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

Hail, Halfrid

One thing Kristin is spectacularly bad at is forming friendships with other women. This separation from those who could help her leaves her defenseless when she is most in need. But there is one woman she never meets who does her an incalculable service: Halfrid, the first wife of Kristin’s betrothed, Simon. 

Poor Halfrid gets a total of four pages in chapter 5, “Husaby,” from The Wife. We learn she was wealthy and highborn but sickly. She was generous to Simon when he slept with her maid and got the woman pregnant—she even allowed the child to live in their home. She must have been happy to have a son because her first husband beat her so badly that she had trouble bringing a pregnancy to term. Her son with Simon died quickly, as did she, after childbirth.

And then Halfrid disappears from the narrative for more than 100 pages, until she is referred to in chapter 7 of “Erlend Nikulausson,” from The Wife, in a conversation between Simon and Erling Vidkunsson. (Since his name is so similar to Erlend’s, I’ll call him Vito.)

Vito has red hair and blue eyes. He’s a knight, and he’s rich. He and Erlend are the same age and are even distant kinsman. But Erlend dislikes Vito, saving for him his harshest criticism: Vito is boring. Not surprisingly, Vito doesn’t care much for Erlend.

But it is Vito who saves Erlend’s life. Because of Halfrid. Because Simon dares to do a good thing.

The only reason Simon is allowed to see Erlend in prison is because he is friends with the judge, from his Halfrid-days. Eventually Simon realizes only one man might convince the king to free Erlend: That man is Vito. 

But Vito has no interest in helping Erlend. Only Simon can change his mind, and the way he does it is by bringing up Halfrid to Vito. 

Halfrid loves Vito—she confesses this to Simon shortly before she dies. And Vito loves Halfrid. They love each other when her abusive first husband caused her to miscarry, but Halfrid doesn’t want to leave him and tempt Vito away from his own marriage. They continue to love each other after that man’s death, when she marries some other fellow: She marries Simon. 

Vito has no respect for Simon, who betrays his true love by sleeping with her maid. And yet here, at Halfrid’s gravesite, is when Halfrid’s name appears five times in four pages, as this woman “better than the purest gold” turns the fortunes of Kristin and Erlend.  

Vito will not intervene for Erlend’s sake. He will not do it for Simon’s sake. He won’t even do it for Kristin’s sake, who he likes even though she has a past.

VITO: “When she met Erlend she was already betrothed, that much I know.”

SIMON: “Yes, she was betrothed to me.”

Vito will do it for Halfrid’s sake—the woman he could never have. So, in effect, Halfrid saves Erlend and Kristin without saying a word. That’s why I wrote a poem for her.

It follows the pattern of a hymn to the Virgin Mary called Hail, Mary, Gentle Woman. (It opens with the Hail Mary, so the hymn doesn’t really start until the words “Gentle Woman”). Rest in peace, dear friend Kristin never knew she had. 

Hail, Halfrid, Silent Woman

    after “Hail, Mary, Gentle Woman” by Carey Landry

Chorus

Silent woman

Wealthy wife

Lovely gowns

Gentle eyes

Sweetest mouth

Weak of womb

Sickly breath

Early tomb

Verse

You chose honor — not to be happy 

For your name means stable home

Your first husband stole your beauty

And the next was bound to roam

Verse

Steady were you, when he betrayed you

Kindness were you, to his child

Radiant were you, when was born a baby

And in death, full reconciled

Verse

All night long you spoke in whispers

From a heart much purer than gold

Never knew you saved a rebel

Only knew the peace of God

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.

Summer Reading for K-Lav and Crew

Of course the Caldecotts and the Newberys, the Pulitzers and those other titles you find and love that don’t fit into any award at all aren’t going to solve the problems of Kristin and everyone in her life, but I kind of want to take a few of them by the hand (others I’d like to yank by their shirt collar), lead them to a library where it’s quiet, and smells like words, sit them down and say, “Here. Read this. Or let me read it to you.”

Here are some books I wish a few of the characters in Kristin Lavransdatter knew about:

For Kristin:

  • Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith — This story follows Ivy Rowe through her letters to others, beginning at age 12. It is charming and honest. Kristin would find a kindred spirit in the passionate Ivy, who, even though I read about her almost 20 years ago, I cannot get out of my head.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson — Here is a memoir told in poetry, and Woodson does for South Carolina and New York City what Undset does for Norway. I also think Kristin would learn or at least wonder about a thing or two regarding her mother’s story after reading about Woodson’s mom.
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo — A modern day Eve story, and one where she comes to terms with what it is she desires, how she sees the world, and what she wants to do it in. I think Kristin would have a hard time with this story, which is why I think she ought to read it.

For Ragnfrid:

  • Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner — I hesitate to use the word “luxury” in regards to having a crisis of faith (mostly because I’m terrified of Lauren Winner), but to be able to express it, to be able to create something from that experience, is an opportunity Ragnfrid didn’t have. Lauren’s words would have helped Ragnfrid’s words — perhaps they would’ve given Ragnfrid language to try on and see that she is (still and always) so lovingly held.
  • A Place to Live by Natalia Ginzburg — A series of essays exploring home, where one finds oneself at home, motherhood, and writing. I love how honestly Ginzburg handles and reveals herself, and it is something I can relate to. Ginzburg shows it is the expression of doubt that leads to faith.

For Lavrans:

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz — A story about two boys who are best friends, and so obviously in love with each other but one does not realize it while the other one does. I’m not saying Lavrans would’ve read this and said, “Oh. OH, so THAT’S what’s going on with me.” Probably he wouldn’t, but I think the story is so powerfully written that I believe it would open up a possibility that love knows no boundaries, no matter what it is we do to build them.
  • True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff — A novel told in a series of poems, here is a story exploring faith and love and what it means to believe.
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy — I’m actually relieved Lavrans isn’t a real person because I’m afraid if he were, and he read this book, it might kill him. I could barely stand to read about John Cole who felt so out of place in the world but loved it so — I just don’t know if Lavrans could handle it. Still, I recommend it, and suggest he read it with a strong drink and a notebook.

For Erlend:

  • All the Harry Potter books because dude legit needs an adventure. I’d tell him to pay close attention to Ron Weasley.
  • On that same note, Erlend would (pardon the pun) devour Justin Cronin’s trilogy: The Passage, The Twelve, and City of Mirrors. These are the scariest books I’ve ever read, filled with complicated characters I didn’t want to love. I would suggest Erlend read them with a friend and discuss frequently.
  • Into the Wild by John Krakauer — One summer I decided I was going to read all the Oprah books, and was annoyed when this title popped up on the list. I think I was 25 when I walked into the downtown South Bend Public Library, held the book in my hands and read the blurb about Chris McCandless selling all he had and driving to Alaska where he dies because he ate the wrong kind of berry. “Why would I read this?” I thought wishing Oprah had picked another Maeve Binchy book. But I read it, and the book left an imprint on me so much so that when I finished it in a Barnes and Noble (Chris would hate Barnes and Noble, and don’t even get me started on what he’d say about Amazon), I immediately wrote John Krakauer telling him how much I loved his book. He wrote me back — handwritten, too. I still have the postcard.

For Simon:

Guys, Simon gets on my last nerve. He makes me nervous every time he enters a scene. I admit I probably get invested in stories beyond what is good for me, but I take it personally that Lavrans thinks of Simon as God’s gift to, well, everything. He’s that guy who sweet talks his way into getting a hall pass when he ditched chemistry (actually, it probably would’ve been something in the humanities), or the preppy politician who smells too much of Binaca. He doesn’t fool me, and I want to give him a book to read for punishment. Leviticus, maybe? I know that wouldn’t work though, so how about these:

  • About A Boy by Nick Hornby — Simon needs a book about a super cool guy who doesn’t know it, or won’t admit it, but is lost and is too afraid to be vulnerable until someone comes along and gives him the strength to change. I think this book would confuse Simon at first, but maybe if someone read it to him he would enjoy the story. Or, he could watch the movie, first.
  • Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen — I’ve not met a boy or a girl who doesn’t love this book, and I think it’s because the story is told in alternating chapters by Bryce and Juli. It is eye-opening to see how differently they see one event, as well as how their perspective about the other person shifts and changes. I need Simon to think about someone else besides Simon, and I think this book will help.
  • There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar — I was hesitant to read this with Hadley and Harper years ago, because I thought it was going to be predictable and shallow (shows how open-minded I am), but this is a book with a main character who is so utterly loveable, I am grateful the girls and I could spend some time in his life. Plus, there are some parts that are so funny we had to put the book down because we were all laughing so hard. Come to think of it, every one of these characters would do well to laugh, so maybe all of them should read this book.

I don’t think the point of a story is to solve a problem, anyway. I’m not interested in the point of things these days, and especially in July. I’m interested in trying to hold still when the undertow of Lake Michigan tugs at my ankles, and I’m interested in letting go and sliding into the water. I’m interested in the tang of nostalgia I taste when I pop blueberries into my mouth or bite into a white peach. I’m interested in shifting myself on a beach towel so the curves of the sand hug the curves and hollows of my body and I close my eyes, and I settle myself somewhere different for a little while.

Happy Summer Reading to you all.

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.

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: Queer Cowboy

For five years I listened to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, in which Vanessa
Zoltan and Casper ter Kuille read through all seven books, one chapter at a time. Casper, who is gay, invited listeners to consider where queerness might be hidden in the pages — not to place a stake in the ground where the author has not done so, but to be open to possibilities the author never imagined.


After reading this month’s selection, I was cleaning the kitchen and listening to Willie Nelson
sing “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the gay cowboy anthem. And as I
listened, I could not shake thoughts of Lavrans Bjorgulfson.


Sigrid Undset wrote the three books that make up Kristin Lavransdatter in the 1920s. The books are set in 14th century Norway, and when men do have secret fondness for other men, the characters condemn those feelings in the harshest of tones. I don’t think Lavrans likes men, but there is something about him that deeply puzzles me.


He had never loved anyone.” Lavrans is the most pious person in the story, but his fasts don’t
seem to give him the freedom he longs for. I’m not talking about a specific secret sin that
Lavrans feels guilt over, but perhaps something quieter and stranger:


Why was he never able to love his wife the way she wished to be loved? “He had not
been able to
.”


Why did he not consider loving his friend’s wife, who he had thought of from time to
time? “He could have loved someone too.”


Why was he so happy serving as a soldier in the company of men? “War … it had been a
joy, but there was no more war; his armor was hanging up in the loft, seldom used
.”


Why was he such a good father to his daughters? “But the young ones in the nest … they
had been the little warm spot in his desolation, the most profound and sweetest pleasure
of his life
.”


Why did he feel so at home in the forest, among the wild animals? “Then he found that
he thrived best out in the wilderness—up on the mountain plateaus, where every living
creature demands wide-open space, with room enough to flee
.”


All these quotes come from the scene immediately following Kristin’s wedding, when Lavrans
and Ragnfrid become each other’s confessors. It’s devastating.


From this low point, they begin again — a new love between two old souls, married so young.
Their last scenes together are quite tender. Lavrans even gives her a new ring, gold with a blue
and white stone, and forbids her to give it to their daughters. As Kristin sits by her father’s
bedside while he dies, she comes to know a bit of this change in her parents:

Kristin knew that her father loved her no less than before. But she had never noticed
until now that he loved her mother.”

And not until after her father passes away, when she and her mother have their first and only
heart-to-heart in the whole novel, does she come to understand something of her parents’ love, the love of what Lavrans calls “faithful friends.” It’s a love that lays side by side in the dark, “their arms touching each other. After a moment they laced their fingers together.” That’s all.


I don’t have a label for Lavrans, this man I can picture taking care of his livestock, especially his beloved horses. In my imagination he wears pressed Wranglers and a Resistol and knows every living creature from here to the border. He never misses church. He’s had a lot of sorrows, but you wouldn’t know that to talk with him over a Shiner and brisket. He’s good to that wife of his. He loves those daughters. Fella throws one helluva party on holidays. He carves real nice too.


But he is kinda queer.


What the River Laag Sang

He was a foreigner
come to Norway to make his fortune

He was a soldier
St. Thomas heard his wounded cry

He was a father
three boys, three girls, countless fosters

He was a storyteller
knew the entire troll lineage (or made it up)

He was a horseman
the love of his life — training colts

He was a husband
too young, too strange to love

He was a landowner
his word, respected by men

He was a follower of Christ
observed every fast
kept the forgotten creed
turned five white stones into a cross
carried the crucifix out of the fire
let the Savior’s sad face console him

He did not love his wife
— not until the end —
not the way he loved the wilderness
the forest-dwellers
all that lives unseen but
sung in the roar of the River Laag

Pilgrimage

When Kristen confesses her sins to her parish priest, she is given what seems to be an impossibly harsh sentence. She must walk barefoot to St. Olav’s shrine, and she must bring her infant son Nikulaus along. 

As Kristen shuffles along the path, her son bound to her chest, an unexpected peace fills the story. Sure it’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. She’s tired, he’s hungry. They falter a bit. But her forward momentum feels like a breath of fresh air after the claustrophobic guilt, regret, and fear that have marked her early days at Husaby.

The mood of this pilgrimage called to mind early days with my own infant son, in the summer of 2020. We walked a lot. We had little else to do. I was struggling with some pretty bad insomnia, with the isolation of the early pandemic, struggling to breastfeed. Just…struggling. But we still walked, all the time.

Before Lee was born, several friends loaned me those long, scarf-style baby wraps, but I was always too afraid about tying the knots, afraid that Lee would just slip out somehow. So, I ended up ordering a carrier that looked more like a padded harness, that flipped up in one motion, and buckled around my chest. I came to love that thing, sometimes spending nearly half the day with Lee snuggled down close to me. When I see that carrier now, hanging in the back of our coat closet, I still feel a quick wash of relief, as if we’re just about to step back out for some fresh air, before I remember that my tiny bean of a baby has turned into a truly gigantic two-year-old.

Here is a poem about one of our many early walks around the neighborhood:  

We could always walk, even
on the worst days. That morning
the sun came up and I still
hadn’t slept and you crowed
your sweet little crow to ask
what we would do with ourselves, so I strapped
you to my chest, put on my mask,
took Advil, poured coffee in the thermos, 
trudged up the hill, to watch the sun wash 
across that vacant lot full of native plants slated to be cut down
to build another mansion, and past that, 
to the park with the view of the city.

We moved in a bleary cloud of wonder. All night
I’d lay there, expectant, trusting 
that night would end.

So many things I’d thought to be
impossible were coming true. 

Everything closed to us, 
even the air contagious. But your soft 
breath against my chest, your fuzzy head,
your grumbling a bit
then nodding off again, so easily, 
the comfort of you relaxed against me,
the two of our bodies so recently
one body. I walked on, and with each step
the sky grew brighter.

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.

Only A Small Witch

Only A Small Witch

a poem in Fru Aashild’s voice

by Megan Willome

I’m a witch, but a small one, straight

as a candle. The girl with wise eyes—wait—

she saw the elf maiden, went to investigate

Yes, she’ll do.

When trouble came to Haugen, I did not refuse

But met it in my dark-blue dress, silver-buckled shoes

Kristin helped me churn milk since we couldn’t snooze

She did it.

I dug my nails into her bridal hand

To steady her, already pale with child, stunned

By the dark and light shadows where she stood

She’ll do it all again.

As much as I could, I healed her sister,

Healed neighbors, healed daughters and mothers,

Disregarded their whispers

I’d do it again.

I killed a man: my husband, the Boar

With the man who is now my husband, the Bear

Holding me in his arms, there, on the floor

Somehow we did it.

The Bear broke my heart with his knife

Our corpses ignored by rats and mice

Our spirit roamed free as they didn’t in life

He did it.

Eventually to Haugen they returned again

How Erlend could withstand such wind

(It always blows at Haugen) but not Kristin

Well, they did it.

After death I still had a little magic

Entrusted it to a child in a panic

Who found Kristin, and put a stop to the tragic

She dared to do the thing, right or not.

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.

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.