Weekend Vignette

I.  Plants and Fish Scales

Glossy, shimmering , green heart-shaped leaves cluster together at the base of a tall oak.   The sweet musk of decay perfumes the damp and loamy forest floor.  Sunlight streams through the canopies of trees, while plush moss and feathery ferns rest at their feet.  a wilted creamy-white rhododendron blossom floats in the pooled water that is secured by the smooth, gray,black, brown, and orange river stones.   The water in the river bed tumbles over boulders and slides in between stones lodged in crevices of mud.  I am home in the woods.

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At the top of Mount Pisgah, there is a restaurant that supposedly makes the best trout, caught from the same stream I sat beside earlier this morning.  I sit down at the table with a fellow hiker.  She is here in Asheville to find her retirement home so she can be close to her young son, who is not married and probably is unlikely to take a wife and give her a grandchild she says.  The waitress serves our trout encrusted in walnuts with a slice of lemon and a side of homemade blueberry butter.  We squeeze on the lemons and smother the fish in butter, and I listen as she unfolds her life story in front of me:  from her career as a healthcare consultant, to her two marriages, the deaths of her college friend and her husband, her personal awakening and following of Amma the hugging saint, all the way to her friendship with a 40-something Indian woman who is an educator in Oakland and a published poet as well.  I watch her smile and glow and become animated to have a listening ear.  And I am listening, but I am also marveling at how she slices through the fish and eats scales and all. I pick out my bones and slide the meat off of the scales as easily as I pick out her story with probing, subtle questions and nods of my head.  I begin mentally weaving her story into my story as we look out at our window view of the Blue Ridge mountains that press up against the equally blue sky.

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II. Toe River Stories

Everything grows here in Western North Carolina.  Chestnut trees, oaks, hickories, maples, rhododendrons, thistle, purple coneflowers.  So does my hair. And I have hair everywhere on my body, right down to chin hairs and wisps of baby fine toe hairs that I have to shave almost every other day.  I’ve never been in such a lush environment and marvel at the fact that even my armpits have a five o’clock shadow.

I have driven 45 minutes north through winding two lane highways that go up, over, down, and around mountains.  My destination is the home of George and Sabina, a retired couple from Miami that have been living here for 10 years now.  And it is a dream:  nestled between a hill and a sloping ravine that has a gorgeous view of the Toe River in the distance.  Hummingbirds swarm their feeders and their wings sound like electric fans.  We sit on the wrap-around deck and look out at the dense undergrowth that houses one blooming red gladiola a scattering of purple coneflowers, and so many native trees and bushes that twist and turn and wrap around each other and the large boulders in their landscape.

My dog has discovered their orange cat, Fanta, and she chases him around the edge of the deck that has no barriers to protect anyone or anything from crashing into the ravine below.  I wince numerous times, and George and Sabina laugh and tell me that my dog is not the one afraid of heights, I am.  I shouldn’t transfer my fears to her, they say.  My dog is safe enough and knows what she’s doing because she has a sixth sense of her surroundings.  To ease my anxiety, though, we hop in the car and take a drive down to the river to wade in the water with Lucy and Reef, their Golden Retriever.  There I watch as this nimble and wiry couple, who are my parents’ age or older, skirt over rolling pebbles and stones and sit on big boulders in the middle of the stream.  I on the other hand am having a hard time of convincing my pup that she will not die in the water, and have to pick her up and place her down on a shallow sand bar that has enough rolling water to qualify her as wading in the stream as well.

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We hop back in the van and George drives slowly back up and over the ridge so we can sight see their “neck of the woods”.  At the top of the ridge we come to a clearing and there is a 360 degree view of the mountain range.  I feel protected by these mountains.  It’s as if they are hugging me in this moment and letting me know on some level that I am safe and secure and right where I should be.  Later, at dinner, I loosen up my anxiety about my dog’s walk around the deck and her wanderings off into the woods.  She is in a dog’s heaven and by the end of the night, her border collie instincts have kicked in and she has surveyed her entire border and barks at the neighbor dogs and runs down the hill to smell them and make sure they are safe to let near us, her flock.

By the end of the evening, I have learned about how they grew up in Czechoslovakia (George) and Germany (Sabina) and then under different family circumstances in Buenos Aires, Argentina, only to have met in Munich, Germany, many years later.  George shares with me his father’s classic tale of a self-made man as first a wealthy plastic factory owner to a refugee in an internment camp to a single father of three working in a Czech restaurant in NYC for pennies back again to a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor who died in a small town in New Jersey some years ago.  Their stories grow and take hold of me and anchor me to them and the surroundings even more.  Everything grows here in Western North Carolina.  Even the stories get richer and more lush.

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III.  A Dog Named Ashby

On Sunday my neighbor, Darby, took me with him and bought me a ticket to the annual Craft Fair at the Asheville U.S. Cellular Center. There were hundreds of craftsmen, jewelry makers, fine artists, and potters from the Southern Highland Craft Guild.  If I was rich, I would have bought something from almost every single vendor.  But since that type of wealth is reserved for the Vanderbilts and their collections at the Biltmore Estate, I chose to be the side kick for the day to Darby and his special charm and enthusiasm instead.

Darby stopped at almost every stall and asked the artists questions about their craft.  He took a genuine interest in them.  For the brief moments he was with them, they became the center of his world.  A jewelry designer, named Ruthie, beamed with pride as Darby asked her how she crafted her copper and bronze earrings.  By the end of their conversation, he had bits and pieces of her life out in the open and reflected back to her aspects of her personality like a shiny piece of copper.  One man pulled out his phone and showed Darby all of his tiny metal work he did on personalized bamboo fishing poles. Another man talked to him about his life as a musician and how he taught his son how to play guitar.  Once their stories were in full swing, Darby would turn to me and smile and without missing a beat, I would pick up the questioning and become equally engaged in the person’s story as well.

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When the conversation came to its natural end, I would turn to say something to Darby and find he was gone.  I walked to the next stall hoping he would catch back up with me, and there I would find him either at the next stall admiring some handiwork or walking up and down the aisles with his headphones in his ears, backpack slung over one shoulder, walking on the balls of his worn out tennis shoes, white socks pressed up tightly against his skinny calves.  We would then meet up again and fall into our quickened walking pace.  He would tell me some hilarious story of his own or share something insightful and wise until we got to the next stall and he would stop mid conversation and converse with the next artist who had the pleasure of his company for however long it lasted.  This became our rhythm the entire day.  By the end of our 5 hour tour, our friendship felt natural as if we had known each other for years as opposed to two weeks.

The last stop was at Tom Wolfe’s woodcarving stall.  He is an 80 year old man from Spruce Pine, NC, (about 30 minutes away from Asheville), and is the grandfather and wise master of the folk art of whittling and carving here in the Appalachians.  Before I knew it, Darby had fleshed out his life story and the man shook Darby’s hand and gave me a hug.  I wanted so badly to purchase a carving of his, but I was being frugal with my money.  Darby relieved me of that worry and convinced me that I needed a piece of art from an Appalachian man who has written the book (actually several books) on carving figurines.  This is the man who says he sees faces and stories in his woodwork as he is shaping them. He smiled and said that as he whittles he begins to see faces of old childhood friends and family members now long gone.  We both looked at each other and got a little teary-eyed.  I understood him.  He’s a storyteller.  He uses wood instead of words.  Different mediums, but the intention to express ourselves or capture a person, a feeling, a mood, a scene are the same.

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The old man hugged me again and told me to name my dog.  I said I would.  Darby and I bounced out of the convention center and picked up our pace as we walked down sloping sidewalks to his truck.  He was in the middle of sharing some whacky and wonderful story about his life when I told him I had a name for my dog.  He asked what it was, and I said “Ashby.”  He wondered how I came up with that name.  I told him it was short for two things that have been a part of my story since the day I got here:  Asheville plus Darby.  He puffed up and told me how happy that made him feel.  I finally had a story of my own.

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Lost in the Undergrowth

Last night, I killed a cockroach that was crawling out of the sink drain.  Maybe it was an omen of what was to come.

Nights have been harder than I expected.  My shoulders, neck, and jaw are constantly tense and I can’t get comfortable on the bed even though I brought my own fancy pillows.  Regardless of what time I drift off to sleep, my eyes open at 6 sharp every morning.  Exhausted mid day, I try to take a nap, but 10-15 minutes pass by before I roll onto my right side to try and loosen up my back muscles and shoulders, and I can’t so I get up and try to do something else.  My mind has a grip on my body and it’s holding on tighter than I expected.

The lady I rent from left a binder of places to go and things to do.  I decided on an early morning hike this morning 8 miles away from the cottage.  The directions she left seemed simple enough and I copied them down.  The hiking spot was along the French Broad River.  After my breakfast and a cup of coffee, I got dressed and put on my hiking shoes.  Lucy hopped in the car with me and off we went.  “Edgy” is a good word to describe how I was feeling when I saw the first yellow sign indicating the road had multiple curves.  My solar plexus and the area between my shoulder blades had an odd, fearful energy.  Everything was tensing up, vibrating, and humming internally at the same time.  I ignored the sensations and pushed on through.  “All part of the mountain experience,” I reminded myself.

Curve.  Fear.  Second curve.  Fear.  Ascent.  Fear.  Descent.  Fear.  Curve.  Curve.  Curve.  Fear.  My butt muscles clenched.  A ripple ran through my solar plexus down into my rib cage, seizing hold of my breath.  I exhaled when I came to a small post office. I pulled into the parking lot and yelled at Lucy for her whimpering and pacing in the far back seat, out of reach for me to pet her or pinch her neck.

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It took less than a minute to get down near the river.  True, the scenic view was gorgeous:  mist rising off the river and fog lifting off the gray-green mountains.    The scene was less than peaceful to the ear, however.  The river moved so quickly and ramped over boulders and folded over itself.  The sound was amplified by chittering birds, chirping insects, rushing cars on the highway right above me.  The overgrowth in some areas was as tall as me and it seemed like only a machete could clear it.  And even though I could see my car through the weeds, they seemed to crowd in on me and cut short my breath.

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Fear became replaced with anger as I walked towards the car.  Beer cans, trash bags, and other random junk were scattered around.  I watched Lucy try and negotiate through the jungle of weeds and my anger became directed at myself:  “What if she gets ticks all over her and dies of Lyme disease?”  “What if that small growth on her shoulder that I didn’t get checked out before we left is cancer and she dies before my time here is over?”  Tears pooled up at the edges of my eyes.  I stepped to a clearing and tried to breathe slow, deep, calming breaths and watch the current float by me.  The current was faster than my breath and I tried to force the beautiful but fierce scene into a serene and healing one.  It wasn’t working.  Obviously.

So I cried instead.  Too bad I didn’t take the opportunity to scream like a banshee or wail like a lost soul, but I was still holding on to my fears and feeling self-conscious that I would be discovered by locals who thought I was a crazy woman.  Instead, I just let the tears stream down my face.  I crossed my arms over my chest and said quietly and repeatedly, “I’m so scared.  I’m so scared.  I just want to go home, but I don’t even have a real home to go to.”  As I cried more, Lucy sat there and looked up at me.  I collected myself before I “lost it” (although, I think I would have felt better had I unleashed my fear and anger).  We walked back to the car and I felt relief.  A little lighter.  A little more rational and sane.  I texted my sister again and told her briefly of my “crappy” experience and then just sat for a moment.

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The drive back to the cottage was uneventful.  The twisty curves were more manageable and smoother.  I was headed back to the cottage.  My “home base” so to speak.  I started thinking how people keep telling me I’m so brave for having set out on this adventure.  If they could see me now they may question their statements.  This rawness and vulnerability are strange and scary and to be truthful, I don’t really like this feeling or this experience all that much today.

Maybe being brave is about the recognition of fear within us as it’s happening?  Maybe being brave is about letting fear live alongside us but not allowing it to rule us?  Maybe being brave is about using fear as a tool to highlight the fragmented, shadow pieces of ourselves, giving us an opportunity to find that gap where the jagged piece goes in to the ever enlarging puzzle of ourselves?  As I type this, I can honestly tell you I don’t know.  I haven’t fully ridden out the wave of that fear that seized me this morning.  It keeps morphing from fear, to anger, to sadness, to loneliness, to confusion, to whatever else is lying awake inside of me, ready to strike.

All I know is that I am here and I will keep following the trails inside and outside of me until the path clears again.

Now What?

The wide river stretched over the rich green valley and dark green and gray mountains loomed in the distance.  I drove over the bridge and an electrical impulse ran through my solar plexus and I caught my breath.  “Wow!” I exhaled.  My cat, caged in the carrier next to me, meowed, and I looked in the rear view mirror and saw my dog’s black head pop up.  She had been asleep in her crate too, and she released anxious whimpers as we came around one bend and began to curve around another.  We were here in the Appalachian mountains and the longest part of our journey was about to become breathtaking.

Two days prior to that, I loaded up my pets and luggage in my gray SUV and headed south on highway 45.  I had spent a week with my parents and prior to that a week with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew.  In their homes and with them, I had comfort and security.  My mind didn’t wander to “what ifs” or any daydream of what was to come the day I set out for the Asheville, North Carolina, area.  When I reached Paducah on Saturday, my friend’s hospitality took over and I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to board my dog or cat or sleep for the night.  He didn’t even let me consider the possibility of a hotel room, and so I had another full day of comfort and security.  As we walked the historic downtown waiting for the restaurant to open for dinner, I began to share with him a little of my worries and concerns about the path I had chosen and how lost I was starting to feel.  He didn’t even give me a chance to second guess myself.  Instead, he bought a handcrafted copper compass keychain from a street artist whose wares we had been admiring.  After the artist soldered the O-ring in place, my friend handed the gift to me, smiled, and said, “This is so you’ll be able to always find your way back home and find your place in this world, no matter where you are.”FullSizeRender

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InFullSizeRender Nashville on Sunday, I stayed at a pet-friendly hotel and another friend picked me up for dinner.  We ate at Chauhan Ale & Masala restaurant where the chefs blended art and traditional style Indian food.  It was super delicious and had a great atmosphere.  We ate Gol Guppa Shots for an appetizer – puffs of semolina with garbanzo beans and potatoes inside that you fill with mint water and shove in your mouth for an explosion of flavor.  For our main course, we chose traditional Indian dishes that were equally amazing.  As we talked, I realized that I would soon have the opportunity to explore deliciously prepared food where I was headed.  I could also take my time to shop the farmer’s markets and really tune into enjoying my food instead of shoving something down my gullet (like my oh so reliable peanut butter and jelly sandwich) so I could get back to teaching, grading, or working on my lesson plans.  We toured downtown Nashville (which has such a super-chill vibe despite the fact that it’s 600,000 people in the city alone) and wound up having dessert at Five Sisters Bakery in the swanky 12 South neighborhood.  For once, I was excited to indulge on so much food, and even took the last of my peach-glazed donut to go so I could enjoy it early the next morning before I left.

The next day, I began the drive to Asheville.  I crested a big hill in Cherokee National Forest and curved around a bend and saw a fathomless sea of tree tops.  I dipped down into a low valley and the trees towered above me.  I passed through two tunnels inside the very same mountain chain I had been admiring a few minutes before.  Up I climbed again and at the top of the hill I saw more mountains in the distance and a wide open blue sky.  I felt a shudder in my heart as if my body knew before my mind that my new life was upon me.  I took in the view as much as I could at the scenic overlook and rest area outside of the park.  I arrived later at my cottage and hurriedly brought my luggage and pets inside as thunder rolled in the distance.  I explored my new cottage home and stopped at a cafe to eat then grocery shopped while an evening rainstorm passed through.  I tirelessly unpacked until late in the night as a storm rolled in. FullSizeRender

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This morning I tried to set up some type of routine for myself so I wouldn’t feel as if I was pissing my time away.  I awoke at 6:30 a.m., made coffee, and walked Lucy down the lane as the mist rolled off the hill across the street and some unseen roosters crowed.  I ate a simple breakfast, read my book, and wrote for a half an hour.  A decent yoga practice came next followed by meeting the woman from whom I’m renting the cottage.  I went to the post office and got my P.O. Box set up and then walked Lucy in the Nature Park right off of Main Street.  I returned home to eat lunch and visit with my neighbor, and have been writing ever since.

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For an unknown reason, a bit of melancholy has come over me now that the thrill of yesterday’s drive has gone.  I keep wondering “Now what?” as I go through my new normal and try to strategize my next move once the middle of September has come and gone.  What am I doing here and why have I come on this journey?  Then, I think back to what both my friends in Paducah and Nashville reminded me of:  that this is a time to enjoy my life.  To soak in the pleasures of all the simple things this world has to offer.  That there is no need to justify wanting to eat delicious food, walk in beautiful scenery, live in a quaint cottage, and just be creative for the sake of being creative.   These mountains, these lush trees, the sounds of the chirping birds, and the breezes of the wind, the thunder and lightning, the screen of misting rain in front of the backdrop of sunshine, the local and friendly waiter, cashier, dog owner, restaurant customer, all are seeping into my veins and soaking into my bones and shaping my destiny.  All I have to do is let it happen.