Archive | November, 2014

Asheville Red Barn House for Sale

12 Nov

I am excited to announce that my house is now for sale; interested parties can contact me about the price. It’s close to Biltmore Village, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, Oakley (Fairview Rd.), Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Whole Foods and Tunnel Road Mall shopping, and is not far from downtown, the River Arts District and West Asheville. I-40, I-240 and I-26 are very accessible.

photo 2-3On 0.6 acres and just under 1,000 square feet, there are two bedrooms upstairs, a full bath upstairs and half bath downstairs with a freestanding shower in the laundry room. There is electric heat, central heat and air conditioning, ceiling fans in bedrooms and double pane windows throughout the house. The kitchen comes with refrigerator, dishwasher, and electric oven. There is a fenced-in back yard and two convenient outbuildings: a shed for storage and cabana with bunk bed for extra guests. There is ample private off-street parking.IMG_0909

The house was renovated in fall of 2013 with completely new kitchen, non-toxic paint in every room, new hardwood floor upstairs, and sustainable marmoleum flooring in kitchen, baths and laundry. There is an eco-sound barrier between the first and second floors.

I am happy to show the house at any time. Please feel free to get in touch with me at ffigart@gmail.com.

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Grendel’s story

8 Nov

This is the tale of a cat who was lost for six years, and then found again. His name is Grendel, and he lives with me and three other animals in a red barn house in Asheville, North Carolina.

IMG_1943I was one of those English Lit students who actually liked Beowulf. I loved the alliteration, but I was also strangely sympathetic to the monster, Grendel, and tried to look at the situation from his perspective. He was a primal predator and he needed to eat. What better to lunch on than a bunch of drunken he-men acting like primordial heroes!

Later, when my mom went to college in her mid 60s and studied the Anglo-Saxon epic, she, too, liked Grendel. In fact, her best buddy in the class was a young football player who came in one day having just finished the reading assignment, and voiced the sad, sincere complaint, “They killed Grendel’s mom!” She and I always laughed about that phrasing, the thought that Grendel had not just a mother, but a mom.

We were equally delighted by John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, in which the monster tells his side of the story, one of isolation and, ultimately, nihilism. From Gardner’s perspective, Grendel wanted to be heroic like the men he preyed upon, but because he had been exiled from society, his values were, of necessity, not human.

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In the year 2000, I adopted two littermate kittens that were found in an abandoned barn. The fluffy calico I dubbed Chickadee, and the beautiful classic black cat was named Grendel. He was shy, but loving, the kind of creature who accepts affection somewhat apologetically and often slinks away from too much human attention.

As a kitten, Grendel had a normal mewing voice. During his “teenage stage,” he once stayed out in the woods on Mountain Springs Road for several days, perhaps undergoing some feline rite of passage. Upon his return, the guttural cry that emanated from his vocal chords seemed to herald some mysterious transformation into a semblance of his literary monster namesake. He now sounded like a combination of a Siamese with a sore throat and what mountain people call a “painther cat.”

DSC03546Grendel lived with Chickadee, Belial and Jimmy, in a timber framed shed on the property of my Kentucky cabin in the wilderness on Furnace Mountain, near the Red River Gorge. Belial and Jimmy were truly feral cats, and barely touchable, while Grendel and Chickadee were somewhat tame, but still held a distance from most people. They could all come and go as they pleased, and returned to the shed when their automatic feeder dispensed their food three times a day. Theirs was an idyllic life. I recall long walks along the forest service road near my house, trailed by two or three of the shed cats, meandering through the woods at their own leisurely pace. I loved them all, but felt the strongest connection to Grendel. He seemed a bit smarter and more refined than the others.

Changes came to Furnace Mountain in the form of unsustainable logging on adjacent properties. I sold the cabin in 2006 to live for a few years in a city – and the shed cats were not city material. So they went to live in the country with a friend, who eventually ended up taking them to Boones Creek Camp, where I had grown up in the tiny community of Trapp, near Winchester. Jimmy, who was the most skittish, vanished shortly after leaving the mountain. The other three settled into a mostly feral life, holing up like refugees in some abandoned buildings across the road from the camp, but visiting the parsonage and office for regular feedings on the porch of the house I had grown up in.

IMG_2447From early 2008 until the fall of 2010, I lived in Costa Rica and Canada working with a kayak tour operator. I thought of the cats many times, but was not in touch with anyone who knew how they were. Then I returned to Winchester, Kentucky to live with my mom, whose health was beginning to fail. With the stress of adjusting to being a caregiver, it honestly did not occur to me until February of 2012 that some of the shed cats might still be at the camp. I drove the 15 minutes out there one Sunday afternoon, and what I found amazed me. Grendel, Belial and Chickadee were all still alive and well, feasting regularly on the porch of the camp residence/office, and living across the road in the dilapidated remains of an old homestead. They looked great, and they knew me!

The next few months were hectic because by now, my mom was very ill and I was with her round-the-clock. But I would manage to bring a bag of food out to the camp once a month for Angel, the woman who now fed them. Angel had evidently been left instructions from the previous camp director, Jim Smith, in no uncertain terms: something to the effect of, “Whatever you do, do not ever abandon the responsibility of feeding these cats!”

A few months later, mid June, I got a call from Angel. She said coyotes had been seen in the area, and she suspected they had gotten two of the cats, as she now only saw one of them. “Who is left?” I inquired. It was Grendel.

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I went to see him soon as I could get away for an hour, and he walked me all around the premises of his dwelling, making his raucous bellow all the while, as if in mourning for his lost mates. He was all alone now, like the beast in Beowulf. He would not let me touch him, but he seemed to enjoy my companionship.

Since Angel was now his feeder, I instructed her to catch him when possible, and bring him to me in Winchester, where I lived with my mom. I would take him to the vet, and if he checked out fine, I’d bring him into our home to be a companion for our kitten, Oki.

Oki was incensed that another cat even existed, much less was in her home. But inside of two weeks, the two were cuddling and grooming one another. We had a monitor in my mom’s room so we could hear her calling out when she needed something, and I recall hearing Grendel, over the roar of the oxygen machine, emitting his guttural roar as my dying mother tried to sleep. She asked me once, politely, “How long will Grendel be staying with us?”

Sadly for Mother, Grendel would be staying much longer than she could; she died in late July, only a month and a half after he arrived.

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Nine months after Mom died, Grendel moved with Oki and me to North Carolina. The move was rough for him, and included an embarrassing stop at the Tennessee border to clean him up along the way. My friends Mary and Joe helped out, and when Grendel was ready to travel again, Joe said, in what has become an infamous metaphor, “Let’s get this rock star to the show.”

Now our family has gained three more beings: John, Dukkha Dog and Puppy Ivy. Grendel takes it all in stride. He loves his cushy indoor life, with Havarti cheese cut into 14 tiny cubes at least once a day, a dollop of vanilla ice cream late in the evenings, and a sunny window seat with comfy cushions for his throne. He still slinks away from affection, but always purrs when being carried or sleeping on my feet at night. He and Oki spend hours every day in their outside cabana, and go for walks in my big fenced-in back yard. Occasionally Grendel will jump the fence and stay out on his own for several hours, but he always comes home.

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Six years he was a shed cat on Mountain Springs Road, and six years he was feral and survived, thanks to Jim Smith and the camp Angels, and his own cat smarts. Now he is almost 15, and is in great shape.

Sometimes in the wee hours before dawn, he lifts up his raucous voice to the heavens and bellows out a sound that I’m sure would make even Beowulf wonder: Is he giving thanks? Does he miss his mates from the old days? Does he want to prey on a mouse? Or does he just want more of his dry catfood, NOW!

Belial (back) and Jimmy (in front) on the porch of the Mountain Springs Road cabin circa 2004.

Belial (back) and Jimmy (in front) on the porch of the Mountain Springs Road cabin circa 2004.

Belial having just moved from the mountain in December of 2006.

Belial having just moved from the mountain in December of 2006.

Chickadee when I first saw the shed cats again at the camp in Feb. 2012.

Chickadee when I first saw the shed cats again at the camp in Feb. 2012.

Mary and me, bringing food to the cats at the camp, Feb. 2012

Mary and me, bringing food to the cats at the camp, Feb. 2012

When I first brought Grendel home, Oki was incensed.

When I first brought Grendel home, Oki was incensed.

Grendel on his first day back in a home, dealing with Oki's growling.

Grendel on his first day back in a home, dealing with Oki’s growling.

Within two weeks, Oki and Grendel were close friends.

Within two weeks, Oki and Grendel were close friends.

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Oki says, so long for meow.

Oki says, so long for meow.



Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov

I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.

UnknownIn his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.

Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.

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From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?

simplicity-8153To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.

il_340x270.661762228_od2hAside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.

That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”

And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.

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And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?

It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.

This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.

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Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.

Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.

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Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.

I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.

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“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.

We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.

Watch a neat video about flow.