How Far Away, How Close

It’s early morning on All Saint’s Day, and I’m driving with my 7-year-old daughter through the rainy dark, having dug her out from under her comforter with the promise of a cinnamon bun and steamed milk after mass. At the red light I roll my neck in a slow circle, cranky from a night of fractured sleep. Our 22-month-old had woke and slept at right angles between us all night. An octopus searching for its keys has long been my favorite metaphor for the sleep habits of the very young, and this particular octopus had stayed up way past bedtime to trail her siblings up and down doorsteps in the pouring rain, exhilarated by the thrilling results of her new phrase: “trick-or-treat.”

Truth be told, the morning after Halloween is a poor one for early rising. All three of my kids are a tired, weepy mess. But I’d determined to counterbalance the commercial holiday, for once, with grounding in its Christian counterpart. So off to mass we go.

Entering the church, we slide into a pew and into the liturgy. Though somewhat familiar, coming from an Episcopal background, the Catholic mass is still new to me. I watch others to see when to stand, kneel, or, most beautifully of all, lift my hands as though catching snowflakes. And my daughter watches me, lifts her hands when I do, and sings along with the unfamiliar songs in the missal. Last year she learned to read, and this year, as a beginning piano student, she is learning to read music. I tear up, watching her put the two together in worship.

I feel deeply grateful to be learning these new traditions together. For a long time, I’d been wanting to bring more of my faith into the rhythms of our family life. But this year has been different. I see now that what I’ve needed to do is to bring more of my faith into the rhythms of my own life.

Last December, with trepidation and caution that seem comical to me now, I’d begun praying the rosary. I even called it the “Anglican rosary,” careful to reassure myself that what was happening within me wasn’t what I thought it was: conversion to the Catholic faith. But in hindsight, I can see that’s exactly what it was.

//

Though brought up with church (the United Church of Christ, to be precise), I wasn’t exactly raised in church. Though I’m incredibly grateful for my early exposure to the Christian faith, I wouldn’t say I was really raised Christian. Faith was something we largely practiced and left in church on Sundays, attached to a place and a time. I’m not sure why, or if there was a definitive turning point, but some time after I was confirmed at 13, our family stopped attending church together. Sometimes I’d ask to go and my dad would take me, or they’d drive me to youth group functions, but it ceased to be part of our weekly family rhythm.

So now I find myself playing a more intentional, active role in my own children’s faith formation than my parents played in mine, and it can feel a little lonely at times, though my nonreligious husband has always been quietly, patiently supportive. Our Episcopal church has been like family to us since we moved to Portland in 2010, and in some ways it feels like a betrayal to cross over to a Church many in our congregation had fled.

I’m discovering how much unexamined, unspoken anti-Catholicism there has been throughout my formation as a Protestant. It shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it has been, to discover that just as there are huge gradients in the flavors of Protestant Christianity, so too are there many ways of belonging within Catholicism. It shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it has been, to find people within the Church with progressive political views like mine. As author Mary Gordon writes, “…for most people, Catholic means only one of three things: a regrettable tendency to lean right, an appetite for sexual repression, an inborn or early-developed talent for blind obedience.” Of course (of course), this is far from the reality of lived experience for many, many Catholics.

And, though I’ve been surprised over the course of this year to find myself feeling drawn ever more strongly to Catholicism, in some ways I also wonder if I have always been on my way here.

For me, to participate in the liturgy is to experience the physical presence of God. Just as I knew I was home when I first attended an Episcopal church service, and experienced a strongly liturgical tradition for the first time, the Catholic mass just about knocks me over with its beauty. Looking back, I see that just as I have always loved to read and write poetry, I have always loved common or “rote” prayer, particularly the Lord’s Prayer. Learning the rosary was like filling in the missing pieces to a song I have been trying to sing my whole life. In particular, I always look forward to forming the shapes of the words in the Salve Regina– “Hail Holy Queen”– a Marian hymn and the final prayer of the rosary, which I find achingly beautiful.

It’s more than beauty, though. It’s something I don’t have words to articulate, and maybe never will. The Episcopal church is not so far off from the Catholic church; much of what I love about the Catholic mass is true of the Episcopal service, too. But the differences, which on the surface may seem subtle, especially to someone whose conversion to faith is from no faith at all, are also vast.

The Real Presence, sacramental confession, the unity of the Church with the very first, with the Pope at its head, in a direct line from Peter. And Mary. Everything about Mary. These things I found so easy to ignore, while busily shutting my heart to Catholicism, now strike me as massive and undeniable.

Conversion is a journey all Christians travel, over and over again, over the course of a lifetime. Turning and returning to Christ, over and over again, as we shed ever more of our small, false selves and find our true selves revealed in Him, we find our faith ever new. We outgrow the versions of God that serve us for a time, embracing a newer, fuller picture of His love and mercy.

//

The fog hangs low and heavy as we leave the church, the fluttering of coats and clicking of heels around us muted in the air. On this feast day of the saints, perhaps the air is thick with the presence of those who came before us.

As far as I know, I don’t have any Catholic blood relatives on either side of my family, and so I’m embracing Undset– and by extension, Kristin, her fictional persona– in my personal cloud of witnesses. She joins my chosen Saint Monica– mother of reluctant convert Augustine, wife to a husband who converted only on his deathbed, and patron saint of mothers. How incredible, that words written over a century ago could carry something of Undset’s own conversion, at the time still in-process, and intersect with my own.

Rereading my very first post for this project, I’m struck by my tidy little summary of the novel as I thought I had known it, when I first read it in 2013: “A trilogy now nearly a century old, that brings the 1920s feminist quest for freedom to bear on medieval Norway and Catholicism.” When I read the book as a grad student, I read it as proof of a toxicity I identified with the brutal patriarchal forces of the medieval Church. I may even have assumed Undset agreed with me, given the unflinching way she allows her protagonists to work out their problems on their own. But knowing what I know now about Undset, about her indictments of modern Norwegian secular and Protestant culture, and eventual conversion to Catholicism, my anachronistic feminist reading couldn’t be further from the truth, as Undset intended it.

I’m also struck by the questions I set out to ask: “Is happiness real? Is happiness beside the point?” Kristin does seem to be seeking happiness, of a sort, throughout the novel, and like so many do today, she finds that seeking happiness by way of self-fulfillment leads her further and further away from it.

How far away is your happiness? goes the poem by Malena Morling.

If I answer that question for myself, after this year of the wholly unexpected, it’s not that happiness is beside the point. It’s that the source of happiness is often just beside you, in the one place you weren’t looking. Or, for me, the one place I was trying so hard not to look. So far away, and so close, all at once.

After I finished reading Kristin, I read Undset’s two “modern” conversion novels, Wild Orchid and Burning Bush. I’m now reading the third part of Olav Audunsson, the medieval epic Undset began early on in her writing career, and which she kept in a drawer for over thirty years after it was rejected. It’s possible to say of all of these novels what Aidan Nichols writes about Kristin, in his new biography Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts: “In the novel as a whole, but above all in its concluding part, persons are engaged in a supernatural drama inasmuch as their lives and actions have a deeper meaning that they themselves know.”

All of these books are very much about the spiral of consequence of sin, and how the longer we avoid returning to God– repenting or converting, from the Greek metanoia, to fall face-down before God– the further we travel from our deepest selves and our deepest happiness, which are only to be found in God.

As Samantha Stephenson writes in Reclaiming Motherhood, there are two opposing visions of happiness: “The culture’s message: We will be happy when we finally get whatever we want. The Church’s vision: We become happy by being who we were made to be and in union with God.” Kristin spends the majority of the book chasing her lost honor, refusing humility, and imprisoned by pride. It costs her everything. It’s in giving up the need for honor, accepting her sin, and turning in humility to God that she finds freedom, and arguably, happiness.

In so many ways, as so many contributors have described here on the blog this year– in wonderful variety, depth, humor, and creativity– I’ve found myself relating to Kristin again and again over the course of a year’s reading. In this final way, I can say that I can relate as well. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for happiness via self-fulfillment, under the unconscious assumptions that avoiding suffering and seeking control will bring freedom and meaning. Instead I am finding freedom, joy, and a deeper happiness within the mystery of the Church, in relationship with God.

How different are we, really? I asked a year ago. It turns out we are not so very different, Kristin and me. Not so very different at all.

Photo by Finn IJspeert on Unsplash


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.

Love Is Fire

by Megan Willome

One of the joys of reading and writing in community with Project Redux has been seeing my
beloved heart book through others’ eyes. Caitlin Dwyer noticed the fire in the very first chapter
in a way I hadn’t. So while rereading the book past year, I took a cue from her and paid attention to fire in the story: where it rises up and where it burns out, sooner or later (as Simon says).

Alternating refrains call for a villanelle, so that’s the form I chose. I did not follow the proper
rhyme scheme, only the repetition (and I let mine go on a little too long, like this book). Because Kristin Lavransdatter often repeats but doesn’t always rhyme. So much of this book is messy.

Just like I am messy — trying to make sense of my life, writing the same words over and over. I
am a woman on fire, crying onto my own flint as I try to rekindle flame in my empty hearth.

When Kristin leaves Jorundgaard for good, I finally start to like her. When she is only The
Widow Kristin, capable of joining a convent but not of becoming a nun. When she discovers the
mob of men bent on burying a child alive to end the plague and screams, “I am like you.” When
she realizes her passionate, messy marriage has forever marked her as bound to the Virgin Mary
and to God.

Hers is a fire that only new snow can quench. That’s what falls on Ulf and Sira Eiliv as they
walk away from her deathbed. The words echo a scene from 690 pages earlier. Snowy payoff;
slow burn.

I believe that in her afterlife Kristin at last goes into the heart of the mountain, to dwell forever
with the Mountain King. Where fire is free to play and be happy, to love.


Love Is Fire
a villanelle in Kristin’s voice

The campfire had almost died, but I poked it
to life with a stick. The elf maiden beckoned.
All fires burn out sooner or later.

From the moment Erlend touched me, I was aflame.
The sagas say it’s not a romance unless something burns.
Fire rose up, burned its mark forever onto my finger.

The fire between him and his brother, the priest,
cooled to embers before they parted, for even
the fire of brotherhood burns out sooner or later.

There was always a storm when Erlend was around.
I saw the cross on fire, alive and moving. He rushed in,
and fire rose up, consuming my childhood church.

The cookhouse fire at Husaby extinguished
the morning the soldiers arrested Erlend.
His ancestral fire did burn out sooner or later.

I was a neglectful mother. My twins were wild!
Only Simon could speak sense to them.
Fire rose up in the goat shed, but they chopped it out.

I was a cruel wife. Erlend was wholly mine after he lost
Husaby, but I let my heart grow cold.
My fire for him burned out. Sooner and later.

Simon loved me—always loved me. He thought
about me for twenty years. How did I fail to see
how fire rose up in him and burned him to death?

When my flint was useless after too many tears
I knew it was time to leave with the beggars.
Sooner or later even homefires burn out.

I carried a torch into a cemetery and a hovel,
became fireweed, spread red tassels everywhere.
Fire in me blazed up, poured out in dark red haze.


I am inside the mountain, where fire ever rises up,
where the Mountain King ensures it never burns out —
Not sooner.
Not later.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.

What Really Matters

By Joanna ES Campbell 

When the body betrays or the mind plays a trick, this mountain teaches  what really matters. Our house rests in a cleft near the south brow – or, in a friend’s ticklish words, God’s eyebrow. Dennis bakes bread, and I carve thick slices for toast, as if it’s a turkey. 

Love the land

Love yourself

Love others

What really matters are the plants on my window sill and patience in resurrection ferns. The intelligence of paxil.  I follow lichens of their own map-making – places unknown on yellow pine, emerald bark puzzling onto copper needles. I can not hear the forest inside my house. Not really. Not the minute clicks and hicks of a movable world. Are those Ants? Worms? The chatter of millions. 

What matters is the muscle I’ve learned will tear. My fingers will curl from hours of carving. I whittle away the days – literally – stilled by a piece of green maple in my hands and the anatomy growing with each stroke of the knife. I curl the wood and wonder what is left beyond the shape of a spoon. The core. 

What really matters is multivitamins for menopause and heeding the stranger’s advice at Jiffy Lube, “Be gentle with yourself,” she tells me as she pays her bill.  Her muddy boots, perhaps a clue. “It’s real, the effect on your psyche.”  You got it, I nod. 

What really matters is the vulture near the edge of the cliff, the air sliced open by wings. Yes, enough. 

Or the pelican far from this mountain who dives head first into the ocean. Over and over, unflagging in their belief. Yes, enough. 

As if the water knows a secret. 

Maybe it has something to do with the suede roller skates given to me by my wild-haired priest of a husband. Or maybe it is the lynx who spoke in my dream and the moment we became lovers, his paws the weight of snow on my shoulders – he licked my fur until it glowed silver. 

What matters isn’t the worry there are no words, not enough words, words to make sense. What matters is soil speaking each day to the lungs of flora. You are honed by the breathing of trees, rewarded by gleaming spoons and low blood pressure.  What is left? What is left? 

Love the land

Love yourself

Love others


Joanna ES Campbell holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.  Her checkered past includes teaching ecological literature and land ethics in the Wilderness & Civilization Program at the University of Montana; organizing statewide heirloom tomato festivals; and graduating high school by the skin of her teeth. She is the undefeated 1986 jump rope champion of her elementary school in which she peaked athletically.  Her writing can be found in various guest blogs and anthologies as well as Farming Magazine, Art House America, Arkansas Review, Process Philosophy for Everyone, Relief, and Orion Magazine. She is co-author of the book, Taste and See: Experiences of God’s Goodness Through Stories, Poems, and Food, as Seen by a Mother and Daughter. Joanna lives on Petit Jean Mountain in central Arkansas where she putters with her husband on eleven wooded acres. She is currently writing a lyrical memoir drawn from her experiences of wilderness and community in North America. Follow her blog at joannaescampbell.com 

Four Takes on Kristin Lavransdatter

By Hannah Piecuch

I finished Kristin Lavransdatter in late October, a month ahead of this reading group’s schedule. And I didn’t want to spoil it for any of you! So here is what I read, re-read, and listened to in order to quell my appetite for discussion. 

Slate Magazine | Why Sigrid Undset should be the next Elena Ferrante

When I was invited to join Project Redux, this was the first article I read about Kristin Lavransdatter, as I weighed whether I was interested. Ruth Graham’s synopsis is remains an intriguing one: “This trilogy includes illicit sex, affairs, a church fire, an attempted rape, ocean voyages, rebellious virgins cooped up in a convent, predatory priests, an attempted human sacrifice, floods, fights, murders, violent suicide, a gay king, drunken revelry, the Bubonic Plague, deathbed confessions, and sex that makes its heroine ache ‘with astonishment—that this was the iniquity that all the songs were about.’ And yet all the outward drama is deployed in service of a story about an ordinary woman’s quietly shifting interior life.” Graham says this trilogy should be adapted as the next bingeable period drama—and I have to agree. 

LitCentury Podcast | On Desire (and its Absence) | On Catholicism and Doomscrolling

A two-part series with writers Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols. They discuss Lavrans and Ragnfrid’s marriage and speculate over whether those characters envy Erlend and Kristin’s romance, even as they worry for their daughter. And they also argue that Sigrid Undset borrows some bad troupes from the romance genre (the obsession with how hot Kristin is in comparison with all other characters, for one). They also offer insight into Undset’s personal life. She had just left marriage to a partner who was much like Erlend when she wrote Kristin Lavransdatter—is this a revenge epic?

The Paris Review | Cooking with Sigrid Undset 

There is a lot more than boiled beef brisket, barley bread, and mead in this essay. Valerie Stivers ruminates on the novel’s brutal realism, Undset’s conversion “pagan catholicism”, the allure of the Elf Maiden, and her own obsession with making the perfect bowl of oatmeal when her children were small. 

The Atlantic | The bookstore strikes back

Ann Patchett is not writing about Kristin Lavransdatter directly in this essay, but about how she came to own her bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville. When I read this next quote in passing I felt like I was part of a secret club, just for reading the trilogy: “The bookstore of my youth was Mills. My sister and I used to walk there every day after school, stopping first to check out the puppies in the pet shop across the street, then going on to admire the glossy covers of the Kristin Lavransdatter series, which is what girls read after they finished Little House on the Prairie and its sequels back before the Twilight books were written.” It made me wonder what I would have made of Kristin and Erlend when I was twelve. 


Hannah Piecuch is a staff science writer at Oceanus magazine and a designer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She holds an MFA in fiction, but has not written a word of fiction since completing it. She enjoys winter ocean swimming, long woods walks with her dogs, and eating oysters in months that contain “r”. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband. 

Crushing On Erlend

Marital confession


Recently my husband and I were out to dinner on the San Antonio Riverwalk. He asked me how
the Kristin/Project Redux was going, and I said I was having trouble writing about Erlend. I’d
written many things — none of them quite right. If Kristin were a musical, Erlend deserved a big show-stopper of a tune, and I didn’t know how to write it.


“He’s the husband?” asked my husband of thirty years. “And you don’t like him?”


I took a big sip of my sangria. “I think I’m falling in love,” I said.


My sainted husband took this confession in stride. “Oh, really?”


My husband is nothing like Erlend. I’ve never dated someone like Erlend. I’ve never even kissed someone like Erlend.


He is far from perfect. In this section, especially, when he does not go back to Kristin after he
learns of her pregnancy, followed by the birth and death of the son named for him — I judge Erlend harshly for those failings. And yet, what is it about this heroic bad boy with a heart of … well, a heart of pumping, throbbing passion that attracts me so much?


Erlend Nikkulausson is many things.


He is a ladies’ man

From the moment Erlend and his men rescue Kristin and Ingeborg, we know exactly who he is.

“But first we must escort the maidens back to their convent. I’m sure you can find some
straps to tie them up with…”


“Do you the maidens, Erlend?”


It’s no surprise that when he is away from his marriage bed, fighting in the wild north, he wakes
up with a Finnish woman on either side of him. (Who can blame them?) When he carves love
runes into apples and tosses them to any lady who wants one, it’s no great shock, not even to
Kristin.


Erlend did resist Sunniva, many times. When he finally does give in, Undset writes, “He was already quite aware that no man had ever had less pleasure from a sin than he was having from his dealing with Sunniva Olavsdatter.” (How was he to know the woman could read?)


After that affair, there’s no indication he sins with another woman again. Even with all Kristin’s
faults, Erlend believes she is “worth thinking about for twenty years.”

He is a chieftain

Men admire this man who laughs “out loud in the dark.” They want to drink with him (even
though he never lets himself drink too much). They can’t help but place their “trust in a hand that lets everything run through its fingers like cold water and dry sand.”

Simon couldn’t help it. Even Lavrans couldn’t help it. Although Erlend is “too heavy-footed and light-hearted for secret plans,” men join in a conspiracy with him. And he does not betray a single one of them, evenunder torture.


“And if I tell them to go to Hell when I get angry, they know that I don’t mean for them to set off on the journey without me in the lead.”


Dogs love him. Horses love him. As his sons grow into young men, they love him too. He’s a
man’s man, surrounded by bands of merry men.


He is a father

When his son Orm dies, his first child conceived in his first dalliance with a married woman,
Erlend weeps. He defends his daughter Margret’s honor, even when she cares nothing for it.
With Kristin, he’s unprepared for the horrors of childbirth and hands their newborn son back to
her, saying this:


“I don’t think I’m going to be properly fond of you, Naakkve, until I forget what terrible suffering you caused your mother.”


When his sons are young, Erlend doesn’t know how to father them, but after he loses everything — ancestral estate, his position as sheriff, what was left of his reputation — he begins to teach them what it means to be men in this medieval world. That means a lot of hunting and weapons training. It also means a story of a 200-year-old witch! That he keeps hidden in a leather pouch! Every Christmas he feeds her the thigh of a Christian man!


“The children shrieked and tumbled into their mother’s bed. […] Kristin complained — Erlend shouldn’t tease them so horribly. But Naakkve toppled off the bed again; in an ecstasy of laughter and fright he rushed at his father, hung on to his belt and bit at Erlend’s hands, while he shoulted and cheered.”


You know who else shouted and cheered at this gruesome fairy tale? Me.


He is a Christian


Erlend is a man who claims the Christian faith as his own, whether or not he finds it convenient
to practice it at any given moment.

Does he owe the church a fine? He pays it. Does he need to atone for sin? He does it. He’s not a
holy man, like his brother, Gunnulf, the priest. He doesn’t observe every fast, like Lavrans. But
when the church catches on fire, he rushes in to save the holy vessels. When the flood comes, he is there, praying and crying Kyrie eleison.

His sword is inscribed with the words Keep the faith. He can’t even keep the sword. He makes
his final confession, but not to a priest — to his son Lavrans. But he does confess the thing he is
most guilty of.


Unlike Kristin, he can’t keep a grudge. After Erlend’s death, she comes to understand and admire this about Erlend. She tells Gunnulf:

“He never held on to anger or injustice any more than he held on to anything else. […] I’m certain that God the Almighty knows that Erlend never harbored rancor toward any man, for any reason.”


From the moment Kristin meets him, her love for Erlend leads her to greater love for Christ,
beginning when she the nuns make her stay in the chapel until midnight and contemplate her sin. Contemplating Erlend makes her contemplate God.


If Kristin had married Simon, she would have had a provincial life with few worries or troubles.
With Erlend, she had adventure and heartbreak and passion. That’s what happens when you
marry the Mountain King.


He is the mountain king

In the poems I’ve written for this project, I’ve used many forms that repeat. That’s because this story is very Psalmic — it doesn’t rhyme, but it repeats and repeats again. The poetry of the book is in the phrase in one scene that pays off 800 pages later. One of those ideas is about the mountain king.


It seems to be the tale everyone knows (like everyone now knows Harry Potter). It’s a story of a
maiden lured inside the mountain, to live with the mountain king. Lavrans tells a version of this
story to Kristin, regarding Audhild the Fair of Skjenne. But she’s already referred to it many
times: in her meeting with the elf maiden, the first time she visits the cathedral of Hamar, in
choosing to marry Erlend, and in choosing to leave him at Haugen.


“She felt as if she were returning home from inside the mountain. As if Erlend were the mountain king himself and could not come past the church and the cross on the hill.”


After Erlend’s death, at the end of the book, Kristin does a very brave thing. I don’t think she
would have done it without being married to him. There is a recklessness she gets from him —
the kind of thoughtless, bold deed that saves the day. Sure, it costs you everything. That’s the
stuff stories are made of.


Marital concession

IMarriage has changed me — in love, in work, in parenthood, in faith, in my very soul. Like Kristin and Erlend, John and I have had our personal fires and floods, our scary childbirths,
our losses of all we held dear, the deaths of loved ones.

Just as he’s changed me, so I’ve changed him. I don’t think the 19-year-old young man I met at summer camp would have been remotely interested in my affection for some dude from a century-old book. Now that middle-aged man just smiles and lets me keep talking.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.

Fighting Among Kin

Kristin Lavransdatter – pgs. 780-797:

Erlend and Simon are talking to a bunch of guys, and Erlend leaves to get their horses ready to go home. So it’s just these guys and Simon, and they start talking about Lavrans. One guy, Holmgeir, says to Simon: “If I had lived as blameless and Christian a life as Lavrans Bjorgulfson, and been married to a mournful woman like Ragnfrid Ivarsdatter, I think I would have wept for the sins that I hadn’t committed.”

Like 15 seconds later, Holmgeir is dead. Simon thrust his sword in Holmgeir’s chest, and Holmgeir “slipped from the sword,” and fell into the fire.

More fighting, everyone is trying to kill each other, spears and daggers and swords are everywhere and there’s even an axe, and at one point someone named Vidar drags Holmgeir’s body from the fire. “They were cousins, those two,” Undset tells us.

All this happens in less than a page and then Erlend comes in flashing his sword and telling Simon to get the heck out of there. Simon is annoyed because he thinks Erlend means to finish the fight without him, but that’s not what Erlend means to do. He’s saying we BOTH need to get out, GO, GO, GO!

OK so they’re alone and I imagine the two of them standing next to their horses outside of some tavern, but I think it was someone’s house, and they’re going over the events of what had to be 90 seconds – three minutes, tops.

Erlend is the one who relays the facts and they are startling and somber, but at one point, Erlend erupts into laughter as he’s describing Holmegeir’s hair that had been singed off his head. “Now it certainly smells like a damn roasted thrush in there, you’d better believe me! How the Devil could all of you get into a quarrel in such a short time?”

I think I am a horrible person for loving Erlend – specifically in this scene – as much as I do. I’m also concerned about myself because I laughed – HARD – at Holmgeir’s comment about Lavrans weeping for the sins he didn’t commit.

I think Undset might be in on the joke, though. Her choice to write an aside to us about Vidar and Holmgeir being cousins comes in the midst of a bloody, ferocious scene and harkens to many memories of my girlfriends and I summarizing (and trying to make sense of) the brawls that would sometimes break out between some of our fellow teenagers over the weekends.

No kidding, once, in Geology class my Junior Year of high school, my friends Marissa and Celena and I were discussing a fight that had occurred on a Saturday night in a place called, “the woods,” a forest along the Des Plaines River where teenagers were known to party and Satan worshippers were known to congregate and I don’t know which group was more dangerous.

The day we were discussing a fight, we had a sub who was doing her best to get us to focus on plate tectonics and also probably rocks or mountains? I don’t know, but we weren’t interested in that drama.

There was a fire in the woods that night. Someone built it to keep us warm while we sipped Milwaukee’s Best. That’s where the fight broke out, and one guy, Nick, ended up in the fire. I know that sounds awful. He’s fine. He came to my wedding, as a matter of fact. Has kids and a wife of his own, but what Celena, Marissa, and I were trying to figure out back in 1993 was whether Nick fell or was pushed into the fire.

We were invested, the three of us. We had drawn diagrams, gone over the subtext of what had been said. We were putting together backstories. We would get to the bottom of this mystery.

Meanwhile, the sub was taking notes on our behavior on a yellow legal pad. I nudged Celena, who nudged Marissa, who looked across the room at the sub who was smirking at us – her #2 pencil at the ready.

Marissa tapped a pink polished nail on the lab table, pointing to our diagram, and said, loudly, because we were in the back of the room, and she wanted to make it clear that the sub should write this down, “Nick fell in the fire.”

The three of us, we are all mothers of teenagers now. We are married. We have jobs. We are nearing 50. But I know – without a doubt – if I were to see them tomorrow and say nothing but, “Nick fell in the fire,” we would crumple into laughter. And I’m confident that if Sigrid Undset were part of our crew, she’d be laughing, too.

I do not believe this scene is promoting or glorifying violence, nor do I think Undset is trying to make light of a horrifying situation. Just as if anyone had asked the three of us back in Geology class, if we were making fun of, or even happy that we’d seen a fight break out, we’d would’ve said that no, none of this is good; we’re taking the situation we were in and trying to make sense of it.

I think this scene with Simon and Erlend and the cousins shows how intimately Undset knows – and loves – each character she’s created.

Writing well doesn’t mean creating a tidy story. Writing well means having the capability to communicate the chaos, to order it in a way that the reader is drawn into it, that they might say, “This is insane! What is happening right now?” And Undset says, “I know, right? Follow me, it gets even crazier.”

And we do.

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 calliefeyen.com.

When I’m Gone

My copy of Kristin has lots of notes about her sister Ramborg, and I’ve written more than a few
poems about her. But nothing seemed to capture this woman who is, perhaps, the only female in the story who I’d want to be my actual friend.


While puzzling over how to write about Ramborg, I noticed this sentence she says, about Simon: “He never missed me while I was gone.” Wait, what song does that sound like? The YouTube gods sent me a sign: Anna Kendrick singing “Cups/When I’m Gone” from Pitch Perfect. Now I knew what to write.

I don’t know that Kristin misses Ramborg after she’s gone. After informing Kristin she is to be
remarried, Ramborg disappears from the narrative. I can only hope she lives happily ever after
with her new husband, after her “wretched” life with Simon.


I don’t think Ramborg will miss Kristin either. But I picture her thinking that she will be missed,
singing as she waltzes out the door, away from her home valley, forever.


This poem is for Ramborg, who deserved to be missed. (Cue the cups.)


When I’m Gone
By Megan Willome

I got the husband that I wanted.
I was a girl getting a woman’s tooth.
Simon poked my gums with a splinter—
he poked. I bled.
I missed him when he was gone.

I got the husband that I wanted.
He lost my sister, left me with her dog.
I bided my time, sat on his lap until he said yes.
(My father loved Simon like a son.)
Simon missed him when he was gone.

I got the husband that I wanted.
I was Fair Isolde; he preferred Kristin, Dark Isolde.
I was a young Abishag; he, an aging David,
who for twenty years preferred Fru Bathsheba.
He never missed me when he was gone.

I got the husband that I wanted.
He was with Kristin when our son was born.
He loved her sons more than his own children.
He broke my dish and hid it like a guilty little boy.
I didn’t miss him when I was gone, but I did miss Kristin.

So I sent the husband—the man I always wanted—
to her three times! Asked her to Come see me!
Come for Christmas! Come when my child is born!
No, she said. No. No.
Why didn’t she miss me when I was gone?

The husband that I so wanted
was with Kristin when he died.
In his feverish daze he asked her to mother his
illegitimate daughter. My stepdaughter.
He didn’t miss me even when he was almost gone.

Simon, the husband I wanted and got,
treated me like a fine horse, like a good dog.
So I am marrying someone else,
someone who’s been thinking of me for years.
Someone who’ll miss me when I’m gone.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.

Two Simons (a pantoum)


Simon Darre is a complex character. There are times I admire him and times I despise him. Even the chapter about his death, which is so beautifully rendered, is somewhat undermined in the very next chapter, when we hear Ramborg’s side of the story. And yet I think that’s as it should be. There were always two Simons.


Two Simons (a pantoum)
by Megan Willome


I can count every freckle on his face
He wants to go fishing with me
The dead boy walks in the spring pasture
The long road home sparkles in uncertain snow


I want to go fishing with him
phew! phew! Away with you—
Uncertain snow blocks the long road home
Ramborg can marry again, maybe happily


phew! phew! Away with you—
You won’t be able to heal me, Kristin
Ramborg can marry again and be happy
Erlend is a splendid specimen of a man (sometimes)


You won’t be able to heal me, Kristin
I walk with the dead boy in the spring pasture
Your Erlend is a splendid specimen of a man (sometimes)
My every freckle is reflected on your face

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. More writing links at her website and at Poetry for Life.

Rebels

No one wants to be The Man. Everyone wants to fly the
Millennium Falcon.

Caitlin Dwyer

I’m sitting down to write with Princess Leia. She’s stickered onto my blue coffee mug, buns
loose on the sides of her head, middle fingers upturned. Her expression is terse and fierce.
There are no words, but the takeaway of the image is: resist.


I take a long sip of bitter brew out of her buns. I think about what that means to resist. How
much the word burns a little crackling fire in my belly. How much it conceals, like a lacquer over
a pockmarked surface. How it lets me tell a story about myself that I want, more than know, to
be true.


Princess Leia has always been my favorite princess, spunkier than most Disney heroines I grew
up with in the 80s and 90s. Unlike those princesses, who were mostly excluded from ruling their
nations, Leia was more explicitly involved in politics, diplomacy, and leadership: a stateswoman
with snark. In the late 2010s she reemerged as a political figure, an icon of the left, leader of
the resistance against President Trump. She appeared on signs at the women’s march, bumper
stickers and lawn signs and Twitter memes. As a senator who resorts to revolutionary tactics,
she appealed to a progressive left that wanted to undermine the establishment without, you
know, actually revolting against the establishment.


But then we did have a revolt. A real one. In 2021 it came from the other side of the political
spectrum, and it involved setting up a gallows outside the Capitol and threatening to kill the
Vice President. People died. The rebels felt their cause was righteous; the rest of us were
horrified.


I was reading Book 2 of Kristin Lavransdatter this summer in the weeks when Congress was
livestreaming the January 6 hearings. I read about Erlend’s imprisonment and torture for
conspiring against the king, even as I heard testimony about how our president encouraged (or
at least refused to discourage) armed rebellion. It got me thinking about the history of
revolution in the U.S. and how people from all political opinions position themselves against
authority as scrappy, righteous rebels.


The U.S. began with rebellion, obviously: it’s our founding mythos. Tea in the harbor, midnight
ride, Washington’s icy advance across the Delaware. American identity rests on an anti-
authoritarian, anti-monarchy ethic (even as we are, myself included, obsessed with royal succession in England and Westeros) and a sense of the scrappy individual against the
homogenizing empire.


What I’ve been wondering about is the enduring legacy of rebellion. If the good guys are always
in opposition to The Man, then what happens when the good guys win? Who spends time
building roads, exacting taxes, doing the tedious and unrewarding work of building a nation? Do
the rebels become The Man, and invite a new generation of rebellion? Are we stuck in this cycle
of destruction and renewal forever just because we can’t conceive of a plot in which some of us
have to start governing?


In the Star Wars sequels, where Princess Leia has become General Leia, an older woman of
authority and gravitas, I saw this problem. The writers couldn’t imagine a world in which the
rebels had actually succeeded because then the rebels would then be the empire. They
basically re-wrote the original trilogy with Leia as the leader of a new scrappy band of rebels.
The plot felt tired. Why wouldn’t we see Leia involved in the difficult diplomacy of rebuilding
trust and establishing trade? Writing a Constitution? Having Reconciliation and Truth hearings
with former stormtroopers? In that scenario, the rebel would necessarily transform into a
stateswoman. But that’s not sexy, is it. That’s not a blockbuster film. No one carried posters of
Nancy Pelosi at the women’s march.


Listening to the January 6th hearings I was struck by how much of the far-right insurrection was
animated by this same old story. Just like the left appropriated Leia as a symbol, the right has
Don’t Tread on Me iconography and Confederate flags, the latter of which carries heavy
symbolic weight, for both sides. I’m not equating my favorite Princess to a racist rebellion that
sought to uphold slavery, obviously. I’m saying that the symbols of rebellion animate our
political debate on both sides and are part of the self-conception of righteousness that has
entrenched us into political deadlock. No one wants to be The Man. Everyone wants to fly the
Millennium Falcon.

Obviously medieval Norway doesn’t share much in common with the modern bicameral
legislature. Nevertheless, there are a few things that struck me about Erlend’s failed rebellion,
namely the vagueness around whether it would have been a good idea. The King is described as
unfit to rule (and there is some homophobic undertone here which I dislike) but his support of
torture seems to support Erlend’s claim that he’s not a good ruler. And yet everyone knows
Erlend is flaky and impulsive, prone to political mistakes; Undset repeats this chatter about
Kristin’s husband so many times it starts to feel overwrought. Does Erlend know something we
don’t? Or is he an impulsive fool storming the steps, convinced of his own righteous cause?
“And yet it had always been the right of Norwegian farmers and chieftans in the past to reject
any king who attempted to rule unlawfully,” Undset writes during Erlend’s trial. This is part of
Erlend’s defense and, it seems to me, a statement based in modern democracy. The statement
forces me to reflect on both the immense importance and potential troubles of the peaceful
transfer of power. In any functioning democratic system (or even, it seems, in quasi-functional
monarchies), people deserve the right to reject a bad ruler. That’s why we vote.

Right now, many people in this nation believe that our current elected president is ruling
unlawfully. Because this belief has no basis in fact, the left dismissed the threat of violent far-
right revolution until January 6 th , when violence became a gobsmacking reality. The left
underestimated the power of that founding mythos — even as they appropriate Leia and other
resistance symbols for their own. The story of the unlawful king holds great mythic weight in
this nation, as it must have in Erlend and Kristin’s. In some ways, rebellion is an act of
storytelling, of positioning the self as a protagonist in a long and ongoing tale of necessary
violence.


That is the plot of Star Wars, and the original movies have been my favorite films since
girlhood. But I wonder now what happens when the rebels go home. When they accept the
results of the election or themselves begin to serve in positions of power, become arbiters of
law and negotiators of treaty. When they are reunited with loved ones and, broken and
traumatized, set about making a life. When they give up being rebels and take on other titles,
other self-conceptions.


I think that Kristin, like Leia, might be the kind of woman who got to work doing the necessary
and unsexy work of taking care of people, distributing food, and building community. Erlend
rebelled, but Kristin is not a rebel. She’s a builder. Hers is the story of farmers and housewives,
listening and acting on what you hear. It is in some ways a woman’s story, a story of
homemaking and patient labor, relationship and mutual use, a story without glamor but with
immense importance for creating viable, livable communities. Neither side has any patience
with this story, but it might be the one we need to get better at telling.

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.

Never the Same

Chapter 3 of book 2, from the “Honor Among Kin” section, is one of my all-time favorite
chapters in Kristin Lavransdatter. When Callie Feyen introduced me to a form called the bio
poem, I realized I needed to write about Bjarne, the poor woman whose grave Kristin robs in
order to save Simon’s son Andres. It’s Kristin’s moment to enter eternity.


As she undertakes her errand (of witchcraft? superstition? faith?) Kristin is changed. The door
closes to her home, to her family, and even to herself, “to the woman who had wandered past, up along the road this night.” The spirits of the dead touch her like leaves, calling to her, and “After this night she could never be afraid of anything else in the world.”


A Ghostly Gift: Bjarneby Megan Willome


Orphaned, honorable, provided-for, dead,
my father’s foster daughter, my sister’s maid,
who loved children, loved the rooted earth, loved gold with rubies,
who was cut to the heart by a dagger in the dark,
who gave turf, sacred ground, the archangel rooster,
who feared abandonment, poverty, desecration.
who would have liked to see the boy I saved—the bony chicken of a child.
Look back, Kristin, look under your arm as you leave the poor section of the cemetery.
Ghost.