Sisters Festival of Books

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The poster for the inaugural Sisters Festival of Books reminds me of our backyard view of the full moon peeking through ponderosa pine. (We even have a hammock.) Until we moved to central Oregon, I never knew how big the sky could be, nor how magnificently a rising moon could command the landscape. Or how good it feels to sit on a big lava rock reading while the high desert sun warms you deep in your bones.

 

A village lost in bookish revelry….

That’s what I did this weekend in this quirky little town we moved to the year before last. I indulged in bookish revelry with other like-minded book-lovers, in the first ever book festival to be held in Sisters, Oregon, thanks to hard-working volunteers, generous sponsors, and Paulina Springs Books. 

Outside, the weather was bone-chilling and windy, with rain bordering on sleet. Inside, there were stacks of brand new books to choose from, a bake sale, writers reading aloud their latest work, and meandering lines where you could get your book autographed and have a long chat with the author.

Over forty writers came to Sisters, representing a mix of genres: historical fiction, romance, mystery, nature, memoir, literary fiction and nonfiction, poetry, food writing, children’s and young adult literature, and more.

Housed in the local middle school and at Paulina Springs Books, the festival was special because the venues were intimate and the writers so entirely approachable.

Here are three writers and a sampling of memoir, history, and poetry:

I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney

IAmAStrangerGwartney held us spellbound reading a passage about the day 20-year-old Debra shopped for a wedding dress (for a marriage that sounded doomed), and the November, 1847 day the Cayuse tribes killed missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, her husband, and eleven others.

You might wonder what the Whitman massacre and Debra’s wedding plans have in common. Gwartney reflected on how she had always been fascinated by Narcissa Whitman; somehow, this historical figure spoke to Debra’s own identity, and those of her mother and grandmother and other female relatives, who had long lived in the West. It took seven years of research and draft writing for Debra to discover the connective tissue between her own life and Narcissa’s, resulting in this fine book that combines memoir with an important part of American Western history.

I appreciated Debra’s honesty about her extended writing process and how patient she was in letting her story incubate. I Am A Stranger Here Myself is especially timely in light of how our culture is re-examining racism, indigenous culture, sexism, and the role of women in America.

Here is an excerpt:

“Something about Narcissa Whitman drew me in when I saw the book on my grandmother’s shelf this time. She was the first Caucasian woman (so say the history books) to cross the Rocky Mountains, the first white woman to give birth to a white baby on the frontier (same history books). A missionary killed by the people she aimed to convert – her death, some say, changing the course of the settling of the West….

….She was shaping up to be my ideal nemesis in the way she believed the land was hers to take, in her insistence that she alone held the one and only path to God. Putting an end to an entire culture was justified in Narcissa’s mind as long as it was done in the name of Progress and Providence. I would let myself despise her for that squirt of narrow-mindedness and her proclivity to judge, even while managing to ignore my own such propensities. So what if she was trapped in others’ expectations – her mother’s, and later her husband’s, and also her time’s and her church’s? I wouldn’t forgive her for building a good part of her cage.” – I Am a Stranger Here Myself, by Debra Gwartney

 

 

BookofHelpThe Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold

“And now it’s after one a.m. and I get a phone call from Tim. He tells me he is in jail.

….I have just picked him up….We had started driving south on I-5 to get his car. After he’d directed me to keep driving past the route home, I’d asked, ‘I thought it all happened right before our turnoff. Why are we heading way down here?’

There was that vast silence. My stomach dropped.

“Let’s just wait to talk about it when we get home,” he’d said.    The Book of Help, by Megan Griswold

Megan’s life life was never the same after the unfolding of a personal debacle in her marriage. To cope, Megan, a true New Age child of the West Coast, experimented with and/or recalled her history with these and other remedies:

  • EST Children’s Training
  • Transactional Analysis
  • Camping with the Chilean Military
  • International Wilderness Training Course
  • Classical Five Element Licentiate (Acupuncture School)
  • Doula Certification
  • Rolfing
  • Therapist Shopping
  • Psychic Reading
  • Vipassana Meditation Retreat (I’ve done this!)
  • Tarot Cards
  • A Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)
  • Drinking Hoasca with the União do Vegetal
  • Classical Homeopathy

Megan’s voice in The Book of Help is comic, over-the-top, vulnerable, and honest. She doesn’t hold back, at all. I think you’ll either love her writing, or you’ll put the book down after the first chapter or two – she’s not for everyone.

I stuck it out and became quite taken by her story.

The following excerpt is near the memoir’s conclusion. Megan’s mother is losing her memory and approaching the end of her life; Megan is calmer, more mature, and has attained a measure of peace. I love this particular passage because it evokes a favorite Mary Oliver poem:

“I close each night by reading Mary Oliver. Mom’s favorite poet. Because of her memory, she won’t remember that I read “Wild Geese” last night or the night before that or the night before that. But I have. And I will read this poem again tomorrow. We will read of the geese and their skyward return. Of all the landscapes we must move through to reach home.

I board the plane. As it takes off, we lift out of Seattle’s gray cloud bank and hover far above the city’s clouds, now flooded in sunshine. I can’t really explain it, but amid the sunshine, I feel somehow turned toward life in a way I don’t remember ever feeling. None of what happened here is good news, but I feel touched by the fleeting nature of what I hold dear. I just want to eat up everything I can while I am still here. I want to eat big meals, run long distances, and have a really good laugh. I act on the urge to ring up people I haven’t spoken to in ages. Life is calling to me stronger than ever. Like wild geese.”

 

Wild Honey, Tough Salt, by Kim Stafford

WildHoneyOregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, knows how to gather kindred spirits together to celebrate poetry and life, and he has a devoted following in Sisters.

Kim read to us from his new collection, Wild Honey, Tough Salt.  I found “Citizen of Dark Times,” especially resonant given all that has been in the news lately. (Garrison Keillor read this poem on The Writer’s Almanac recently – follow the link in my previous sentence and scroll to the second half of the recording.)

Given these dark times, we can “live as if in the early days of a better nation,” Stafford advised.

He suggested we write about daily happenings. Stafford’s writing practice makes him more optimistic, because “something is growing.” A writing practice is restorative, he says. “The spirit of what you want will come to you.”

Write a draft with promise. Then, your second genius will come as you revise.

A few days after the Sisters Festival of Books, this brand new poem appeared on Kim’s Facebook page:

Sisters Book Festival

Writer, rise from your writing desk,

and step forth from your solitary cell.

Reader, rise from your reading chair,

to throng in grand reunion.

 

It’s really a festival of shining eyes,

a story fire we gather round.

It’s a voice as pure as a mountain spring,

a stanza landmark we reckon by.

 

How is this magic done? Page by page,

we season summer into fall, and

word by word we bud

winter into spring.

 

Books winnow trouble into truth,

and distill sorrow into song. So come,

friends, and be a village lost

in bookish revelry.

 

I think the Sisters Festival of Books has made a fine beginning.

 

Here are some images from a central Oregon autumn:

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Classic Three Sisters silhouette, with newly mown hay. I drive past these mountains several times a week, and they always look different. Now that they are snow-covered, they appear closer and bigger.

 

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Sky and Riata, guests who came to stay with us for a while. The aspen leaves turned golden shortly after this photo was taken.

 

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Sky in the morning

 

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Black Butte, a volcanic cinder cone, is a primal, arresting shape in the Sisters landscape. Three-Fingered Jack, a Cascade mountain, hovers in the background.

 

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Black Butte from another angle, nightfall.

 

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Moonrise over Whychus Canyon Reserve meadow

 

Sicilian Wedding

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Segesta, a view from the wedding reception. As the sun set, we could see the temple illuminated on the hillside. It stood silent and mysterious at 1 am as we boarded the bus back to Carini. Are there important historical sites in the land of your ancestors?

 

“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”Linda Hogan, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web, by Sandra Easter

In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.

Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.

One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.

Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.

Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.

(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)

At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.

 

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Carini, Sicily, where my father was born. “We need to see where we have been before we see where we should go, we need to know how to get there and we need to have help on our journey.”Vine Deloria, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors.

 

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Carini has its own castle and a scandalous story connected with it. The Baroness of Carini was murdered at the age of 34 by her father in 1563 for committing adultery. Her story has become part of Italian poetry and literature.  My son, who was learning to play the violin on our first trip to Sicily, composed a musical score inspired by the castle.  If you look at the literature of your ancestry, you’re sure to find intriguing and inspiring stories.

 

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My cousin has this drawing of the Baroness Laura Lanza with her lover, Lodovico, who was also murdered, by either Laura’s father or her husband. Many years ago, my cousin showed us Laura Lanza’s death certificate, preserved in the town’s historical records.

 

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From the castle, a view of Carini and the sea beyond

 

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Our first visit to Sicily, in April, 2001. 9/11 happened five months later.

 

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Angel’s trumpets in Angelo and Piera’s garden.

 

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This is thought to be my father’s birthplace in Carini.

 

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Portrait of an ancestor, Katarina (my grandfather’s sister)

 

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I was thrilled to meet a beautiful family brand new to me on la mia nonna’s side. Here we are on a picnic in Carini. Concetta, third from left, corresponded with my grandmother for many years. Rosaria, second from right, is a teacher and an avid reader. I loved discussing literature with her. She has fond memories of the Easter baskets filled with chocolate kisses my grandma sent from America every year.

 

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I was so surprised when I met the twins, Alessia and Erica, who look like my niece in America. They are about the same age, too! I hope the three of them can meet one day –  that Malena, my niece, can travel to Sicily and that we can welcome the twins to America.

 

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We had a wonderful time in Palermo with Concetta, Rosaria, and their family. Here is Teatro Politeama, home of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra. The bronze quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses) depicts the Triumph of Apollo (the god of music and dance) and Euterpe (the muse of lyric poetry).

 

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I loved the church in Palermo where Giuseppe and Eloisa were married, Basilica della Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, “La Magione” (the mansion).

 

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Giuseppe and Eloisa, our future! She is a journalist, he an interpreter and translator. They currently live in Palermo. (Giuseppe has tirelessly interpreted for us on our visits with family – his English far exceeds our Italian.)

 

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Angela and Pepino, my father’s cousin.

 

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Rosalia and Enzo, my father’s cousin. Pepino, Enzo, and Angelo (see Angelo in photo below) have passed down to us so many family stories. Thanks to Enzo, I know that when my grandparents went back to visit Sicily, my grandfather’s family made rice pudding for his birthday celebration, his favorite dessert. An entire wheelbarrow filled with rice pudding. In the telling of this story, a heated argument ensued as to whether the pudding was made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk.

 

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Amate e bella famiglia, celebrating a 60th birthday. (l. to r: Eloisa, Giuseppe, Pino, Vita, Piera, and Angelo, my father’s second cousin.)  A beautiful evening, just like the wedding reception.

 

This is what I read when I was in Sicily:

 

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I figured if Elena Ferrante liked it, I would too, and I did.  “’I don’t feel like seeing Procida grow distant and indistinct…I’d rather pretend it didn’t exist. So until the moment you can’t see it anymore, it’ll be better if I don’t look…’
And I remained with my face against my arm…until Silvestro shook me gently and said: ‘Arturo, come, you can wake up.’
Around our ship the sea was uniform, endless as an ocean. The island could no longer be seen.”

 

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If I ever get back to learning Italian, I’ll read this collection of essays by Elena Ferrante I bought in Palermo. The essays are about a page each, manageable for a language learner.

 

Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:

 

 

We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands.  I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.

 

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Grandma and me, Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1960.

 

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Sicilian sunset

 

“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow…..  –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors

What I found in Sweden, Part 3

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“Ray of Sunlight” by Norwegian artist Erik Werenskiold, Gothenburg Museum of Art. The landscape in this painting reminds me of the little forest behind Backens Skola, where my grandfather and his sister, Josefina, went to school. I hope my grandfather had a good friend there as this boy does in the painting.

 

…And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance

grew the Iceberg too.

– Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain

 

Morfar – Life, death and the Titanic

Every individual born to the Dagara [an African ethnic group] is mentored and supported into maturing into an adult who fulfills their purpose. From the moment a person is born, others within the community had a responsibility to assist that person in delivering their gift to the world. Everyone in the community is responsible for and has an integral role in insuring that each person’s genius is awakened, nurtured, and mentored. If this is not done, the person as well as their genius dies. If any individual’s gift is not delivered it then falls to that person’s descendants to do so.”   –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web

 

I had goosebumps three times on our trip to research family history in Sweden: when our cousin, Jan, showed us the Bible my great, great, great grandfather gave to Älekulla Church; when Louise led us to my grandmother’s house on the North Sea; and when my son and I were invited to Gunvor and Irene’s home in Fritsla to see what we could find out about my grandfather’s family. This is the story of our time in lovely Fritsla, the ancestral town that embraced Andrew and me.

Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson, my grandfather, was born in Fritsla in 1892 and lived there the first few years of his life. Of my four grandparents, I knew the least about him. Grandpa (or Morfar, as we called him when we were children) had been a loner, a hard worker but a solitary man who liked his drink. By the time I knew him, he rarely spoke. Morfar had no family back in Sweden with whom he kept in touch, unlike my grandmother, who exchanged letters with her Swedish siblings over the years. When I began my trip to Sweden, I knew only that Morfar had apparently been orphaned in a flu epidemic and sent to live with his maternal aunt and uncle in another Swedish town, Orby, at a young age.

I had mixed feelings as Andrew and I approached Fritsla, a small, quiet town nestled in the countryside. My Swedish friend, Amelie, whom I’d met on the plane, and her father, Pär, had done some research about my grandfather’s family, and they emailed biographical information to me when I was in Stockholm. I’d learned my grandfather’s childhood had been filled with more grief and loss than I’d expected.

They had discovered that Morfar’s family lived in an area of Fritsla known as Aratorp, where my great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, had been a farm hand. Using Google Maps, Andrew and I headed to that area first. We couldn’t find a specific house or farm, but there was a street with the word Aratorp in it, and we followed that until it became a dirt road ending in meadows and woods. Perhaps my grandfather had been born on a farm or in a tenant home that had once stood nearby.

 

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We couldn’t find the specific place in Fritsla where my grandfather lived – but this is the general area.

 

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Fritsla, where my grandfather was born, is a lovely rural town with well-kept, classic Swedish farmhouses.

 

Next, we went to Fritsla Church near the center of town, where Morfar had probably been baptized. It was closed, so we walked around the cemetery, reading the old Swedish names on the headstones. If one or both of my grandfather’s parents had died in Fritsla, they were probably buried here.

 

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On our first visit to Fritsla Church, it was closed.

 

By this time, it was noon. Andrew and I decided to stop at the café in the village for lunch, and that is when we got our lucky break.

Centralkafét is an old-fashioned café attached to a gorgeous little floral shop, Fritsla Blomsteraffär. While Andrew and I picked out what we wanted from the sandwiches and salads in the plate glass display case, I mentioned that my grandfather had been born in Fritsla, and we were researching family history.

After we finished eating, our waitress, Camilla, introduced herself, as did Ulrika, the baker and florist. They wanted to know more about my grandfather. Before we knew it, they’d called the church, and they’d called someone else.

“The church is open for cleaning this afternoon,” Camilla said. “You can go in and see it.”

“And you should meet Gunvor,” Ulrika added. “She’s our local history expert. She said you can head over now if you’d like.”

 

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We wandered into Centralkafét, attached to a floral shop in Fritsla. Here, we met Camilla and Ulrika, who connected us with Irene and Gunvor.

 

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In Centralkafét. A Google translation: “Lovely hometown, we love you, we who in Sweden build and bridge.”

 

Gunvor’s home turned out to be one of the quaint older homes Andrew and I had admired while driving around. She and her daughter, Irene, were gracious and welcoming, and I felt an immediate connection. Gunvor, especially, had the strong, patrician bearing and the lilting Nordic accent I remembered from the ladies who attended our Swedish Lutheran church when I was growing up near Cleveland, Ohio.

Gunvor soon realized we needed a true expert’s help and so she called Jan-Åke Stensson, the local genealogist who, believe it or not, came right over with his laptop and his extensive knowledge of Swedish ancestral records. Gunvor, Irene, Jan-Åke, Andrew, and I sat at the kitchen table and talked for a couple of hours.

Jan-Åke told us about Swedish history – how a quarter to a third of the Swedish population immigrated to America. My grandfather, though, had not been part of this great migration, according to Jan-Åke. He left Sweden later, during a time of greater prosperity. (Given my grandfather’s situation – as you’ll see below – I understand why he wanted a fresh start in America.) Jan-Åke also explained Sweden’s confusing surname conventions before 1900, which makes doing Swedish ancestral research challenging.  We talked about the many Swedes of my grandfather’s time who owned no land of their own, but were farm hands and tenant farmers.

We learned about Irene and Gunvor’s relatives, too, and how the great exodus from Sweden split their family tree. Irene told us her grandfather (or possibly her great grandfather – I don’t recall) had an enormous number of siblings – well over a dozen. Every single one of them – except for her (great) grandfather – came to America. Because of this, a loneliness haunted him all of his life. I’d never really thought about the personal losses incurred by those who stayed behind. As Irene told us this story, I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides. Sitting next to my son, I was moved by the idea that, over a hundred years later, we were reconnecting with our lost culture and ancestry.

Before we departed, Irene gave us a tour of her mother’s gardens and their rustic outdoor dining room. I wanted very much to linger and deepen our new friendships – I told myself I’d return one day. Andrew and I prolonged our Fritsla stay a bit by returning to the café for fika (Swedish dessert and coffee) and to tell Camilla and Ulrika about our visit with Gunvor and Irene.

 

I had a sense of a culture splitting in half, and the psychic cost on both sides.

 

A week or so later, Jan-Åke sent me the biographical information below, confirmed independently by Amelie and her father, as well as by my cousin, Jan.

When we’d visited Älekulla with Cousin Jan, where my grandfather’s ancestors went back several generations, I’d sensed a deep connection to the land, church, and community.

But my grandfather’s family, headed by his father, Häkan Nilsson, was buffeted by illness, uprootedness, and, likely, poverty. My great grandfather, Häkan, moved from job to job to job (mostly as a tenant farmer and a farm hand) and from town to town, trying to support the family.

I hadn’t known that my grandfather had so many siblings. Morfar was the youngest of seven children – and by the time he was nine years old, all of his brothers and sisters and both of his parents would be dead.

Eight years before Morfar was born, Häkan and his wife, Edela (or Edla) Brita Lardsdotter, lost a son, Karl, at age 7 months, when they were living in the town of Orby.

They moved to Fritsla in February of 1892 with at least five of their six children, and my grandfather was born on June 5.

Morfar’s oldest brother – Häkan and Edela’s  firstborn, Johannes – died at age 19 in Orby (cause unknown) when Morfar was two years old. I do not know if Johannes was emotionally close to my grandfather, or if they barely knew each other.

When my grandfather was four years old, his father, Häkan, died of tuberculosis, on June 14, 1896 in Fritsla – a few months after he had started a new job as a farm hand, and a week after my grandfather’s birthday. Eleven days after Häkan died, my grandfather’s brother, Linus, died of tuberculosis at the age of sixteen. Three weeks after that, on July 16, my grandfather’s sister, Anna Eleanora, died of tuberculosis at the age of eighteen. (As I write this, it is the 123rd anniversary of her death.)

Three years later, my grandfather moved to Orby with his two sisters, Hilda and Josefina, and his widowed mother, Edela. His mother died of an unknown cause six months later on April 9, 1900. Perhaps she died in the flu epidemic my grandfather spoke of.

Morfar, now 8, and Josefina, 11, were sent to live with their maternal aunt and her husband, Lotta and Johan August Svensson. Morfar’s sister, Hilda, age 15, was sent to be a maid for a local tenant farmer, where she died of an unknown cause a little over a year later.

According to local historical records, Morfar’s uncle, August, was well liked by the neighborhood children, and he once helped save a girl who was drowning in a bog. He had only one arm, and had been a railway builder and night guard at the local power plant. When Morfar and his sister, Josefina lived with him, he was a tenant farmer, owning no land, with children of his own to raise. Who knows what my grandfather’s uncle was really like, because Morfar had always said his uncle was mean.

On May 11, 1902, Josefina died at age 13 of an unknown cause, and my grandfather lost his last living family member. Pär and Amelie found this quote by the pastor in the local history records: “The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!” (“Flickans båda föräldrar äro döda, och själv är hon utfattig!”) 

My grandfather turned nine a few weeks later.

 

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We returned a second time that afternoon to Fritsla Church and it was open. I found it to be much more austere than the church in Älekulla, which had extensive, almost primitive religious murals and paintings. Many of these old churches have been rebuilt, remodeled, and/or extensively restored, and so have changed in appearance over the centuries.

 

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My great grandfather, Håkan Nilsson, and my grandfather’s brother and sister, Linus and Anna Eleanora, were probably buried in this cemetery within weeks of each other after dying of tuberculosis.

 

“The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!”

 

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Backens Skola, where my grandfather and his sister, Josefina, went to school, now a museum. My son and I were given a private tour by Adam, one of the museum’s caretakers.

 

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My grandfather and his mother and siblings moved to Orby, Sweden after TB took three in the family. He was confirmed at Orby Church on March 6, 1907, long after his mother died.

 

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When he was fifteen, Grandpa went to work as a farm hand on this property in Kinna, Sweden. He was here for four years, then went to work on a farm in Orby a few months before he left for America.

 

Morfar left Sweden forever on April 4, 1912 when he was nineteen, bound for America. He’d always said he was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but he was delayed, possibly by a strike in England. He sailed on the Mauretania instead, a few days behind the Titanic, probably third class. His ticket would have cost about $17.

I’m still checking dates, but the Mauretania left Liverpool, England on April 10, bound for New York a few days behind the Titanic. The Mauretania happened to be carrying the Titanic’s cargo manifest. It was docked in Queensland, Ireland when word came that the Titanic was sinking. First-class passengers held a vigil for the Titanic’s victims and raised $500 for the families. Second-class passengers held their own vigil.

I wonder if word came down to the third-class passengers in steerage about the Titanic. If somehow it did, I can only imagine what Morfar must have thought. Maybe he’d always had survivor’s guilt for being the only one in his family still alive. Perhaps he’d always expected the other shoe to drop – that, inevitably, he’d lose his life, too.

In 1997 or 1998 near Cleveland, Ohio, some of Morfar’s many great grandchildren gathered in their pajamas in front of the TV to watch The Titanic. While Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio hoped desperately for a lifeboat in those icy waters, I can now imagine another scene – a nineteen-year-old Swedish boy, somewhere below deck on another boat far away. Maybe, upon finding out about the Titanic, Morfar looked upon his having sailed on the Mauretania instead as a sign, a gigantic, long-awaited affirmation from the universe. Yes, he was supposed to live. A whole new life awaited him in America.

 

JungAncestors“Each individual life matters. From the perspective of the ancestors, each descendent is the whole reason they have existed at all. We are each individual ‘historic fragments’ whose lives are interwoven into the lives of our ancestors reaching back to the beginning of creating. Knowing where one comes from in the broadest and deepest sense informs who one is and the direction of one’s life. Within these connections, as one finds oneself in the crowd of ancestral spirits, the meaning of our suffering is revealed in ways that assist us in embracing our fate and embodying and fulfilling our destiny. Simply said – the ancestors, as part of our larger community, support and guide us in living the life we were born to live. This work connects us in ever widening circles to our origins, has the potential to reconnect us with the soul of the world and ultimately leads us back to ourselves and our individual, unique and necessary life.” – Jung and the Ancestors

 

***

 

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Me (in 1956 or so) napping on Grandma’s lap during one of our visits to Grandpa when he was in the hospital for what my mother later told me was tuberculosis. I wonder if the TB had been latent for years, perhaps contracted in Sweden when members of his family had it. Seems a coincidence he would contract the disease so many years later in America. He was cured of the TB with antibiotics, as far as I know. He lived another 15 years or so and passed away from other causes.

 

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Children were not allowed to visit patients. I thought I remembered seeing Grandpa wave to us when we went to see him. He is the figure in the upper left window. Considering how young I am in the other photo, perhaps this is a false memory, and I’m recalling these photos. Memory can be a shadowy, indistinct realm.

 

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In Fritsla Church

 

Darlingside recently came to central Oregon and they are wonderful. Some of their lyrics inspired me to imagine what Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson might have been thinking as he left Sweden forever, made his way by train to England, and boarded the Mauretania for America. Are there stories in your own family history you are perhaps meant to unearth?

 

 

Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan-Åke Stensson, Jan Andersson, Camilla Haglund, Ulrika Söderhagen, Gunvor Johansson, Irene Svensson, Adam Nyman, and all the kind Swedes we met. The few hours we spent together were too short. Thank you to Sandra Adamson Easter for writing Jung and the Ancestors, a treasure I’m still unpacking.

 

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Ivar Emmanuel Häkansson

 

Next up, in my final post about exploring our ancestry, I’ll write about our trip to Sicily (my father’s ancestral land), my cousin’s Sicilian wedding, and what my son and I gained from our family heritage search in Sweden.

What I found in Sweden, Part 2

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My great, great great grandfather donated his Bible (published in 1810) to Älekulla Church in Sweden.

 

“Where do I come from?”  –  Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web by Sandra Easter

“What is being asked from us in the present in relationship to the past and unfolding future?” – Sandra Easter in Jung, etc…

Morfar

Things were not going so well.

As I boarded the plane in Madrid for the last leg of our flight to Sweden, the handle on my brand new luggage broke. Inside, the bins on both sides of the aisle over my seat were filled with first aid equipment. The nearby bins were full, too. When I asked the steward where I should put my luggage, he snapped, “Do you want me to make the plane bigger? I can’t make the plane bigger just for you!”

What happened next, Carl Jung might call a synchronicity.

I left my suitcase in the aisle and squeezed into my window seat in the last row of the plane, next to a beautiful young Swedish woman, Amelie. As if the universe were making sure I paid attention, Amelie’s face bore a striking resemblance to my former college roommate and close friend, Kathy, who has Norwegian ancestry. Except that Amelie’s hair was ice blonde instead of dark, and her eyes, instead of brown, were brilliant blue.

While another, calmer, steward found a place for my suitcase, I talked with Amelie, who is a physician and a mom. I told her I was visiting Sweden for the first time, in part to research my family history. Mormor, my maternal grandmother, was from near Falkenberg on the Swedish west coast; Morfar, my grandfather, had been born in the rural, inland town of Fritsla. After sightseeing with a friend in Stockholm, I’d be heading to Falkenberg and Fritsla with my son.

“I grew up in Fritsla,” Amelie said. “In fact, my father has been researching the history of our family and the town.”

We couldn’t believe the coincidence.

I told Amelie that I knew very little about my grandfather, who had been an orphan. Apparently, he’d been raised by an aunt and uncle after he lost a parent and a sibling in a flu epidemic. My Swedish grandmother, Mormor, had often corresponded with family back in Sweden but, as far as I knew, Morfar hadn’t communicated with anyone in Sweden after he came to America.

By the time I knew him, Morfar was a solitary man who rarely spoke. He’d sit in his living room chair and gaze out the window for hours, then disappear when no one was looking, which upset Mormor, who would then go and fetch him from the corner bar.

I had always wanted to learn more about my Swedish roots, especially because growing up I’d felt distant from both of my parents’ extended families. My mother’s schizophrenia made her isolated and uncommunicative. She didn’t go to Sweden when my aunts traveled there in the early 1990s to meet their aunts and uncles and cousins, nor did she enjoy having visitors in our home. When relatives came to see us, they didn’t linger; the relationships my brothers and I had with them were markedly curtailed. These restrictions frayed our kinship, diminished well-being, and made keener my lifelong desire to connect with our larger family.

Trauma is a risk factor for serious mental illnesses. It’s theorized that the effects of trauma might be passed down through generations via genes that become “tagged,” or marked, in some way. So my mother’s troubled history made me extra curious to learn more about my grandfather’s life, since I knew his childhood had been difficult.

Even if the gene tagging theory isn’t correct, I believe the trauma and fallout are passed down in other ways. The further I got on my Swedish odyssey, the more it struck me how little many of us know about our ancestors, how missing they are from our lives, and how incomplete that makes us. What a loss.

***

“I had the feeling that I was a historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. My life seemed to have been snipped out of a long chain of events, and many questions remained unanswered.” – Carl Jung, as quoted in Jung, etc by Sandra Easter

***

Talking with Amelie kept my mind off of the turbulence, the swirling dark clouds, and the sleet outside the airplane window. She told me about her work at a medical clinic in Stockholm. She’s a reader, too, and we talked about Swedish and American literature. She showed me pictures of her beautiful children, and I showed her old family photos on my smartphone. Amelie offered to see if her father could find out anything about my grandfather and his family.

As the plane approached Stockholm, it broke through the thick layers of gray-white clouds. I saw Sweden for the first time: lush, rolling hills; sparkling lakes the color of Amelie’s eyes; dense forests; and land cultivated in orderly rows, dotted with red farmhouses and outbuildings.

During my week in Stockholm, I received an amazing surprise via email from Amelie and her father: a detailed, multi-page history of my grandfather and his family, complete with photos and documentation, culled from Swedish sources and translated into English.

This information would prove invaluable to understanding my grandfather’s childhood, and provide us with an itinerary of locations to visit in Fritsla. But first, we stopped in Älekulla to meet my cousin Jan and to see the land where my grandfather’s grandfather had lived.

 

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We met cousin Jan at Älekulla Church, which dates back to the 1200s. My Morfar’s ancestors attended this church as far back as the 1700s, perhaps before that. Their bones must be buried in this cemetery, although the grave markers would be long gone.

 

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Much of the beautifully preserved ceiling art in Älekulla Church depicts the seven days of creation. Jan has a deep knowledge of the church’s history and the sacred art and objects there.

 

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I had a feeling of timelessness as we walked through the church. Some of the symbols and styles of the art and sacred objects had a primitive, almost pagan style.

 

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“My greatest treasure….” Bible inscription written by Nils Häkansson, my great, great, great grandfather. Jan translated it for us – what a moment, and what a gift!

 

“….Originating in what Jung refers to as the ‘mighty deposit of ancestral experience,’ each individual life originates in and is woven into this infinite ancestral story, this ‘original web of life.’ The fine thread of our fate, woven into ‘all the events of time,’ is connected to the lives of our ancestors and our descendants. Each of us is a unique response to all that has come before and all that will come after.” – Jung,etc.

 

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My son, photographing “hell,” which Jan said was typically depicted at the back of Swedish churches. Heaven was located at the front.

 

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Art at the back of Älekulla Church (Photo by Jan Andersson)

 

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Cousin Jan’s home through the trees. He lives next door to one of several farms where my ancestors lived. Jan took us to visit these farms – the owners are his neighbors and we were able to actually set foot on their grounds. Most of the original farmhouses have been replaced by newer ones, although most of these are now old.

 

I’m sure that life wasn’t easy for my grandfather’s farming ancestors in Älekulla. But I sensed they were bolstered by a strong faith, a deep connection to family, the land and their community, and a shared history going back generations.

As I would learn in part from Amelie and her father’s report, these blessings were not nearly as present in the lives of my great grandfather and my grandfather. More about that in my next post.

My son and I discovered that researching our roots is also about the journey itself, and the extraordinary people you meet along the way. Many thanks to Amelie Sandin, Pär Sandin, Jan Andersson, Jan-Åke Stensson, Irene Svensson, and Gunvor, who restored to my son and me many of the beautiful fragments of our family history. I hope we can return one day to learn more and to see these kind, generous people once again.

 

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Our airbnb, a Swedish stuga in Kinna, near my grandfather’s birthplace

 

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Primrose and reindeer lichen

 

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Lake Öresjon, across the road from our stuga

 

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A garden near our stuga. The gardener told me the large compost pile contains plants and seaweed from the lake.

 

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“Each one of us as a ‘historical fragment’ within a longer story, comes into this world with a particular ‘pattern’ that is, according to Jung, a response and answer to what is unresolved, unredeemed, and unanswered. The pattern of our particular life, our genius and gifts, become evident and are developed as we listen and respond to the ‘lament of the dead’ with love. Every person, every gift is an important part of the integrity and well-being of the interconnected web of kinship. Engaging in a more conscious dialogue with the ancestors, each of us can more consciously and fully live the life that is ours alone to live. Doing so contributes to the well-being of all our kin. I would suggest that in addition to our lives being a response to what is waiting for resolution, redemption, or an answer, each of our lives is also in service to our descendants.” – Susan Easter in Jung, etc. (Boldface is mine.)

 

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During the months and weeks I prepared for my trip to Sweden, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg made great strides drawing attention to climate issues. In March, she was nominated for the 2019 Nobel peace prize. Her work speaks to those who believe that we live in service of our descendants. We’re at a turning point in civilization. Those of us who are alive now have an especially crucial role to play. We must step up, don’t you think?

 

What I found in Sweden, Part 1

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This is the Kattegatt, a sea off the coast of western Sweden, sometimes considered a bay of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Many kinds of seabirds nest here. Photo by A. Hallinan.

 

Mormor

I’d just have to trespass. It seemed no one was home, and I’d come so far.

Some 4,949 miles, according to Google Maps, from central Oregon to Långås, Sweden – hoping to find at least one of the three farmhouses Mormor (Swedish for maternal grandmother) had lived in before coming to Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen in 1914.

My son, Andrew, and I were standing in front of one of her former homes, a classic red Swedish farmhouse that matched the photo I’d kept buried with other family papers in a box for years. We were here thanks to my incredibly kind and knowledgable Swedish fifth cousin, Jan, whom we’d connected with after my nephew and I had DNA tests.

After Jan wrote to us, I sent him family photos and some facts about my maternal Swedish grandparents. A few days after I arrived in Sweden, Jan sent me the GPS coordinates for one of Mormor’s childhood homes. And here we were – in stunningly beautiful Halland county, flat and lush green, on Sweden’s west coast.

A few housing developments dotted the landscape, but mostly this was still wide open agricultural land with old, old farmhouses like my grandmother’s, and squat, black windmills built long before my grandmother’s time, with modern wind turbines close by as well.

It was late afternoon, mid May, but the sun was still high, this being Sweden with its long days. I stepped into the yard while Andrew stayed behind the property line taking pictures.

I walked around the grounds, marveling at the obvious care with which the old exterior architectural details had been preserved.

 

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A hidden retreat next to an old stone wall in the backyard

 

I took my time, communing with this ancestral home and the spirits of those who’d lived there once upon a time, marveling that Mormor had left 105 years ago, never to return. Did her hands touch this old doorknob? Maybe she had the key for this old lock. Where would the garden have been that she must have helped tend?

 

 

What would Mormor think of her granddaughter and great grandson making a pilgrimage to this place? I wanted to leave the owners a note – we still had time to return the next morning before the next leg of our trip – but for once in my life I had no pen or pencil.

Jan had also given me the name and approximate location of another house where he said my grandmother had been born.  I had no photo for this house, or any other information besides what Jan had given me. Andrew and I decided to drive there, next. I didn’t think we could top what we’d just seen – but I was wrong.

 

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They did not seem pleased to see us when we arrived at our second location, where one of the old houses bore the name of the farm where Jan said my grandmother had been born.

 

At this second location, a cluster of farmhouses, Andrew and I stood debating. Which of the houses would have been my grandmother’s birthplace? I thought it must be the house with the old sign – Lönestig gård – the name Jan had given me – but Andrew thought it might be one of the houses across the road. As we approached those homes, I debated whether I should knock on one of the doors.

Just then, a woman came across the meadow, walking five magnificent dogs – two fluffy, snow-white Pyrenees and three sheep dogs. She studied us – we were obviously strangers in these parts. I introduced myself and Andrew.

“We’re from the United States,” I said. On a hunch, I decided to show her another old photo I’d had for years, of yet a third farmhouse my grandmother had lived in, directly on the sea. I’d always loved the photo’s romantic aura, with seabirds, rocks and water.

“We’re looking for this farm,” I said, taking out my smartphone and pulling up the photo. “It was where my grandmother – my mormor – lived.”

Louise gazed at the photo for a moment. “I know this house,” she said. “I’ll take you there.”

 

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My photo of Mormor’s farmhouse on the sea that I’ve had for years

 

This is where Louise took us:

 

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The farmhouse, found.

 

We stayed for a couple of hours, talking, talking, talking with the current owners. We met Lars, who lives in one portion of the house with his wife, and Lennart, who resides in what was once the boathouse.  The farmhouse is directly on the sea – we walked way, way out on the rocks. Lars told us many species of seabirds nest in this protected area. It was still bright daylight even though it was nearly 8 pm; it felt as though the universe was making the day longer just for us, to give us more time to linger.

Lennart invited us into his portion of the house. He dug out a regional history book in Swedish, and there we found a photo of my great grandparents. Lennart gave me the book as a gift.

 

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Lars lives in the main house. Louise, on the right, led my son and me to Mormor’s house. You can see the house on the horizon. The shadow belongs to my son.

 

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You can walk to the sea directly from Mormor’s house.

 

After our visit with Lennart and Lars and the old farmhouse, Louise invited us to her home nearby, where she raises prize-winning sheepdogs. When I stepped into her old classic Swedish farmhouse I was astonished; it was like walking into one of the Carl Larsson prints I’d hung in my upstate New York home for decades.

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Detail from Louise’s kakelugn, an old masonry heater or stove. (A. Hallinan)

Louise has an old, Swedish floor-to-ceiling stove that heats the entire house, and a spacious Swedish kitchen and dining room with a wall of windows to let in as much light as possible on dark winter days.

And best, best of all, a few days later Louise connected me with two of my closest Swedish relatives!! I haven’t seen them yet – that’s for the next trip.

In everyone we met on our sojourn, I sensed a strong, deep love for this corner of Scandinavia and it’s beautiful natural world.

Countless thanks to Jan, Louise, Lars, Lennart, and all our new Swedish friends who helped my son and me dive deeper into our family history.

*****

 

Below is a book about how knowing little about our ancestors may not be the best thing, and how learning about them can heal us. I’ll let you know when I finish reading what I think and how its insights might impact my family history research. So far, a couple of chapters in, I’m fascinated.

 

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More family history discoveries to come on my next post, about Morfar (Grandpa).

 

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My son and I stayed in Falkenberg a few blocks from the sea.

 

What I was reading, etc, etc:

I read The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist as I travelled, a fictionalized account of the mentally ill Danish King Christian VII, his young wife Caroline Mathilde, and the king’s physician (Johann Struensee) who tried to enact Enlightenment reforms that were not appreciated by the people. Later in my trip, I bought The Wandering Pine, an autobiographical novel I haven’t read yet.

 

 

Below are scenes from Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, the former home of Prins Eugens, now a gorgeous museum. My friend, Darlene, and I lingered a long time in this beautiful place. The day we visited there was an exhibit about an art colony in Grez, France, where many late 19th century and early 20th century Swedish artists went to paint. The lower left photo is part of a Carl Larsson painting of his wife, Karin (who was also an artist), and their child, entitled “Lilla Suzanne” (Little Susanne). The lower right painting is by William Blair Bruce, “Plein-Air Studio.”

 

 

 

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The Kattegatt. This photo, and the first sea scene in this post, are views from Mormor’s farm. (A. Hallinan)

 

Next on Books Can Save a Life:

What I found in Sweden, Part 2

Enchanting Sicily, and a wedding

In Sweden, what will I find?

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Will I find them? I have photos, but no addresses, of the two Swedish farms where my grandmother lived at the turn of the century. My mormor, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

 

I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.

I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.

I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.

For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.

We’ll see what I find this time around.

 

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Morfar and Mormor: Ivar Emmanuel Håkansson and Hulda Viktoria Johansson

 

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My maternal great grandparents – stora farföräldrar – on their 50th wedding anniversary

 

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“How is it to be done? I have known a long while now. Chance has so arranged matters that the solution is as good as given: my potassium cyanide pills which I once made up without a thought to anyone but myself, must be brought into service.”  Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.

It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.

And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.

“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.”   – Margaret Atwood

 

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A city garden allotment in Eriksdalslunden, Stockholm on the Årstaviken inlet/canal. Imagine living in a beautiful, spacious pre-war apartment in Stockholm and having your very own garden hideaway several city blocks away. You can be placed on a waiting list for one of these coveted allotments, but you will wait 30 years!

 

In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:

“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s

 

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This garden allotment (kolonilottor) reminds me of a Carl Larsson painting.

 

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Allotment spring flowers (blommor)

 

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Parked along the Eriksdaslunden path

 

Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:

 

 

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View from my airbnb in Skanstull, Stockholm, on Sunday morning, 6 am.

 

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The quaint old elevator in our airbnb. Or I can walk two floors up on a winding staircase.

 

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Good, strong Swedish coffee in a konditori, with cardamom and cinnamon buns, budapests, and princesses (these are the names of various desserts).  No such thing as decaf here.

 

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I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:

The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.

 

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Tomas Tranströmer 1931 – 2015. His grave is in the Katarina Church cemetery in Stockholm. Many prominent Swedes are buried there, including actor Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame.

 

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Katarina Church, Stockholm

 

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Stockholm light at 4 am.

 

 

Inheritance

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“Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.” Inheritance, Dani Shapiro

A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking at memoir through the lens of inheritance – genetic, ancestral, cultural, and otherwise. This, as I send off my DNA to be analyzed and journey to my two ancestral homes: Sweden, for the first time; and Sicily, where we’ve traveled as a family on several occasions while raising our sons.

I’m not sure what I’ll find in Sweden – more about that in upcoming posts. As for Sicily, I look forward to seeing my extended family again and their stunningly beautiful landscape, their small city on the sea which has been their ancestral home for centuries, and their warm, embracing culture.

I wanted to begin with Dani Shapiro’s jaw-dropping Inheritance because it is a “big,” important memoir, masterfully executed by a seasoned memoirist and novelist, about an increasingly common situation: more people are having their DNA analyzed, and some are getting huge surprises. Others are having long-held suspicions about maternity or paternity confirmed.

In Dani’s case, she learned that her father, whom she adored, was not her biological father. Which meant that her half sister was not her sister. Her beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents were not her blood relations, either. Their rich, storied Jewish history and culture were not hers. (Or were they? Do true blood ties matter? Or can nurture make up the difference? Dani explores this.)

Some of Dani’s memories are especially resonant and ironic in hindsight:

At a writer’s retreat, when she was young, aspiring, and still unknown, a famous poet, observing her fair-skinned features, commented: “There’s no way you are Jewish. No way.”

At a backyard barbecue in their close-knit, Jewish neighborhood, a friend and Holocaust survivor said to a baffled, eight-year-old Dani: ““We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

After a photographic portrait session, three-year-old Dani was selected by Kodak for the Grand Central Station Colorama photo: the iconic, blonde, All-American (non-Jewish) child in front of the Christmas tree waiting eagerly for Santa.

But I found the following memory most haunting of all: it speaks of Dani’s staggering loneliness and bewilderment as an only child who had always had an innate, deeply felt sense she didn’t belong in her own family. Years after it happened, a neighbor recalled how one day Dani ran across the street to her house, frightened and crying. A home security alarm had gone off, and Dani’s babysitter had been apparently indifferent or unconcerned. The neighbor said she later called Dani’s mother, fed up with Dani’s endless string of babysitters and what she saw as parental neglect. I should say here that Dani had a challenging, contentious relationship with her mother who was, to say the least, a difficult woman.

Inheritance is an important memoir for many reasons; among other things, it raises moral and ethical questions that we, as a society, need to confront. I’ve written before about Jaron Lanier’s call for a more humanitarian focus as our culture becomes shaped and influenced in unforeseen ways by advances in technology. As genetic identities become easily obtainable, we’d do well to ask:

At what point does the quest to have children, at all costs, become morally questionable?  (There is something deeply ironic about the profession chosen by Dani’s biological father, whose identity she goes on to discover.)

Is it not the basic human right of every individual to know his or her genetic identity? Is it ever right for that genetic identity to be legally or otherwise withheld?

Dani comes to think of her discovery as a form of trauma:

“Later, I will become a student of trauma. I will read deeply on the subject as a way of understanding the two opposite poles of my own history: the trauma my parents must have experienced in order to have made a decision so painful that it was buried at the moment it was made, and the trauma of my discovery of that decision more than half a century later.

It is the nature of trauma that, when left untreated, it deepens over time. I had experienced trauma over the years and had developed ways of dealing with it. I meditated each morning. I had a decades-long yoga practice. I had suffered other traumas – my parents’ car accident, Jacob’s childhood illness – and had come out the other side, eventually. What I didn’t understand was that as terrible as these were, they were singular incidents….

But this – the discovery that I wasn’t who I had believed myself to be all my life, that my parents had on some level, no matter how subtle, made the choice to keep the truth of my identity from me – this was no singular incident. It wasn’t something outside myself, to be held to the light and examined, and finally understood. It was inseparable from myself. It was myself.

Their trauma became mine – had always been mine. It was my inheritance, my lot.”

Dani Shapiro now has a podcast series, “Family Secrets.”

Memoir, as a genre, is coming into its own, partly because we are finally realizing how silence and secrets can deepen trauma, with impacts on individuals, families, communities, and our larger culture.

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:

  • The Book of Help: A Memoir in Remedies, by Megan Griswold. There is something uniquely American and West Coast about this hilarious and deeply honest memoir by a fabulous writer. I’ll be looking at her familial and cultural “inheritance.”
  • My personal stake in memoir, my own writing of memoir, and what aspects of inheritance I’ll be searching for when I travel to Europe.

 

Villa window

Coming up: What I’ll be searching for in Sweden and Sicily

 

Sea, beach, sky

Not far from my Sicilian ancestral home

Going West and my year of nonfiction

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Three Sisters and a golden bowl of sun 

 

Nonfiction November, a month-long book blogger celebration, just happens to coincide with an anniversary: one year ago my husband and I left our long-time upstate New York home and set out for the Pacific Northwest, not sure where we’d ultimately land.

And now we’re studying permaculture and Oregon’s eco-regions and learning how to take care of horses (maybe alpaca, too) on 4 1/2 acres in a small town near Bend.

On our cross-country trip, by car and train, my reading didn’t stop, of course. Does it ever? It was so much fun to curl up with a good book in a sleeper car and look up now and then to see western horizons that were completely new to me.

Book Blogger Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness poses these questions about what we’ve read in the way of nonfiction in 2018:

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I can never pick just one favorite book. Here are four that stand out:

EducatedEducated. This is an extraordinary memoir by Tara Westover, who grew up in a family of survivalists in Idaho. Tara wasn’t allowed to attend public school, but she wasn’t home schooled either. Denied an education, she managed to gain admission to Brigham Young, and from there Harvard and then Cambridge University in England, where she received a Ph.D in history

Tara’s interior journey is just as fascinating as her outward journey from backwoods Idaho to the halls of scholarly erudition; and from fundamentalism, a dangerous brother’s physical abuse, and parental mental illness to the cultural mainstream. As we come of age, we construct a self. Tara’s coming of age was a kind of trial by fire.

Educated has proven to be a controversial memoir. Tara’s parents, through their lawyer, have said that Tara’s portrayal of the family is largely false. Memoirs can be a minefield for writers and their families.

GreatTideRisingGreat Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Climate Change. It was an honor to correspond with Kathleen Dean Moore this year, read two or three of her fine and important books, and enjoy a writer’s residency at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, where she helped establish the Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program. The title of Great Tide Rising says it all. Every literate person on the planet who has access to books should read it.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, by Douglas Brinkley. The time is ripe for another Roosevelt. Are you planning to vote in the mid-term elections?

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Jaron Lanier is a brilliant humanist who believes our unhealthy, manipulative culture of technology and screens is robbing us of our free will. The solutions aren’t technological, he says, but humanitarian. (He is not against social media per se, but how it currently operates.)

In the months since I’ve read his book, the title seems even more urgent. The internet, and even social media, have greatly enhanced my life, but the bad currently outweighs the good. If I could, I’d withdraw from the online world completely, at least for a while. As it is, I’m trying to limit my Facebook time to when I have a new Books Can Save a Life post. I post on Instagram less frequently these days.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

It’s more like a continuation of my interest in the best nature and ecological writing, given our current challenges. Maybe what’s different this year is realizing I’m attracted to nonfiction and fiction with a strong humanitarian bent and a vision for how we might bring about a better future.

Now’s the time when everyone needs to be talking about climate change and deciding what we, personally, are going to do about it. It’s more important than ever to support our libraries, librarians, teachers, and schools. We can support our best journalists, newspapers, and news outlets, as well.

When we’re online, when passing on a link, we can make sure it’s a credible source first. We can be savvy and discerning, do some digging, and read between the lines.

It takes time to become a truly literate citizen these days – to understand exactly what we’re consuming online, how it might be manipulating us, and how to contribute to online conversations responsibly, in an informed way.

Spending time with good – and great – books can help!

Nonfiction November is being hosted by some excellent book bloggers. I’ve long enjoyed Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) and Katie’s (Doing Dewey) excellent commentary and wide-ranging knowledge about what’s being published, and I’m looking forward to exploring Julie, Sarah, and Rennie’s blogs.  Stop by and visit Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julie (JulzReads), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction).

What’s the best nonfiction you’ve read this year? Let us know in the comments.

Educated

Educated

 

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.” Educated, by Tara Westover

 

Educated is, truly, an astounding memoir.

Tara Westover grew up on a remote mountain in Idaho, the youngest daughter in an extreme Mormon survivalist family cut off from mainstream society. She and her siblings, born at home, had no birth certificates, so in the eyes of the US government they did not exist.

“There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.”

Tara and her siblings did not attend public school because public education was a government plot to lure children away from God. Tara wasn’t home schooled, either: When they weren’t stockpiling food and amassing an arsenal, Tara’s father salvaged metal in his junkyard while Tara’s mother, an uncertified midwife, practiced healing and herbalism as an alternative to established medical care.  The family avoided professional medical care altogether, no matter how serious their injuries – and some of them were catastrophic. For one thing, Tara’s older brother was violent, and she often bore the brunt of his terrifying outbursts.

Tara’s family lived according to the dictates of her paranoid father as they prepared for the Days of Abomination. (In addition to religious fanaticism, there is, of course, mental illness at work here.) Someday, the Feds would come for them as they had for the family at Ruby Ridge. The Westovers had to be ready to defend themselves.

(I had to refresh my memory as to what Ruby Ridge was about, hence my link in case you want a refresher, too.) Some historians and sociologists believe overkill by law enforcement at Ruby Ridge led to the beginning of the militia movement in the US and a growing belief in conspiracy theories.

Tara needed to escape from her family, and college was a way to do that, but could she be accepted anywhere when she’d been denied an education? At sixteen, Tara taught herself just enough grammar, math, and science to pass the ACT. Off she went to Brigham Young University where, for the first time, she learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and other major events in US and world history.

Ten years after entering Brigham Young, with enormous effort and persistence, Tara completed a Ph.D. in history at Cambridge University in England. Along the way, she constructed a new “self,” almost from scratch. A reckoning with her family was inevitable.

“The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.”

Here, she writes about her relationship with her mother:

“I knew what unspoken pact I would be making as I walked through the door. I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms, the same terms they had offered me three years before; that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.

My mother’s message amounted to an ultimatum: I could see her and my father, or I would never see her again. She has never recanted.”

The quality of Tara’s writing and her psychological insights are enough to recommend this memoir, but there is much more to her complex story. In separating from her family, Tara, the budding historian, explored the conflict between obligation to family and culture and the need to individuate. This layer of Tara’s journey is fascinating. In her memoir, she charted her own breaking away while, in her thesis, she explored four intellectual movements from the 19th century – including Mormonism – and how they “struggled with the question of family obligation.”

“My dissertation gave a different shape to history, one that was neither Mormon nor anti-Mormon, neither spiritual nor profane. It didn’t treat Mormonism as the objective of human history, but neither did it discount the contribution Mormonism had made in grappling with the questions of the age. Instead, it treated the Mormon ideology as a chapter in the larger human story. In my account, history did not set Mormons apart from the rest of the human family; it bound them to it.”

I’m quoting a lot of text here, but I want to show you how Tara writes of her maturing as an intellectual and how she found her calling as a scholar:

“I remembered attending one of Dr. Kerry’s lectures, which he had begun by writing, ‘Who writes history?’ on the blackboard. I remembered how strange the question had seemed to me then. My idea of a historian was not human; it was of someone like my father, more prophet than man, whose visions of the past, like those of the future, could not be questioned, or even augmented. Now, as I passed through King’s College, in the shadow of the enormous chapel, my old diffidence seemed almost funny. Who writes history? I thought. I do.”

And this:

“I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.” 

Memoir is about the personal and specific and how transformation manifests in a life. If done well, the story becomes both universal and familiar to the reader. Tara writes eloquently about a key moment in her journey of change. Who hasn’t recognized the split between our younger self and the older, wiser person we’ve become?

“Until that moment she [my sixteen-year-old self] had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed – how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance – I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house.

That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. 

I call it an education.”

 

Have you read Education by Tara Westover? What do you think? Which memoirs have you read that you feel are extraordinary?

 

The Nordic Theory of Everything

NordicTheory“What Americans need, so that they can stop struggling so hard to be super-achievers, is simple: affordable high-quality health care, day care, education, living wages, and paid vacation….It’s not that Americans don’t realize that they need to relax, as Ariana Huffington seems to think. It’s that they can’t afford to.”     – The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, by Anu Partanen

Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist, moved to the United States to marry an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, she depicts how much harder it is to get by in America than her native Finland and suggests we’d be better off borrowing some of the more progressive policies of Nordic countries.

I was curious to know what the Nordic Theory of Everything is, just as I’ve always wanted to know more about the culture of my Swedish grandparents – my mormor and morfar, as my cousins and I called them when we were young.

Several years ago, I enjoyed On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America by Don Lago, which looks at how Scandinavian values have influenced American culture. I hadn’t known, for example, that community well being and service to others are hallmark ethics of Swedes, which informed Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and other political leaders of Swedish descent. Reading Lago’s book left me wanting to delve deeper into the Scandinavian personality, and Partanen’s book was what I was looking for.

Anu Partanen derived her title from the Swedish theory of love as coined by the Swedish scholar and historian Lars Trägårdh:

“The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal….For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal…..the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

I’d never been exposed to this line of thinking, and it was, for me, the heart of this book. The theory strikes me as utopian and unrealistic in its purest form, but I agree it would make sense for us to move closer to something like this, especially because so many Americans can no longer afford adequate health care, education, child care, and elder care. Women are still, on average, paid less than men, and many women would be better off with a stronger social safety net, especially single mothers, victims of domestic violence, and those working in low-paying service industries.

I’m quoting Anu Partanen’s more provocative passages, but throughout the book her tone is even-handed. You might think she is squarely in the liberal camp, but her language is not partisan; current politics in America isn’t mentioned, and Partanen has good things to say about the past policies of both Democrats and Republicans.

“…authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”

She’s been criticized for underestimating how difficult it would be to adopt policies that have been successful in the smaller, less diverse Scandinavian countries, but my guess is Partanen understands there would be challenges and intends for her book to inspire the conversations we need to be having.

Here are a few more passages:

“…. no one should be penalized in advance by the unlucky accident of having parents who might, for whatever reason, have less than robust finances. Similarly, a wife should not be put in a position of being financially overdependent on her husband. Or vice versa, for that matter. And people should be able to make choices related to their employment without worrying whether they will still be able to receive, say, treatment for cancer.”

***

“….the brutal reality in America today is that being a special superachiever is, more and more, the only way anyone can ensure a reasonably successful life for themselves – regardless of their core values. …The United States is remarkable among the advanced nations for the way it forces its people into lives so stressful they may have to turn against even their own values.”

***

“The harshness of American life helps explain the presence in the United States of a dubious, even predatory, wing of the self-help industry, which profits by selling unlikely promises to the unlucky. It’s telling that self-help gurus hardly exist in the Nordic countries…..Wishful thinking can take a nation only so far. Ultimately hope has to be generated by the actual presence of opportunity. And if it’s really there, it doesn’t require constant psychological energy and enthusiasm, or a constant stream of heroic tales of survival against all the odds, to sustain.”

I’ll close with the words of Lars Trägårdh:

“….social mobility without social investments is simply not possible. So if you start to give up on public schools and a collective system for enabling individual social mobility, you’re going to end up with inequality, gated communities, collapse of trust, and dysfunctional political systems. All these things you see now in the United States.”

What do you think?

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