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.

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.

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 –

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– 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.

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.

our first christmas in asheville

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]

A Surprise Discovery in the Smokies ~ Trolls!

The day did not begin with a search for trolls. Nothing, in fact, could have been further from my mind.

Tom and I were on our way out for a day-hike with friends in the Smokies. As I drove, Tom read aloud from a book about the wildflowers that might be in bloom this time of year.

And then somewhere near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I happened to see the word “troll” on the side of an old building.

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“Troll!?” I cried out in disbelief, interrupting Tom. “Trolls are Scandinavian, what on earth would they be doing in Tennessee?”

I’m Danish-American. The thought of finding trolls in the Smokies made me even happier than finding wildflowers.

Like elves, fairies and gnomes, trolls like to hide themselves away in ancient mountains, rocks and caves. According to Norse mythology, they turn to stone if caught above ground during daylight hours. On second thought, perhaps the Great Smoky Mountains are just the right kind of habitat for them!

Intrigued by the possibility, we kept a sharp eye out for them during our hike.

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But the sun was shining, and so of course they stayed well hidden.

Later in the day, we passed back by the sign we’d seen – and this time, stopped the car and got out for a closer look. A jumble of antiques & collectibles spilled out onto the front porch, leading the way to what looked like a hoarder’s dream castle of stuff in the inner recesses.

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Tom explored around the outside of the building–

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while I wandered through a vast collection of Americana kitsch inside.

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It wasn’t until I wandered out onto a back porch that I found them….

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Big trolls and little trolls.

Trolls from the floor to the rafters.

Trolls on logs, trolls on shelves, trolls hanging from shelves.

Trolls tucked between ferns and hiding behind pinecones.

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Still curious as to how trolls came to be in Tennessee, I sought out the shop owner and asked, “Who is making trolls in the Smokies?”

“We are!” Erik Arensbak said with a smile.

“But trolls are Danish,” I said.

“And so are we!” he said, further surprising me by speaking in Danish.

His father, he told me, was an artist and Danish resistance fighter who emigrated to North America with his bride in 1949. Although they initially landed in Canada, they gradually moved further and further south, eventually purchasing land adjacent to Great Smokey Mountain National Park in 1969.

Known to some as “the hippies on the hill,” they began a business handcrafting trolls when the woodland creatures Ken Arensbak made to illustrate the Scandinavian tales he told his own three children so delighted friends and neighbors, they requested their own.

I had to have one, too.

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In the end, being hikers, we thought it might be in our best interests to bring home “trail guide troll.”

“Well of course, I can’t sell a troll to you,” Erik said, when I handed him my choice. “But there is a small adoption fee of $21.98.”

I gave him the cash and he wrapped the troll in tissue and put it into a large paper bag. Then he picked up a pen and began fiercely jabbing the bag.

For a brief, scary moment, I thought he was trying to kill my troll.

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And then I caught on …

“Air holes?” I asked.

“But of course,” he said with a smile, peering over his glasses at me.

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If you are considering adopting a troll, you can visit 5 Arts Studio or find them @ http://www.trolls.com