Burning in Both Places

By Caitlin Dwyer

I start reading Kristin Lavransdatter in the second pandemic winter. I read while nursing my infant, my arm gently resting on her torso as she tugs at my breast. I read in the darkness of January in the Northwest, days where the sun claws ineffectually at clouds before fading away at 4pm, a damp darkness settling over the bare trees. Inside, we are safe. Outside, omicron shatters records. I doomscroll about community transmission and breakthrough infection, and cancel playdates for my kids, and do not make dinner reservations for our anniversary.

The first pages of Kristin are tough. A lot of names and unfamiliar places. Umlauts. After two years of constant risk assessment, of simultaneously working from home while providing childcare for my kids, I have forgotten how to focus on words. I teach literature and writing at a community college, and I pride myself on a sort of deep attention to language and to life. But this pandemic has eroded my ability to focus. I’ve kept it light. I’ve watched a lot of dumb TV and am 17 novels into a delightfully skimmable detective series. For two years, I haven’t attended to much except the necessities, and certainly not the minutiae of medieval Norway.

So why do this to myself? Why sign up to read and write about a really, really, really long book? With umlauts, for pity’s sake?! 

Partly, I think, I miss people. I want to be in community, and for writers that often means reading, writing and thinking together. Those acts don’t need to be synchronous (a word I’ve grown to know and hate in the last two years) to be valuable. On this website, I’ll write into a community of women considering the same pages and people as I am, and that holds some tenderness for this pandemic-stilled, infant-weary heart. I need a redux not of this book, which I’ve never read before, but of my own identity as a thinker and attentive reader, a person in a community of thinkers and readers. I need to reclaim something of myself, to wake up the intellectual woman who has been sleeping inside this body for a few years.

A few pages into the first chapter, Kristin heads into the wilderness with her father. It’s a thrilling adventure for a young girl, and the author describes Kristin sleeping in the open around a campfire:

“It crackled as the fire tore the fresh green from the twigs, and small white flakes flew high upon the wisps of red flame; the smoke whirled thick and black toward the clear sky. Kristin sat and watched; it seemed to her the fire was glad that it was out there, and free, and could play and frisk. ‘Twas otherwise than when, at home, it sat upon the hearth and must work at cooking food and giving light to the folks in the room.”

As soon as I read this passage, I put the book down. I took a deep breath and looked around the room. The baby mobile rotated gently over my head. In the hallway I could hear my four-year-old singing to himself as he put on his Superman outfit, one of twenty costume changes that day. The wet, settled darkness out the window. The muffled sound of cars returning home for the evening. Soon dinner to cook, and papers to grade, and the demands of giving to other folks in the room. But for a moment, my child’s lips softened and parted, her hunger sated, I sat quietly with a book loose in my hand. I had a moment to remember what it felt like to crackle and burn, and to want the world.

This pandemic winter, it’s hard to be out there, and free, to play and frisk. So much of the joy of being physically alive in spaces outside the home has been taken from us. We all struggle to be in community right now, unsure how much we want to risk. I personally struggle to get out the door to green, wild spaces with two kids in tow. Kristin’s adventure, just this little taste of it, has my body and mind whetted for wildness. While I know that much of her story will be a conflict between this independence and the demands of the hearth, I feel excited to see how she negotiates the tension. Because right now I, too, am burning in both spaces.

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.

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