Some Saturday in late September, I was determined to finish Kristin Lavrandatter. I had about 200 pages left – an amount that doesn’t seem like much given that the book is 1,124 pages – and I would crank them out in 48 hours, along with a few essays if it was the last thing I did.
It was barely the first thing I did.
I woke up well past 10 that Saturday, trying not to feel guilty about it because I am more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life, but I was annoyed because 10am may as well be 4pm as far as I’m concerned. The day was basically over.
Then, I go downstairs to find a pot with chicken in it boiling over on the stove. Boiling over chicken is a disgusting smell, especially at well past 10 in the morning. Saturday mornings should smell like fresh brewed coffee, Earl Grey tea, bacon, and blueberry pancakes, or sourdough toast with Irish butter. They should not smell like boiled over chicken. Come to think of it, no part of the day should smell like this. Boiled over chicken is the smell of boredom.
“What is happening?” I croaked to anyone who would listen. Hadley was the lucky one.
“What do you mean, what?” I said, pointing to the stove. “Do you see this?”
No, she did not see it because she was not in the kitchen. But goodness, couldn’t she smell it? Or maybe the smell dulled her senses. I believe this could happen. I believe boiled over chicken is that powerful, which is why I was acting like Hadley and I were being attacked.
“We have to do something!” I screamed and proceeded to do nothing because I am of the sort to point out a problem and do nothing about it.
Hadley got up off the couch where she was sitting and in a simple yet effective move, pushed the pot off the burner.
All was calm. All was bright.
But not for me. For me, the damage had been done. These two incidents – oversleeping and boiled over chicken – that most human beings would consider benign completely rattled me and threw me off my K-L game. But damn it, what good is a well-laid plan if it’s not followed? So I sat down in my reading chair in my writing room, and opened the story.
Do you know I have a reading chair and a writing room? I do. I have both of these things. Some people call it my office or my study, but I need very clear definitions about where I’m going and what I’m doing because I have big feelings and a bigger imagination and wanderlust is my BFF and my writing room is the place all these things are not contained but come alive, are content and wild, and can live and be.
The place where my chair is used to be a closet, but unless you’re CS Lewis, what in the world does a writing room need a closet for? And so I said to Jesse, “Off with that door! I need it no longer! It shall be the place where my reading chair will be forever more.”
I said those exact words to him. This is why they’re in quotation marks, and since Jesse’s known (and let’s face it, LOVED) me for over a quarter of a century, he knows it’s far better to give me what I want then it is to explain the reasons, the probably very rational reasons, that what I want might not work. He knows though, that it’s no use fighting big feelings, a bigger imagination and my BFF wanderlust with rationality and reason. Ask any engineer. I am the hurricane storm surge that has no triangular formula to predict the damage I will cause JUST GIVE ME WHAT I WANT.
Above my reading chair is a framed print of the entire play of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Jesse gave me this when my first book, The Teacher Diaries was published. (You should totally buy it. It’s really good and also raising two teenage girls is expensive.) Next to that is the ISBN number the Library of Congress assigned The Teacher Diaries. It’s in rose gold foiled print, and my great friend Ashlee Gadd sent that to me. (She has a book coming out in March – Create Anyway– and you should totally buy that, too.) Next to that is a print I found in a shop in Ann Arbor one afternoon when I was shopping with my cousin, Tara. It reads, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.”
“We have to get this,” I said to Tara, and I think she was a little disturbed at my enthusiasm at the suggestion that perhaps our grandma was a witch and also that someone tried to burn her. It’s disturbing. I bought the print though, because I know a bit of what she survived – born in Aleppo, Syria, a young mother stepping on a boat to escape to America with her husband, their 5 and 6 year old girls with them; a widow whose husband was killed by a drunk truck driver. I like to believe that her granddaughters have something of her in us that cannot be burned.
So this is my reading corner that is no longer a closet. It’s more of a nook, and it is here, where I put on the valiant effort of about five minutes to finish Kristin Lavransdatter, but reading this medieval Norwegian trilogy when I’m annoyed (remember the boiled over chicken?) is not a good idea.
What I had hoped for with Kristin Lavransdatter was that it would be a book that would take me away from the care of boiling over chicken. That is, I would be so involved, so swept away by this story that whatever concerns I had about my life were forgotten. At least, for a time. I hoped Kristin would take me away and show me boldness and beauty in a woman’s life, in a homemaker’s life. I wanted Kristin to show me the romance of adventure in faithful and humble living, so I might see it (and try it?) in my own life.
Instead, Kristin’s character got on my last nerve with her guilt and her complaining and her nonstop disappointment of everyone in her life. I’d slam the book and declare, “I hope I’m never like that.”
Kristin wouldn’t leave me alone, though, and because of Sigrid Undset’s meticulous, lyrical storytelling, because I fell in love not with Kristin (or any of the characters for that matter, well, except Erlend), but with Undset’s writing, I often found Kristin tapping on my shoulder at points in my days. She wasn’t mocking me, it was more that the tapping on my shoulder I felt from her was an invitation to look her in the eye, to be embraced by this flawed heroine, and to hear her say, “See? This is all so very hard.”
Several of the women in this project, including me, wished Kristin had a best friend – or even a friend – but I’m thinking now that Undset created a character to be a friend to us. We needed to see a woman break off on her own, make decisions by herself, work her ass off for her family, and village. We needed to see a woman who was never satisfied, who brooded, who raged, who nagged, who got on peoples’ nerves, who was never happy with who she was, and who was unequivocally and completely loved. At least, that’s what I needed.
What I hoped for was a woman of confidence and certainty. What I got was a woman a lot like (maybe too much) like me.
My reading of Kristin Lavransdatter ends similarly where it began – on a Thursday in my favorite coffeeshop in Ann Arbor. I’d dropped Harper off at dance, and made my way to a seat at the counter so I could look out the window. One of the reasons I love this shop is because they serve coffee in giant mugs I have to hold with both hands, and I turn that into a ritual. I sip and watch the people go by on the bricked street with holly and twinkle lights above them, and I let the coffee work its magic so I can transition into medieval Norway after working an 8 hour shift at Concordia University’s Registrar’s office.
Kristin is saving a young boy who is being buried alive when two students walk into the coffeeshop. The men who are attempting to kill the boy tell Kristin to get out of the way because it’s better for him to die then it is for the entire village. “He belongs to no one -” and Kristin stops him and says, “He belongs to Christ. Better for all of us to perish than for us to harm one of his children.”
One of the students pulls out a chair next to me, and asks if it’s OK if he sits there. I say yes, and Kristin wants to find the young boy’s mother, who she learns lives in a hovel, and who has been left for dead. She says she must go find her, that she will pay for her grave and funeral. She asks if anyone will go with her and suggests they’ll go the next day. A man screams at her: “You’ll have to go alone.” Then, he tells her to go now. He tells her if she wants him to believe in the mercy of God, she better go now. So Kristin goes.
The two students discuss Philosophy and Chemistry. They know about Politics and Religion. They are so very bright and well-polished and it is on the last pages of Kristin Lavransdatter that I learn about the most subtle, slow-burning love story I’ve ever read: a man named Ulf Haldorsson loves Kristin with all his heart, but she will never know. He goes with her to help find the mother. The two of them are in the dark of the house, and Ulf reminds Kristin of her great gift – her ability to see the light in the darkness. She was always trying to search for that light. “You must come here and light the way for me, Kristin,” Ulf tells her. And so she does.
The students discuss the great football game on the previous Saturday. They know why Michigan won, and why OSU lost. They know these things better than Harbaugh and also JJ, and Ulf and Kristin find the mother, who is dead, and Kristin prays over her while they carry her out of the house.
It is the plague the mother died of and passed along to Kristin. It happens fast. “All that was contained within her breast was ripped out,” and she cannot stand anymore so Ulf picks her up and carries her. He stays by her side until Kristin dies.
The boys next to me start to talk about a girl. She is beautiful, the boys admit. She is vivacious and kind and smart. “But she is Catholic,” one of them say. They go on to discuss the problem of Catholic women while Ulf and a priest step outside shortly after Kristin dies, to breath some fresh air. The air “tasted sweet and cool, a little empty and thin, but as if this snowfall had washed sickness and contagion out of the air; it was as good as fresh water.”
“Without thinking, they both walked as lightly and carefully as they could in the new snow.” It is the last sentence in the book, and I do my best to catch the tears that are welling before they fall onto the page. I am crying because Ulf loves Kristin. I am crying because I didn’t love Kristin until the very end and now I miss her. I am crying because there are so many problems with all of us – Catholic or not – all of us daring each other to save the world right now so that we might believe in the mercy of God but refusing to go along and help.
But it is time to get Harper, so I close the story, fit it into my backpack, take my mug and saucer to the plastic tub, and walk out the door, into December air that also tastes sweet and cool and empty and thin. Outside the dance studio a man lights a cigarette, or probably it’s a joint. He leans against the wall next to the studio door, lifts the stick to his mouth and inhales. I must be watching him in disgust because he looks me in the eye and exhales; the smoke makes me flinch.
These dancing days are numbered. It is swim that has Harper’s heart now, and that is just fine. I want my girls to continually surprise themselves, I want them to never be afraid to try something new. And when they find something that completes them, that won’t let them go, that calls out to them and whispers, “Try, try, try,” I want them to have the courage to do whatever it takes to keep trying, even when it’s overwhelming and confusing and sad and scary. I hope I’ve showed them that. I cannot protect them from the world, but I can show them the very many ways there are to live in it.
The man takes another drag, and this time, he blows it toward the door, and Harper is walking down the stairs, and I watch as the smoke flies up and evaporates just as Harper opens the door to outside.
She smiles, and we move on to whatever it is we will do next.
Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.