Thursday, August 29, 2019

Heading north!

My reading of late has had a definite focus - Norse sagas, Icelandic murder mysteries, books about Vikings...
In addition, I've been using an app called Drops (no Icelandic on Duolingo, Ron!) to teach myself Icelandic vocabulary, mostly so I won't mispronounce places like Þingvellir, Garðabær, or Eyjafjallajökull. I've learned to roll the r in Reykjavík, know how all the accent marks affect the vowels and which of three sounds a p makes depending on its position in a word, and pretty reliably remember how doubling a consonant changes the pronunciation. We have all the places we're staying booked, a 4WD vehicle reserved, and flights in hand. It's going to be cold and sometimes rainy, but beautiful. I am more than ready to go. Sjáumst!

In the words of Oðin, from the Elder Edda:
           "Who travels widely need his wits about him,
            The stupid should stay at home."

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Saying farewell.

This time my absence was less about living my life and more about observing the ending of another. My mother-in-law died a couple of weeks ago and my husband has spent a fair amount of time helping his siblings make arrangements. I went back to Kentucky with him last Thursday for the funeral. We got there before most of the family and went to a place that has a really great bourbon tasting bar. Because it's Kentucky. We started with a shot of the Weller 12-year, a favorite of mine but one we've not ever managed to find for sale in liquor stores. And then the bartender recommended another wheated bourbon, the Old Fitzgerald 13 year, which is basically Larceny’s grandpa. And then, a shot of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year. Incidentally, I read an article that said the Weller 12 year is as close to tasting a Pappy Van Winkle as most people will get.

Unless the funeral is happening under tragic circumstances (when my brother drowned at age 23, for instance), there is a lot of celebrating to go along with the mourning. In this case, I got to spend time with sibs and their spouses I care about and also got to meet a crop of cousins who I also really liked. We spent a lot of time over the three days hanging out at my MIL's house, eating and talking. There was only one truly discordant note, which happened Friday at the visitation. But first a little backstory: My husband's ex-wife has a hatred of him which is inexplicable in its intensity. Never mind that she moved in a new husband almost immediately after moving him out. That fury has grown over the last few years and she has waged a campaign of brainwashing which has resulted in both daughters refusing to see or speak to us since January of 2018. It's particularly perplexing with the younger daughter, who used to spend time every single weekend crying on my shoulder about how her mother was mean to her, didn't pay attention to her, was always on her phone, and so on. I was sympathetic and let her talk, but never chimed in with anything negative because I believe that's damaging to the kids. And except in cases of abuse, I think it's best for kids to have both parents in their lives.  So guess who waltzes in during visitation? She had brought the daughters, which is fair enough, but she had no business being there herself. The older one is 18, she could have brought herself and her sister. And, the ex even had her parents with her. And let me be clear, they weren't close to my husband's mother. Unfortunately, funerals are considered public events and you aren't allowed to throw anyone out. But what sort of sociopath comes to her ex-MIL's funeral under those circumstances? We were both livid. When I encountered her, she plastered a big fake smile on her face and greeted me. My one small consolation was the look of shock on her face when I gave her a dead-eyed stare and shook my head before walking away. We still had an hour of the visitation ahead of us so we slipped out and across the field to the tasting bar to regroup. This time we tried the Pappy 23 year. It's pricey, but seemed like the right occasion, and we were back in plenty of time for the service. As we listened to the show tunes that were included to honor her role in community theater, I like to think my mother-in-law would have understood our need to step out for a few minutes and would have appreciated that we toasted her memory. In fact, I know she'd have happily joined us if she could have!
I brought the book I'm currently reading, Independent People, but didn't need it that whole weekend. It's by Iceland's only Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness. It's set in the early 20th century leading up to World War I, and things are pretty grim. Most of the people who work the farms are malnourished, and freezing to death is not uncommon. Weight, then, is a sign of prestige. He says of one character, "He had also developed the corpulence that is so necessary to anyone who wishes his words to carry conviction in an assembly." It took me a full 67 pages of slogging before the book caught fire with me. I rarely give a book that long, but for some reason I stuck with it. And I'm glad I did. Laxness has a way of conveying scenes that I find really engaging. Like this description of Bjartur, the insanely stubborn crofter, welcoming guests to his squalid turf home after his wife has died in childbirth: "'I was thinking, Gunsa lass, that maybe you’d like to mix a batch of Christmas cakes for the feast. You’d be welcome to spice! Raisins, and even those big black things that look like horse’s dottles, prunes I think you call them. Don’t consider the expense; I’ll pay. And, of course, as many pancakes as everybody can hold. And strong coffee, woman; coffee strong enough to tar a tup with; I won’t stand for people drinking any old dish-wash at the funeral of a wife of mine.’" He doesn't give a damn about his dead wife, just that he look magnanimous to others. The grieving father of the dead woman offers up this morosely disjointed version of the Lord's Prayer for the funeral: "‘Our Father, which art in heaven, yes, so infinitely far away that no one knows where You are, almost nowhere, give us this day just a few crumbs eat in the name of Thy Glory, and forgive us if we can’t pay the dealer and our creditors and let us not, above all, be tempted to be happy, for Thine is the Kingdom.’"

Later in the book, Bjartur has remarried and is raising his new wife's sons along with the daughter who is not actually his. That wife, too, dies in despair after he kills her cow for no good reason, and one of the sons later wanders off and is found frozen the next spring. They all work 16 hours a day in miserable weather, ekeing out a barely adequate existence. Good times. At some point, Bjartur leaves the young teenaged daughter and the sons alone for the winter and sends a teacher to prepare them for confirmation into the Church. The teacher is wholly unsuitable - a consumptive alcoholic with a passle of children at home who seduces and impregnates the daughter. The passages where the kids are first encountering the Bible are entertaining: "The story of how He created the world aroused their interest immediately, even though they received no answer to the question of why He had had to do it; but they found it difficult to understand sin, or the manner of its entry into the world, for it was a complete mystery to them why the woman should have had such a passionate desire for an apple when they had no idea of the seductive properties of apples and thought they were some sort of potatoes. But less intelligible still was the flood that was caused by forty days’ rain, and forty nights’. For here on the moors there were some years when it rained for two hundred days and two hundred nights, almost without fairing; but there was never any Flood. When they begin to question their teacher more closely about this riddle, he replied, perhaps not without a trace of irritation: ‘Well, I don’t vouch for it in any case.’"

The daughter was enamored of the teacher and struggled to understand the Catechism:
"‘It says that God is infinitely good. Is He infinitely good too when someone is in trouble?’
The teacher: ‘Surely.’
Ásta Sóllilja: ‘Then He can’t very well be infinitely happy.’
He: ‘I know that, my dear’ - and suddenly losing his patience: ‘There’s not a word of it true. It’s utter rubbish. It’s meant for soft, neurotic people.’"

So that's where I am - sorrow for my husband's loss, outrage at his ex-wife's appalling behavior, and immersed in the dark world of poverty-stricken Iceland in the early 1900's. I'll end with this bit of wisdom from Bjartur to his youngest son:
"‘It’s a useful habit never to believe more than half of what people tell you, and not to concern yourself with the rest. Rather keep your mind free and your path your own.’"