedroom up under the thatched eaves of the farmhouse, warm under a Danish dyne (down comforter), listening in the dark to hushed voices murmuring in the kitchen below.

I felt like a Danish version of Heidi.

That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language.

But I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end. Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to travel beyond the complacent zone of my normal everyday existence.

The year before I officially became “a Viking,” I had soloed to Ethiopia on a somewhat innocently radical quest to track down some stories for a book I was writing.

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It was an experience that initially scared me to pieces (especially the first night, which involved unexpected encounters with a monkey, a leper and a prostitute.)

But I survived and came back changed in many ways. (You can read more about these adventures @ TheRedMoonLetters.com)

So jumping into the cold sea in Denmark – uden toj, as they say over there – shouldn’t have been something I would hesitate to do.

But I did – at least until I remembered the mantra I had adopted back home in the mountains of Appalachia.

Be not afraid.

And so, when Karen repeated, Kristin – is this the morning you become a Viking?

I said yes.

Off we went to the edge of the sea. It was a small challenge, but I did it, surprising myself in the process.

After it was over and I was reveling in the skin tingling loveliness and the high that accompanies an unexpected flirtation with dare devilishness, it occurred to me that perhaps the magic is really in not feeling in control.

I let that intriguing thought – the relationship between the fear of not being able to control things vs the magic of unexpected outcomes – ruminate in my head for awhile before challenging myself again.

A few years later I tested this idea by signing up for ten days of hiking in Iceland – an adventure just extreme enough to feel I was testing my limits without a reasonable expectation of dying in the process. I didn’t know a soul in the country, or on the trip, and I don’t speak Icelandic. I would definitely not be in control. Of anything.

I booked onto an REI trip –

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and then spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying that I might not be able to keep up with the others.

Visions of twenty-somethings scaling the landscape in athletic leaps and bounds with me slowly trudging through ice and volcanic ash, some distance behind, haunted and taunted me.

Rather than face this humiliation, I nearly backed out of the trip. But just in time, I remembered –  Be not afraid.

Inside my head, an interesting dialog unfolded as the logical, rational part of me was able to calm the emotional, irrational part of me by framing the trip as a photography assignment.

And for some reason, the ruse worked.

Which is a good thing, for had I succumbed to my fears –

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I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.

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Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day – not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) – but by three sixty-somethings.

There was also the flat out exhilaration of being a part of a group of intrepid souls hiking an active volcano – each of us hoping we would be able to make a 2.5 hr descent through fields of snow and razor sharp lava rocks in a breathtakingly inadequate half hour window, should it happen to erupt.

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These Icelandic experiences, and others, turned many of my fears and concerns on their heads. My pre-trip jitters had been total rubbish.

A recent post from The North Face outerwear company reminded me of what I had gained from hiking in Iceland: the truest version of ourselves stands well beyond comfort’s perimeter.

Thanks to the encouragement I received from a winter’s night message in Appalachia to be not afraid –

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– I have been pushed at the edge, in the words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and found I am able to fly.

*****

If you need an image to help you remember to be not afraid, how about this one of my Danish cousin, Karen proving her true Viking ancestry with an icy plunge –

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– something she does nearly every day, even during the cold Scandinavian winters.

*****

photo of me with Óliver & Kjartan in Iceland by Anne-Marie Davidson.
photo credit for the shot of Karen unknown.