The Company of Elves

Image by Sergi A. on Unsplash

“She knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls, and goblins, and elves, and she was suddenly afraid…”
-Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, Part 1, Chapter 1

By Hannah Piecuch

When Kristin wanders from her companions during her first trip into the mountains above her home, she sees an Elf Maiden—a woman dressed in jewels, holding a crown, beckoning to her from the far side of a river—and she runs. 

This scene is the first in which Kristin is alone, choosing to leave the circle of sleepers, drawn to walk with the horses on the bright afternoon, and then down to a still pool, cold from snowmelt. When her father hears her cries and gathers her up, it becomes her first secret as well. He makes the sign of the cross over her, as if what she has seen holds a curse, and has everyone in their party swear that no word of this danger will reach her mother.

This scene represents a tension that seems to exist in the early sections of the book—those that I have read thus far—that solitary places are perilous to Kristin, but that they are places she finds irresistible.

This tension is familiar: the longing to wander alone and a sense of imminent danger. I keep going back to this scene because it resonates so closely with my early experiences in nature. They happened when I was seven, too. 

My family moved into a farmhouse that had a meadow behind it, and behind that acres of woods. No roads, just trees, swamps, streams. Before that we had lived in town; I was used to a yard with edges that met a neighbor’s yard, streetlamps, sidewalks, houses in all directions and otherwise clear farm fields. At the new house I would sometimes cross the meadow alone, and go into the forest. There was a marsh back there, green with skunk cabbage in early spring and thick with irises later. There was an overgrown horse paddock full of small white pines and lady slippers. There were acres of cinnamon ferns, taller than me, through which I made paths and from which I liked to gather tufts of orange wool. I would walk, talking aloud to myself, narrating my own stories. And then I would climb a tree and lay back to look at the blue dimension of the sky. 

In that forest of my childhood, I knew what Kristin knew. I could wander on a summer day, braiding a flower crown, and things could turn. A change in the wind, a cloud over the sun, the snap of a branch somewhere out of sight, and I would fly back to my own yard.

“In medieval Norway,” a footnote tells me, “people believed that the forests and mountains were populated by many types of supernatural beings, which were both unpredictable and menacing.” This world still existed, when I was a child, in all the books that I read. The woods were not wholly mine, not wholly safe. They belonged to other creatures and beings. The paths twisted, the rules were different than in my own backyard. The woods were a place I might not come back from.

I remember running from the woods, again and again. And then reaching the opening in the stone wall that circled my yard and slowing my steps, catching my breath, so no one would know I’d been so afraid. I think that it gave me a thrill to run back home like that. The urgent sense of danger and then relief at the safety of home. This may have been part of what drew me back. 

I don’t know if the Elf Maiden is meant to be a real creature who truly did want to capture Kristin and take her under the mountain. Certainly, it seems that the horse can see the maiden too. The adults on the journey believe Kristin and treat her as someone who has made a narrow escape. 

But something curious happens after that. When Kristin returns home from the journey, she is at first afraid to tell anyone what she has seen. Then she wishes she could talk about it. Then she is filled with longing to travel again.


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. 

Not An Easy Story


By C.K. Dawson

Once I became pregnant with my first child, I became somewhat averse to stories of tragedy and violence, a phenomenon that only increased post-partum. Thriller television or dark novels that I once enjoyed became lingering reminders of what tragedies could befall my daughter. I regret that I ever consumed some media, since those images are already in my head, they can’t be erased. Years of exposure to literary and cinematic irony have convinced my subconscious that danger will strike my family just when I think we’re safe: I can see sudden death coming to my daughter in a myriad of ways…a snake in the grass as she plays, an unexpected car coming out of a driveway as we walk down the street. 

Parenthood brings danger to life in a way that even my own mishaps, be them broken bones or other injuries never did. They say the young feel invincible, but it’s not quite that. Oblivious is more accurate. I envy that oblivion now. Parenthood has the potential to cripple you from awareness of the reality of risk. So I stopped watching or reading stories of pain, preferring lighter classics and happy endings and food writing. I read several memoirs by Americans who moved to France. 

Six months after giving birth, a pandemic came. A year later my first miscarriage. Then another. Losing two babies made me all the more fearful to lose my only daughter. My reading life became even more escapist: witty satires from the early 20th Century and cozy detective novels. I clung to what was bright and breezy, avoiding the heavier stories that had once intrigued me, fueling philosophical conversations in graduate school and first date conversations in my single years.

I’ve felt vaguely guilty about it, since one of the tenets of our schooling in our MFA program was to engage, to face the darkness. “The role of the artist is to not look away,” said the filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Confront what was difficult, and better yet, write about it, especially when it came to faith. “Don’t jump over the cross to get to the resurrection,” the visiting author Uwem Akpan warned us, and that’s stuck with me. Suffering has its own value. Don’t invalidate it in a rush to a happy ending.

So when I told my mom that I’d be reading Kristin Lavransdatter, she warned me: “it’s not an easy story.” I braced myself, ready to push past my discomfort to the beauties of a book I’ve been recommended many times over the years.

It’s not an easy story. From the first page, Undset pulls no punches when depicting the bitter realities of medieval life. Ragnfrid’s loss of three baby sons. The crippling of her second daughter by a fallen log. A horror of parental bad luck so strong that Ragnfrid stays away from her third child to protect her. And finally, her oldest daughter Kristin growing into a beautiful teenager only for a priest to attempt to rape her, and then murder a young man close to her. Woven through all of these tragedies is the ever-constant discussion of the will of God. Prayer was the only protection Kristin and her family had from tragedy, and there was nothing to do but to submit to whatever answer they were given. 

Call it the will of God or call it Fate, medieval life included a kind of helplessness that resonates with me now, two years into a global pandemic. With the advent of modernity, the idea of Fate’s fallen out of style. Modern medicine and seatbelts and a wealth of digital distraction have given us the comfort of safety, even if that safety is just an illusion. When horrible accidents befall children, the first discussion is always what could have prevented it, how it must have been a failure of the parents to protect their progeny. Sometimes it was. But sometimes, it was Fate that stepped in. What kind of blame and questions would follow Ragnfrid and Lavrans for Uvhild’s accident these days? We want to do everything we can to keep our children safe, but our illusion of control has made those of twists of fate an isolating experience. Miscarriages discomfort us, because we don’t know why they happen, and there’s little we can do to prevent them. Cancer strikes without cause, and the elderly are consigned to loneliness in nursing homes. We hide away pain and death, afraid of the reminder that it could happen to us. Reading Kristin Lavransdatter reminds me that not only could it happen, but it will. There are few certainties in life, but grief is one of them. Hiding from it won’t change it. But it’s possible, that like Brother Edvin promised Ragnfrid, prayer and trust in God’s will may give the grief meaning. and bring us to the beauties beyond it.


C.K. Dawson is a writer for Verily Magazine with her MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Breakwater Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine’s Review, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in the hills just outside Los Angeles.

Burning in Both Places

By Caitlin Dwyer

I start reading Kristin Lavransdatter in the second pandemic winter. I read while nursing my infant, my arm gently resting on her torso as she tugs at my breast. I read in the darkness of January in the Northwest, days where the sun claws ineffectually at clouds before fading away at 4pm, a damp darkness settling over the bare trees. Inside, we are safe. Outside, omicron shatters records. I doomscroll about community transmission and breakthrough infection, and cancel playdates for my kids, and do not make dinner reservations for our anniversary.

The first pages of Kristin are tough. A lot of names and unfamiliar places. Umlauts. After two years of constant risk assessment, of simultaneously working from home while providing childcare for my kids, I have forgotten how to focus on words. I teach literature and writing at a community college, and I pride myself on a sort of deep attention to language and to life. But this pandemic has eroded my ability to focus. I’ve kept it light. I’ve watched a lot of dumb TV and am 17 novels into a delightfully skimmable detective series. For two years, I haven’t attended to much except the necessities, and certainly not the minutiae of medieval Norway.

So why do this to myself? Why sign up to read and write about a really, really, really long book? With umlauts, for pity’s sake?! 

Partly, I think, I miss people. I want to be in community, and for writers that often means reading, writing and thinking together. Those acts don’t need to be synchronous (a word I’ve grown to know and hate in the last two years) to be valuable. On this website, I’ll write into a community of women considering the same pages and people as I am, and that holds some tenderness for this pandemic-stilled, infant-weary heart. I need a redux not of this book, which I’ve never read before, but of my own identity as a thinker and attentive reader, a person in a community of thinkers and readers. I need to reclaim something of myself, to wake up the intellectual woman who has been sleeping inside this body for a few years.

A few pages into the first chapter, Kristin heads into the wilderness with her father. It’s a thrilling adventure for a young girl, and the author describes Kristin sleeping in the open around a campfire:

“It crackled as the fire tore the fresh green from the twigs, and small white flakes flew high upon the wisps of red flame; the smoke whirled thick and black toward the clear sky. Kristin sat and watched; it seemed to her the fire was glad that it was out there, and free, and could play and frisk. ‘Twas otherwise than when, at home, it sat upon the hearth and must work at cooking food and giving light to the folks in the room.”

As soon as I read this passage, I put the book down. I took a deep breath and looked around the room. The baby mobile rotated gently over my head. In the hallway I could hear my four-year-old singing to himself as he put on his Superman outfit, one of twenty costume changes that day. The wet, settled darkness out the window. The muffled sound of cars returning home for the evening. Soon dinner to cook, and papers to grade, and the demands of giving to other folks in the room. But for a moment, my child’s lips softened and parted, her hunger sated, I sat quietly with a book loose in my hand. I had a moment to remember what it felt like to crackle and burn, and to want the world.

This pandemic winter, it’s hard to be out there, and free, to play and frisk. So much of the joy of being physically alive in spaces outside the home has been taken from us. We all struggle to be in community right now, unsure how much we want to risk. I personally struggle to get out the door to green, wild spaces with two kids in tow. Kristin’s adventure, just this little taste of it, has my body and mind whetted for wildness. While I know that much of her story will be a conflict between this independence and the demands of the hearth, I feel excited to see how she negotiates the tension. Because right now I, too, am burning in both spaces.


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.

On Mansplaining and Memory

Photo by Roel Dierckens on Unsplash

By Christy Lee Barnes

I have only one clear memory from our seminar sessions on Kristin Lavransdatter in graduate school. It seems impossible that I read such a tome but retained only this one memory, but it’s true. Here it is: 

I’d plucked up the courage to share something with the class. I have no memory of what I wanted to share, but I remember feeling nervous about sharing it. I remember leaning forward in my chair—physically pushing myself to speak. 

I’m not particularly shy, but this classroom didn’t lend itself to free-flowing discussion. We were mostly there to absorb what the instructor felt about the book. And when he did pose a question, students who took the bait did so at their own risk. 

So I blurted out my observation. Our instructor responded with a chuckle. A chuckle. Then something along the lines of, “Let’s revisit that thought when you’re a bit older.” (Did he add a “sweetie” on the end? Probably not…that would have been too much, right? But it sure felt like it.) 

Even in that moment, as I blushed to my eyebrows and blinked back tears of embarrassment, I knew that this wasn’t about me. You can’t fault somebody for their age.

As a teacher, I forced myself to remember that moment, that awful feeling. I wanted to remember that whoosh of humiliation, because I never want to be tempted to shame or shut down a student when I’m teaching. 

Maybe he meant his comment as a kindly joke. It didn’t feel that way, but who knows? What I do know is that after his little jibe, I never listened terribly closely to what that particular teacher had to say. 

As I re-read The Wreath, I really couldn’t believe how little I’d retained from my first read nearly ten years ago. But it’s funny—Kristin also absorbs very little from the lessons the adults in her life keep trying to push on her. The phrase “she understood none of this” echoes through the first section until it has an almost biblical ring to it.

Also, Kristin herself gets shut down pretty frequently by some of the men in her life. Even her lover Erlend, upon hearing the plot she’s devised for a secret tryst, responds not with thanks or even enthusiasm, but rather bitchily observes: “‘Tis strange you are so quick-witted. I had scarce believed it of you.” (Maybe he meant it as a compliment. Who knows?)  

In any case, I think I like that my singular memory of my first go-round with Kristin involves both patchy comprehension on my part and a condescending comment from a man. I feel it gives me a kind of kinship with Kristen. 

Maybe I just had to be a bit older to notice all that. 


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.

Kristin and Meg

By Megan Willome

It took me about six weeks to get through Kristin Lavransdatter — the first time. But as soon as I finished, I started over. That was in 2019, and so far, I have not stopped re-reading it. I don’t ever plan to stop. 

Yes, I do read other books, but part of each weekend is turned over to Kristin. I listen to the audiobook (so I’ll know how to pronounce all the Norwegian names) and read the giant tome, which is full of pencil scratches and bookmarks. And then I write poems. I can’t stop. I don’t ever want to.

Kristin is not the kind of book I expected to love. I don’t like long books, and Kristin is over 1,100 pages. I don’t like romance, and Kristin has romance. I’m not into historical books, and Kristin takes place in the 14th century.

Two things keep me coming back. Two things, and a third.

First, it’s a book by a woman, about a woman. I have been an exuberant girl and a lovesick teenager and an insecure wife and a terrible mother, and I’ve tried to be a person of faith. I have been wrong about everyone and everything. Of all the female characters I have loved, Kristin comes closest to being like me — deeply flawed, deeply loved.  

Second, the introduction says one of the book’s themes is “the stubborn power of magic — the bewitching allure of pagan practices in a society that had officially but not wholeheartedly embraced Christianity.” I cannot get enough of this story’s interplay between the pagan and the Christian. The casual allusions to Norse mythology and outright superstition (some so small they take up half a sentence) live alongside a deeply Catholic worldview. I want to live in a world where there are elf maidens and pilgrimages, monks and witchcraft. Perhaps I already do and have failed to recognize it.

But mostly, I want to journey alongside Kristin. Her faults are legion. But her faults are what keep me reading. In the final chapter Kristin does something extraordinary, something a perfect and innocent maiden living a conventional life might never dream to do. Like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, Kristin’s faults enable to her fulfill her destiny. And Nobel Prize-winning author Sigrid Undset is our Mrs Whatsit, giving us a heroine whose flaws come in very handy, even though Norway is a long, long way from Camazotz.


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.

The Bears Don’t Care What You Wear

Great Blue Heron at Bon Secour NW Refuge, AL. Photo by author.

Kristin Lavransdatter is the tale of a scandalous woman.”  – Brad Leithauser, from the Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter, pg. ix

By Joanna ES Campbell

It begins with a Bettie Page t-shirt.

Dennis and I are at the tail end of our winter beach vacation, sipping cocktails when his smartphone dings.  A parishioner isn’t pleased with the appearance of me wearing “pantyhose” and showing “cleavage.” They are worried about what the photo collage might convey on social media since my husband is the Vicar. True, I lightheartedly titled the collage, The Vicar’s Wife Meets Bettie Page.

“I have an idea for an art project,” I had said to Dennis, “and I’ll need your help.”

“You got it,” he exclaimed. 

Nature is the place I feel safe to explore identity. To play. To be and breathe. 

One scene shows me attempting stereotypical masculinity in a Bettie Page t-shirt, a fortuitous thrift store find.  I unbuttoned a plaid shirt to reveal half of Bettie’s black-and-white smiling face and her upward pointing legs. My jeans and cowboy boots fit like they custom ordered my body.  I mimicked Clint Eastwood’s face from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. 

“Do you want close-ups?  How much ocean do you want?”

“I just want nature,” I yell back, “No condos!”

Here we are. Though the beach is deserted, Dennis holds up a bed sheet while I change outfits. I am the director, costume designer, and prop master.  Dennis snaps photos of me in purple paisley tights, a fuzzy punk rocker jacket, black leather gloves, and a gray stick-on mustache.  I attempt stoicism like a Vogue model. I want to be David Johansen’s Funky Funky But Chic.  There I am on my knees, the jacket parted, revealing part of my black bra.  I open my mouth as if to howl. Or scream. In one image, I screw my face into ugly bewilderment as I intentionally fumble with a crown made of seashells.  Wrapping myself in a silk robe covered in geishas, laughter skips out of me. Dennis smiles. “Girrl, you’re a mess.”


*

Let it be known I detest the word, pantyhose.  It feels like a word invented by 1960s ad executives who are inattentive in bed.  The only decent use, in my opinion, was explained to me by a crustry trail guide from Colorado.  “Put a scoop of coffee grounds down one leg, tie it in a knot. Repeat five times, drop it in a kettle, and you’ve got enough coffee for everybody at camp.”

During high school, I refused to take the U.S. military aptitude test expected of all students. Most of my friends boycotted the day, but I couldn’t convince my parents. Instead of checking boxes, I filled the empty spaces with phrases: “I support gay rights”  ”Pro-choice”  “Bake sales, not bombs”  “Elvis is King”. A young man in uniform pointed me out of my seat and escorted me to the back of the auditorium. 

Is there a box for sensual tomboy clergy spouse artist social scientist sinner writer aunt impish Christian nature devotee teacher nerd who’s comfortable in her own skin – who likes philosophy, overalls, and dirty gin martinis? 

*

A waxing crescent moon ascends as I face the setting sun, and this marvel of a human I call husband delights in my poses. 

“Hey,” I yell, “Did you know there is an emerging body of research about the security of nature and wildness for the LGBTQ+ community?” 

“Hmm.  That’s cool,” Dennis says. He leans in for a closer photograph. 

“There was a student who studied drag kings in wilderness, and the interviews led to statements like the bears don’t care what I wear!” 

It was in the woods behind my childhood home where I decided it would be better to be a boy.  The next day, I wanted to be a tree – in college, to give birth to wolf pups after gazing at the Druid pack from a safe distance in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley – (sadly, that lineage has ended).  Wildness allows this freedom.  The forest is a place to be in the unscripted present. A place to think or not think. To breathe without anyone projecting who and what we should be. 

Here, at this beach, the heron doesn’t judge.  The sandpipers have more pressing needs.  An osprey does not say, you are so brave for being a woman and creating art at the same time.  One day my body will be burned and scattered in the Gulf of Mexico.   In my father’s words, maybe one day I will be a seashell or part of a crab. 

Nature is the place I project internal debris onto. Like flotsam. The ocean does not drink too much or disappear.  It does not neglect.  Nature does not write concerned letters to my husband.

This is the privilege I inhabit as a person unconcerned about where my food will come from or places I may safely visit or the creative impulses born from animate landscapes. Even still, I do not know a life where there is no need to claw for access, to sniff out choices. 

This is the last raw and wild frontier – our essential evolving selves, made difficult to explore by all the systemic -isms.  Art-making in nature, whether playful or fervent, is the way I make sense of my place in the world.  It is not a hobby just as navigating shifting currents in the ocean is not a pastime.  (Perhaps it would be helpful to know that if I were to actually make a collage about sex, I would not ask for permission.) 

In truth, I come from a long line of scandalous women. Women who left unhappy marriages when divorce branded reputations, women who knew how to wring chicken necks and imperfectly love their babies, who cared for their hearts in the silences between – women who made a living with what was available to them, who traveled alone, who were shut away or judged or simply too much.  I am part of the women who lost their tempers, who dug into their vocations – interrogated by men questioning their intellect – women who drank and died or didn’t drink and still died, women who swallowed whole years of loneliness, who prayed in their sleep, who slipped cash into the hands of their daughters when no one was looking.  I share in those who knew how to host elegant dinners or kickass kitchen parties – who wore white when they knew food would drop from their fork, women who played multiple instruments, who made art with their hands, were beloved, were celebrated, awarded, who were the firsts of things and the last of others, who knew how to coast through all the mansplaining conversations – the men none the wiser before my lineage of velvet politicos in petticoats, swing dresses, blue jeans and slacks, all those beefy shoulder pads, the flowy garments seen as flighty, not associated with a brilliant mind and yet here I am, evidence of having been raised by one, the wardrobe of which is an artful feat.  There are so many scandalous women running through my blood.  Women who ventured on their own terms, who fashioned their sexual economy, persisted even in their biggest messes. River rats, ocean dwellers, front porch midwesterners, pickers of rosebay rhododendrons blooming along a singing river – marrying for fear or for love – lichened tombstones tucked away in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  They spoke their minds and suffered for it or were promoted – they dared not be irresponsible – they dared to be irresponsible – they dared to dream – to follow their creative convictions. By some miracle, they carried seeds of resilience, hidden in an incorruptible place. We, all of us, have sought imperfect avenues to exercise our own agency. Flourishing comes with great risk; after all, ladies, no matter what century you are born into, your heart will make you scandalous.  

I offer prayers and call on us all to experience sacramental acts of art-making in the wild.  Or – truly, whatever lights you from within. 

The bears don’t care what any of us wear.  Our strange interior landscapes do not matter to them. That’s a good thing.  Stripped from nature, I would be a shadow – not playful or impish or an earnest thinker who stumbles again and again. Rather, I would be a piece of furniture. This is the opposite of scandalous. 

*

By the time the sun dips below the watery horizon, sand has found its way into the folds of my outfits – specks of ancient Appalachia quartz unite with my own skin’s topography. Dennis tucks the camera into his shirt pocket. Our bodies, effervescent. Our hair, curled and salted. 

“This was fun,” Dennis says, “I’m ready to head back and start cooking something good.” 

“I should shake out my clothes,” I say.

He looks different – like a coyote I saw bounding between dunes earlier in the day.  “Nah, don’t worry about that.”  Dennis gathers my clothes, and I cinch the belt around my robe – the seashell crown still on my head. We make the graceless walk across the white sand – if there were witnesses, they might think we were giddy teenagers from a distance. 

Dennis turns on Cajun music, and we make gumbo. Garlic skins, stray bits of bell pepper and onion stick to our fingers. I wipe my hands on my hips – the detritus falls to the floor. Dennis pulls a cast iron pan out of the oven and dances a jig over his perfect wheel of cornbread. I can anticipate the crisp outer layer, the pillowy warmth inside – a kind of earth in my mouth.  A faint trail of sand follows me from the kitchen to the dining room where so many scandalous women have come before – their stories, embedded in the folds of memory. 

I love the grit and grains scattered inside our home. 


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 

A Vague, Subconscious Prejudice

By Kaitlin Barker Davis

I wasn’t around for the original Kristin Lavransdatter reading that inspired this project, but her aftershocks rumbled through my MFA program long enough that there were still tremors by the time I started at the following residency. A titter here about how unbearably long the book was, a whisper there about how unbearably boring, just loud enough to mark me with a vague, subconscious prejudice. 

Now, memory isn’t perfect, and by that point I was hearing the reviews secondhand, but in retrospect I think most of the grumbling about Kristin did not come from women. (No offense to any of the men in the program. I’m sure plenty of you were entirely open-minded about Kristin). It just makes me wonder: Why wasn’t I more skeptical about a majority-male critique of a book about a woman written by a woman? Why did I allow that opinion to banish Kristin from my future reading list? And how often do we form preconceived notions of a book based on the gender of the author and/or the supposed gendered topic of the story?

Before I became a mother, my primary identity was a traveler. Travel was my world, so that’s what I wrote about. Now I have a 4-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son, so motherhood is my world and primarily what I write about. I’m working on a proposal for a book about travel and motherhood, and I find myself preemptively defending the worthiness of motherhood as a literary topic, arguing all the reasons why readers beyond mothers might—or should—care about it. Pretty much everything I write boils down to women’s experiences in the world, as mothers, as travelers, just as humans. I believe those stories—motherhood and otherwise—all deserve the same literary treatment and respect as men’s experiences in the world. And that we shouldn’t have to debate why. 

So when Callie and Melissa invited me to join Project Redux, I knew I had to accept. As a woman, and as a writer, I owe Kristin and her author (Sigrid Undset) the chance I never gave them. The definition of “redux” is more than just a re-do. It means brought back; revived; restored. Kristin’s reputation was tarnished before I gave myself the opportunity to form my own opinion, so for me this project is about restoring that reputation and opportunity. But this project is about something else too—it’s a place to read and write, to think and create, in community with other women writers. To engage with stories together, to see how they intersect with and inspire us to tell the stories of our own lives. 


Kaitlin Barker Davis is a writer, traveler and mother from Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus, CNF Sunday Short ReadsThe Best Women’s Travel Writing (Vol.12) and elsewhereShe has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and is at work on her first book, a memoir-in-essays exploring uncharted territory in travel and motherhood. Find her on Instagram at @kaitlinbarkerdavis or online at kaitlinbarkerdavis.com.

How different are we, really?

By Melissa Poulin

When I first read Kristin Lavransdatter, a book that holds womanhood to the flame, I was two years married and two years away from becoming a mother. I read it during a season when I was head over heels in love with Scandinavian literature. I had discovered Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s poetry and set about reading everything of his I could find. I went to a reading (at the now-shuttered Tavern Books) honoring his work, including a chapbook of his Prison series of haiku, translated into English by the Swedish poet Malena Morling. From there I read everything I could find of Morling’s work. My favorite poem of hers, from the book Astoria, is called “Happiness:”

How far away is your happiness?
How many inches?
How many yards?
How many bus rides to work
and back?
How many doorways
and stairwells?
How many hours
awake in the dark
belly of the night
which contains
all the world’s bedrooms,
all dollhouse-sized?
How far away is your happiness?
How many words?
How many thoughts?
How much pavement?
How much thread
in the enormous sewing machine
of the present moment?

Isn’t that an astonishing thing to consider, this question of measuring our distance from happiness? It takes as a given that happiness is far away, a destination toward which life hurtles us, like a late train. Then it pelts more questions at this one larger question, an indignant child hurling pebbles at something immutable, like life. In part, and strangely, for a poem on happiness, this is a poem of anger, though it is hard to say what the object of its anger is. Maybe it is time, or maybe it is industrialized time. To me the poem is asking us to wake up and discover the game we are in, to realize it’s possible to believe ourselves on the path toward happiness, and therefore never reach it.

This seems like a good vantage point from which to consider Kristin, a trilogy now nearly a century old, that brings the 1920s feminist quest for freedom to bear on medieval Norway and Catholicism. How far away is your happiness, Kristin? Walking the path with her, in 2013 and now in 2022, I find myself asking what I need, what women need, to reach happiness. How does our understanding of happiness change when we step through the “doorways and stairwells” of marriage and motherhood? Is happiness to be found giving into or resisting temptation, in the experience of being tempted, or in doing away entirely with the concept? Is there happiness in breaking with tradition, in defying cultural conceptions of sin and guilt? In redemption, or in exile? Is happiness real? Is happiness beside the point?

In joining Project Redux this year, I’m interested in investigating these questions as I think back on the woman I was when I first read it in 2013– between two thresholds, newly married but unencumbered by children– and the woman I am today, with three children under six who I’m ushering toward independence in the shadow of climate change, a virus becoming endemic, and mushrooming violence against women. Much is different today than it was in Kristin’s time, and yet threads of commonality endure.


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.

Ghosts and Kristin Lavsrandatter

By Callie Feyen

My first discussion of Kristin Lavransdatter took place on the banks of the Puget Sound, in an old and cozy house that smelled like wind and ocean and other wild things.

            I was there, on Whidbey Island, for graduate school and this house was our classroom, dining room, and all around gathering place. There was always coffee and a batch of chocolate chip cookies available and at meal times what was being served was written in chalk on black tablecloths.

            Up the hill from this house lived a ghost that would come out at night and so my friend Chrysta and I vowed to never walk the path alone. 

            “I know how this story ends,” she’d said one night as we fiddled with our tiny flashlights and the light they cast shook from the never-ending wind and from our hands.

            In the other direction of the house was the water, equally haunting and I studied its black and grey and hoped for orcas to show themselves from the depths just as I looked for the ghost. I think I saw one once.

            It’s always been hard for me to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t; what’s true and what could be true. Maybe there was no ghost, but that didn’t stop me from making up a story about him, and the story in my head was delicious and exhilarating and it made it so that I could keep walking up that hill (though I was still grateful Chrysta was there too – I pity a ghost who dares haunt her). 

            I came to love the walk up that hill, or at least I began to luxuriate in the anticipation of the walk. If I could walk with fear but also curiosity, then maybe that meant that the disposal of my fear wasn’t necessary, rather, adding on a layer of curiosity and wonder, was.

            I don’t know where I got the message that I must rid myself of bad feelings and moods – that fear, sorrow, uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness must be conquered – but it was in graduate school that I began to learn that I could treat them as vital ingredients for story. In so doing, I began to believe that the parts of me that I understood weren’t good, were in fact useable. 

            It was in graduate school I began to believe I didn’t have to be good, or maybe it was I began to lose interest in being good. Whatever it was felt a bit wild. I was a spool of red thread unraveling and I was dizzy but I also didn’t mind the loosening. 

My schooling was such that I learned there was an order to things. If you wanted to read chapter books for example, you needed to prove you were smart enough to handle them. I could never do that, and the lesson I forged was that I could not be trusted: with stories, with feelings, with thoughts and ideas. In order to experience something, I must understand it first. 

            Here I was though, a mother who left her two young children and travelled across the country to immerse herself in stories for no other reason then that it was what I wanted to do. I was breaking the order of things. Maybe it was irresponsible. It certainly felt reckless, and I cared about that, but I went anyway. 

This is who I was when I met Kristin, and while I don’t remember much about her story, I remember the strong reaction to the book, and my response was elementary – I didn’t understand the story, so I could not be trusted to experience it. I distanced myself from Kristin, wrapping the red thread around the spool in an effort to hide what might be wild. 

//

            Five years later I am walking toward my favorite coffee shop to write after having just dropped off my youngest daughter, Harper, at ballet class. I am listening to a Vox message from my friend and colleague Megan Willome. She is telling me Kristin Lavransdatter is without a doubt, the best book she’s ever read.

 It is a Thursday. I know, because Thursdays are the eve of my make-believe day, and as soon as I drop Harper off at dance, it commences: I get to write. 

            It is a situation I have manipulated. I was hired to work as an At-Risk Literacy Specialist in the Ypsilanti Community Schools, a position I took after fleeing mid-year from a middle school teaching job because I couldn’t handle it. I am in charge of two elementary school libraries, plus working with students who are moderately to severely below grade level, and also, because truancy is linked to low-reading scores, I need to keep track of student absences. I’m considered part-time, though I am contracted in two schools five days a week. When I asked for Fridays off, one of my bosses (I had three) asked me how I was going to get all my work done. 

            “I’m not getting my work done now,” I said, and in turn was granted Fridays off.

            Here again is an example of considering my actions as reckless and irresponsible, and going ahead and doing it anyway. I couldn’t – or I wouldn’t – get away from the unraveling. I wanted the red to spill, I wanted it to drip from my fingers, and I wanted to render it onto paper. I always walk away from what I’m supposed to do, and instead walk the path – that often I create – of story. 

            In the introduction, Brad Leithauser writes that upon seeing that he is reading Kristin Lavransdatter, elderly women would flock to him. They would, “cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that [they] too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter – a remark accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.” This is the tone that Megan uses with me in her Vox message. Hearing her talk about the story, I feel as if I’ve dashed into the high school library with Megan during passing periods so she can tell of the most amazing and perhaps salacious thing that just happened to her.

            “I wanted to like it,” I Voxed back. “I think I might’ve,” I confessed, and just as she could barely tell what Kristin Lavransdatter was about for being too blocked with joy of the story, I was too blocked by shame to explain why it was that the book felt like an embarrassing burden – a metaphor that I did not want to resonate with.

            “Kristin Lavransdatter is the tale of a scandalous woman,” Leithauser writes and I double underlined in pencil when I first read it. Did I think this was a warning, and that is how I ought to have read it? What would it mean if I connected with or understood Kristin? 

            Megan told me that maybe the book didn’t meet me at the right time, a gracious way of saying, “Give it another chance.” It was an invitation I’ve held onto for a couple of years now.

            I wonder about the chance of stories – whether we are giving them a chance, or taking a chance – does the chance extend to us, too? What will happen if we give a scandalous woman a chance? And if we find that parts of who we are, are indeed scandalous, what does it mean to take a chance on those parts? 

//

            At the top of New Year, Jesse and I are in our basement – I am sitting on the floor, my back against a doorframe, and waiting for the laundry to finish its spin cycle so I can throw it in the dryer. Jesse is on the couch and on the coffee table in front of him are the parts of our Kitchen Aid that stopped working a few days before Christmas. Our dishwasher also broke that same week, and we think our hot water heater is dying, too. I am watching a thin stream of water move toward my feet, and I let it collect on my wool socks.

            “I can’t stand when something that’s supposed to work, doesn’t,” Jesse says, as I’m just about to say for probably the millionth time in my life that I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to do with my life. Instead, the wash finishes, and I pull the clothes from one machine to the other, slam the door, and push the button to start. The clothes tumble, buttons and zippers snap against the sides, and I put another load in the wash. I pull off my wet socks and throw them in, too. 

            “But it’s an artist I want to be, a woman artist,” Sigrid Undset writes to her friend Andrea Hedberg. “I will not waste my talents. If I have any, I will also find them and use them. I will be whatever I can be.”

            I walk upstairs to find a new pair of socks, thinking of all there is to be done, and all there is I should be doing, unsure I ever want to be able to tell the difference between what’s true and what could be true; what’s real, and what’s not, and hoping for more hills to climb and more ghosts to face. 


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.