Just Sparks

Photo by Maria P on Unsplash

By Melissa Poulin

Lavrans and Erlend are at a meeting with the regent Erling Vidkunsson, to discuss some trouble Erlend’s men have gotten into. In future chapters, Erling will play a pivotal role in the struggle to save Erlend from himself, but for now, Lavrans and Erling are speaking in low voices about “men like Erlend.”

“They’re the most dangerous kind,” Erling says. “Men who think a little farther than their own interests but not far enough… He never wants to listen to any matter long enough to understand it fully. And if he bothers to hear a man out, he forgets the first part before the discussion comes to an end.”

It’s late spring, and I’m deep into the second half of “Husaby” in Kristin Lavransdatter. Outside the rain falls heavily onto already-saturated soil. It’s the wettest April, May, and June that Oregon has ever had, and though I long for sun, I remember the devastating wildfires of the previous summers. Even with this record rain, parts of Oregon are still experiencing drought, and are still likely to experience climate-caused fires this summer. The Columbia approaches and then surpasses flood stage, and meanwhile, MIT scientists are busy exploring “space bubbles,” a technology some think could help us avoid the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis.

Huge ice balloons built in outer space, positioned to reflect the sun’s rays and save us from ourselves, I read at the kitchen table, sipping coffee with my one-year-old in my lap. My four-year-old is building an elaborate car from Magna Tiles as he finishes his cereal, and my seven-year-old is still wearing a long silk scarf wrapped around her torso, though I’ve told her twice to get dressed for school. In a minute I’ll start counting to three, and they know they’ll lose privileges once I reach that final number.

Our final number in the climate emergency is well-known, as are the measures we must take to avoid reaching it– yet we are on track to raise global temperatures by 1.5 degrees C in less than eight years’ time.

Why is it so hard to learn from our mistakes? The thought flicks across my mind as I read. The parent in me reflexively holds on to natural consequences: I wonder if the promise of a technological save will prevent us from making the achievable changes scientists have urged for decades. But the parent in me also feels desperately hopeful, with young lives dependent on me, that maybe their future won’t be quite as bleak as I often imagine, late at night when I can’t sleep.

In “Husaby,” we continue to follow the spiral of consequences stemming from Kristin and Erlend’s first mistake. In youthful ignorance, they chose their passion over all else, no matter the wreckage around them, and now they experience the natural consequences. The scales begin to drop from Kristin’s eyes as she reckons with the full character of the man she married. The man who was willing to stride over boundaries and take what he wanted when pursuing Kristin is the same man whose continued boundary-crossing pulls her and their children to the brink of disaster.

These fixed parts of human nature, and the repeated spectacular fallout from characteristic mistakes, form the core of the conflict central to Kristin Lavransdatter. The tension between Kristin and Erlend is the tension between pride and humility, between the passion of one’s will and obedience to God, between reconciliation and unforgiveness.

These are essentially human knots, enlarged and exaggerated in the opera of these fictional lives. It’s easy to distance myself from Kristin and Erlend. They’re not real! It’s fiction! The 14th century was so brutal! But as extreme their sins may be, I’m troubled by the way I relate to the struggles of two characters who just can’t seem to get it together, can’t seem to get over themselves. It’s hard to be a dispassionate reader of such a passionate story. Over and over, alongside Kristin, my heart is wrung out by the same patterns of behavior.

After my older children are dressed and off to school, after the baby is down for her morning nap, I take out my bible and my journal. The devotion for the day is about Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built his church. Did Jesus choose Peter because he was perfect? Far from it. Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times as he was led to the cross. Peter wasn’t perfect, but he did have faith.

More than anything, I want to do right by my children. I want to raise them well, to teach them love and forgiveness and the value of saying you’re sorry. Sometimes I worry over my past mistakes with them, mostly times when I lost my temper. I worry that they’ll end up in therapy, just like me, in spite of all my efforts– as though therapy were the thing to avoid at all costs. But wanting to parent well is different from wanting to do it perfectly. Parenting by faith, and not by perfection, leaves room for redemption. It acknowledges the essential knot of humanity, our essential need for salvation by grace.

I recently watched the last episode of This Is Us, a show I’ve been following since my oldest was just one. “I made so many mistakes,” Rebecca says as she journeys through the train taking her across death’s threshold. “I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but I have yet to meet the parent who says ‘I got it all right,'” says the doctor who delivered her children. “No perfect games in parenting. Not even close.”

It’s a television show, but still. There’s something so profound in that admission. Modern parenting, with its maze of parenting books, preschool waitlists, and consumer choices, can make it seem like perfection is just a purchase or Pinterest board away– as if perfection as a goal were desirable. It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to see my own lifelong struggle with perfectionism for what it is: a temptation to pride, something that separates me from God. It seems so obvious: of course perfectionism couldn’t be anything but sin. Faith declares that Christ is the only perfect one. Yet in my struggle, I have long harbored a secret belief or hope that maybe it’s not such a bad thing, that maybe it’s kind of a good thing to want so terribly to please.

“We certainly are sparks!” said St Catherine of Sienna, a woman who broke every last societal expectation for women of her time, in her pursuit of God. “This is why you want us to humble ourselves. Just as sparks receive their being from the fire, so let us acknowledge that our being comes from our first source.” In humility, we can recognize that anything good we can do comes from God, and that God makes his power perfect in our inherent human weaknesses.

It’s now mid-July as I write this in a coffee-shop, with 15 minutes of childcare hours left. I’m remarking how apt it is that I held off submitting this post I had intended for June, imagining some perfect addition or ending I just hadn’t achieved yet.

What I want to say is this: more than halfway through this year of reading Kristin, I’ve been totally floored by the way Undset’s masterpiece has changed me, and by how different my reading of it is this time around. Maybe because I am a different reader: I’m now a wife and a mother, humbled in so many ways by the challenges both roles have brought. It’s funny to me that I had this image of the book as somehow a feminist text, when it seems that nothing could be further from the truth. Kristin Lavransdatter is a profoundly Catholic text, and its aim is to throw into stark relief the seriousness of the human dilemma. Like Erlend, on my first read, I “didn’t listen long enough to fully understand.” I saw in it reflections of my own interests, as they were at that time in my life. Now I see in it reflections of my own state of sin, and the ways my humanness can keep me separated from God. I see in it the saga of humanity’s wrestling with God. I’m right there with Kristin.

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.

Lavrans, Kristin, and my Grandmother

By Melissa Poulin

I am in the middle of reading “Husaby,in which Kristin’s father Lavrans dies and is laid to rest, when I learn I must fly south to California for my grandmother’s funeral. I pack the book and read it at night in the hotel room, with a tiny booklight, and my 15-month-old daughter sleeping in a port-a-crib beside me. She and I have flown to San Jose, then driven east to Los Banos, the smallish town where my grandparents lived after they retired, and where my grandfather had been buried 17 years earlier.

My grandma, one of 11 children, left home at 19 to marry her first husband. He was abusive, so my grandma took her sons and moved in with her parents again, until she met and married my grandpa, with whom she had two children: my mother and her younger brother. So when my grandpa died, my grandma was faced not only with the loss of her husband of nearly 60 years, but with the prospect of living completely alone for the first time in her life.

When I get to the section on preparations for Lavrans’ death, how Ragnfrid and Lavrans had time to finally say unsayable things to one another before he died, I am thinking of my grandma in her living room after my grandpa’s funeral, her voice breaking as she looked up at one of her sisters to ask, What am I going to do now? her hands raised in a gesture that held a roil of emotion: fury and disbelief, grief, shock, despair.

Nothing I’d ever seen in my grandparents’ union, as a grandchild who visited them a few times a year, had prepared me to witness such a coiled knot of pain and sadness. I was caught off-guard. They had mostly nagged at and teased each other, my grandpa often going several steps further with a Be quiet, woman, and a dismissiveness that made me rage inwardly as a teenager. But of course there was more to their relationship that what appeared at the surface. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the depth of their love, and yet I was.

My grandpa died in his sleep, while sitting up late listening to music one night after my grandma had gone to bed. There was no preparation, no warning, no chance for them to have the kind of conversations that could have– maybe– undone some of the corrosive damage of years of irritable comments spurred by the physical ailments that had caused each of them pain and frustration.

Ragnfrid, we are told, follows her husband’s coffin to its burial place at a monastery, where she then lives for less than two years on her own before following him to the grave. By today’s standards, they are both young when they die, but they’ve also weathered the deaths of four children in their life together. It seems reasonable that Lavrans’ heart is quite literally worn out.

In Los Banos at the funeral, my daughter squirms in my lap in the pew, and won’t be placated with banana-flavored puffs. As I walk her in circles around the back of the church, I hear snippets of the pastor’s sermon and the eulogy my father has prepared. Rain falls on my cheeks and arms when we walk across the street later for the burial, but unlike with my grandpa’s burial, we must leave before my grandma is laid to rest beside him; something has changed in the interceding years in the funeral home’s policy. I touch the smooth wood of the coffin and say a quick, silent prayer before pushing my daughter’s stroller back to the car, and on to the reception. It feels strange to leave her there unburied, like a hyphen in an unfinished sentence.

Before Lavrans dies, he places his mother’s ring on his wife’s finger:

“The three rings gleamed next to each other: on the bottom her betrothal ring, next her wedding ring, and on top his ring. She remembered when he put the first one on her finger… with this last ring, she felt as if he were marrying her again. Now that she would soon sit beside his lifeless body, he wanted her to know that with this ring he was committing to her the strong and vital force that had lived in this dust and ashes.”

At Jorundgaard, ceremony marks the crossing of death’s threshold with as much purpose as betrothal, marriage, and birth. There is an evenness, a balance, to the rituals encircling a life, like the three rings around Ragnfrid’s finger.

At the reception, I walk my daughter around the perimeter of the banquet hall, beneath the bemused smiles of relatives who dip chips into guacamole and try to make conversation suitable for the occasion. It isn’t a reunion, and yet it is. I haven’t seen some of these relatives since I was a child myself, and now here I am with my own child, thinking about Kristin and my grandma and my mother, wondering what it means to be the child of a parent now buried. I think of loosed cords: a boat slipping its tie to a dock, a kite unwound from its reel of string. I am weary from minding my toddler in small spaces devoid of appropriate things to climb on or play with, but I am also hungry for weight, for anchor. We pace the room, both of us restless for something to do with our bodies.

Ragnfrid bakes and brews, kneels at Lavrans’ bedside, walks beside the coffin in the long funeral procession. There is a physicality to preparing for death. She slips into the groove of custom and tradition, and there must be comfort there, in a culture where death is given ample time and space, where one’s body is required to participate in the passing of another. I think this is, in part, what I love about liturgical tradition: its inclusion of the body in matters of the spirit. There is kneeling and standing, singing and sitting and rising again, the procession of the cross and the gospel, the breaking and eating of bread, the drinking of wine. These rituals give form to what is happening inside me as I recommit myself to Christ each week, and I long for such form as I say goodbye to my grandma.

At home again, I gather some pictures of my grandma around me. I unwrap the pieces of the delicate teaset I inherited from her. I sit at her old sewing table, now mine, opening and closing its drawers to see if the scent of her perfume still lingers there, as it had when I first brought it home. I queue up an interview I had recorded with her when I was in college, and her voice fills my ears again, as she gamely answers the stream of disjointed questions I volleyed, one after another. In the recording, both of our voices are younger and brighter, and we laugh together, midstream in an ordinary day, the currents of time still eddying and flowing smoothly around us.

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.

Hello, Husaby

In the first chapters of Kristin’s married life at Husaby, I was struck by how rapidly she undergoes maturation into womanhood, not only through the journey of her pregnancy and shift in identity from girl to mother, but rather by a transformation in the scope of her perspective. Almost at once her perceptions widen from beyond her own yearnings and shame to the concerns and cares of a lady of a large estate, not to mention wife and step-mother as well. One of the primary sensations she experiences is an overwhelming homesickness for her father’s house and a melancholy at finding herself abruptly isolated from the way of life she had known, a way of life in which she had always been cared for unconditionally.

There’s a deeper truth interwoven in Kristin’s nostalgia: a recognition that her father’s beliefs weren’t just something he proclaimed, but something he lived by, reflected in the welfare of his farm, his servants, even his livestock. Erlend’s slavery to himself, his whims and wants, have devastating effects on his own estate: it’s clear that the moral standards of these two men are not just differences of opinion or belief; the development (or lack thereof) of their respective consciences manifest in tangible outcomes for everyone around them.

I witnessed this phenomenon myself in my own childhood; the happy evidence of my religious upbringing a fact I came back to again and again in my young adulthood. In my eras of unbelief, or of anger at my Church, I couldn’t deny the solidity and joy of my childhood, how that had stemmed from the values and virtues of the Catholic creed my family professed. Broken as their own families of origin were, my parents set out to create a family based on something more solid than mere mutual attraction and affection. Despite their own traumatic, abusive childhoods, they succeeded in building a healthy family structure with little but their faith to inform them. Harmony and familial love were goals to be reached using Christian values of kindness, forgiveness, generosity…in retrospect, it stands out how preoccupied they were with us children speaking kindly to each other; we weren’t allowed to consume particular forms of media, not out of puritanical fear of the subject matter, but because of the cruel manner of speech commonly found in sitcom family structures under the guise of teasing. I was reminded of this in Kristin’s observation that she had never seen family members speak with such vitriol to each other until Erlend, Munan, and Gunnulf argue at dinner at Husaby.

Lavrans and Ragnfrid are far from perfect, and God knows neither are my own parents, inventing as they were from scratch what it meant to be good parents. I could give a laundry list of complaints, things I’ve analyzed and hope to do differently with my children. But all of their children have remained close to each other and to them, and what’s more, persisted in practicing Catholicism. I credit this in part to the fact of our shared experience: the peace and order, emotional health and enjoyment of our childhoods, contrasted to the disorder and anguish of the world revealing itself once we left home. How often do we not appreciate what is good until we experience the lack of that good elsewhere! Kristin doesn’t see it until she’s ensconced at Husaby, and I didn’t see it either until I myself set off into young adulthood, until I firsthand encountered the wounds and sorrows of a broken world.

Those same ideals have been vehicles for emotional and religious abuse in many families; they’ve been twisted into heresies such as purity culture and prosperity gospel, but this is a deeper truth from which those distorted concepts sprang: how many beauties may come from a life lived by faith and a well-developed conscience. What they don’t do is guarantee wealth or prevent pain.  I’ve found that one of the rewards of following the Catechism of a Church thousands of years old is the thousands of years of accumulated experience: all those men and women, sinning over and over again and compiling a compendium of what choices bring one’s soul closer or farther from order and peace. And yet in our hubris, we all have to try some sins out for ourselves, and so does Kristin.

The word sin has been so abused to make any use almost cringe-worthy, but when taken for its literal meaning, as an act creating separation from God, it’s not difficult to see why some behaviors warrant the label. Undset emphasizes again and again that Erlend and Kristin’s tryst wasn’t only harmful to themselves; in following the siren song of their own desires, they suffered their relations and friends to many pains and a myriad of consequences. This theme reasserts itself through the state of things at Husaby: Erlend’s selfish pursuits have created disorder and discord for almost all in his life, most notably his children. Undset also makes it clear that Kristin’s pilgrimage and great atonement isn’t necessary because of a mere transgression like sex out of marriage, but because of her part in Eline’s death. And yet…and yet, redemption is within her reach, and Erlend’s as well.

There was a man in college who said he loved me, wanted to marry me, have lots of children, but he had no faith, and had never had one. It wasn’t the fact of his disbelief that disquieted me, besieged as I was by my own doubts and angers at the time, but a suspicion that without some kind of foundation of moral education, we would be on unsure footing for the rest of our lives. Growing up, I knew my father would never stray, never abandon his children, not because he loved us so much, but because of his own conscience, his own moral code. What trust and confidence that gave me as a child! And in what disparity to that young man, eager and full of love for me as he was. I wondered what would happen as the decades passed, if he was bored, if things were hard, if the situation was right…it was apparent he had nothing to fall back on. Despite his general good will and nature, I had no confidence in that goodness, floating in the ether, following the lead of his own desires and interests. Moral codes exist without the shape of religion, of course, but they’re much easier to change to and adjust to personal desire when there’s nothing empirical to hold them.

And this is the core difference between Erlend and Lavrans. Lavrans has his own code, strong convictions that affects the livelihood of everyone around him. Erlend has his own code as well, primarily to follow his longings at the cost of all else. His religious practices smack of mere performance for appearance’s sake, no true conviction as an undercurrent to his life. Erlend’s children can have no trust and confidence in him, fair-weather father as he is. Erlend makes promises to Kristin for no other reason but her beauty, and Kristin, in her naivete, doesn’t bother to wonder what foundation that makes for a marriage. Her eyes are opened when she comes to Husaby to find her husband’s neglect for everything else in his life. Kristin takes up the mental load of caring for the welfare of his estate and his child alongside the concerns of looming labor, birth, and new motherhood. Her loss of innocence was not in the hay bales and secret rooms, but here, when she must suddenly take on the mantle of responsibility for so much more than she anticipated. Her own moral foundation asserts itself, giving her the tools to create a better life for those around her, to create the family life she wants for her own children.

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.