On Signs and Asheville, NC

I have never believed in signs. I enjoy reading my horoscope, and a friend recently got me into reading Tarot, but those are all about narrative lenses: How do these arbitrary but supposedly specific sets of insights wrap around and reveal parts of my story that are obvious and parts that are hidden?

But signs? The universe calling out just to you to tell you what to do, speaking through — what? Books and Instagram and a Broadway musical?


I’m sure I had heard of Asheville, North Carolina, before I went with Kate to see the musical Bright Star on Broadway last April. I’m equally sure I would not have been able to tell you what state it was in, or anything about it, because I had never paid attention. In the musical, one of our main characters sets off for Asheville to be a writer and the girl he leaves behind sings a lovely lament (“Asheville”), asking that he not forget her when he arrives. The musical has its flaws but the music is excellent, and I’ve had the cast album since the day it came out.

About a week after I saw the show, I was reading a book called The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. It’s been around for years now, one of those nonfiction books that everyone read when it was a bestseller and I only got around to checking out from the library last year. It’s one NPR reporter’s search for the happiest places on earth, and toward the end of the book, while he is in Miami, he hears of a woman who moved from Miami to Asheville. She was thinking about moving away and suddenly started seeing North Carolina and its mountains mentioned everywhere, in magazines and TV commercials and billboards. So she decided to visit Asheville and check it out, moved there a few months later, and by the time he spoke to her had been living happily in Asheville for a few years.

“Weird,” I thought. “Asheville, twice in one week.”

The following weekend I made a quick trip to DC to sing “Carmina Burana” with my choir at the Kennedy Center. I slept on Lissa’s couch, and we had a little time to visit over breakfast and after the show. I told her about my new job, which I had started about two and a half months before. We also talked about my hazy dream (always years in the future from whenever I’m talking about it) to one day own a bookstore. I said I wasn’t sure where I’d want to open it — certainly not New York City, where I’d been living for almost six years.

Lissa said, “You should check out Asheville, North Carolina.”

Something like, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” came out of my mouth.

Lissa, who loves historic houses and mansions, had recently visited the Biltmore, just outside of Asheville, and she thought the city might be a nice place for a bookstore. It’s a liberal bubble in a red state, and it’s nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains (which I mostly knew of because of the band Fleet Foxes).

The following week, in mid May, I was chatting with Kari, who was getting married at the beginning of July, about how her plans were shaping up.

“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t realize you had picked a honeymoon destination.”

Her brother had suggested Asheville, North Carolina. (Afterward I’d find out that they had only stayed one night in the city before heading out to a cabin to hike and go rafting. The principle still stands.)

Over the next week or so Asheville came up in a less extreme way — an Instagram photo that caught my eye (I’m never on Instagram) because it was of someone I didn’t know. She turned out to be attending a bachelorette party with a former work colleague. In Asheville. Later in the spring I’d come across it in an article about cheap flights to London, and while rereading a book, when checking out the acknowledgements to see if I knew anyone had worked on it.

That was later, when things calmed down. But in late May, at the end of a month where Asheville appeared in my life like clockwork once a week, I had dinner at a diner with two of my friends. We hadn’t all three caught up in ages so we spent a few hours in that booth. At some point during our conversation I told Susan and Kaley that the universe was telling me to go to Asheville.

They listened, laughed politely, and the conversation moved on. Perhaps an hour later, Kaley was in the middle of a sentence when she stopped suddenly and pointed. Susan and I turned. Over our heads was a television set. On the screen was a map of North Carolina. The only city marked? Asheville.

Asheville may be having a moment — other people have mentioned that they have heard great things recently, or enjoyed a visit there. But it’s not haunting them the way it did me last spring. So after the diner incident I promised the universe I would get to Asheville sometime soon, and since then it has calmed down to plausible deniability levels — perhaps once a month.

Last August I went to Europe for three weeks and while I was sitting in Wordsworth’s garden in the Lake District I knew that I needed to leave New York City. I have never loved it enough, despite friends and jobs I cared about and Broadway and an apartment I adored. I would stay at my job another year or so and then find my way to somewhere else. Maybe Maine.

When I got back to New York I talked to friends and friends of friends about what I should do next and where I should go. At a Freestyle Love Supreme Show in early fall (Kate: “You’re leaving New York! This might be your last chance to see Lin [-Manuel Miranda] live!”), I talked to Serena about where I should go.

“You know where you should check out,” Serena said. “Asheville, North Carolina.”

She had recently visited (I had actually seen the Facebook photos and thought, “Ha, Asheville!” And then forgotten about it) when her boyfriend did a show in the regional theater down there.

The week before Lindsay got married, I was looking at sample wedding programs online so I could mock something up for her and take a small thing off her plate. I found an article with a good model and used it. There was a photo with the article showing a lovely program.

“I wonder where this fake wedding took place,” I thought, and clicked to enlarge, already suspecting I knew.

Asheville, North Carolina.

At Lindsay’s wedding, a conversation with her friend Eric about what to do and where to go got me thinking about grad school. It had been in my mind for a while but I wasn’t sure what to study.

“You should think about an MPA,” Eric told me, who had gotten one.

“Funny, you aren’t the first person to tell me that,” I said to him. Two years before I had applied for a Fulbright and one of my mentors, who read my proposal and wrote me a recommendation, suggested I consider a master’s degree in public administration. I looked into a little bit but wasn’t that interested at the time.

Two years later, after eight months working at a small nonprofit, I was interested. I started researching programs and studying for the GRE. In early November, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, I went to DC for Alix’s wedding. The following day I went to visit American University, one of the schools on my list.

It was a perfect fall day and the campus was an oasis away from the busy streets of the city — not like the Lake District or Maine, but certainly not New York. I wandered campus and poked in and out of buildings before heading toward a bench to call my mom. And there, on the lawn, in front of the School of Public Affairs, was a labyrinth.

I’ve loved meditation labyrinths since one summer in high school, when I spent three weeks on the Carleton College campus and hung out with my friends on an island with a labyrinth on it. Maya and I become friends at Carleton, and because she had just moved to DC last fall she was my plus one to Alix’s wedding. When I met her at the restaurant she had a gift for me, picked up for me in Spain two years before and lost in her apartment till she moved: a labyrinth necklace.

I walked from American to the National Cathedral (where I spotted a photo on their TV display of people walking a labyrinth) and talked to my mom as I walked. Later I’d trek to the train station, on the phone with her again. While I walked we talked, about the wedding and my visit to American and the friends I’d visited with over the weekend.

“Maybe Asheville was just a sign for me to be open to moving sooner than I planned,” I said. “I mean, I always thought I’d leave the city in a couple years, but thinking about Asheville reminded me that I wanted to leave eventually, and so when I realized it was time I was open to new ideas, like grad school.

“And it feels like the labyrinth thing is a sign about DC. Not that I believe in signs but….”

I took a quick picture of the Capitol building as I approached the train station, still chatting to my mom about signs. Then I stopped walking and stopped talking, in the middle of a sentence. There was a bus in the loop in front of the station, wrapped in an advertisement.

It said, “Take me back to Asheville.”

“The universe,” I said to my mom, “is just fucking with me now.”

Two days later, the United States of America elected Donald Trump as president.

About a month later, my mind made up in the days after the election, I took my GREs, and by mid January I had submitted all my applications. By early March I had been accepted at the four schools I’d applied to and started the conversations and school visits that would lead, in early April, to American making me a scholarship offer I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) refuse.

When chatting with Sara over dinner, I reminded her of last year’s signs, Asheville and the labyrinth.

“The only sign you need,” she said, “is which school gives you the most money.”

I still haven’t been to Asheville. My mom and I had thought about going in February, when I had a break from work, but I had made a trip home instead. But DC is closer to North Carolina than New York is, and I did promise the universe I’d visit.

I am moving out of my New York apartment one year and about a week after I sat in that diner with a map of North Carolina over my head. After spending the summer with my family, I’ll move to DC for graduate school.

All right, universe. Let’s go.


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