The casserole dish in my hand felt suddenly heavy. In front of me were three long tables full of food: fried rice, potato cakes, shrimp rolls, toasted baguettes, quiches and hummus with vegetables. All homemade. All basically healthy and hearty. And here I was with a casserole dish of chocolate chip cookies.
It was FN Dag (UN Day for us English speakers), and the Hazelnut's barnehage had a celebration, complete with singing and food. The kids in her avdeling (class) wore pink face paint splashed across their cheeks and had their names on pink sashes across their cold weather parkdresses. We were supposed to bring food that represented our home country.
I dug into my "America stash" and finished off my last bag of Nestlé chocolate chips for the occasion. Because that's how much I love my daughter.
But once I was actually at the school, elbow to elbow with other parents arriving to drop off their food contributions, I felt a wave of self-consciousness break over me.
Did I really show up with the only dessert? Is that weird for an event like this? Were we asked not to bring desserts? Did I miss that in the translation of the notice from the barnehage? Were people opposed to giving sugar to the kids? Was this a Norwegian thing I just didn't understand yet? Would people see the little American flag next to my cookie casserole and roll their eyes? I might has well have brought a big sack of McDonald's burgers...
For the last two months, I have been swimming in the Oslo startup scene. It's an exciting place to be. Norway is poised to make the most of its status as one of the fastest growing hubs for innovation in Europe. There's wealth, education, competency and infrastructure aplenty here. Since 2011, a vibrant network of coworking spaces, incubators, accelerators and angel investors has developed in this fertile environment. And here's the book on all of it: Startup Guide Oslo.
I was honored when Startup Everywhere approached me about writing the sixth in their growing library of entrepreneurial handbooks. Startup Guide Oslo offers a comprehensive overview of the city for its current and would-be entrepreneurs. Everyone in the guide was selected via a nomination and voting process. In August and September, I raced all over the city interviewing the major players.
I had the chance to visit ten very different coworking spaces in town: 657 Oslo, Avd. Frysja, Bitraf, Fellesverkstedet, Gründergarasjen, The Factory, MESH, Oslo International Hub, Sentralen and SoCentral. You'll find insights (including practical stats like square meters, number of desks/offices, pricing) and beautiful interior photos in the book.
Having done all the plausibly necessary prep, Jonathan and I set out for our first backpacking/camping trip with our 15-month-old daughter on a sunny Saturday in July.
Our destination was a little lake called Skjennungen, approximately 5km from Frognerseteren (depending on the trail you choose), at the end of the 1 Tbane line. We've camped there sans baby twice before. It's close to Skjennungstua, an unmanned hytte on top of a hill, which gave me some comfort in the event of a freak thunderstorm or baby-related emergency. There are also trashcans near the hytte, which meant we could unload some waste weight before the longer hike home on Sunday. Our route took us out by way of Ullevålseter, a manned hytte, where we planned to stop for a coffee break. Total distance over two days was only about 12 km (7.5 miles). Click to enlarge the map below.
We left after naptime on Saturday. The metro ride took about 40 minutes, and we disembarked at Frognerseteren at 3:45pm. The ability to start summer activities late in the day like this is one of the many things we love about Norway. Sunset in Oslo that Saturday wasn't until after 10pm.
- In Jonathan's pack (32 pounds): tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm clothes for the kid, extra socks for all, books for all, food for one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner, a backpacking cook stove and pot, plastic cups and sporks, water pump and filter, camera, and extra backpacking-related stuff (small lantern, waterproof matches, knife, etc.).
- In my pack (40 pounds): a 15-month-old Cheeks McGee, water for all, first aid kit, trail snacks, diapers and wipes and waste bags, the kid's favorite stuffed animal.
Over the next two hours, we tramped along dry, well-marked trails, taking time to point out different types of trees, birds, and flowers to the enraptured baby girl. She got to see butterflies in motion, which garnered major giggles. She ate blueberries. She tried to get a good look at an itty bitty frog that her mama couldn't quite catch from within a patch of grass. She picked up stones and traced her fingers through the dirt in the trail. She tried to sing along to various hiking songs. Happy Trails, Row Your Boat, etc. But mostly she sat quietly with a fresh breeze in her hair as her parents talked about interesting things. McGee was a backpack champ. After a couple of breaks, she even voluntarily returned to the pack and attempted to saddle up herself. We will be buying our own Deuter Kid Comfort 3 soon!
Arriving at Skjennungen just after 5:30pm, we decided to eat dinner before setting up camp. (One thing about having a baby--even an easy-going one--with you... there's less flexibility when it comes to the timing of meals.) A couple of campsites closest to the trail were already taken up by tents, but one less accessible site, on the opposite side of the lake was open. After boiling water on the stove, I sat at a picnic table and fed the kid, while Jonathan hurried to stake our claim.
We're the Camps. We camp. It's something we've done together since the beginning. Jonathan and I have pitched two-person tents in Yosemite and Grand Teton and Joshua Tree, as well as myriad other campgrounds in the eastern Sierra. When we moved to Norway, we brought all our camping gear along for the ride, including both our 3-season and 4-season North Face tents. In the last five years, we've camped out on Kvalvika Beach in Lofoten and in the shadow of Galdhøpiggen, Norway's tallest mountain, but mostly we've stuck close to home, trekking not so very far into Oslomarka, the wilderness area surrounding the capital city. Having the marka so accessible is one of the reasons we love living in Oslo.
Two years ago this month, we traveled to Bodø in Nordland to chase the midnight sun. We rented a little fishing cabin to allow us to travel light. What we didn't know then was that the girl basking in the glow of midnattsola--slathered in bug repellant, signing the guest book tucked into a tall cairn at the lookout, and grinning victoriously at her husband--was a couple weeks pregnant. That was the last "camping" adventure we had before our daughter was born in April of 2015.
Last summer, camping couldn't have seemed more impossible.
Our little Cheeks McGee was a born screamer, and her mama's best coping mechanism was a controlled eating and sleeping schedule. The babe was six months old before we attempted putting her to bed anywhere except her own crib. That trip to Berlin proved she could be a champion overnight sleeper no matter where we went, but it was already October, and the window for camping in Norway had closed.
When my semester ended in May, I was craving some time in the woods. I hauled our camping bins up from the cellar and inspected the contents. If we wanted to pull off any camping trips this summer, there was much to be done and much to be acquired: a tent to accommodate three people; sleeping bag for the babe; a backpack-style carrier; a new first aid kit.
On top of that, it's been five years since we owned a car, so any camping trip here requires backpacking, as well. This was no problem in the old days. We tramped many, many miles with 20-25 lb packs. Now one of us would also be shouldering a growing toddler, along with her proper-care-and-feeding miscellany.
But I was determined we wouldn't miss another summer. It was time to go camping in Oslo with a baby!
- We started working out in the evenings after the baby was in bed, focusing on strength-training for our glutes, quads, hams, and calves, as well as core exercises.
- We researched tents and ended up buying an MSR Mutha Hubba NX 3-person, purchased at Oslo Sportslager downtown. Adqequate brand selection; knowledgable staff. An employee allowed us to set up the tent we wanted in the store before we made our final decision.
- We tried on multiple backpack baby-carriers, ultimately borrowing a Deuter Kid Comfort 3 from a friend. In the weeks leading up to our camping adventure, we tried out the pack around our neighborhood and on a shorter hike. This worthwhile endeavor taught us lots of important things. Especially that my hips were impressively designed to bear children, both in the sense of birth and lugging the kid around later on. When the time came, I would carry the babe; my husband, devoid of hips, would carry almost everything else.
- We followed the weather forecast, watching for a dry week and weekend. Best weather website for Nowegian weather: yr.no.
- We made food plans and packing lists.
- We purchased bug repellant; natural stuff for the babe and her dad and DEET-heavy stuff for her sweet-blooded mama. Also bug-bite reliever. Also a bug-net for the backpack carrier, a last-minute panic-purchase that didn't get used once. All this I found at Chillout Travel in Grünerløkka. Fun little shop with lots of expensive gear, but also a campy cafe and a cozy basement spot to hole-up and plan an adventure.
- We pored over Den Norske Turistforening (DNT: Norwegian Trekking Association) website and maps, choosing our destination and route. Criteria included proximity to transportation and personal familiarity.
- We repeated to each other over and over that our bar for success on this outing would be low. Everyone comes out alive = We did it! No pressure.
The stars aligned two weeks ago. After several hot, dry days, there was sunshine in the forecast. All three of us were fit and healthy. Jonathan was in town. I was still on summer break. McGee hadn't yet begun barnehage. It was time.
Look for future posts this week on the hike itself, along with details about our destination (Skjennungen), and additional commentary on the gear we used. Spoiler alert: It was awesome! Thanks for reading. It's good to be back.
No single thought is more important than any other, at least at the outset.
The trees remain bare all over the city. From my chair on the third floor of the main library I can see across the city to the hills on the opposite side of the fjord, and it is all still black and gray and white. An overcast sky, mottled whites and grays, snagged by the lazy gray turns of seagulls. Spring is on the verge. Spring is tightly wound. Spring is kinetic. There is a paper cut on my thumb. The man beside me at the desk has neon green plugs stuffed deep into his ear canals to block out even the slight rufflings of pages, the scratch of pens, the gentle tapping of keyboards, the sniffing back of running noses, the gurgle of upturned water bottles, the muffled footsteps, the swish of closing doors, the whir of a distant printer, the whispered questions at the reference desk, the unzipping of backpacks. All white and gray noises--delightful sounds--of library life. The man with earplugs finds even these distracting. I don't envy him. And perhaps I am him, too. These sounds now populate this paragraph because I couldn't or wouldn't shut them out and focus on something else. But this is as it should be, perhaps, if I stick with my original thesis. In the moment, unguarded, open, no single thought is more important than any other.
My semester is drawing to a close. There are a few weeks left, but most of it will be dedicated to research and paper writing. Finals come in mid-May, but there's much to do before then. I find it easier now to sit someplace and focus on my assigned readings and writings. I find it easier to tap into that sacred vein where I keep my words and release them onto the page.
In the beginning--January--it was not like this.
Honestly, I felt a bit dead. When I tried to read, the stuff--plot, philosophy--couldn't find purchase in my mind. It was like throwing undercooked spaghetti at the kitchen wall and watching it bounce stupidly and disappointingly to the floor. It was like trying to eat something delicious with a no taste buds. Ash in my mouth. Not for the first time since my daughter was born, I began to wonder whether I would ever be the same again. Whether it would always be this new, numb way. Dread came in a flood and sat there, a stagnant pool. When I moved, everything felt heavy. Heart, hands, head. But I kept trying. And there were, occasionally, shudders and sparks that reminded me of my old self.
It was Whitman that got the gears moving again. A bilge pump. "The young mother and the old mother comprehend me."
It was Hemingway that said, "Don't worry. You have always written before."
Offered in memory of Mimi Chiang
In the fall, I had the honor of receiving an invitation to write an artist's profile for Brygg Magasin's debut all-English issue. Brygg is a big, beautiful magazine covering Scandinavian culture, with an emphasis on coffee. (Brygg is Norwegian for brew.) I opted to interview Kenneth Karlstad, a young, award-winning Norwegian filmmaker. We met at a cafė downtown and talked for a couple of hours, and I drank my first coffee. Ever. Because I wanted to stay true to Brygg's mission... and because I'm a 32-year-old mom of an infant, so, though she is a "good sleeper," I still desperately need caffeine.
Kenneth was a great interview subject. Easy to talk to. Candid. Funny. And we were both pleased with how the piece came out.
In September, the Oslo Writers' League (OWL) launched its third annual anthology, These Twisted Roots. Our whole crew gathered in one of the beautiful halls at Deichmanns Biblioteket, the main library in town, and lots and lots of people showed up to support us! (Turns out offering beer and wine for sale in a gorgeous library really brings in the crowds.) Authors read. A choir sang (Dagsangerne på Sagene). We auctioned off the work of our resident illustrator, Evelinn Enoksen. And all proceeds from the sale of the book and the auction--roughly 17,000 kroner on the night--were donated to Redd Barna, Save the Children - Norway, and its work aiding Syrian refugees.
What a night! It's taken me six whole months to get over the excitement. Okay, okay. It's taken me six months to get my act together and post a blog about it. I'm writing this now with one eye on my busy, busy, busy nine-month-old daughter. She's everywhere, and she takes my brain with her for the ride.
Anyway, I'm proud and happy to say that "Invisibility," which is possibly the best short story I've every written, is one of the fine works available in These Twisted Roots. You can buy your copy today via Amazon, soft cover or Kindle, or via The Book Depository, which offers free international shipping.
A couple of photos from the night:
TOP: Deichmanns Biblioteket on the big night; MIDDLE: Me with my partners in crime and hilarity, the inimitable Zoë Harris and the incomparable Chelsea Ranger; BOTTOM: All the OWL authors and poets who could be present to celebrate. Such a great group!
If you're a writer in Oslo, you're welcome to join us. The Oslo Writers' League meets monthly in the basement of Deichmanns Biblioteket; but you can also join our Facebook group and lurk for a while until you're ready to take the next big step. We're already prepping for our 2016 anthology. Hope to see you there!
It takes guts to say, I am an artist.
I read to my daughter: I am an artist and I paint a blue horse and... a red crocodile and... a yellow cow and... a pink rabbit...
Jonathan juggles to distract her while I clip her nails. How did they get so long so fast? Her fine motor skills are developing quickly. I have the pinch marks on my throat to prove it.
Then I sit in class and sip my coffee. The coffee is new. It makes me shiver with energy, at least for a while.
We are reading Joyce. Easy Joyce. Dubliners. When the teacher asks if anyone has read Ulysses, no hands go up. I volunteer, "I've tried and failed to read Ulysses," which gets a laugh and murmurs of agreement from the class.
I think of Ireland. We visited two years ago and traveled from Dublin to Killarney by train. I wrote and enjoyed both the flicker of emerald fields through the windows and my own reflection in the glass. It was a simpler, vainer time. There was a stop called Mallow. I ate butterscotch ice cream. We tramped the Dunloe Gap.
Back to Joyce. "Araby." I wonder what a rusted bicycle pump is doing in the Garden of Eden.
There are people who are compelled to write what they see, what they know, what they think, even if it isn't popular. Even if it is ridiculed. Even if it earns no money. Glimmers are all they need.
I listen to a podcast. The host says she has decided not to use the word "should" anymore. There is no need to obligate herself to the whims of life. When she does that, she saps her energy and emotional health, leaving only a depleted version of herself for her husband, daughter, friends. The people who ought to receive the best of what she can offer.
Ticket controllers move through the tram car. This happens frequently now. A change since we moved to Oslo five years ago. The boy across from me shrugs and gestures to his dead iPhone. He can't pull up his ticket. He waits for the control officer to give him a receipt for his fine. Instead, the officer reaches into his pocket and presents a portable iPhone charger, a small purple cylinder, and the boy is able to show his ticket. I can feel his relief.
A bitter wind fights the static electricity for control over my unwashed hair. The next bus is eight minutes away. I stomp my feet to warm them.
When I'm acting in my role as mother, I am keenly aware that I'm not reading enough, that I'm falling behind on my schoolwork, that my writing life is disintegrating in my absence. When I'm acting in my role as student, I am painfully aware that I am not holding my daughter in my arms, teaching her, protecting her, enjoying her. When I'm writing, which is almost never, I know I'm neglecting my home, as well as the work I would get paid to do. I am divided against myself.
I felt my mind shudder. Like a disused door pulled unexpectedly over warped floorboards and open for the first time in many dusty years. Like a cold engine under the rusted hood of a car long parked in the drive. Like the thick, taut, chestnut skin over the hock of a horse bitten by the first nasty fly of summer. Like the empty shake of the faucet head after the pipes thaw and water surges forth again.
It happened in my 19th Century American Literature class at the University of Oslo.
Some might think 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday is a bit early for Walt Whitman's famous ego-trip (or transcendental treatise) "Song of Myself". Not I. It's one of my favourite poems. Fourteen hundred-odd lines. Alliteration and assonance and anaphora abound. Catalogues of people and jobs and points of origin. Hot, sweating, teeming, odorous imagery. Free verse. God and god and you and I and democracy and sex and the procreant nature of our species and a lens on the world that zooms in and out and violently, reverently in again.
Being back in the program after a year of maternity leave has not all been easy. Leaving the Cheeks with her dad three days a week took some adjustment. And though I managed to step into the classroom setting in the same old way--taking a seat near the front, speaking soon and loudly and often--I felt rusty, to use a seriously predictable cliché. I still feel that way in Week 3.
But as we delved into Whitman's "Song", zeroing in on one of my favourite sections, the dust seemed to shake itself out of the crevices of my brain.
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
My teacher chose me to read these lines aloud. Lines I love dearly and have thought about a thousand times since I first read them as an undergrad more than a decade ago. Lines I'd forgotten, along with all other literary references and artistic trivia, due to my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter.
Ammetåke, the Norwegians call it. Breastfeeding fog.
Reading again of grass and the many things it could be--for Whitman, for you, for me--I felt my mind shudder. Like the sulphurous snagging of the head of a match dragged fast across the rough panel of a matchbox. The rasp of it was delicious even in its unsparking first effort. I could smell the potential.
I offered my close reading of the text and enjoyed the viewpoints of my classmates. When the two-hour lecture ended, I sighed with pleasure and exertion and packed my bag in a hurry so as to return home for a couple of hours and see my husband and daughter. That's how fast my mind can regress into those lower gears. It's a relief. A retreat.
But suddenly a girl who sits near me in class was standing before me. Her eyes were wide and bright, her smile the same, as she asked, "Do you teach?"
I struggled to pull myself back into student mode. My mind shuddered. Like a stick shift pushing against a sluggish clutch.
"I have taught," I answered carefully. "But only writing."
She nodded. I recognised in her all the things I was in the years before I became a mother: enchanted by literature, smitten by learning, eager and interested and dying to be the one who has the answers if only to keep these conversations going with any kindred spirit wiling to join the fun. And then I heard myself say:
"Actually, that's why I'm here. I want to teach literature someday, and this degree will allow me to do that."
Would you believe, friend, that my time in the rabbit hole of early motherhood had made me forget that? I'm in school for a reason. There is a goal. A return to an original dream. To teach. To connect Whitman and his everyman, all-consuming love, pondering of the divine skin-to-skin with people who have never read him before.
That goal feels far away. Impossible, to be honest, particularly with my mind in this shuddering state.
"You would be a wonderful teacher," she said.
This time, beyond the shudder, there came a spark.