Bless, Bless Iceland
‘Bless’ in Icelandic is what you say when you mean ‘good-bye’. I scribbled it on a piece of paper (my check book register actually), grabbed almost in panic from my carry-on as I tried to squelch my overwhelming emotions as Iceland disappeared from my eyesight, as our plane home moved into the clouds. I have been heart-pounding afraid of flying for 11 years, but that seemed completely gone as I kept my eyes wide open to gather every last bit into my brain of an island that has deeply effected and transformed me, transformed Paul, transformed the role of my work in my life and life in my work, transformed my family…and a hundred other things.
The ‘not afraid of flying’ was interesting, and unexpected…I didn’t even know it was going to happen. But very characteristic of the shedding of many things that took place on our 5-week journey, things we can lump under the umbrella of ‘fear’. But there I was squealing in delight at seeing the patterns emerge in the lava fields around the airport, and searching and being rewarded with a last glimpse of the Snæfellsjökull, a dear friend (glaciers seem to become friends in Iceland) who has figured so much in the lore we tell ourselves about our first time in Iceland. ‘We’ here is PaulMandyHazel, and our 5 weeks in August/September, is our first time, because we have all decided to prioritize going back to Iceland many many times.
This is not an uncommon reaction to visitors to this island. But to me it feels like something so deeply unique to my body, like the sparkling crystalline spreading and electrical popping of brand-new ‘falling in love’ that we experience and feels so unique, but has been happening for all of humanity’s existence to most of humanity. It is the vibrating duality of the utterly singular life and also the archetype we all inhabit. And what continues to pull my focus in my work, especially when I experience it in such a dramatic way. Iceland feels ours. Of course it is really the singular experience of our time together that is ours, the things we learned, the big sweeping clarity of our priorities is ours. But we bless Iceland as the place we found these things in our family and ourselves. We are not Icelanders, of course, but as someone who has been rootless my whole life, I have never felt such a sense that I belonged to a place.
It is beyond easy, almost automatic, to ‘ooooooh, and ahhhhh’ in Iceland (almost cliché), at the scenery, the Auroras, the falls, but it is another thing entirely to sit very quiet in yourself and listen not to the grinding workings of your own mind, but to the sound of time, the earth moving, of the massive cycle of water circulating beyond your own bodily reach. I found myself in the last week we had there, feeling I had now some tiny new understanding of the shape and size of my own body in relation to the sea, to the crust and to the stars, to the dark. And it was the deep pristine expanding quiet of Iceland that provided the welcoming vessel for this discovery.
Paul commented how he didn’t hear another person raise their voice, a siren, a horn honk, an airplane (we heard one or two in Reykjavik), a gunshot (which we hear once a month in our neighborhood, yikes) for weeks. We both craved and appreciated the long periods of silence possible, and seemed to veer away from noise (i.e. we didn’t partake in the Reykjavik night life this time.) For someone with an incredibly stress-ridden job (a bus driver) and who had just come out of a yearlong struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, Iceland was a long-needed salve and place of productivity for Paul. And for us both.
The quiet, the very dark night sky, the air that was sweet it was so fresh, the mossy clean water of the Hvita river I drank from melting glaciers, the sulfur smelling showers, the steaming geo-thermal swimming pools, the kind quiet but lively people, the fresh and simple food…..all of this transformed us, we all felt a greater sense of health and in the end, a kind of mental clarity.
Paul and I both seemed to shed anxiety (no more insomnia), I actually lost 7 lbs, my skin became very clear, as did Hazel’s (who has been troubled by eczema), trouble with circulation that I had in my arms went away completely. Anyhow, when you feel physical shifts like this, it’s hard to not feel like you want to stay forever. And we have, for fun, begun entertaining that idea. How could we stay forever? It’s thoughts like that that make you create big shifts in your life. Big sideways-unexpected shifts. And we both found in the end, we were hugely productive in our artwork, huge new directions for each of us. Paul, a renewed connection to being a maker/artist, and for myself the raised consciousness of the great importance of ‘not knowing what I’m doing’ in my process, and embrace it, seek it, savor it. Thank you Iceland.
‘Going south, going sideways’. Interesting that we use direction as descriptions for failure, when really it is still a journey. But the past year, really this entire project, has shown me the great power of going sideways, even when I was so very uncomfortable with what I perceived as ‘failing’. I began conceiving of, and writing my first grant to do this project – to take my partner and kid to Iceland, so we could collaborate on projects related to ‘burden’ – in February 2011. It seems like since then, things have been going sideways, askew, wrong, south…but then another unexpected way opens up that is actually better, though it has taken me a long time to recognize this pattern. I had planned to blog about my entire process along the whole way, leading up to and during the project, but that hasn’t always worked out. It is quite clear to me now in hindsight that creating a project centered around ‘burden, weight’ and involving my family, was my way to try to untangle some very painful and unhealthy things. And in the middle of that untangling, it seemed very difficult to write about, write about my process that involved repairing my family and myself. It’s everything that the work was about, but it was totally wrong to share it while going through it. Still I felt anxious about straying from what I ‘should’ be doing, what I said I was “going to do” with the project. Things kept on veering from what I ‘should’ be doing, but I kept just going, just sideways, or crooked or diagonal, but still so ill at ease with it.
But this summer, and about to embark on our trip, I felt ready and eager to be the documentarian! Despite just getting over an exhausting illness and jet lag, I got right to blogging when we arrived in Reykjavik. We’d have sporadic internet along the rest of our travels, but I’d share as much as I could in spurts. A few days in, trying to see so much in the day, work at making/finishing the things I needed for my photographs at night, actually resting….writing was hard. And then we went horseback riding, really special and exciting…but totally exacerbated an old injury in my spine and hip, and typing became pain-laden. The last day we were in Reykjavik, I had the choice of going to the geothermal swimming pool at Seltjarnarnes (with outdoor waterslide, geothermal seawater, rich in earth minerals and no chlorine!) or finishing up a blog post. I chose to sooth my body…very unlike the Seattle me.
‘I’ll catch up on it later’, I thought. Well when we arrived at our next destination, Hellnar, the Café across the road that was supposed to have internet, but was closing for the winter in a few days. I needed to work at night stitching, writing posture at my laptop was killing my neck, and I just was really sick of ‘blog voice’ in my head (where I was noting what I needed to write about as it was happening, composing sentences instead of JUST EXPERIENCING something). I was staring at a crystal clear blue sky surrounding a little domed glittery glacier and I gleefully shouted “I’m NOT GOING TO DO IT.” I just set down the idea of blogging about this experience, and decided to whole-heartedly jump into an internet silence.
After 4 weeks of no internet, I can tell you it was one of the best ideas I had, so healthy for breaking some time-wasting habits, and had incredible results in my piece of mind, focus and productivity. Everyone should do ‘connection detox’ sometime. And I’ve always used my camera as a kind of journaling short-hand for myself; I am actually so thrilled to now at home, get to go back through my 3000+images/films and process what we experienced in words, as I cull through all the raw material to make new artworks. It will be so much richer than a daily log of what we went to and my few thoughts, to now be able to see the experience as a whole, to be non-linear, skip around as I see connections between things, and the re-experience things now that I have time.
Plus I adore the awkwardness of having my ‘goodbye’ blog post be right after my ‘hello’ blog post. I like doing things wrong. I like writing long posts (a criticism I’ve gotten…) and I like going at my own, meandering slow pace. I’m a total badass at coasting sideways now. And I found my spirit animal on our third to last day in Hvalfjordur, a Raven expertly flying sideways in a gale force wind.
Our last Thursday of our trip, the day before the last possible day to shoot at a waterfall site I wanted to explore with a new costume I was frantically trying to finish, it started to snow and howl with wind. I had been at the table too long sewing, my neck hurt and I was missing saying hello to Glymur (more about him later). I bundled up and went for a walk to find the horse, too windy for him to come up to the top pasture where we lived. Pushing hard against the wind, getting my face sandblasted by some snow, the huge power lines I went under during my walk were vibrating with an alarming thrilling eerie roar.
But I heard the raven croaking. I quickly spun around looking for it, what we all seemed to do whenever we heard the raven sound. And then he went right over my head, not flapping his wings but balancing like he was surfing on the wind, going completely sideways, with grace and ease, getting a free ride. He croaked right above my head, as if to say, ‘check it out’. I then saw my horse-friend walk from around a little hill that was protecting them from the wind, he came over and gave me a horse high-five with his nose, and I said “Bless, Bless Glymur”, thinking it might be the last time I would see him (it wasn’t). He looked at me hard and soft at the same time, followed me a few steps and went back around the hill to get out of the wind. And I totally felt completely okay if the weather was too bad to shoot the next day, and I wasn’t able to use the one thing I had been working on the whole time. There is always enough time for everything, and what is ‘planned’ is usually not as valuable as what needs to happen.
Bless is not literally ‘good-bye’. A blessing is a sort of energy or protection that one person wraps around another, a bit of themselves left behind. And that is how I feel about this place. When an Icelander says “Bless Bless”, it is not with the snaky acid “s” that Americans say, but more like a very small whistling wind sucked in and around the mouth. Icelandic sounds to me both immensely soft and airy, and in the same mouthful rugged and hard edged, so much like the land that formed it. I miss hearing it everyday. But not for long!