The Serendipity of Shoji

I love how serendipity surprises you when you least expect it, like some mischievous little sprite waiting in the shadows for just the right moment to jump out and startle you.

A week before my mother died, as a respite from the stresses of caregiving, I booked myself into an Asian-style spa called Shoji – a nearly hidden little refuge tucked away on a mountaintop outside of Asheville, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I didn’t know when I made my reservation that I would end up there only a few days after her death. What I did know was that my body and mind needed the healing powers of warm bubbling waters interspersed with hot, cedar scented air and cold plunges. In a primal and intuitive way, the only therapy that felt right to me was a sauna.

My son introduced me to the Finnish sauna experience last year, when I spent Christmas with him in Helsinki. Many Finns consider the sauna essential to their wellbeing, as evidenced by the ratio of one sauna for every two people in the country. [‘Sauna,’ interestingly, is the only Finnish word to make it into everyday English.]

Unaware of a Finnish-style sauna in Asheville, I headed to a quiet and reclusive Japanese mountain spa called Shoji.

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In addition to the hot sauna, there is a private hot tub and a cold plunge.

I stayed at Shoji for a couple of hours, alternating between heat and cold, air and water, pondering life and death, and the newly raw absence of my mother from my life.

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I drank tea and read a book, and let the water and sauna therapies do their transformative magic.

After a few hours, I felt more at peace and – at least temporarily – physically restored. And so I returned to Shoji each week that month until I felt ready to tackle the world on my own again.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been there now, and I hadn’t given Shoji much thought until yesterday, while looking for something else, I came across the writings of Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project.

“There is no separation between life and death,” he writes in his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, “other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”

In Japanese Zen, Ostaseski went on to say, “the term shoji translates as ‘birth-death.'”

Birth … death … mother … daughter.

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I had no idea of the meaning of its name when I headed to Shoji to begin sorting out my head and heart after the death of my mother.

I only knew that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, Shoji was where I needed to be.

 

 

 

Hat Trick

In my family, a passion for hats skipped a generation.

My Danish grandmother, pictured above with my mother back in 1923, delighted in wearing outrageous and stylish hats. She also delighted in buying them for my mother.

As you can see, my mother was not as enamored with them.

When I look at this next photograph of my grandmother, I can see how my grandfather –a dashing young naval architect descended from generations of Danish shipbuilders – became absolutely smitten with Margrethe Petersen.

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“She was a very vivacious girl, good-looking, with a wonderful complexion, and intelligent to a very high degree,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She interested and attracted me more than any girl I had previously gone out with.

“One evening after a party at home in Nordborggade, Århus, I escorted her to the door of the apartment house where she had a room with a family and before we parted, I told her that I loved her.

“I do believe that she was a little skeptical because I was not exactly the marrying type, having led a carefree existence and gone along with girls without serious intentions on my part.

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“This time it was serious, though, and once she realized it, the foundation was built for the marriage which was to last for ever so many years.”

My mother, perhaps in reaction to the childhood outfits her mother dressed her in, seldom wore hats unless they were quite practical.

But just like my grandmother, Margrethe –

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I, too, love wearing hats.

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photos of me by Tom Hunnicutt

The River Runs Through Us…

 

I’ve been going through my mother’s old photographs. Each day I grab a handful to sort through and scan, many of which I have never seen before.

Some I will keep, some will be sent on to someone else in the family, and some will be tossed.

This one of my mother is a keeper.

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It offers a glimpse of her I hadn’t seen before – a little girl who liked to sit in rivers. It resonated immediately.

I remember getting into trouble when Eric Holzman and I – both just 6 or 7 at the time – played in a stream all afternoon while our parents were having a lawn party. When we eventually presented ourselves to the guests, naked except for knickers and completely slathered in mud, my mother was not amused.

Growing up, I often felt she was rather strict with me, more strict than she was with my older brother and sister. She seemed to be more afraid for me than she was for the others.

Which is odd, because in some ways, I had a lot of freedoms. By age nine, I walked myself a mile to school along the river and through the streets of London. At eleven, I was riding buses and trains by myself across the city to a different school. Seven years later, I was going to college in a different country. At nineteen, I moved to Paris for the summer to be a nanny. Those freedoms she encouraged and never seemed to think twice about.

She was a world traveler but I am more open-minded than she was, and even more adventurous. In retrospect, I think it was my free and creative spirit that worried her.

Times changed. She was the kind of girl who married her college sweetheart and I was a child of the sixties. She grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. I came of age during Woodstock, Haight Ashbury, and Vietnam protests. Over the years, we knocked heads many times over many things – and her criticisms always seemed to highlight the ways in which we were two very different people. Infuriating as they could be, however, and whether or not I cared to admit it, I knew these criticisms were rooted in her desire to protect me – both from others and from myself. In retrospect, I wonder if she was scared – and perhaps just a little bit intrigued by – the freedoms of my era.

Which brings me back to the photograph above. What I most like about it, is that it is a foreshadowing of the girl this little girl would eventually give birth to – one who also likes to sit in rivers. Even after her death, it weaves us one small connection closer.

The river still runs through us.

 

photograph of me by Sammy Fong.

 

 

 

 

A Little Ghost in the Garden

And so, I moved into “the city.”

Even by Asheville’s idiosyncratic standards, my new neighborhood has a lot of personality.

Perched on a mountainside overlooking the north end of town, it is laid out in a maze of rather narrow and hilly streets – perfect for long, rambling walks with dogs.

It is home to musicians, artists and artisans.  Dancers and dreamers.  Builders, renovators and carpenters.   Massagers and missionaries.  Realtors and retirees.  Genealogists and historians.  Fishermen, restaurateurs, and coffee shop owners.   Mountain folk, half-backs, snowbirds, and urban-flighters.

It even has a ballet conservatory and an electronic music factory.

Yes, this is Appalachia.

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Some folks have been here most (if not all) of their lives.

And some, like me, have only just recently found their way into the neighborhood.

Some have built their dream retirement home here,

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while others are just trying to get through the mountain winters without central heat.

In addition to the home for retired Methodist missionaries, our street has a random assortment of Arts & Crafts bungalows, Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes, a little church,

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and one Dutch barn – my own Casa Mia.

 And, co-existing in a rather bizarre juxtaposition,

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 there is also a women’s shelter next to two lovely and historic B&B’s.

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A crazy eclectic mix – and that’s Asheville.

Each house in the little ‘hood holds a unique cache of stories of the generations of people and families that have lived and died there.

Like this one down the street, where wedding initials and dates, etched with a diamond ring decades ago, are still visible in the glass of the window panes.

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Or this overgrown lot around the corner, where you can still see the ruins of an historic home that crack-addicted squatters accidentally burned down nearly twenty years ago,back when this neighborhood was the working turf of prostitutes and drug dealers.

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And, until recently, there was this old farmhouse dating back to 1910.

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These photographs, taken just a year and a half ago, seem to illustrate the bewildering and poignant displacement of old Appalachia.

But it’s actually just a photograph of my former neighbor, Donna Sue, getting irritated with me for taking “so durn long” to grab the shot, while she was busy trying to pack up and move out. (But not too busy, it bears noting, that she couldn’t indulge in a lengthy discussion on flowers and the best place in Tennessee to get moonshine.)

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A few months later, after Donna Sue and her family left and only the stubborn old cat remained, the farmhouse was torn down to make way for something new.

Even my house, it turns out, has its own ghosts – one of which belongs to a little five-year-old girl,

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whose gravestone we discovered unexpectedly while clearing away some underbrush in my back garden one day.