By Melissa Poulin
Lavrans and Erlend are at a meeting with the regent Erling Vidkunsson, to discuss some trouble Erlend’s men have gotten into. In future chapters, Erling will play a pivotal role in the struggle to save Erlend from himself, but for now, Lavrans and Erling are speaking in low voices about “men like Erlend.”
“They’re the most dangerous kind,” Erling says. “Men who think a little farther than their own interests but not far enough… He never wants to listen to any matter long enough to understand it fully. And if he bothers to hear a man out, he forgets the first part before the discussion comes to an end.”
It’s late spring, and I’m deep into the second half of “Husaby” in Kristin Lavransdatter. Outside the rain falls heavily onto already-saturated soil. It’s the wettest April, May, and June that Oregon has ever had, and though I long for sun, I remember the devastating wildfires of the previous summers. Even with this record rain, parts of Oregon are still experiencing drought, and are still likely to experience climate-caused fires this summer. The Columbia approaches and then surpasses flood stage, and meanwhile, MIT scientists are busy exploring “space bubbles,” a technology some think could help us avoid the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis.
Huge ice balloons built in outer space, positioned to reflect the sun’s rays and save us from ourselves, I read at the kitchen table, sipping coffee with my one-year-old in my lap. My four-year-old is building an elaborate car from Magna Tiles as he finishes his cereal, and my seven-year-old is still wearing a long silk scarf wrapped around her torso, though I’ve told her twice to get dressed for school. In a minute I’ll start counting to three, and they know they’ll lose privileges once I reach that final number.
Our final number in the climate emergency is well-known, as are the measures we must take to avoid reaching it– yet we are on track to raise global temperatures by 1.5 degrees C in less than eight years’ time.
Why is it so hard to learn from our mistakes? The thought flicks across my mind as I read. The parent in me reflexively holds on to natural consequences: I wonder if the promise of a technological save will prevent us from making the achievable changes scientists have urged for decades. But the parent in me also feels desperately hopeful, with young lives dependent on me, that maybe their future won’t be quite as bleak as I often imagine, late at night when I can’t sleep.
In “Husaby,” we continue to follow the spiral of consequences stemming from Kristin and Erlend’s first mistake. In youthful ignorance, they chose their passion over all else, no matter the wreckage around them, and now they experience the natural consequences. The scales begin to drop from Kristin’s eyes as she reckons with the full character of the man she married. The man who was willing to stride over boundaries and take what he wanted when pursuing Kristin is the same man whose continued boundary-crossing pulls her and their children to the brink of disaster.
These fixed parts of human nature, and the repeated spectacular fallout from characteristic mistakes, form the core of the conflict central to Kristin Lavransdatter. The tension between Kristin and Erlend is the tension between pride and humility, between the passion of one’s will and obedience to God, between reconciliation and unforgiveness.
These are essentially human knots, enlarged and exaggerated in the opera of these fictional lives. It’s easy to distance myself from Kristin and Erlend. They’re not real! It’s fiction! The 14th century was so brutal! But as extreme their sins may be, I’m troubled by the way I relate to the struggles of two characters who just can’t seem to get it together, can’t seem to get over themselves. It’s hard to be a dispassionate reader of such a passionate story. Over and over, alongside Kristin, my heart is wrung out by the same patterns of behavior.
After my older children are dressed and off to school, after the baby is down for her morning nap, I take out my bible and my journal. The devotion for the day is about Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built his church. Did Jesus choose Peter because he was perfect? Far from it. Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times as he was led to the cross. Peter wasn’t perfect, but he did have faith.
More than anything, I want to do right by my children. I want to raise them well, to teach them love and forgiveness and the value of saying you’re sorry. Sometimes I worry over my past mistakes with them, mostly times when I lost my temper. I worry that they’ll end up in therapy, just like me, in spite of all my efforts– as though therapy were the thing to avoid at all costs. But wanting to parent well is different from wanting to do it perfectly. Parenting by faith, and not by perfection, leaves room for redemption. It acknowledges the essential knot of humanity, our essential need for salvation by grace.
I recently watched the last episode of This Is Us, a show I’ve been following since my oldest was just one. “I made so many mistakes,” Rebecca says as she journeys through the train taking her across death’s threshold. “I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but I have yet to meet the parent who says ‘I got it all right,'” says the doctor who delivered her children. “No perfect games in parenting. Not even close.”
It’s a television show, but still. There’s something so profound in that admission. Modern parenting, with its maze of parenting books, preschool waitlists, and consumer choices, can make it seem like perfection is just a purchase or Pinterest board away– as if perfection as a goal were desirable. It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to see my own lifelong struggle with perfectionism for what it is: a temptation to pride, something that separates me from God. It seems so obvious: of course perfectionism couldn’t be anything but sin. Faith declares that Christ is the only perfect one. Yet in my struggle, I have long harbored a secret belief or hope that maybe it’s not such a bad thing, that maybe it’s kind of a good thing to want so terribly to please.
“We certainly are sparks!” said St Catherine of Sienna, a woman who broke every last societal expectation for women of her time, in her pursuit of God. “This is why you want us to humble ourselves. Just as sparks receive their being from the fire, so let us acknowledge that our being comes from our first source.” In humility, we can recognize that anything good we can do comes from God, and that God makes his power perfect in our inherent human weaknesses.
It’s now mid-July as I write this in a coffee-shop, with 15 minutes of childcare hours left. I’m remarking how apt it is that I held off submitting this post I had intended for June, imagining some perfect addition or ending I just hadn’t achieved yet.
What I want to say is this: more than halfway through this year of reading Kristin, I’ve been totally floored by the way Undset’s masterpiece has changed me, and by how different my reading of it is this time around. Maybe because I am a different reader: I’m now a wife and a mother, humbled in so many ways by the challenges both roles have brought. It’s funny to me that I had this image of the book as somehow a feminist text, when it seems that nothing could be further from the truth. Kristin Lavransdatter is a profoundly Catholic text, and its aim is to throw into stark relief the seriousness of the human dilemma. Like Erlend, on my first read, I “didn’t listen long enough to fully understand.” I saw in it reflections of my own interests, as they were at that time in my life. Now I see in it reflections of my own state of sin, and the ways my humanness can keep me separated from God. I see in it the saga of humanity’s wrestling with God. I’m right there with Kristin.
Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.