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Paradise Found

A harried homeowner discovers a new definition of perfection in the modest environs of a Zen spa.

By Kaitlin Quistgaard


Sawdust billowed out of the living room as I fled. I had tossed a key to our contractor, asking him to lock up, then raced down the road to a spa where I hoped to find the calm that was seriously missing from my home. Osmosis, a Japanese-style retreat in Freestone, California, is a coveted destination for relaxation seekers from across the country; for me it's a 20-minute drive from home. Still, I was hoping my one-day visit would work the magic of a much longer stay and refresh my mind for my next round of remodeling decisions.

I soon sat drinking an infusion of yarrow, spearmint, nettles, red clover, and digestive enzymes in the spa's tea garden. Yet instead of settling into the Zen vibe, I found myself eyeing the construction of the spa's French doors and worrying that the replacement windows I had ordered were too small—and that the entire project would turn out to be less than perfect. I was suffering from second thoughts, and even the bonsai, whose funky hairdos and Lilliputian proportions would usually evoke an inner chuckle, couldn't distract me.

Fortunately, my bath attendant appeared and led me to a tub filled with sawdust—which looked remarkably like the mess I'd left at home. I climbed into a hollow in the shaving pile, and soon the attendant was shoveling the fibers over my legs, my belly, right up to my neck. There was none of that primordial ooze you get with a mud bath. The aromatic cedar, mixed with rice bran and more than 600 active plant enzymes imported from Japan, felt earthy and soft. I yielded to the shavings, which are supposed to ease joint pain, reduce tension, and improve circulation and digestion. There's no scientific evidence to back these claims, but I was in no position to demand data.

Soon I was tingling and sweating from head to toe, and aware of nothing but my body and the beauty of the bamboo growing outside the window.

The attendant reappeared and dabbed my face with an icy washcloth, wringing it out over my hairline. It was a sublime shock—like a bolt of frozen lightning electrifying my overheated scalp. The cold water seemed to penetrate my brain, washing away my worries and invigorating the core of my being. When, a few minutes later, she repeated the process and I felt the same head rush, I decided the combination of fire and ice must be some kind of holistic electroshock therapy and that I might need it every day.

After the bath I shook off the sawdust and showered. Although my inner remodeler was still assessing my surroundings, I had let go of my panic about trim choice. The bathroom decor at Osmosis was unassuming—modest fixtures, a laminate countertop, a vase of gladioli snipped from the landscape. It was utilitarian but soothing. As I relaxed into the space, I felt my mind let go of the "perfect" living room windows, the specs on ceiling height, and cushion depth.

I recalled a luxury spa where a friend had once treated me to a massage. The bathrooms had black granite vanities, and a single stray hair on the gleaming ebony surface ruined the fantasy I'd bought into. I felt as if even guests in this setting were supposed to be perfect, and it made me tense. The opulence had so turbocharged my expectations that I was disappointed with every less-than-perfect detail.

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