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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My Mother, Danish Beer & the Celebration of Life

I’ve noticed that people tend to lower their voices around my mother whenever they mention the word, Hospice – even the regular medical staff at her nursing facility. It’s as if they don’t want to hurt her feelings by admitting they know she’s going to die.

By contrast, my mother’s one-word reaction when I told her was, “Wonderful!” She’s nearly 96 years old and keenly aware that she’s failing rapidly. She’s ready.

We’ve been through the Hospice routine before – with my sister – and I can’t imagine going through the journey of last days without them by our side. Partnering with these good people is like having a circle of the most caring friends possible when you most need it. Who wouldn’t want that?

Bringing Hospice onto your team has many benefits, including the possibilities for small end-of-life parties and celebrations.

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Many years ago, when my sister was living in a Hospice facility in Sarasota, the stress and anxiety of never knowing what to expect as cancer continued to ravage her was getting to me. I broke down in the parking lot during one visit and had to be coaxed inside by a friend. I mopped up my face as best I could as we walked through the front door, and was surprised to hear laughter coming from one of the rooms.

How unusual, I thought.

I was even more surprised when I opened the door to my sister’s room and found a small party going on inside.

Everyone, it seems, had asked her what they could bring her. She told them she wanted a bottle of Jack Daniels, as they didn’t have any in the kitchen there. She may not have realized she gave the same request to so many people, for here everyone was, gathered around her bedside where she was holding court with sparkling eyes, a glass of whiskey in her hand.

Everyone had brought her a bottle of Jack Daniels.

My mother has her own libation of choice – Carlsberg Danish beer.

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– as you can see from just a few of the photos I took of her during our 1600 kilometer travel adventure around Denmark ten years ago.

Yesterday, thanks to permission from Hospice, she had her first beer in six weeks. Her face lit up when it reached her lips. She was so happy she also managed to eat a few bites of pizza and tiramisu. Her smiles of delight created a ripple effect on everyone who came into the room.

And so now – just like her Danish mother before her –

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bottles of Carlsberg are being kept in the fridge, just for her.

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Paint Every Day

The email came through early in the morning with just David’s name in the subject line.

David had been at my house nearly every day for months at a time, crafting a European-style bathroom and other contemporary modifications that I hoped would help turn my tired old Dutch barn-styled home into something more like a Scandinavian farmhouse. But he had not shown up the day before as promised.

Reliable and practical with an appealing amount of orneriness, David wore his clothes until they wore out. He drove an old silver Toyota Tacoma held together by 18 bumper stickers, including one that said “Speeding Kills Bears” and another that just had the word, “artist.”

Much as he tried to hide it, David was also kindhearted and giving. Decades ago, he’d started one of the first organic food markets in San Francisco, riding his bike back and forth to the store each day, often stopping to give food to a few homeless souls huddled up against the weather.

David eschewed all forms of social media and refused even to send or receive text messages. “There’s 60,000 texts ‘out there’ waiting for me, and I’m afraid to even go there now,” he once laughed. But it was unusual for him not to appear on my doorstep when promised.

The last time I saw David was the previous Saturday morning. Piecing together the fragments of that day later with others who knew him, it seems he left my house, ran into a few friends at the local market, went home, painted, opened a bag of chips, poured a beer, turned on the game, and laid down on the floor to ease the ache in his back.

And then, he died.

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The email informed me he died of natural causes, but it was anything but natural to me that someone I was used to seeing every day no longer existed. There must be some mistake, I thought, re-reading it several times.

Not David. Not the fit, strapping man in his 50s with the ironic smile. Not someone so full of life, someone who loved camping with his kids, someone who woke them up to marvel at a particularly spectacular full moon.

My yoga room was his last project. He had recently hung up his tools and was basking in semi-retirement. When I called him to ask if he’d mind coming over to work on it, he left a message that left little doubt he was savoring his new free time: “Whatever you want to do is going to be okay with me – as little or as much as you feel like. I’m actually standing on my little deck, looking out over the mountains, in a t-shirt, drinking a gin & tonic. So there you go, that’s my life.”

How could this feisty and wonderful friend no longer exist?

Go to his house, I thought. He’ll be there and then everything will be okay.

I had never actually been to his home, but I knew which mountain ridge he lived on. I grabbed my keys, got in my car and headed north.

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Recalling fragments of stories he’d told me about his next door neighbors and their homes, I narrowed the possibilities for David’s house down to an old grey 1930s bungalow on the top of the hill – the one surrounded by potted plants, one of which looked like one I’d given him a few years back. There were several vehicles in the gravel driveway, parked in a hurried, disorderly jumble – and I knew when I saw them that it was possible the unthinkable had really happened.

I pulled over in the field next door and stared at the cars and the house for some long moments before something inside me said, Go inside the house.

Anyone who lives around here can tell you that appearing unannounced at the house of a stranger is not something you should do in Appalachia, but by then grief had overwhelmed common sense.

I got out of my car and walked over to the steps leading up to the back porch and what I guessed was the kitchen door. I paused at the top, scared of knocking, scared of intruding, scared of being wrong.

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And then the door opened and I was flooded with relief – for there was David standing in front of me.

And then, between one beat of my heart and the next, I realized it wasn’t David, and the precious relief I had felt for just an instant vanished. It was someone who looked just like David, someone who reached out and folded me into his arms as I broke down in tears.

Glancing around the kitchen, I saw two more David look-alikes – tall, tongue-tied and helpless, wiping their eyes. David had three brothers and here they all were.

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Just as I knew who they were without being introduced, they all seemed to know who I was. It seemed David had told them about my house projects.

There was an awkward flurry of stories, reminiscences, tears, some shaky laughs and then more tears. Great gaping holes of grief and disbelief surrounded by questions, guesses and fragments of answers.

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I had worried about intruding, but the brothers put me right at ease. They all knew so much about me. One brother thanked me for being who I was in David’s life, whatever that was. Moments and more moments passed, who knows how many, before that little voice inside nudged me again and said: Ask to see his studio.

Over our three years of friendship, David had invited me once or twice to come and see his paintings. I didn’t take him up on the offer right away and later, when I asked him a few times to show them to me, he responded that someday he would.
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And now, at this moment, every part of me knew that I needed to see his paintings, even if he wasn’t there. I knew that, despite our hours of conversations, I would not really know who my friend was until I saw his art. I dreaded it, and yet I needed to do it.

Lisa, David’s sister-in-law, led me through rooms filled with a carefree, but very neat mash-up of old family pieces, art, and rescued treasures. It brought back fond memories of friends I’d known back in my 20s.

We walked past the kids’ rooms, through the living room, and into his bedroom, where she paused silently for just a moment to touch a pair of David’s paint-splattered heavy-duty work pants hanging on a hook. And then, she led me into his “studio.”

I had to smile when I saw that the man who had teased me about converting my master bath to a yoga studio, had made the master bathroom of his house into an art studio.

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Everything was just as he had left it – a tidy array of art supplies, waiting for him to come back and pick up the brushes again.

I had been nervous to see his art. What if I didn’t like it? But as Lisa began opening drawer after drawer filled with paintings, I caught my breath.

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The color, the spirit, the movement, the life and energy in each painting was astonishing. Where did all of this come from? I thought I knew my friend, but we had only scratched the surface with our exchanges of stories. I had no idea of the magic within.

“He painted on newspapers,” Lisa told me, showing me sheet after sheet of delightful images. “And he painted every day.”

He painted every day.

If she said something after that, I don’t remember, as those four words reverberated over and over in my head.

I was unbearably sad and berated myself wickedly for not having known this vital part of him while he was still living. The more I saw, the more twisted and wrenched with remorse I was for not having seen his art while I could still tell him how much I loved it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized my feelings would probably not have been that important to him. A true artist, and the son of two artists, David painted – as all artists should – for himself.

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David kept only a small circle of friends. He was a good dad and crazy about his kids, but his spare time was spent creating. As a result of living a life of few distractions, he leaves behind an incredible body of work.

It’s difficult enough dealing with the sudden disappearance of someone from our lives, but what can make it even harder is what the end of someone’s life reveals to us about ourselves. That I didn’t follow through on his invitation to see his art still sears me to the core with remorse. My guess is that David was most himself when he painted and I missed seeing that. My loss.

With David’s death, an artist vanished leaving no written exchanges, no daily banter on social media, but instead a drawer full of hidden treasures, evidence that he had indeed been present. He was here.

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The lasting wish of the artist, as French poet Paul Eluard once wrote, is to last. David was focused. He painted every day. And his paintings will last on far beyond his life.

It’s sadly ironic that losing David was what it took to help me pull focus on my own work. Still pondering his loss months later, I have come to realize that it is when I write, or capture a scene with my camera that especially moves me, that I most feel myself. It’s these pure moments when, undistracted, I feel a physical creative synergy moving through me and I fully inhabit my body and mind.

And so, I offer this tale as gentle encouragement to all artists. Paint – or photograph or write or whatever it is you do – for those internal fireflies of emotions that glow within you whenever you are happy with your results.

Paint every day.

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David Patrick Joerling

1957-2017

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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 ~

 

 

 

 

 

Lohikeitto (Finnish Salmon Dill Soup)

Imagine hot, tasty morsels of salmon melting in your mouth alongside soft buttery potatoes, creamy soup and fresh dill….

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just the thing to warm you up on a cold winter afternoon, right?

The day after Christmas, feeling a bit chilled, Leif and I wandered into Kappeli Café in search of a cup of hot coffee.

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Kappeli is a magical glass palace built in 1867 in the Esplanadi park in the heart of Helsinki.

And while they did have nice hot coffee, what we also found was an astonishingly delicious salmon & dill soup called Lohikeitto (pronounced: loh-he-kay-toh).

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Hoping to replicate this Finnish feast, I was delighted to find a good recipe for Lohikeitto on Nigel-from-New Zealand’s wonderful website, “Alternative Finland.”
It will make a tasty addition to our winter meals back home in Appalachia. Let me know if you try it!

Hyvää ruokahalua!
(Enjoy your meal!)

Breakfast by Candlelight

What better way to begin a gloomy dark December morning than with an intimate breakfast for two by candlelight?

With the winter solstice nearly upon us, it’s a good time to appreciate why people in Denmark burn more candles per capita than people in any other country.

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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