Before Willa Cather died in 1947, she specifically requested that none of her personal correspondence ever be published or even quoted from. Executors of her estate have adhered to that personal request ever since. Until now. Roughly 500 of Cather's estimated 3,000 letters will be published shortly, and are set to answer long-time questions about Cather's life, including her sexuality and her literary relationships. I'm fascinated, but conflicted.
Reading the personal correspondence of writers I admire is always a treat. It's a raw look at their personalities and belief systems. It's a chance to see something closer to a first draft. Without editors or publishers or even an audience to worry about, how does Hemingway think? How does O'Connor express her emotions? To say nothing of revelations about characters and stories limited to the public by the words The End. Fans want to know whether somewhere, deep in the gray matter, their favorites live on.
But what of privacy?
This blog and the girl behind it are part of an exhibitionist culture which has only grown over the last decade, fueled by Facebook and Twitter.
Today, people take photos of their breakfasts and post them for the world to see. Eggs and bacon frying in a pan look like eggs and bacon frying in a pan. But one hit with the Instagram stick, and you've got yourself something closer to art. Breakfasts and lunches and dinners and midnight snacks clog the arteries of the internet.
Then there are my personal favorites: Status updates and photos of failed attempts at potty training.
I unfollowed my favorite professional athlete the other day because her younger son didn't make it to his potty on time, and all 126,000 followers got to see the result. We're talking number two. When I peruse my news feed, I don't want to hear about (or see!) other people's adventures with excrement. Either from their animals or their little children. Unlike.
But then again...
Sulfur taints the air at first breath. A thousand decaying things. The ground is dry and yellow, cracked and caked with mineral deposits, covered with the solid, round clusters of animal scat. It is a hellscape. Mud pots belch and splash off the edges of the boardwalk. Gray-brown mud hot enough to boil. The sun blazes down on the bare crowns of our heads. I envy by brothers their white-blond buzz-cuts. My dark hair saturates with sun, hot as fire. My palm recoils at the slightest touch. Believe it or not, I belong here. Where the sky seems inflated; where the buffalo roam. Fumaroles wheeze steam from the angry bowels of the earth. I imagine the superheated rocks far beneath the crust, glowing like coals. This is where Hades might break through, the world's weakest point, if he wanted to make an appearance. If there was something he wanted to steal. Though I'm no Persephone, I stick the boardwalk. It snakes across this dry plain, splitting off to run a circle around a hot spring, then returning again. At Morning Glory we stop to marvel at the rings of color--ochre to tangerine to scarlet to emerald to turquoise--funneling toward the broad, tranquil center. Clouds of steam rise and waft across the boardwalk. My brothers gag on the stench, lurch down the path coughing and laughing. The smell is as foul and full of rotten eggs as the pool itself is heavenly and full of myth and dreams. I breathe deeply and walk on. I have adapted. I am the right kind of demon for this place. A turquoise bracelet sparks blue and silver at my wrist. We arrive with the crowd at the epicenter of energy. At the top of the hour, the geyser unleashes itself at the sky. A fury. A reminder that beauty is dangerous, yet best unbound. It is the beholders who must take care and stay back, wary of burning, scalding, searing. Death. This is a story older than any of us, the way Old Faithful keeps time. My brothers are on their skinny knees, reaching out to try and touch a yellow-bellied marmot. The creature dives beneath the boardwalk. I draw myself taller, proud of the heat radiating from my black hair, and join the story.
Lots of cool, bizarre statues in Oslo...
Clockwise from Top Left: A creepy smile on the steps outside the new museum buildings at the far end of Tjuvholmen, designed by Renzo Piano, which now house the Astrup Fearnley Modern Art exhibition; Oslo's Beaver Statue, unnamed, sits outside a print shop on Dronning Mauds gate. A tad random, yes. And do beavers actually sit on their tails like that?; The Cat Lady is one of four figures decorating an otherwise standard fountain fixture outside an office building in Lysaker; The Tiger paces outside Oslo Central Station and greets new visitors!
The Tiger is definitely my favorite of these four. He was a gift to the city on its 1000-year anniversary in the year 2000. According to VisitOslo.com, he is probably the city's most-photographed inhabitant.
In his poem "Sidste Sang" from 1870, Norwegian poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson describes a fight between a horse and a tiger. The tiger represents the dangerous city, and the horse is the safe countryside. Since then, Oslo has sometimes been called Tigerstaden, or The Tiger City. Parts of the Tiger have been rubbed shiny by tourists... the tail, nose, ears, and, of course, testicles. Because sophistication takes a hike when faced with a 4.5-meter long bronze tiger.
Last year I blogged a bit about the statue of WWII Norwegian resistance leader Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sønsteby at Solli plass.
What's your favorite statue in Oslo?
Cabin fever. It sets in after one too many days or weeks or months indoors. Oslo is a beautiful, fun city, full of things to do and see. But this year, the snow is taking its sweet time in retreat, which means a few of the spring things I look forward to must wait a bit longer. For instance, walking around the beaches at Bygdøy, a large peninsula to the west of Oslo. Bygdøy holds many of the city's most popular attractions, including the Folk Museum, the Viking Ship Museum, the Fram Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Holocaust Center, and the Norwegian Maritime Museum.
You can get to Bygdøy by bus, ferry, or bike. Trails and roads criss-cross the peninsula, making it easy to explore by foot. In the spring, the lilacs begin to bloom and the birches waver greenly in the crisp, cold breeze. Exploring the coast means tramping across beaches of the tiniest seashells and coming upon harbors full of bobbing boats on sky-soft sea.
It's that time of year again. Snow is thick in the hills outside the city, looking almost exactly like the kind of tree limb-burdened winter scene people think of when they think of Norway. But the sun is up. Days are eleven and a half hours long already, and spring hasn't even begun. That's the magic. Sun on snow. And up on the hill, visible from deep within the city, is the curved launch of Holmenkollen's metal spine, Oslo's famous ski jump.
This weekend, the city will be swarming with people intent on Holmenkollen, competitors and spectators, excited about the Holmenkollen FIS World Cup Nordic.
"You are American? Yesterday, Martin Sheen was here."
The waiter placed our drinks on the table and looked up to gauge our reaction to the name drop. Despite the non sequitur, neither of us flinched.
"Martin Sheen. You know... the American actor. West Wing."
I'm not really one for name dropping. (Hard to believe, right, since I blogged meeting my favorite author, Pam Houston, for the very first time at AWP in Boston!) But it wasn't fair to make the nice man squirm like that.
So I said, "Sure. Martin Sheen. I loved him in Gettysburg." And Jonathan said something slightly snarky like, "Not quite as exciting as Charlie Sheen." Which made me laugh, but the waiter was on a mission.
"Martin Sheen. The nicest man! Handshakes for the whole staff."
Addendum: "Actor/activist Martin Sheen and I flew to Oslo, Norway to speak at the civic forum before the conference, sponsored by The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons... before an excited crowd of 900 people in downtown Oslo." via Huffington Post
This happened on our second visit to the legendary Engebret Cafe, located just to the east of Akershus Fortress. It is Oslo's oldest restaurant, opened in 1857, and, as proved by Mr. Sheen, it attracts luminaries from around the world. Without reservations, I worried we were being optimistic about showing up on the cafe's doorstep, even late on a Tuesday evening. But while the restaurant was full, the bar was empty.
"It is a woman's job to write about the wild."
When I take notes at writing lectures and seminars, I have a system. There are concepts I list, gleaned from the speakers' talking points. There are snippets of dialogue, summaries of observations. If they recommend books, I drop an asterisk. If they recommend authors, I superscript the line with an A. If they say something vital to the rest of my life, as an author and a woman and a human, I make sure to write it down exactly as they spoke it, clutched between quotation marks. Underlined, if it's something I never want to forget.
This weekend, I found myself underlining lots of true quotes, and the best ones came from Pam Houston.
I have been able to admire her from afar, though. I read her books as they come out, eagerly, expectantly. When she's featured in a new interview or posts an essay somewhere, I track it down and eat it up. I follow her on both Facebook and Twitter. We've even corresponded via social media a couple of times! But at this year's AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in Boston last week, I got a chance to shake her hand!
It took me ten minutes to jog from the Russian Embassy in Oslo down Drammensveien to the nearest Joker market and withdraw the cash. I'd expected the cost of two Russian Tourist Visas to run about 630 NOK ($110), based on what I'd read several times on the consulate website. Standing before the cashier at the embassy, my heart had stopped when she did the math and said the total: 1980 NOK ($345).
"I don't have that much with me," I'd said. My cheeks began to flame.
She shook her head and held the calculator up for me to see. As though I didn't trust her math. Which I didn't. After making sure that they weren't charging me for express processing, and that it was merely my non-EU citizenship that cost so much, I asked:
"Do you accept card?"
It was clear she didn't understand me. I repeated myself in broken Norwegian. She responded by reaching up to tap her long, purple fingernail on the window of bullet-proof glass between us, just behind a sign which read, in three languages: We do not accept bank cards. Cash only. Exact change.
Well, I thought, this is it. I knew something was going to go horribly wrong, and it's happening.
All morning I'd dreaded this appointment. Something about walking into the Russian Embassy just seemed wrong, shady, or dangerous. I blame Hollywood. The Russians have been our go-to on-screen villains for ages. Our nuclear opponents. Hard-liners with their fingers on too many big red buttons. I know this isn't true today. I grew up in the years after President Reagan said, "Tear down this wall!"
Yet, there are shades of darkness that remain in the real world. One need only look at Russia's recent crackdown on the civil rights of gays and lesbians, or their censure of freedom of speech and expression in the Pussy Riot incident, or their ban on American adoptions of Russian children. These are things I don't agree with, and they're only the ones existing above the surface. What will I find when I venture behind the metaphorical culture wall that remains?
Standing on Russian soil at the embassy, I felt vulnerable. To what? Human trafficking? Communism? The rampant road rage that makes dashboard cameras so popular among Russian drivers? I shook off the dread. There had to be a solution to this problem.
I showed the embassy cashier the bills I had with me, less than half the amount needed, and shrugged.
She leaned down to speak into the microphone on her side of the glass. A speaker about the size of a Kleenex box was mounted on the wall at face-height and made her instructions sound like she was rattling back a take-out order at the In-n-Out drive thru.
"You go out," she said, her Russian accent tugging at the corners of every word. "Out, along street. Get money from minibank."
"I can come back here?" I asked, beginning to gather my things. I'd waited in line for over an hour already and didn't want to take another number.
"Yes. You go out, come back here." Then she raised her wrist to show me the face of her watch and tapped it vigorously. There wasn't much time left. The office would close at 12:30.
I waited for her to slide my paperwork and passports back to me.
"We keep," she said.
I shook my head the way you do when you get out of the pool to clear your ear canals of water.
"We keep. You go. Come back."
"No," I said. "I don't want to leave my passports."