Some Thoughts on the Wind Woman, Iron Man, and Metaphor

Yesterday my son looked up at me and said, in a thoughtful voice, “I think I live mostly in my imagination.”

He’s five. He’s right. Since his birth, when he wasn’t expected to live and then, miraculously, did, I’ve always thought of him as a changeling, an elfin creature returned to us — with half a mind still wandering in the faerie realm. He’s only half here. In the park he flits from branch to branch; he’s an orangutan, he’s a monster truck, he’s a hummingbird, he’s Iron Man. For him and other children of that age, their bodies are an artistic medium: their limbs are mutable, their forms changeable, and the world, wonderous, welcomes their flickering.

I remember being like him, and like Emily. I remember when the inanimate world filled itself with characters. Emily’s Wind Woman is one marvelous example. In my childhood there was a birch that scratched at my window with witch fingers, and the lovely bower of rhododendron in the backyard, which was home to gnomes. I used to feel sad for objects I had to throw away, weeping for their loneliness. Thus I hoarded rocks and shells in small piles because I felt sorry for them being separated (I suspect my mom would come and periodically empty the room of their small spirits, setting them free to the world again). Like Emily, I used to sit for hours at windows and marvel at the clouds and trees, their relentless motion, their everchanging beauty. Montgomery’s writing illuminates the dynamic nature of how children see the world:

It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very
near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain;
she could never draw the curtain aside—but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind
fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm
beyond—only a glimpse—and heard a note of unearthly music.

Emily of New Moon

Emily believes herself a wisp away from another world. There is magic nearby, the type of magic that transforms. My son believes this too — the real world is razor-thin and beyond it stretches the unreal, where anything is possible.


A lot of days I am too tired to play with my son. He wants us to swing from branches together and collect bananas. He wants us to hunt down bad guys with clues and gumption. He wants us to fight robot invaders, build spaceships and explore strange new worlds, and morph into dinosaur form (“But the dinosaurs can talk, and like, hold walkie talkies,” he explains). I admire his imagination but I cannot summon the magic needed to transform, again and again, from this tired mommy shape into the various elementals of his imagination.

I know I’m supposed to get down on the floor and play with him (long days, short years, blah blah blah) so I manage to do it, most days, for a little while before I tap out. But what astonishes me more is how easy it is for him to summon his wonder. Awe flows through him. Everything is worthy of huge feelings. It used to be easy for me, too.

I was like Emily. I wrote poems, terrible poems, about the landscape, odes to the little waterfalls I hiked past, stories about the faerie castles in the creek. My mind embraced language as an extension of landscape, and as I got older (around 11, Emily’s age, about six years older than my son) my body was no longer the medium for transformation. Words became the medium. My body shifted into adulthood with its weird hairs and bumps, so it was mutating all on its own, no longer a canvas for imagination. Instead, imagination became a thing to be recorded, then expressed, and then crafted and created on the page. I could change into anything in writing; language was the spell that unwove me from my body and made me new, each time I wrote and read. Emily says that a scene might “hurt her with its beauty until she wrote it down.” Her physical pain, and the relief of that pain, are one manifestation of the way that language lodges in our bodies and shifts them, subtly, from inside.


I’ve been reading Emily of New Moon at night when the baby falls asleep on my shoulder. She’s really a toddler now, but I still sometimes let her fall asleep on me. This is mostly because I then get to read my Kindle in the dark, with her soft breathing on my neck. This last month, I have looked forward to finding myself on Prince Edward Island for a chapter or two each night.

At first I thought, well, no wonder I like this book; it’s easy. Then I checked myself: no, I don’t love Emily because it’s easy. Easy means unchallenging, and Emily doesn’t feel flaccid or dull. Instead, it’s animate, dynamic, and kind. I love it because it’s delightful.

Emily is not quote-on-quote serious reading. Montgomery wrote the book for young people, but more than that I think she’s probing at the idea of children’s literature and what entails serious writing. Because despite Emily’s obviously nascent writing skills, she takes herself seriously, and Montgomery takes her seriously. Her fancies, her feelings, although placed in context as youthful, are not set aside as irrelevant. “Emily hated to be told she was too young to understand,” writes Montgomery. “She felt that she could understand perfectly well if only people would take the trouble to explain things to her and not be so mysterious.” In this passage, Montgomery has the wisdom of age to look at her young character (who obviously does, indeed, not understand some things) (like boys), but she also allows Emily’s indignation and honors her desire to be taken seriously. Her emotions are examined and described with the confidence and compassion of a writer who remembers how often children are brushed aside, and how bad it can feel to be told, “You’ll grow out of it.” When a book has stakes that feel real and characters you care about, it is simply good literature. It is lovely, and fanciful, and youthful — and why should those things remain the realm of the young? Why cannot we tired middle-aged folk also claim delight for ourselves? Why must delight be brushed aside as youthful and silly? Can we not love the sway of the wind and get embarrassed by spectacles with friends and fight with those we love over haircuts? Or maybe we don’t, and what a shame that we’ve forgotten how.

I’m interested in delight these days. I didn’t finished Kristin Lavransdatter for this project, not because I didn’t like it — I really liked it — but because I knew in the last section the Black Death was coming. This 2023 post-pandemic me was not ready to see Kristin mourn the loss of her spouse and children to a deadly plague. My kids already feel tenuous, barely possible. I can’t even rip a tiny, imaginative hole where their bodies are, in sympathy, in empathy. It hurts like hell just to imagine.

When do we lose the capacity to imagine so easily? It has something to do, I think, with the world pressing back on imagination as we age, forcing our fancies to reconcile with reality. When I was young, I made fun of my mom for not being able to watch serious films. She always wanted comedies — no dramas, no Oscar films. It was all light fare on family movie night. My dad and I would watch serious films on our own, and I’d ask him, “What’s up with mom?” He told me she felt the world a little too hard. Sometimes she felt it so hard it hurt. What she wanted from fiction was to feel something joyful — not Pollyanna false, not pretending the world wasn’t hard, but laughing despite and with the hard.

Is this what happens to very imaginative kids when they get older and read the news? Earthquakes, school shootings, wars, climate change … the hurt seeps in and we start to retreat like turtles into our shells, safe in our carapace of unfeeling, until we can’t watch any Oscar nominees or finish Kristin Lavransdatter and want to binge comedies on Netflix and not read poetry and can’t feel wonder anymore but only a dull kind of contentment, a thought like I should really feel something more .(Shit, y’all, am I this tired?) I guess I’m trying to figure out, reading Emily: Where did my wonder go?

Because Emily is full of wonder. Her enchantment has kept me sitting on that couch, baby on my lap, smiling into the darkened room and the weird old-snow glow of the Kindle, to see if she will win over her aunt and get her bang cut — these childish, delightful joys that matter so much to her sensitive, exuberant heart.

The poet and essayist Ross Gay has recently made somewhat of a career of the exploration of delight, and his writing plumbs the depths of sorrow, grief, loss and tenderness even as he discusses the things that bring him joy: good coffee, potlucks, pickup basketball, community gardens, skateboarding. In his newest collection, Inciting Joy, he writes about the misperception of joy as a feeling apart from sorrow: “The joy room, the thinking goes, is snug with every good and nice and cozy thing.” But this sealed-up sense of joy, Gay argues, is no joy at all but a kind of acquisitional satisfaction. Real joy is “not separate from pain,” but a messy, interwoven symbiosis. “What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another? Or even more to the point, what if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering, or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through those things?” he asks. What I take from Gay’s line of questioning is that since grief is inevitable, loss is inevitable, and death is inevitable, then our experience of wonder has to come from our fellowship with others, despite and inside of that inevitable pain.

Every night Emily comes to me after a day of adulthood. I hear the news — thousands buried under rubble in Turkey and Syria, the war in Ukraine marching into its second year, some glacier in Washington has disappeared forever, another school shooting. I listen to my students, who are bright kids fighting the tide pull of poverty to get their education, and think about how hard they have to swim, and how unfair it feels that capitalism is this rip tide dragging them backward. I’m just regular tired, from chores and being patient when small people are yelling at me. In that context, with my baby breathing softly against my body, the delight of reading Emily hits closer and sweeter and harder.

And Emily stands there holding her notebook and searching for buried treasure in the garden, amid the glory of the seasonal flowers, with all her vulnerability and pain. Her book begins with the kind of life-changing sadness that is difficult to imagine: the death of a parent. Being orphaned leaves Emily deeply alone in the world, not only physically but emotionally. Her father is the one person who understands and listens to her. When he dies, she has no one with whom to share the imaginary world of childhood.

The other tragedies in Emily’s life (Rhoda’s betrayal! Aunt Elizabeth’s rules!) rock on the cold sea of those first chapters and the devastation of her father’s death. All the rest of the books sings in its wake: Emily’s joy at being at New Moon could not be as sweet if she had not known that emptiness first. In her grief, she is in fellowship with the Wind Woman and the pixies in the forest and the wild neighbor girl in the woods. She is in fellowship with Cousin Jimmy around the fire telling poems, and her cats curled up in her bed, and Teddy’s delicate sketches. And the threat of death lingers. Relatives talk about how she might die early of consumption, and at various points (poisoned apple!) she expects to die imminently. Emily is awake to the possibilities and realities of loss. Therefore, she can touch real wonder, the mystery that is offered only to those who have their eyes all the way open and keep looking anyway.


Parenthood is a profoundly numbing experience, in some ways. Driving to work the other day, I heard a report on NPR titled, “To reignite the joy of childhood, learn to live on ‘toddler time.’” Well, shit, I thought grumpily, this is going to be another story about how I need to get down on the floor and play dinosaurs with my kids more. But I was happily surprised by the reporting. Rhitu Chatterjee describes the same issue I have with staying present (long days, short years, blah blah blah) and how that experience of time can numb a parent out. So she decides to investigate the actual experience of numbness, exploring how repetition can affect our sense of time. Chatterjee writes that we make memories “when we are in a new place, absorbing all the little details around us. It can also happen when we’re having an emotionally charged experience.” In those moments, time slows. We are present, fully alive to the moment, mindful of every whisper of breeze. This is how kids live. This is how Emily lives, fully awake to the world.

Parenthood, Chatterjee explains, is full of “tedious, boring work” like diaper changes and bedtime routines, the sort of thing that isn’t novel and doesn’t build memories. Thus we have these long, dull days that speed by because we aren’t really fully engaged in each moment. I mean, who could be? I’d have to be a monk to mindfully wipe every poopy butt and not tune out a little. Chatterjee’s question then is how to slow down time. How to get back to that childhood sense of wonder and joy.

Wonder comes in when time stalls, Chatterjee asserts. When the world lifts out of its shell and morphs into something wild and new. This often happens in the presence of a kid, for whom nothing is routine, everything is new and marvelous: the first time you saw an airplane. HOLY COW THAT THING FLIES. The first time you drank fresh lemonade. THIS IS INCREDIBLE. The first time you saw a worm wiggle out of the ground. WHAT IN ALL WORLDS IS THAT. The shape of things seem new, fragile, and unbelievable. Time falls to pieces; we are here, in this moment, staring, jaws slack. DID YOU SEE THAT?


For me, poetry has been that place where time stalls. Even as I age and grow cynical, poetry has remained a place of possibility. Because it relies on associative moves — the basic two being simile (“my snow glove is like Iron Man’s glove”) and metaphor (“This stick is a power drill!”) — poetry enables transformation. Things are like other things. Things become other things.

In poetry, the world metamorphoses, turned hideous and monstrous, beautiful and wild. Poetic
language unfixes me from the blurry underwater of shopping lists and news feeds, makes me see the world with unfamiliar — and thus more awake — eyes. In life, because it is evolutionary adaptive to do so, I become familiar with things. I see a tree and become familiar with tree: trunk, branch, leaf. In poetry, with each odd new phrase to describe it, the tree transforms: seaweed, mermaid hair, tangles of rope. Not only does it unfix from the known, it refuses to stay in one place. It moves, dances, eludes. In the poetic version of tree, Daphne doesn’t stop at becoming a laurel. She shifts again and again, and her power is not in the safety of one form, but in her refusal of one.

Emily, with her attunement to language and to the call of transformation, understands this:

The Wind Woman was waiting for her outside—ruffling the little spears of striped grass
that were sticking up stiffly in the bed under the sitting-room window—tossing the big
boughs of Adam-and-Eve—whispering among the misty green branches of the
birches—teasing the “Rooster Pine” behind the house—it really did look like an
enormous, ridiculous rooster, with a huge, bunchy tail and a head thrown back to crow.

Emily of New Moon

Montgomery writes of the animate landscape of Prince Edward Island with a child’s eyes, as each tree and bush becomes some spirited, personified thing.


Okay but I’m not dead inside, I promise. I’m actively fighting numbness the way people fight infection: a daily dose of Rainier Maria Rilke and Natalie Diaz, and a spoonful of Mozart. Oh yeah, and Talking Heads, and Thelonious Monk, and Emily of New Moon. The awareness these art forms provide kicks me up, sometimes, just enough to take a deep, full breath.

But my kids are the best medicine. The other day my son and I were kicking a ball at the school near our house. A great delight of mine is that the PE class at the elementary school often forgets to bring in all the red rubber balls at the end of the school day, so when we saunter over to the big concrete yard, hemmed in with fences and firs, at say 4:30 p.m., we can often snag a ball and kick it around for a while. We don’t take the ball home; part of the delight is leaving it for someone else to pick up and play with for a while. The free-ness of the ball is a kind of un- claiming, the landscape in reciprocity with the inhabitants.

We were being World Cup players because he is always becoming something. I was Messi, I think, or he was Messi. Someone was Messi. Anyway, as we kicked the sky started to change. Slowly bruising plum and then this electric Barbie pink, a color I have only seen in plastic, wiped over with grayish wispy clouds that suddenly went the color of marigolds. The clouds arced across the sky, over our heads, like a wedding arch. I swear there was a moment when everything turned on, like a light switch. I whipped my head up as the sky illuminated suddenly. It split my mouth open. Huge smile. And it didn’t stop: the dome overhead was like an IMAX movie. It kept morphing and growing and changing, electric blue, shocking peach and melty honeycomb, this fiery core across which flecked black specks — squinting, you could see they were crows heading to roost. My son slowly turned to shadow, a dark shape whipping across the playground after the ball. The lights came on at the school. The air got crisp and sweet. And while the Wind Woman smacked around in the firs, I kicked the ball with my kid, who did not die, who could die any day, we all could, any of us, under this sublime, impossible sky.

Various Tragedies and Good Grief

My reading schedule for the chapter “Various Tragedies” in Emily of New Moon fell during a time when my town was experiencing one large tragedy, which I am sure was the result of smaller, various tragedies – slits on ice that we all thought was thick enough to withstand – and I was afraid to read it.

A girl the same age as my daughter Hadley went missing and was found dead under the high school football stadium’s bleachers. The same bleachers I’ve sat on numerous times watching Hadley play soccer, watching her march in the band, the same bleachers I’ve watched my friends’ children work to pull out whatever it is they have, and offer it up for a chance to be a part of something greater than themselves. This is where she died.

In the days that followed, it seemed Ann Arbor was on fire with rage and sorrow. I continually bounced back and forth to the spring of 1994 when two of my own classmates were found dead in a car in the garage of one of their homes, to the present with Hadley and Harper – my babies who are teenagers, and who are not who they were when they were on my hip, holding my hand, when I was showing them the world. And the questions are the same: What happened? How did this happen? Who did this? (The police and the school assure us we are all safe, but they are only referring to one kind of monster.)

This then, was the state of mind I was in when I opened Emily of New Moon to find my bookmark waiting on “Various Tragedies.”

“Well, that’s some bullshit,” I muttered, cracking the spine and folding the book in half to begin reading it.

Here’s the first tragedy: Emily is no longer allowed to use the word, “bull.” She must eliminate it from her vocabulary as commanded by her Aunt Elizabeth. (I love that LM Montgomery uses “eliminate” and “bull” in the same sentence. I wonder if her word choice was deliberate.) “But,” LM writes, “to ignore the existence of bulls was not to do away with them.”

Ain’t that the truth.

I remember when I was six or seven – I was in first grade – and a boy was giving a friend of mine a hard time. I told her she should kick him in the butt. I said it to make her laugh (I’m 47 and still think the word “butt” is hilarious), and also because it seemed like a common sense solution to stop the teasing and the harassing.

My friend told our teacher what I said (the fact that she told on me is a story for another day, but seriously, WTF), and my teacher who makes Miss Brownell (Emily’s teacher) look like a kind and caring person and like someone who actually likes children and wants to teach them, told me that I needed my mouth washed out with soap. She sent me inside to write a note to my parents telling them what I’d done.

It is the only letter I’ve written that I memorized: “Dear Mom and Dad, Today in school I said ‘butt.’ Love, Callie.” Even then, even though I was in trouble, I still found what I wrote hysterical. First graders aren’t supposed to miss recess to write a note to their parents saying they said “butt.” First graders aren’t supposed to fend for themselves when other first graders are saying horrible things and won’t stop saying them. I folded that note up, put it in a paper bag puppet I’d made in school that day, and when I got home went straight to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet.

“I like school here better every day but I can’t like Miss Brownell,” Emily writes. The use of the word “can’t” as opposed to “won’t,” or “don’t” shows that Emily doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Miss Brownell made it so that Emily cannot like her. I hate the memory I have of that first grade moment, and I would never want another human to say, “Yeah, something similar happened to me too,” but here I am grateful that Emily wrote something that I can relate to and then she keeps going. She keeps learning and living, and that is a lesson to be learned, too: share the story, and keep going.

And then there’s Aunt Elizabeth, who each chapter reveals anew her disdain for and annoyance in Emily. The person who is supposed to take care of her has done nothing but express hatred to Emily. In “Various Tragedies,” Emily’s Aunt Laura makes “a pretty red hood with ribbons” for Emily to wear in the cold weather. “Aunt Elizabeth looked scornfully saying it was extravagant.” A comment that takes away the joy of having something beautiful made just for you – another tragedy.

Perhaps LM used the word “various” to explore the different levels of tragic events in the book. These first few are sad no doubt, but they are unfortunately matter-of-fact tragedies. That is, people are donkeys. (If I were a friend to Emily, I’d point out that Aunt Elizabeth told her not to use the word “bull,” but she didn’t say anything about using the word, “jackass.”)

The high level (for lack of a better phrase) tragedy in this chapter is that of the Lee brothers: two boys who dug a well and got into an argument over it that ended in one brother killing the other. Emily’s cousin Jimmy, who is a poet, tells Emily the story. He says the brother who was killed is now a ghost and haunts the well. Jimmy says he’s not sure the ghost is real, but he wrote a poem about it all the same, and it is because of the poem that Emily gets curious, and I think being curious is a form of care. It is because of the poem – that the tragedy was presented in the form of poetry – that Emily could begin to care.

No ghost showed up that day, but Emily did see a bull. It belonged to Mr. James Lee – the father of the two brothers. The bull was coming straight for her, thus proving again LMs theory: not saying a word doesn’t eliminate the existence of the thing. Emily knows she should move – run – but she is paralyzed with fear. That is, until a boy named Perry saves her, and here is another tragedy of a completely different variety: Emily notices a “certain forceful attraction” in Perry, and Perry, upon seeing Emily’s smile is “reduced to hopeless bondage.”

I’ve not finished Emily of New Moon, but Emily and Perry are just as cute as can be in an innocent and fun sort of way. There are a couple of love triangles sneaking up as well, and I sense heartache and trial on the way, but I’m not so concerned about the outcome, or a happy ending as I am with a story well-told.

Part of a story well-told means finding a way to render various tragedies onto paper. The ghost was presented through poetry. Emily tells about Aunt Elizabeth and Miss Brownell in a letter she writes to her father who is dead, which is the reason Emily must live with awful Aunt Elizabeth. Emily might not have a choice in a lot of what has happened to her, but she has a choice to write, and write she does.

About a week after Hadley’s classmate was found dead, Hadley’s math teacher emailed us – all of her students and their families – to say there are no easy answers, that this is scary and sad and the thought of moving forward is surreal. She then thanked us all for sharing our children with her. “I cherish every day I get to spend with them,” she wrote. Like Emily, my daughter’s math teacher named the tragedy. She did not provide answers; just her presence and the promise she would continue to faithfully teach our children.

I think this is what Shakespeare is pleading with us to do through stories like Romeo and Juliet:“Go hence to have more talk of these sad things,” the Prince commands in the last lines of the play. In King Lear, Edgar says in the last line to, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” and Malcolm in Macbeth says to “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.” I think that is what Hadley’s math teacher, Emily, and Emily’s cousin Jimmy were all courageous enough to do.

I don’t know if ghosts are real, but I believe they are felt – like various tragedies – and choosing not to speak of them does not make them go away.

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

Fancy & Emily

“Here’s your one chance, Fancy, don’t let me down.”

Reba McEntire

I was introduced to Anne of Green Gables at summer camp, at naptime, by Jennifer, the girl from San Angelo in the bunk below me. She loaned me Anne with an E, and I was instantly
captivated. I eventually read the whole series, but never anything else by L.M. Montgomery.

Until now. Until Emily. Who has me a little freaked out.

Emily with her flashes and her feelings and her poetry. I feel too seen. I thought I was special, but nope, I’m like her.

And yet I can’t pull my reading eyes away. Montgomery is clearly writing a hero’s journey, and a poet’s hero journey, no less.

While pondering the Emily-ness of it all, Reba McEntire popped up on my playlist, belting out
“Fancy,” the story of another girl who is a survivor. Fancy has no time for faeries — she’s gotta
make a living the only way a poor young woman can. Like Emily, Fancy has a lot riding on her
shoulders as she ventures forth into orphanhood.

And while Emily is learning the ways of writing rather than the ways of prostitution, she is also
attempting to fearlessly meet a dying parent’s charge. Fancy’s mother tells her, “Just be nice to
the gentlemen, Fancy, they’ll be nice to you.” Emily’s father admonishes Emily saying, “And
life has something for you—I feel it. Go forward to meet it fearlessly, dear.” Both girls fulfill a
parent’s wishes on their own. And both need someone to believe in them.

For Fancy, her mother’s charge is all she needs. But Emily needs Father Cassidy.

Father Cassidy is Irish, and when Emily visits him to see if he can help her preserve the bush
Lofty John is set on chopping down, the priest immediately sees her for who she is: an elf and a
writer. Maybe epics, maybe novels, surely poetry. Even if her current poems aren’t all that great.

“Of course, it was trash. Father Cassidy knew that well enough. All the same, for a child like this—and rhyme and rhythm were flawless—and there was one line—just one
line—‘the light of faintly golden stars’—for the sake of that line Father Cassidy suddenly said,

‘Keep on—keep writing poetry.’”

I stopped reading right there and put the book down. This is what Emily needed to hear. It’s what I needed to hear and did hear from my second-grade teacher: Keep writing.

This scene also reminded me of a midlife conversation I had with an Irish priest — not about
poetry, but about what would eventually become my journey into Catholicism. Father Enda said, “I don’t know if God is calling you to become Catholic. I don’t know if you’re being called to this parish of St. Mary’s. Just keep on seeking.”

Keep on.

This year I’m paying more attention to my poetry and also seeking whether there is a place for
my more elfish writing. It’s only February. I don’t yet know the answer. But I know this:

Keep on.

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.

New Moon Revisited

When we decided to read the Emily books this year, I played it cool. I said I’d like that and I mentioned that they were much quicker reads than Kristin Lavransdatter. I don’t think I let on how they were once something of an obsession. Maybe I didn’t realize it myself. I hadn’t thought about Emily in a long time.

And then I went to the library to get a copy. A different library than the red-painted one-room affair of my childhood, but one with similarly companionable librarians, one of whom immediately repeated the book title with a fond savor and asked, “Are you an Emily girl or an Anne girl?” Here we were, two women well on the other side of 35, warmly debating which L. M. Montgomery girl we most aspired to be.

They were shelved in YA now—a designation that barely existed when I read them.

This is it, the M. N. Spear Memorial Libraryy, in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, where I first checked
out the Emilyy of New Moon books. Photo by Christopher Piecuch.

The library copy is the same edition that I read as a girl. The cover shows Emily sitting by an attic window, a kitten at her side, writing long letters to her dead father. Immediately I also see the upstairs room where I read these books on my bed, beside a window, with my cat curled at my hip and the sugar maples that ringed the backyard presiding. I see Emily laughing with Ilse and Teddy and Perry—naming every wildflower patch, path, and stream around her new home at New Moon Farm. Sneaking doughnuts in the kitchen with her Uncle Jimmy. Mailing poems out for publication in secret. Crossing the countryside on foot with Ilse—much later, when she is in high school—to sell magazine subscriptions and sleeping in haystacks under the stars. And then her second sense. Doesn’t she have a vision that leads her to the bones of someone’s missing lover? And, later, another one leads her to the place a lost child is trapped?

When I was a girl there was no separation between the setting on Prince Edward Island in Canada where Emily lives and where I lived, in a little hill town in Western Massachusetts. It all sounded exactly like my home (minus the sea, which I have no memory of coming into the story, but which I will be searching for as I reread).

I played with a band of neighborhood children, boys and girls, whose parents would let them wander outside after school as long as they came home when called. We were always making our own footpaths through the woods, naming particular bends in the river, laying claim to certain climbing trees, and building forts with fallen branches. I had to be outside, every day, with a kind of physical urgency.

Photos by Hannah Piecuch

There was a time when I read the Emily books over and over again. I identified with her so much that I named my diary after her and addressed every entry to this fictional character. And yet, at some point, maybe when I turned thirteen, I stopped. I rarely thought of Emily—or any of Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island-rooted heroines again—even through two writing degrees in which I was fascinated with writers and their sense of place.

It’s possible that the Emily books first taught me to pay attention to the natural world, to learn the names of plants and flowers, to love the light of different seasons. And they certainly made me into someone who needed to retreat with a notebook and “write myself out.”

Was Emily just like me, or did I decide to be just like her?

Time for a reread.


Our group of women writers and readers have bid adieu to Kristin and hello to L.M. Montgomery’s Emily. This year, we will read and write about Montgomery’s Emily trilogy: Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and, Emily’s Quest.

I’ve not read these books (and I’ve only read the first Anne of Green Gables, and not as a child, but as a mother of girls who asked me to read it to them), so I don’t know much about the books except what I think I remember the Project Reduxers saying about them: there is a bit of magic and mysticism to them, they’re kind of strange, and they are Montgomery’s attempt at resisting what it was the world expected of her as a woman writer. Whether I remember correctly or not, this was enough for me to read the books, and so on the first week of January, I began reading about the house on the hollow, the Wind Woman, the Adam and Eve spruce trees (named because of the apple tree between them), and Emily’s “flashes” – moments when she’d catch a “glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music….” The moments, “came rarely, went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it – never summon it – never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days.”

Except for the “inexpressible delight” part, these sure sound a lot like hot flashes.

Emily is too young – a child – and these are not what they are, though I did take a bit of comfort thinking the flashes I’m experiencing might remind me that I am “very, very near to a world of beauty” as they do Emily.

Here’s when they arrive: “…with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a ‘description’ of something.”

This is not magic or hormones – this is attention. Emily has the gift of attention. Emily might not be able to summon the flashes, but she remains alert. She remains faithful – because when they come, Emily is reminded that life is “a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.”

My flashes feel like shame. That is, they make me think I’m embarrassed of something, or should be embarrassed because this is what happens when I am ashamed or embarrassed. Heat blossoms my cheeks and travels up and down my neck to my scalp, the lobes of my ears, my neck, and then sits in my chest.

“I am ashamed,” my mind tells me. Then, “No, I’m 47.”

I still believe in persistent beauty. I still believe that life is wonderful and mysterious and on a grey Sunday when I’m getting the last of the groceries and driving home and I stop at a light and I notice the Canadian geese that were yellow and fluffy this spring and are now the size and color of their mom and dad and they are waddling tall and proud across the street so that when the light turns green, nobody moves, the flash comes then, and I think of Emily.

I decide there is nothing to be ashamed of, and like Emily, I choose to pay attention.

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

A Kristin Lavransdatter Essay

Some Saturday in late September, I was determined to finish Kristin Lavrandatter. I had about 200 pages left – an amount that doesn’t seem like much given that the book is 1,124 pages – and I would crank them out in 48 hours, along with a few essays if it was the last thing I did.

It was barely the first thing I did.

I woke up well past 10 that Saturday, trying not to feel guilty about it because I am more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life, but I was annoyed because 10am may as well be 4pm as far as I’m concerned. The day was basically over.

Then, I go downstairs to find a pot with chicken in it boiling over on the stove. Boiling over chicken is a disgusting smell, especially at well past 10 in the morning. Saturday mornings should smell like fresh brewed coffee, Earl Grey tea, bacon, and blueberry pancakes, or sourdough toast with Irish butter. They should not smell like boiled over chicken. Come to think of it, no part of the day should smell like this. Boiled over chicken is the smell of boredom.

“What is happening?” I croaked to anyone who would listen. Hadley was the lucky one.


“What do you mean, what?” I said, pointing to the stove. “Do you see this?”

No, she did not see it because she was not in the kitchen. But goodness, couldn’t she smell it? Or maybe the smell dulled her senses. I believe this could happen. I believe boiled over chicken is that powerful, which is why I was acting like Hadley and I were being attacked.

“We have to do something!” I screamed and proceeded to do nothing because I am of the sort to point out a problem and do nothing about it.

Hadley got up off the couch where she was sitting and in a simple yet effective move, pushed the pot off the burner.

All was calm. All was bright.

But not for me. For me, the damage had been done. These two incidents – oversleeping and boiled over chicken – that most human beings would consider benign completely rattled me and threw me off my K-L game. But damn it, what good is a well-laid plan if it’s not followed? So I sat down in my reading chair in my writing room, and opened the story.

Do you know I have a reading chair and a writing room? I do. I have both of these things. Some people call it my office or my study, but I need very clear definitions about where I’m going and what I’m doing because I have big feelings and a bigger imagination and wanderlust is my BFF and my writing room is the place all these things are not contained but come alive, are content and wild, and can live and be.

The place where my chair is used to be a closet, but unless you’re CS Lewis, what in the world does a writing room need a closet for? And so I said to Jesse, “Off with that door! I need it no longer! It shall be the place where my reading chair will be forever more.”

I said those exact words to him. This is why they’re in quotation marks, and since Jesse’s known (and let’s face it, LOVED) me for over a quarter of a century, he knows it’s far better to give me what I want then it is to explain the reasons, the probably very rational reasons, that what I want might not work. He knows though, that it’s no use fighting big feelings, a bigger imagination and my BFF wanderlust with rationality and reason. Ask any engineer. I am the hurricane storm surge that has no triangular formula to predict the damage I will cause JUST GIVE ME WHAT I WANT.

Above my reading chair is a framed print of the entire play of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Jesse gave me this when my first book, The Teacher Diaries was published. (You should totally buy it. It’s really good and also raising two teenage girls is expensive.) Next to that is the ISBN number the Library of Congress assigned The Teacher Diaries. It’s in rose gold foiled print, and my great friend Ashlee Gadd sent that to me. (She has a book coming out in March – Create Anyway– and you should totally buy that, too.) Next to that is a print I found in a shop in Ann Arbor one afternoon when I was shopping with my cousin, Tara. It reads, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.”

“We have to get this,” I said to Tara, and I think she was a little disturbed at my enthusiasm at the suggestion that perhaps our grandma was a witch and also that someone tried to burn her. It’s disturbing. I bought the print though, because I know a bit of what she survived – born in Aleppo, Syria, a young mother stepping on a boat to escape to America with her husband, their 5 and 6 year old girls with them; a widow whose husband was killed by a drunk truck driver. I like to believe that her granddaughters have something of her in us that cannot be burned.

So this is my reading corner that is no longer a closet. It’s more of a nook, and it is here, where I put on the valiant effort of about five minutes to finish Kristin Lavransdatter, but reading this medieval Norwegian trilogy when I’m annoyed (remember the boiled over chicken?) is not a good idea.


What I had hoped for with Kristin Lavransdatter was that it would be a book that would take me away from the care of boiling over chicken. That is, I would be so involved, so swept away by this story that whatever concerns I had about my life were forgotten. At least, for a time. I hoped Kristin would take me away and show me boldness and beauty in a woman’s life, in a homemaker’s life. I wanted Kristin to show me the romance of adventure in faithful and humble living, so I might see it (and try it?) in my own life.

Instead, Kristin’s character got on my last nerve with her guilt and her complaining and her nonstop disappointment of everyone in her life. I’d slam the book and declare, “I hope I’m never like that.”

Kristin wouldn’t leave me alone, though, and because of Sigrid Undset’s meticulous, lyrical storytelling, because I fell in love not with Kristin (or any of the characters for that matter, well, except Erlend), but with Undset’s writing, I often found Kristin tapping on my shoulder at points in my days. She wasn’t mocking me, it was more that the tapping on my shoulder I felt from her was an invitation to look her in the eye, to be embraced by this flawed heroine, and to hear her say, “See? This is all so very hard.”

Several of the women in this project, including me, wished Kristin had a best friend – or even a friend – but I’m thinking now that Undset created a character to be a friend to us. We needed to see a woman break off on her own, make decisions by herself, work her ass off for her family, and village. We needed to see a woman who was never satisfied, who brooded, who raged, who nagged, who got on peoples’ nerves, who was never happy with who she was, and who was unequivocally and completely loved. At least, that’s what I needed.

What I hoped for was a woman of confidence and certainty. What I got was a woman a lot like (maybe too much) like me.


My reading of Kristin Lavransdatter ends similarly where it began – on a Thursday in my favorite coffeeshop in Ann Arbor. I’d dropped Harper off at dance, and made my way to a seat at the counter so I could look out the window. One of the reasons I love this shop is because they serve coffee in giant mugs I have to hold with both hands, and I turn that into a ritual. I sip and watch the people go by on the bricked street with holly and twinkle lights above them, and I let the coffee work its magic so I can transition into medieval Norway after working an 8 hour shift at Concordia University’s Registrar’s office.

Kristin is saving a young boy who is being buried alive when two students walk into the coffeeshop. The men who are attempting to kill the boy tell Kristin to get out of the way because it’s better for him to die then it is for the entire village. “He belongs to no one -” and Kristin stops him and says, “He belongs to Christ. Better for all of us to perish than for us to harm one of his children.”

One of the students pulls out a chair next to me, and asks if it’s OK if he sits there. I say yes, and Kristin wants to find the young boy’s mother, who she learns lives in a hovel, and who has been left for dead. She says she must go find her, that she will pay for her grave and funeral. She asks if anyone will go with her and suggests they’ll go the next day. A man screams at her: “You’ll have to go alone.” Then, he tells her to go now. He tells her if she wants him to believe in the mercy of God, she better go now. So Kristin goes.

The two students discuss Philosophy and Chemistry. They know about Politics and Religion. They are so very bright and well-polished and it is on the last pages of Kristin Lavransdatter that I learn about the most subtle, slow-burning love story I’ve ever read: a man named Ulf Haldorsson loves Kristin with all his heart, but she will never know. He goes with her to help find the mother. The two of them are in the dark of the house, and Ulf reminds Kristin of her great gift – her ability to see the light in the darkness. She was always trying to search for that light. “You must come here and light the way for me, Kristin,” Ulf tells her. And so she does.

The students discuss the great football game on the previous Saturday. They know why Michigan won, and why OSU lost. They know these things better than Harbaugh and also JJ, and Ulf and Kristin find the mother, who is dead, and Kristin prays over her while they carry her out of the house.

It is the plague the mother died of and passed along to Kristin. It happens fast. “All that was contained within her breast was ripped out,” and she cannot stand anymore so Ulf picks her up and carries her. He stays by her side until Kristin dies.

The boys next to me start to talk about a girl. She is beautiful, the boys admit. She is vivacious and kind and smart. “But she is Catholic,” one of them say. They go on to discuss the problem of Catholic women while Ulf and a priest step outside shortly after Kristin dies, to breath some fresh air. The air “tasted sweet and cool, a little empty and thin, but as if this snowfall had washed sickness and contagion out of the air; it was as good as fresh water.”

“Without thinking, they both walked as lightly and carefully as they could in the new snow.” It is the last sentence in the book, and I do my best to catch the tears that are welling before they fall onto the page. I am crying because Ulf loves Kristin. I am crying because I didn’t love Kristin until the very end and now I miss her. I am crying because there are so many problems with all of us – Catholic or not – all of us daring each other to save the world right now so that we might believe in the mercy of God but refusing to go along and help.

But it is time to get Harper, so I close the story, fit it into my backpack, take my mug and saucer to the plastic tub, and walk out the door, into December air that also tastes sweet and cool and empty and thin. Outside the dance studio a man lights a cigarette, or probably it’s a joint. He leans against the wall next to the studio door, lifts the stick to his mouth and inhales. I must be watching him in disgust because he looks me in the eye and exhales; the smoke makes me flinch.

These dancing days are numbered. It is swim that has Harper’s heart now, and that is just fine. I want my girls to continually surprise themselves, I want them to never be afraid to try something new. And when they find something that completes them, that won’t let them go, that calls out to them and whispers, “Try, try, try,” I want them to have the courage to do whatever it takes to keep trying, even when it’s overwhelming and confusing and sad and scary. I hope I’ve showed them that. I cannot protect them from the world, but I can show them the very many ways there are to live in it.

The man takes another drag, and this time, he blows it toward the door, and Harper is walking down the stairs, and I watch as the smoke flies up and evaporates just as Harper opens the door to outside.

She smiles, and we move on to whatever it is we will do next.

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

I Want Ease

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.

All Fires Burn Out

By Hannah Piecuch

*Spoiler alert*

The last chapters of Kristin Lavransdatter are like coming out of a storm into flat calm. Swimming through high surf, not sure when you’ll be able to take the next breath, trying to navigate seaweed-covered boulders in turbid water. And then, around the point, into the harbor, sheltered at last. The wind dies down. All fires burn out sooner or later. 

So many of Kristin’s problems seem quelled after Erlend dies. Suddenly she can make order out of her life. She spends time with her sons. Her estate is farmed well. And she, who has been longing for God this whole time, makes a pilgrimage to an island Abbey to take the vows of a nun. 

The novel is nested again in the scenes that open it: the pastures of her home, a journey through the elf-haunted countryside, and the order of a monastic community. In the arc of the story, Erlend seems like both a bitter mistake and a choice she would make again. She and Erlend couldn’t live well together, but she kept choosing him. 

After I finished Kristin I went to the library and checked out Emma Straub’s new novel This Time Tomorrow. I love Emma Straub. Her novels always surprise me. I got this sense of fiction logic from all the male-authored short stories I read in graduate school. That logic always included marriage disasters. You know, Hemingway, Carver, Cheever. The man blows everything up and then goes to nurse his sorrow at a bar. Emma—can I just call her that?—makes it possible for everything to get blown up. But then there is always a turn towards generosity at the end. One spouse confesses whatever they have been hiding—whatever the source of tension has been across the plot—and somehow the confession makes them both laugh. 

This Time Tomorrow is not about a marriage, though. It is about a father and daughter who can time travel. I read it in a couple sittings. This father and daughter know a secret way to go back and forth through time. And the daughter is desperately trying to change small things in order to make her father live longer. But there is only so much she can do, because whether she’s 16 or 40 she is still herself, and some things are inevitable. 

And that’s how Kristin and Erlend are, I think. They remain themselves throughout this tale. There is only so much they can do. Some things are inevitable. 

At first, as I floated in the flat calm of the Kristin Lavransdatter’s end, I thought that Erlend had been Kristin’s only problem. But then, she starts troubling over her living sons. There is friction with her sister, with her new daughter in law. 

All through the novel it seems that Erlend is the one out of touch with reality, the one who thinks he has never betrayed a single person who put their trust in him. But here at the end, it seems like Kristin, too, doesn’t see quite clearly.

She muses on the two sons who have died with the same kind of magical thinking that made her so sure Erlend would come to her in the final pregnancy. “…her dead children were always with her. In her dreams they grew older, and flourished, and they turned out, in every way, to be exactly as she had wished.” 

Here is a woman for whom nothing has gone exactly as she wished. 

I am not sure what to make of the end of this novel. I’m not even getting into her time at the Abbey, or her death by plague. Maybe this writing community, these women here on Project Redux, will write things that help me make sense of it. 

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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. 

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

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.