What Really Matters

By Joanna ES Campbell 

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

Love the land

Love yourself

Love others

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

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

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

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

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

As if the water knows a secret. 

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

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

Love the land

Love yourself

Love others

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

Four Takes on Kristin Lavransdatter

By Hannah Piecuch

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

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

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

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

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

The Paris Review | Cooking with Sigrid Undset 

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

The Atlantic | The bookstore strikes back

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

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

Crushing On Erlend

Marital confession

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erlend Nikkulausson is many things.

He is a ladies’ man

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

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

“Do you the maidens, Erlend?”

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

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

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

He is a chieftain

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

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

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

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

He is a father

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

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

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

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

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

He is a Christian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the mountain king

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

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

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

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

Marital concession

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

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

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

Fighting Among Kin

Kristin Lavransdatter – pgs. 780-797:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we do.

Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.

When I’m Gone

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

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

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

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

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

When I’m Gone
By Megan Willome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Simons (a pantoum)

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

Two Simons (a pantoum)
by Megan Willome

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

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

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

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

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


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

Caitlin Dwyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Dwyer is a writer, storyteller, poet and multimedia journalist. She’s always curious about the deeper story behind the headlines. Her essays braid reflection, observation, journalistic interviews, and scholarly research, all in search of intimate, human portraits. In her poetry, she explores mythology and motherhood. She also helps produce and host the podcast Many Roads to Here. She studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong and creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She also teaches writing with Portland Community College. At home, she often plays Wonder Woman and/or Evil Queen in epic pretend games with her children. If she’s not teaching, writing, or parenting, she is probably wandering around in the forest or lost in a book.

Never the Same

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

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

A Ghostly Gift: Bjarneby Megan Willome

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

Remembering the Elf Maiden

I took a walk through the Ann Arbor Arboretum on the same day I read about Kristin remembering the visit from the elf-maiden. Kristin is standing near the same place the elf-maiden visited her when she was a little girl. I am not sure what will happen next. I stopped reading as soon as Kristin remembers her. 

    I tend to enter the same way each time I visit the Arb. I walk down the center of the peony garden, and past the Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow – a small patch of forest made up of maybe fourteen trees – and then down a slope that leads to the Huron River. 

    You can make homes for the fairies, and probably for the trolls too, in these woods. You use whatever you can find  – sticks and pine cones, leaves, and perhaps pedals that fell from flowers. It wasn’t that long ago that Harper would want to stop and make a house in this forest. I’d sit on a bench nearby while she worked.

    Ann Arbor houses fairies. At least, I think that’s the town’s hope. There are fairy doors all over, and actually, the Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow is the least subtle. The doors hide in bookshelves in libraries, or in the breweries and coffee shops. When we first moved to Ann Arbor, Harper and I were out and about getting to know our new town, and she found an entire fairy village, complete with a church and a school. The village wasn’t hiding, and I’d like to think I would’ve found it eventually, but Harper’s always had an awareness for these types of things. She’s always noticing things in a world the rest of us think is too dark to see. 

    I had covid when Kristin remembers the elf-maiden, and was unable to focus on much those days save for how totally exhausted I was all the time. Writing was grueling as I couldn’t sustain a thought long enough to turn it into something, and reading gave me a headache. This sent me into what I remember Anne of Green Gables calling, “the depths of despair.” Surely, I would always feel this way. Surely, I will never write again. Surely, this is not covid, this is a part of my personality that has been hiding within, waiting to come out and ruin me. 

    It was Undset’s descriptive parts of the story that gave my mind, and my soul, a reprieve. Undset’s description is like the dollar section at Target, or the Farmer’s Market on a fall day, or hearing the words, “snow day.” It simply makes me happy.

    This is a curious observation to me because normally when I read long descriptive passages, especially pertaining to the setting, it seems the author is screaming, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO! PAY ATTENTION TO ME; NOT THE STORY!” This is not the case with Undset, and in fact, the parts where she is describing the setting are the parts I understand and am invested in the story the most. 

    On pgs 703-717, I marked seven instances of description of setting. Here are a few:

  • Kristin is on a walk with two of her sons and her niece when “the first stars were sparkling, wet and white, high up in the sky, where the limpid green was turning blue, moving toward darkness and night.”
  • She walks again with Simon and Ramborg on a night that, “was black and clear with glittering stars….[and]…the sound of water was everywhere in the darkness around them.”
  • Kristin stops at a lone spruce tree, on an afternoon of picking wild flowers, “tall, pale yellow stalks, richly adorned with small open stars,” and as she looks upon the landscape she realizes she “missed everything that she once found so wearisome.”

    It is Kristin who Undset gives these thoughts to. While the narration is third person omniscient, Kristin is the one who notices her surroundings. If Kristin is the heroine of the story, then these descriptive scenes serve as great pauses – reprieves for Kristin to ground and gather herself – in order for the story to continue. And if that is the case, then part of being a hero is one’s willingness to observe without concern for what it is, or what it does. You are here. You are in it. Name what it is you see. 

    I’m not making progress on much these days, and I’d like to blame covid, but I think covid is what made me stop and realize that the franticness with which I am searching to make something worthwhile and meaningful is making me apathetic and depressed. I was a bit ashamed to write about my admiration for Undset’s descriptive prowess, but I’m grateful to have spent some time understanding why I look forward to these passages: they take me places I didn’t know I wanted to go – like down a narrow and steep and crooked path and onto a dirt bank of the Huron River where there are ants half the size of my finger and dragonflies with lace wings that skim the water, and that’s where I’ll sit for no other reason then I want to hear all the different sounds water can make.

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.

Warm Diseases in Kristin Lavransdatter: An Acupuncture Student’s Take

I am at the one large table in the corner of the Starbucks 5 minutes from my house. An iced decaf Americano sits sweating onto the faux wood, my passport to a few hours of uninterrupted study. The music is always too loud for my taste, but the taste of coffee tricks me into a more alert state, and the location saves me gas and time during the precious hours my sitter is at my home with her toddler and mine. Noisy as this cafe may be, two toddlers are noisier. At least this noise doesn’t come with diaper changes or requests for snacks.

I sip my coffee and think about what I learned several months ago: that caffeine is, in part, the coffee plant’s defense. To some animals, it’s poison. But to bees, who sip nectar from the coffee plant’s flowers, it’s an elixir that makes them likelier to remember the plant’s location for future pollination. That gets me thinking about how some poisons can be medicines, and some medicines, if taken incorrectly, can be poison. 

We keep a laminated sheet on the inside of our medicine cabinet door with the correct dosage by weight for acetaminophen for our children. It’s one of the most commonly used drugs in the world, and yet because of its impact on the liver, it’s also one of the most dangerous, with a thin line between its toxic dose and a safe dose– a narrow “safety margin,” or therapeutic index. In other words, Tylenol’s common dose is close to its overdose. It’s a fact I have mostly chosen not to think about too deeply, even as we usually underdose when we do to give it to our children, for fevers that keep them from sleeping.

Like many drugs, science still hasn’t figured out exactly how acetaminophen works as an analgesic and fever reducer. The theories, like bees, hum and buzz around the possibilities: it could be due to the functions of neurotransmitters like serotonin, the body’s endocannabinoids, or ion channels in the brain and spinal cord. I look up the history of Tylenol and learn I’ve conflated its discovery with that of aspirin, maybe because when I was growing up, my parents used the words Tylenol and aspirin interchangeably. But aspirin is an entirely different substance. It comes from a compound synthesized from willow, evolving from the medieval use of willow bark as an analgesic. Acetaminophen, on the other hand, was discovered by accident in a lab in 1873, and largely ignored until it was tested as an analgesic and rebranded as Tylenol in the 1950s.

I’m thinking about medicine and fevers because my friends and their families are getting Covid, despite it being summer, and despite their being vaccinated, and fever is on all of our minds. Fever is also on my mind because of what I am here to study, in my final year of acupuncture school. Fever is the first sign of an invasion of Wind-Heat, according to the notes I made last night on the Four Stages Theory in Chinese medicine, a later school of thought than the Six Divisions, though both deal with the invasion of external pathogens. Four Stages Theory helps identify how deeply into the body a pathogen has penetrated, specifically a pathogen in the category of Warm Diseases, which are virulent diseases like flu, measles, chicken pox, SARS, Scarlet Fever, and yes, Covid. 

Long before so-called Western medicine was able to isolate the viruses causing these diseases, Chinese medicine identified their characteristics: they manifest with fever, the pathogen enters through the nose and mouth, they’re highly infectious, the onset is rapid, and if untreated they can penetrate deeply enough to be fatal.

As I read my notes, my mind scans back to the countless symptoms described in such detail in Kristin Lavransdatter. Unlike Kristin, I have an arsenal of vaccines at my disposal to protect my children against the Warm Diseases that used to take young lives indiscriminately. As a modern mother in a wealthy country, I have access to a level of precision about viruses Kristin could never have imagined, and the bold expectation that science and medicine will be there to help me should my children fall ill. In Kristin’s world, there is God and medicinal plants, and children who struggle with nameless symptoms.

“Kristin cupped the little face in her hand; it was yellowish-white, like tallow, and his eyes were always tired. Gaute had a big, heavy head and frail limbs. He had turned two years old but still couldn’t stand on his own, he had only five teeth, and he couldn’t speak a word. Sira Eiliv said that it wasn’t rickets. Everywhere the priest went he would ask advice about this illness that had overtaken Gaute. But to her he could only say that she must patiently submit to God’s will. And she should let him have warm goat milk.”

Scarlet fever? I wonder. 

A quick search: Scarlet fever was once widely feared by parents because of its harsh effects on children. Historically, septic complications such as brain abscess, meningitis, lung abscess, pneumonia, osteomyelitis (bone infection), middle ear and soft tissue infections could follow scarlet fever and cause early death. 

According to the six divisions, this is an invasion of Wind-Heat. Ye Tianshi, a 17th Qing Dynasty century doctor, who formulated the 4 Stages theory, is often credited with discovering scarlet fever first in China. Lanhousha (which literally translates to “rotten throat rash,”) was apparently non-existent in China during medieval times, and is first recorded in the largely undated records of Ye Tianshi, a busy doctor who didn’t have time to make extensive notes as he worked to treat suffering patients. 

But then I wonder if the fever Gaute suffered from was the same as the one that struck all of the children, manifesting differently in each of them– a mysterious “sickness” that would eventually infect Kristin and claim Orm’s life: 

“Kristin took the candlestick from the table and shone the light on the two sleeping boys… Bjorgulf’s eyelashes were not festering– thank God for that. The weather would stay fine for a while yet. As soon as the wind blew hard or the weather forced the children to stay inside near the hearth, his eyes would grow inflamed… They had been as healthy as little fledglings, all three of her sons, until the sickness had come to the region last summer. A fever had carried off children in homes all around the fjord; it was a terrible thing to see and to hear about. She had been allowed to keep hers– all her own children… For five days she had sat near the bed where they lay, all three of them, with red spots covering their faces and with feverish eyes that shunned the light… Gaute was then only ten months old; he was so ill that she didn’t think he’d survive.” 

Red spots, fevers, eyes with aversion to light… I Google around and hit on measles.

Measles is an infection you get from a virus. The measles virus lives in the mucus of the nose and throat. It’s spread through the air and by coming into direct contact with someone who has it. The virus can stay active on surfaces and in the air for up to 2 hours.

It’s very contagious. If you haven’t been vaccinated and are in a room with someone who has measles, you have a 90% chance of getting it.

Part of what makes measles so dangerous is that you can be contagious 4 days before you get the telltale rash. So you could easily spread the virus without knowing you have it. You’ll continue to be contagious 4 days after the rash goes away.

Initial symptoms typically include fever, often higher than 104, cough, runny nose, and inflamed eyes.

I’m deep down a rabbit hole, with a treatise on scarlet fever in indigenous Chinese medicine open in one tab, and an analysis of measles using the four stages in another tab, when a man sits down at the table next to me and sneezes loudly and untidily into his sleeve. I’m instantly on guard. It’s probably innocuous, but I pick up my things and decide to head to the library anyway. Besides, maybe I’m getting off track. 

Or maybe I’m deepening my learning by making connections between this medicine and my real life– where the story of a new warm disease is unfolding in real time– and between my story and Kristin’s, where the descriptions of symptoms without a diagnosis practically leap off the page. Maybe we get more on track the more we bring what we’re interested in into other areas of our lives, applying and comparing and testing. This connection-making is what we’ve been doing here, as writers, for the past seven months: bringing Kristin Lavransdatter along with us into our lives, seeing what her story might have to say about ours. 

PS If you liked this very cursory look at TCM diagnosis, check out this video on diagnosing and treating sadness and grief with TCM. It’s a series that goes through case studies using Star Wars characters! This one’s for Senator Amidala, but I feel like it would apply to Kristin at any number of points in the book…

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.

Photo credit: Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash