In the fall, I had the honor of receiving an invitation to write an artist's profile for Brygg Magasin's debut all-English issue. Brygg is a big, beautiful magazine covering Scandinavian culture, with an emphasis on coffee. (Brygg is Norwegian for brew.) I opted to interview Kenneth Karlstad, a young, award-winning Norwegian filmmaker. We met at a cafė downtown and talked for a couple of hours, and I drank my first coffee. Ever. Because I wanted to stay true to Brygg's mission... and because I'm a 32-year-old mom of an infant, so, though she is a "good sleeper," I still desperately need caffeine.
Kenneth was a great interview subject. Easy to talk to. Candid. Funny. And we were both pleased with how the piece came out.
In September, the Oslo Writers' League (OWL) launched its third annual anthology, These Twisted Roots. Our whole crew gathered in one of the beautiful halls at Deichmanns Biblioteket, the main library in town, and lots and lots of people showed up to support us! (Turns out offering beer and wine for sale in a gorgeous library really brings in the crowds.) Authors read. A choir sang (Dagsangerne på Sagene). We auctioned off the work of our resident illustrator, Evelinn Enoksen. And all proceeds from the sale of the book and the auction--roughly 17,000 kroner on the night--were donated to Redd Barna, Save the Children - Norway, and its work aiding Syrian refugees.
What a night! It's taken me six whole months to get over the excitement. Okay, okay. It's taken me six months to get my act together and post a blog about it. I'm writing this now with one eye on my busy, busy, busy nine-month-old daughter. She's everywhere, and she takes my brain with her for the ride.
Anyway, I'm proud and happy to say that "Invisibility," which is possibly the best short story I've every written, is one of the fine works available in These Twisted Roots. You can buy your copy today via Amazon, soft cover or Kindle, or via The Book Depository, which offers free international shipping.
A couple of photos from the night:
TOP: Deichmanns Biblioteket on the big night; MIDDLE: Me with my partners in crime and hilarity, the inimitable Zoë Harris and the incomparable Chelsea Ranger; BOTTOM: All the OWL authors and poets who could be present to celebrate. Such a great group!
If you're a writer in Oslo, you're welcome to join us. The Oslo Writers' League meets monthly in the basement of Deichmanns Biblioteket; but you can also join our Facebook group and lurk for a while until you're ready to take the next big step. We're already prepping for our 2016 anthology. Hope to see you there!
It takes guts to say, I am an artist.
I read to my daughter: I am an artist and I paint a blue horse and... a red crocodile and... a yellow cow and... a pink rabbit...
Jonathan juggles to distract her while I clip her nails. How did they get so long so fast? Her fine motor skills are developing quickly. I have the pinch marks on my throat to prove it.
Then I sit in class and sip my coffee. The coffee is new. It makes me shiver with energy, at least for a while.
We are reading Joyce. Easy Joyce. Dubliners. When the teacher asks if anyone has read Ulysses, no hands go up. I volunteer, "I've tried and failed to read Ulysses," which gets a laugh and murmurs of agreement from the class.
I think of Ireland. We visited two years ago and traveled from Dublin to Killarney by train. I wrote and enjoyed both the flicker of emerald fields through the windows and my own reflection in the glass. It was a simpler, vainer time. There was a stop called Mallow. I ate butterscotch ice cream. We tramped the Dunloe Gap.
Back to Joyce. "Araby." I wonder what a rusted bicycle pump is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There are people who are compelled to write what they see, what they know, what they think, even if it isn't popular. Even if it is ridiculed. Even if it earns no money. Glimmers are all they need.
I listen to a podcast. The host says she has decided not to use the word "should" anymore. There is no need to obligate herself to the whims of life. When she does that, she saps her energy and emotional health, leaving only a depleted version of herself for her husband, daughter, friends. The people who ought to receive the best of what she can offer.
Ticket controllers move through the tram car. This happens frequently now. A change since we moved to Oslo five years ago. The boy across from me shrugs and gestures to his dead iPhone. He can't pull up his ticket. He waits for the control officer to give him a receipt for his fine. Instead, the officer reaches into his pocket and presents a portable iPhone charger, a small purple cylinder, and the boy is able to show his ticket. I can feel his relief.
A bitter wind fights the static electricity for control over my unwashed hair. The next bus is eight minutes away. I stomp my feet to warm them.
When I'm acting in my role as mother, I am keenly aware that I'm not reading enough, that I'm falling behind on my schoolwork, that my writing life is disintegrating in my absence. When I'm acting in my role as student, I am painfully aware that I am not holding my daughter in my arms, teaching her, protecting her, enjoying her. When I'm writing, which is almost never, I know I'm neglecting my home, as well as the work I would get paid to do. I am divided against myself.
I felt my mind shudder. Like a disused door pulled unexpectedly over warped floorboards and open for the first time in many dusty years. Like a cold engine under the rusted hood of a car long parked in the drive. Like the thick, taut, chestnut skin over the hock of a horse bitten by the first nasty fly of summer. Like the empty shake of the faucet head after the pipes thaw and water surges forth again.
It happened in my 19th Century American Literature class at the University of Oslo.
Some might think 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday is a bit early for Walt Whitman's famous ego-trip (or transcendental treatise) "Song of Myself". Not I. It's one of my favourite poems. Fourteen hundred-odd lines. Alliteration and assonance and anaphora abound. Catalogues of people and jobs and points of origin. Hot, sweating, teeming, odorous imagery. Free verse. God and god and you and I and democracy and sex and the procreant nature of our species and a lens on the world that zooms in and out and violently, reverently in again.
Being back in the program after a year of maternity leave has not all been easy. Leaving the Cheeks with her dad three days a week took some adjustment. And though I managed to step into the classroom setting in the same old way--taking a seat near the front, speaking soon and loudly and often--I felt rusty, to use a seriously predictable cliché. I still feel that way in Week 3.
But as we delved into Whitman's "Song", zeroing in on one of my favourite sections, the dust seemed to shake itself out of the crevices of my brain.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
My teacher chose me to read these lines aloud. Lines I love dearly and have thought about a thousand times since I first read them as an undergrad more than a decade ago. Lines I'd forgotten, along with all other literary references and artistic trivia, due to my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter.
Ammetåke, the Norwegians call it. Breastfeeding fog.
Reading again of grass and the many things it could be--for Whitman, for you, for me--I felt my mind shudder. Like the sulphurous snagging of the head of a match dragged fast across the rough panel of a matchbox. The rasp of it was delicious even in its unsparking first effort. I could smell the potential.
I offered my close reading of the text and enjoyed the viewpoints of my classmates. When the two-hour lecture ended, I sighed with pleasure and exertion and packed my bag in a hurry so as to return home for a couple of hours and see my husband and daughter. That's how fast my mind can regress into those lower gears. It's a relief. A retreat.
But suddenly a girl who sits near me in class was standing before me. Her eyes were wide and bright, her smile the same, as she asked, "Do you teach?"
I struggled to pull myself back into student mode. My mind shuddered. Like a stick shift pushing against a sluggish clutch.
"I have taught," I answered carefully. "But only writing."
She nodded. I recognised in her all the things I was in the years before I became a mother: enchanted by literature, smitten by learning, eager and interested and dying to be the one who has the answers if only to keep these conversations going with any kindred spirit wiling to join the fun. And then I heard myself say:
"Actually, that's why I'm here. I want to teach literature someday, and this degree will allow me to do that."
Would you believe, friend, that my time in the rabbit hole of early motherhood had made me forget that? I'm in school for a reason. There is a goal. A return to an original dream. To teach. To connect Whitman and his everyman, all-consuming love, pondering of the divine skin-to-skin with people who have never read him before.
That goal feels far away. Impossible, to be honest, particularly with my mind in this shuddering state.
"You would be a wonderful teacher," she said.
This time, beyond the shudder, there came a spark.