The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,

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she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.

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When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.

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“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.

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I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”

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Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

Kind of like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.

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Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed…

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Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –

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– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’

Paint Every Day

The email came through early in the morning with just David’s name in the subject line.

David had been at my house nearly every day for months at a time, crafting a European-style bathroom and other contemporary modifications that I hoped would help turn my tired old Dutch barn-styled home into something more like a Scandinavian farmhouse. But he had not shown up the day before as promised.

Reliable and practical with an appealing amount of orneriness, David wore his clothes until they wore out. He drove an old silver Toyota Tacoma held together by 18 bumper stickers, including one that said “Speeding Kills Bears” and another that just had the word, “artist.”

Much as he tried to hide it, David was also kindhearted and giving. Decades ago, he’d started one of the first organic food markets in San Francisco, riding his bike back and forth to the store each day, often stopping to give food to a few homeless souls huddled up against the weather.

David eschewed all forms of social media and refused even to send or receive text messages. “There’s 60,000 texts ‘out there’ waiting for me, and I’m afraid to even go there now,” he once laughed. But it was unusual for him not to appear on my doorstep when promised.

The last time I saw David was the previous Saturday morning. Piecing together the fragments of that day later with others who knew him, it seems he left my house, ran into a few friends at the local market, went home, painted, opened a bag of chips, poured a beer, turned on the game, and laid down on the floor to ease the ache in his back.

And then, he died.

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The email informed me he died of natural causes, but it was anything but natural to me that someone I was used to seeing every day no longer existed. There must be some mistake, I thought, re-reading it several times.

Not David. Not the fit, strapping man in his 50s with the ironic smile. Not someone so full of life, someone who loved camping with his kids, someone who woke them up to marvel at a particularly spectacular full moon.

My yoga room was his last project. He had recently hung up his tools and was basking in semi-retirement. When I called him to ask if he’d mind coming over to work on it, he left a message that left little doubt he was savoring his new free time: “Whatever you want to do is going to be okay with me – as little or as much as you feel like. I’m actually standing on my little deck, looking out over the mountains, in a t-shirt, drinking a gin & tonic. So there you go, that’s my life.”

How could this feisty and wonderful friend no longer exist?

Go to his house, I thought. He’ll be there and then everything will be okay.

I had never actually been to his home, but I knew which mountain ridge he lived on. I grabbed my keys, got in my car and headed north.

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Recalling fragments of stories he’d told me about his next door neighbors and their homes, I narrowed the possibilities for David’s house down to an old grey 1930s bungalow on the top of the hill – the one surrounded by potted plants, one of which looked like one I’d given him a few years back. There were several vehicles in the gravel driveway, parked in a hurried, disorderly jumble – and I knew when I saw them that it was possible the unthinkable had really happened.

I pulled over in the field next door and stared at the cars and the house for some long moments before something inside me said, Go inside the house.

Anyone who lives around here can tell you that appearing unannounced at the house of a stranger is not something you should do in Appalachia, but by then grief had overwhelmed common sense.

I got out of my car and walked over to the steps leading up to the back porch and what I guessed was the kitchen door. I paused at the top, scared of knocking, scared of intruding, scared of being wrong.

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And then the door opened and I was flooded with relief – for there was David standing in front of me.

And then, between one beat of my heart and the next, I realized it wasn’t David, and the precious relief I had felt for just an instant vanished. It was someone who looked just like David, someone who reached out and folded me into his arms as I broke down in tears.

Glancing around the kitchen, I saw two more David-look-alikes – tall, tongue-tied and helpless, wiping their eyes. David had three brothers and here they all were.

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Just as I knew who they were without being introduced, they all seemed to know who I was. It seemed David had told them about my house projects.

There was an awkward flurry of stories, reminiscences, tears, some shaky laughs and then more tears. Great gaping holes of grief and disbelief surrounded by questions, guesses and fragments of answers.

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I had worried about intruding, but the brothers put me right at ease. They all knew so much about me. One brother thanked me for being who I was in David’s life, whatever that was. Moments and more moments passed, who knows how many, before that little voice inside nudged me again and said: Ask to see his studio.

Over our three years of friendship, David had invited me once or twice to come and see his paintings. I didn’t take him up on the offer right away and later, when I asked him a few times to show them to me, he responded that someday he would.
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And now, at this moment, every part of me knew that I needed to see his paintings, even if he wasn’t there. I knew that, despite our hours of conversations, I would not really know who my friend was until I saw his art. I dreaded it, and yet I needed to do it.

Lisa, David’s sister-in-law, led me through rooms filled with a carefree, but very neat mash-up of old family pieces, art, and rescued treasures. It brought back fond memories of friends I’d known in my 20s.

We walked past the kids’ rooms, through the living room, and into his bedroom, where she paused silently for just a moment to touch a pair of David’s paint-splattered heavy-duty work pants hanging on a hook. And then, she led me into his “studio.”

I had to smile when I saw that the man who had teased me about converting my master bath to a yoga studio, had made the master bathroom of his house into an art studio.

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Everything was just as he had left it – a tidy array of art supplies, waiting for him to come back and pick up the brushes again.

I had been nervous to see his art. What if I didn’t like it? But as Lisa began opening drawer after drawer filled with paintings, I caught my breath.

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The color, the spirit, the movement, the life and energy in each painting was astonishing. Where did all of this come from? I thought I knew my friend, but we had only scratched the surface with our exchanges of stories. I had no idea of the magic within.

“He painted on newspapers,” Lisa told me, showing me sheet after sheet of delightful images. “And he painted every day.”

He painted every day.

If she said something after that, I don’t remember, as those four words reverberated over and over in my head.

I was unbearably sad and berated myself wickedly for not having known this vital part of him while he was still living. The more I saw, the more twisted and wrenched with remorse I was for not having seen his art while I could still tell him how much I loved it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized my feelings would probably not have been that important to him. A true artist, and the son of two artists, David painted – as all artists should – for himself.

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David kept only a small circle of friends. He was a good dad and crazy about his kids, but his spare time was spent creating. As a result of living a life of few distractions, he left behind an incredible body of work.

It’s difficult enough dealing with the sudden disappearance of someone from our lives, but what can make it even harder is what the end of someone’s life reveals to us about ourselves. That I didn’t follow through on his invitation to see his art still sears me to the core with remorse. My guess is that David was most himself when he painted and I missed seeing that. My loss.

With David’s death, an artist vanished leaving no written exchanges, no daily banter on social media, but instead a drawer full of hidden treasures, evidence that he had indeed been present. He was here.

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The lasting wish of the artist, as French poet Paul Eluard once wrote, is to last. David was focused. He painted every day. And his paintings will last on far beyond his life.

It’s sadly ironic that losing David was what it took to help me pull focus on my own work. Still pondering his loss months later, I have come to realize that it is when I write, or capture a scene with my camera that especially moves me, that I most feel myself. It’s these pure moments when, undistracted, I feel a physical creative synergy moving through me and I fully inhabit my body and mind.

And so, I offer this tale as gentle encouragement to all artists. Paint – or photograph or write or whatever it is you do – for those internal fireflies of emotions that glow within you whenever you are happy with your results.

Paint every day.

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David Patrick Joerling

1957-2017

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The Story of My Under the Tuscan Sun House

The moment the photos came up on the screen, I was smitten. I pestered a realtor to show it to me and spent an hour wandering through the rooms and gardens. It had been on the market for a year.

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This will be my Under the Tuscan Sun house, I thought, standing on the sidewalk looking at it. It was in Asheville, not Italy, but that didn’t matter. It was my very own Diane Lane moment.

This is where my grown children will come to stay and friends will come visit, I thought, as happy scenes from the film played out in my head.

There will be parties and gatherings, with wine and delicious food in the gardens. And maybe this is where I will find love.

The amazing thing is that all of it came true.

But first – as in the movie –

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there was a little work to be done on the house.

Ok, maybe a lot of work.

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For the most of that first year, it was just me & the dogs living in what I was now calling “Casa Mia.”

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And then one day, I happened to ask the German architect & gardener across the street if he had any single friends and suddenly, there was Tom– an unexpected and unlikely tale of romance told in my very first post on this blog.

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After many years of post-marriage singledom, I was delighted to be in this new phase of life. We had the house to ourselves.

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And then the phone rang. It was my son. “Mom, my roommate situation’s not working out. Can I move back in for awhile?” Sure.

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A couple of months later, the phone rang again. This time it was my daughter, calling from Seattle. “Mama, I think I might like to move back to Asheville. Can I live with you until I find a job and a place of my own?” Of course.

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The third call came from my 92 year-old mother in Alexandria, Virginia.
“Honey, I don’t think I can live on my own anymore. Can I move in with you?”

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Well, why not?!

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Family was coming and going, staying, cooking and eating. The house filled up with love and laughter, food and moments together.

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And there were also parties and gatherings of friends….

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“What are you thinking?” Frances (Diane Lane) asks Martini, the handsome Italian realtor, during a gathering at her home at end of the film, Under the Tuscan Sun.

“I think you got your wish,” Martini replies.

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“You’re right,” Frances says, looking around at the people laughing and chattering, eating and drinking.

“I got my wish. I got everything I asked for.”

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What are four walls, anyway? They are what they contain. The house protects the dreamer. Unthinkably good things can happen, even late in the game.

It’s such a surprise.

Frances Mayes

 

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!)

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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An Arrow to the Heart

Last week my mother was struck with – in my cousin’s words – an arrow to the heart.

It all began with a spectacular sunset.

It’s almost always a pretty time of day in the mountains, but the sunset the evening before Thanksgiving this year was unusually vibrant and gorgeous, filled with stripes of hot pinks and glittering golds, as if a psychedelic zebra was cavorting across the sky.

Wait ’til Mom sees this, I thought driving out to pick her up at her retirement village in the Black Mountains.

A short while before, I had gotten a call from the retirement village nurse letting me know Mom wasn’t feeling well. It’s not an emergency, she said, but the doctor’s office is closed for the holiday. Can you take her to the ER just in case she needs some medical attention?

I got into my car and headed east through the mountains, marveling at the sky the whole way.

If I had not come immediately …

Once I reached Mom’s place, I hurried her as best I could.

Have you seen my keys? she paused, glancing around.

You can use mine, I said. We have to go now so you can see this amazing sunset!

Still, she prevaricated, looking for one thing or another. I practically pushed her outside in my urgency to have her witness the evening’s spectacular light show.

If I had not hurried her …

Outside, we paused for a moment to admire the soft jewel tones in the mountain peaks surrounding the retirement village. The colors cheered her up enormously. And after we got on the road, she said she already felt much better. Maybe we don’t need to go, she said.

If we had not kept going …

Neither of us had been to this particular medical center, and, as luck would have it, it was a slow night and Mom was taken in immediately. We were actually enjoying the visit ~ it was a lovely facility with pleasant, jovial staff.

But then, about twenty minutes into our visit, everyone’s faces changed.

My mother’s face, which only moments ago had a big smile on it, was contorted with pain. The faces of the attending doctor and nurses changed, too. Nitroglycerin was slipped under her tongue, and she was ordered to bite and chew 4 aspirin. Morphine was injected.

Unbelievably, my mother, who has hardly been sick a day in her 94 years, was having a heart attack.

If she had not been in an emergency room …

EMS techs were suddenly in the cubicle, hooking her up to their own EKG monitor. She was switched to a mobile gurney and whisked away to another hospital, sirens and lights blazing.

If she was still living all alone in the big city …

I left the medical center by myself.

At the next hospital, I waited in a holding room for news. I waited for my thoughts to catch up with the reality of what was happening. I tallied up the what-ifs.

If the nurse at the retirement village had not called me …

At some point that evening, a heart surgeon appeared with diagrams and x-rays and bad news. My mother had suffered a massive heart attack. She was in critical condition. They’d performed an emergency angioplasty to open up a collapsed artery.

She is 94, he said gently. But, she’s in good shape and she’s pretty feisty. We don’t know what will happen.

At least she saw that amazing sunset on her last evening, I thought – unable to think.

Against the odds, she made it through the night. The following day was Thanksgiving.

Mom was lively and vocal, insisting that Tom, Leif and I go out to the retirement village and have the Thanksgiving lunch we’d planned on before all this happen.

Without her.

And so to please her, we did. Our server took a photograph of us so we could supply proof. The three of us ate lunch with an empty chair at the table – one of the more surreal Thanksgiving meals any of us had ever experienced.

Mom, however, was delighted – determined to host us, even if she wasn’t there.

The thousand ifs of how we nearly lost her still dance in my mind, like mischievous small children who won’t settle down for the night, taunting me with their insomnia. Which makes me wonder all over again at life in these mountains and the unseen webs of serendipitous energy that lace through them.

 

[cover photo by Renee Weber]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naked in Denmark (or, How a Winter Night in Appalachia Inspired Me to Live Fearlessly)

I was standing on the very edge of terra firma in Denmark, looking across a dark sea of chilly water towards a distant Sweden.

Dawn was breaking and I was stark naked.

Why I was standing there, ready to jump into the cold water, can be blamed upon something I experienced on a winter’s night in Appalachia.

To explain how this bizarre moment came about, I will first explain the circumstances that led me to take off all my clothes in public in a foreign land – not normally a habit of mine. (Except for that time in Finland.)

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When I moved to the mountains, I was an uptight, stressed-out mess. Years of single parenting, a year of intense care-giving for my father, the death of my unique and wonderful artist sister, the incessant struggles of being self-employed in the documentary film business had all taken a toll on my equilibrium.

Like a team of persistent and pernicious sculptors, these challenges had etched themselves into lines on my face and on my psyche, chipping away pieces of my potentially happier self.

Each was demanding and tough in their own way, but even worse was just the grinding competitiveness of daily life in a big city. And the fears. Two decades of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids, that I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent or the mortgage or any of the bills, fear that I would die in a plane accident (or a car accident), that my kids would be shot at school, be injured playing sports, crash while learning to drive, fear that I would get cancer like my sister, fear that I was eating the wrong things, cooking with the wrong pans, etc. Scared that someone would steal the idea for the book I had spent more than a couple of years researching and writing (yes, that actually happened.) Most of all, scared that I was too jaded or miserable to attract true love into my life. I let these fears eat away at my potential for well being and happiness like acid rain.

As soon as I could, I escaped to the mountains, relying only on blind instinct that this would be a place to heal and renew.

The mountains surrounding Asheville are, after all, some of the world’s oldest – so they know something about resilience and survival.

I only knew I needed peace and quiet, and their healing energy.

photo by sammy?

Although I had often gone to various churches (more off than on) much of my life, I made a conscious decision that would not be a part of my new life in Asheville. But then a chance encounter with six words took place in (of all places) a church, on (of all times) Christmas Eve. The irony of this was not lost on me.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and my son, my former husband (who also moved to Asheville), his girlfriend, Nan, and I had gathered together at my new little home on the mountainside overlooking a bird sanctuary for a festive holiday meal and an exchange of gifts.

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It was later in the evening when I heard Nan say she wanted to go to a service that night at Jubilee church. Steve (my former, her current) didn’t appear to be interested in going. Tipsy on the spirit of Christmas and goodwill toward all mankind, I heard myself say that I would take her.

What on earth did you just say?! my startled inner self exclaimed. It’s dark and cold out there! Wouldn’t you rather stay home, drink wine, fall asleep by the fireplace? Yes, dammit!

But it was too late. As Nan’s face lit up with gratitude, I realized I was committed.

And so, within half an hour, there I was, reluctantly sitting in a circle, inside a church, along with dozens of others bundled up against the chill, trying my best to tune out the words of Howard Hanger, the charismatic minister of the Asheville Jubilee experience.

He was going through the Christmas story and I’d heard it all before. Many times before. So instead, I turned my thoughts to what people were wearing and might there possibly be any handsome single men there.

Thus occupied, I didn’t hear any of the sermon until, about 2o minutes into the service, clear as a bell, in the midst of the random muck of my mind, I heard these words:

What if you were not afraid?

Howard Hanger had just gotten to the bit about the angels appearing and startling the shepherds.

Hah, that’s crazy, I thought. I can’t imagine not being afraid.

Think about it, Howard said, pausing to look intently at each person in the large circle around him, including me.

What would your life be like if – you – were – not – afraid?

It would be quite amazing and glorious, I realized.

So captivating was this thought that I then missed the rest of his sermon, completely wrapped up in those six words, and a different vision of my life from what I had been used to.

The idea of being not afraid, the permission to be not afraid, the idea that it might actually be okay to be not afraid, was so alluring that I decided that evening, instead of a New Year’s resolution, I would adopt it as my “New Year’s mantra” in the coming year.

And that was why and how – nine months after this Appalachian experience – I found myself standing naked to the world as dawn was breaking on the shores of Denmark, ready to jump in some chilly, chilly Scandinavian waters.

Be not afraid, I whispered to myself.

And jumped.

 

[read Naked in Denmark, part two]

The Serendipitous Tale of “Why Asheville?” continues…

Many years ago, my back-then-husband sweetly pointed out to me that I could be rather bossy, almost always wanting to call the shots. Even though we were on the separation track, his words stayed with me longer than he did, haunting and taunting me with their accuracy.

And so, one Saturday morning, I decided to change.

The kids and I were heading out (as we often did Saturday mornings) to see what we could find at yard sales. (Being incredibly impoverished at the time, we got many of our clothes and household necessities on these weekend scavenger hunts.)

As we set off, I informed Zoë  (who was only six or seven at the time) –

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that she was in charge of the day.

Delighted, she sat up tall in the front seat of the car as we drove and immediately came up with a plan.

“Ok, mama”, she said. “You follow your nose to the left and I’ll follow my nose to the right!”

(Hearing her words put a smile on my face and made the ceding of my dictatorial powers completely worth it.)

It didn’t take long for Zoë to zero in on a neighborhood yard sale a few miles away from our home. Looking up and down the street made up of sad older houses yet to be rescued by visionary hipsters, I was ready to get back into the car and leave.

Zoë, however, saw nothing but potential magic around us. “This one first!” she said pointing to what was quite possibly the worst of them all.

I started to object, but Zoë quickly reminded me who was the boss of the morning and dashed off to explore.

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Waiting for her to reappear, I glanced somewhat disparagingly through the dismal mounds of old linens, flower pots, crock pots and yogurt makers.

And then something caught my eye —

the one from the yard sale— a beautiful, little turn-of-the-century, Royal Doulton Arts & Crafts style vase.

My older sister, Karen, had carefully amassed a beautiful collection of early 1900s Royal Doulton during the years she lived and worked in England. She’d taken me to a few auctions and antique shows and taught me how to spot the glazings and markings she was interested in. It was a little unusual to find in the US, but there it was, this beautiful little vase, its royalty shining through from the jumble of its humble surroundings.

With shaking fingers, I picked it up to further examine it. The glazing and markings were correct. And surprisingly, it was in pristine condition. It was also the only thing in the pile that didn’t have a price on it. My guess was that it might be worth a couple hundred dollars.

I beckoned to a young woman who seemed to belong to the house and asked her what she wanted for it.

“Oh, that old thing?” she said, laughing. “How about fifty cents?”

I nearly dropped it.

Zoë reappeared at that moment, happily clutching a box of colorful glass beads from Germany that she’d found.

by an artist at the kress building in downtown asheville

“Can I get this?” she asked. It was priced a few dollars more than the vase.

Still in shock, I nodded, and gave the woman five dollars for both.

All the way back to the car, I was sure the vase would slip from my fingers as karmic punishment for not revealing its worth to the seller. But I also couldn’t wait to tell my sister about my find.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me how absolutely weird it was to have been so quickly rewarded (so it seemed to me) for having given control of the day’s decision-making over to someone else – in this case, the excited child happily playing with her new bead collection in the back seat of the car.

Which brings me back to the story of that first weekend in Asheville and the serendipity that seemed to be following us around as my mother and I adventured through the little mountain town that my sister had wanted to move to.

I had originally intended to visit Asheville a few months earlier after dropping off the now 18-year-old Zoë for her university orientation in Wilmington, North Carolina.

But the owner of the bed & breakfast where we stayed in Wilmington (on the other side of the state, six hours away from Asheville) told me the roads to Asheville were closed due to flood waters from Hurricane Frances. Her husband, as it happened, was actually headed there to help out with the emergency clean-up. (Yet another connection in the come-to-Asheville vortex, I found myself thinking.)  Once the roads were opened back up and I was able to get in, she suggested I stay at the 1900 Inn on Montford Avenue, a bed & breakfast owned by friends of theirs.

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Having no other plan – and still mindful of the potential magic of the suggestions of others as a result of that many-years-ago yard sale experience – I took her suggestion and booked a room for a weekend with my mother later that fall.

The b&b was located in historic Montford, a mostly residential neighborhood on the north side of Asheville filled with interesting homes built between 1890 and 1920 by the town’s businessmen, lawyers, doctors and architects – several of whom continue to live on in the pages of Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, Look Homeward, Angel. Montford’s jumble of architectural styles includes Victorian, Queen Anne, Arts & Crafts, Neoclassical, Colonial Revival –

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with a few small castles thrown into the mix.

It’s a neighborhood rich with history, characters, and haunting stories (F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, burned to death in Montford.)

Walking through the living rooms of the 1900 Inn, Mom and I were both struck by how very English it felt, which surprised us, given its location in the Southern Highlands of Appalachia….

As luck would have it, we had checked in just in time to enjoy a glass of wine and music by a local musician on the Inn’s spacious and lovely front porch. Delighted, we took seats at opposite ends of the porch and mingled with the other guests.

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After some moments of polite stranger chat, I heard a small shriek from my mother’s end of the porch.

After only one glass of wine? I thought as I made my way over to her.

“You won’t believe this!” she exclaimed.

It turned out the reason for the English feel to the b&b came from the years innkeepers Ron and Lynn had lived In England back in the 60s and 70s – years that coincidentally overlapped some of the years we had lived there. Two of my parents’ long time friends were also friends of theirs.

I mean, really – what were the odds of this happening in a small mountain town in western North Carolina? 

Equally amazed by the small worldliness of it all, Ron and Lynn suggested we continue talking over dinner at “Pyper’s Place,” a funky & delightful cafe and music venue just down the street co-owned by Peggy Seeger, folksinger and sister of the more famous Pete.

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Somewhere in the future, it would become a Caribbean inspired restaurant, “Nine Mile.” But that night it was still Pyper’s and we had a delightful time there swapping tales and memories of mutual friends.

The roadblocks and detours over the previous months had actually put us on a path that brought us to an unexpected and special evening that could so easily not have happened at all. And yet somehow it all came together. Pyper’s Place closed their doors the following day, making me wonder if it had even existed at all, or had I just imagined it.

Whatever, as Zoë might say –

hello i love you

Asheville felt like home before we even moved there.

An Encounter with Hostile Natives

If you move here, expect to upset some of the natives.

Six months after my arrival in Appalachia, I was having a mobile office morning at my local coffeehouse –

DSC05409which at the time went by the name of Port City Java (even though the Ashevillage is at least five hours away from an actual port city.)

Despite the “do not disturb” aura I was hoping to project, a stocky, middle-aged bald man with dark circles under his eyes approached my table. He was dressed in blue jeans, black loafers and a blue sweatshirt.

“Excuse me,” he said, politely.

Reluctantly, I looked up.

He gestured toward his companion – a heavyset brunette at a nearby table wearing a lime green sweater with matching socks, and brown pants. By her side was a handbag that looked like it was made from fabric rescued from a vintage 1960s sofa, the kind you often see around here abandoned on a sidewalk or stuck out on a front porch when it no longer matters if it gets rained upon.

“My friend and I are taking a survey,” the stocky man said, by way of an introduction. “How long have you lived in the Ashevillage?”

“Since June 30th,” I responded politely. He shook his head and turned away.

Surprised, I called after him, “Why do you ask?”

“My friend doubts there’s nobody in this coffee shop who’s lived in the Ashevillage more than five years,” he replied over his shoulder.

Less than six months! I heard him whisper to his lady friend in a tsk-tsk tone as he lowered himself back into his chair with a small grunt. I took note that, for some reason, out of the two dozen or so around us, the ‘survey’ had so far only included me.

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Hardly a scientific method.

Piqued, and determined to correct the record, I called out –

“The first person I met in this coffee shop moved here in 1966!” deftly asserting the fact that I was actually friends with a bona fide local, my friend Moni.

“Well,” his brown-and-lime-green clad companion said with a withering, smug look, “we were both born here.”

Irritated, and unable to let it go, I racked my brains for something to establish my localism, hoping to stave off any further hostile vibes from the natives.

“I live in a 50-year-old house!” I offered up.

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It was, I realize, a pathetic and transparently ingratiating attempt to demonstrate that I was not to be categorized with the clear-the-trees-from-the-mountainsides-so-we-can build-a-starter-mansion transplants the locals (with good reason) so love to loathe.

“Well,” sofa-handbag woman sniffed, “that helps a little.”

But it was too late.

Too riled to continue working, I packed up my laptop moments later and crept back up to my 50-year-old sanctuary on the mountainside.

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It was not the first time I’d encountered this attitude – and, of course, it wouldn’t be the last.

The first book I’d purchased after moving here was a guide book to finding your way in the Ashevillage, written by a local worm farmer who would soon become a city councilman.  (True story – Because Asheville)

It’s a meandering, heartfelt and quirky read, extolling all the whimsical virtues of the Ashevilleage.

And it’s possibly the only guide book that begins and ends with the words,

“Please, please don’t move here.”

A Moment of Mountain Humor

One December afternoon, several years ago, I made it down the wintry roads and into the local UPS store to ship off a number of packages.

The woman behind the counter was very pleasant and while she typed up labels for me, we got to talking about the morning’s ice storm that had shut down schools for those of us in the higher elevations.

Which, naturally,

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 led to a discussion about our kids.

Reading the address on one of my boxes, she remarked, “Oh, my older daughter’s name is Savannah!”

“People often ask me if she was conceived in Savannah,” she continued conversationally, “and that’s why we named her that.”

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“Was she?” I asked, tentatively.

“No!” she replied with a laugh.

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“But it would have sounded pretty odd to call her Woodfin.”