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 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 left 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, 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.

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

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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 –

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– 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 –

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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.)

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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.

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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 @ TheRedMoonLetters.com)

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 –

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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 –

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

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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.

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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 –

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– 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 –

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– 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.

Hiking with Puffins – on the Appalachian Trail?

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way!

Would you hike with these guys?

If you are an Appalachian Trail hiker, you might be able to do just that if the International Appalachian Trail, a multinational committee, gets its way.

And, if they are successful in extending the path from Maine to Iceland, the additional miles will raise the bar considerably for through-hikers.

At 2180 miles, the AT is already one of the longest footpaths in the world.

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Beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia, it traverses the crests and valleys of the entire Appalachian mountain range which meanders through fourteen states before ending in Katahdin, Maine.

Geological evidence suggests, however, that the mountains that are home to Appalachia were once part of the Central Pangean Mountains – back when North America and Western Europe were one continent (about 250 million years ago.)

With the break-up of Pangaea, the various mountain ranges drifted apart, eventually becoming different continents and countries.

Fueled by the desire to build mutual understanding between people of different nationalities, IAT enthusiasts propose an extended hiking path that would hop scotch along the ridges of the former Central Pangean Mountains, passing through Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and into Iceland –

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before continuing on through Norway, Denmark, Scotland, and beyond.

Which means, that in addition to looking like this…

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the AT will now also look …

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like this.

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And, in addition to black bears, elk, moose, porcupines, snakes, foxes, and salamanders –

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IAT hikers may also be sharing their trek with puffins and wild Icelandic horses.

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They may even have to scramble across a glacier or two – and camp out on beds of hardened lava.

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But one advantage of having the IAT run through Iceland is the opportunity for 20-hour long hike days –

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because this is what midnight looks like in Iceland – at least during summer months.

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Is this a good idea? Let us hear your thoughts!