Rafting through ten million years of rock layers

 

Months ago, a hiking friend suggested a whitewater rafting adventure down the Gauley, a free flowing river that cuts through ten million years of rock layers in West Virginia. With more than 100 named whitewater rapids in less than 30 miles, it is known as one of the most adventurous whitewater rivers in the east.

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Each September, the Army Corps of Engineers provides a series of twenty-two controlled releases for the express purpose of downriver recreation. Collectively known as “Gauley Season,” these releases – the result of an act of Congress and the first law passed in the US to specifically mandate recreational whitewater dam releases – are scheduled on six successive weekends bringing millions of dollars annually to the local economy. The Gauley attracts paddlers from all over the United States and even overseas. And so, at the beginning of summer, a small group of us booked to do the Lower Gauley in early September.

Coming just two weeks after my mother’s death, however, eleven miles of Class III-IV, V rapids was suddenly the last thing I felt like doing.

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But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

The Gauley River, which is likely named after the historic Gaul region in Europe, begins in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and runs through a scenic mountain area used for fishing and hunting by Native Americans for 10,000 years. It eventually flows into the New River, considered by geologists (despite its name) to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves.

Out on the river, we could feel the age of the area. Looking at the dense green vegetation on the mountains around us, it felt like we were floating back in time. A friend commented he almost expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the foliage onto the shoreline.

Even though the Lower Gauley has fewer and more spread out rapids than the Upper Gauley, a number of the rapids “pose significant challenges.” Fortunately, we had Candace – a fierce and fit, intelligent and experienced river guide at our helm, coaching us through the tricky waters.

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The Lower Gauley run begins with a series of whimsically named rapids – Wood’s Ferry, PJ’s Hole, Canyon Doors, Heaven’s Gate, Upper & Lower Mash, Upper & Lower Staircase, Rollercoaster, Roostertail, and Rattlesnake – and ends with the less whimsical, more candidly descriptive Pure Screaming Hell leading into Purgatory and Hell Hole.

Before calling the paddle sequence of each rapid, Candace gave us careful instructions as to which direction to swim should we find ourselves unexpectedly ejected from the raft.

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After a summer spent taking care of my mother through a rapid downward spiral of health challenges, ending with her death, this run was just the shock I needed to reprogram my entire central nervous system.

And it worked. We paddled hard, we laughed, we got scared, and we got soaked. Water therapy at its best.

Exhausted from the adventure, I fell asleep late that night, at peace and relaxed for the first time in months – the scent of the Gauley still in my hair.

 

photography by Tom Hunnicutt & Kristin Fellows

What’s in a Name?

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of Mom’s caregivers, I phoned a local funeral home. The funeral director himself answered.

“This is Charles Graves,” he said.

I wondered if I had heard him correctly.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“If I had a nickel…” he said.

Before I had time to fully ponder the irony, he added, “And my cousin’s last name is Burns. He’s a fire chief up in New England.”

These unexpected little bubbles of humor and serendipity – like air pockets in an ocean of grief – have helped me laugh and breathe through some tough days.

I started to pay more attention to the cast of characters around us.

Of the many wonderful RNs taking care of Mom in her last weeks, my favorite was a third shift, well-built ex-Marine. I first met Nick the night he popped his head into her room during what had been a particularly rough evening for me.

“Do you need anything?” he asked me cheerfully.

“No, I think she’s fine for now, thank you,” I replied quietly.

“No,” he said with a smile, “Do you need anything?”

“Well, maybe a glass of water,” I said, surprised at his thoughtfulness. “If it’s no trouble.”

“How about a hug?” he responded.

I nearly cried. But then I caught sight of his name tag and smiled instead – at Nicholas Favorite.

I got the water and a big hug.

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After Mom died, in lieu of a memorial service, I put fresh, colorful flowers on all the tables in the residents’ dining room she so loved, with its vaulted ceiling and large expanse of windows overlooking the gardens.

I phoned her retirement village beforehand to coordinate the arrangements and asked to speak to the head of dining room services.

“Hello,” a cheerful voice answered. “This is Angel!”

Of course it was.

 

Listening to the Pauses…

Last Friday I sat by my mother’s bedside, listening to her breathe. silently counting the lengths of the pauses between breaths.

That I was even there that night was because I had heard another pause, earlier in the day, during a phone conversation I had with my brother.

I had called to give him an update on where she seemed to be in the pattern of what hospice anticipated might be her last hours. After a summer of unanticipated changes in her health, I was exhausted. I would be better able to help her, I told him, if I could just get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps, I rationalized, she might even be waiting for me to leave her alone.

I waited for what I was sure would be a positive and supportive response from him. But instead, he paused.

He paused for just a beat or two before saying, “Okay.”

I heard his words, but what I listened to was the pause.

It would have been easy to ignore, but instead I let it ruminate in my head.

Late in the afternoon, after hours of listening to my mother labor to breathe, Tom took me out for a much needed good meal, followed by a glass of wine with Zoë and her boyfriend. Afterwards, aware of how much I wanted to go home and sleep, he instead offered to drive me back out to see her. Remembering the momentary pause in the conversation with my brother, I realized my subliminal self had already made the decision. I said yes.

Had I not, I would have missed my mother’s last hour of life and the opportunity to breathe with her … until she had finished breathing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrinkles in Time

When I was ten years old, I believed that I could figure out the answer to any question if I just gave it enough thought.

I said as much to my mother one evening when she came in to say goodnight.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Try something!”

She was quiet for a moment. Then she asked me, “Where does the wind come from?”

During my childhood years when we lived in London, she kept me supplied with a steady stream of thought-provoking books – The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time – books to get inside my head and spark my imagination

But no matter how long I thought about it, I couldn’t find in my own mind any understanding for where the wind came from.

Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet Madeleine L’Engle – who wrote A Wrinkle in Time – at her farmhouse in Connecticut when we interviewed her for a documentary we were making on the intersection of creativity and spirituality. Fascinated with the writing process myself, I hung on every word she said.

The stories she read and re-read, she once said in another interview, were usually stories which (in the words of J Alfred Prufrock), ‘dared to disturb the universe‘ – those which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I sat by my mother’s bedside last week, watching her slip in and out of her own wrinkles in time, heartbroken that I was losing her, but grateful for her gift of encouraging me to think and to write.

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And fifty years later, I am still wondering where the wind comes from….

 

 

 

Living with the knowledge of imminent finality…

If there’s been a theme to this summer, it’s been one of suspended animation.

In just six weeks, my mother went from living independently in her own little garden apartment, to assisted living, to skilled nursing, to hospice care – punctuated by three trips to the emergency room and an unexpected surgery.

I find myself holding my breath all the time, anticipating the next phone call, the next emergency, more bad news. Knowing the inevitability of how this will end, it’s been draining living with the knowledge of imminent finality.

So, what to do? How can I reconcile my desires to ‘live in the moment’ and ‘be here now’ and stay positive with my hyper-awareness of this huge pending loss?

I’ve tried the sheer stubbornness of just getting through it with mixed results. But this morning I thought of an alternative path.

Gratitude.

Each time I feel overwhelmed by sadness, I’m going to fight back with gratitude. It will be a fight for sure, but I am well armed with hundreds and thousands of good and fun and happy memories.

Like the time she went shopping for a traditional Swiss long cotton granny gown and came home instead with a pair of zebra-stripped jammies with hot pink trim.

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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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Loosing the Muses… A tale of Heartbreak, Irony and Reinvention

Mom and I had plans to go to the movies together that night.

I arrived to pick her up right on time, but when she opened her door, I noticed her face had a strange expression on it.

“Just a minute,” she said, turning her back on me. She returned a moment later, with a newspaper clipping in her hand, her face a study in anxiety.

Wondering what news could possibly take the place of ‘hello,’ I scanned the torn fragment she handed me.

And then my heart just stopped.

It was a New York Times review of the book I had been working on for several years – a psychological non-fiction study of muses and their relationships with artists. A New York Times book review of my book! I had dreamed of this very moment many times.

Only, in my dreams, the review always had my name on it, not someone else’s. And definitely not an author who, up until that point, had only written novels.

I’d been sold out.

I was crushed, devastated, breathless…. my dream, my breakthrough project, my years of research and work – and there it was, with someone else’s name on it.

The book was a unique take on a rather obscure topic, could someone else have had the same idea?

In the days to come, I received phone calls and emails from friends around the country who were well aware of what I’d been working on, and who were all wondering – hey, isn’t that your book?

I spent three long days walking along the Potomac River trying to catch my breath, trying to reconstruct what could possibly have happened. My Washington, DC-based agent had sent my book proposal to an editor in New York for a second opinion. The editor’s harsh and skeptical critique left me unable to write much of anything for almost two years. I realized now that she must have liked the concept and my outline enough, however, to pass it along to someone else – someone with a recognizable name.

Through bitter tears of frustration, I berated myself for being too thin-skinned and not continuing to work on the book I believed in, despite the criticisms. It was my concept, inspired by my own circumstances, I should have kept going. It felt like someone had taken my autobiography and put their own name on it.

All of this happened 17 years ago, back in 2000 – the year that fell between the year my sister died and the year the twin towers in New York City were struck by planes, forever changing the world. I was broke and single, trying to get by as a freelancer in the capricious and challenging world of film and television, while raising two kids.

Reading my journal from that year – a journal of hope and dreams, a journal of aspirations and frustrations – I want to reach out to 2000 Kristin, who seems now like a little sister to me, and tell her not to give up.

2017 Kristin wants to whisper in the ear of 2000 Kristin and say, “Don’t let this experience jade you. You are resilient! You will soon create a new and better book project. You will continue to make a living in film and television for many years to come. You will blossom into a professional photographer and travel to Belize, Barcelona, New Orleans, Iceland, Mexico and Greece. You will spend Christmas in Finland with your son who is a university student there. You will have adventures in Geneva, Copenhagen and the Pacific Northwest with your daughter. You will move to Asheville and live in the mountains. Your kids will be fine, and you will find love again.”

But at the time, the hardships kept coming. A beloved uncle and mentor, who had been a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. My own father’s health began to falter. The IRS was hounding me. The bills mounted up with no steady work in sight.

But the kids were fine and somehow I kept going.

And then one day, a former client rang with a question about a film I had written and co-produced for him the previous year. Once we caught up on that, he asked me how things were going.

Under normal circumstances, I would never have ‘unloaded’ my miseries upon a client. But times were anything but normal. I admitted I was having some trouble finding work and wasn’t sure how or if I could even make it through the next month.

“May I offer some advice?” he asked gently.

Here was a self-made, multi-millionaire offering me advice, maybe even a grant for a new film, I thought hopefully. I hesitated only a second before responding.

“Sure!” I said, curious to hear whatever he had to say.

He chuckled softly. (Had I said something funny?!)

And his suggestion came as a great surprise.

“Kristin, let go, and let God,” he said simply.

That’s it?! I wanted to scream. How’s that going to pay the bills? I’m not a church-going person and his words offered neither consolation nor inspiration. So I thanked him politely and ended the call as quickly as possible, disappointed and feeling even more adrift and alone than before.

But those five little words continued to resonate in my mind throughout the evening and by the time I was ready for bed, I thought to myself – oh, what the hell? It’s not like you have any other options right now. Give yourself a night off from the worries and pressures of being in charge. And so, I let go.

The following morning, the phone rang again. It was Dr Bill Baker, the general manager of WNET, the New York City PBS station.

“Kristin!” he said, skipping the usual pleasantries. “I have a project I want you on right away. Are you available? It’s called, The Face: Jesus in Art!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Naked with a Dragon in Finland

I am sitting naked on a small wooden rack at the top of some imposingly steep cement steps in a darkened bunker. The stranger sitting next to me, also naked, is beating my back with a handful of frozen birch branches. The skin on my face is on fire as an enormous blast of hot steam envelopes the two of us, and others nearby.

A surreal nightmare?

No – just a fairly typical scene during Christmas Eve in Finland, the most popular day of the year at Kotiharjun Sauna, Helsinki’s only public sauna with a traditional wood-fired furnace.

I don’t understand a word of Finnish, but what I have come to realize is that each time the door to this Dickensian inferno opens, yet another naked woman will appear and she will shout something up to the unclothed Nordic goddesses around me that sounds like, “Hallu wat ko min umm canta loosa loh hee kar meh?”

[The correct spelling is probably more like “Haluatko minun kääntyä löysä lohikäärmeen?” which I think must mean, “Do you want me to turn lose the dragon?]

To which comes a chorus of replies: “Kyllä kiitos, emme voi saada tarpeeksi, että kuuma lohikäärme hengitys,” which apparently means something like, “Yes please, we can’t get enough of that hot dragon breath,” because each naked newcomer will then reach up toward the top of the enormous furnace glowering in the corner of the bunker and yank down on a lever releasing a tsunami of skin-scorching steam so dense it momentarily obliterates my ability to see the dozens of other naked bodies assembled in various states of quiet submission around me.

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What I think of as dragon’s breath, the Finns actually call löyly – originally meaning spirit of life, but these days interpreted as ‘a cloud of sauna steam’ puffed out to purify the body and calm the mind.

This is how many Finns begin their Christmas Eve celebrations – which tells you a lot about the Finnish practice of physical and mental cleansing, and the Finns themselves.

The relationship between Finns and their saunas goes back more than one thousand years.

In addition to purifying the mind, ‘taking sauna,’ as they say here, has been credited with driving out diseases. Back in the day, women gave birth in saunas. And there are even claims that unhappy love affairs have been settled with love spells cast in an enveloping blast of löyly.

The ratio of saunas to Finns these days is one sauna for every 2.75 people. There are more saunas than cars in Finland. Which makes it kind of hard to avoid. But then, why would you want to?

Most public saunas disappeared with the introduction of shared saunas within apartment buildings, but Kotiharjun Sauna still operates daily. Built in 1928 in the heart of Helsinki’s Kallio district, the old workers neighborhood, it doesn’t appear to have changed much during its 90 years of existence.

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There are separate saunas for the men and women, vintage wooden lockers in the dressing & relaxing room, and a cooler of chilled drinks as you come in the door. It is not a luxury spa, but it is so much more fascinating for its spareness and authenticity. And it is the only public sauna in Helsinki that is heated with wood.

Today, there’s a free drink on the house for everyone just because it is Christmas Eve. Between visits to the sauna, I help myself to a Finnish beer, which I sip on in the locker room draped in a towel as I glance through the photos in a Finnish magazine about (what else?) – saunas.

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The hardier souls, male and female, lounge atop a stone wall on the sidewalk outside the sauna, basking in the below-freezing temperatures.

I came here with my son, Leif, who is studying in Finland. Swapping tales on our walk home, it turns out that he and I both inadvertently broke several rules of sauna etiquette.

The main culprit was the vihta, the bundle of fresh birch branches you ‘gently’ whip yourself (or others) with. (It may sound like an odd thing to do, but my skin did feel quite lovely and tingly afterwards.)

Breach #1: Unable to ask any questions in Finnish, and not wishing to disturb the meditative state of those around me, I grabbed a ‘used’ bunch of somewhat wilted branches abandoned on a windowsill, not realizing I could purchase a fresh vihta from the freezer downstairs as I came in. Breach #2: I dipped my branches into another woman’s bucket of water (collective quiet gasp) when I should have gotten my own. Breach #3 Leif simply picked up someone else’s branches (while still in use) in order to flail his own legs and back. Fortunately, the Finns are a good-natured lot and everyone was very tolerant of our beginners’ mistakes.

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Eager for another round of Finnish style of physical and mental cleansing, my son and I return a few days later for a pre-flight sauna the afternoon of my departure from Helsinki.

The woman behind the check-in counter smiles.

“Weren’t you here a few days ago?” she asks, seemingly pleased to see us again. Contrary to stereotype, she is eager to talk and explain the Finnish people and culture to us.

“Were you surprised at how talkative the men are in the sauna?” she asks my son about his Christmas Eve experience.

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Leif nods. It was a surprise, given the reputation Finns have for being shy and recalcitrant, keeping space between themselves and others at the tram stops, preferring to look down at their shoes rather than make eye contact or small talk.

“The sauna is the only place Finnish men talk,” she says laughing. “And it’s because they don’t have their wives and girlfriends talking to them, telling them what to say and what to think!”

It is said that in Finland, more important decisions get made in saunas than in regular meetings. According to Visit Finland’s website, taking sauna together offers the opportunity for special bonding experiences – which have nothing to do with sex.

Leif and I get our departure cues mixed up. As I come down the stairs, dressed and ready to go, Leif comes out of the men’s locker room wearing nothing but his towel and heads out to join other semi-naked people drinking beer on the sidewalk outside in the freezing air.

As he turns to leave, I notice a stray birch leaf on his shoulder.

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[images: Russian Venus in banya by Boris Kustodiev;
Saunassa by Pekka Halonen; and kallerna]

 

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~ photography by Kristin Fellows ~

 

 

 

 

 

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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