I’m losing steam on Kristin Lavransdatter. I’m halfway through “The Wife,” and every time
I try to pick it back up, Kristin is just … having such a very hard time. Lots of birthing, lots
of babies. Lots of tears, prayers, snow, and morose silences in the manor. At one point,
she just wanders off into the woods during wolf season. And I can’t really blame her.
As I write this, sweet little Lee is napping, and I’m tucked up on the couch while Trevor
sketches. I’m listening to Brandi Carlile and watching bright yellow leaves fall outside my
window. It’s a nice moment.
But this morning, Lee woke up puking. Well, no, that’s not quite right. He woke up
grumpy but thoughtfully waited to actually puke until he walked into the white carpet in
our living room. Within that same dark hour, I managed to clog the toilet, resulting in a
spectacularly disgusting bathroom flood.
Lee’s okay now. He’s kept down Tylenol and we’ve snuggled him within an inch of his
life. We’ve talked to the doctor. I’ve given the bathroom a vigorous scrub. I’ve given the
carpet a vigorous scrub. And I’ve taken a very hot shower.
But I’m going to be honest: in this hour of peace, I have zero desire to read about a
medieval mother struggling to make it through the day.
Are there stories about the lightness of motherhood? Not sappy, not unrealistic. But
real, and true-to-life, and also … light? Please, if you know of any, send them my way.
That wolf scene might just speak to my longing for lightness, actually. Maybe that’s why
it’s stuck in my mind.
Quick summary: Kristin, super pregnant and kind of woozy, wanders away from home
through the woods, searching for her mother. She ends up instead in the hut of a
peasant named Audfinna, a mother herself, but one who seems to wear it all rather
lightly. Audfinna is unruffled by Kristin’s sudden visit. She shoos her well-behaved
children into the other room and serves Kristin a delicious meal she just happened to
have on hand, along with a few glasses of ale. She can see that Kristin is homesick, so
they talk about Kristin’s homeland.
Inwardly, Audfinna pities Kristin. She’s shocked that Kristin has been neglected and
alone so soon before her labor. But Kristin doesn’t pick up on this. She’s just happy to
have stumbled upon a friend in the storm, someone who makes her feel at home.
After a while, Erlend and his men show up to take Kristin home. The wolves follow them
all the way back. Once they make it, Erlend tries to understand why Kristin wandered
away so thoughtlessly, putting so many people in so much danger. Does she have a
death wish? Kristin can’t explain why she left. And she can’t feel remorse, either. She
only feels relief at having found what she needed — a little pocket of lightness. If she had
to risk frostbite and fang, so be it.
When I have the capacity to give Kristin Lavransdatter my full attention, I am always
rewarded. This wolf scene, for example: it’s a powerful reminder of the healing, intuition,
and strength within feminine community.
I particularly like the inclusion of Audfinna’s inner dialogue, showing that she’s not very
impressed by Kristin. She’s caring for Kristin because, well, Kristin needs care. And that
is enough. I like that implication here: that it’s not only chummy friendship we need as women. We need simple caretaking, too. I think of doulas, lactation coaches, therapists, support groups, and co-ops. I haven’t become best friends with everyone I’ve met in these spaces, of course. But I’ve been well cared for by so many there, and I’ve learned a lot from the women I’ve met there.
I’m also intrigued by the deep, primal longing for mothering that initially drives Kristin
into the woods. Against all reason, she heads into the deadly forest to seek healing … and she finds it. She finds exactly what she’s been craving by following that intuition. On paper, it’s nonsensical. She can’t explain it to Erlend. But still … it worked. I think there’s power in that story, baffling as it may be.
Again and again, Undset makes space within her story for the feminine experience in
ways that truly must have been groundbreaking in the 1920s because they still seem
pretty groundbreaking today. I have learned so much from what I’ve read. And I hope
that soon, I’ll have the capacity to finish.
But for now, I’m going to take a page out of Kristin’s book — I’m going to follow my gut
and run toward whatever lightness I can find. I’m not sure where this will take me just
yet. But I sure do hope it includes a few glasses of strong ale and a friend who feels like
Christy Lee Barnes is a poet and educator from Los Angeles who now lives in Seattle with her husband and toddler son. Her publications include Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Cream City Review, The Seattle Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House’s “Broadside Thirty,” and other journals.