by Tarjei Vesaas
Say, say, say–
It sits in the eye.
It tugs at the mouth.
Say it, say it.
It’s a vital word
that wants out,
but doesn’t dare.
Wants, wants, wants,
Will never be said.
Covered in white foam.
It dies on the lips.
The paralyzed word.
Many miles away
perhaps the word
is scratched into a stone
by frightened hands.
There, through the ages,
it will be washed away.
A word that wanted
to open doors.
That wanted to make life different.
That wanted, that wanted–
* * *
This poem is by a Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas, and I hope very much that it is easier on the ears in its original Norwegian. The English version seems to me choppy and halting, but the meaning is good enough to carry it in spite of this, I think.
I am reading the novel Kristin Lavransdatter by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset, and I am halfway through this cinder block of a three-volume book. It has me enthralled, but sometimes I put it down in order to read about its author instead. There are a few of her letters in print, ones she wrote to a close friend during her twenties. I can tell in her letters that she is young and obviously immature in some areas of life, but so shrewd and insightful in other ways that I cannot believe her insights come from someone so young. The sharp way she talks about art, people, and society remind me a lot of Flannery O’Connor in The Habit of Being. And the characters she draws could not be more true or real, despite their living in 1300s Norway. They go through phases so true to human behavior, phases that psychology has now named and labeled, but whose categories Sigrid Undset would not have had the luxury of knowing. She would not have had access to the collective cheat sheet that we now have about the universal patterns of human behavior, and yet she always gets it so right. For example, when Kristin Lavransdatter’s little sister is injured by a rolling log and her family is waiting to see if she will recover, and to what extent she will recover, Kristin, in her anticipatory grief, begins struggling with God in her mind. She has a fantasy of herself entering a monastery and thus trading her love of the world so that, in return, God will make her sister better. If I’m not mistaken, this grieving behavior known as “bargaining with God,” was categorized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross when she wrote about the stages of grief in the 1960s. But Sigrid Undset knew at the turn of the century.
For my part, human behavior typically eludes me. I need rudimentary psychology lessons, and without them, and sometimes even with them, people and their actions may remain fuzzy until further notice. So, I am simply in awe of Sigrid Undset’s ability to bring people’s responses to life as it happens to them into perfect focus, drawing only from her own observation and intuition.
I am glad to have found a new author to admire and to assimilate into my overall picture of what is possible in art–what is possible to write and create, beyond the same old literary standards that everyone takes for granted. I love the person who comes through in her letters and in Kristin Lavransdatter, her masterpiece. And as a side effect, I am suddenly curious about the understated country of Norway and its understated literature. I snatched the book of Tarjei Vesaas’ poetry off the shelf at the university library from where it sat in proximity to Undset. It is not terribly gripping poetry overall, but I like it.
I will soon be approaching seven years of marriage in August. A friend told me that every seven years you become a new person. This made me remember something my dad always said, that in a span of seven years all of the cells in your body have regenerated and replaced old cells to the extent that you are basically a different physical entity. I am not sure why this was one of my dad’s quirky pet ideas that he thought significant enough to repeat periodically, and I do not even know if it is (cough cough) true. But I always found it a fascinating idea nonetheless, if not exactly applicable to my most pressing concerns at ages seven, fourteen, or twenty-one. Now however, I appreciate the implications a little better. I can look back and say for sure that seven years is long enough for two married people to build a fairly substantial structure around themselves– a world that is completely shared, solid, and certainly not going to get up and walk away anywhere any time soon. Plenty can happen in seven years, an accumulation of many pieces of light straw woven together by repeated patterns (whether healthy or unhealthy, I would add). After seven years you have something surprisingly dense and heavy, and with a shape not easily altered, like a bird’s nest.
Likewise, seven years is long enough for another process to work something elaborate: the development of a person into a new entity. So there is the husband, who is not exactly the same person as he was seven years ago, and there is the nest, which has settled into a certain shape around the patterns, and there is the self, which is also not the same self that it was seven years ago. And all three continue to evolve.
So if anyone were to ask me, I would say yes, marriage turns out to be very much a mystery. And it is no more permanent or disposable for being a mystery. Mysteries can only exist from moment to moment in the present; they are ongoing and semi-malleable. The nest is not exactly sacred either. It is always an option to abandon it or burn it down and fly away. And I have seen firsthand that sometimes entire structures must be torn down in order for their inhabitants to emerge from them intact.
I cannot say that I have seen a single episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show since the mid 90s, so this may be an unfair statement, but I have this mental image of the current Oprah Winfrey and her studio audience applauding the woman who reinvents herself in one fell swoop and unshackles herself completely from the ties that bind. She will be decorated with words like self-actualized.
I believe in self-actualization, if it means what I think it does, but I am wary about its guest appearance before a studio audience anywhere in 2010. I have a feeling that the real thing might be scarcely noticed, or granted clemency, before the throne of Oprah. I think it means constant, quiet growth and change– the kind that requires taking responsibility for oneself to greater and greater degrees, and letting go control over the things out of one’s control in greater and greater degrees. This takes terrible courage, and leads into vacuous air pockets of life that feel unfamiliar and frightening. But maybe from the outside it never looks all that extreme. It is a constant inward disentangling and detaching, with lots of steps backward happening in between the forward ones. Then, finally, Saint Anthony the Great achieved dispassion and emerged from his solitary cave glowing with the uncreated light.
I, on the other hand, can only seem to obtain courage in tiny, infrequent, impermanent installments. God help me, this is slow work, and I am a slow worker. In one letter Sigrid Undset wrote to her friend, she says very poignantly: “I wonder if the two of us will ever have the strength to say to life: ‘Don’t happen the way I want, but the way you want.'”
Dear life, I wonder that too.
It must be that I need the subtle model: someone, or several someones, to demonstrate to me how this thing, this self-actualization, can be achieved in a nest, with a husband, with baby birds who are still very far from being able to fly away, a self needing lots of care and attention, a society, an extended family, a faith, and the rest. The drastic barn-burning, fleeing-the-country, or retreating-to-a-cave model does not make much sense for my delicately entangled life. Yes, I need something a bit more nuanced than, say, a cute movie called Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts, if that makes sense. All I really want is to set up a little shelter on a small mountain perch called Honesty With the World from where, for instance, I can sit down to write the words I want to write without shyness or fear that someone in some branch of my life will find out that I wrote them. For all I know, that place may look and feel as unfamiliar to me as Norway.