Lavrans, Kristin, and my Grandmother

By Melissa Poulin

I am in the middle of reading “Husaby,in which Kristin’s father Lavrans dies and is laid to rest, when I learn I must fly south to California for my grandmother’s funeral. I pack the book and read it at night in the hotel room, with a tiny booklight, and my 15-month-old daughter sleeping in a port-a-crib beside me. She and I have flown to San Jose, then driven east to Los Banos, the smallish town where my grandparents lived after they retired, and where my grandfather had been buried 17 years earlier.

My grandma, one of 11 children, left home at 19 to marry her first husband. He was abusive, so my grandma took her sons and moved in with her parents again, until she met and married my grandpa, with whom she had two children: my mother and her younger brother. So when my grandpa died, my grandma was faced not only with the loss of her husband of nearly 60 years, but with the prospect of living completely alone for the first time in her life.

When I get to the section on preparations for Lavrans’ death, how Ragnfrid and Lavrans had time to finally say unsayable things to one another before he died, I am thinking of my grandma in her living room after my grandpa’s funeral, her voice breaking as she looked up at one of her sisters to ask, What am I going to do now? her hands raised in a gesture that held a roil of emotion: fury and disbelief, grief, shock, despair.

Nothing I’d ever seen in my grandparents’ union, as a grandchild who visited them a few times a year, had prepared me to witness such a coiled knot of pain and sadness. I was caught off-guard. They had mostly nagged at and teased each other, my grandpa often going several steps further with a Be quiet, woman, and a dismissiveness that made me rage inwardly as a teenager. But of course there was more to their relationship that what appeared at the surface. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the depth of their love, and yet I was.

My grandpa died in his sleep, while sitting up late listening to music one night after my grandma had gone to bed. There was no preparation, no warning, no chance for them to have the kind of conversations that could have– maybe– undone some of the corrosive damage of years of irritable comments spurred by the physical ailments that had caused each of them pain and frustration.

Ragnfrid, we are told, follows her husband’s coffin to its burial place at a monastery, where she then lives for less than two years on her own before following him to the grave. By today’s standards, they are both young when they die, but they’ve also weathered the deaths of four children in their life together. It seems reasonable that Lavrans’ heart is quite literally worn out.

In Los Banos at the funeral, my daughter squirms in my lap in the pew, and won’t be placated with banana-flavored puffs. As I walk her in circles around the back of the church, I hear snippets of the pastor’s sermon and the eulogy my father has prepared. Rain falls on my cheeks and arms when we walk across the street later for the burial, but unlike with my grandpa’s burial, we must leave before my grandma is laid to rest beside him; something has changed in the interceding years in the funeral home’s policy. I touch the smooth wood of the coffin and say a quick, silent prayer before pushing my daughter’s stroller back to the car, and on to the reception. It feels strange to leave her there unburied, like a hyphen in an unfinished sentence.

Before Lavrans dies, he places his mother’s ring on his wife’s finger:

“The three rings gleamed next to each other: on the bottom her betrothal ring, next her wedding ring, and on top his ring. She remembered when he put the first one on her finger… with this last ring, she felt as if he were marrying her again. Now that she would soon sit beside his lifeless body, he wanted her to know that with this ring he was committing to her the strong and vital force that had lived in this dust and ashes.”

At Jorundgaard, ceremony marks the crossing of death’s threshold with as much purpose as betrothal, marriage, and birth. There is an evenness, a balance, to the rituals encircling a life, like the three rings around Ragnfrid’s finger.

At the reception, I walk my daughter around the perimeter of the banquet hall, beneath the bemused smiles of relatives who dip chips into guacamole and try to make conversation suitable for the occasion. It isn’t a reunion, and yet it is. I haven’t seen some of these relatives since I was a child myself, and now here I am with my own child, thinking about Kristin and my grandma and my mother, wondering what it means to be the child of a parent now buried. I think of loosed cords: a boat slipping its tie to a dock, a kite unwound from its reel of string. I am weary from minding my toddler in small spaces devoid of appropriate things to climb on or play with, but I am also hungry for weight, for anchor. We pace the room, both of us restless for something to do with our bodies.

Ragnfrid bakes and brews, kneels at Lavrans’ bedside, walks beside the coffin in the long funeral procession. There is a physicality to preparing for death. She slips into the groove of custom and tradition, and there must be comfort there, in a culture where death is given ample time and space, where one’s body is required to participate in the passing of another. I think this is, in part, what I love about liturgical tradition: its inclusion of the body in matters of the spirit. There is kneeling and standing, singing and sitting and rising again, the procession of the cross and the gospel, the breaking and eating of bread, the drinking of wine. These rituals give form to what is happening inside me as I recommit myself to Christ each week, and I long for such form as I say goodbye to my grandma.

At home again, I gather some pictures of my grandma around me. I unwrap the pieces of the delicate teaset I inherited from her. I sit at her old sewing table, now mine, opening and closing its drawers to see if the scent of her perfume still lingers there, as it had when I first brought it home. I queue up an interview I had recorded with her when I was in college, and her voice fills my ears again, as she gamely answers the stream of disjointed questions I volleyed, one after another. In the recording, both of our voices are younger and brighter, and we laugh together, midstream in an ordinary day, the currents of time still eddying and flowing smoothly around us.


Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.

Hello, Husaby

In the first chapters of Kristin’s married life at Husaby, I was struck by how rapidly she undergoes maturation into womanhood, not only through the journey of her pregnancy and shift in identity from girl to mother, but rather by a transformation in the scope of her perspective. Almost at once her perceptions widen from beyond her own yearnings and shame to the concerns and cares of a lady of a large estate, not to mention wife and step-mother as well. One of the primary sensations she experiences is an overwhelming homesickness for her father’s house and a melancholy at finding herself abruptly isolated from the way of life she had known, a way of life in which she had always been cared for unconditionally.

There’s a deeper truth interwoven in Kristin’s nostalgia: a recognition that her father’s beliefs weren’t just something he proclaimed, but something he lived by, reflected in the welfare of his farm, his servants, even his livestock. Erlend’s slavery to himself, his whims and wants, have devastating effects on his own estate: it’s clear that the moral standards of these two men are not just differences of opinion or belief; the development (or lack thereof) of their respective consciences manifest in tangible outcomes for everyone around them.

I witnessed this phenomenon myself in my own childhood; the happy evidence of my religious upbringing a fact I came back to again and again in my young adulthood. In my eras of unbelief, or of anger at my Church, I couldn’t deny the solidity and joy of my childhood, how that had stemmed from the values and virtues of the Catholic creed my family professed. Broken as their own families of origin were, my parents set out to create a family based on something more solid than mere mutual attraction and affection. Despite their own traumatic, abusive childhoods, they succeeded in building a healthy family structure with little but their faith to inform them. Harmony and familial love were goals to be reached using Christian values of kindness, forgiveness, generosity…in retrospect, it stands out how preoccupied they were with us children speaking kindly to each other; we weren’t allowed to consume particular forms of media, not out of puritanical fear of the subject matter, but because of the cruel manner of speech commonly found in sitcom family structures under the guise of teasing. I was reminded of this in Kristin’s observation that she had never seen family members speak with such vitriol to each other until Erlend, Munan, and Gunnulf argue at dinner at Husaby.

Lavrans and Ragnfrid are far from perfect, and God knows neither are my own parents, inventing as they were from scratch what it meant to be good parents. I could give a laundry list of complaints, things I’ve analyzed and hope to do differently with my children. But all of their children have remained close to each other and to them, and what’s more, persisted in practicing Catholicism. I credit this in part to the fact of our shared experience: the peace and order, emotional health and enjoyment of our childhoods, contrasted to the disorder and anguish of the world revealing itself once we left home. How often do we not appreciate what is good until we experience the lack of that good elsewhere! Kristin doesn’t see it until she’s ensconced at Husaby, and I didn’t see it either until I myself set off into young adulthood, until I firsthand encountered the wounds and sorrows of a broken world.

Those same ideals have been vehicles for emotional and religious abuse in many families; they’ve been twisted into heresies such as purity culture and prosperity gospel, but this is a deeper truth from which those distorted concepts sprang: how many beauties may come from a life lived by faith and a well-developed conscience. What they don’t do is guarantee wealth or prevent pain.  I’ve found that one of the rewards of following the Catechism of a Church thousands of years old is the thousands of years of accumulated experience: all those men and women, sinning over and over again and compiling a compendium of what choices bring one’s soul closer or farther from order and peace. And yet in our hubris, we all have to try some sins out for ourselves, and so does Kristin.

The word sin has been so abused to make any use almost cringe-worthy, but when taken for its literal meaning, as an act creating separation from God, it’s not difficult to see why some behaviors warrant the label. Undset emphasizes again and again that Erlend and Kristin’s tryst wasn’t only harmful to themselves; in following the siren song of their own desires, they suffered their relations and friends to many pains and a myriad of consequences. This theme reasserts itself through the state of things at Husaby: Erlend’s selfish pursuits have created disorder and discord for almost all in his life, most notably his children. Undset also makes it clear that Kristin’s pilgrimage and great atonement isn’t necessary because of a mere transgression like sex out of marriage, but because of her part in Eline’s death. And yet…and yet, redemption is within her reach, and Erlend’s as well.

There was a man in college who said he loved me, wanted to marry me, have lots of children, but he had no faith, and had never had one. It wasn’t the fact of his disbelief that disquieted me, besieged as I was by my own doubts and angers at the time, but a suspicion that without some kind of foundation of moral education, we would be on unsure footing for the rest of our lives. Growing up, I knew my father would never stray, never abandon his children, not because he loved us so much, but because of his own conscience, his own moral code. What trust and confidence that gave me as a child! And in what disparity to that young man, eager and full of love for me as he was. I wondered what would happen as the decades passed, if he was bored, if things were hard, if the situation was right…it was apparent he had nothing to fall back on. Despite his general good will and nature, I had no confidence in that goodness, floating in the ether, following the lead of his own desires and interests. Moral codes exist without the shape of religion, of course, but they’re much easier to change to and adjust to personal desire when there’s nothing empirical to hold them.

And this is the core difference between Erlend and Lavrans. Lavrans has his own code, strong convictions that affects the livelihood of everyone around him. Erlend has his own code as well, primarily to follow his longings at the cost of all else. His religious practices smack of mere performance for appearance’s sake, no true conviction as an undercurrent to his life. Erlend’s children can have no trust and confidence in him, fair-weather father as he is. Erlend makes promises to Kristin for no other reason but her beauty, and Kristin, in her naivete, doesn’t bother to wonder what foundation that makes for a marriage. Her eyes are opened when she comes to Husaby to find her husband’s neglect for everything else in his life. Kristin takes up the mental load of caring for the welfare of his estate and his child alongside the concerns of looming labor, birth, and new motherhood. Her loss of innocence was not in the hay bales and secret rooms, but here, when she must suddenly take on the mantle of responsibility for so much more than she anticipated. Her own moral foundation asserts itself, giving her the tools to create a better life for those around her, to create the family life she wants for her own children.

C.K. Dawson is a writer for Verily Magazine with her MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Breakwater Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine’s Review, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in the hills just outside Los Angeles.

The Rickety Assurance of Story

By Callie Feyen

Kristin enters her new life as Erlend’s wife at the same time I begin a new job. It is a job I have no qualifications for. It is a job I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy, and it is a job that I took because no matter how hard it would be, like Kristin when she surveys Husaby, I wanted to restore order to things. 

The idea of the job, I think, might’ve been as attractive as Erlend’s dark curly hair, his eyes that scream, “ADVENTURE,” and what I’m sure were his medieval Norwegian six-pack abs. I wasn’t foolish enough to think this job would cure what I’m coming to accept is my eternal wanderlust, and tendency for apathetic woe, but I loved the idea of doing something new and different and that didn’t have anything to do with teaching or writing.

I wanted another story. I think Kristin did, too. I think she wanted another story since she was seven years old and she saw the sun shining outside and could barely contain her excitement because that day she would head to the mountains. I think she met Arne in the woods because she wanted to see about another story she might live, and I think she tells her father that she will die from heartbreak if she can’t be with Erlend because she wanted to write her own story – not have her father write it for her.

Indeed, it is not easy to restore order when you write your own story, and Kristin sees this in the mess and disorganization of Husaby. I think it is only on Christmas Eve, when Kristin finds her stepson Orm left behind in Husaby while the rest went to church that she steps into the life she believed she so desperately wanted, and it is story that helps her do it.

Orm tells her it’s not safe to go out on Christmas Eve because evil spirits are out ready to seize everyone.  

 “I don’t think it’s only the evil spirits that are out tonight,” Kristin says. “Christmas Eve must be for all spirits.” 

Kristin continues and tells a story about the first Christmas Eve and Orm is not impressed at all. It is Orm’s response  to Kristin that proves we parents cannot blame water guns, MTV, call-waiting, or SnapChat for an adolescent’s “I know everything” tone – it’s literally medieval. 

 “You’re ridiculous if you think you’ll comfort me with a story,” is basically what Orm tells her, but she says, “I told the story mostly to comfort myself, Orm.”

Two things happen next: First, Kristin begins to clean up, and Orm helps her. Second, at a pause in their work, as they are sitting by the hearth, Orm, who is sitting on a three-legged stool next to Kristin, says softly, “Tell me another story while we sit here, my stepmother.”

//

The job I took, the one I applied for without any qualifications or any clue what it was I’d be doing, is a part-time position in the registrar’s office at a small Lutheran university. Every morning at 10:30, there’s chapel and sometimes I go and sometimes I don’t. It reminds me of my Calvin days when some days I’d walk up the hill to chapel and immerse myself in the glory of a mystery too wonderful to understand, and other days I’d go back to the dorm and watched the second half of Ricki Lake.

The morning after spring break, I walked into the office holding a mason jar of flowers, and put it on a bookshelf in my office. They were a nice addition to the buttery yellow cart I bought for my coffee and tea that sits next to a chair. I’ve never worked at a job where I have my own office, and I am having fun decorating it.  That morning, several students came in needing help to drop or add classes (mostly drop) because this was the last day to do it. Several girls came in grinning from ear to ear with sparkly diamonds on their left ring fingers, and I was again reminded of my Calvin days, when, after a holiday something shiny this way comes (mine arrived a few days before Thanksgiving my Senior year). The girls spoke to me about their schedules smiling and turning their rings – all of them too loose – around their fingers. One girl wore her engagement ring on an index finger and when I said, “Congratulations,” she blushed and said, “Thank you,” and then, “it still needs to be sized.” I nodded, entered information into the computer, and signed off on a piece of paper she’d give to her professor proclaiming she would no longer be a student in whatever class she thought she needed to be in, and I thought of Kristin who had “slipped several small silver rings from her childhood days onto her fingers” in order to keep her wedding rings from falling off. I cannot remember a thing from when I first read Kristin Lavsrandatter, and while I know she will have her struggles both in marriage and otherwise, I hope that she will experience the wonder and mystery in what evolves in the unity she’s committed herself to. I hope this too, for these girls, and for myself.

It was Holy Week, and I went to chapel every morning. The school would take Good Friday off and to correspond the services were a day ahead – Wednesday was Maundy Thursday, and Thursday was Good Friday.

On Wednesdays, the pastor brings free Starbucks coffee and so I held the paper cup in my hands and sipped and listened to the story of Jesus washing the feet of His friends and breaking bread that He said was His body – even to, and perhaps most especially for, Judas.

A football player slipped in late and sat down next to me. He smiled and whispered hello and I smiled back and then turned toward the stained glass backdrop of the pastor. I wondered what this boy would do after school – after he graduated. I wondered if this school helped him surprise himself with another gift he’d had in him that he could take with him and use in this next chapter. I wondered what it was like to play football here, less than a mile away from the Big House. Was that stadium a shadow to him and did he wish at times the cardinal red he played for would pierce through the maize and blue of autumn Saturdays or was it enough to be a part of the game – the reds and blues and yellows marked his own body because he was willing to play?

I’m still learning what my responsibilities are and how to complete them. I keep a notebook to help me remember codes for computer programs and how to do Excel. Sometimes my boss gives me a stack of transcripts from the colleges and I am to match the course to the ones we offer so students know how much credit they have when they begin their studies here. I love this part of the job because I love reading course catalogs. 

We have a class on Monsters. That’s the entire title. “Monsters” is in the History Department and in the description of the course I read that monsters have been pivotal in all sorts of stories. I wrote the phrase down on a small section of my planner where I catch things I want to keep. I wrote “Spike,” “Edwarn Cullen,” “Stefan and Damon Salvatore.” I wrote “Judas,” and “evil spirits from Christmas Eve.”

I’m not sure they’re evil, or all evil, but I do think they are waiting for us. I think they are hoping we’ll step outside into what we don’t know and into the monstrous grace of story. I think they hope we’ll ask them to come, too.


Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.

For All The Not-Mothers

I read our March and April selections of Kristin Lavransdatter in quick bursts. Weeknight binges before bed. And then I put it away. I didn’t feel like discussing these sections the way I wanted to discuss Kristin’s bucolic childhood or the many problems with Erland.

For a while, this lack of inspiration was a mystery to me.

Then, I was walking my dogs on an afternoon last week and I knew exactly why I don’t want to write about these sections: they are about pregnancy and new motherhood.

Here it is, nearly Mother’s Day. I am the right age to be a mother and every single marketing email in my inbox is about that day. When I see them, I no longer think of my own mother and grandmothers, I think of myself as a not-mother.

I read fast, knowing that Kristin’s fictional child would live. He would be fine. Everyone else I know has managed to have a baby. Kristin is going to raise seven sons, or something, right?

It has been the shock of my adult life, this wanting to be a mother, but not wanting it badly enough to persist past a year of disaster. I never dreamed of being a mother when I was growing up. I dreamed of being a writer and of living near the sea—which is where I am now. I didn’t know how badly I wanted children until my body gave up pregnancy after pregnancy.

That year was hard on my husband and me, and we put our hopes in deep freeze: moved to a new place, navigated a flare of my chronic illness, and tried to salvage our mental health in these coronavirus years. Somehow, six years have passed. And things have shifted—getting our puppies felt like a sign that I was no longer planning around the possibility of a pregnancy within the year.

All the while, I’ve developed this secret narrative of self-pity. When you are the right age to be a mother, and all your friends are mothers, little hurts pile up.

Being asked at the cash register if you are a mother on Mother’s Day.

Hearing a (woman) scientist lecture about marine mammal fertility and identify the animals that don’t give birth every year as “frail”. Sitting in the back row thinking there should be an essay about how horrible this language is but instead saving it for a snarky text message to a sympathetic friend.

Or, this week, getting asked to write Mother’s Day messages for my job. I was about to tuck it away as something I could tease into a journal entry, when instead I found myself speaking up, outing myself as someone who has not been able to have children, and admitting that this was a hard assignment for me. I was immediately met with understanding. I thought talking about it at work would make me feel too vulnerable. But it didn’t. It was a reasonable request to make. And it was a choice against bitterness.

I’ve read enough of Kristin Lavransdatter to know I want to keep reading, even if she does have all those sons. This novel has surprised me at every turn, already. But for now, I’m not going to reread the parts about Kristin’s secret pregnancy and agonizing birth story. I’m going to go forward and see what happens next.

Photo © Daniel Hentz

Hannah Piecuch is a staff science writer at Oceanus magazine and a designer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She holds an MFA in fiction, but has not written a word of fiction since completing it. She enjoys winter ocean swimming, long woods walks with her dogs, and eating oysters in months that contain “r”. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband. 

A fish flicking its tail

Photo by Leman on Unsplash

By Melissa Poulin

If I focus, I can almost feel that strange sensation again: a soft fluttering, like a bird’s wing or a fish tail. I remember laughing and crying at once when it happened, nearly halfway through pregnancy with my oldest, carried to term after a brief and frightening ectopic pregnancy. For weeks I’d been waiting for a sign that all was well with this new, improbable life within me, and for weeks I’d felt nothing– much later than every pregnancy app and website had told me I would. Later, at the ultrasound, we would learn the placenta was positioned between the baby and the front wall of my uterus, muffling any movement I might have felt until she was quite big, her kicks forceful. I felt that same familiar flutter with my second and third babies much earlier, so early I doubted it was real at first.

She didn’t answer but stood as if she were listening to something. Her gaze was remote and strange. Now she felt it again. Deep within her womb it felt as if a fish was flicking its tail… She had waited so long for this– she hardly dared to acknowledge the great fear in her soul.

Kristin has been alone with her secret for so long when she feels her son “quicken,” resentment growing in the corners of her heart that Erlend can’t see what’s so obvious to her. He is too wrapped up in the display of redemptive return he imagines their marriage brings him. Meanwhile, she wraps a thick cloth of shame around her middle to keep the news from her servants just a little while longer.

One of the many paradoxes of pregnancy is the feeling of being more alone than ever through the sudden presence of another being within the walls of your own body. You are both profoundly alone, and undeniably in company. No one else on earth can feel precisely this way. No one else is more responsible for the life of the helpless being you carry, and yet you are entirely without control of the ultimate outcome. Paradox is one way that we, as humans, recognize the holy. Pregnancy can be a sacred space opened up within one’s very body. For Kristin, the weight of her sin weighs so heavily on this sacred space, it threatens to cave in on her.

Reading “The Fruit of Sin,” I am most struck by the intense imagery that symbolizes Kristin’s deception and its consequences. Behind every shiny surface, from the procession to the estate, lies a rotting interior. It’s an interesting parallel to her experience of pregnancy– an external state at odds with the internal. Her pregnancy becomes a metaphor for the gestation of truth within as she makes the slow and painful journey toward reconciliation. Before she makes her physical pilgrimage to St. Olav’s shrine, she makes an internal pilgrimage as she approaches birth, unwinding the lies that have blinded her and bound her to her fate.

He suddenly understood with certainty– but he had realized it from the moment he first saw the tiny red infant face pressed against Kristin’s white shoulder: it would never be the same between them, the way it had been before, Erlend laments near the end of the chapter. For him, the transformation is at the surface: the child is the cause of the end of one part of their story together, and the beginning of a new one. As is often the case for mothers and fathers, the father marks the transformation at birth, while the mother had crossed the threshold to motherhood much earlier.

For Kristin, things haven’t been the same between them for a long time. When she began hiding the truth from Erlend and her family, an internal deception began, further entangling her in sin. Several times in this section, Kristin tries to put her finger on the moment everything began to change. Over and over, she returns to the moment she chose to betray her betrothed, her family, her faith, and herself.

Long before the outside world could see the change, the internal world of the soul felt a shift, like a fish flicking its tail.


Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.

Sunbeam, Moonbeam

monk

“A man who is a member of a religious order and lives in a monastery”

As in: a holy man

who hallows mountain streams

heals sick infants

possibly a saint.

No one said anything about gloves—

old leather gloves, once fine, now worn.

He said he would hang a glove

on a sunbeam for me.

No one said anything about his sly smile,

his jokes in Latin. This renegade brother,

this painter of dragons, this tall-stooped

gray liar who almost killed a man.

As in: the man who was a clasp across my life

between the dwarf maiden and the cathedral

between the wreath and the wife

between me and the vat.

This monk was never happy in a monastery.

He loved the Road even more than

Sister Poverty and Sister Charity. When I

walked the Road, he was at my side: invisible.

As in: a miracle-maker, standing there

in honey-gold midnight light,

laughing, he hung

a glove on a moonbeam for me

He somehow died without a hand, so I

gave silver to fashion him a new one.

But you, my merry monk,

you must find your own glove.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry, and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book forthcoming in April 2022. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. Find her on Twitter @meganwillome and Instagram at @meganwillome, or online at meganwillome.com

On Curses

I’m pretty sure I was cursed, once. It was the last morning of a women’s writing retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, in the summer of 2015.

A tall, silvery-haired woman gave me a hug, a firm pat on the thigh, and slipped a little handmade straw star in the left-hand pocket of my jean shorts. “Keep this!” she said, intensely. Then she was gone. 

We hadn’t struck up a friendship—if anything, she’d been kind of rude. I was puzzled but touched that she’d made me what I took to be a friendship star. 

I forgot all about it and spent the rest of the morning on a solo hike. The mountains were lovely, but I left with a slew of painful mosquito bites—even more than usual. By afternoon, the bites on my left leg had swelled to the size of golf balls. 

On my way to dinner, I limped past that same silvery-haired woman, who was burning herbs and chanting over another member of our workshop. Hmm, I thought to myself. I kept walking. 

A minute later, I reached into my pocket and found that straw star. It was prickly in my hands. I held it for a moment and then chucked it into the sagebrush. 

Within the hour, the swelling was gone and I could walk without pain.

Did the timing align with Benadryl hitting my system? Well, sure. Was I glad I’d remembered to throw that weird little twisty star out before I boarded my flight home? Again, sure. Better safe than sorry. 

Åashild Gautesdatter speaks a curse of sorts over Kristen when she mentions, off-hand, how perfect a couple Kristen and Erlend would be…if only Kristen was a bit more noble of birth. 

Kristen hones in on these words; they float right back when she meets Erlend, daring her to defy social constructs and prove Åashild wrong. 

A sidenote: Frau Aashild’s words to Kristen, and the power they seem to hold over her, stood out to me in the text, but that doesn’t mean this sits well with me—it’s almost as if this passage exists to take some of the blame away from Erlend, a man who just really deserves all the blame and then some. Erlend is a man who can’t seem to take responsibility for his actions to save his life. And here I am, focusing the blame on another woman in the story instead of on him. Am I making it all up? Am I just so programmed to protect men that I look anywhere else for a scapegoat? I’m not sure. I hope not.

It’s true, though, that Frau Aashild had strong influence over Kristen, and likely knew this, and certainly could have given Kristen a different picture of her nephew Erlend—a warning would have been much more appropriate than a recommendation. (But maybe a warning would have been another kind of curse, just as inviting to Kristen in its own way.) 

In any case, once she falls for Erlend, Kristen does seem to be spell-bound. She loses herself in her pursuit, shacking up with him in hay bales, then whorehouses, then outhouses (gross). She plots to elope with him but instead becomes witness to the shady suicide/murder of Erlend’s paramour. By her wedding, she’s a ghost of herself. Oh, and she’s pregnant—because, we learn, it’s just been too hard for Erlend to keep his hands off her when they’re alone. 

***

That little straw-star curse at Ghost Ranch didn’t upset me too much. Most likely, it was my overactive imagination, my loneliness and exhaustion, turning an eccentric old woman into something more sinister. At worst, it was extremely weak magic. Plus, now I have a fun party story to trot out if talk turns witchy. 

I hold onto the story for its imagery. It reminds me of how often we casually tuck little thought-barbs into each other’s pockets. Judgments, dismissals, rejections: those, I think, are the real curses. 

The thing about a curse—it seems strongest when hidden away. Once you see it for what it is, just words, usually born out of someone else’s pain, it often loses its power. 

I limped through my 20s, carrying painful words from others stuffed deep in my pockets. It took years of therapy, prayer, the steady love of my partner, faithful friendships, and honestly just time, to toss them aside and free myself of their power. 

Kristen doesn’t have that kind of support. Nobody at the abbey pays much attention to her (and before that, nobody was paying much attention at home) so she’s had no chance to talk things over with a mentor, or even a friend; there’s no way for her to gain any perspective, or step back and see Erlend for who he really is. Her guilt and shame heighten everything to a fever pitch. She tries to ease this pressure by seeking out her mentor, Brother Edvin. But he can’t confess her. And anyway, he’s part of the same system she is. While he radiates love and support, he also believes she’s committed a serious transgression. So she’s left to try to sort things out alone.

And maybe that’s the real curse—the silence of her community in the face of all she’s suffered: her sister’s tragic accident and illness, her mother’s neglect, her attempted rape, then her shunning after Arne’s death. In her loneliness, Erlend’s attention is intoxicating, and she sacrifices everything to feel singled out and special. 

Fairy tales often follow the story arc of a maiden who must break a curse. This is Kristen’s story arc, too: as she matures, she will begin to see Erlend for what he is, and to try and redeem her life and her choices in the best way she knows how. 

There’s still a part of me that wishes Kristen could have found a way to slip free of this particular curse a bit sooner, or that her path toward healing might be a bit less grueling. I wish that another woman in the story could have come alongside Kristen and given her the tools to break free of Erlend’s clutches. Her mother, maybe, or a wise older nun at the abbey. 

But I guess that’s part of the fascination of the book, and with fairy tales in general. As Kristen makes her choices, cursed as they seem to be, we come alongside her and sort through the patterns of our own life: our own bad decisions, our own best attempts at love, and our own path toward healing. 

Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.

The Outer Layers

It seemed to her that he alone knew her whole life – he had known the foolish child that she had been under her father’s care, and he had known of her secret life with Erlend. So he was like a clasp, she thought, which bound everything she had loved to all that now filled her heart. She was now quite cut off from the person she had been – the time when she was a maiden.  – KRISTEN LAVRANSDATTER, pp 252-254

Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part. – PHILIP YANCEY 

I love the smell of our home in the late afternoon. The aroma of garlic and onions drifts down the hall to my study where I craft words on paper to my younger self – trails of cumin and cayenne – a pot of beans simmering in a broth of smoked turkey necks pulls me from the long ago summer fling I’m trying to parse into coherent sentences – our foolish bodies full of foolish agency – how I left a splinter in my foot the night we slow-danced outside, and the tiny sliver calloused, taking decades to heal – a souvenir I thought romantic at the time. 

After hours of writing, I resist hunger and charge out the door in my gray canvas work pants and pink flannel with pearl buttons and pockets. I walk the 765 steps of our wooded drive.  Back and forth. With purpose, broken sentences still rattling inside my head – shards and fragments – how I flung myself into risk, not heeding my mother’s warning about women in our family. If a man looks at us hard, we’ll get pregnant.  I sit next to an old growth yellow pine and lean against the thick bark, puzzled and flaking easily.  I inhale the tree’s faint vanilla. My domestic savory perfume cleaves to the forest’s own spiced balm.  

Broad leaves layer the ground, breathing old leather and whiskey, the gnarled trunks and vines and branches now visible in winter – curves and rot – suspended bony elegance – new contours to discover.  I kneel for neon blue mold spreading over a fallen branch, wine speckles of gall wasp nurseries.  

The original owners of this property planted bulbs in the early 70s. Each spring, multiple varieties of daffodil, crocus, and muscari burst through oak leaves.  I am still learning what the land needs here. I am still learning the topography of my own heart, ever shifting.  There are no lessons from the past – only a path to where I am now. 

I love walking toward our home at sunset and catching the scent of our kitchen in full bloom. I learn the animal shapes in the leaves along the way – snake and armadillo and the muddy tracks edging the pond – raccoon, deer, coyote. 

Dennis calls from the screen door. He steps outside, and I see his silhouette against an amber glow, the shape of his hands lifting a round thing in the air – a giant wafer. He lowers the disk and hops and dances.  “Come and get it!” he shouts. It’s cornbread – a crisp outer layer, pillowy warmth inside – a kind of earth in my mouth.  I know this for certain and run toward him as if the fading light behind this delicious food is possible to grasp.

I sometimes wear Dennis’s oversized down coat he bought decades ago at Burlington Coat Factory. This man who knows all my secrets – who is no monk – who delights in cast iron and cornbread. The coat’s zipper is broken. Just walking with it open is a comfort. I want to lay down in the forest with this coat and spend hours gazing into the canopy. I can do that. I have that kind of life now. 

:

:

:

Fat, wet snowflakes drop from the sky, and I realize there is no desire to contact the man who impregnated me when I was 18.  

Those tiny fists melt before they hit the ground.

Joanna ES Campbell holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.  Her checkered past includes teaching ecological literature and land ethics in the Wilderness & Civilization Program at the University of Montana; organizing statewide heirloom tomato festivals; and graduating high school by the skin of her teeth. She is the undefeated 1986 jump rope champion of her elementary school in which she peaked athletically.  Her writing can be found in various guest blogs and anthologies as well as Farming Magazine, Art House America, Arkansas Review, Process Philosophy for Everyone, Relief, and Orion Magazine. She is co-author of the book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food, as Seen by a Mother and Daughter. Joanna lives on Petit Jean Mountain in central Arkansas where she putters with her husband on eleven wooded acres. She is currently writing a lyrical memoir drawn from her experiences of wilderness and community in North America. Follow her blog at joannaescampbell.com 

When The Earth Heaves A Sigh: A Craft Lesson In Description from Sigrid Undset

After I clicked save and sent off my sixty-second and final annotation for my MFA program, I swore I would never, ever write another. But here I am, seven years later, doing exactly that. FOR FUN. There’s a lot less pressure here though. For one, I don’t have to await the exacting critique of any brilliant mentor. But I’m grateful for all of those annotations and critiques—they made me a better reader, a reader who is also (almost) always a writer studying her craft.

In grad school, we got to choose most of the sixty-two books we read and wrote about, depending on our genre and specific interests. I mostly read travel writing because at that point in my life, all of my best stories and most transformative moments had happened while traveling, so that’s what I wanted to write about. I read some great travel writing during those two years and some pretty bad travel writing. I also wrote some good and not so good stuff of my own.

One thing I quickly learned about travel writing is the hazard of gratuitous description. This is true in any genre, but it’s a particularly easy pitfall when writing about a foreign or exotic place, a place you love and want to convince your reader to love as well. Every detail seems fascinating and vital, every adjective and adverb indispensable. Suddenly you’re swept away in a crush of unbridled scenery description—and pretty much nothing else. Like story or conflict or character development. Sort of just a long-winded postcard. So you have to be choosy, to kill your darlings—but great descriptions of place do more than paint a realistic picture. They multitask.  

Sigrid Undset could easily fall into the unrestrained description pit, writing about the natural splendor of her native Norway. I was captivated by her rich descriptive language from the outset, purely for its beauty: “On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds” (12).

This vivid description comes just a few pages into the novel’s first chapter, as young Kristin sets off with her father into the mountains. And here is where I first realized that Undset is up to something else in her lush descriptions. This sentence gives us a landscape to visualize, but it also sets the scene thematically. Details like golden-flamed, loomed, horizon, far off in the distance, merge with the clouds all contribute to the sense of vastness that Kristin discovers as she travels beyond her valley and village for the first time. Undset’s selection of detail creates an atmosphere the way music does in a film, putting the reader in the right mood for the story that will unfold. And at times, even putting us inside Kristin’s body and mind.

As I began to pay closer attention to Undset’s descriptions, I noticed something else. A good percentage of her chapters actually open with these types of multitasking landscape descriptions. The third section of The Wreath begins with the perfect example, as Kristin returns home to Jorundgaard from the convent after her family learns of her scandalous relationship with Erlend. It opens with another of Undset’s luscious descriptions of the landscape and season. Not all of Undset’s descriptions work double-time, but when they open a chapter, they nearly always relate directly to Kristin’s state of mind or hint at the direction the plot will turn.

So, in the first chapter of section three, Kristin comes home “during the loveliest time of spring,” consumed by her longing for Erlend:

Thin tendrils of water shone on the mountain slopes, which were shrouded in a blue mist day after day. The heat steamed and trembled over the land; the spears of grain hid the soil in the fields almost completely, and the grass in the meadows grew deep and shimmered like silk when the wind blew across it. There was a sweet scent over the groves and hills, and as soon as the sun went down, a strong, fresh, sharp fragrance of sap and young plants streamed forth; the earth seemed to heave a great sigh, languorous and refreshed (197).

Those mountains could have been wrapped instead of shrouded. That heat didn’t have to steam and tremble—there are plenty of other ways to describe heat. And a grassy meadow could just be a grassy meadow, but this one shimmers like silk. And with Undset’s pen, this earth heaves a sigh, and not just any sigh, but a languorous one. With that last flourish of personification, Undset has moved us from landscape to Kristin herself. Why just describe the scenery when the same words can also put the reader in a character’s lovesick body? The rest of the paragraph continues: “Trembling, Kristin remembered how Erlend had released her from his embrace. Every night she lay down, sick with longing, and each morning she awoke, sweating and exhausted from her own dreams” (197). In this masterful paragraph, Undset has made Kristin’s inner and outer landscape one.

Undset doesn’t always deliver such an immediate connection to her opening chapter description. Sometimes you have to wait for the reveal. Chapter three of this section, for example, begins with this chilly, foreboding description:

On this moonlit night the whole world was white. Wave after wave of white mountains arched beneath the bluish, washed-out sky with few stars. Even the shadows cast across the snowy surfaces by rounded summits and crests seemed strangely light and airy, for the moon was sailing so high. Down toward the valley the forest, laden white with snow and frost, stood enclosing the white slopes around the farms with intricate patterns of fences and buildings. But at the very bottom of the valley the shadows thickened into darkness (215).

This description is clearly not foreshadowing a happy plot turn. It sets the reader on edge—and wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the chapter, Erlend’s ex-mistress Eline is dead in a botched murder turned suicide. Undset’s chapter-opening descriptions have become something of a game for me, decoding them or anticipating whatever they may foretell for Kristin.

As a travel writer, I’m a sucker for good scene-setting, for evocative landscapes that transport you, for scrumptious nature writing that makes you shiver or sweat. But even the most stunning descriptions can grow tiresome, paragraphs you’re tempted to skip over to get back to the plot, unless there’s more at work than just a beautiful background. I don’t write fiction and I never plan to, but Undset has reinforced an important craft lesson. The next time I’m setting a scene, I’ll ask myself: How is this description contributing to the story? Could it do more? Could this be an Undset multitasking moment?

Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer, traveler and mother from Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus, CNF Sunday Short ReadsThe Best Women’s Travel Writing (Vol.12) and elsewhereShe has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and is at work on her first book, a memoir-in-essays exploring uncharted territory in travel and motherhood. Find her on Instagram at @kaitlinbarkerdavis or online at kaitlinbarkerdavis.com.

Boobs Out On The Zoom: On Perfection, Goodness, and the Wild Body

Last Friday I nursed my baby in a staff meeting. I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t even turn off my camera. I tilted the computer so that they could see me from the neck up, settled my girl at my breast, and kept talking about enrollment numbers. Other than a little hand that sometimes crept up into the frame, there was no evidence of my daughter, or that I was doing anything but being attentive to my colleagues.

I reveled at this secrecy. It felt a little transgressive, a little wild, to be boobs-out on the Zoom.

Why didn’t I just turn off my camera? My colleagues are understanding and lovely people; they wouldn’t mind.

Keeping the camera on felt like a brush with playing at being a different person than I am. It’s the same feeling I used to get as an undergraduate when I took a shot of vodka and heard my mom’s voice telling me to be careful. The same feeling I get now when I don’t floss (I know, what age does to a person’s sense of risk, eh?).  It’s that thrill of not being obedient. Whether it’s the dental hygienist who will surely berate me for plaque buildup, or the colleagues who don’t know that my body has become a sly, bared presence in our meeting, an expectation is getting subverted. A line is being (tentatively, sort of gently) crossed.

Usually, I’m a people pleaser. I love to meet expectations. I love to exceed them. And sometimes, when I’m tired and can’t bring myself to care anymore, I like to go boobs-out on the Zoom.

*

The line has been going around and around in my head all week. You do not have to be good.

Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese” echoes in my head at night when I’m wearily grading papers, or sending interview requests for an article I’m writing. Her words bite at me when I’m sweeping the floor, unloading the dishwasher, feeding my daughter mushy pears. When my son whines because he doesn’t have a scooter like the other kids at school, or snarls at me when I offer him an apple, or says Mommy I want another show instead of agreeing to watercolor with me, I hear Oliver, not quite berating, but admonishing a bit: You do not have to be good.

Meaning, stop. Meaning, who are you trying to impress. Meaning, give up being perfect, and snarl a little.

I let him watch a show. I don’t pitch a new article. I leave the dishes in the sink.

I return to the poem, with its loosening knot of expectations. Oliver begins,

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

The rhythm of the poem is what gets me: the double stress on not have. It feels like a pummeling, the way you might beat your fist against a table when really trying to make a point with someone you love who just isn’t getting it.

In Oliver’s poem, this line continues with the sensual, wild invocation to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. I read this and I think: I don’t love anything. I just want to fall to the ground and let my body become a pelt, discarded on the pine duff, a soft fur that other animals trod on. Then, passive, skinned, yielding, I can rest.

Look, I’m tired. I’m a burnt-out mother of two, working as a college writing instructor, freelancing, trying to publish poems, trying to be a good parent and partner. At some point in my 30s I realized I had too many ambitions. I wanted family, career, and writing. I wanted it all. I have managed to sort of have it, but at the cost of my sense of self. I’ve developed a sense of who I should be, and that woman does everything right. She is very good. She also definitely does not exist.

*

Kristin is not good in The Bridal Wreath. She is sinning, like, hard. I’m into it.

At first I had a mom reaction, or maybe an older sister reaction, to her decision to sleep with Erlend: girl, no. Naïve and sheltered, Kristin seems not to understand the risk of the tryst (try saying that three times fast). She thinks she’s in love, and I wondered if the relationship would hold up to her expectations. It seemed like any doomed affair for a 15-year-old, full of star-crossed unreality.

As the chapters progressed, though, I began to agree with her understanding of her own situation. Rather than feel guilty, she rejoices in her body’s decisions. She starts to look for imperfection in humanity around her. She sees that everyone around her has sinned. It doesn’t disgust her; that’s just how people are. She has this matter-of-fact understanding that all of us make mistakes, that sometimes those mistakes are deliberate and worthwhile. Brother Edvin tries to call her on this worldview, but I like that she dug in her heels. She’s crafting her own unique sense of morality, and I think her worldview is to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.

In The Garland, she tells Brother Edvin, “If I were to meet [Erlend] without here, when I go from you, and should he pray to go with him, I would go. I wot well, too, I have seen how there be other folks who have sinned as well as we…When I was a girl at home ‘twas past my understanding how aught could win such power over the souls of men that they could forget the fear of sin; but so much have I learnt now: if the wrongs men do through lust and anger cannot be atoned for, then must heaven be an empty place.”

What she’s saying is we’re all sinners. What she’s saying is sin matters, but that can’t be the only calculus. What of the body? What of love? What she’s saying is Meanwhile the world goes on.

Kristin’s formulation of her moral situation matters because she’s working within and at the same time contravening the expectations of her society. Sleeping with Erlend is clearly bad (not in my mind due to Kristin’s betrothal but because Erlend is, as another writer on this site so aptly described it, a fuckboy); but not sleeping with him is also, somehow, bad.

Kristin situation is very different than my own. She has transgressed a moral code in her religion and society; my only (imagined) transgression is not living up to my own expectations as mother, wife, and writer. Yet the ways in which those expectations are formed emerge intensely from my upbringing in a society that, like Kristin’s, expects women to be good.

Like Kristin, I live in a world in which goodness is an essential quality of womanhood, especially white womanhood. Kristin’s world was particularly obsessed with virginity and purity. Ours less so; female roles have shifted, although sexual practices remain quite a preoccupation. Adultery remains bad. Sleeping with someone before marriage might still be frowned upon, depending on your religious inclination, but it’s usually no longer a life-shattering sin.

I think the connection I’m making is about purity. In Kristin’s time, purity is associated with sex very explicitly. Nowadays we are pure about other things: our curated image on social media, or our political views. Kristin’s purity is a thing once lost, never regained; it can be justified with various workaround “we were married in the eyes of God” logic, but the sense of risk in the book is about spoilage. She is spoiled. One choice and her whole life can unravel.

For me that aligns it with the modern perfectionism that infuses womanhood. Depending on your own values and ethics, nowadays being good might mean being the perfect, loyal partner; or not rocking the boat when you disagree, choosing not to speak up with you get angry; or looking a certain way, having a certain body, performing a certain type of frenetic engaged parenthood. All this perfectionism feels dangerous. When women are obsessed with being good, we are not doing the things that matter to us, deep in our hearts. We are just ticking the boxes.

Is goodness when I rock my baby to sleep, singing her into the dreamworld, and don’t worry about the piles of papers to grade, or the unwritten essays? When I devote myself solely to her? Is badness when I put her down and let her cry herself to sleep because I am too tired and have a poem to write?

How do I know what it good? And maybe what is good — (did you judge me, just a little, when I said I let the baby cry herself to sleep? Because I judged myself) — maybe what is good is not what is obedient. That’s the crux I keep arriving at, that my body keeps resisting: that being good means holding onto an innate sense of ethical conduct, rather than just following the rules. When one has that definition of goodness in mind, being good can feel a lot like being bad.

It seems to be me that Kristin has an innate sense of ethics and rightness, which she feels out in her encounters with other people, verbally and intellectually with Brother Edvin and her father Lavrans; physically and emotionally with Erlend. If by goodness, Kristin’s society means following the rules and expectations, then she is not good. She is a fallen woman, a sinner. If by goodness, Kristin means following her internal compass, then she is pursuing a path that will lead her to happiness and confident selfhood (but also, not a very good marriage).

Lady Asahild is Kristin’s role model of such selfhood. Clearly she is one of the most noble characters in the book. She’s graceful, radiant, thoughtful, good. And yet she’s exiled to a small farm because of her illicit relationship and suspected of witchcraft.  She forms the model of a woman who has defied societal expectation and instead found true, innate ethical conduct. This reflects in her bearing, demeanor, and ageless beauty (because of course it does, good people are never ugly, not in books).

Is it that easy? We can choose exile from society and find contentment within? No, Undset doesn’t think so, and I don’t either. For women in medieval society and for women now, it’s never that easy. Society’s expectations of us are too intertwined with our expectations of ourselves. What I love about Kristin’s journey right now is how delicately and defiantly she unpicks that knot.

Kristin’s own mother explodes the definition of goodness in the final scene of The Bridal Wreath. Of course we’ve been expecting this revelation, if we’ve been following the subtle clues, but the revelation that she slept with other men prior to and even during the early part of her marriage shocks nevertheless. It also feels like a relief. “I mind me how you judged of Erlend Nikulaussön,” Ragnfrid tells Lavrans. “How judge you of me, then —?”

I loved this moment. Ragnfrid is chiding her husband for holding human beings to an impossible standard, a code that denies passion and love and lust. And yet the dash at the end of this line is where I imagine Ragnfrid’s uncertainty creeps in. Even as she asserts a definition of goodness — or perhaps not goodness, but perhaps grace, forgiveness, compassion, which comprise a fuller understanding of human behavior that simply being good — her voice breaks. She is afraid. Because her life is tied up financially and practically in her husband’s, and we cannot live outside of our relationships with other people. Her decisions ripple outside her own self. Just as Kristin cannot sleep with Erlend in secret and have it remain secret; eventually, a pregnancy will bring their decision to public view. Human behavior erupts into society and transgresses or aligns with the collectively decided social mores and rules. We cannot all live on an isolated farm and be self-sufficient. Some of us have to figure out how to be good among others — and for Ragnfrid, the goodness of letting herself experience love has meant betraying someone else she cares about.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

And her husband, who is a good person, can somehow see that conflict in his wife and honor it. He values religious definitions of sin, but he also values his family above all else.

What Kristin teaches me this month is about another type of value: the value of letting go of those codes we’ve grown up with, or perhaps adjusting them to fit into the soft folds of our bodies, the coiled soft plaits of our hair. Perhaps watching those codes mold themselves around our bodies, rather than forcing our bodies around the rules in rigid strictures. What Kristin teaches me is that while I’m stressing about discipline and nap schedules and my next essay, meanwhile, the world moves on. That is an invitation, I think, to loosen the whalebone corsets of goodness, and take a deep breath.

Caitlin Dwyer is a writer, storyteller, poet and multimedia journalist. She’s always curious about the deeper story behind the headlines. Her essays braid reflection, observation, journalistic interviews, and scholarly research, all in search of intimate, human portraits. In her poetry, she explores mythology and motherhood. She also helps produce and host the podcast Many Roads to Here. She studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong and creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She also teaches writing with Portland Community College. At home, she often plays Wonder Woman and/or Evil Queen in epic pretend games with her children. If she’s not teaching, writing, or parenting, she is probably wandering around in the forest or lost in a book.