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.

 

 

 

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.”

That sounds like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, and even though it was not part of the show, 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. Finding this painting felt like forgiveness.

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.’

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

A Gypsy Named Emmanuel & the House of My Dreams

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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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.

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]