Wanting Moor

In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells, and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.

So begins Independent People, or in the original Icelandic, Sjálfstætt Fólk or Self-standing Folk. The author, Halldór Laxness, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, partly on the strength of this 1934 epic. I flirted with the novel for months, pulling it from the shelf, wondering about the sheep on the cover, quickly replacing it, though never quite scooting it into the darker recesses of the bookcase. After settling upon it, I was visited by the uncanny sense that I had chosen just the right novel at just the right time, a dose of serendipity that may carry Independent People to the finish line in my ‘read of the year’ reckoning.

It is a hefty thing, 482 closely spaced pages in the 1997 Vintage International Edition, translated by J.A. Thompson. I feared, diving into the opening, that amid the supernatural rattlings of the devil, Kolumkilli, and his evil changeling Gunnvor, the heaths, the stones, and the bleating sheep, my reading might be hexed. But tenacity like that of any old crofter seeped through; before long, I picked up the ultrasonic heartbeat of Independent People, faintly at first, then pounding so wildly that I won’t soon forget the emotional journey I took within its pages. For the next two weeks, I dwelt in the hovel of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a protagonist so completely fleshed that I can forever picture him schlumping through the low doorway at the end of the long day, chores set aside, ewes in the pen, scowl on his highly un-evolved brow. I can also imagine just what he might say, or his snide glances towards his family and neighbors.

Bjartur is a man who flings contempt at the notion that his property, acquired after 18 years of indentured service, might be worth less than his appraisal because of the witch Gunnvor’s hauntings and the local requirement of placing stones on the witch’s grave to pacify her and ward off her interference.

”No,” he said defiantly…And as he passed Gunnvor’s cairn on the ridge, he spat, and ground out vindictively: ”Damn the stone you’ll ever get from me, you old bitch,” and refused to give her a stone.

In flaunting his disregard for the history and spirit of lore, Bjartur establishes himself as the true force to be reckoned with. He sees himself as outstandingly modern, indebted to none, shorn of superstition and emotion, free to pursue the sheep raising he esteems, using his children as ever busy farmhands. There are fields of sheep populating Independent People, and Bjartur’s struggle to establish and grow his flock is central to the novel. But the sheep of Summerhouses possess no cynefin. They are passive, dependent creatures who suffer from maladies both meta and sheerly – I almost typed sheeply – physical.

Yet sheep are not the heart, that pulsing life of the novel. For Bjartur has a daughter, Asta Sollilja, or Beloved Sun-lily. She is birthed during a blizzard when Bjartur is far from home pursuing a ewe that he wrongly believes has wandered too far. (Revealing what happened to that ewe would spoil a section of the novel that is so brilliant I’m again marveling and smiling to think on it weeks later.) As she grows, Asta Sollilja’s lowly beginnings and impoverished circumstances contrast with the high minded, romanticized adoration she holds for her father and others. Herein lie the seeds of great conflict, for Bjartur refutes emotion and all of its tendencies while Asta Sollilja embodies them.

She sat on the bank and listened. Then she stripped herself of her torn everyday rags under a sky that could wipe even the sunless winters of a whole lifetime from the memory, the sky of this Midsummer Eve. Young goddess of the sunlit night, perfect in her half-mature nakedness. Nothing in life is so beautiful as the night before what is yet to be, the night and its dew. She wished her wish, slender and half-grown in the half-grown grass and its dew. Body and soul were one, and the unity was perfectly pure in the wish.

Father and daughter embark one morning upon an educational and mercenary excursion to Fjord, a trip that deals the novel’s centerpiece of shattering, cataclysmic misunderstanding. I came to this section unprepared for its majesty and emotion, within just a few pages – perhaps twenty – and found myself, a few days before Father’s Day and at the end of a sunny lunch break, kneeling unseen in the workplace garden, studying the undersides of cabbage leaves, blubbering towards composure for the afternoon’s tasks.

It is not enough to say that Bjartur and Asta Sollilja find themselves bitterly opposed. Their estrangement animates them, each wandering through years of mental and financial waste to endure that which defines them. Bjartur takes newfound prosperity at the advent of World War I.

”And since the swine can be bothered to go to the trouble of butchering one another — from imbecility or ideals, it’s all the same to me — well, I’ll be the last man on earth to grieve for them. To hell with the lot of them. All I say is this: let them continue till doomsday, as long as the meat and the wool keep on rising in price.”

Asta Sollilja drifts, impoverished and alone, with neither safe homestead nor love to call her own.

Her life was one unremitting impassioned torment, so that one could not help wanting to be good to her; and then to push her away; and then to return to her again because one had not understood her — or oneself either, perhaps.

Even when their lives run at right angles, Asta Sollilja and her father are inextricably bound. A lesser novelist might have imagined a weaker, sentimental ending for his epic. Halldór Laxness found the clay of rich emotion, mixed it with the grass of the Icelandic heath, but rather than a hovel, he fashioned a timeless, sparkling home for his Independent People.

Sun Lily

Pump and Circumstance

Nothing beats a person of action. Thinkers are well and good; with them is where I’m most comfortable. But at the end of the day, I’ll put my money on the individual who does something, anything, to push an idea forward or to bring about good things. Especially when it comes to science. I’m a sucker for theory, experimentation, and reproducible results. Those words are thrilling when they leap from the page and get some flex in the real world.

This is one reason I’m a public health nurse. I’ve always been bowled by the boldness of John Snow and Edward Jenner, the two Englishmen who birthed the foundations of public health without even realizing it. They just did. Snow removed that pump handle and protected his corner of the world. Jenner lanced the cowpox blister and helped promote the shift from passive suffering towards a furtherance of self-preservation. When science moves in a straightforward trajectory and solves problems, everyone wins.

Things aren’t so simple these days. The milkmaid and the well pump have gone. Modern science demands rigor, training, exactitude, convergent validity, all to a fine degree. Political leanings cast vagaries into the mix. Yet, the principles of public health remain staggeringly simple and unclouded, bolstered and continually enhanced by good science. Prevention of and protection from disease is the dual mandate for public health nursing. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The practice of public health nursing requires varying degrees of patience and stamina. Patience for systems, protocol, and order is a must; stamina for flexibility in demand and the will of the public has to be built in. There are some things you can count on when you choose public health as a career. Your patients won’t be sequestered in rooms stretching down one side of a hallway; they will be spread all over town. Your patient is anyone who comes through the door or who telephones with a question or an illness. They range from newborn to the elite elderly and most days hold a mixture of both. Your patients’ needs won’t usually require oxygenation – in other words, they won’t always be ailing or searching within traditional nursing terms. But their needs are no less acute. People sickened or poisoned with norovirus and lead require intervention and action. Not to mention investigation and attention to detail.

One of the finest beauties of nursing is its simple responsiveness, whether that involves starting an I.V. or giving immunizations. Public health nursing affords a professional opportunity to meet any situation with some of the world’s best resources. It’s tempting to think that John Snow and Edward Jenner would be right at home in the world of modern public health. They and their modern successors have made disease prevention a reality; public health nurses help make that reality a daily event.


This blog isn’t about my nursing practice. It’s more or less a sidebar for thoughts about reading. I’m trying to respond to a request from Braden at http://20outof10.blogspot.com/


Exit Ghost

When last October’s Atlantic hit the doorstep, I whisked past the cover displaying Bill Clinton’s unsightly mug and scoured the index for something to banish sight of him. What to my eyes should appear but the lead-in for a withering review by Christopher Hitchens of Philip Roth’s latest novel, Exit Ghost. I’ve read Hitchens for years in the magazine, at times enjoying him but finding his superiority mostly tiresome. I shelved the issue, waiting until I’d read the novel before facing Hitchens’ problems with it.

After carefully reading ”Zuckerman Undone”, I most assuredly disagree with Hitchens. In fact, it feels as though we read two different novels. He sees

…that Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give himself something to masturbate about.

I found Exit Ghost to be a meditation, not only upon death or sex or even upon growing older, but on the persistent difficulty that a writer must have in being lumped always into the same basket as his words. Maybe I haven’t paid due attention to this before when reading Roth. His mixture of humor and warmth have drawn me for years. It seems to me with this reading that Roth is saying, loudly and forcefully, that no one can ever come close to knowing the writer as person by knowing the writer’s words. The writer is the ghost, the pulled back observer who may seem to imbue everything with himself but who doesn’t exist off of the page.

this scene of dialogue unspoken recorded what hadn’t been done and was an aid to nothing, alleviated nothing, achieved nothing, and yet, just as on election night, it had seemed terribly necessary to write the instant I came through the door, the conversations she and I don’t have more affecting even than the conversations we do have, and the imaginary ”She” vividly at the middle of her character as the actual ”she” will never be.

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.

I’ve always loved Roth’s work because it feels as though he’s playing with his readers, stirring them up with frankly sexual dialogue and unflattering characterizations. But I’ve never found the self loathing that others who read him have. There’s loathing aplenty in Exit Ghost, for overbearing celebrity hounds, for the cell phone ethic of relentless immediacy, for Bushies, and for brutality. For the literary life- reading, writing, and the attempt at self riddance – Exit Ghost is solid praise and understanding for those ”very, very few” who allow themselves to be fully drawn only on paper.

Bodies of Water

Last month, I crossed the Atlantic twice. The outbound darkness hardly endures the trip; inevitably a curious passenger will open the shades shortly after midnight Central time to look at the water and wake everyone up by chasing the dawn to Europe. It can’t be helped. Returning, the ocean 40,000 feet below seems to sustain the plane, pulling it home like tide, and there is only one view for the afternoon window gazer. The water orchestrates it all, bringing Londoners to Chicago and wandering Midwesterners home, mixing and matching us in a continental card shuffle that separates and unites lives. It all seems so easy from above, riding tons of fuel and engineering into effortless transit, napping and drinking wine while heading both towards and away from worlds we love. The ocean is the only constant, roiling and fathoming in its changeless way. There is no way to fight this force, well, not since the Concorde was parked.

Since last Thursday, I’ve been engaged in a different battle with waters, only these are brown, shitty floodwaters. There is nothing romantic about a flood, no poems for gazing there with longing, no blue. Flooding here is strangely utilitarian. The Mississippi takes in way too much from rivers and streams to the north. It expands greatly not far from where I live, and, like the proverbially unlucky rabbit in the snake, pushes outwards and eases itself until it’s comfortable and safe in its own skin once more. Leaving nothing behind. Except, of course, mud and crushed things, whether houses or corn stalks or lives.

My role in all of this is a simple one. I’m a public health nurse, and, in flooding like this, there is a great demand for public health nurses to give tetanus vaccinations. Very basic stuff. I’ve now asked hundreds of arms to please roll up their sleeves. The phrase, ”Have you ever had an allergic reaction to a shot?” will speed from my lips in any guise I wish – playfully, hastily, wrapped in a smile – but mostly automatically. We are giving lots of shots, and moving hither and yon near a major levee where I cast an occasional glance just to make sure there is nothing massively wet headed my way. So far the levee is holding. The sandbags and earth movers provide extra fortification to ensure relative safety. It’s a fragile balance, a community exercise in breath-holding until the crest hour passes, a reminder that water can call the shots.

Independent People

There couldn’t be a better time to read Halldór Laxness’ Independent People. I’m finding the world of an Icelandic sheep farmer cooling to this mid-westerner in the throes of a prematurely hot summer. Yesterday, mowing the lawn in 90 degrees, I tried to imagine reindeer riding in order to summon wintry images. I also thought a bit about independence as it’s portrayed in the novel.

The character of Bjartur the sheepcrofter views himself as impervious to the whims of supernatural beings that populate the lore and poetry of his fellow crofters. He scoffs at the beliefs of his wife, Rosa, and refuses to allow her any acknowledgement of her superstitions. He looks at his life through one lens, that of his account ledger, and prides himself on maintaining only minimal ties to the people who surround him.

…he was only filled with the modern spirit and determination to be a free man on his own land, with the same independence as the other generations that had settled there before him.

Trouble is, that spirit and determination has cost Bjartur, but he’s unawares as of yet. I’m not quite half-way through Independent People, and it’s not a zippy read. But I’m finding that incredible sense of immersion that sometimes comes in longer novels, entry into another world that is at first wildly foreign, yet slowly begins to feel like home.