By Christy Lee Barnes
My grandfather was a Nazarene pastor, a very charming, very earnest fellow, and quite well-
known within our small denomination. His congregants adored him with a goofy, fervent
In the late ‘70s, he commissioned a new church building for his burgeoning flock. He made a
huge deal out of the process, referring to the new plot as “The Promised Land.” The finished
building, which still stands today, looks a like a spaceship, something out of Midcentury
Tomorrowland. Perched at the top is a boxy, modern take on a steeple, inlaid on each side with
circular stained-glass windows.
The image in the glass is two hands clasping one another, tilted vertically to indicate that one
hand belongs to God and one to man. Behind those two hands is a horizontal bar, making the
hands part of a cross. (It’s only now, in trying to explain this to you, that I realize the humor of
someone trying to improve upon the cross as logo.)
In the carpeted mega-church sanctuary on Sunday mornings—or Sunday evenings, or
Wednesday nights—I’d sit stiffly, trying to keep my theater seat from squeaking, trying to absorb the wisdom of the sermons. I’d daydream about climbing up the catwalks and scaffolds that hung down from the domed ceiling, to sit in that little stained glass steeple chamber and
commune with the hands of God and Man. I know I never actually did it, but I imagined it so
often that if I squint a bit, I can almost convince myself I really was there, curled up in the gold
and ruby light, dangling my legs down into the cavernous space below, closer to God than
anyone else in the whole world.
So I felt deep camaraderie, and maybe a little jealousy, when I read about Brother Edvin
and Kristen up at the top of the cathedral:
“She herself and the monk stood in the midst of the glory; her hands were red as though
dipped in wine, the monk’s visage seemed all golden, and his dark frock threw the
picture’s colors softly back…’twas like standing far off and looking into the heavenly
It’s such a beautiful passage, but it’s also a good illustration of a pattern which runs all
throughout this first section of The Wreath. Brother Edvin is being very kind to Kristen, but at the same time, he’s projecting his own beliefs and hopes onto her. (In this case, literally.)
The whole first third of the The Wreath reads more or less like a list of personalities, beliefs, and traumas that color Kristen’s world. Consider all she navigates as a young girl: the call of the Fairy Queen and the chaos and fear that ensues; her mother’s emotional instability and
unresolved grief; her father’s charisma and perfectionism; the trauma of her little sister’s
accident and convalescence; Aashild Gautesdatter’s seductive, witchy knowledge of herbal
healing, magic, and men. And a bit later on, add to that list the desires of the young men around her, which range from subtle and sweet (Arne) to seedy and violent (Bentien).
Frankly, I’m unsettled by the similarities in our lists, little medieval Kristen and little ‘90s-
evangelical Christy. (I mean, it’s not a one-to-one match….sadly, I didn’t keep company with
any fairies or witches in my youth.)
But I did grow up in the pressure cooker of purity culture, cared for by earnest, pious adults who were, I believe, doing their best for me while also carrying their own heavy emotional burdens. I can understand Kristen, perhaps more than I’d like. And the fact that the book is still in print around 100 years after publication means I’m probably not alone in that understanding.
I wrote the poem below, which was first published in Relief Journal, near the end of my time in
graduate school—so, after I’d read Kristen Lavransdatter for the first time. I don’t think I made a conscious connection between the book and this poem when I was writing it, but looking back at it now, the younger self I describe here could also be Kristen—watching, feeling the weight of pressure and expectation—and quietly sorting through what that means for her.
for my grandfather
I remember you best with your roses
pinky to elbow in the mulch,
slaughtering sucker shoots.
You hated how the brilliant blooms
siphoned life from the bush.
The way they grew from damage,
some deep wound in the root.
You taught me how to spot
their tacky sheen, careen of flimsy stems
drunk, you said, on stolen strength.
You heaped them up
to burn for vanity,
struck that match with god-like alacrity.
But I rescued a few petals
when you could not see me
unsure if I wanted
your quiet, even blooms
or the fire of all that life
and all that blazing color.
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.