Flashes

Our group of women writers and readers have bid adieu to Kristin and hello to L.M. Montgomery’s Emily. This year, we will read and write about Montgomery’s Emily trilogy: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and, Emily’s Quest.

I’ve not read these books (and I’ve only read the first Anne of Green Gables, and not as a child, but as a mother of girls who asked me to read it to them), so I don’t know much about the books except what I think I remember the Project Reduxers saying about them: there is a bit of magic and mysticism to them, they’re kind of strange, and they are Montgomery’s attempt at resisting what it was the world expected of her as a woman writer. Whether I remember correctly or not, this was enough for me to read the books, and so on the first week of January, I began reading about the house on the hollow, the Wind Woman, the Adam and Eve spruce trees (named because of the apple tree between them), and Emily’s “flashes” – moments when she’d catch a “glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music….” The moments, “came rarely, went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it – never summon it – never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days.”

Except for the “inexpressible delight” part, these sure sound a lot like hot flashes.

Emily is too young – a child – and these are not what they are, though I did take a bit of comfort thinking the flashes I’m experiencing might remind me that I am “very, very near to a world of beauty” as they do Emily.

Here’s when they arrive: “…with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a ‘description’ of something.”

This is not magic or hormones – this is attention. Emily has the gift of attention. Emily might not be able to summon the flashes, but she remains alert. She remains faithful – because when they come, Emily is reminded that life is “a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.”

My flashes feel like shame. That is, they make me think I’m embarrassed of something, or should be embarrassed because this is what happens when I am ashamed or embarrassed. Heat blossoms my cheeks and travels up and down my neck to my scalp, the lobes of my ears, my neck, and then sits in my chest.

“I am ashamed,” my mind tells me. Then, “No, I’m 47.”

I still believe in persistent beauty. I still believe that life is wonderful and mysterious and on a grey Sunday when I’m getting the last of the groceries and driving home and I stop at a light and I notice the Canadian geese that were yellow and fluffy this spring and are now the size and color of their mom and dad and they are waddling tall and proud across the street so that when the light turns green, nobody moves, the flash comes then, and I think of Emily.

I decide there is nothing to be ashamed of, and like Emily, I choose to pay attention.

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.

A Kristin Lavransdatter Essay

Some Saturday in late September, I was determined to finish Kristin Lavrandatter. I had about 200 pages left – an amount that doesn’t seem like much given that the book is 1,124 pages – and I would crank them out in 48 hours, along with a few essays if it was the last thing I did.

It was barely the first thing I did.

I woke up well past 10 that Saturday, trying not to feel guilty about it because I am more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life, but I was annoyed because 10am may as well be 4pm as far as I’m concerned. The day was basically over.

Then, I go downstairs to find a pot with chicken in it boiling over on the stove. Boiling over chicken is a disgusting smell, especially at well past 10 in the morning. Saturday mornings should smell like fresh brewed coffee, Earl Grey tea, bacon, and blueberry pancakes, or sourdough toast with Irish butter. They should not smell like boiled over chicken. Come to think of it, no part of the day should smell like this. Boiled over chicken is the smell of boredom.

“What is happening?” I croaked to anyone who would listen. Hadley was the lucky one.

“What?”

“What do you mean, what?” I said, pointing to the stove. “Do you see this?”

No, she did not see it because she was not in the kitchen. But goodness, couldn’t she smell it? Or maybe the smell dulled her senses. I believe this could happen. I believe boiled over chicken is that powerful, which is why I was acting like Hadley and I were being attacked.

“We have to do something!” I screamed and proceeded to do nothing because I am of the sort to point out a problem and do nothing about it.

Hadley got up off the couch where she was sitting and in a simple yet effective move, pushed the pot off the burner.

All was calm. All was bright.

But not for me. For me, the damage had been done. These two incidents – oversleeping and boiled over chicken – that most human beings would consider benign completely rattled me and threw me off my K-L game. But damn it, what good is a well-laid plan if it’s not followed? So I sat down in my reading chair in my writing room, and opened the story.

Do you know I have a reading chair and a writing room? I do. I have both of these things. Some people call it my office or my study, but I need very clear definitions about where I’m going and what I’m doing because I have big feelings and a bigger imagination and wanderlust is my BFF and my writing room is the place all these things are not contained but come alive, are content and wild, and can live and be.

The place where my chair is used to be a closet, but unless you’re CS Lewis, what in the world does a writing room need a closet for? And so I said to Jesse, “Off with that door! I need it no longer! It shall be the place where my reading chair will be forever more.”

I said those exact words to him. This is why they’re in quotation marks, and since Jesse’s known (and let’s face it, LOVED) me for over a quarter of a century, he knows it’s far better to give me what I want then it is to explain the reasons, the probably very rational reasons, that what I want might not work. He knows though, that it’s no use fighting big feelings, a bigger imagination and my BFF wanderlust with rationality and reason. Ask any engineer. I am the hurricane storm surge that has no triangular formula to predict the damage I will cause JUST GIVE ME WHAT I WANT.

Above my reading chair is a framed print of the entire play of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Jesse gave me this when my first book, The Teacher Diaries was published. (You should totally buy it. It’s really good and also raising two teenage girls is expensive.) Next to that is the ISBN number the Library of Congress assigned The Teacher Diaries. It’s in rose gold foiled print, and my great friend Ashlee Gadd sent that to me. (She has a book coming out in March – Create Anyway– and you should totally buy that, too.) Next to that is a print I found in a shop in Ann Arbor one afternoon when I was shopping with my cousin, Tara. It reads, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.”

“We have to get this,” I said to Tara, and I think she was a little disturbed at my enthusiasm at the suggestion that perhaps our grandma was a witch and also that someone tried to burn her. It’s disturbing. I bought the print though, because I know a bit of what she survived – born in Aleppo, Syria, a young mother stepping on a boat to escape to America with her husband, their 5 and 6 year old girls with them; a widow whose husband was killed by a drunk truck driver. I like to believe that her granddaughters have something of her in us that cannot be burned.

So this is my reading corner that is no longer a closet. It’s more of a nook, and it is here, where I put on the valiant effort of about five minutes to finish Kristin Lavransdatter, but reading this medieval Norwegian trilogy when I’m annoyed (remember the boiled over chicken?) is not a good idea.

//

What I had hoped for with Kristin Lavransdatter was that it would be a book that would take me away from the care of boiling over chicken. That is, I would be so involved, so swept away by this story that whatever concerns I had about my life were forgotten. At least, for a time. I hoped Kristin would take me away and show me boldness and beauty in a woman’s life, in a homemaker’s life. I wanted Kristin to show me the romance of adventure in faithful and humble living, so I might see it (and try it?) in my own life.

Instead, Kristin’s character got on my last nerve with her guilt and her complaining and her nonstop disappointment of everyone in her life. I’d slam the book and declare, “I hope I’m never like that.”

Kristin wouldn’t leave me alone, though, and because of Sigrid Undset’s meticulous, lyrical storytelling, because I fell in love not with Kristin (or any of the characters for that matter, well, except Erlend), but with Undset’s writing, I often found Kristin tapping on my shoulder at points in my days. She wasn’t mocking me, it was more that the tapping on my shoulder I felt from her was an invitation to look her in the eye, to be embraced by this flawed heroine, and to hear her say, “See? This is all so very hard.”

Several of the women in this project, including me, wished Kristin had a best friend – or even a friend – but I’m thinking now that Undset created a character to be a friend to us. We needed to see a woman break off on her own, make decisions by herself, work her ass off for her family, and village. We needed to see a woman who was never satisfied, who brooded, who raged, who nagged, who got on peoples’ nerves, who was never happy with who she was, and who was unequivocally and completely loved. At least, that’s what I needed.

What I hoped for was a woman of confidence and certainty. What I got was a woman a lot like (maybe too much) like me.

//

My reading of Kristin Lavransdatter ends similarly where it began – on a Thursday in my favorite coffeeshop in Ann Arbor. I’d dropped Harper off at dance, and made my way to a seat at the counter so I could look out the window. One of the reasons I love this shop is because they serve coffee in giant mugs I have to hold with both hands, and I turn that into a ritual. I sip and watch the people go by on the bricked street with holly and twinkle lights above them, and I let the coffee work its magic so I can transition into medieval Norway after working an 8 hour shift at Concordia University’s Registrar’s office.

Kristin is saving a young boy who is being buried alive when two students walk into the coffeeshop. The men who are attempting to kill the boy tell Kristin to get out of the way because it’s better for him to die then it is for the entire village. “He belongs to no one -” and Kristin stops him and says, “He belongs to Christ. Better for all of us to perish than for us to harm one of his children.”

One of the students pulls out a chair next to me, and asks if it’s OK if he sits there. I say yes, and Kristin wants to find the young boy’s mother, who she learns lives in a hovel, and who has been left for dead. She says she must go find her, that she will pay for her grave and funeral. She asks if anyone will go with her and suggests they’ll go the next day. A man screams at her: “You’ll have to go alone.” Then, he tells her to go now. He tells her if she wants him to believe in the mercy of God, she better go now. So Kristin goes.

The two students discuss Philosophy and Chemistry. They know about Politics and Religion. They are so very bright and well-polished and it is on the last pages of Kristin Lavransdatter that I learn about the most subtle, slow-burning love story I’ve ever read: a man named Ulf Haldorsson loves Kristin with all his heart, but she will never know. He goes with her to help find the mother. The two of them are in the dark of the house, and Ulf reminds Kristin of her great gift – her ability to see the light in the darkness. She was always trying to search for that light. “You must come here and light the way for me, Kristin,” Ulf tells her. And so she does.

The students discuss the great football game on the previous Saturday. They know why Michigan won, and why OSU lost. They know these things better than Harbaugh and also JJ, and Ulf and Kristin find the mother, who is dead, and Kristin prays over her while they carry her out of the house.

It is the plague the mother died of and passed along to Kristin. It happens fast. “All that was contained within her breast was ripped out,” and she cannot stand anymore so Ulf picks her up and carries her. He stays by her side until Kristin dies.

The boys next to me start to talk about a girl. She is beautiful, the boys admit. She is vivacious and kind and smart. “But she is Catholic,” one of them say. They go on to discuss the problem of Catholic women while Ulf and a priest step outside shortly after Kristin dies, to breath some fresh air. The air “tasted sweet and cool, a little empty and thin, but as if this snowfall had washed sickness and contagion out of the air; it was as good as fresh water.”

“Without thinking, they both walked as lightly and carefully as they could in the new snow.” It is the last sentence in the book, and I do my best to catch the tears that are welling before they fall onto the page. I am crying because Ulf loves Kristin. I am crying because I didn’t love Kristin until the very end and now I miss her. I am crying because there are so many problems with all of us – Catholic or not – all of us daring each other to save the world right now so that we might believe in the mercy of God but refusing to go along and help.

But it is time to get Harper, so I close the story, fit it into my backpack, take my mug and saucer to the plastic tub, and walk out the door, into December air that also tastes sweet and cool and empty and thin. Outside the dance studio a man lights a cigarette, or probably it’s a joint. He leans against the wall next to the studio door, lifts the stick to his mouth and inhales. I must be watching him in disgust because he looks me in the eye and exhales; the smoke makes me flinch.

These dancing days are numbered. It is swim that has Harper’s heart now, and that is just fine. I want my girls to continually surprise themselves, I want them to never be afraid to try something new. And when they find something that completes them, that won’t let them go, that calls out to them and whispers, “Try, try, try,” I want them to have the courage to do whatever it takes to keep trying, even when it’s overwhelming and confusing and sad and scary. I hope I’ve showed them that. I cannot protect them from the world, but I can show them the very many ways there are to live in it.

The man takes another drag, and this time, he blows it toward the door, and Harper is walking down the stairs, and I watch as the smoke flies up and evaporates just as Harper opens the door to outside.

She smiles, and we move on to whatever it is we will do next.

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.

I Want Ease

I’m losing steam on Kristin Lavransdatter. I’m halfway through “The Wife,” and every time
I try to pick it back up, Kristin is just … having such a very hard time. Lots of birthing, lots
of babies. Lots of tears, prayers, snow, and morose silences in the manor. At one point,
she just wanders off into the woods during wolf season. And I can’t really blame her. 


As I write this, sweet little Lee is napping, and I’m tucked up on the couch while Trevor
sketches. I’m listening to Brandi Carlile and watching bright yellow leaves fall outside my
window. It’s a nice moment. 

But this morning, Lee woke up puking. Well, no, that’s not quite right. He woke up
grumpy but thoughtfully waited to actually puke until he walked into the white carpet in
our living room. Within that same dark hour, I managed to clog the toilet, resulting in a
spectacularly disgusting bathroom flood.

Lee’s okay now. He’s kept down Tylenol and we’ve snuggled him within an inch of his
life. We’ve talked to the doctor. I’ve given the bathroom a vigorous scrub. I’ve given the
carpet a vigorous scrub. And I’ve taken a very hot shower. 

But I’m going to be honest: in this hour of peace, I have zero desire to read about a
medieval mother struggling to make it through the day. 

Are there stories about the lightness of motherhood? Not sappy, not unrealistic. But
real, and true-to-life, and also … light? Please, if you know of any, send them my way. 


That wolf scene might just speak to my longing for lightness, actually. Maybe that’s why
it’s stuck in my mind. 

Quick summary: Kristin, super pregnant and kind of woozy, wanders away from home
through the woods, searching for her mother. She ends up instead in the hut of a
peasant named Audfinna, a mother herself, but one who seems to wear it all rather
lightly. Audfinna is unruffled by Kristin’s sudden visit. She shoos her well-behaved
children into the other room and serves Kristin a delicious meal she just happened to
have on hand, along with a few glasses of ale. She can see that Kristin is homesick, so
they talk about Kristin’s homeland. 

Inwardly, Audfinna pities Kristin. She’s shocked that Kristin has been neglected and
alone so soon before her labor. But Kristin doesn’t pick up on this. She’s just happy to
have stumbled upon a friend in the storm, someone who makes her feel at home.

After a while, Erlend and his men show up to take Kristin home. The wolves follow them
all the way back. Once they make it, Erlend tries to understand why Kristin wandered
away so thoughtlessly, putting so many people in so much danger. Does she have a
death wish? Kristin can’t explain why she left. And she can’t feel remorse, either. She
only feels relief at having found what she needed — a little pocket of lightness. If she had
to risk frostbite and fang, so be it. 


When I have the capacity to give Kristin Lavransdatter my full attention, I am always
rewarded. This wolf scene, for example: it’s a powerful reminder of the healing, intuition,
and strength within feminine community.

I particularly like the inclusion of Audfinna’s inner dialogue, showing that she’s not very
impressed by Kristin. She’s caring for Kristin because, well, Kristin needs care. And that
is enough. I like that implication here: that it’s not only chummy friendship we need as women. We need simple caretaking, too. I think of doulas, lactation coaches, therapists, support groups, and co-ops. I haven’t become best friends with everyone I’ve met in these spaces, of course. But I’ve been well cared for by so many there, and I’ve learned a lot from the women I’ve met there.

I’m also intrigued by the deep, primal longing for mothering that initially drives Kristin
into the woods. Against all reason, she heads into the deadly forest to seek healing … and she finds it. She finds exactly what she’s been craving by following that intuition. On paper, it’s nonsensical. She can’t explain it to Erlend. But still … it worked. I think there’s power in that story, baffling as it may be. 

Again and again, Undset makes space within her story for the feminine experience in
ways that truly must have been groundbreaking in the 1920s because they still seem
pretty groundbreaking today. I have learned so much from what I’ve read. And I hope
that soon, I’ll have the capacity to finish. 

But for now, I’m going to take a page out of Kristin’s book — I’m going to follow my gut
and run toward whatever lightness I can find. I’m not sure where this will take me just
yet. But I sure do hope it includes a few glasses of strong ale and a friend who feels like
home.

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.

All Fires Burn Out

By Hannah Piecuch

*Spoiler alert*

The last chapters of Kristin Lavransdatter are like coming out of a storm into flat calm. Swimming through high surf, not sure when you’ll be able to take the next breath, trying to navigate seaweed-covered boulders in turbid water. And then, around the point, into the harbor, sheltered at last. The wind dies down. All fires burn out sooner or later. 

So many of Kristin’s problems seem quelled after Erlend dies. Suddenly she can make order out of her life. She spends time with her sons. Her estate is farmed well. And she, who has been longing for God this whole time, makes a pilgrimage to an island Abbey to take the vows of a nun. 

The novel is nested again in the scenes that open it: the pastures of her home, a journey through the elf-haunted countryside, and the order of a monastic community. In the arc of the story, Erlend seems like both a bitter mistake and a choice she would make again. She and Erlend couldn’t live well together, but she kept choosing him. 

After I finished Kristin I went to the library and checked out Emma Straub’s new novel This Time Tomorrow. I love Emma Straub. Her novels always surprise me. I got this sense of fiction logic from all the male-authored short stories I read in graduate school. That logic always included marriage disasters. You know, Hemingway, Carver, Cheever. The man blows everything up and then goes to nurse his sorrow at a bar. Emma—can I just call her that?—makes it possible for everything to get blown up. But then there is always a turn towards generosity at the end. One spouse confesses whatever they have been hiding—whatever the source of tension has been across the plot—and somehow the confession makes them both laugh. 

This Time Tomorrow is not about a marriage, though. It is about a father and daughter who can time travel. I read it in a couple sittings. This father and daughter know a secret way to go back and forth through time. And the daughter is desperately trying to change small things in order to make her father live longer. But there is only so much she can do, because whether she’s 16 or 40 she is still herself, and some things are inevitable. 

And that’s how Kristin and Erlend are, I think. They remain themselves throughout this tale. There is only so much they can do. Some things are inevitable. 

At first, as I floated in the flat calm of the Kristin Lavransdatter’s end, I thought that Erlend had been Kristin’s only problem. But then, she starts troubling over her living sons. There is friction with her sister, with her new daughter in law. 

All through the novel it seems that Erlend is the one out of touch with reality, the one who thinks he has never betrayed a single person who put their trust in him. But here at the end, it seems like Kristin, too, doesn’t see quite clearly.

She muses on the two sons who have died with the same kind of magical thinking that made her so sure Erlend would come to her in the final pregnancy. “…her dead children were always with her. In her dreams they grew older, and flourished, and they turned out, in every way, to be exactly as she had wished.” 

Here is a woman for whom nothing has gone exactly as she wished. 

I am not sure what to make of the end of this novel. I’m not even getting into her time at the Abbey, or her death by plague. Maybe this writing community, these women here on Project Redux, will write things that help me make sense of it. 

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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. 

How Far Away, How Close

It’s early morning on All Saint’s Day, and I’m driving with my 7-year-old daughter through the rainy dark, having dug her out from under her comforter with the promise of a cinnamon bun and steamed milk after mass. At the red light I roll my neck in a slow circle, cranky from a night of fractured sleep. Our 22-month-old had woke and slept at right angles between us all night. An octopus searching for its keys has long been my favorite metaphor for the sleep habits of the very young, and this particular octopus had stayed up way past bedtime to trail her siblings up and down doorsteps in the pouring rain, exhilarated by the thrilling results of her new phrase: “trick-or-treat.”

Truth be told, the morning after Halloween is a poor one for early rising. All three of my kids are a tired, weepy mess. But I’d determined to counterbalance the commercial holiday, for once, with grounding in its Christian counterpart. So off to mass we go.

Entering the church, we slide into a pew and into the liturgy. Though somewhat familiar, coming from an Episcopal background, the Catholic mass is still new to me. I watch others to see when to stand, kneel, or, most beautifully of all, lift my hands as though catching snowflakes. And my daughter watches me, lifts her hands when I do, and sings along with the unfamiliar songs in the missal. Last year she learned to read, and this year, as a beginning piano student, she is learning to read music. I tear up, watching her put the two together in worship.

I feel deeply grateful to be learning these new traditions together. For a long time, I’d been wanting to bring more of my faith into the rhythms of our family life. But this year has been different. I see now that what I’ve needed to do is to bring more of my faith into the rhythms of my own life.

Last December, with trepidation and caution that seem comical to me now, I’d begun praying the rosary. I even called it the “Anglican rosary,” careful to reassure myself that what was happening within me wasn’t what I thought it was: conversion to the Catholic faith. But in hindsight, I can see that’s exactly what it was.

//

Though brought up with church (the United Church of Christ, to be precise), I wasn’t exactly raised in church. Though I’m incredibly grateful for my early exposure to the Christian faith, I wouldn’t say I was really raised Christian. Faith was something we largely practiced and left in church on Sundays, attached to a place and a time. I’m not sure why, or if there was a definitive turning point, but some time after I was confirmed at 13, our family stopped attending church together. Sometimes I’d ask to go and my dad would take me, or they’d drive me to youth group functions, but it ceased to be part of our weekly family rhythm.

So now I find myself playing a more intentional, active role in my own children’s faith formation than my parents played in mine, and it can feel a little lonely at times, though my nonreligious husband has always been quietly, patiently supportive. Our Episcopal church has been like family to us since we moved to Portland in 2010, and in some ways it feels like a betrayal to cross over to a Church many in our congregation had fled.

I’m discovering how much unexamined, unspoken anti-Catholicism there has been throughout my formation as a Protestant. It shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it has been, to discover that just as there are huge gradients in the flavors of Protestant Christianity, so too are there many ways of belonging within Catholicism. It shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it has been, to find people within the Church with progressive political views like mine. As author Mary Gordon writes, “…for most people, Catholic means only one of three things: a regrettable tendency to lean right, an appetite for sexual repression, an inborn or early-developed talent for blind obedience.” Of course (of course), this is far from the reality of lived experience for many, many Catholics.

And, though I’ve been surprised over the course of this year to find myself feeling drawn ever more strongly to Catholicism, in some ways I also wonder if I have always been on my way here.

For me, to participate in the liturgy is to experience the physical presence of God. Just as I knew I was home when I first attended an Episcopal church service, and experienced a strongly liturgical tradition for the first time, the Catholic mass just about knocks me over with its beauty. Looking back, I see that just as I have always loved to read and write poetry, I have always loved common or “rote” prayer, particularly the Lord’s Prayer. Learning the rosary was like filling in the missing pieces to a song I have been trying to sing my whole life. In particular, I always look forward to forming the shapes of the words in the Salve Regina– “Hail Holy Queen”– a Marian hymn and the final prayer of the rosary, which I find achingly beautiful.

It’s more than beauty, though. It’s something I don’t have words to articulate, and maybe never will. The Episcopal church is not so far off from the Catholic church; much of what I love about the Catholic mass is true of the Episcopal service, too. But the differences, which on the surface may seem subtle, especially to someone whose conversion to faith is from no faith at all, are also vast.

The Real Presence, sacramental confession, the unity of the Church with the very first, with the Pope at its head, in a direct line from Peter. And Mary. Everything about Mary. These things I found so easy to ignore, while busily shutting my heart to Catholicism, now strike me as massive and undeniable.

Conversion is a journey all Christians travel, over and over again, over the course of a lifetime. Turning and returning to Christ, over and over again, as we shed ever more of our small, false selves and find our true selves revealed in Him, we find our faith ever new. We outgrow the versions of God that serve us for a time, embracing a newer, fuller picture of His love and mercy.

//

The fog hangs low and heavy as we leave the church, the fluttering of coats and clicking of heels around us muted in the air. On this feast day of the saints, perhaps the air is thick with the presence of those who came before us.

As far as I know, I don’t have any Catholic blood relatives on either side of my family, and so I’m embracing Undset– and by extension, Kristin, her fictional persona– in my personal cloud of witnesses. She joins my chosen Saint Monica– mother of reluctant convert Augustine, wife to a husband who converted only on his deathbed, and patron saint of mothers. How incredible, that words written over a century ago could carry something of Undset’s own conversion, at the time still in-process, and intersect with my own.

Rereading my very first post for this project, I’m struck by my tidy little summary of the novel as I thought I had known it, when I first read it in 2013: “A trilogy now nearly a century old, that brings the 1920s feminist quest for freedom to bear on medieval Norway and Catholicism.” When I read the book as a grad student, I read it as proof of a toxicity I identified with the brutal patriarchal forces of the medieval Church. I may even have assumed Undset agreed with me, given the unflinching way she allows her protagonists to work out their problems on their own. But knowing what I know now about Undset, about her indictments of modern Norwegian secular and Protestant culture, and eventual conversion to Catholicism, my anachronistic feminist reading couldn’t be further from the truth, as Undset intended it.

I’m also struck by the questions I set out to ask: “Is happiness real? Is happiness beside the point?” Kristin does seem to be seeking happiness, of a sort, throughout the novel, and like so many do today, she finds that seeking happiness by way of self-fulfillment leads her further and further away from it.

How far away is your happiness? goes the poem by Malena Morling.

If I answer that question for myself, after this year of the wholly unexpected, it’s not that happiness is beside the point. It’s that the source of happiness is often just beside you, in the one place you weren’t looking. Or, for me, the one place I was trying so hard not to look. So far away, and so close, all at once.

After I finished reading Kristin, I read Undset’s two “modern” conversion novels, Wild Orchid and Burning Bush. I’m now reading the third part of Olav Audunsson, the medieval epic Undset began early on in her writing career, and which she kept in a drawer for over thirty years after it was rejected. It’s possible to say of all of these novels what Aidan Nichols writes about Kristin, in his new biography Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts: “In the novel as a whole, but above all in its concluding part, persons are engaged in a supernatural drama inasmuch as their lives and actions have a deeper meaning that they themselves know.”

All of these books are very much about the spiral of consequence of sin, and how the longer we avoid returning to God– repenting or converting, from the Greek metanoia, to fall face-down before God– the further we travel from our deepest selves and our deepest happiness, which are only to be found in God.

As Samantha Stephenson writes in Reclaiming Motherhood, there are two opposing visions of happiness: “The culture’s message: We will be happy when we finally get whatever we want. The Church’s vision: We become happy by being who we were made to be and in union with God.” Kristin spends the majority of the book chasing her lost honor, refusing humility, and imprisoned by pride. It costs her everything. It’s in giving up the need for honor, accepting her sin, and turning in humility to God that she finds freedom, and arguably, happiness.

In so many ways, as so many contributors have described here on the blog this year– in wonderful variety, depth, humor, and creativity– I’ve found myself relating to Kristin again and again over the course of a year’s reading. In this final way, I can say that I can relate as well. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for happiness via self-fulfillment, under the unconscious assumptions that avoiding suffering and seeking control will bring freedom and meaning. Instead I am finding freedom, joy, and a deeper happiness within the mystery of the Church, in relationship with God.

How different are we, really? I asked a year ago. It turns out we are not so very different, Kristin and me. Not so very different at all.

Photo by Finn IJspeert on Unsplash


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.

Love Is Fire

by Megan Willome

One of the joys of reading and writing in community with Project Redux has been seeing my
beloved heart book through others’ eyes. Caitlin Dwyer noticed the fire in the very first chapter
in a way I hadn’t. So while rereading the book past year, I took a cue from her and paid attention to fire in the story: where it rises up and where it burns out, sooner or later (as Simon says).

Alternating refrains call for a villanelle, so that’s the form I chose. I did not follow the proper
rhyme scheme, only the repetition (and I let mine go on a little too long, like this book). Because Kristin Lavransdatter often repeats but doesn’t always rhyme. So much of this book is messy.

Just like I am messy — trying to make sense of my life, writing the same words over and over. I
am a woman on fire, crying onto my own flint as I try to rekindle flame in my empty hearth.

When Kristin leaves Jorundgaard for good, I finally start to like her. When she is only The
Widow Kristin, capable of joining a convent but not of becoming a nun. When she discovers the
mob of men bent on burying a child alive to end the plague and screams, “I am like you.” When
she realizes her passionate, messy marriage has forever marked her as bound to the Virgin Mary
and to God.

Hers is a fire that only new snow can quench. That’s what falls on Ulf and Sira Eiliv as they
walk away from her deathbed. The words echo a scene from 690 pages earlier. Snowy payoff;
slow burn.

I believe that in her afterlife Kristin at last goes into the heart of the mountain, to dwell forever
with the Mountain King. Where fire is free to play and be happy, to love.


Love Is Fire
a villanelle in Kristin’s voice

The campfire had almost died, but I poked it
to life with a stick. The elf maiden beckoned.
All fires burn out sooner or later.

From the moment Erlend touched me, I was aflame.
The sagas say it’s not a romance unless something burns.
Fire rose up, burned its mark forever onto my finger.

The fire between him and his brother, the priest,
cooled to embers before they parted, for even
the fire of brotherhood burns out sooner or later.

There was always a storm when Erlend was around.
I saw the cross on fire, alive and moving. He rushed in,
and fire rose up, consuming my childhood church.

The cookhouse fire at Husaby extinguished
the morning the soldiers arrested Erlend.
His ancestral fire did burn out sooner or later.

I was a neglectful mother. My twins were wild!
Only Simon could speak sense to them.
Fire rose up in the goat shed, but they chopped it out.

I was a cruel wife. Erlend was wholly mine after he lost
Husaby, but I let my heart grow cold.
My fire for him burned out. Sooner and later.

Simon loved me—always loved me. He thought
about me for twenty years. How did I fail to see
how fire rose up in him and burned him to death?

When my flint was useless after too many tears
I knew it was time to leave with the beggars.
Sooner or later even homefires burn out.

I carried a torch into a cemetery and a hovel,
became fireweed, spread red tassels everywhere.
Fire in me blazed up, poured out in dark red haze.


I am inside the mountain, where fire ever rises up,
where the Mountain King ensures it never burns out —
Not sooner.
Not later.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.

What Really Matters

By Joanna ES Campbell 

When the body betrays or the mind plays a trick, this mountain teaches  what really matters. Our house rests in a cleft near the south brow – or, in a friend’s ticklish words, God’s eyebrow. Dennis bakes bread, and I carve thick slices for toast, as if it’s a turkey. 

Love the land

Love yourself

Love others

What really matters are the plants on my window sill and patience in resurrection ferns. The intelligence of paxil.  I follow lichens of their own map-making – places unknown on yellow pine, emerald bark puzzling onto copper needles. I can not hear the forest inside my house. Not really. Not the minute clicks and hicks of a movable world. Are those Ants? Worms? The chatter of millions. 

What matters is the muscle I’ve learned will tear. My fingers will curl from hours of carving. I whittle away the days – literally – stilled by a piece of green maple in my hands and the anatomy growing with each stroke of the knife. I curl the wood and wonder what is left beyond the shape of a spoon. The core. 

What really matters is multivitamins for menopause and heeding the stranger’s advice at Jiffy Lube, “Be gentle with yourself,” she tells me as she pays her bill.  Her muddy boots, perhaps a clue. “It’s real, the effect on your psyche.”  You got it, I nod. 

What really matters is the vulture near the edge of the cliff, the air sliced open by wings. Yes, enough. 

Or the pelican far from this mountain who dives head first into the ocean. Over and over, unflagging in their belief. Yes, enough. 

As if the water knows a secret. 

Maybe it has something to do with the suede roller skates given to me by my wild-haired priest of a husband. Or maybe it is the lynx who spoke in my dream and the moment we became lovers, his paws the weight of snow on my shoulders – he licked my fur until it glowed silver. 

What matters isn’t the worry there are no words, not enough words, words to make sense. What matters is soil speaking each day to the lungs of flora. You are honed by the breathing of trees, rewarded by gleaming spoons and low blood pressure.  What is left? What is left? 

Love the land

Love yourself

Love others


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 

Four Takes on Kristin Lavransdatter

By Hannah Piecuch

I finished Kristin Lavransdatter in late October, a month ahead of this reading group’s schedule. And I didn’t want to spoil it for any of you! So here is what I read, re-read, and listened to in order to quell my appetite for discussion. 

Slate Magazine | Why Sigrid Undset should be the next Elena Ferrante

When I was invited to join Project Redux, this was the first article I read about Kristin Lavransdatter, as I weighed whether I was interested. Ruth Graham’s synopsis is remains an intriguing one: “This trilogy includes illicit sex, affairs, a church fire, an attempted rape, ocean voyages, rebellious virgins cooped up in a convent, predatory priests, an attempted human sacrifice, floods, fights, murders, violent suicide, a gay king, drunken revelry, the Bubonic Plague, deathbed confessions, and sex that makes its heroine ache ‘with astonishment—that this was the iniquity that all the songs were about.’ And yet all the outward drama is deployed in service of a story about an ordinary woman’s quietly shifting interior life.” Graham says this trilogy should be adapted as the next bingeable period drama—and I have to agree. 

LitCentury Podcast | On Desire (and its Absence) | On Catholicism and Doomscrolling

A two-part series with writers Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols. They discuss Lavrans and Ragnfrid’s marriage and speculate over whether those characters envy Erlend and Kristin’s romance, even as they worry for their daughter. And they also argue that Sigrid Undset borrows some bad troupes from the romance genre (the obsession with how hot Kristin is in comparison with all other characters, for one). They also offer insight into Undset’s personal life. She had just left marriage to a partner who was much like Erlend when she wrote Kristin Lavransdatter—is this a revenge epic?

The Paris Review | Cooking with Sigrid Undset 

There is a lot more than boiled beef brisket, barley bread, and mead in this essay. Valerie Stivers ruminates on the novel’s brutal realism, Undset’s conversion “pagan catholicism”, the allure of the Elf Maiden, and her own obsession with making the perfect bowl of oatmeal when her children were small. 

The Atlantic | The bookstore strikes back

Ann Patchett is not writing about Kristin Lavransdatter directly in this essay, but about how she came to own her bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville. When I read this next quote in passing I felt like I was part of a secret club, just for reading the trilogy: “The bookstore of my youth was Mills. My sister and I used to walk there every day after school, stopping first to check out the puppies in the pet shop across the street, then going on to admire the glossy covers of the Kristin Lavransdatter series, which is what girls read after they finished Little House on the Prairie and its sequels back before the Twilight books were written.” It made me wonder what I would have made of Kristin and Erlend when I was twelve. 


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. 

Crushing On Erlend

Marital confession


Recently my husband and I were out to dinner on the San Antonio Riverwalk. He asked me how
the Kristin/Project Redux was going, and I said I was having trouble writing about Erlend. I’d
written many things — none of them quite right. If Kristin were a musical, Erlend deserved a big show-stopper of a tune, and I didn’t know how to write it.


“He’s the husband?” asked my husband of thirty years. “And you don’t like him?”


I took a big sip of my sangria. “I think I’m falling in love,” I said.


My sainted husband took this confession in stride. “Oh, really?”


My husband is nothing like Erlend. I’ve never dated someone like Erlend. I’ve never even kissed someone like Erlend.


He is far from perfect. In this section, especially, when he does not go back to Kristin after he
learns of her pregnancy, followed by the birth and death of the son named for him — I judge Erlend harshly for those failings. And yet, what is it about this heroic bad boy with a heart of … well, a heart of pumping, throbbing passion that attracts me so much?


Erlend Nikkulausson is many things.


He is a ladies’ man

From the moment Erlend and his men rescue Kristin and Ingeborg, we know exactly who he is.

“But first we must escort the maidens back to their convent. I’m sure you can find some
straps to tie them up with…”


“Do you the maidens, Erlend?”


It’s no surprise that when he is away from his marriage bed, fighting in the wild north, he wakes
up with a Finnish woman on either side of him. (Who can blame them?) When he carves love
runes into apples and tosses them to any lady who wants one, it’s no great shock, not even to
Kristin.


Erlend did resist Sunniva, many times. When he finally does give in, Undset writes, “He was already quite aware that no man had ever had less pleasure from a sin than he was having from his dealing with Sunniva Olavsdatter.” (How was he to know the woman could read?)


After that affair, there’s no indication he sins with another woman again. Even with all Kristin’s
faults, Erlend believes she is “worth thinking about for twenty years.”

He is a chieftain

Men admire this man who laughs “out loud in the dark.” They want to drink with him (even
though he never lets himself drink too much). They can’t help but place their “trust in a hand that lets everything run through its fingers like cold water and dry sand.”

Simon couldn’t help it. Even Lavrans couldn’t help it. Although Erlend is “too heavy-footed and light-hearted for secret plans,” men join in a conspiracy with him. And he does not betray a single one of them, evenunder torture.


“And if I tell them to go to Hell when I get angry, they know that I don’t mean for them to set off on the journey without me in the lead.”


Dogs love him. Horses love him. As his sons grow into young men, they love him too. He’s a
man’s man, surrounded by bands of merry men.


He is a father

When his son Orm dies, his first child conceived in his first dalliance with a married woman,
Erlend weeps. He defends his daughter Margret’s honor, even when she cares nothing for it.
With Kristin, he’s unprepared for the horrors of childbirth and hands their newborn son back to
her, saying this:


“I don’t think I’m going to be properly fond of you, Naakkve, until I forget what terrible suffering you caused your mother.”


When his sons are young, Erlend doesn’t know how to father them, but after he loses everything — ancestral estate, his position as sheriff, what was left of his reputation — he begins to teach them what it means to be men in this medieval world. That means a lot of hunting and weapons training. It also means a story of a 200-year-old witch! That he keeps hidden in a leather pouch! Every Christmas he feeds her the thigh of a Christian man!


“The children shrieked and tumbled into their mother’s bed. […] Kristin complained — Erlend shouldn’t tease them so horribly. But Naakkve toppled off the bed again; in an ecstasy of laughter and fright he rushed at his father, hung on to his belt and bit at Erlend’s hands, while he shoulted and cheered.”


You know who else shouted and cheered at this gruesome fairy tale? Me.


He is a Christian


Erlend is a man who claims the Christian faith as his own, whether or not he finds it convenient
to practice it at any given moment.

Does he owe the church a fine? He pays it. Does he need to atone for sin? He does it. He’s not a
holy man, like his brother, Gunnulf, the priest. He doesn’t observe every fast, like Lavrans. But
when the church catches on fire, he rushes in to save the holy vessels. When the flood comes, he is there, praying and crying Kyrie eleison.

His sword is inscribed with the words Keep the faith. He can’t even keep the sword. He makes
his final confession, but not to a priest — to his son Lavrans. But he does confess the thing he is
most guilty of.


Unlike Kristin, he can’t keep a grudge. After Erlend’s death, she comes to understand and admire this about Erlend. She tells Gunnulf:

“He never held on to anger or injustice any more than he held on to anything else. […] I’m certain that God the Almighty knows that Erlend never harbored rancor toward any man, for any reason.”


From the moment Kristin meets him, her love for Erlend leads her to greater love for Christ,
beginning when she the nuns make her stay in the chapel until midnight and contemplate her sin. Contemplating Erlend makes her contemplate God.


If Kristin had married Simon, she would have had a provincial life with few worries or troubles.
With Erlend, she had adventure and heartbreak and passion. That’s what happens when you
marry the Mountain King.


He is the mountain king

In the poems I’ve written for this project, I’ve used many forms that repeat. That’s because this story is very Psalmic — it doesn’t rhyme, but it repeats and repeats again. The poetry of the book is in the phrase in one scene that pays off 800 pages later. One of those ideas is about the mountain king.


It seems to be the tale everyone knows (like everyone now knows Harry Potter). It’s a story of a
maiden lured inside the mountain, to live with the mountain king. Lavrans tells a version of this
story to Kristin, regarding Audhild the Fair of Skjenne. But she’s already referred to it many
times: in her meeting with the elf maiden, the first time she visits the cathedral of Hamar, in
choosing to marry Erlend, and in choosing to leave him at Haugen.


“She felt as if she were returning home from inside the mountain. As if Erlend were the mountain king himself and could not come past the church and the cross on the hill.”


After Erlend’s death, at the end of the book, Kristin does a very brave thing. I don’t think she
would have done it without being married to him. There is a recklessness she gets from him —
the kind of thoughtless, bold deed that saves the day. Sure, it costs you everything. That’s the
stuff stories are made of.


Marital concession

IMarriage has changed me — in love, in work, in parenthood, in faith, in my very soul. Like Kristin and Erlend, John and I have had our personal fires and floods, our scary childbirths,
our losses of all we held dear, the deaths of loved ones.

Just as he’s changed me, so I’ve changed him. I don’t think the 19-year-old young man I met at summer camp would have been remotely interested in my affection for some dude from a century-old book. Now that middle-aged man just smiles and lets me keep talking.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.

Fighting Among Kin

Kristin Lavransdatter – pgs. 780-797:

Erlend and Simon are talking to a bunch of guys, and Erlend leaves to get their horses ready to go home. So it’s just these guys and Simon, and they start talking about Lavrans. One guy, Holmgeir, says to Simon: “If I had lived as blameless and Christian a life as Lavrans Bjorgulfson, and been married to a mournful woman like Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter, I think I would have wept for the sins that I hadn’t committed.”

Like 15 seconds later, Holmgeir is dead. Simon thrust his sword in Holmgeir’s chest, and Holmgeir “slipped from the sword,” and fell into the fire.

More fighting, everyone is trying to kill each other, spears and daggers and swords are everywhere and there’s even an axe, and at one point someone named Vidar drags Holmgeir’s body from the fire. “They were cousins, those two,” Undset tells us.

All this happens in less than a page and then Erlend comes in flashing his sword and telling Simon to get the heck out of there. Simon is annoyed because he thinks Erlend means to finish the fight without him, but that’s not what Erlend means to do. He’s saying we BOTH need to get out, GO, GO, GO!

OK so they’re alone and I imagine the two of them standing next to their horses outside of some tavern, but I think it was someone’s house, and they’re going over the events of what had to be 90 seconds – three minutes, tops.

Erlend is the one who relays the facts and they are startling and somber, but at one point, Erlend erupts into laughter as he’s describing Holmegeir’s hair that had been singed off his head. “Now it certainly smells like a damn roasted thrush in there, you’d better believe me! How the Devil could all of you get into a quarrel in such a short time?”

I think I am a horrible person for loving Erlend – specifically in this scene – as much as I do. I’m also concerned about myself because I laughed – HARD – at Holmgeir’s comment about Lavrans weeping for the sins he didn’t commit.

I think Undset might be in on the joke, though. Her choice to write an aside to us about Vidar and Holmgeir being cousins comes in the midst of a bloody, ferocious scene and harkens to many memories of my girlfriends and I summarizing (and trying to make sense of) the brawls that would sometimes break out between some of our fellow teenagers over the weekends.

No kidding, once, in Geology class my Junior Year of high school, my friends Marissa and Celena and I were discussing a fight that had occurred on a Saturday night in a place called, “the woods,” a forest along the Des Plaines River where teenagers were known to party and Satan worshippers were known to congregate and I don’t know which group was more dangerous.

The day we were discussing a fight, we had a sub who was doing her best to get us to focus on plate tectonics and also probably rocks or mountains? I don’t know, but we weren’t interested in that drama.

There was a fire in the woods that night. Someone built it to keep us warm while we sipped Milwaukee’s Best. That’s where the fight broke out, and one guy, Nick, ended up in the fire. I know that sounds awful. He’s fine. He came to my wedding, as a matter of fact. Has kids and a wife of his own, but what Celena, Marissa, and I were trying to figure out back in 1993 was whether Nick fell or was pushed into the fire.

We were invested, the three of us. We had drawn diagrams, gone over the subtext of what had been said. We were putting together backstories. We would get to the bottom of this mystery.

Meanwhile, the sub was taking notes on our behavior on a yellow legal pad. I nudged Celena, who nudged Marissa, who looked across the room at the sub who was smirking at us – her #2 pencil at the ready.

Marissa tapped a pink polished nail on the lab table, pointing to our diagram, and said, loudly, because we were in the back of the room, and she wanted to make it clear that the sub should write this down, “Nick fell in the fire.”

The three of us, we are all mothers of teenagers now. We are married. We have jobs. We are nearing 50. But I know – without a doubt – if I were to see them tomorrow and say nothing but, “Nick fell in the fire,” we would crumple into laughter. And I’m confident that if Sigrid Undset were part of our crew, she’d be laughing, too.

I do not believe this scene is promoting or glorifying violence, nor do I think Undset is trying to make light of a horrifying situation. Just as if anyone had asked the three of us back in Geology class, if we were making fun of, or even happy that we’d seen a fight break out, we’d would’ve said that no, none of this is good; we’re taking the situation we were in and trying to make sense of it.

I think this scene with Simon and Erlend and the cousins shows how intimately Undset knows – and loves – each character she’s created.

Writing well doesn’t mean creating a tidy story. Writing well means having the capability to communicate the chaos, to order it in a way that the reader is drawn into it, that they might say, “This is insane! What is happening right now?” And Undset says, “I know, right? Follow me, it gets even crazier.”

And we do.

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.