On Curses

I’m pretty sure I was cursed, once. It was the last morning of a women’s writing retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, in the summer of 2015.

A tall, silvery-haired woman gave me a hug, a firm pat on the thigh, and slipped a little handmade straw star in the left-hand pocket of my jean shorts. “Keep this!” she said, intensely. Then she was gone. 

We hadn’t struck up a friendship—if anything, she’d been kind of rude. I was puzzled but touched that she’d made me what I took to be a friendship star. 

I forgot all about it and spent the rest of the morning on a solo hike. The mountains were lovely, but I left with a slew of painful mosquito bites—even more than usual. By afternoon, the bites on my left leg had swelled to the size of golf balls. 

On my way to dinner, I limped past that same silvery-haired woman, who was burning herbs and chanting over another member of our workshop. Hmm, I thought to myself. I kept walking. 

A minute later, I reached into my pocket and found that straw star. It was prickly in my hands. I held it for a moment and then chucked it into the sagebrush. 

Within the hour, the swelling was gone and I could walk without pain.

Did the timing align with Benadryl hitting my system? Well, sure. Was I glad I’d remembered to throw that weird little twisty star out before I boarded my flight home? Again, sure. Better safe than sorry. 

Åashild Gautesdatter speaks a curse of sorts over Kristen when she mentions, off-hand, how perfect a couple Kristen and Erlend would be…if only Kristen was a bit more noble of birth. 

Kristen hones in on these words; they float right back when she meets Erlend, daring her to defy social constructs and prove Åashild wrong. 

A sidenote: Frau Aashild’s words to Kristen, and the power they seem to hold over her, stood out to me in the text, but that doesn’t mean this sits well with me—it’s almost as if this passage exists to take some of the blame away from Erlend, a man who just really deserves all the blame and then some. Erlend is a man who can’t seem to take responsibility for his actions to save his life. And here I am, focusing the blame on another woman in the story instead of on him. Am I making it all up? Am I just so programmed to protect men that I look anywhere else for a scapegoat? I’m not sure. I hope not.

It’s true, though, that Frau Aashild had strong influence over Kristen, and likely knew this, and certainly could have given Kristen a different picture of her nephew Erlend—a warning would have been much more appropriate than a recommendation. (But maybe a warning would have been another kind of curse, just as inviting to Kristen in its own way.) 

In any case, once she falls for Erlend, Kristen does seem to be spell-bound. She loses herself in her pursuit, shacking up with him in hay bales, then whorehouses, then outhouses (gross). She plots to elope with him but instead becomes witness to the shady suicide/murder of Erlend’s paramour. By her wedding, she’s a ghost of herself. Oh, and she’s pregnant—because, we learn, it’s just been too hard for Erlend to keep his hands off her when they’re alone. 


That little straw-star curse at Ghost Ranch didn’t upset me too much. Most likely, it was my overactive imagination, my loneliness and exhaustion, turning an eccentric old woman into something more sinister. At worst, it was extremely weak magic. Plus, now I have a fun party story to trot out if talk turns witchy. 

I hold onto the story for its imagery. It reminds me of how often we casually tuck little thought-barbs into each other’s pockets. Judgments, dismissals, rejections: those, I think, are the real curses. 

The thing about a curse—it seems strongest when hidden away. Once you see it for what it is, just words, usually born out of someone else’s pain, it often loses its power. 

I limped through my 20s, carrying painful words from others stuffed deep in my pockets. It took years of therapy, prayer, the steady love of my partner, faithful friendships, and honestly just time, to toss them aside and free myself of their power. 

Kristen doesn’t have that kind of support. Nobody at the abbey pays much attention to her (and before that, nobody was paying much attention at home) so she’s had no chance to talk things over with a mentor, or even a friend; there’s no way for her to gain any perspective, or step back and see Erlend for who he really is. Her guilt and shame heighten everything to a fever pitch. She tries to ease this pressure by seeking out her mentor, Brother Edvin. But he can’t confess her. And anyway, he’s part of the same system she is. While he radiates love and support, he also believes she’s committed a serious transgression. So she’s left to try to sort things out alone.

And maybe that’s the real curse—the silence of her community in the face of all she’s suffered: her sister’s tragic accident and illness, her mother’s neglect, her attempted rape, then her shunning after Arne’s death. In her loneliness, Erlend’s attention is intoxicating, and she sacrifices everything to feel singled out and special. 

Fairy tales often follow the story arc of a maiden who must break a curse. This is Kristen’s story arc, too: as she matures, she will begin to see Erlend for what he is, and to try and redeem her life and her choices in the best way she knows how. 

There’s still a part of me that wishes Kristen could have found a way to slip free of this particular curse a bit sooner, or that her path toward healing might be a bit less grueling. I wish that another woman in the story could have come alongside Kristen and given her the tools to break free of Erlend’s clutches. Her mother, maybe, or a wise older nun at the abbey. 

But I guess that’s part of the fascination of the book, and with fairy tales in general. As Kristen makes her choices, cursed as they seem to be, we come alongside her and sort through the patterns of our own life: our own bad decisions, our own best attempts at love, and our own path toward healing. 

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.

The Outer Layers

It seemed to her that he alone knew her whole life – he had known the foolish child that she had been under her father’s care, and he had known of her secret life with Erlend. So he was like a clasp, she thought, which bound everything she had loved to all that now filled her heart. She was now quite cut off from the person she had been – the time when she was a maiden.  – KRISTEN LAVRANSDATTER, pp 252-254

Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part. – PHILIP YANCEY 

I love the smell of our home in the late afternoon. The aroma of garlic and onions drifts down the hall to my study where I craft words on paper to my younger self – trails of cumin and cayenne – a pot of beans simmering in a broth of smoked turkey necks pulls me from the long ago summer fling I’m trying to parse into coherent sentences – our foolish bodies full of foolish agency – how I left a splinter in my foot the night we slow-danced outside, and the tiny sliver calloused, taking decades to heal – a souvenir I thought romantic at the time. 

After hours of writing, I resist hunger and charge out the door in my gray canvas work pants and pink flannel with pearl buttons and pockets. I walk the 765 steps of our wooded drive.  Back and forth. With purpose, broken sentences still rattling inside my head – shards and fragments – how I flung myself into risk, not heeding my mother’s warning about women in our family. If a man looks at us hard, we’ll get pregnant.  I sit next to an old growth yellow pine and lean against the thick bark, puzzled and flaking easily.  I inhale the tree’s faint vanilla. My domestic savory perfume cleaves to the forest’s own spiced balm.  

Broad leaves layer the ground, breathing old leather and whiskey, the gnarled trunks and vines and branches now visible in winter – curves and rot – suspended bony elegance – new contours to discover.  I kneel for neon blue mold spreading over a fallen branch, wine speckles of gall wasp nurseries.  

The original owners of this property planted bulbs in the early 70s. Each spring, multiple varieties of daffodil, crocus, and muscari burst through oak leaves.  I am still learning what the land needs here. I am still learning the topography of my own heart, ever shifting.  There are no lessons from the past – only a path to where I am now. 

I love walking toward our home at sunset and catching the scent of our kitchen in full bloom. I learn the animal shapes in the leaves along the way – snake and armadillo and the muddy tracks edging the pond – raccoon, deer, coyote. 

Dennis calls from the screen door. He steps outside, and I see his silhouette against an amber glow, the shape of his hands lifting a round thing in the air – a giant wafer. He lowers the disk and hops and dances.  “Come and get it!” he shouts. It’s cornbread – a crisp outer layer, pillowy warmth inside – a kind of earth in my mouth.  I know this for certain and run toward him as if the fading light behind this delicious food is possible to grasp.

I sometimes wear Dennis’s oversized down coat he bought decades ago at Burlington Coat Factory. This man who knows all my secrets – who is no monk – who delights in cast iron and cornbread. The coat’s zipper is broken. Just walking with it open is a comfort. I want to lay down in the forest with this coat and spend hours gazing into the canopy. I can do that. I have that kind of life now. 




Fat, wet snowflakes drop from the sky, and I realize there is no desire to contact the man who impregnated me when I was 18.  

Those tiny fists melt before they hit the ground.

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 

When The Earth Heaves A Sigh: A Craft Lesson In Description from Sigrid Undset

After I clicked save and sent off my sixty-second and final annotation for my MFA program, I swore I would never, ever write another. But here I am, seven years later, doing exactly that. FOR FUN. There’s a lot less pressure here though. For one, I don’t have to await the exacting critique of any brilliant mentor. But I’m grateful for all of those annotations and critiques—they made me a better reader, a reader who is also (almost) always a writer studying her craft.

In grad school, we got to choose most of the sixty-two books we read and wrote about, depending on our genre and specific interests. I mostly read travel writing because at that point in my life, all of my best stories and most transformative moments had happened while traveling, so that’s what I wanted to write about. I read some great travel writing during those two years and some pretty bad travel writing. I also wrote some good and not so good stuff of my own.

One thing I quickly learned about travel writing is the hazard of gratuitous description. This is true in any genre, but it’s a particularly easy pitfall when writing about a foreign or exotic place, a place you love and want to convince your reader to love as well. Every detail seems fascinating and vital, every adjective and adverb indispensable. Suddenly you’re swept away in a crush of unbridled scenery description—and pretty much nothing else. Like story or conflict or character development. Sort of just a long-winded postcard. So you have to be choosy, to kill your darlings—but great descriptions of place do more than paint a realistic picture. They multitask.  

Sigrid Undset could easily fall into the unrestrained description pit, writing about the natural splendor of her native Norway. I was captivated by her rich descriptive language from the outset, purely for its beauty: “On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds” (12).

This vivid description comes just a few pages into the novel’s first chapter, as young Kristin sets off with her father into the mountains. And here is where I first realized that Undset is up to something else in her lush descriptions. This sentence gives us a landscape to visualize, but it also sets the scene thematically. Details like golden-flamed, loomed, horizon, far off in the distance, merge with the clouds all contribute to the sense of vastness that Kristin discovers as she travels beyond her valley and village for the first time. Undset’s selection of detail creates an atmosphere the way music does in a film, putting the reader in the right mood for the story that will unfold. And at times, even putting us inside Kristin’s body and mind.

As I began to pay closer attention to Undset’s descriptions, I noticed something else. A good percentage of her chapters actually open with these types of multitasking landscape descriptions. The third section of The Wreath begins with the perfect example, as Kristin returns home to Jorundgaard from the convent after her family learns of her scandalous relationship with Erlend. It opens with another of Undset’s luscious descriptions of the landscape and season. Not all of Undset’s descriptions work double-time, but when they open a chapter, they nearly always relate directly to Kristin’s state of mind or hint at the direction the plot will turn.

So, in the first chapter of section three, Kristin comes home “during the loveliest time of spring,” consumed by her longing for Erlend:

Thin tendrils of water shone on the mountain slopes, which were shrouded in a blue mist day after day. The heat steamed and trembled over the land; the spears of grain hid the soil in the fields almost completely, and the grass in the meadows grew deep and shimmered like silk when the wind blew across it. There was a sweet scent over the groves and hills, and as soon as the sun went down, a strong, fresh, sharp fragrance of sap and young plants streamed forth; the earth seemed to heave a great sigh, languorous and refreshed (197).

Those mountains could have been wrapped instead of shrouded. That heat didn’t have to steam and tremble—there are plenty of other ways to describe heat. And a grassy meadow could just be a grassy meadow, but this one shimmers like silk. And with Undset’s pen, this earth heaves a sigh, and not just any sigh, but a languorous one. With that last flourish of personification, Undset has moved us from landscape to Kristin herself. Why just describe the scenery when the same words can also put the reader in a character’s lovesick body? The rest of the paragraph continues: “Trembling, Kristin remembered how Erlend had released her from his embrace. Every night she lay down, sick with longing, and each morning she awoke, sweating and exhausted from her own dreams” (197). In this masterful paragraph, Undset has made Kristin’s inner and outer landscape one.

Undset doesn’t always deliver such an immediate connection to her opening chapter description. Sometimes you have to wait for the reveal. Chapter three of this section, for example, begins with this chilly, foreboding description:

On this moonlit night the whole world was white. Wave after wave of white mountains arched beneath the bluish, washed-out sky with few stars. Even the shadows cast across the snowy surfaces by rounded summits and crests seemed strangely light and airy, for the moon was sailing so high. Down toward the valley the forest, laden white with snow and frost, stood enclosing the white slopes around the farms with intricate patterns of fences and buildings. But at the very bottom of the valley the shadows thickened into darkness (215).

This description is clearly not foreshadowing a happy plot turn. It sets the reader on edge—and wouldn’t you know it, by the end of the chapter, Erlend’s ex-mistress Eline is dead in a botched murder turned suicide. Undset’s chapter-opening descriptions have become something of a game for me, decoding them or anticipating whatever they may foretell for Kristin.

As a travel writer, I’m a sucker for good scene-setting, for evocative landscapes that transport you, for scrumptious nature writing that makes you shiver or sweat. But even the most stunning descriptions can grow tiresome, paragraphs you’re tempted to skip over to get back to the plot, unless there’s more at work than just a beautiful background. I don’t write fiction and I never plan to, but Undset has reinforced an important craft lesson. The next time I’m setting a scene, I’ll ask myself: How is this description contributing to the story? Could it do more? Could this be an Undset multitasking moment?

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.

Boobs Out On The Zoom: On Perfection, Goodness, and the Wild Body

Last Friday I nursed my baby in a staff meeting. I didn’t tell anyone, didn’t even turn off my camera. I tilted the computer so that they could see me from the neck up, settled my girl at my breast, and kept talking about enrollment numbers. Other than a little hand that sometimes crept up into the frame, there was no evidence of my daughter, or that I was doing anything but being attentive to my colleagues.

I reveled at this secrecy. It felt a little transgressive, a little wild, to be boobs-out on the Zoom.

Why didn’t I just turn off my camera? My colleagues are understanding and lovely people; they wouldn’t mind.

Keeping the camera on felt like a brush with playing at being a different person than I am. It’s the same feeling I used to get as an undergraduate when I took a shot of vodka and heard my mom’s voice telling me to be careful. The same feeling I get now when I don’t floss (I know, what age does to a person’s sense of risk, eh?).  It’s that thrill of not being obedient. Whether it’s the dental hygienist who will surely berate me for plaque buildup, or the colleagues who don’t know that my body has become a sly, bared presence in our meeting, an expectation is getting subverted. A line is being (tentatively, sort of gently) crossed.

Usually, I’m a people pleaser. I love to meet expectations. I love to exceed them. And sometimes, when I’m tired and can’t bring myself to care anymore, I like to go boobs-out on the Zoom.


The line has been going around and around in my head all week. You do not have to be good.

Mary Oliver’s famous poem “Wild Geese” echoes in my head at night when I’m wearily grading papers, or sending interview requests for an article I’m writing. Her words bite at me when I’m sweeping the floor, unloading the dishwasher, feeding my daughter mushy pears. When my son whines because he doesn’t have a scooter like the other kids at school, or snarls at me when I offer him an apple, or says Mommy I want another show instead of agreeing to watercolor with me, I hear Oliver, not quite berating, but admonishing a bit: You do not have to be good.

Meaning, stop. Meaning, who are you trying to impress. Meaning, give up being perfect, and snarl a little.

I let him watch a show. I don’t pitch a new article. I leave the dishes in the sink.

I return to the poem, with its loosening knot of expectations. Oliver begins,

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

The rhythm of the poem is what gets me: the double stress on not have. It feels like a pummeling, the way you might beat your fist against a table when really trying to make a point with someone you love who just isn’t getting it.

In Oliver’s poem, this line continues with the sensual, wild invocation to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. I read this and I think: I don’t love anything. I just want to fall to the ground and let my body become a pelt, discarded on the pine duff, a soft fur that other animals trod on. Then, passive, skinned, yielding, I can rest.

Look, I’m tired. I’m a burnt-out mother of two, working as a college writing instructor, freelancing, trying to publish poems, trying to be a good parent and partner. At some point in my 30s I realized I had too many ambitions. I wanted family, career, and writing. I wanted it all. I have managed to sort of have it, but at the cost of my sense of self. I’ve developed a sense of who I should be, and that woman does everything right. She is very good. She also definitely does not exist.


Kristin is not good in The Bridal Wreath. She is sinning, like, hard. I’m into it.

At first I had a mom reaction, or maybe an older sister reaction, to her decision to sleep with Erlend: girl, no. Naïve and sheltered, Kristin seems not to understand the risk of the tryst (try saying that three times fast). She thinks she’s in love, and I wondered if the relationship would hold up to her expectations. It seemed like any doomed affair for a 15-year-old, full of star-crossed unreality.

As the chapters progressed, though, I began to agree with her understanding of her own situation. Rather than feel guilty, she rejoices in her body’s decisions. She starts to look for imperfection in humanity around her. She sees that everyone around her has sinned. It doesn’t disgust her; that’s just how people are. She has this matter-of-fact understanding that all of us make mistakes, that sometimes those mistakes are deliberate and worthwhile. Brother Edvin tries to call her on this worldview, but I like that she dug in her heels. She’s crafting her own unique sense of morality, and I think her worldview is to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.

In The Garland, she tells Brother Edvin, “If I were to meet [Erlend] without here, when I go from you, and should he pray to go with him, I would go. I wot well, too, I have seen how there be other folks who have sinned as well as we…When I was a girl at home ‘twas past my understanding how aught could win such power over the souls of men that they could forget the fear of sin; but so much have I learnt now: if the wrongs men do through lust and anger cannot be atoned for, then must heaven be an empty place.”

What she’s saying is we’re all sinners. What she’s saying is sin matters, but that can’t be the only calculus. What of the body? What of love? What she’s saying is Meanwhile the world goes on.

Kristin’s formulation of her moral situation matters because she’s working within and at the same time contravening the expectations of her society. Sleeping with Erlend is clearly bad (not in my mind due to Kristin’s betrothal but because Erlend is, as another writer on this site so aptly described it, a fuckboy); but not sleeping with him is also, somehow, bad.

Kristin situation is very different than my own. She has transgressed a moral code in her religion and society; my only (imagined) transgression is not living up to my own expectations as mother, wife, and writer. Yet the ways in which those expectations are formed emerge intensely from my upbringing in a society that, like Kristin’s, expects women to be good.

Like Kristin, I live in a world in which goodness is an essential quality of womanhood, especially white womanhood. Kristin’s world was particularly obsessed with virginity and purity. Ours less so; female roles have shifted, although sexual practices remain quite a preoccupation. Adultery remains bad. Sleeping with someone before marriage might still be frowned upon, depending on your religious inclination, but it’s usually no longer a life-shattering sin.

I think the connection I’m making is about purity. In Kristin’s time, purity is associated with sex very explicitly. Nowadays we are pure about other things: our curated image on social media, or our political views. Kristin’s purity is a thing once lost, never regained; it can be justified with various workaround “we were married in the eyes of God” logic, but the sense of risk in the book is about spoilage. She is spoiled. One choice and her whole life can unravel.

For me that aligns it with the modern perfectionism that infuses womanhood. Depending on your own values and ethics, nowadays being good might mean being the perfect, loyal partner; or not rocking the boat when you disagree, choosing not to speak up with you get angry; or looking a certain way, having a certain body, performing a certain type of frenetic engaged parenthood. All this perfectionism feels dangerous. When women are obsessed with being good, we are not doing the things that matter to us, deep in our hearts. We are just ticking the boxes.

Is goodness when I rock my baby to sleep, singing her into the dreamworld, and don’t worry about the piles of papers to grade, or the unwritten essays? When I devote myself solely to her? Is badness when I put her down and let her cry herself to sleep because I am too tired and have a poem to write?

How do I know what it good? And maybe what is good — (did you judge me, just a little, when I said I let the baby cry herself to sleep? Because I judged myself) — maybe what is good is not what is obedient. That’s the crux I keep arriving at, that my body keeps resisting: that being good means holding onto an innate sense of ethical conduct, rather than just following the rules. When one has that definition of goodness in mind, being good can feel a lot like being bad.

It seems to be me that Kristin has an innate sense of ethics and rightness, which she feels out in her encounters with other people, verbally and intellectually with Brother Edvin and her father Lavrans; physically and emotionally with Erlend. If by goodness, Kristin’s society means following the rules and expectations, then she is not good. She is a fallen woman, a sinner. If by goodness, Kristin means following her internal compass, then she is pursuing a path that will lead her to happiness and confident selfhood (but also, not a very good marriage).

Lady Asahild is Kristin’s role model of such selfhood. Clearly she is one of the most noble characters in the book. She’s graceful, radiant, thoughtful, good. And yet she’s exiled to a small farm because of her illicit relationship and suspected of witchcraft.  She forms the model of a woman who has defied societal expectation and instead found true, innate ethical conduct. This reflects in her bearing, demeanor, and ageless beauty (because of course it does, good people are never ugly, not in books).

Is it that easy? We can choose exile from society and find contentment within? No, Undset doesn’t think so, and I don’t either. For women in medieval society and for women now, it’s never that easy. Society’s expectations of us are too intertwined with our expectations of ourselves. What I love about Kristin’s journey right now is how delicately and defiantly she unpicks that knot.

Kristin’s own mother explodes the definition of goodness in the final scene of The Bridal Wreath. Of course we’ve been expecting this revelation, if we’ve been following the subtle clues, but the revelation that she slept with other men prior to and even during the early part of her marriage shocks nevertheless. It also feels like a relief. “I mind me how you judged of Erlend Nikulaussön,” Ragnfrid tells Lavrans. “How judge you of me, then —?”

I loved this moment. Ragnfrid is chiding her husband for holding human beings to an impossible standard, a code that denies passion and love and lust. And yet the dash at the end of this line is where I imagine Ragnfrid’s uncertainty creeps in. Even as she asserts a definition of goodness — or perhaps not goodness, but perhaps grace, forgiveness, compassion, which comprise a fuller understanding of human behavior that simply being good — her voice breaks. She is afraid. Because her life is tied up financially and practically in her husband’s, and we cannot live outside of our relationships with other people. Her decisions ripple outside her own self. Just as Kristin cannot sleep with Erlend in secret and have it remain secret; eventually, a pregnancy will bring their decision to public view. Human behavior erupts into society and transgresses or aligns with the collectively decided social mores and rules. We cannot all live on an isolated farm and be self-sufficient. Some of us have to figure out how to be good among others — and for Ragnfrid, the goodness of letting herself experience love has meant betraying someone else she cares about.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

And her husband, who is a good person, can somehow see that conflict in his wife and honor it. He values religious definitions of sin, but he also values his family above all else.

What Kristin teaches me this month is about another type of value: the value of letting go of those codes we’ve grown up with, or perhaps adjusting them to fit into the soft folds of our bodies, the coiled soft plaits of our hair. Perhaps watching those codes mold themselves around our bodies, rather than forcing our bodies around the rules in rigid strictures. What Kristin teaches me is that while I’m stressing about discipline and nap schedules and my next essay, meanwhile, the world moves on. That is an invitation, I think, to loosen the whalebone corsets of goodness, and take a deep breath.

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.

A poem for Eline, mistress of Erlend, mother of Orm and Margret

By Megan Willome

Acquainted with Eline

after Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night

I was a woman. I am a martyr.
My shroud held tight inside her cross.
I did not come to Haugen to barter.

No saint: I am an albatross.
My splendid body, he used, no longer wants.
My death, not hers. My children, her loss.

On her wedding day I came to haunt.
Cast off the stones they laid me under.
I knew the signs: her pale face gaunt.

After that is it any wonder
my big, hard eyes grew only darker,
Fastened on her, pulled her under.

The way of a mistress is so much harder. 
I was a woman. I am a martyr.