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Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones, Part 1: Is there Jet Lag Where the Sun Never Sets?

October 13, 2012
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This is part 1 in a series.  See the introduction for background.

August 7, 2012

Well, this isn’t an especially auspicious start to what was supposed to be a regular journal – I’ve missed two days before even starting! In my defense, I was sick and tired.  Now I am somewhat less sick and somewhat less tired, and it’s morning on the train to Abisko.

I slept as much as I could on the flight, which was not a lot, but at least my eyes were closed.  I hope all my snuffing didn’t make the woman next to me sick.  The Baltic was perfectly clear as we glided in to Stockholm, so it was like landing on islands in the sky.  I wrote a haiku about it in my sleep, but I don’t remember most of it anymore.

The ticket machine for the Arlanda Express, the train to the city, wouldn’t recognize my credit card because it didn’t have the chip that has become standard on European cards, so I had to go back up the stairs to the information booth.  This actually turned out to be a good thing, because I hadn’t realized that being under 26 years old qualified me for a half-price ticket.

So I arrived at Stockholm Central Station at about 9 in the morning, and then spent quite a lot longer there than I needed to because being runny-nosed and flat-out exhausted made figuring out the baggage lockers very, very hard.  They wouldn’t recognize my credit card either, you see, and while some took coins I didn’t have any coins and couldn’t see where to get any.  So I went back up to tourist information, where they told me there was a change machine by the lockers; back down to the lockers, where I still couldn’t find it; back up, where I milled around in confusion, picked up a map of Stockholm from the tourist information desk, and tried to figure out if I could get away with just taking my luggage with me on my errands.

The answer, which I arrived at after a great deal of contemplation, was pretty clearly no.  So I went back down the stairs to the luggage lockers … and there was the change machine, staring me in the face.

It only took 20 kr and 50 kr bills.  I had a 500 kr bill.  Somewhat guilty-faced, I bought a 25 kr cup of orange juice with my 500 kr bill, locked up my backpack, and went on my way.

I had seven hours before my train left for the north, and two things to accomplish: one, go to an outdoor store and buy a fuel bottle, some maps, bug repellent, and possibly a wooly hat; and two, buy my first week of provisions.  The latter was more urgent, because I didn’t know what kind of grocery store there was in Abisko, but I had the address of a Stockholm outdoor store and I didn’t remember where the grocery store was.  So I set out for the outdoor store – on foot, though it was a ways away, hoping that if I saw enough of Stockholm I would remember where the grocery store was, and also hoping that if I kept moving I wouldn’t fall asleep.

I’d forgotten what a crazy street layout Stockholm has.  It looks like a pretty regular grid on the map, but streets disappear into tunnels, climb over each other on bridges, dead-end, are pedestrian-only alleys … it took me a long time to find the outdoor store, despite it being on one of the major roads.  But I got my fuel bottle in the end.

Then I sat down in the sun of a nearby churchyard for a bit.  The bell tolled noon.  People emerged to eat their lunches next to the gravestones.  I pulled out my map of Stockholm, made my best guess at where the grocery store might be (I remembered it was in the basement of some mall somewhere in central Stockholm), and hauled myself to my feet once more.

Well, I didn’t find the grocery store, though it later turned out I’d been quite close.  Instead I wound up at the Kungstradgården and found another tourist information counter, where they gave me directions.

At the grocery store I discovered an unanticipated aspect of solo hiking, which is that if you need 700 g of dinner starches and the smallest package of rice is 500 g, you’re going to be eating the same thing for dinner a lot.  Oh, well.  At least I corrected the meal-planning mistake of the England trip four years ago and bought enough lunch/non-cooking foods.  I hope.  I might have overdone it on the soup … and I’m a little concerned about fitting all this food into my pack.  As well as about the weight.  My pack weighed 16 kg going onto the airplane, and when you factor in what was in my carryon, about 5 kg of food, 1 liter of water, and 1 liter of fuel … I’m going to at about 50 pounds.  I hope I’m not, but that’s probably what’s going to happen.

I also got some sandwich things, fruit, and vegetables, and walked back to Kungstradgården to eat my lunch.  It was 2 pm, and I hadn’t eaten since the airplane breakfast at 6:30.  I tore into it like a starving hyena.

Then I got kicked out of the table where I’d been sitting, because it turned out it was reserved for customers of the nearby hotdog stand, and I started to cry because I was so tired.  I had no idea how long it had been since I’d slept, and I wasn’t going to tally it up because that would just make the jet lag worse.  My nose was still running, my throat was itchy, I was pretty sure I was running a fever, and it was still three or four hours before I could get on the train and lie down.

At least it was a nice day to be sitting in a park snivelling, and at least I’d managed to leave my large backpack at the train station.

I made it back to the train station eventually, retreived my backpack, and re-packed it with as many of my groceries as would fit – they were all still in their original packaging and I didn’t want to do a lot of re-packing in the station, since that seemed a recipe for belongings scattered and lost.  As I was repacking, a woman came up to me and told me about a Swedish nature reserve where some courageous environmentalists are blocking the bulldozers of evil, development-minded Finns as I write. (That’s not quite how she phrased it, but that was her implication.) She gave me a quarter card, but it just had a QR code on it and don’t have a smartphone, so I don’t have any more information.

There were lots of young people with backpacks at the station, and also lots of families with kids and backpacks.  I watched them come and go, wondering where they were coming from and going to, and I dozed, holding on to my luggage, and periodically I got up to see if my train’s track had been posted yet.  When it was I went to the platform, but there were no benches there and my feet started getting sore.  I judged everybody’s backpacks, trying to decide if mine was unreasonably big, and didn’t come to any good conclusion – it was hard to compare since I didn’t know if people had gotten their food yet, people in groups shared gear, and everybody’s packs had different dimensions and pocket arrangements.

The train was about fifteen minutes late, but it came, and I got on it.  There was one other woman in my six-person compartment.  We both dozed.  When I woke she was gone, though her things were still there, so I guessed she had left for dinner, and another woman was just coming in, and I realized I was drooling.  I wiped my face in embarrassment and asked if she wanted any help with her luggage, since she had a walker, but either she didn’t need any or didn’t understand me, because she didn’t reply.

I ate some bread, peas, and cookies and then, fearing I might wake up hungry, went looking for the restaurant car.  At first I went the wrong direction and wound up at the back of the train, watching the tracks run away behind us.  When I finally found it, the restaurant didn’t have much of anything I wanted to eat.  Well, if I woke up hungry in the middle of the night, I could manage on the lunch leftovers I’d been saving for breakfast.  It’s not like my body could get much more confused.

When I got back to my compartment, woman #1 was still missing and woman #2 had folded down the beds.  We had some fun trying to figure out how to turn off the lights, though I’m not sure why they were on in the first place as it was still quite light outside.  At 9:20 pm I lay down at last.  I woke several times that night – when woman #3 arrived, talking what seemed like far too loudly and far too long, though probably it was neither; and at two, four, and seven am.  It was light every time I woke, and each time, after watching the taiga running by in the mist outside my window, I fell asleep again.

I woke for good around eight, well-rested, fever gone, my nose mostly dry.  The scenery was going by in the opposite direction, so they must have rearranged the train during the night – that explained the bumps I’d felt.  I got some coffee from the restaurant car, which was a different one though in the same direction, and brought it back to my compartment to drink with the last of my leftovers from the day before.  My knife was still packed so I just gnawed on my cucumber, feeling rather barbaric.

We passed many towns I’ve been to – Gallivare, Murjek.  I’ve been on this train before, but never so far north along its line.  The trees are growing shorter, and fog creeps down the mountains.  There’s a chill in the air, and I’m glad of my sweater.

I hope I don’t miss my stop; we’re somewhat delayed, so I’m not sure when we’re getting to Abisko.

There’s a kid down the car wearing fluorescent yellow hiking pants.  I guess her parents don’t want to misplace her on the tundra.

Wide Welkin and Speaking Stones: Introduction

October 4, 2012

There is a particular group of people who are drawn to wide open spaces where the wind blows freely, bounded only by the arc of the sky.

Some are drawn to the desert.  They love the silence, the simplicity, the dark clear skies, the hot winds, warm colors, and defiant life.  In hot dry places, their souls take flight.

Some wander the trackless roads of the world’s oceans.  They find peace in ceaseless seas, stability on turbulent currents.  Their homes are wave-tossed nutshells, easily carried.

Some leave the ground, soaring like silver birds on the air – or even blast higher, where the solar wind blows through still spaces between worlds.  They look into the depths of nothing, and there find something – the breath of life and the fires of creation.

And me? When the arctic tundra calls my name, I come running.

Tundra under broad, cloudy sky

 The story of how my family, despite having no ancestral ties to the region, came to spend part of every summer of my childhood in northern Sweden, Finland, and Norway is a long and convoluted one, involving the migration routes of the Indo-Europeans, a record store, a courtship conducted by letter, glaciology, 1:50 000 scale maps, a kind Irishman, the Soviet Union, trade secrets, rowboats at midnight, and the 1950s Stockholm accordion craze, among other things.  This story is mostly not mine to tell.  The end result of it, though, was that by the time I was eighteen I had spent at least an accumulated year of summers in a patchwork of places across the European North.  There, on that windswept landscape where life clings to every crevice and scrap of dirt, I learned how to recognize berries, follow a compass bearing, read a topo map, find a campsite, light a fire, and row a boat.  I learned how to walk happily through a storm, keep my balance on wet rocks, give thanks to the hail, and listen to rocks.  I learned how small I was, and also how bright.

It was, I now realize, the place that laid the foundation for my interest in natural science. My primary-school education in earth science was, like most people’s, deplorable, but every summer we returned to the fells, in all their intriguing glory; to the rivers, growing from snowfield trickles to impassible torrents; to the groves of wind-twisted birches and expanses of boot-grabbing bogs.  Nature spoke a language I did not understand, but its every word was poetry.

Until I moved to my Bordertown, Lapland was the place I loved most in the world.  For all that, after I graduated high school, I did not return there. My college summers were full of more important things: Classes.  Jobs. Research projects. Things that contributed directly to my future.  Against that, how could I justify taking a few weeks to just wander around on the tundra?

I changed a lot, in those four years of college.  I guess most people do.  I discovered joy.  I found a calling and a plan for my life.  I learned that I both needed and loved community.  I opened up, a little bit, and trusted.  I learned to depend on others, now and then.  I inhabited my skin, moved my body powerfully, danced.  I talked to strangers.  I made fast friends.  And somewhere along the way, as I peered into the depth of time and contemplated the complex web of interconnectedness that is this universe, I transformed from an apathetic agnostic to an extremely much more confused and reverent atheist, quaker-sympathizing, pantheist, pagan … just what had I become, anyway?

That was the question, at the end.  Who had I become? How did that follow from who I had been? What did I want? Where was I going? How did the disparate strands of my life knit together? It was very hard to hear answers amidst the hubbub of sometimes-conflicting demands, opinions, and expectations of friends, advisors, family, responsibilities, duties.  And I didn’t want to head off into grad school and my first shot at independent life without some sense of the nature of the steady core of my being.

Who was I, now? It was a question that required contemplation.  Normally, when I need contemplation, I go for a walk.  This was a very big question.  It would take a very long walk.

Map of northern Sweden and Norway from Abisko to Hemavan

 I had an entire summer of gainful unemployment stretching out before me.  I decided to go north to Lapland, the place where I first fell in love with geology, though I didn’t know it then.  Now that I had learned the language of the stones, perhaps the mountains would have an answer for me.  If not, I might find it in the wind in birches, in rocks rolling in rivers, or in the spaces between the stars.  Along the way, too, I would find out what I had learned over the past four years – see all the geology I had missed as a child, when I walked across the wilds without understanding.

And when I went north, I would go alone.  This is one of those things that you’re generally supposed to avoid doing, but I felt very strongly about it.  I knew the risks, but I also knew that on this trip, even the best of friends would be a distraction from what I was looking for.

Well, if the summer after graduation isn’t the time for mildly foolhardy, epic, instructive, formative adventures, I don’t know when is.  Some time in May, I pulled out maps and started planning my route.

I decided, as a general scheme, to take the train up to Abisko, in the north of Sweden, and follow the Kungsleden south as far as I could in a month- maybe even to the end at Hemavan, over four hundred kilometers away.  It’s a good trail for a solo walker – well-trafficked, so that I could find help if I got into trouble; well-supported, with places to buy food at least every week, so that I would not have to carry too much; well-linked to the national rail and bus systems, making it easy to get to and from the trail no matter how far I walked.  The trail itself has enough topography to be interesting, but not so much that it ever feels impassible; meanwhile, the stunning alpine views for which it is justifiably famous sprawl in every direction.

The Swedish mountains, in general, have a unique combination of accessibility and wildness, and the regions around the Kungsleden are an exceptional example of that.  The wonderful Svenska Turistforening runs self-service huts along the trail, along with more luxurious turiststations at wider intervals, making it possible to hike without a tent if that’s what you want to do.  On the other hand, there are still plenty of wild and quiet corners of the mountains left for as solitary a hike as I could ever want.  And despite seeing a hundred years of hikers and several hundred of reindeer herding, the region’s lakes and streams are still, incredibly, safe to drink from without treatment.  It’s a landscape undoubtably touched by human hands – the trail, the blazes, the huts, a fire circle here, a slightly matted campsite there – but the hands have touched only lightly, with care and reverence.  I regard it as one of the great successes of conservation.

Wooden arch at northernmost Kungsleden trailhead in Abisko

On August 5, 2012, I boarded a flight bound for Stockholm.  On August 8 I left Abisko, the northernmost point on the Kungsleden, and started walking south with a week of food weighing down my backpack and a spirit of adventure buoying me up.  The next month and three hundred kilometers would see joy, loneliness, speechless wonder, curiosity, knee pain, despair, geological speculation, rainbows, nifty rocks, wild imaginings, bad singing, slips, mosquitoes pattering like rain, rain falling like blessings, flowers in crevices, flaming autumn creeping over fells, uncharacteristic gregariousness, music played for reindeer, poetry declaimed to trees, voices on the wind, broken bridges, hypothetical bears, stone-strewn roads, small boats, big fish, miles upon miles of thistles, advice from ancient men, paths crossing and parting, riddles in dark cabins, still mornings, cold nights, faulted mountains, braided rivers, many-footed fog, bounties of berries, a full moon over an ancient lake, white reindeer, slime molds, gates to other realms, solidity, peace, openness, and direction.

Nothing, of course, went as I had planned.  But I did find what I needed.

As I always do on summer adventures, I kept a journal.  Over the next weeks or months, I’ll type it up and post it here in sections. Since I have a lot of journal to get through (being alone, I often had no one to talk to at night but myself) I only plan to edit for privacy and clarity when necessary, so you can expect the posts to be somewhat rougher than is my wont. I hope the story comes through anyway; I would rather tell it imperfectly than not tell it perfectly.

Check the trackbacks, below, for a list of journal entries posted to date.

Uprooting Myself

August 2, 2012

I’d thought I was too tired to cry at leaving.  I’d made it dry-eyed through the sleepless night of packing, the schlepping boxes up the hill to the post office and to friends’ houses; through the lunches with people I don’t know when I’ll see again, through the last jam and the last dance; through the sunset and stars as we stood looking out over the valley from the height of the war memorial; through the last dinner in town, the hugs, the going-away present of hand-knit socks, the farewells, the ride down to the bus station.

And then the bus left town, crossing the inlet, climbing the hill, passing the museum where I worked one summer, and I realized that I was going to cry after all. I did it as silently as I was able, my face screwing up in the darkness; wiped my face, dozed, woke briefly to a glorious sunset breaking through thunderclouds, and slept again until we arrived at the train station.

I remember, some time in high school, telling my dad about the sort of place I wanted to live when I grew up.  It would be enough of a city that there would be good restaurants and plenty of cultural events going on; it would be dense, a pleasant place to run errands on foot or bike.  It would be surrounded by nature – you might need to drive to get to mountains, but a simple walk in the woods would be only a thought away.

I didn’t think that place existed.  And then I came to college, and found everything I had dreamed of and more – not just the things I wanted, but also the things I didn’t know were missing from my life.  Community.  Music.  Real yogurt, fresh apples.  A space for myself in the universe – not only in the here and now, but also in the forever and always.

It’s been my Newford, my Bordertown, and I didn’t even have to run away to get there – I just woke up one day, and there it was all around me.  The rocks sang songs of time, and the stars answered.  Old folkies and young rock guitarists shared the same stages.  In the weird and wonderful Memorial Day parade, roller derby women precede the Baptists, who march bearing a dove banner like a dragon. Four-times weekly farmers’ markets take food stamps, and the co-op caters to hipsters and sporadically-employed hippies alike. They’ve been dancing the same dances on the Commons for the past forty years at least – hundreds of feet, weaving together the bonds of community over space and time.

(A friend of mine, who graduated several years ahead of me, used to spend fifteen hours on busses to come back and visit. “There must have been someone special,” remarked the person to whom I mentioned this.  But no: there was just the town, whose spirit has a habit of stealing hearts.)

It was here that I found My People.  They live with the world, not just in it; they ask questions of the trees and listen to the bugs; they walk softly and live boldly.  They keep bees, knit socks, sow seeds, sing songs, put up pickles, tell stories. They create and they share. Here My People found me – for I had no idea what I was looking for, and thought I was quite content by myself. Now I know better; however content I may be to spend time by myself, I am so much fuller and so much more awake when My People are in my life.

I recognize them now.  They’re everywhere.  I have to keep reminding myself of that as I leave. My Bordertown didn’t generate all of them them anew from the primordial soup; many grew elsewhere and were captured there for a time like fireflies in a jar, lighting the path.  Some, like me, are scattering across the world once more, where we will surely meet more of our kindred.

It’s hard.  I didn’t plan on putting down roots like this. I didn’t plan on anything, really; I just did things as they came to me and figured I would wind up somewhere eventually.  Well, this is where I wound up – struggling to uproot myself from a town where I lived for barely four years.  Leaving home, where I’d lived sixteen years in the same house, was easier than this. That was adventure; this, though it marks the beginning of many things I truly want, feels like exile.

It helps if I contemplate exactly what I rooted myself in. The bedrock, the Commons and its community, the co-op grocery and the co-op bookstore, the way the evening light falls on the hills and the towers, the stars at night, the waterfalls in summer and the icefalls in winter – I can’t take these with me.  But the music, the sense of being awash in the sea of time, the balance between local community and global awareness, the relationship with the earth and with my fellows – these things can travel with me wherever I go.  As I rise, stretching my fingers towards an unknown sky, roots feed the growth of these my leaves: Knitting a sock.  Cooking dried beans.  Keeping a plant alive one more day.  Matching another’s rhythm with my melody.  Telling a story of a day long past. Speaking for voiceless shells caught in the long dance of evolution.  Maintaining a friendship one more week. Now that the harvest has come, I gather the fruits of boldness, of love, of communion and curiosity.  Hopefully they will sustain me in the journey to come.

By the time I arrived at the train station, the universe had apparently had enough of my wallowing and seemed bent on reminding me that life would keep going on.  First was the white-haired lady with one squinty blue eye, wearing a fabulous straw hat and a bright yellow dress, who came up to me as I was fighting with my various and unwieldy pieces of luggage.  We had a nice conversation about the wanderings of her daughter, and she told me some things about me that were entirely true and wished me joy on my journeys.  And while my general appearance and demeanor could easily have supplied the things she told me, that doesn’t undermine the kindness of a stranger, unprompted, telling you things that ease your travels.  And then there was the woman I sat next to on the train herself: fortyish, wearing hand-knit socks, traveling all the way to California for a relative’s wedding.  She told me to knit the heels double so they wouldn’t wear out, and we had a nice conversation about the geology out west and her young nephew who was fascinated by dinosaurs.  We discussed the weather and its effect on the year’s crops; she asked if I had studied anything that would help us get out of this mess.

No, said I; there’s nothing I can do.  I’m a paleontologist.  The creatures that I study died long ago, when the world was very different from today.

And then she said, You’re wrong; what you do is important. Someone needs to tell those stories, clearly and loudly.  Because the world is changing, and we won’t ever understand that unless we understand the past.  We need a prophet.

I didn’t tell her that I feel there have been prophets aplenty – that I sometimes feel we are Cassandra, speaking truth while the glaciers fall, the seas rise, the forests burn, and no one listens.  That was just my tired mind speaking and I knew it.  We do not bear any curse of Apollo, and if the people are not listening, it is surely because we are using the wrong words, or because we are drowned out by the shouts of the powerful, or because it is easier to fear the future than to do something about it.

Change happens.  It happens in the smallest atoms and the largest galaxies, in the solid mountains and in leaves on the wind.  In time, perhaps, it will reach the halls of the powerful as well. Change has grasped my life and twisted it into a new shape; four years ago I could never have talked with that much passion for so long to even a friend.  I drifted, doing what was asked of me and little else.  It feels so strange, now, to have a plan that extends beyond a year, to know what I want.  It’s so much easier to be disappointed if you’re looking for something in particular, and so much easier to feel the loss of fruits carefully gathered.  On the whole, though, I’m glad to have this knapsack full of the gathered harvest, these ghostly roots that will nourish me wherever I go, these branches that bare leaves to the sun and storms. And I’m glad to have opened my eyes to those who root nearby, growing between the cracks of our concrete civilization, rising for the same broad sky.  May our forest spread far as we wander.

As Crowfoot sings:

So fare you well, my own true love;
Fare you well for a while.
I’m going away, but I’m coming back
If I walk ten thousand miles.

The Tracks of Giants

July 23, 2012

This land was formed by the footsteps of giants.


They rose from the sea – borne aloft by warm air, carried to the high latitudes where they froze and fell on land where there had been no land earlier, the continents having shifted in the course of time.  There they gathered their forces, for solid land shielded them from the warmth of ocean currents.


Finally the mustered army began to flow out.  Their time had come.


Frozen earth heralded their coming.  They marched in from the north, breathing cold winds and reaching out with colder hands.  The giants stood two miles tall, their bodies made of ice, and the earth bent under their footsteps.  Where rivers snaked their way through narrow gorges, the giants carved out broad valleys.  They flung gravel and boulders across the face of the earth with equal abandon, scraped fingernails over the surfaces of ancient edifices, filled up valleys and hollows with coarse unsorted sediment.  Like children in a sandbox, they built walls of mounded gravel at the borders of their territory; like scouts, they left trail signs for others to follow – ridges of gravel, pointing towards their destination.


Animals fled at their approach, and the trees fled, and so did the grasses and the grasshoppers – all the inhabitants of the earth cramming themselves into the remaining land between the North, which the giants held, and the southern seas.  Some died; some, isolated from their brethren and struggling in new environments, transformed; and some, which had dwelled long in cold and far-away regions, now roamed widely, heavy and shaggy-haired.


Even the lands of the sun, which never saw the touch of frost, felt the advance of the giants.  Forests dried and became grasslands, for the giants hoarded much of the world’s water for themselves and the cold winds carried little moisture.  The oceans retreated, land rose from the sea, and everywhere the world was changed.


The battle raged for more than two million years.  Earth tilted herself towards the sun, sending warmth onto the fortresses of ice, and giants fell where they stood. Some retreated to the heights of mountains; others regrouped at the poles and waited.  Earth could not hold her position for long. Seasons passed, winter and spring and summer and fall and winter again, varying in length as Earth’s orbit rounded and flattened.  The giants were patient. They bided their time.  And whenever the right conditions came around again, they swiftly advanced once more.


The brief-lived creatures of Earth understood little of these changes.  It was always winter, or always summer; the giants held sway, or they hardly merited a thought.  The stronger lived and the weaker died, for that was the way of things; creatures adapted, moved to newly-opened lands and away from lost ones, and learned new patterns of life – there was nothing they could do about the giants themselves.


We clever two-footed creatures who have wandered so far from our cradle, we find ourselves now in an age of summer.  The giants have fallen; their melted bodies fill our lakes and oceans.  The land is slowly lifting itself, recovering from the weight of their footsteps.  Ridges of gravel and U-shaped valleys are the ruins of their fortresses; they delved our deepest lakes and smoothed out vast plains.  You can still see the trail signs that marked their advance, the long-nosed drumlins pointing ever southwards.


They watch us from the poles and the heights of mountains.  They drop by briefly in winter nights.  They laugh as we spew greenhouse gasses into the air, for as long as the continents stand where they do, we can only warm Earth enough to destroy ourselves and our neighbors.


In time the giants will rise again from the waters and march southwards, and the kingdom of winter will be upon us once more. Not tomorrow.  Not in a hundred years, nor a thousand.  But some day, the giants will return.

Worship in the Park with the Baptists

July 12, 2012

My bedroom looks out on the kitchen and the door is thin. Every Sunday morning I roll over at 9:30, briefly awoken by the sound of my housemate rustling around making breakfast before church. I’m often wrapping up brunch and nursing a book and a second cup of tea when she comes back, one of the few times I see her wearing anything other than old work pants and music festival T-shirts. She’ll tell me about her pastor, who sported a rainbow flag as a cape in the city festival parade; about the trans woman who drove every Sunday from a town an hour away and had her Easter hat complimented by the church ladies; about the Occupy protesters invited in for coffee; about the antics of the three-year-olds, doing their best to learn badminton at the picnic.

Church seemed more foreign to me than the moon. Neither of my parents is overtly religious; though my father seems to have some sympathies for the Jesuits and liberal Lutherans and my mother contemplated becoming a minister in her youth, I have basically no idea of what their inner religious convictions are at this point. We celebrated Christmas and Easter because life is duller without holidays and they provide a good excuse for a feast; there were a few bibles around the house, legacies of the past and unsubtle gifts from those who hoped we would see the light. My mom would have supported me in any faith I developed and gone with me to any religious institution I wanted to go to – she told me so, in fact – but having been inadvertently raised with a knee-jerk suspicion of public displays of faith, I didn’t think of organized religion as a place where I might belong.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that until last Sunday, I had never in my life been to church.

The Baptists were holding their worship in the park last Sunday, and we had a houseguest over who likes to go hiking. Guest thought he might give Housemate a ride out to church and then putter around in the woods after she was done. Well, I’m not one to turn down a ramble in the woods on a fine warm Sunday, so I decided to join them, church notwithstanding.

We were late, having spent too much time grating sweet potatoes and lemon for our breakfast pancakes. This would not be a problem, Housemate assured us; peoples’ expectations of her disreputable friends were generally low, and it was fairly common for churchgoers to wander in with coffee in hand. And so the service was underway by the time we found them, sitting between trees at the north end of the park, with the sky and the lake as their backdrop.  It was the children’s service this week and the children were all running around us waving torches made of rainbow streamers, paper towel rolls, and tinfoil while a cluster of adults with guitars sang about dancing with the Lord. Two people in the back were perched on meditation stools on a multicolored towel on the grass; when they noticed us standing behind them, they offered us their towel to sit on.  It was large enough for all three of us, and we settled down under the dapple of treeshade.

The gaggle of children and their herders made their way up to the front, displacing the guitarists.  Children came up one by one, lighting tea candles set in glass bowls against the wind, one each for God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  They mumbled the words and fumbled with the lighter, but with a little help managed to get the candles burning; I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize they were invoking the Trinity until the last candle.

I don’t remember the exact order of everything that followed.  Some of the Sunday school kids received Bibles.  There was the Time of Questions and Answers: a girl stood up at the pulpit and asked, “We’ve been hearing about this on the news a lot.  What is the difference between secular and Christian marriage?” A very long silence followed. Finally one man got up and described how in parts of Europe legal marriage required civil paperwork and civil officials, and any religious ceremony was separate and up to the couple – how civic marriage was about the couple’s relationship with the state, while Christian marriage was about the couple’s relationship with God. (What about the couple’s relationship with each other, I wonder?) A woman got up and talked about her previous marriage, which the Catholic church still recognized despite her civic divorce.  “And I’m a lesbian,” she said, “and now if I meet the right woman I can have a Baptist lesbian wedding in this state!” And everybody clapped and cheered.

“Now we will pass the peace of Christ,” announced an astonishingly articulate three-year-old from the pulpit, and everybody stood and started shaking hands.  I stood but didn’t move, still undecided on whether I was observing or participating.  Other people made the decision for me. “Peace be with you,” said a woman, holding her hand out for mine, and “Peace be with you,” said a man in a baseball cap, and “Peace be with you,” an aging hippie, and “Peace be with you,” a stocky mouse-haired guy in a faded T-shirt, and “Peace be with you,” the woman who had lent us her towel to sit on, and on and on and on, shaking hands and sharing peace under the trees by the shore of the lake as the three candles, dim in the noonday sun, burned on. And so it didn’t matter, after all, that I was a stranger.

We sang “This little light of mine.”  There was sheet music with lyrics in case anybody didn’t know it. The pastor, who turned out to be the mouse-haired guy from earlier, got up and spoke of how it seemed like a silly song, a kid’s song, but there was once a civil rights activist (I’ve forgotten which one) who wound up in jail and sang it to keep his spirit up, as well as the spirits of his fellow activists.  He talked about how that light was in all of us, and not silly at all, but to be protected, fed, and cherished – and recognized in others.

And then it came time for communion, for it was Communion Sunday, and I got nervous.  Was I supposed to partake? I knew that Catholics restricted communion, but I also knew that Baptists were very different from Catholics. Rules aside, was it morally and theologically appropriate for me to partake – did it imply something about my beliefs that wasn’t true? What was I supposed to do? I decided to copy Guest, who, though not a member of this denomination, seemed on firmer ground with the whole church thing than me. And in the end, with a small child with a basket of grapes offered me one, it was pretty clear what my decision had to be.  I took a grape and a cracker and waited.

“Does everyone have a grape and a cracker?” asked the pastor.  There was a bit of running around up front as all the children who had been passing them out and forgotten to get any for themselves got their grapes and crackers.  And then the pastor said something to the effect of: You do not have to have passed any test to take this communion.  You do not need to have fulfilled any list of criteria.  You do not have to have been good enough this week.  You do not have to be whole. You do not need to have certainty. You do not need to be a believer.  You are all worthy. You are all children of God.

And then we ate our crackers and grapes.

Later there was lunch – a potluck spread over four or five picnic tables in the pavilion, enchiladas bumping elbows with vegetable sushi, tortilla salad side-by-side with homemade pickles and pesto pasta.  Whether you were vegan, gluten-sensitive, lactose-intolerant, legume-intolerant, allergic to carrots, whatever – there was something for you to eat there.  The great march of dishes led down to two magnificent cakes and a few pies at the end of the table; I looked at my full lunch plate and hoped I’d have room for dessert.

After a lunch of delicious food and easy, friendly conversation with people I had never met, we finally went on our hike – up around the rim of the gorge (where we snacked on some early raspberries), over the waterfall that I had visited at the equinox and back down along the southern rim.  Then we wandered to the base of the waterfall, walking in the stream warm from flowing over sun-baked rock. The water was much lower than in the spring – the waterfall was a sedate trickle compared to the pounding torrent of several months ago. Walking back, I thought of the first time I’d come to this place.  It was during a field trip for my first serious geology class; the trees, burning with the fires of autumn, had blazed against a perfectly blue sky.  We’d crawled all over the gorge with our noses to the rocks, inspecting the tracks of ancient life and the ebb and flow of sea and sediment. God’s creatures gone before us, I thought, the Baptist service still with me; and God’s creatures will come after us.  We are only a blink, one link in the chain of being.

I am glad to have broken bread with these people.  I am glad to have seen their lights shine. And while I will probably never be exclusively or even mostly Christian, I think that, if I needed to, I could find rest and welcome at a place like that. Now is not the time; I’m still too restless, and I’m only just discovering what my path looks like, never mind where it’s going.  But perhaps some day I’ll stop there for a while, at that inn by the wayside of the road to the great unknown.

Just a woman and her accordion

June 22, 2012

To play the accordion as a woman is to transgress one’s gender norms.

The accordion demands to be heard, which is probably why it’s the most hated instrument after the bagpipes.  Played as quietly as possible, it’s about as loud as a flute; played with subtlety, it’s easily as loud as a fiddle.  A determined accordionist can put out a wall of sound which was surely a boon in the days before amplification.  It’s a stark departure from the frequently interrupted, talked-over, and ignored soft-spoken and nonconfrontational communications that women in our society are generally expected to be satisfied with. You cannot silence the accordionist by overpowering her.

An accordionist takes up space. Never mind diets and the onslaught of media images which tell me I should be smaller: I’ve got fifteen pounds of reeds and levers sitting in my lap and strapped to my chest. My right elbow pokes out to give me a comfortable angle on the keyboard; I need space on my left side too, so I can work the bellows.  My feet are firmly planted, my knees apart, providing a solid base for playing. This is basically the opposite of the way you see women sitting on the subway – knees together, elbows in, while the men sprawl all over the place and take up a seat and a half.

Accordion-playing takes strength.  Even if you aren’t so foolish as to routinely play standing up (totally unnecessary and bad for your back), you acquire some core muscles from balancing and stabilizing it.  Working the bellows once isn’t very hard, but working them over and over again, as is necessary over the course of a song or a jam, takes a certain amount of endurance – I have the tricep to prove it.  And then there’s the grip and upper-body strength gained from schlepping the instrument around, if you’re a sociable sort of musician and don’t have a car.

Accordionists need good spatial visualization skills – something we women are supposedly bad at (tell that to my structural geology grades!).  This is especially true if you play a chromatic button accordion like I do, but holds for piano accordions as well. My left hand controls 80 tiny buttons of bass notes and chords, none of which I can see.  79 of them feel the same under my fingers; the C-bass button has a little indentation on it to mark a reference point.  Complicating matters, the orientation of the left hand constantly changes as the bellows close and open – meaning that the left hand navigates in the dark, on a rotating plane, based on dead reckoning from a single reference point. The right hand keyboard is a bit better, in that it doesn’t move and I can see it if I want to, but looking at it all or most of the time is pretty uncomfortable. My right hand has three unique rows of buttons and two more repeated rows at its disposal, so I’m not just navigating across 87 keys, I’m also choosing between two alternate fingerings depending on the tune – all the while moving between keys based on the angle and radius formed by my hand, since my layout has, in practical terms, one more dimension than a piano keyboard. Between both hands, there are a lot of things to keep track of all at once.

(Sometimes it feels like a mad scientist must have invented this wondrous instrument – this contraption full of wires and levers, valves and flaps, buckles, snaps, and switches, with an unlabelled, utterly logical control panel that looks impenetrable unless you’re used to it.)

There are many right ways to be an accordion.  You can sing from one treble reed rank or five, no register switches or many.  You can have five or three or four rows of buttons, or piano keys.  You can have a Stradella-bass or free-bass setup at the left hand, or even switch between the two. You can be any or all of the colors of the rainbow, bedazzled with rhinestones, or raven-plain. You can be giant or tiny, heavy or light; you can let your voice out of your body through cutouts, grills, grates, or pre-wired mics. Whatever your choice, you can still be considered an accordion.

There are many right ways to play an accordion.  The best accordionists in the world all play their instruments in wildly different ways.  You can play melody or back-up, notes or chords on the treble side, notes or chords on the bass side, or everything at once if you’re so inclined. It’s a complete instrument, a one-woman band, but also plays wonderfully with others in the right hands – Accordion Tribe, one of the best ensembles ever on the face of this earth, created complex, multilayered songs with five accordions. Members of the accordion family have found or made a space for themselves all over the planet, from Scandinavia to Africa and Argentina to Russia, crossing genres and rhythms and always sounding at home.

Many of these things are also true of other instruments.  But the accordion owns a little bit of my soul now.  I find myself taking up my allotted space in subways and airplanes, speaking a little more loudly when I want to be heard, refusing to let men interrupt me. I express my needs instead of just working around other people’s.  I ask for things I’m not sure I’ll get and let other people worry about saying no. I wear my eccentricities more proudly.

I make music that makes hearts soar and feet dance. I also make train and ambulance noises when the mood strikes me.  I am an accordionist, I am happy with who I am, and I will not be silenced.

Snow White and the Nonsense

June 20, 2012

Once Upon a Time is a card game that my friends and I are fond of playing.  Each player is dealt a hand of cards containing fairy-tale elements – Witch, Brother, Queen, This Animal Can Talk, Duel, Something is Revealed, and so on.  Each player also gets one ending card, which range from True Love Had Broken The Enchantment to And The Evildoers Were Thrown Down A Well.  The players collectively tell a story, interrupting each other at every legal opportunity. As an individual, you win by inserting all of your story elements into the story and finish with your ending card; for the group, the goal of the game is to tell an entertaining and coherent story, gleefully incorporating everyone’s plot elements as they arise.

Snow White and the Huntsman reminded me of nothing so much as a uncooperatively-played game of Once Upon a Time, in which players smacked down their element cards willy-nilly with little regard for the integrity of the tale as a whole, fighting to rush the story towards their designated ending before another player found a chance to rip it from their control.  The result is a mostly-plodding movie, full of discombobulated fantastical elements and totally incoherent worldbuilding, which promises many things and never delivers on any of them. The characters never grow beyond archetypes, the settings are loosely tied together to suit the story rather than fixed geography, and the meandering plot manages to visit every event of the original tale without according any of them any particular significance.

In a more light-hearted movie, many of these flaws might not have been a problem.  But the generally dark color palate and detailed costuming and armoring of Snow White and the Huntsman makes it seem like the movie wants to join the club of “realistic” blood-and-dirt retellings such as Robin Hood (2010) and King Arthur (2004).  By asking to be taken seriously, the movie renders its gaping plot holes and unfinished themes more evident.  The awesome rendering of the stepmother’s mirror, and the suggestion of dark forces behind it, creates the expectation that the mirror will play a far greater role in the plot (and especially the climax) than it ever does.  The portrayal of the stepmother as a woman who seized on beauty as her only weapon could have been subversive if the movie, in avoiding any hint of empathy for her character, had not shoehorned her into the trope of the evil and seductive enchantress. The scarred women, who first appear as ninja-like river warriors, inexplicably fall apart at the first attack on their village and never play the role they could have in the film’s discussion of beauty and power.  The Prince’s martial badassery at his introduction is a Chekhov’s Gun that is never used. People and creatures are constantly laying down their lives for Snow, telling her to press on because her life is more important, but we are never convinced that she deserves such sacrifice – and so she stumbles on purposelessly, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.

The metaphysical aspects of the movie cause particular confusion.  We’re first introduced to adult Snow as she says Christian prayers in her dingy tower cell.  Later we wander into a bright sparkly green fairyland, where the forest spirit, a white hart straight out of Princess Mononoke, bows down to Snow because she is “life itself.”  I can think of several ways these elements could have been combined coherantly.  There’s the King Arthur route,  combining Christian and Pagan elements syncretistically – both history and myth provide plenty of examples of this approach.  There’s also the Mythago Wood route, where Christian rituals cannot penetrate the forest where the old gods live, setting up a cleared land/forest dicotymy. This also has ample examples in literature.  Shunning both these approaches, the filmmakers choose instead to throw in one-off instances of Christian and Pagan spirituality, leaving the audience extremely unclear on just what higher powers are at play in this world and how they fit into the magic of blood, snow, and beauty.

The rightful ruler as the life of the land is also an old tradition, and having that ruler be a woman was an interesting twist.  Sadly, that twist is never brought to fruition.  Snow’s status as “life itself” is used to justify people’s sacrifices for her, but is quickly forgotten by the time she regains the throne.  I had hoped, too, that a character who was the embodiment of life would be able to vanquish the evil queen by more creative means than just killing a bunch of people.  Her earlier expressed reluctance to kill anyone evaporates as she turns into Joan of Arc, gives a speech that is only rousing if you don’t try to understand its nonsense sentences, and leads an army to storm the castle.  Just what am I supposed to believe, here? That kindness, the great beauty in Snow’s heart which sets her apart from the evil queen, is only a virtue in times of peace and when directed towards the worthy?

Sick as I am of love triangles, you might think I’d be relieved that the Huntsman-Snow-Prince triangle is little more than an afterthought.  But the execution of this half-hearted triangle is so peculiar that it leaves me unclear on why they bothered with a love triangle at all.  Aside from a two-second scowl over a creek-crossing incident, the triangle contains no tension at all.  While the audience, knowing the habits of love triangles, may wonder how the situation will be resolved, Snow doesn’t seem to care and shows equal, mostly-chaste affection to all the men who are drawn to her. Finally, the Huntsman and Prince display so much camaraderie towards each other that if there isn’t a solid body of Huntsman/Prince fanfic by now I will be seriously disappointed in the internet.

In many ways, this movie only makes sense if you have a fairly extensive background in myths and fairy tales which lets you fill in explanations for the many seemingly random events.  If you have that kind of background, though, your unfulfilled hopes and expectations will probably make you disappointed.  Does that mean Snow White and the Huntsman isn’t worth seeing? Not necessarily.  The movie is spectacular in its visuals and even more spectacular in its failures.  It could have been so much more than it was. If you see it with the right people, the ensuing discussion is likely to keep you entertained for several hours after the credits close.