Last Friday I nursed my baby in a staff meeting. I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t even turn off my camera. I tilted the computer so that they could see me from the neck up, settled my girl at my breast, and kept talking about enrollment numbers. Other than a little hand that sometimes crept up into the frame, there was no evidence of my daughter, or that I was doing anything but being attentive to my colleagues.
I reveled at this secrecy. It felt a little transgressive, a little wild, to be boobs-out on the Zoom.
Why didn’t I just turn off my camera? My colleagues are understanding and lovely people; they wouldn’t mind.
Keeping the camera on felt like a brush with playing at being a different person than I am. It’s the same feeling I used to get as an undergraduate when I took a shot of vodka and heard my mom’s voice telling me to be careful. The same feeling I get now when I don’t floss (I know, what age does to a person’s sense of risk, eh?). It’s that thrill of not being obedient. Whether it’s the dental hygienist who will surely berate me for plaque buildup, or the colleagues who don’t know that my body has become a sly, bared presence in our meeting, an expectation is getting subverted. A line is being (tentatively, sort of gently) crossed.
Usually, I’m a people pleaser. I love to meet expectations. I love to exceed them. And sometimes, when I’m tired and can’t bring myself to care anymore, I like to go boobs-out on the Zoom.
The line has been going around and around in my head all week. You do not have to be good.
Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese” echoes in my head at night when I’m wearily grading papers, or sending interview requests for an article I’m writing. Her words bite at me when I’m sweeping the floor, unloading the dishwasher, feeding my daughter mushy pears. When my son whines because he doesn’t have a scooter like the other kids at school, or snarls at me when I offer him an apple, or says Mommy I want another show instead of agreeing to watercolor with me, I hear Oliver, not quite berating, but admonishing a bit: You do not have to be good.
Meaning, stop. Meaning, who are you trying to impress. Meaning, give up being perfect, and snarl a little.
I let him watch a show. I don’t pitch a new article. I leave the dishes in the sink.
I return to the poem, with its loosening knot of expectations. Oliver begins,
|You do not have to be good.|
|You do not have to walk on your knees|
|for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.|
|You only have to let the soft animal of your body|
|love what it loves.|
|Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.|
|Meanwhile the world goes on.|
The rhythm of the poem is what gets me: the double stress on not have. It feels like a pummeling, the way you might beat your fist against a table when really trying to make a point with someone you love who just isn’t getting it.
In Oliver’s poem, this line continues with the sensual, wild invocation to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. I read this and I think: I don’t love anything. I just want to fall to the ground and let my body become a pelt, discarded on the pine duff, a soft fur that other animals trod on. Then, passive, skinned, yielding, I can rest.
Look, I’m tired. I’m a burnt-out mother of two, working as a college writing instructor, freelancing, trying to publish poems, trying to be a good parent and partner. At some point in my 30s I realized I had too many ambitions. I wanted family, career, and writing. I wanted it all. I have managed to sort of have it, but at the cost of my sense of self. I’ve developed a sense of who I should be, and that woman does everything right. She is very good. She also definitely does not exist.
Kristin is not good in The Bridal Wreath. She is sinning, like, hard. I’m into it.
At first I had a mom reaction, or maybe an older sister reaction, to her decision to sleep with Erlend: girl, no. Naïve and sheltered, Kristin seems not to understand the risk of the tryst (try saying that three times fast). She thinks she’s in love, and I wondered if the relationship would hold up to her expectations. It seemed like any doomed affair for a 15-year-old, full of star-crossed unreality.
As the chapters progressed, though, I began to agree with her understanding of her own situation. Rather than feel guilty, she rejoices in her body’s decisions. She starts to look for imperfection in humanity around her. She sees that everyone around her has sinned. It doesn’t disgust her; that’s just how people are. She has this matter-of-fact understanding that all of us make mistakes, that sometimes those mistakes are deliberate and worthwhile. Brother Edvin tries to call her on this worldview, but I like that she dug in her heels. She’s crafting her own unique sense of morality, and I think her worldview is to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.
In The Garland, she tells Brother Edvin, “If I were to meet [Erlend] without here, when I go from you, and should he pray to go with him, I would go. I wot well, too, I have seen how there be other folks who have sinned as well as we…When I was a girl at home ‘twas past my understanding how aught could win such power over the souls of men that they could forget the fear of sin; but so much have I learnt now: if the wrongs men do through lust and anger cannot be atoned for, then must heaven be an empty place.”
What she’s saying is we’re all sinners. What she’s saying is sin matters, but that can’t be the only calculus. What of the body? What of love? What she’s saying is Meanwhile the world goes on.
Kristin’s formulation of her moral situation matters because she’s working within and at the same time contravening the expectations of her society. Sleeping with Erlend is clearly bad (not in my mind due to Kristin’s betrothal but because Erlend is, as another writer on this site so aptly described it, a fuckboy); but not sleeping with him is also, somehow, bad.
Kristin situation is very different than my own. She has transgressed a moral code in her religion and society; my only (imagined) transgression is not living up to my own expectations as mother, wife, and writer. Yet the ways in which those expectations are formed emerge intensely from my upbringing in a society that, like Kristin’s, expects women to be good.
Like Kristin, I live in a world in which goodness is an essential quality of womanhood, especially white womanhood. Kristin’s world was particularly obsessed with virginity and purity. Ours less so; female roles have shifted, although sexual practices remain quite a preoccupation. Adultery remains bad. Sleeping with someone before marriage might still be frowned upon, depending on your religious inclination, but it’s usually no longer a life-shattering sin.
I think the connection I’m making is about purity. In Kristin’s time, purity is associated with sex very explicitly. Nowadays we are pure about other things: our curated image on social media, or our political views. Kristin’s purity is a thing once lost, never regained; it can be justified with various workaround “we were married in the eyes of God” logic, but the sense of risk in the book is about spoilage. She is spoiled. One choice and her whole life can unravel.
For me that aligns it with the modern perfectionism that infuses womanhood. Depending on your own values and ethics, nowadays being good might mean being the perfect, loyal partner; or not rocking the boat when you disagree, choosing not to speak up with you get angry; or looking a certain way, having a certain body, performing a certain type of frenetic engaged parenthood. All this perfectionism feels dangerous. When women are obsessed with being good, we are not doing the things that matter to us, deep in our hearts. We are just ticking the boxes.
Is goodness when I rock my baby to sleep, singing her into the dreamworld, and don’t worry about the piles of papers to grade, or the unwritten essays? When I devote myself solely to her? Is badness when I put her down and let her cry herself to sleep because I am too tired and have a poem to write?
How do I know what it good? And maybe what is good — (did you judge me, just a little, when I said I let the baby cry herself to sleep? Because I judged myself) — maybe what is good is not what is obedient. That’s the crux I keep arriving at, that my body keeps resisting: that being good means holding onto an innate sense of ethical conduct, rather than just following the rules. When one has that definition of goodness in mind, being good can feel a lot like being bad.
It seems to be me that Kristin has an innate sense of ethics and rightness, which she feels out in her encounters with other people, verbally and intellectually with Brother Edvin and her father Lavrans; physically and emotionally with Erlend. If by goodness, Kristin’s society means following the rules and expectations, then she is not good. She is a fallen woman, a sinner. If by goodness, Kristin means following her internal compass, then she is pursuing a path that will lead her to happiness and confident selfhood (but also, not a very good marriage).
Lady Asahild is Kristin’s role model of such selfhood. Clearly she is one of the most noble characters in the book. She’s graceful, radiant, thoughtful, good. And yet she’s exiled to a small farm because of her illicit relationship and suspected of witchcraft. She forms the model of a woman who has defied societal expectation and instead found true, innate ethical conduct. This reflects in her bearing, demeanor, and ageless beauty (because of course it does, good people are never ugly, not in books).
Is it that easy? We can choose exile from society and find contentment within? No, Undset doesn’t think so, and I don’t either. For women in medieval society and for women now, it’s never that easy. Society’s expectations of us are too intertwined with our expectations of ourselves. What I love about Kristin’s journey right now is how delicately and defiantly she unpicks that knot.
Kristin’s own mother explodes the definition of goodness in the final scene of The Bridal Wreath. Of course we’ve been expecting this revelation, if we’ve been following the subtle clues, but the revelation that she slept with other men prior to and even during the early part of her marriage shocks nevertheless. It also feels like a relief. “I mind me how you judged of Erlend Nikulaussön,” Ragnfrid tells Lavrans. “How judge you of me, then —?”
I loved this moment. Ragnfrid is chiding her husband for holding human beings to an impossible standard, a code that denies passion and love and lust. And yet the dash at the end of this line is where I imagine Ragnfrid’s uncertainty creeps in. Even as she asserts a definition of goodness — or perhaps not goodness, but perhaps grace, forgiveness, compassion, which comprise a fuller understanding of human behavior that simply being good — her voice breaks. She is afraid. Because her life is tied up financially and practically in her husband’s, and we cannot live outside of our relationships with other people. Her decisions ripple outside her own self. Just as Kristin cannot sleep with Erlend in secret and have it remain secret; eventually, a pregnancy will bring their decision to public view. Human behavior erupts into society and transgresses or aligns with the collectively decided social mores and rules. We cannot all live on an isolated farm and be self-sufficient. Some of us have to figure out how to be good among others — and for Ragnfrid, the goodness of letting herself experience love has meant betraying someone else she cares about.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
And her husband, who is a good person, can somehow see that conflict in his wife and honor it. He values religious definitions of sin, but he also values his family above all else.
What Kristin teaches me this month is about another type of value: the value of letting go of those codes we’ve grown up with, or perhaps adjusting them to fit into the soft folds of our bodies, the coiled soft plaits of our hair. Perhaps watching those codes mold themselves around our bodies, rather than forcing our bodies around the rules in rigid strictures. What Kristin teaches me is that while I’m stressing about discipline and nap schedules and my next essay, meanwhile, the world moves on. That is an invitation, I think, to loosen the whalebone corsets of goodness, and take a deep breath.
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.