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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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



~ photography by Kristin Fellows ~






Do I Dare Disturb the Universe & Other Messages from Coffee Shops

I appreciate a nudge from the universe every so often. This being Asheville, it doesn’t give up if you don’t notice the first time.

One day last week, Zoë and I were chatting over cups of coffee & chai at the local coffee shop, when I noticed a young girl working intently at her laptop on a nearby former piece of tree.

There were words written on her arm, but only a few peeked out from under her sleeve, teasing me with this unfinished thought…

Do I dare disturb…

was her name Jay? ask zoë


“Mum, don’t,” said Zoë, knowing what was about to happen.

“I won’t bother her,” I promised, “unless she looks up.”

Just in case, I had my camera ready.

“Do I dare disturb the universe,” the girl with the long ginger hair told me moments later, when I did actually dare to disturb her – ignoring the dark clouds of disapproval on my daughter’s face.

“It’s a quote from T S Eliot.”

She told me these words have special meaning for her and for how she’s charting out the rest of her life – once she completes her Masters Degree in writing from a nearby university.

Unable to shake the quote from my head, I looked it up and found the words in a line from the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
This morning, I read the rest of the poem, startled to remember seeing the last words somewhere before…
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons…


Oddly enough, I had seen those words on another person in another coffee shop, two and a half years ago in New Orleans.


i have measured out my life in coffee spoons


Two like minds in two different coffee shops? Sure, of course.

But also a persistent nudge, or reminder, from the universe to get going with whatever it is I will dare to disturb.


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


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 –

lit from within

– 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 –


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.


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 @

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 –


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 –


I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.


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.


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 –


– 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 –


– 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.

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]





















Naked in Denmark (or, How a Winter Night in Appalachia Inspired Me to Live Fearlessly)

There I was, standing on the 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 cold 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. (Well, except for that time in Finland.)


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. So many times before. Instead, I turned my thoughts to what people were wearing and might there possibly be any handsome single guys there.

Thus pre-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 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]

It’s Always Necessary

I know I’ve said this many times already, but there’s an incredibly lovely and supportive energy in these Appalachian mountains that seems to magically stitch together the seemingly unrelated and disparate parts of my peripatetic life into a quilt of emotions and experiences that somehow makes sense and feels, after all these years, so right.

And, in true Appalachian form, it always seems to happen when and where I least expect it.

Last weekend, Tom and I headed down to the riverside to check in at dawn as vendors at the Asheville “Flea For Y’All” – a new experience for both of us.

dawn check-in

In the Asheville way, it turned out we knew several of our neighbor vendors — a friend of a friend, that very nice woman who works at the animal hospital, a friend from (Tom’s) rugby days….


After a few shouted greetings, there was the great rush and nervous excitement of setting up and staging the treasures in time for the gates to open to the public, with lots of chatter from tent to tent to tent.

Sixteen years after her death, I was finally able to part with some of my sister’s things. And I knew I would have had her blessing to do this.

“Time for someone else to have a turn with them,” she used to say with a smile.


Tom unloaded while I set about arranging the space ~ my treasures mingling with my sister’s.

When we were finished, Tom went off to explore the other booths and I sat back to enjoy (and, of course, photograph)


the constant parade of characters,




every bit as interesting 


as the uniquities for sale all around us.


It was late in the afternoon when a young girl, perhaps in her twenties, wandered by our tent.

She asked me about something I was selling.

I asked her about the words inked into the skin on her arm.

Oh that, she said.

It’s a quote from the book “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer.

What does it mean? I asked, having not (yet) read the book.

“It was late and we were tired,” she began, and then told me the story of the words she wore.

It was about loving a sister.

After I got home, I looked up the rest of the quote:

“It was late, and we were tired.
We assumed there would be other nights.
Anna’s breathing started to slow, but I still wanted to talk.
She rolled onto her side.
I said, I want to tell you something.
She said, You can tell me tomorrow.
I had never told her how much I loved her.
She was my sister.
We slept in the same bed.
There was never a right time to say it.
It was always unnecessary.
The books in my father’s shed were sighing.
The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna’s breathing.
I thought about waking her.
But it was unnecessary.
There would be other nights.
And how can you say I love you to someone you love?
I rolled on my side and fell asleep next to her.
Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you ~
It’s always necessary.”

“It was late, and we were tired. We assumed there would be other nights. Anna’s breathing started to slow, but I still wanted to talk. She rolled onto her side. I said, I want to tell you something. She said, You can tell me tomorrow. I had never told her how much I loved her. She was my sister. We slept in the same bed. There was never a right time to say it. It was always unnecessary. The books in my father’s shed were sighing. The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna’s breathing. I thought about waking her. But it was unnecessary. There would be other nights. And how can you said I love you to someone you love? I rolled on my side and fell asleep next to her. Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar. It’s always necessary.” ― Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


for Karen

The Serendipitous Tale of “Why Asheville?” continues…

Many years ago, my back-then-husband sweetly pointed out to me that I could be rather bossy, almost always wanting to call the shots. Even though we were on the separation track, his words stayed with me longer than he did, haunting and taunting me with their accuracy.

And so, one Saturday morning, I decided to change.

The kids and I were heading out (as we often did Saturday mornings) to see what we could find at yard sales. (Being incredibly impoverished at the time, we got many of our clothes and household necessities on these weekend scavenger hunts.)

As we set off, I informed Zoë  (who was only six or seven at the time) –


that she was in charge of the day.

Delighted, she sat up tall in the front seat of the car as we drove and immediately came up with a plan.

“Ok, mama”, she said. “You follow your nose to the left and I’ll follow my nose to the right!”

(Hearing her words put a smile on my face and made the ceding of my dictatorial powers completely worth it.)

It didn’t take long for Zoë to zero in on a neighborhood yard sale a few miles away from our home. Looking up and down the street made up of sad older houses yet to be rescued by visionary hipsters, I was ready to get back into the car and leave.

Zoë, however, saw nothing but potential magic around us. “This one first!” she said pointing to what was quite possibly the worst of them all.

I started to object, but Zoë quickly reminded me who was the boss of the morning and dashed off to explore.


Waiting for her to reappear, I glanced somewhat disparagingly through the dismal mounds of old linens, flower pots, crock pots and yogurt makers.

And then something caught my eye —

the one from the yard sale— a beautiful, little turn-of-the-century, Royal Doulton Arts & Crafts style vase.

My older sister, Karen, had carefully amassed a beautiful collection of early 1900s Royal Doulton during the years she lived and worked in England. She’d taken me to a few auctions and antique shows and taught me how to spot the glazings and markings she was interested in. It was a little unusual to find in the US, but there it was, this beautiful little vase, its royalty shining through from the jumble of its humble surroundings.

With shaking fingers, I picked it up to further examine it. The glazing and markings were correct. And surprisingly, it was in pristine condition. It was also the only thing in the pile that didn’t have a price on it. My guess was that it might be worth a couple hundred dollars.

I beckoned to a young woman who seemed to belong to the house and asked her what she wanted for it.

“Oh, that old thing?” she said, laughing. “How about fifty cents?”

I nearly dropped it.

Zoë reappeared at that moment, happily clutching a box of colorful glass beads from Germany that she’d found.

by an artist at the kress building in downtown asheville

“Can I get this?” she asked. It was priced a few dollars more than the vase.

Still in shock, I nodded, and gave the woman five dollars for both.

All the way back to the car, I was sure the vase would slip from my fingers as karmic punishment for not revealing its worth to the seller. But I also couldn’t wait to tell my sister about my find.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me how absolutely weird it was to have been so quickly rewarded (so it seemed to me) for having given control of the day’s decision-making over to someone else – in this case, the excited child happily playing with her new bead collection in the back seat of the car.

Which brings me back to the story of that first weekend in Asheville and the serendipity that seemed to be following us around as my mother and I adventured through the little mountain town that my sister had wanted to move to.

I had originally intended to visit Asheville a few months earlier after dropping off the now 18-year-old Zoë for her university orientation in Wilmington, North Carolina.

But the owner of the bed & breakfast where we stayed in Wilmington (on the other side of the state, six hours away from Asheville) told me the roads to Asheville were closed due to flood waters from Hurricane Frances. Her husband, as it happened, was actually headed there to help out with the emergency clean-up. (Yet another connection in the come-to-Asheville vortex, I found myself thinking.)  Once the roads were opened back up and I was able to get in, she suggested I stay at the 1900 Inn on Montford Avenue, a bed & breakfast owned by friends of theirs.


Having no other plan – and still mindful of the potential magic of the suggestions of others as a result of that many-years-ago yard sale experience – I took her suggestion and booked a room for a weekend with my mother later that fall.

The b&b was located in historic Montford, a mostly residential neighborhood on the north side of Asheville filled with interesting homes built between 1890 and 1920 by the town’s businessmen, lawyers, doctors and architects – several of whom continue to live on in the pages of Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical, Look Homeward, Angel. Montford’s jumble of architectural styles includes Victorian, Queen Anne, Arts & Crafts, Neoclassical, Colonial Revival –


with a few small castles thrown into the mix.

It’s a neighborhood rich with history, characters, and haunting stories (F Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, burned to death in Montford.)

Walking through the living rooms of the 1900 Inn, Mom and I were both struck by how very English it felt, which surprised us, given its location in the Southern Highlands of Appalachia….

As luck would have it, we had checked in just in time to enjoy a glass of wine and music by a local musician on the Inn’s spacious and lovely front porch. Delighted, we took seats at opposite ends of the porch and mingled with the other guests.


After some moments of polite stranger chat, I heard a small shriek from my mother’s end of the porch.

After only one glass of wine? I thought as I made my way over to her.

“You won’t believe this!” she exclaimed.

It turned out the reason for the English feel to the b&b came from the years innkeepers Ron and Lynn had lived In England back in the 60s and 70s – years that coincidentally overlapped some of the years we had lived there. Two of my parents’ long time friends were also friends of theirs.

I mean, really – what were the odds of this happening in a small mountain town in western North Carolina? 

Equally amazed by the small worldliness of it all, Ron and Lynn suggested we continue talking over dinner at “Pyper’s Place,” a funky & delightful cafe and music venue just down the street co-owned by Peggy Seeger, folksinger and sister of the more famous Pete.

nine mile

Somewhere in the future, it would become a Caribbean inspired restaurant, “Nine Mile.” But that night it was still Pyper’s and we had a delightful time there swapping tales and memories of mutual friends.

The roadblocks and detours over the previous months had actually put us on a path that brought us to an unexpected and special evening that could so easily not have happened at all. And yet somehow it all came together. Pyper’s Place closed their doors the following day, making me wonder if it had even existed at all, or had I just imagined it.

Whatever, as Zoë might say –

hello i love you

Asheville felt like home before we even moved there.

Why Asheville?

I first heard about Asheville when my good friend Stephen suggested I move there. At the time, I was in the midst of plotting my escape from big city life.

“What’s Asheville?” I recall asking him.

“It’s a small town – artsy and progressive, and in the mountains,” he responded simply.


He knew my hot buttons. Those words had instant, visceral appeal. Something emotional clicked deep within me, but at the time I didn’t dwell upon it.

Instead, I took immediate action, ringing up my mum to suggest an adventurous long weekend in the mountains. Being my mum, she immediately agreed, and a few weeks later, we packed up the car for a roadtrip to Western North Carolina.

We were about an hour away when she commented, “You know, your sister wanted to move to Asheville.”

No, I didn’t know that.   

My older (and only) sister, Karen, had died five years earlier. We had chosen this particular weekend for our trip to acknowledge what would have been her birthday, October 28th.

the view from pisgah inn

The Blue Ridge Mountains would be a lovely place to spend time with our memories of her, we thought.

“Yes, that was her plan,” my mother said. And left it at that, leaving me deep in thought as I continued driving west.

Although her name was Karen, the family called my sister”Skoo,” almost from birth. (Nobody’s quite sure how that happened; it didn’t really mean anything or have any particular significance – although when she was a teenager, she did find out at a party in Copenhagen that it’s a mild swear word in Danish.)

Skoo was my big sister. She was my counselor, my mentor, my friend, and my best critic. At times, she was my other self – the older, wiser, more confident, more artistic me I dreamed of being. We were ten years apart, but crafted from the same genetic pool and bound together through the shared cultural experiences of a common, and uncommon, upbringing.

It was a mutually satisfying relationship. I looked up to her and she looked out for me.

All my life, she had been my teacher. She was always there before me, guiding me, giving advice, suggestions, ideas – all of which were cleverly hidden in the guise of telling me what to do. From boyfriends, to clothes, to makeup, hairstyles, potential husbands, and, of course, anything to do with how I set up my home, she always had an opinion. In fact, I can’t really remember anything she didn’t have an opinion about.

Ours was a joyous rivalry. Our constant taunts to each other – the competition in differing fields of creative endeavors, but always – despite the ten years and the peripatetic ways of our family lifestyle – we always found batches of time to spend together.

In 1964, our family moved from a fifty-acre tree farm in rural New Jersey to the heart of London. And London in the 60s was magic –

a zoë collage. 1

Mary Quant & miniskirts, Carnaby Street, the mods & rockers, the Beatles & the Rolling Stones – and my sister took full advantage of it.

Once, when I was just eight or nine years old, she and I were walking along a street in Chelsea when a car full of young guys drove by. They leaned out of the window, whistling their appreciation.

Honeybunch, she said to me, laughing, they’re looking at you!

For a hopeful minute, I was excited. Me?!

And then, as the car passed by, I realized that of course they were admiring my sister. I think that’s when I first realized how beautiful she was.


Skoo left London (and me) to go to Pratt Institute in New York City to pursue her interest and talent in design. Before leaving, and perhaps as consolation to a sad little sister, she came up with the idea that we would exchange letters using fake names.

We chose Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, our favorite comedians at the time. Not only but also. I was genuinely surprised when the first airletter arrived from New York addressed to Ms Dudley Fellows, and my mother without hesitation gave it to me. “Pete” was a better correspondent than I, writing to me often about art school, fashion, and boys.

central park, new york city

In the late 60s, while she was still living in New York, Skoo invited me to spend a week with her. She took me to Greenwich Village to see the artists, and to Central Park. We shopped at her neighborhood grocery stands and she took me out to restaurants. Being a very practical older sister, she also taught me to clean her “loo” (her idea of rent for the visit.)

In between my high school years, we lived together one summer at mom’s beach house on Long Beach Island. Skoo took her responsibilities (me) very seriously and monitored any possibility I had of a social life quite fiercely. She taught me how to make macaroni & cheese (from a box) and we started what would become a decades-long ritual – hand-me-down fashion shows, both of us collapsing in laughter at how I could so easily make everything that looked so stylish on her, look so awful on me.

(I kept the frog t-shirt, though.)

After I graduated from college, she visited me during the years I worked in Georgetown, Washington DC. We watched the latest French foreign films and decided to dress like Catherine Deneuve in “The Last Metro.” I remember her excitement in a vintage clothing store as she tried on a black cocktail dress from the 40s that seemed tailor made for her curves.

I really missed my time, she said. I look great in these clothes! 

Skoo was capable of spontaneous and overwhelming generosity, despite her somewhat unpredictable artist’s income.

Some time after my marriage ended, and I was living by myself with my two young kids in Alexandria, she came to visit. We spent an afternoon at the Torpedo Factory – a collection of artists’ studios in an old munitions factory – and both fell in love with the same painting.

You got it just right! she told artist Connie Slack, who clearly didn’t appreciate the significance of just who was bestowing this compliment upon her.

The price tag? $3,000. We sat in two chairs for some time, gazing at the canvas. You really like it? she asked me. Two hours later, it was hanging in my living room, a riot of colorful flowers lighting up my little house.


Why don’t you take care of it for me, she said. I don’t really have the space.

When she was diagnosed with cancer, we increased the frequency of our visits, but our patterns had changed. Gone were the big adventures. Instead, we talked and walked her dog, Cloudy Day. We watched Frazier and HGTV, talked some more, and admired Cloudy. We played cards and played with Cloudy.

She showed me a design project of hers that she had kept from the Pratt years. Can you believe I still have this? she asked, surprised – she who kept almost nothing. She sat for a few minutes lost in thought, admiring her design boards – four elegant interior elevations of a New York City brownstone.

“Wait a minute,” I said, looking closely at the neatly rendered drawings. “You’ve got tons of bookshelves, but where are the toilets? None of the bathrooms have toilets!”

She examined the boards one by one, searching. Yeah, you’re right, she finally admitted. They must not have looked too good, maybe that’s why I didn’t put them in! We had a good laugh over that. Just think! she said happily, those people would have paid all that money for this brownstone and would have had to go next door to pee!

Things like that delighted her.

Art was her gift and she was always eager to share it. In her final months, she taught my son, Leif, to paint and fire clay. And just weeks before she died, she and Zoë spent time painting shells they had found on the beach with watercolors.

skoo, zoë & leif, in her studio

Her cancer was capricious, at times giving us false hope. But when she told me it was no longer in remission, all I could do was promise to visit her every month, despite the distance between us, even if I had to borrow money to do it. With tears in her eyes, she told me that would be the best present I could ever give her.

We stayed faithful to this schedule, and it was during those last six months of her life that I finally got to know her, not just as Skoo, but as “Karen.” Up until then, I had seen her through the eyes of a younger sister. But watching her handle her last months took me by surprise many times.

Five months before she died, she moved from Tampa to a little apartment in Sarasota. I told her it had the faded aura of Hollywood in the 40s, but she didn’t go for the sentimentality. She knew it was a bit of a dump and fussed about its appearance, but was by then too ill to do much about it. I, who had always thought design was what was most important to her, realized there was a priority in her life which went beyond design, beyond an artist’s desire to create. She had chosen the sad little apartment so she could keep her dog with her and be near the water. But she had also chosen to return to Sarasota to be near her friends and our mum. And fuss as she might about its appearance – and she did – what came first was to be closer to her special people.

During my last visit with her, I kept watch over her at night as she struggled for breath, torn between wishing her peace and my own ragingly selfish desire to keep her with me. I wanted to continue our visits, there was still so much to do. We had talked about visiting the art museums in New York City together and photographing the tiles and mosaics in Ravenna and Turkey, places I had seen while working on a film and now wanted to show her.

I had always had it in the back of my mind that there would come a day when, together as old ladies, we’d be sitting in our rockers on the front porch of a purple house, drinking Jack Daniels or Campari – a vision I stubbornly clung to.


But it wasn’t to be.

And so here I was on the highway, moments away from the town where she had apparently wanted to live, without her.

Mom’s comment turned out to be just the first of a number of strange and surprisingly serendipitous happenings that were waiting for us in Asheville that weekend.

It was almost as if someone had planned them…

[vintage color photo of me & Skoo courtesy of Bob Lundegaard]


The little Ashevillage has funny and surprising ways of taking care of you when you need it most, but rarely when or where you expect it. Instead, it sneaks up on you.

Doing a little garden therapy on this warm and sunny second full day of spring, I decided to make my ritual first visit of the new season to my favorite garden center.


I was not the only one with that idea.

Determined to limit myself to just one plant (instead of the usual wagon load of abundance), I picked out a pot of Dragon’s Blood and headed out to pay, trying to ignore the rows and rows of colorful possibilities.


“I can take you over here,” a voice called out.

A woman, perhaps in her 60s and wearing a deep pink sweatshirt, blue jeans and blue dangly earrings, was beckoning to me.  A thin blonde braid trailed out from underneath her wide brimmed hat, like a tendril of golden ivy seeking the sun. Her aqua mirror shades covered up her eyes, offering me twin reflections of my Saturday morning self.


I had never seen her there before, despite being a regular visitor.

As she rang me up, we got to talking. I was surprised to discover she had been living in my neighborhood – around the corner and down the street, just steps away from Casa Mia. Somehow, I had never seen her until today.

“My name’s Jill,” she responded when I asked her name. “My email’s Jill-no-Jack, ’cause I got tired of people asking me…. They don’t ask Jacks, ‘where’s your Jill,’ do they?!  That’s sexist.”

She told me of the mountainside garden she left behind in my neighborhood when she split from her boyfriend, and of the many plants she had created there.

“I told him, I’m coming back to get those!”

There was no doubt in my mind that she would.

“I thought I’d be living with him the rest of my life,” she continued, taking my credit card, “but that isn’t how it worked out.

And now,’ she paused for effect, “a whole new life has opened up before me. New people, new adventures. I’m gonna be just fine.”

I had told her nothing of me or my life, apart from where I lived.

“Bloom where you’re planted,” she continued, pushing the receipt over for me to sign and fixing her aqua gaze on me. “You’ve heard that a thousand times, haven’t you?”

I nodded. At least a thousand, I thought to myself, also thinking how happy I was to have planted myself in Appalachia.


“Here’s another one for ya,” Jill-no-Jack said from behind the blue reflections of myself.

“Don’t seek love in a barren field.”

“What?” I asked, not quite sure if I’d heard her correctly.

She grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled it down for me.

I’m working on a little book of wisdom,” she confided, leaning in toward me and whispering behind the back of her hand. “It’s gonna be small enough to fit in your backpocket so you can still read it when your head’s up your ass.”

I look forward to reading that, I smiled politely, wondering if I was meant to take that personally.

As I turned to walk away, she called after me, “Hold onto your light, girl – and stay away from the pits of darkness!”

Hugging my new little plant – and my light – I waved goodbye and headed back home, her scrap of paper tucked in the back pocket of my jeans.

It’s not like you can purposely seek out the whimsical wisdom of the Ashevillage, but somehow – like spring –


it appears at just the right time.

An Encounter with Hostile Natives

If you move here, expect to upset some of the natives.

Six months after my arrival in Appalachia, I was having a mobile office morning at my local coffeehouse –

DSC05409which at the time went by the name of Port City Java (even though the Ashevillage is at least five hours away from an actual port city.)

Despite the “do not disturb” aura I was hoping to project, a stocky, middle-aged bald man with dark circles under his eyes approached my table. He was dressed in blue jeans, black loafers and a blue sweatshirt.

“Excuse me,” he said, politely.

Reluctantly, I looked up.

He gestured toward his companion – a heavyset brunette at a nearby table wearing a lime green sweater with matching socks, and brown pants. By her side was a handbag that looked like it was made from fabric rescued from a vintage 1960s sofa, the kind you often see around here abandoned on a sidewalk or stuck out on a front porch when it no longer matters if it gets rained upon.

“My friend and I are taking a survey,” the stocky man said, by way of an introduction. “How long have you lived in the Ashevillage?”

“Since June 30th,” I responded politely. He shook his head and turned away.

Surprised, I called after him, “Why do you ask?”

“My friend doubts there’s nobody in this coffee shop who’s lived in the Ashevillage more than five years,” he replied over his shoulder.

Less than six months! I heard him whisper to his lady friend in a tsk-tsk tone as he lowered himself back into his chair with a small grunt. I took note that, for some reason, out of the two dozen or so around us, the ‘survey’ had so far only included me.


Hardly a scientific method.

Piqued, and determined to correct the record, I called out –

“The first person I met in this coffee shop moved here in 1966!” deftly asserting the fact that I was actually friends with a bona fide local, my friend Moni.

“Well,” his brown-and-lime-green clad companion said with a withering, smug look, “we were both born here.”

Irritated, and unable to let it go, I racked my brains for something to establish my localism, hoping to stave off any further hostile vibes from the natives.

“I live in a 50-year-old house!” I offered up.


It was, I realize, a pathetic and transparently ingratiating attempt to demonstrate that I was not to be categorized with the clear-the-trees-from-the-mountainsides-so-we-can build-a-starter-mansion transplants the locals (with good reason) so love to loathe.

“Well,” sofa-handbag woman sniffed, “that helps a little.”

But it was too late.

Too riled to continue working, I packed up my laptop moments later and crept back up to my 50-year-old sanctuary on the mountainside.


It was not the first time I’d encountered this attitude – and, of course, it wouldn’t be the last.

The first book I’d purchased after moving here was a guide book to finding your way in the Ashevillage, written by a local worm farmer who would soon become a city councilman.  (True story – Because Asheville)

It’s a meandering, heartfelt and quirky read, extolling all the whimsical virtues of the Ashevilleage.

And it’s possibly the only guide book that begins and ends with the words,

“Please, please don’t move here.”

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