Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer’s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. – Barry Lopez
About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez
Here is my third and final reposting of my Barry Lopez Books Can Save a Life writings, in honor of his passing on December 25, 2020:
She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.
She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.
Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”
Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.
Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out – artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.
I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.” An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln. Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.
Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.
Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.
Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,” in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.
I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?
If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our best interests to see that no one among us is silenced.
So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.
“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
The role of the artist, in part, is to develop the conversations, the stories, the drawings, the films, the music—the expressions of awe and wonder and mystery—that remind us, especially in our worst times, of what is still possible, of what we haven’t yet imagined. – Barry Lopez
During the next week I’ll be featuring some of my past posts about Barry. Here is one, which I wrote in 2013:
When I began this blog I chose for my tagline a quote by Barry Lopez about stories because it rang true for me. But I’d never actually read any of Lopez’s books. So I began withArctic Dreams, which won the National Book Award.
If you want to be an armchair traveler of the world, if you love nature, if you crave being transported to another time and place by extraordinary writing, you must read Barry Lopez. Arctic Dreams has some of the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.
“The aurora borealis, pale gossamer curtains of light.”
“The mother-of-pearl iridescence of the sun’s or moon’s corona in clouds.”
“The outcry of birds, the bullet-whirr of their passing wings, the splashing of water, is, like the falling light, unending.”
You will find uncommon truths, beautifully expressed. Here is Lopez on the great Arctic explorers of the past: “The day after a little trouble on the ice it is possible to imagine, if but imperfectly, the sort of reach some of these men made into the unknown, day after day.”
“I think we can hardly reconstruct the terror of it, the single-minded belief in something beyond the self.”
“Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire of spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness.”
“What dreams there must have been that were never written down….that remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.”
If you want to write, how can you move closer to this kind of mastery of language?
As I was reading Lopez, I happened to make a happy discovery in my writing bible, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor: Lexicon Practice. Lexicon Practice involves looking up words you don’t know and words you want to know better, not in in a pocket dictionary or online, but in a mammoth 600,000-word dictionary, the kind you still see in some libraries.
(Long advises writers to search online for a dictionary published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t cheap, but they are a wise investment.) Copy the definitions of a word in a notebook. These old dictionaries have detailed diagrams and illustrations, and occasionally I copy these as well.
I write down the word in its language of origin, too. If it has a Latin, Italian or Spanish root, I can brush up on my foreign language vocabulary. Long instructs you to write out the sentence where you found the word and make up a sentence of your own, preferably a sentence you can use in a piece of writing you’re working on. You can choose a lexicon theme based on the work you are doing at the moment. Since I’m writing a memoir, for example, I have a lexicon with words commonly used in the 1960s – products, types of clothing, etc.
Long believes in Lexicon Practice. Otherwise, our writing derives from the uninspired language of generic, overused words and phrases we find in newspapers, magazines, advertising, and social media. As a teacher of writing, Long knows immediately when a writer doesn’t have a Lexicon Practice. She mentions Lopez as the kind of master writer we can emulate. He uses words with Old English and Old German roots, and “…he favors concrete words…that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or heard. For Lopez, language is a musical instrument…”
Now, Lexicon Practice is a geeky, writerly thing, but it appeals to me. This kind of practice slows you down, teaches you to choose words with care. If you want to write rich, compelling fiction or nonfiction, you need to be in love with words in this way, or allow yourself to fall in love with them by doing work of this nature.
Culling words from Arctic Dreams was an inspiring way to for me to establish a habit of Lexicon Work. A variety of birds populate the first pages of my first lexicon: plover, whimbrel, curlew. There are many boats and nautical references: pinnace, tender, portolano chart. Geographical terms, too: archipelago, scree, promontory. (As I write this, my word processor does not recognize a few of these uncommon words and highlights them as misspellings.)
Long advises writers to compose word lists, too. Her examples: every possible synonym for blue (sapphire, smalt, cobalt, woad) and all the parts of a fiddle (peg box, side rib, bridge, button). You can work according to a theme. Chairs and chair parts. Types of roofs. Clothes for people who love the outdoors. Get an L.L. Bean catalog and find words like cargo pants, fleece, sun-washed, twill, seersucker, Mary Janes, wellies.
I found that keeping a lexicon is a good excuse to buy one of those expensive, fancy journals I love. Mine has a silvered filigree cover designed in Germany around 1800. (I haven’t kept up a lexicon practice as of 2020, but I do it from time to time for specific writing projects.)
I am now using the second edition of Pricilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, published in 2018 by the University of New Mexico Press. It has been updated with all new craft models and to reflect changes in the publishing industry.
Here is a link to the McKenzie River Trust, which is devoted to conservation of the western Oregon region where Barry Lopez lived. Much of the river corridor was destroyed by the fall fires. If you wish, you can make a donation in memory of Barry Lopez.
“We can find ways to believe in survival and to live for the children….In our tribal and indigenous cultures, which have endured for thousands of years, every decision must leave no one behind. ‘Progress’ has caused us to miss love and reciprocity… these can be restored through narrative. Can you tell us a story that helps?” Barry Lopez, Portland Festival of Books, 2019
On the very last day of 2019, my husband and I concluded our two-year and three-month grand adventure in central Oregon. We left the delightful, quirky little town on the edge of the wilderness that has been our home, and returned to the place on the Erie Canal in upstate New York where we’d raised our family.
Our plane landed just a few hours before the New Year at Greater Rochester International Airport.
We were sad to leave Sisters, Oregon, but happy to come back to the town we think of as home. In December, I made it my mission to soak up as much Sisters holiday joy and central Oregon natural beauty as I could.
For the winter solstice, we did something special. Dozens of townspeople and visitors gathered in the diminishing light to silently walk the Sisters Community Labyrinth at the edge of the Deschutes National Forest. Each person carried a natural object – the husk of an acorn, a bone fragment, a pine cone – and threw it into a fire that symbolized transformation. Each object represented something the bearer was releasing, or something new arising in the flames.
We walked single file, each walker on his own journey in companionship with other souls on their journeys. We walked with our two sons, my meditation friends from the amazing Sisters Sangha, and many others – members of the community and visitors from afar who came to enjoy Sisters at winter’s portal. This communion is part of the beauty of the labyrinth.
Attending the Portland Festival of Books in November was a meaningful way to conclude my in-person Oregon literary explorations. My husband and I listened to the American author Barry Lopez and the Russian author Anna Badkhen converse about the role of the writer as explorer, seeker, and witness. Both have traveled the world many times over: Anna has written in depth about civilians in war zones, and Barry has reported in award-winning prose on flora, fauna and indigenous cultures across the globe.
They touched on how a writer finds meaning in her work and the moral and ethical responsibilities that come with bearing witness. There wasn’t a single empty seat in the auditorium, and the audience seemed to hang upon every word. I had the sense that we all knew what a privilege it was to hear the words of these great contemporary writers.
Barry Lopez asked this question:
“How are we going to take care of each other?
The storyteller recognizes when there is a disturbance … and has an ethical responsibility to take care of those in a culture living in disarray.”
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
Five memoirs by five women with superpowers
Just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read, by a beloved Oregon writer
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.
This is what I read when I was in Sicily:
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.
“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
“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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“The parents of the girl are both dead, and herself, she is destitute!”
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.
“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
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.
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 is being asked from us in the present in relationship to the past and unfolding future?” – Sandra Easter in Jung, etc…
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.
“….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.
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.
“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.)
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?
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 knowledgeable 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.
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.
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.”
This is where Louise took us:
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.
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.
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.
More family history discoveries to come on my next post, about Morfar (Grandpa).
What I was reading, etc, etc:
I read The Royal Physician’s Visitby 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.”
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.
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
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
Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:
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.
In search of a new home, my husband and I sold our house of many years in Rochester, New York and on October 14 began a road trip that took us south to St. Petersburg, Florida, west to California, then north to Portland, Oregon.
We arrived in Portland on Thanksgiving eve but, sadly, a week and a half later, someone in our extended family passed away, and so we flew back east for the funeral and family time. On the return trip west, we took a three-day Amtrak train along the north coast, the only coast we hadn’t yet explored. We spent hours looking out our sleeper car window and sitting in the observation car as we passed through landscapes new to us: North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington.
We traveled over 10,000 miles by car and train, covered 30 states, visited four national parks (actually, five, but it was dark when our train passed through Montana’s Glacier National Park), plus the place where artist Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked, Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in New Mexico. We saw Savannah, St. Petersburg, Mobile, New Orleans, Tucson, Sedona, and San Francisco where our son lives, in addition to several smaller cities, and we had a fun afternoon layover in Chicago.
The first stop on our long journey was one of the best: Audubon, New Jersey, where we visited with my good friend and college roommate of many years ago, Kathy – an accomplished artist – and her husband, Steve. They entertained us with the beautiful story of Nestle, a wounded baby sparrow they adopted this past summer and nursed back to health and life. I wrote about it in my post, Sparrow, Art, Life.
Kathy gave us a tour of the creative spaces in their home, including her studio and basement workshop, where Steve makes custom frames for her art work. I loved talking about creativity and the creative life with her – a few hours of conversation was for me a powerful dose of inspiration.
I was thrilled when, thanks to auspicious timing, a stunning Christmas card printed from the wood block art of Nestle that Kathy made was waiting for us at journey’s end.
Kathy’s work is so connected to nature, and so has my writing been of late. During our travels, we saw wild beauty but, at times, also an unbridled pillaging of the earth that reveals an ugly inhumanity toward people and communities as well. This has been so since humans have walked the earth, but now we are almost out of time if we are to avoid climate change disaster and inhabit the earth in a new way. The situation is much graver because people in positions of power are working against this very thing.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Now that we have raised our children, my husband and I are planning our next great endeavor, which we hope will be closely tied to nature and changing the status quo.
More about that in future posts. In the meantime, here are snippets from Kathy and Steve’s story of welcoming Nestle into their family and launching her into life. As Kathy said, never before had they experienced such a bond with a different species.
“Baby birds eat every 20 minutes or so and we took turns feeding her water-soaked dry cat food. We even gave her water through a tiny medicine dropper, which apparently was one of our many mistakes, and yet she didn’t drown.”
“We carried the cage outside and placed it in the meditation garden under the bird feeders. After several days we realized she just wanted to be outside and we opened the cage so she could join her fellow sparrows. Eventually she flew off but returned at the end of the day and spent the night back in the safety of her cage in the house.”
“The most amazing thing began to happen during that last week. As we carried the cage outside in the mornings she would begin to flap her wings excitedly. We realized she was aware that she was going outside to join the backyard birds!”
“If she heard our voices, she would come close, even landing on my arm at one point. Then, one night she didn’t come back to the garden at dusk and all we could do was hope she would be safe. The last time I saw her that week one-on-one she was two feet away perched on top of the wooden fence in my herb garden. As always, I told her to ‘be safe, little one’ and then she flew off.”
“The gift that she brought to us that hot summer night was the gift of hope and the realization that we are all more closely related to one another on this sometimes crazy, always amazing planet.”
What a wonderful story, and I’m so glad Kathy and Steve shared it.
If you are still looking for a special, one-of-a-kind holiday gift, or if you would like a truly unique book of poems for the new year, I highly recommend Emily Hancock’s just-published volume, The Open Gate. I “met” Emily online when we took a class from poet and writer Kim Stafford. Her poems are exquisite and nature infused. The volume was typeset and printed by Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. The covers were created and printed at St. Brigid Press, which Emily owns and operates.
“Emily Hancock’s poetry is as inviting as this book’s title: The Open Gate swings wide and asks us to “step through” and see the world through her remarkable eyes. Her poems are full of birdsongs and shifting light through trees in the Blue Ridge. They show us what we didn’t see right in front of us. Her poems are meditative and hopeful—and dazzling.”
You can order The Open Gate at this link. Scroll down at the link to watch Emily give a short talk and reading from her collection of poems.
Next: I’ll tell you where we have decided to make our home and what the focus of Books Can Save a Life will be in the coming months. On this brief, dark solstice day, I wish all of you, my faithful and delightful readers and friends, happy holidays aglow with the spirit of the season, and all good things in the new year!
Two glorious, sun-filled November days in Utah’s Zion National Park stand out when I look back on the cross county trip we completed on Thanksgiving eve. Visiting late in the season turned out to be perfect – the weather was warm and the park wasn’t crowded with tourists.
We went to four national parks in all: Zion, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon. Zion was my favorite, while my husband’s was Bryce Canyon.
I found it frustrating that, while we took in some of our country’s most spectacular public lands, our current administration seemed to be dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and has been intent upon shrinking our national monuments. People and corporations with great wealth, power and influence are determining the fate of our most beautiful and sacred lands.
Terry Tempest Williams is one of our foremost nature writers and an important defender of the natural world. Years ago, I read her memoir, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Placeand never forgot it. Williams was sitting on her pregnant mother’s lap one day in the 1950s when she actually witnessed the test explosion of a nuclear bomb in the Utah desert. Williams’ mother, grandmother, and six aunts subsequently died of cancer. Her book showed me the possibilities of memoir, and how the places we come from are inseparable from our personal histories.
I’m about half-way through The Hour of Land,which is partly a personal account of Williams’ love affair with selected national parks; partly a history of the founding of these protected places; and partly a lyrical tribute to nature and a call to stop pillaging the earth.
I’ve especially enjoyed her essays about Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, “Keep promise,” and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, “All this is what the wind knows.” Williams writes of how the Rockefeller family for years enjoyed the unparalleled beauty of their Wyoming ranch, then secretly bought thousands more acres and donated it all for the creation of Grand Teton National Park.
She surmises that Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled that his namesake national park has been surrounded and encroached upon by drilling and fracking in the Bakken shale oil fields which span several states and part of Canada. The fields represent “the biggest rush of oil and gas in American history,” according to Williams. Her memoir addresses not only how we are treating the land, but how our insatiable desire to mine its resources can be inhumane and undermine communities.
Ironically, Williams’ father and two brothers have made their living in oil and gas. She writes:
“My brother Dan was one of these men who came to work in the Bakken in 2014 to make money. He worked during the winter on the frack line, washing off the chemicals used to break up the strata below so the oil can seep up to the surface more easily. The brutality of the weather only approximated the brutality of the work. Sixty degrees below zero in howling winds is man against nature; but week after week morphing into months of solitary darkness and freezing nights alone cramped in the cab of a truck is crazy making. Like so many of the workers profiled in Jesse Moss’s revelatory documentary about the Bakken oil fields, The Overnighters,one of the roughnecks hoping to turn his life around by the big boom said, ‘I arrived broken and left shattered.’ What began as a dream becomes a matter of survival, and for some, as in the case of my brother, just barely.”
Before our cross country trip, I know nothing of the Bakken oil fields. Traveling west, we enjoyed the exquisite beauty of places like Zion, but we couldn’t avoid scenes of a brutal existence when we passed through oil and gas fields similar to those at Bakken, with rows of storage containers to house workers, six or seven to a container. According to Williams, typically the worker shifts are twelve days on followed by twelve days off.
During our travels, we met a woman who lives near one of the communities upended by unfettered drilling and fracking. She spoke of the invasion of thousands of workers from all over the country looking for limited housing; exorbitant rents; and roughnecks who frightened the locals. One man she knew always carried a gun, even when he emptied the trash in his backyard.
On two consecutive days, we hiked to Zion’s Emerald Pools and to Weeping Rock, where we encountered the most peaceful and stunning natural places I’ve ever seen. Water compressed between layers of sandstone seeps out and gives rise to gentle, sparkling waterfalls (depending on the season) and lush hanging gardens.
Take a moment to enjoy one of the Emerald Pools:
And Weeping Rock:
Coming up: Our cross country trip took an unexpected turn, and what was waiting for me at journey’s end.