There is a scene you’ve watched in many movies before. It’s common when your protagonist lives in the real world but his or her character advancement requires a small bit of magic, either real or metaphoric.
If it’s real magic, the scene happens near the beginning of the film, right after we’ve established the protagonist’s day-to-day life and what is wrong with it. The character will accidentally stumble into some dusty old bookshop, or take a wrong turn down an alleyway in the rain. The musical score will change, and the lighting will get darker. A creepy old person will appear, as if from nowhere, and say things to the character that indicate a greater level of personal knowledge than is logical in a stranger. The old person will then do something such as grab tight onto the protagonist’s hand or throw magical dust on her or one of her possessions. She will then leave, confused but seemingly unharmed. The magic charm has been activated, and now the life-changing story begins.
If the magic is metaphorical, the movie is set in the real world and the scene happens near the end of the film. The character has gone through many trials and has reached a low point. She doesn’t know what to do next, or how to solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem. She wanders aimlessly and ends up somewhere common like a park or a bar or small shop of some kind. She meets an ordinary old person who inquires as to what seems to be the problem. The protagonist doesn’t bother with specifics, and sums up her own problem in some short, pithy phrase. The old person takes in this abstract conundrum and offers an equally simple solution whose applicability isn’t entirely clear to the audience, but is a revelation to our hero. The protagonist realizes what she must do and leaves.
I am still trying to figure out which of these scenes happened to me in Asheville.
I was staying about an hour south of town with some friends of the family and their enthusiastic cat. They have a nice house tucked away in the middle of the woods, the kind where the tap water comes from a well. My first morning in the area I went to visit Biltmore Estate, the grand and beautiful Vanderbilt home. When I visit these big homes I can’t help but imagine what I would do with too much money and a desire to build from scratch. There were so many rooms and so much artwork. I worry sometimes that I would run out of opinions before we reached the second floor. However a giant estate does have certain advantages. During World War II, Vanderbilt offered to store some of the nation’s prized artwork in his home for safekeeping. The art was transported from Washington D.C. in secret in the middle of the night, and few people knew where it was being stored. This includes many of the members of Vanderbilt’s staff. Once a home reaches a certain size, I suppose no one questions why a particular room might be closed off for years at a time.
After Biltmore I drove to downtown Asheville to see what it was like without the spectacle of Bele Chere. I purchased a treat at the local chocolate shop and sat in the park watching a group of school kids run around. Many people in Asheville offered a friendly hello. It was a little strange how many, in fact. I walked past a coffee shop and an attractive young man with Owen Wilson hair was sitting outside, drinking Carrot Apple Celery Lemon Kale Juice and playing a guitar. I leaned against a pole and pretended to play with my phone while surreptitiously trying to write down all the ingredients listed on the drink label.
“What are you doing over there?” he asked me with a smile.
I made up some excuse about writing notes for things I had to do later, and he nodded. “A beautiful day to be outside,” he said, still plucking at the strings of his guitar. I agreed, finished my notes, and bid him farewell. “You have a great day,” he said with absolute sincerity. I smiled back at Asheville.
I took a peek inside Malaprop’s Bookstore, which is something of an city landmark. When you stand inside and take a deep breath you can almost hear someone whispering into your ear “…support your local bookstore…” Every book on the shelf of “Staff Picks” was by an author I had recently heard interviewed on NPR. Sometimes I wonder if Asheville has actually managed to out-portland Portland, Oregon. It’s like a tiny, liberal, mountain paradise. Like the sign says, “10,000 Lesbians Can’t Be Wrong.”
I had been told to check out the River Arts District, where artists’ shops are open for the general public to see creation in action. I walked around one of the pottery buildings, looking at the various pieces for sale on the walls and watching a few of the pottery artists at work. No one is there to greet you, and no one is there to stop you. You are free to walk down the halls and through the offices, with only your personal regard for the privacy of others as your guide. It seems that the district is counting on the general honesty of people to ensure nothing is stolen or vandalized, and that seems to be working well for them.
After the pottery shop I went next door to a studio featuring colorful oils on canvas. I did a loop of the gallery area and found a side hall I wasn’t sure I should go down. It led into the room where the art was made. When I walked inside I saw a young woman and an older man, both at work. She was already on her way out by the time I got up the vocal courage to ask if it was okay for me to come inside. He told me of course, and immediately called me over to talk with him.
“How are you?” he asked in a gentle voice.
“How am I?” I responded, a bit stunned by what felt like a rather intimate and caring inquiry.
“How are you. Who are you. Answer either.”
I told him my name and what I was doing in Asheville. He said his name was Jonas and this was his studio.
“And what do you want?” he asked.
“Oh I was just looking around.”
“I mean what do you want. In life. Out of life. What do you want?” He had white hair and a beard, and his face seemed a bit off, a bit lopsided. I considered his question and came up with the best words I could think of.
“I want freedom without losing security.”
He shook his head and took my hand. “There is no such thing,” he said, “Security, it is an illusion.” He told me that the things we chase after that we call security are not needed. “What would you do if it didn’t matter what you did?”
“I would write,” I told him without hesitation.
His eyebrows lifted up. “See? You’re already so sure. If you go after that? Security will follow.” He told me that he always wanted to paint, and that’s all he focused on. He has palsy, but he didn’t let that stop him. He didn’t try to build a studio or be very successful, he just tried to paint all the time. “And now look,” he said. He pointed all around the room, to every painting on the wall. They were all his, the entire building was his. The staff was his. I was surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of artwork and it all belonged to this nice old man with a lopsided face who wouldn’t let go of my hand.
“The Universe will provide,” he said. “I call it the Universe, call it whatever you want … God … whatever. If you do what you are supposed to do, the Universe will provide.”
He pulled his hand around and pushed hard into my upper back. “You’re too young for this,” he said, indicating my constant slouch. He told me to stop crossing my arms, as it crosses the heart. We don’t need to block the heart.
“Remember that you don’t have a soul,” Jonas said. “You are a soul, covered in a body.” I smiled at him and he stared at me unflinching. “You have wonderful eyes,” he told me.
“I get that a lot,” I said.
I thanked him for taking the time to talk with me, and asked if I could take a few pictures of his paints. They looked so lovely lined up next to each other and splattered with color. He nodded and began to walk me over to the paints. He held out his hand, indicating that I should give him the camera. He began taking pictures of everything. The paints, the brushes, the walls. Then he looked at me.
“You have beautiful eyes,” he said again. “Eyes are the windows to the soul, you’ve heard that phrase?”
“Yes, I have.”
He put his hands onto my shoulders and began positioning me in front of a canvas. “Here,” he said, “just stand here and look at me.” I looked up with a smile.
“Let go,” he said. I stared at him. He meant it.
“Okay,” I told him, “Just, gimmie a minute.” I took a deep breath. I stared at the camera.
“Alright,” I said.
He took a picture and paused.
“Did you get it?” I asked him.
“I think so,” he said.
Jonas asked one of his employees to take a picture of us together, and then he walked with me out to the front of the shop. I told him I had to go, I was late to meet my friends for dinner. He wished me well, and told me to remember what he had said. I wished I could have recorded the entire conversation.
On my way to dinner I tried to figure out which magical movie scene this was. Was my day in Asheville an example of my normal life that, with a bit of magic, is all about to change? Or is this whole trip my journey, and I am now on the way towards a magnificent revelation?
Time has past since that day in Asheville, and I’m no closer to an answer. I suppose because the real world doesn’t operate on movie time. People don’t often have experiences and then wake up the next day completely changed. Even when they’re on grand adventures. Your story doesn’t take place over a few weeks or months like it does in the movies. Your life is your movie, and there’s no way to know if you are at the beginning or nearing the end. There’s no way to know if the magic you experience is real or metaphoric. The best thing you can do is look straight into the camera, and let go.