Permission to Learn

    By Callie Feyen        

Tonight at dinner, Hadley tells me she is driving to soccer practice. 

 “Not yet,” I say folding my napkin into fourths, then eighths, then attempting sixteenths but I can’t get the creases sharp so I toss it on my plate. “It’s dark,” I say.

 “But I need night time driving hours,” she replies.

  Hadley has had her learner’s permit for exactly 45 minutes.

 I walk dishes from dinner into the kitchen and she follows. “I think it’s best if the first time we drive together that Dad is with us,” I say, scraping leftover hummus off a plate and into the garbage can.

 “Dad isn’t worried, Mom. He said he wouldn’t get in the car with me if he thought I was going to crash.”

“I’m driving the Ford,” I say, rinsing milk down the drain and placing a glass in the dishwasher.

“Fine,” Hadley says and pivots to leave. The Ford is too big for Hadley. Right now, anyway. She prefers the other car, a sedan.

“You can play music,” I tell her pushing “start” on the dishwasher before clicking it shut with my hip.

When Hadley and I drive together, when it’s just me and her, we blast the music. We sing every song with conviction and as though we are with the band. We listen to everything and anything trying it all on like actors reading a script. I love taking on each part with her, singing the words for things she might not yet understand or maybe she does or maybe she’s beginning to and I am with her, driving through the night and unleashing puzzle pieces we’ve been clutching, and snapping them gently into place.

This is why I want to be the one to drive. When Hadley is driving, surely it will be irresponsible and also dangerous to sing these songs this loud – or at all – to hold them up like Psalms that help us say things we think we can’t say, or think we shouldn’t say, or feel, or think. I don’t want to give that up. 

We get to soccer, and Hadley pulls on her gloves. “So Dad is picking me up, right?” she asks, one hand on the car door handle. “And he’s driving the Mazda, right?”

     “Yes, Hadley,” I say, and I don’t roll my eyes, but my tone suggests that I want to. “You’ll have plenty of time to practice driving,” I say. “I promise.”

 And she doesn’t roll her eyes either, and she doesn’t say, “You gotta let me go, Mom,” or, “Dad trusts me, why don’t you?” This is not a fight we are having. Her learning to drive and my sitting shotgun, and then not being in the car at all, is a matter of when. So too, is the fact that it will be awhile before we sing together again.


“Are you so happy then, my daughter, to be going so far away from me?” 

 I cringe when I read this, from Ragnfrid, Kristin’s mother. She asks it twice on the morning Kristin and her dad are leaving for Jorundgaard. Upon hearing her mother’s question, Kristin is “sad and crestfallen,” but clarifies that she’s not happy because she’s going away from her mother, but she is happy to be going on an adventure with her dad. 

 I don’t ever want to put Hadley or Harper in a situation where they have to put aside their own excitement because they are concerned about how I might feel or react, but I wonder if that’s what I’m doing holding off on letting Hadley drive. 

I watch Hadley walk onto the soccer field under the lights and I wonder how many adventures I’ve kept her and her sister from because I was scared, or selfish. Hadley disappears into a crowd of her teammates, and I move to put the car in reverse, but not before I turn the music back on. “Oops! I Did It Again,” sung by Britney Spears comes on. I turn the volume up and decide to take the long way home.

From the first page of the book, Ragnfrid is described as moody, melancholy, and reclusive. Later, when Kristin’s sister, Ulvild is attacked by a bull, and Ragnfrid calls for a witch to come help heal her, Kristin realizes that, “something about her is not as it should be.” 

I believe Kristin, like so many, sees moodiness, being melancholy, and reclusive as traits that are not only weak, but wrong. Add to that the decision to call on magic instead of good old-fashioned prayer, and it’s easy to see why Kristin, who is dutifully and painfully trying her best to follow the ways her father shows her, comes to the decision that something about her mom is not as it should be.

I detest the word “should,” especially as it pertains to motherhood and women. I hit repeat on Britney’s song and begin to drive faster while Britney tells us that she’s just not that innocent. I don’t think Ragnfrid is innocent, but I think what Kristin is observing is her mother’s refusal to submit. Ragnfrid is the only one in the book (so far) who is willing to admit how she feels and what she wants. When she tells Sira Elrik she believes her heart will break if Ulvhild dies, I do not think she is being hyperbolic, I think this is a desperate attempt to express a pain and a doubt so heavy that the only way to lift it is to cry out whatever she has faith in – a breaking heart.

 The priest is aghast at Ragnfrid’s behavior, and responds telling her that she cannot force her will on God. 

 ‘“God help you, Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter,” said Sira Eirik, shaking his head. “You want nothing more from all your prayer and fasting then to force your will on God. Does it surprise you, then, that it has accomplished so little good?”’

 Days after my Aunt Lucy died of pancreatic cancer at 56, a pastor suggested to my cousin (her daughter) that this was God’s will. I think my cousin had a few choice words for him, though I cannot be sure. I was nine months pregnant and had been told not to be sad about my aunt’s death because it will affect the baby, so I spent my days chanting, “Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad,” as if I could save my baby who is now Harper from having to experience anger or sadness or fear. Harper is hot pepper flakes on the tongue. She is a rip current pulling you into deep water. She is champagne bubbles and ocean front sunshine. Harper’s strength is her sensitivity and her willingness to fully feel all of it.

God forbids lamenting? God forbids grieving? God forbids our cries of doubt? Or is that just for David? 

 What’s to be done with mothers who aren’t as the world says they should be but who love just as fiercely, just as wholly, just as palpably as the mothers who allegedly are?

 Later in the book, Kristin falls in love with her childhood buddy, Arne. She realizes this after her family has pawned her off to Simon. To fall in love on one’s own account – this is not the way things go. Kristin must stay true to her family and not to her heart. So Kristin does as honorable a job as she can to fight her feelings for Arne and tell him they have no future.

 She does meet him in the woods one night, though. There are proclamations and kissing and Arne tells Kristin if she knew how much he loved her, she’d ask her dad if she could marry Arne and not Simon. 

  Kristin won’t. “I don’t think I could ever love a man so dearly that I would go against my parents’ will for his sake,” she tells him, and with that, Arne gives Kristin a brooch to remember him by. I cringe at this part, too, and I’m thinking about this scene in the book just at the part in Britney’s song when the boy offers her the jewel from the bottom of the ocean and Britney says, “Awwww, you shouldn’t have.” And then, for perhaps the hundredth time, the refrain: “Ooops! I did it again…I’m not that innocent!”

 Of course I’m not comparing an old classic trilogy whose author won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature to a 1999 Top 40 song, except there are a few lines in the song when Britney confesses she watches her days and dreams away wishing that heroes truly exist. I wonder if the lines she sings about watching her days and wishing for heroes resonate at all with Britney. I wonder if singing them again and again left some kind of imprint; helped her understand and perhaps say something she felt but isn’t sure she can say: that she is loved because she looks and does and acts exactly as she’s supposed to. As soon as messes up, as soon as she grapples with anything publicly, as soon as she shaves her head, everyone will know something about her is not as it should be.

 Maybe it’s easier to play the part of someone who can’t trust their feelings than it is to fully embrace and express them. 

  I pull into the driveway and sit for a minute before I get out of the car and go inside. I look at the passenger seat, where I will soon be, and instinctively turn the music down, hoping for a new melody I’ll learn to sing with Hadley, and praying to God to show her that heroes do exist – they just look and act like women that refuse to be as they should be.

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

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