Britta Marakatt-Labba’s embroidered scenes of Sami life.

embroidery art
Tomorrow I arrive in Hammerfest to begin my residency in the Arctic. I will be studying Norwegian myths and stories, including legends from the Sami people. Traditionally a nomadic culture with an economy that centers around reindeer herding and harvesting, the Sami are the only indigenous people recognized and protected in Scandinavia. I’ll be staying in Lapland, where many Sami still make their living off the land.britta_2-1024x366

However, like Native Americans living in America, the Sami aren’t some ancient tribe that exists in a time capsule. Many Sami lead thoroughly modern lives, while others combine elements of twenty-first century technology with ancient customs, beliefs, and practices. Admittedly, I’m still learning about their culture (and I hope to learn a lot more) but from everything I’ve read, Sami society, literature, and art seems utterly fascinating.

britta marakatt-labba.3.jpg

Today, I spent a few hours in Tromsø at the Center for Contemporary Art. There was an arresting exhibit of video art on view by Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova about the extermination of the Turkistan Tiger. While I was there, I also picked up a book on contemporary Sami art. This book featured works by Britta Marakatt-Laba, a Swedish artist who makes abstract yet precise images of her northern landscape. I love embroidery art (I love any “feminine” coded genre that transcends the purely decorative) and Britta’s pieces are so cool. Gestural. Tonal. She says a lot with thread and cloth.

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Over the next month, I hope to feature more Scandinavian and Sami artists on my blog. It’s one of my many goals for this writer’s residency. Since I won’t be sharing my fiction (yet), I’m going to use my site as a place to highlight works by artists that are entirely new to me, like Britta.

See more of Britta Marakatt-Labba’s work here.

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Jetlagged in Zurich & where I’m headed next.

rhythmic-landscape-on-lake-geneva-1908On the plane ride from Boston to Zurich I met a girl named Desiree who was flying home to Bern. She had been visiting her boyfriend (a Mexican-American serving in the US Air Force). She missed him already, and I told her I missed my guy, too, even though we had only been apart for a few hours.

When we got off the plane, she helped me find the shuttle train, those quiet and sleek trains that seem to have been installed in every major airport. I was asking her about Switzerland—do you like living in Bern? what is the best thing to eat while I’m here? what’s cool about Zurich?—and when we got on the train, she pointed up with one finger. Her eyes were the kind of pristine china blue that inspires men to write longwinded rock ballads. “Listen,” she told me. “They play cows and the sound of birds and that big instrument that you blow? That big one that is shaped like a…” here she used her hands to draw a large swoop in the air. “That’s Switzerland,” she said as the sound of mooing started playing over the intercom. She laughed.

Earlier in our conversation, I asked her what she liked about America. She said a lot of things, but my favorite was this: She said it was just like the movies. She wanted to go to a house party, having seen so many on screen. “Those red plastic cups!” she exclaimed. “Solo cups,” I provided. “I love them, too.” I asked if she got to play beer pong, and she said yes, and even though this sounds silly—your country has cows, mine has house parties and drunk college students—it made me feel infinitely better about America. We’re the country of flip cup and Hollywood and boyfriends in the Air Force and lots and lots of land.maggia-delta-before-sunrise-1893

I’m in a Holiday Inn in Zurich now. It’s a 24-hour layover before I fly to Oslo. I can’t sleep, because my body hasn’t figured out which knob to pull to reset and rewind its inner watch. I spend the day wandering around the city. I spent hours in an art museum (more on that another time) before walking aimlessly around the streets until my feet hurt from the cobblestones and my mind felt foggy. It’s a Sunday, so all the shops are closed, but it was 50-something degrees out and it seemed like the entire population had come out to celebrate. I walked across bridges, back and forth crossing one side to the next, like I was lacing up a shoe. On each bridge, I stopped to look south, out to Lake Zurich, out to the Alps. I’m always looking toward mountains.

Tomorrow I fly to Oslo. From there, I go further north. It’s as though I harbor a compass inside my ribcage, an iron needle that hums and worries when it’s being ignored. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always fantasized about the far north, the arctic, the cold, the clear truth of ice.

I’ll be there soon. Zurich was lovely, and I miss America already, but I’m excited for Finnmark. I hope to write more on this blog while I’m there, so whoever is reading this… I’ll see you again soon.

Images by Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, who may just be my new favorite artist. He believed in something called “parallelism,” a system of symmetry and rhythm that connected people to the landscape and created world harmony. (I think? I’m not sure I fully understand.) His work reminds me of the Viennese Secessionists (my fave) and I spent a very long time in a room with his paintings today, just staring. Today was a good day. 

Fiction: What the stones know.

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Last winter, I submitted this lil’ bit of flash fiction to a contest. The winner would get a scholarship to attend the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat. I didn’t win. (But I was a finalist, so that’s something.) I’ve never published the piece—it just languished on my computer and I kept meaning to add to it but never did.

I’ve decided to publish it here. Enjoy!

What the stones know. 

Stones are the best storytellers. Few people know this, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Stones, with their ancient hearts and silent breath, speak the beauty of the world more eloquently than any bard, more honestly than any reporter. Even when they’re sleeping, even in the years where they lay dormant, waiting, even now, they still know.

But on the shores of Iceland, some stones still speak. In low rumbles, they reveal their stories. The newer stones, the ones that were forged by fire spit up from the earth (that angry infant still hasn’t cooled at her core), are positively chatty compared to their elder counterparts. And in the center of the country, where stones are split and torn apart, ripped by forces they understand all too well, there the stones speak with rage, telling stories that fall like shards from their mouths, knife-sharp and intended to hurt.

But don’t listen to those stones. Listen to the stones that curl against each other, smooth and round as merry wives. They roll shoulder to shoulder as the waves pull them up and down the shore, and they go with the ocean, happily. These are the stones that tell the best tales.

They tell of fish that are larger than cruise ships, with dull eyes and gleaming scales. They tell of pearl-white seawolves, creatures with large teeth that run through the waves, disguised by the surf and safe in their speed. They tell of men as large as mountains with faces only half as sharp. They tell of cloud women who wrap the air around them in diaphanous cloaks, their feet bare as they step down from the sky and onto the black sand shore, where they gather treasures to bring home to the moon. And sometimes, if you ask nicely, they will tell you of the drowned girl.

She was a child, a black-haired little one who belonged to a fisherman. She lived on a cliff over the sea, near a big stone bridge that attracted tourists with cameras and busses filled with foreign faces. But the little girl ignored them all. She wanted to learn to fly and at night she dreamed of airplanes and engines. One day, as she ran over the stone bridge, arms outstretched like wings, her mouth humming a quiet tune, one foot slipped. It was followed by the other. The bridge had tricked her. The jagged stones had shifted, and so she fell.

The girl was never found, and her father never knew what happened to her. But the stones knew. They curled around her body, one by one, as the waves granted them motion. Salt turned her skin white and the tide washed away the blood. The stones continued their slow crawl over her body, hiding her from sight, protecting her from any more harm. Or perhaps they wanted to keep her on earth, never to fly. Either way, she is gone, and only the stones know where to find her bones.

Related: Image-based fiction, inspired by Finland. 

Above image: Detail from a painting by Rebecca Chaperon

Things with wings and grief like fire.

At_Night_Achile_CasanovaI’ve been thinking a lot about bats lately, which is due in part to working at Islandport Press (I’m a contributing editor, one of my many part-time positions). Islandport is a small Maine publishing house that has produced many great books, including  a very charming board book written by my co-worker, Melissa Kim. This particular book, published in a partnership with the Maine Audubon Society, is about the daily life of a little brown bat. It is cute and funny and full of science and I really adore it.

But it doesn’t sell quite as well as other picture books—sweeter picture books, ones with earth-bound animals like cats and horses. And I’m not sure why. Is it because bats aren’t as cute? Because bats are scary and gross? Don’t kids want to read about the only mammal capable of true flight? Haven’t they heard of Stellaluna? I was a girl who loved bats—I can’t be the only one of my kind.

And now that I’m thinking about them, bats seem to be everywhere, including in my memory. Several years ago, I was visiting a friend in Austin following a horrible heartbreak. I was devastated—filled with a kind of grief and desperation that I hadn’t known before, the kind that climbs from your stomach to your heart and back again, trailing hot fingers of pain through my torso, up and down and up and down. Few things brought me joy, but the bat bridge did.

In Austin, there is a bridge that connects the two sides of the city. The walkway below the bridge smells earthy and strange from the guano, so much of it. Bats roost below, clinging to the bottom of the man-made cavern. Every night at twilight, bats stream out from under their hanging spaces. Hundreds, thousands of creatures, wings spread, chirping, devouring the night. bats_austinI was so taken by the bats that I went back the next evening, and again the next. The sight soothed me with its strangeness, its utter unfamiliarity. I felt better, watching those bats. Less lonely somehow.

Now, years later, I am married to the man who once broke my heart. I’m as far from Austin as one can be and still be in America. I wonder if I will ever see those bats again—if I will ever need them, like I once did, to heal an aching heart.

[Top image: At Night by Achille Casanova (1861-1948) medium unknown.]

Two Nice Things: Joy Kichi’s glass botanicals & I’m going to Colorado!

Joy Kichi Glass Art Cactuses
Joy Kichi Glass Art

Today I stumbled across Joy Kichi’s instagram account, where the artist shares her amazing glass cactuses and botanicals. Check ’em out! 

I’m really feeling the southwestern vibe this morning, which makes perfect sense because I leave for Colorado tomorrow. Garrett and I are going on our (belated) honeymoon to the mountains. I’m looking forward to…

Iceland is magic.

Andre-Ermolaev_Iceland_photograph
2015 has been a strange year for me. It’s been a year of very high highs (engagement! book deal!) and very low lows (cancer. surgery.) and all the forward motion has my head whirling. So, I did what I always do in times of stress: I booked it outta there.

I’m writing this from Iceland. I’m staying in a little wilderness pod on a peninsula in western Iceland, about an hour or so north of Reykjavik. I’ve been to Iceland before, but I didn’t get to truly experience it. Now, I’m traveling abroad alone for the first time in my life and I love it. I’ve been here for less than 24 hours, but I’ve already swam in an outdoor public pool, took a sulfur steam bath, climbed to the top of Reykjavik’s highest church, tripped into a waterfall, and hiked over a Viking ruin. It’s a little lonely being here by myself, but in a way I really enjoy. I talk to myself. I eat what I want. I take naps in the car. I ignore all itineraries because the only one I need is in my own damn head.Andre_Iceland_photography
Anyway, for the next five days, I’m going to be bumming around the Icelandic countryside looking for hidden folk and snacking on delicious cheese. (Seriously, the cheese here is like nothing I’ve ever tasted—creamy beyond belief, flavorful yet mild. Mmmm I want more just thinking about it.)

In the meantime, please check out some of my previous Scandinavian-themed blog posts:

1. A post about “Friluftsliv” a rad Norwegian word that means connecting to nature, soaking in the wilderness, and feeling peace from green things.
2. Have you ever heard of the Jolabokaflood? It’s a holiday tradition that I think is absolutely BRILLIANT. (Also, did you know Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country on earth?)
3. A little bit of imagery-inspired fiction (or to use a title I don’t really like, “Old Finnish People With Stuff On Their Heads)
Iceland areal shot
And finally, the pictures above are by the very talented photographer Andre Ermolaev. Seen from above, the Icelandic landscape is even more otherworldly (and trust me, it’s pretty surreal already). His photographs look like beautiful abstract paintings. He captures the natural beauty so wonderfully, with striking compositions and colors that really sing. Check it out.

Sunday daydreaming: Kilian Schöenberger’s misty woods & “Indie Alaska.”

Image by Kilian Schoenberger, via his website
Image by Kilian Schoenberger, via his website

It’s snowing again. Es schneit. Il neige. Det snöar. I don’t believe it will ever stop snowing. It is going to simply pile up and up and up until we can walk out our bedroom window onto a shifting landscape of cold pale light. I’m drowning in snow. My eyes are starving for color, but instead it’s wind-whipped and white everywhere I look. My eyelids froze shut when I was walking outside yesterday, eyelashes glued together by snowflakes and tears. It sounds poetic, but it felt strange and disorienting.

There’s no color in the Maine landscape right now, which means I must find it elsewhere, and right now, “elsewhere” is a screen. But Kilian Schöenberger’s photographs are gorgeous and make me view the winter landscape with a little more forgiveness. It can be beautiful, despite my cabin fever. kilian schoenberger trees

Continue reading

Let’s go to Greenland.

Summer in Tasiilaq
Summer in Tasiilaq

It was created in beauty. One October day the temperature drops 50 degrees in four hours, and the sea is as motionless as a mirror. It’s waiting to reflect a wonder of creation. The colds and the sea glide together in a curtain of heavy gray silk. The water grows viscous and tinged with pink, like a liqueur of wild berries. A blue fog of frost smoke detaches itself from the surface of the water and drifts across the mirror. Then the water solidifies. Up out of the dark sea the cold now pulls a rose garden, a white blanket of ice blossoms formed from salt and frozen drops of water.

I’ve wanted to go to Greenland ever since reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow (a gorgeous mystery novel excerpted above that I highly recommend). Today, my wanderlust got a massive boost from Visit Greenland‘s awe-inspiring Flickr account. I have never seen so many gorgeous photos of ice and snow! There are thousands of images of glaciers glowing pink and blue, colorful homes and starry nights, wild foxes and bears and seals, and native people proudly showing off their homes. I picked a few of my favorites, after the jump: Continue reading

In Norway they call it Friluftsliv; in Maine we call it everyday life.

Ken Douglas Norway 2My love for all things Scandinavian continues with the word friluftsliv. What is that unpronounceable string of syllables, you ask? It’s a Norwegian concept, and there is no direct translation in the English language for what it means (in case you want to drop it into conversation, it’s pronounced free-loofts-liv). But anyone who lives in Maine will recognize the feeling—it’s that sense of being connected to nature, of feeling part of the greater world, of being outdoors and breathing the air, knowing that with each breath you are taking the exhalation of trees and droplets of lake water and even the matter of mountains into your lungs. Ken Douglas NorwayOkay, I’m editorializing a bit. Friluftsliv means “free air life” or “open air living” and it is similar to the concept of allemannsretten, which literally means “all men’s right” but is often translated as “freedom to roam.” (Did you know you can camp on anyone’s land in Norway, so long as you’re a certain distance from buildings? Free roaming for all!) Coined relatively recently, in 1859 by poet Henrik Ibsen, friluftsliv is a way of living that brings us into close contact with the great outdoors. It’s about connecting with nature, living in harmony with the green things that grow around us. Like the Danish concept of Hygge, frilutsliv provides another barometer for happiness—an alternative way of approaching harsh winters. Don’t hibernate—celebrate!

Scandinavian culture is so fascinating, and the longer I live in Maine, the more I appreciate their cold-weather wisdom.

Read more about this untranslatable word at Mother Nature Network (there’s also a short documentary at the link, which is great for procrastinating/feeding your wanderlust).

Images by Ken Douglas.

A very merry approach to death. 

merry cIn Romania, there is a place called the “merry cemetery” or in Romanian, Cimitirul Vesel  (cimitirul=cemetery; vesel=joyful, jolly). In the place of tombstones with their solid, solemn permanence, the Merry Cemetery uses wooden crosses, made from oak and painted by local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş, who started the tradition in 1935. (Since his death, his apprentices and followers have kept it alive. Now the graveyard has over 900 crosses, all decorated in the same bold style). Each headstone tells the story of the person buried beneath it, but not in the usual “here lies beloved Mary, wife, mother, and churchgoer” format. No, instead of providing brief, impersonal sketches of the departed’s life, these crosses are decorated with irreverent poems that focus on the follies and foibles of the dead, the colorful details that, in a more staid and stoic society, would cause the corpses beneath to roll over in shock.

This is, I think, the most interesting thing about the Merry Cemetery—aside from the folk art paintings and the striking cerulean hues. This is a place where death is allowed to be funny, even joyful. The dead don’t lose their personalities; instead of being placed beneath bland and anonymous pieces of granite, the dead lie below brightly colored tributes to their idiosyncrasies. A critical mother-in-law is remembered in a rhyming epitaph for her sharp words and wit. A known womanizer is immortalized for his favorite vice. (“Ioan Toaderu loved horses,” reads his headstone, “One more thing he loved very much / to sit at a table in a bar / next to someone else’s wife.” I believe it rhymes in Romanian.)

merryc2I’m afraid of too many things, which is perhaps why I love this approach to death. It seems natural and human. Consoling, in that strange way (I think dark humor is comforting, even when it’s a bit terrible and offensive—it takes the sting away from real terrors). The moment I saw images from the Merry Cemetery, I remembered a book I once read about Frida Kahlo that describes the artist’s feelings about death. Obviously, the visuals call to mind Mexico’s Day of the Dead, with its sugar skulls and dancing skeletons, but I think the resemblance goes even deeper than that. According to this book, Kahlo saw her death as a figure that was always close, always waiting for her, a thing that loved her, and wanted to see her home. It was her skeletal shadow. If you look at death like this, like Kahlo did and perhaps some Romanian artists do—death isn’t the enemy. Just a friend that you don’t want to meet right now.

Images via Flickr here & here.