by Kaitlin Barker Davis
I’d venture to guess that most women—at some point if not most points—have felt they were not quite the right kind of woman. That something about the way they thought, felt, wanted, acted or looked didn’t align with a more correct version of womanhood. I know I have. But I also hope most of us eventually see that version for what it is: uninteresting and unrealistic. Too small to hold all of what a woman might be, or want to be.
This, I suspect, is something Kristin will come to learn over the course of her story. In Part One of The Wreath (the first book of the trilogy), she is passing through girlhood on her way to becoming a woman, collecting ideas about womanhood from the 14th-century Norwegian-Catholic world around her—just as every girl in every country in every era has for all of time. As Kristin enters adolescence, she discovers that her medieval Scandinavian society has a clear set of roles for women to fit into. Innocent maidens, happy mothers, devout Catholics. But the women she notices, the ones she lingers on, are those who don’t fit smoothly—or maybe they’re the characters I notice, the ones I find most interesting.
Kristin’s mother, Ragnfrid, is a woman weighed down by the loss of three children, and when her youngest daughter Ulvhid is severely injured in an accident, Ragnfrid is wracked by worry and desperation. The morning after the accident, Ragnfrid quarrels with her brother who she holds responsible, and Kristin learns that her uncle “called his sister a crazy, demented woman and her husband a spineless fool who had never learned to rein in his wife. […] And for the first time it occurred to Kristin that there was something about her mother that was not as it should be—that she was different than other women” (46).
If I’d read this book a decade ago, I probably would’ve been put off by Ragnfrid’s sorrow, by her sallow face and cold demeanor. More likely I would’ve read past her, the experiences of motherhood and loss invisible to me. But now, Ragnfrid burns off the page. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage that devastated me. And even though I now have two healthy children, that loss transformed me into a woman who lives closer to the possibility of catastrophe. Closer, I often feel, to the woman who is not quite as she should be. To Ragnfrid when she cries to the village priest, “I have lost so many, I cannot lose her too” (43).
My miscarriage was both my first real experience with loss and the feeling of being crazy. By crazy, I now realize, I mean in part that it made me feel flawed. That I was the wrong kind of woman, one who was sad, yes, but also one who had fumbled her essential role. Who had mis-carried her child. Every morning for months I woke with an immediate and crushing weight on my chest. Almost before I opened my eyes, I’d be crying. My grief was uncontrollable, and it terrified me. Gradually I learned to wear it as part of my skin, absorb it into my version of a woman.
When the doctors and priests fail to heal her daughter, Ragnfrid sends for Fru Aashild, an old woman outcast by the villages as a witch—and my other favorite character so far. Kristin is of course nervous to meet this witch, but she “sensed rather than thought that she had never seen such a beautiful or noble woman as this old witch whom the gentry of the village refused to have anything to do with (47).” That sensed rather than thought interests me. It suggests that though Kristin’s view of womanhood is influenced by society, her intuition suspects that view may be unreliable.
If Ragnfrid’s female flaw is her unhappiness (or her heart), then Fru Aashild’s is her knowledge (or her mind): “It could be said that the woman knew more than was good for the health of her soul—and yet one should not forget that ignorant people often spoke of witchcraft as soon as a woman showed herself to be wiser than the councilmen (56).” A woman who feels too much or thinks too much can be dangerous. Better to label her as crazy or a witch than to let her become simply another acceptable version of a woman. A timeless theme in the history of humanity.
Writing is the other thing that makes me feel crazy at times. More specifically, trying to be a writer and a mother at the same time. I have to strategically and aggressively arrange my day for time to write. In order to land at my desk and sit with my mind, on one of the three mornings a week my daughter is at preschool, I lay the baby gently down for his nap, pull the door softly closed, then dash directly upstairs, ignoring the dirty dishes the pile of laundry the toys all over the floor the dog who wants a walk. Most days the nap lasts 34 minutes. Finding the space to write is crazy-making, but so is not writing. Not writing is even worse, like a part of me has stopped breathing.
I always read a little before I write to prepare my brain for words, like stretching before a run. Today, serendipitously, it was Kate Baer’s poem “Moon Song” from her collection What Kind of Woman: “You do not have to choose / one or the other: a dream or a dreamer, the / bird or the birder. […] You can be a mother and a poet. […] You can dance on the graves you dug / on Tuesday, pulling out the bones of yourself / you began to miss.”
Why is a mother-writer the kind of woman I want to be? Is this insanity, trying to be two things that seem so incompatible? I love my children and want to be with them, I love words and want to be alone with them. I wonder: Where does the compulsion to write even come from? What would happen if I ignored it? Who would even notice if I didn’t write? Maybe nobody, but I would miss that version of myself. I would pull her bones back out of the grave.
“It’s good when you don’t dare do something that doesn’t seem right,” Fru Aashild advises Kristin. “But it’s not so good if you think something isn’t right because you don’t dare do it. (52)” These sentences have lodged themselves in my brain. I keep rolling the witch’s words around on my tongue, in my mind, like little pearls of wisdom, trying to see if I understand them. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right, my desire for words, for time away from my children to pull the threads of my life together into stories. Sometimes it feels like madness, like the right kind of woman can only be one thing. A mother or a writer, but not both. Maybe, the witch is telling me, it’s okay to dare.
This is my first reading of the book, so I don’t know what will happen to Kristin as she leaves girlhood behind—what choices she will make, what kind of woman she will become. But I suspect that the witch’s words will echo back to her. It’s not so good if you think something isn’t right because you don’t dare to do it. Will she dare to push against the boundaries, blur the margins of the roles of womanhood?
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 Reads, The Best Women’s Travel Writing (Vol.12) and elsewhere. She 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.