My best friend recently got married. I was Matron of Honor (or Best Woman, as the bride and I both prefer). Cindy and I have been friends for thirteen years, almost half our lifetime, and I know her better than many. Helping her plan things from half a world away was difficult, but she managed, and I helped most in the two weeks before the wedding when I flew back to California to deal with the details.
Her wedding was exquisite. Absolutely one-of-a-kind. For the last several years she has worked for an architecture firm doing space planning, a job that required all of her artistic ability and attention to detail. She brought those skills to the crafting of her wedding, too. Every element was handmade, plucked from her imagination. And in keeping with the spirit of making everything one-of-a-kind, when she asked me to do a reading in the ceremony, she also asked that I write it myself. I did. What I wrote came to me easily because it is precisely how I feel true, lasting love begins, grows, and endures in real life. I watched it in Cindy and her husband, Brad. I've seen in happen in the lives of many of my other friends, too. And I've lived it with my own husband, Jonathan.
It was Jonathan who stole my heart and made me realize that, while marriage done wrong can be an archaic institution which disenfranchises women in favor of maintaining a damaging patriarchy, when done right, it is also full of potential for fun, support, adventure, and peace. Together we're focusing on maintaining our own as the latter.
Love is all in the look.
The first glance is sidelong.
Is she pretty? Does he have kind eyes?
A quick glimpse is all you need to answer
these questions. But love requires more.
The second glance across the room
is more daring. You will her to look up.
You want to catch him rather than
to be caught yourself. Staring.
Over dinner you look deeper. Does he
prefer dogs or cats? What is her favorite
ice cream flavor? And deeper. What is this
woman's dream? What is this man's passion?
After a while, you feel comfortable enough
to look away from each other. Back to the world.
What do they think of you? How do you look
standing there side by side?
But you soon realize the appearance doesn't
matter. It is what he sees in you, what has
piqued her interest, which really counts.
You seek it, digging for the foundation
of your attraction, and along the way you
discover flaws. She may be quick to anger.
He may not be apt to listen.
But because this is a path to true love,
you take the time to look again.
And you see in the flaws the potential
of your own best self. He is eternally patient.
She knows how to give you your space.
Now, when you look at one another,
you see everything. The children you were.
The young people you are. The man and
woman you aspire to be. Best of all, you
want to be there to see it all unfold together.
So you join hands before this alter,
in front of your families and friends,
and seal your love with rings and a kiss.
And so-joined you turn again,
bound by name and vow, and stand
shoulder to shoulder, anew.
From that place and time you look
down the road, the one that winds out
away from this day of declaration.
It shines with optimism. But you know,
because you've seen others walk it,
that the journey will take both luck and effort.
And you're more than willing to begin.
Because now you have a partner, a playmate,
a confidante, a darling. You're looking
the same way and you're hoping
for the same things.
He will look after your heart as long as it is beating,
and she will look after your soul so long as it remains.
And love, true love, is all in that look.
I know how hard it can be to find something to read in a wedding that isn't 1 Corinthians 13 or a poem that nobody in the audience will get. If you come across this piece in your hunt for the perfect ceremony reading as a Maid of Honor, Matron of Honor, Bridesmaid, Friend of the Bride, and you'd like to use it... Please do! I'd be honored. Post a comment and let me know how it goes for you!
On September 22, Jonathan and I joined the rest of Oslo in celebrating the Autumnal Equinox. We followed the crowds down to the Akerselva River walk in Grünerløkka, and snapped photos all along the way. Night lowered itself over the city, flooding the winding river canal with shadows. Colorful light installations glowed at every other turn. We saw fairies, giant mushrooms, an enormous dragon kite leering from behind a building in vicious shades of pink and orange. We stuffed our hands deeper into our pockets and walked slowly with everyone else. There was muffled laughter and catcalling in Norwegian, all of it made somehow more sinister by the darkness and the otherworldly images around us.
Several different small choirs had gathered to sing traditional songs. Their breath puffed white as they sang. We stopped for waffles and jam at a stand near a bridge. The pastry was hot through the napkin and warmed our hands, though just for a moment.
All of the color and fluid light, candle flames dancing in the windows, reminded me of why I love this season so much. It's the spirit of the people, children beginning anew at school in spite of the way the natural world is drawing itself to an end, young people dancing in pairs and trios, stretching their mouths carelessly around every lyric, and old people standing back, wrapped in the wisdom of their experience, considering the minor beauties of this time from a place most mindful and most appreciative.
Recently in Norwegian class, Jonathan and I learned a new verb: å glede seg. It means to look forward to, or to anticipate. So what am I anticipating this season?
Baking pumpkin bread.
Mom passed along her scrumptious pumpkin bread recipe to me the moment I asked for it. It was the fall of 2005. I'd been married a full year and hadn't baked a thing in my new kitchen. She came over and walked me through the recipe, swiping the flour flat in the measuring cup, scooping the pumpkin goop from the can into the bowl, and showing me how I should err on the side of extra with the cinnamon.
Since then I have baked it several times each autumn. Here in Oslo, though, a single can of pumpkin costs something around $12. Pumpkin bread will be a luxury for us here, but as the days retract into darkness and the cold wind forces us to close our windows tight, I look forward to pulling golden-brown loaves from the oven and letting the scent of cinnamon, cloves, and pumpkin fill the flat.
Piles of leaves.
Walking in the fall is more fun than it is any other time of the year. The sidewalks are covered in a deep, crunchy blanket of leaves, brightly colored and dry and light as air. Every step kicks up a few so that they tumble into new piles around me. If I move fast enough, they whirl a bit in my wake. I like to stand on our street when the wind begins to blow just to watch the yellow and red leaves in the trees release their hold on the branches and take their fluttering, circuitous journey downward and into my path.
Sweaters & scarves.
Here the wardrobe change has happened quicker than I'm used to. In California I would wear sweaters from November through the beginning of March. In Oslo, sweaters are necessary from the beginning of October all the way into April. The thick woolens feel soft against my skin. I layer a scarf around my neck, swirling and tying it so that it protects me from the cold fingers of the wind. I am wearing overcoats and rain coats. Soon I'll be pulling on a parka! But for now, I'm excited to be reunited with all my colorful sweaters.
Our last perfect weather day was last Thursday. I took the bus to Lysaker to drop something at Jonathan's office and afterward I took a walk.
The water gulped against the wood and stone side of the pier below me. I was thirty feet up on a flat, grassy space between several buildings, glass and concrete exteriors housing posh condos with an extensive view of the fjord. Four men sat at the end of the pier, fishing poles aloft, tackle swinging and blinking in the sunlight. A small yacht was moored there, too, but all I could see were the long white masts and the smart red and blue flag.
There was quiet except for the scuttled chasings of two yellow-billed magpie. They swirled against each other, so close I could see the teal patches on their wings. They snickered and hopped back into the short hedges nearby. I watched them for a while and then bowed my head to read and scribble in the margins of my book. Everyone once in a while I took a sip of my lemon soda.
These days I favor my lemonades and sodas flavored with citron. It is a flavor I will forever associate with this time in my life - perfect days when the words had all the time in the world to conceive themselves in my mind and come to me.
More than one perfect day has been squandered since my arrival in Norway, of course. My cup runneth over with time and dreams coming true; my cup is so full that some time and dreams have been lost. I cannot mourn them now, though. There is too much to record. I am a journalist as much as I am a poet.
Last night our Norwegian instructor asked about our hobbies.
"Jeg skriver... poems," I said, because I've been writing poetry again, but I lacked the correct word for poems.
"Dikt," he said.
"Dikt. Du skriver dikt," he said, chortling behind his answer. "Liker ikke du det? Hvorfor ikke?" You don't like it? Why not?
"Nei! Jeg liker ikke det! Fordi... Because that's a terribly ugly word for something as pretty as a poem!"
To soften the blow he added that the Norwegian word for poet is also poet, and the word for poetry is poesi. Now that's more like it.
So I record these bits of language that keep my life so interesting in this Nordic land. I record the weather, the street names, the tragedies, the carnivals. I have a responsibility to the page, and that truth, as esoteric as it is, keeps my pen moving, especially on the perfect days.
I paused in my scribbling last Thursday to watch as a motor boat cut a curve in the water and turned back on its own wake to thump its stern against the waves. My lemonade was pale yellow and only half full. The skinny, triangular Norwegian flag atop the yacht's mast nearby curled and unfurled at turns in the breeze. The sun warmed my back, and I wrote:
This is the stuff of my life, and as long as I can put it down in ink, my heart may be at peace.
I will be haunted by John Haines's The Stars, the Snow, the Fire for many years to come. The ease (or grace) with which he handled the brutality of hunting and trapping lulled me into a deceptive calm, but his imagery was too graphic to pass by without a reaction. However, his essay Ice was one I read over and over, not because it was violent, though that brand of his writing was present, but because there was a certain rhythm to the storytelling in Ice that made me want to read it again, deeper, slower, searching for something, a rhythm generated by the way he related time and space.
Many of his essays are told from the here and now, a bold tense. Ice is no different. Haines begins by dropping the reader to her hands and knees in the snow to find the places "away from the sun, in ravines and hollows where the ground is normally wet." In these places, "the soil has darkened and is hard and cold to the touch. The deep, shaded mosses have stiffened, and there are tiny crystals of ice in their hairy spaces" (Haines, 126). Every word generates a sensory experience. I can see, feel, even smell these dark places.
Haines snaps from that sequence to thoughts of the river. The heavy frost reminds him that the river is changing. "The sound of that water, though distant, comes strong and pervasive over the dry land crusted with snow: a deep and swallowed sound, as if the river had ice in its throat" (Haines, 126). He takes "the steep path downhill to the riverbed" and stands at the shoreline where, "Free of its summer load of silt, the water is clear in the shallows, incredibly blue and deep in the middle of the channel... Here where the current slackens and deepens, the water is heavy and slow with ice, with more ice and more ice" (Haines, 127). With all her senses, the reader is deep in the present tense.
Which is why Haines moves suddenly to a recollection of the past, the way memories come to all of us. Memories are sparked by a sound, a scent, even the feel of a certain material against the skin. In this case, the color of the water and the smell of the ice remind Haines of "past years when [he] came to a channel much like this one, in mid-October with only an inch or two of snow on the gravel bars, to fish for salmon" (Haines, 128). He describes the way he "watched for the glowing red and pink forms of salmon on their way upriver in the last run of the season, "and then the way his gaffing hook "made a nasty gash in the side of the salmon, and fish blood soon stained the snow where [he] piled them, one by one" (Haines, 128). That memory reminds him what it felt like to be part of "something grand and barbaric in that essential, repeated act... a feeling intensified, made rich by the smell of ice and cold fish-slime, by the steely color of the winter sky, and the white snow stained with the redness of the salmon: the color of death and the color of winter" (Haines, 128).
Still Life. Stopping before Cezanne's painting, I see exactly what there is to see. A rough-hewn table. Burnished fruits rolling off a solid white plate. The shining curve of a wine glass, empty. Curtains folded back into a thick darkness. A window or wall. And a pitcher painted with flowers.
Of course, this painting on the wall of Oslo's National Gallery isn't Cezanne's only work titled "Nature Morte." He painted this scene or one quite like it many times, over and over again. And even though I took Art History classes in college, I couldn't have begun to tell you why. Until yesterday.
Last semester, I had the opportunity to work with author Jane Brox. Even though I received sound, encouraging feedback on each of my submissions to her, I still felt that I was struggling. Of course, I had to meet my deadlines with her while living in an empty house in California (all of my possessions were on a cargo ship somewhere on the Atlantic), missing Jonathan (who had moved to Oslo ten weeks ahead of me), and then I had to find the time to write, revise, and submit one last time while making the final move overseas. I pulled it off, but barely, and I was thrilled when summer came and I had a break.
Jane saw me through those tumultuous few months. She handled every submission with care, and when I received her critiques by mail, I read them hungrily. Two or three times. She has a way of putting her finger through the pulse to the true heartbeat of any problem. Or, as she's more generous than I am with my work, I'll say she found a way to outline the foundational "challenge" I was facing when it came to my writing.
Yesterday I pulled out her critiques again, and today I pulled the following quote from one of those critiques and took it to heart:
"In a way, yours is the challenge of the still life painter, who places before her a mortar and pestle, a ceramic bowl, a few onions, and a copper pot to paint. If the painter sees only those objects as physical things to be painted and nothing else, then the painting can't really go beyond the realm of an exercise. But painters like Chardin or Cezanne or Morandi saw something more in the objects they set before themselves to paint: the objects in front of them and the ideal. They brought to the canvas particular ideas about shape and form and color and perception that infused their work. They spent countless hours arranging the objects so as to give the whole specific shape and form and flow. These things might not be apparent to the casual observer but they are apparent to anyone who really looks at the work. They were painting the objects and they were painting much more than the objects at the same time."
This is my first fall in Oslo. I have no idea what to expect. When I arrived here in mid-April I was treated to a beautiful spring, lots of daylight, lots of yellow flowers, signs in every window reading God Påske! (Happy Easter!). I was prepared for chilly wind and rain, but I was pleasantly surprised. Soon I was wearing shorts (ripped cutoffs like the rest of the local girls) and tying my hair back. I even found time to lay out on blankets in the sun, not that you could tell as my skin remained pale as the moon.
Spring gave way to an exuberant summer. The heat shocked me! For several days at a time temperatures would hover in the high twenties (Celcius... so, in the mid to high eighties Fahrenheit). Our rooftop apartment was sweltering. No air conditioning. No screens for the windows. Seriously, Scandinavians don't do the whole window/door screen thing! As I sat at my desk with my laptop, my sweaty fingers slipping off the keys, I took comfort in knowing that, if the writing thing didn't work out for me, I could always fall back on my entrepreneurial instincts and make a killing in the screen biz.
Apparently Oslo experienced record rainfall this summer. We saw a few storms come through. It even hailed a couple times. I listened to it drum down on the metal roof of our flat and watched the bits of white ice roll down into the gutters. But to be frank, I'd kept my expectations very low when it came to weather in Norway.