By Callie Feyen
My first discussion of Kristin Lavransdatter took place on the banks of the Puget Sound, in an old and cozy house that smelled like wind and ocean and other wild things.
I was there, on Whidbey Island, for graduate school and this house was our classroom, dining room, and all around gathering place. There was always coffee and a batch of chocolate chip cookies available and at meal times what was being served was written in chalk on black tablecloths.
Up the hill from this house lived a ghost that would come out at night and so my friend Chrysta and I vowed to never walk the path alone.
“I know how this story ends,” she’d said one night as we fiddled with our tiny flashlights and the light they cast shook from the never-ending wind and from our hands.
In the other direction of the house was the water, equally haunting and I studied its black and grey and hoped for orcas to show themselves from the depths just as I looked for the ghost. I think I saw one once.
It’s always been hard for me to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t; what’s true and what could be true. Maybe there was no ghost, but that didn’t stop me from making up a story about him, and the story in my head was delicious and exhilarating and it made it so that I could keep walking up that hill (though I was still grateful Chrysta was there too – I pity a ghost who dares haunt her).
I came to love the walk up that hill, or at least I began to luxuriate in the anticipation of the walk. If I could walk with fear but also curiosity, then maybe that meant that the disposal of my fear wasn’t necessary, rather, adding on a layer of curiosity and wonder, was.
I don’t know where I got the message that I must rid myself of bad feelings and moods – that fear, sorrow, uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness must be conquered – but it was in graduate school that I began to learn that I could treat them as vital ingredients for story. In so doing, I began to believe that the parts of me that I understood weren’t good, were in fact useable.
It was in graduate school I began to believe I didn’t have to be good, or maybe it was I began to lose interest in being good. Whatever it was felt a bit wild. I was a spool of red thread unraveling and I was dizzy but I also didn’t mind the loosening.
My schooling was such that I learned there was an order to things. If you wanted to read chapter books for example, you needed to prove you were smart enough to handle them. I could never do that, and the lesson I forged was that I could not be trusted: with stories, with feelings, with thoughts and ideas. In order to experience something, I must understand it first.
Here I was though, a mother who left her two young children and travelled across the country to immerse herself in stories for no other reason then that it was what I wanted to do. I was breaking the order of things. Maybe it was irresponsible. It certainly felt reckless, and I cared about that, but I went anyway.
This is who I was when I met Kristin, and while I don’t remember much about her story, I remember the strong reaction to the book, and my response was elementary – I didn’t understand the story, so I could not be trusted to experience it. I distanced myself from Kristin, wrapping the red thread around the spool in an effort to hide what might be wild.
Five years later I am walking toward my favorite coffee shop to write after having just dropped off my youngest daughter, Harper, at ballet class. I am listening to a Vox message from my friend and colleague Megan Willome. She is telling me Kristin Lavransdatter is without a doubt, the best book she’s ever read.
It is a Thursday. I know, because Thursdays are the eve of my make-believe day, and as soon as I drop Harper off at dance, it commences: I get to write.
It is a situation I have manipulated. I was hired to work as an At-Risk Literacy Specialist in the Ypsilanti Community Schools, a position I took after fleeing mid-year from a middle school teaching job because I couldn’t handle it. I am in charge of two elementary school libraries, plus working with students who are moderately to severely below grade level, and also, because truancy is linked to low-reading scores, I need to keep track of student absences. I’m considered part-time, though I am contracted in two schools five days a week. When I asked for Fridays off, one of my bosses (I had three) asked me how I was going to get all my work done.
“I’m not getting my work done now,” I said, and in turn was granted Fridays off.
Here again is an example of considering my actions as reckless and irresponsible, and going ahead and doing it anyway. I couldn’t – or I wouldn’t – get away from the unraveling. I wanted the red to spill, I wanted it to drip from my fingers, and I wanted to render it onto paper. I always walk away from what I’m supposed to do, and instead walk the path – that often I create – of story.
In the introduction, Brad Leithauser writes that upon seeing that he is reading Kristin Lavransdatter, elderly women would flock to him. They would, “cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that [they] too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter – a remark accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.” This is the tone that Megan uses with me in her Vox message. Hearing her talk about the story, I feel as if I’ve dashed into the high school library with Megan during passing periods so she can tell of the most amazing and perhaps salacious thing that just happened to her.
“I wanted to like it,” I Voxed back. “I think I might’ve,” I confessed, and just as she could barely tell what Kristin Lavransdatter was about for being too blocked with joy of the story, I was too blocked by shame to explain why it was that the book felt like an embarrassing burden – a metaphor that I did not want to resonate with.
“Kristin Lavransdatter is the tale of a scandalous woman,” Leithauser writes and I double underlined in pencil when I first read it. Did I think this was a warning, and that is how I ought to have read it? What would it mean if I connected with or understood Kristin?
Megan told me that maybe the book didn’t meet me at the right time, a gracious way of saying, “Give it another chance.” It was an invitation I’ve held onto for a couple of years now.
I wonder about the chance of stories – whether we are giving them a chance, or taking a chance – does the chance extend to us, too? What will happen if we give a scandalous woman a chance? And if we find that parts of who we are, are indeed scandalous, what does it mean to take a chance on those parts?
At the top of New Year, Jesse and I are in our basement – I am sitting on the floor, my back against a doorframe, and waiting for the laundry to finish its spin cycle so I can throw it in the dryer. Jesse is on the couch and on the coffee table in front of him are the parts of our Kitchen Aid that stopped working a few days before Christmas. Our dishwasher also broke that same week, and we think our hot water heater is dying, too. I am watching a thin stream of water move toward my feet, and I let it collect on my wool socks.
“I can’t stand when something that’s supposed to work, doesn’t,” Jesse says, as I’m just about to say for probably the millionth time in my life that I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to do with my life. Instead, the wash finishes, and I pull the clothes from one machine to the other, slam the door, and push the button to start. The clothes tumble, buttons and zippers snap against the sides, and I put another load in the wash. I pull off my wet socks and throw them in, too.
“But it’s an artist I want to be, a woman artist,” Sigrid Undset writes to her friend Andrea Hedberg. “I will not waste my talents. If I have any, I will also find them and use them. I will be whatever I can be.”
I walk upstairs to find a new pair of socks, thinking of all there is to be done, and all there is I should be doing, unsure I ever want to be able to tell the difference between what’s true and what could be true; what’s real, and what’s not, and hoping for more hills to climb and more ghosts to face.
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.