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 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.

How an Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk band and a dog named Cupcake saved the day

As the door opened, I heard a woman’s voice say, “No!  Don’t let the dogs out!”

Strolling in my neighborhood with my own dogs, I turned my head just in time to see two snarling beasts hurling themselves at us from over a stone wall.  And then they were upon us, growling, gnashing, biting.

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My Golden Doodle tried to hide all 95 pounds of her frantic self between my legs, but my little guy – a Schnoodle named Bandit – was at jaw level and took the brunt of this unexpected attack. Someone later told me he could hear Bandit’s scream a block away.

A few minutes-that-seemed-like-hours later, the owner was able to get her vicious beasts under control. Shaken, but mostly okay (so I thought), we straggled back home to assess the damages.

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Klejne, the Golden Doodle, seemed to have escaped damage, but there was  a bloody gash in the grey fur on Bandit’s backside – scary, but not enough to warrant the expense of a weekend vet visit – I hoped.

Once home, Bandit crept into a dark corner and refused to come out the rest of the day.

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Not even for meals.

Yes, even in Asheville, bad things can and do happen. The interesting thing, however, is to pay attention to what happens in the wake of bad experiences.

Unexpectedly, the first stitch toward mending the upsetting rent in the fabric of the day came in the form of another dog –

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– a 180 lb Mastiff named Cupcake, who, when I happened to pass her by later that afternoon on my way to the market, was snoozing peacefully in the sun.

Tiny blue ribbons adorned her ears.

Surprised by the ribbons, I leaned over the fence to ask Cupcake’s owner, Meg – a neighbor I barely knew, for permission to take a few photographs.

Cupcake just got back from the groomer, Meg said, by way of explanation for the ribbons. And so began an entirely pleasant conversation that ended with an invitation from my new friend to stop back by that evening for a house party. A popular local band – the amazing Sirius.B – musicians who describe themselves as Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk –

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would be playing, in her house – walking distance from my own!

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Curious to know what Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk sounded like, I returned later, along with a number of other neighbors.

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The day had already improved immeasurably, but concerns over little Bandit still hovered in my mind.

I still wasn’t sure whether or not his wound needed professional attention. Between songs, I sought out advice from other dog-owning neighbors.

Meanwhile, the strains of Absurdist Gypsy Folk Funk Punk – like musical incense – were floating out beyond Meg’s house, up the block, and over to another street, reaching into the ears of a young nurse sitting on her front porch six or seven houses away – a nurse who just happened to be a big fan of the band.

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Hearing what she knew right away was the music of Sirius.B, she wandered over to join the little throng enjoying the music inside and outside the house of Cupcake.

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When I discovered she was an emergency room nurse, I told her about Bandit’s misfortune. Should I take him to the weekend vet clinic? I asked. By then it was quite late in the evening.

“Let me take a look,” she offered.

Two other neighbors, having heard the story, tagged along on our short walk back to my place, stopping along the way at the nurse’s house for emergency medical supplies.

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And that is how, a short while later, the four of us came to be performing spontaneous Schnoodle triage on my sofa by the spotlight of a handheld iPhone.

This compassionate care by three people who only hours earlier had been complete strangers to me, resulted in a happy and mended little Bandit.

After they left, I watched him snoozing peacefully, thinking of the day’s unexpected kindnesses – the invitation to a house party with great music, meeting new friends and neighbors, the midnight nursing to fix him up –

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none of which would have happened but for the luck of encountering a giant Cupcake with little blue ribbons on her ears.

Because Asheville

There’s an expression friends around here have been using recently – “Because Asheville.”

I like it. In only two words, it explains what is completely unexplainable about life in our town.

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 Like the unexpected magical randomness of walking down an alley and finding a scattering of yellow flower petals next to a door that says “Imagine Inventing Yellow.”

Or, discovering a mini galaxy hovering over a collection of antique bottles in the window of an old building in a dark alley late one night.

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There are many happenings and serendipitous occurrences I could give you to illuminate the meaning of “because Asheville.”

Here’s one a bit closer to my heart.

It’s likely I would not have met Tom had I not purchased the house I am currently living in, the house I affectionately call “Casa Mia.”

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I called it Casa Mia just because it’s mine, even though I am living in Appalachia and there is nothing even remotely Italian about the house (or me, for that matter.) I just like the cosy way it sounds.

I would not have met Tom because I would not have met Jo, the German rugby-playing- architect-turned-landscape-gardener-for-missionaries across the street from Casa Mia.

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And I would not even have bought Casa Mia – had it not been for yoga.

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Ten years earlier, the kids and I picked our first home in Asheville for its views –

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a little ranch house, perched on an acre of hillside

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overlooking a lake, a bird sanctuary, and the mountains.

Much as I loved it, after the kids had graduated and loved on, I decided I wanted to move closer into town.

I soon found – and lost my heart to – an old Dutch barn style house in a funky little neighborhood, just blocks from downtown.

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The realtors told me I couldn’t buy it because a contingent contract was not permitted. But I was in love and already living there, at least in my head.

I began stalking the house.

I detoured all of my trips into town so I could drive past it and gaze at it longingly. It was so charming, I fretted, surely it would sell before I could unload my current house in an uncertain real estate market.

A few days after I first saw the house, I walked into my local yoga studio. Ninety minutes later, lying on my mat in a post-Ashtanga state of savasana, a thought made its way into my somewhat blissed out head.

The heck with the realtors, I thought happily –

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why not just knock on the door and ask the owners if I could buy their house? At the time, it seemed like an entirely rational idea.

Within moments, I was on their front door-step, disheveled, sweaty and still wearing yoga clothes. I told them I was passionately in love with their house and felt inexplicably drawn to live there. And then I offered them their asking price.

The owners – a heavily tattooed Frenchman and his American wife – said okay.

As simply as that.

But, of course, it wasn’t that simple.

I arranged to pay them monthly not to sell it to anyone else while my realtor and I energetically worked to sell my house up by the lake. Seventy-two showings and seven months later, there we were, sitting at the settlement table.

And then, an hour later, the little Dutch barn house was mine.

The next spring, while working in the front yard, I met Jo –the German rugby-playing- architect-turned-landscape-gardener-for-missionaries across the street.

Jo introduced me to Tom in a blind date.

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Because Asheville.