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Monthly Archives: December 2011

I’ve written a novel in an attempt to bring my great-aunt Nora back to life, if not in the physical sense, then in a sense of memoriam. I have a book signing in my hometown of Cloquet, Minnesota, this coming weekend. A sort of celebration, I would hope, in her honor. People who know me will gather and speak of her, nearly 93 years after taking her last breath.

Those who we have lost are not just a part of the past, but also an absence in our present. What would they have become were they here today? If you think hard enough, you can imagine them doing some of the same things you yourself do, day after day. Living. Struggling. Enduring. Accomplishing.

This observation is more poignant when considering the very young. Children lost to this world due to some affliction or accident or act of criminality. Their dreams and experiences disappearing forever down a black hole, with no chance for a do-over. But maybe if you look hard enough, you might see what they may have looked like, how they may have acted or what they may have accomplished, as they aged, by studying the faces of their siblings or their siblings’ children, or even in those faces of their cousins. Just maybe a piece of them is somehow still with us.

What about those who were comfortably ensconced in their own skin, established and certain about whom they were with each passing day? My mother never met her aunt Nora, as she died two decades before she was ever born. I’m sure my grandfather shared with my mother stories of his older sister, of their growing up on the farmstead. But such stories tend to fade, becoming cloudy and murky with the passing of time. So much so that her story has become oversimplified. A teacher. A nurse. A person of faith, trusting in God, unconditionally. With so many years having since past, we’re sometimes left to conjecture, to make assumptions, to create legend while paying tribute.

My mother’s aunt was only 38 years-old, the same age as my wife Tory, and ten years younger than me. We the living eventually catch up to and suddenly pass, in age, those who have lived and died, so young, before us. Had my aunt survived, she would have undoubtedly met my mother. She may have even met my siblings and me. And what things might she have gone on to accomplish? In the end, none of us will ever be a part of her past, but sadly, and for always, only an absence in her future that never was.

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I grew up during a stretch of time when the family photos evolved from black and white to those of color. Other than negatives, the prints were the only source of recorded history. Despite the quality – from white spots to grainy to closed eyes to wear and tear – I’m sure we can all agree, due to the cost and effort to produce these old photos, an effort was required to protect them by placing them in an album, behind cellophane. This, compared to the simplicity of today’s photography, where you can fire at will, one shot after another, until you have the one take that’s satisfying to the photographer and/or the photo’s subject(s), and still save every last one to a flash drive.

Like most families from my generation, there’s a bookcase full of albums, where pictures slowly turn yellow as a result of either indifference or inherent vice or both. Perhaps your own family is in possession of photos from generations long since departed, e.g., grandparents and great-grandparents. Atypical, there is a plethora of photos from my mother’s side of the family, mostly formal, all now scanned, saved, and ready to pass along to the next generation. By comparison, there’s something lost in today’s ubibiqitious candid photography. A sense of time and place. Because of the high resolution, the mega-pixel technology involved, it’s very likely a photo from today will be mistaken as a photo from twenty years from now. Other than knowing the places and faces, how will anyone be able to tell, in the future, that a photo is from the new olden days versus the new today?

Maybe it doesn’t make a difference to others, but for me, something is lost when you can no longer distinguish between those faces and places in a photo from a specific time versus those from a photo from long ago, and vice-versa. There’s this sense of sentimentality that I believe a photo should provide a viewer. If you see an old photo that reminds you of people and a place just visited yesterday, then the sentimental perspective has somehow been lost. An obvious example might be that of watching the aged footage from Super Bowl I versus last year’s Super Bowl. The differences are glaringly obvious. I use this as an example, as I recently watched recorded coverage of the Super Bowl from ten years ago, and, due to technology, I was convinced the footage could just as easily have been from last year’s Super Bowl.

Speaking for myself, I think I will eventually learn to no longer appreciate all those digital photos my wife and I have taken and will take over the coming years, as they will have been taken with ease and in multiples. I further suspect it will be more trouble than it’s worth reviewing them, nostalgically, because of their volume and because of how digitally clean they will have remained over time. My thinking, as I work toward my curmudgeon’s license, is as we age, so should our photographs.

Night Sun is a film adaptation set in 18th century Spain and liberally based on Leo Tolstoy’s short story Father Sergius in which young prideful nobleman Baron Sergio Giuramondo decides to become a monk after learning his fiancé is the former mistress to the king. His pridefulness at the monastery forces him further into exile, into the mountains, where he becomes a hermit. Over the years, he becomes well-known for performing miracles and is intruded upon by various characters looking either to corrupt him or seek his favor.

Father Sergio spends years distancing himself from his fellow man, avoiding temptation while attempting to become closer to God. But his efforts are for not, as he is human, weak, and unable to bridge the chasm between himself and God. Why? Because it can’t be done. At least not from a desolate mountain hideaway. If anything, a persistent attempt to link with the Almighty can only bring dissolution and doubt. Like all things, even God needs to be taken in moderation.

This movie was released in August 1990, the same month I was wandering Norway. That was a time when I felt lost and without direction. My Christian faith was going through a transformation, due mostly to the wrestling of thoughts and ideas between the works of novelist Leo Tolstoy and philosopher Friedrich Neitszche, both of whom possess points of view you might be hard pressed to find more diverse between any two other individuals. Even though they both found fault with organized religion, they differed greatly on what is the true path that man should follow.

On the one hand, and in a very Christ-like edict, Tolstoy felt the truth was found in man’s love for his fellow man, but without the sacraments and rituals common in orthodoxy. Neitszche, on the other hand, believed it is man’s will to power that should drive his existence. A “will to war”, he observed while watching troops marching off to war, which exemplified man’s inner need to become more tomorrow than he is today, at any cost.

I’ve learned over the years just how gray life can be. And I don’t mean sad and gloomy. But rather how unsettled notions of right and wrong, good and bad, yes and no, can all be. We have all heard preaching of love thy neighbor at a volume equal to the voice proclaiming freedom to prosper. The grayness occurs somewhere in the middle, where injustice is deliberately hidden. After all, don’t you think the Sultan of Brunei knows exactly what’s occurring in Ethiopia?

At the end of the film, Father Sergius is seduced by a woman. And for all his efforts, he’s no closer to that which he had been seeking. He travels back to his homeland, in search of an elderly couple who had sought him out many years ago, asking him to bless them with simultaneous deaths, when the time comes. He learns that they did, in fact, die within a minute of each other. Knowing this, he walks off toward the horizon. How could his thoughts not have been about what might have been, no matter how black and white, had he married the king’s mistress all those years ago?

August 1990

Both now tired, you and your bride of thirty years, just this week, waddle down a steep grade, along the crooked streets that zig-zag Fløyen. You lick your lips, tasting of the sea salt mixed with the drizzle, while waiting for her next remark. You don’t have to wait long.

“I told you we wouldn’t have the stamina to make the climb.” She walks ahead, annoyed, not wanting to look at you. “We should have waited for the tram.”

“We still can.” You wish you could be patient, but time is running out. “The first lift is in less than an hour.”

“Forget it. I need to get out of these wet clothes.”

You look toward the city below, at the boats resting peacefully in the grayness of the bay and the stilted colors of old shops lined along the wharf. It feels like your home away from home, you wish. You spot the place where you ate supper the evening before, under the setting sun. She struggled through her lobster, while you washed down the taste of overcooked reindeer steak with a bitter port you imagined was the dregs straight from the hull of a nearby fishing boat. You decided it was all good anyway.

Back at the Park Pension Hotel, after she bathes, you decide on a hot shower, to sooth your aching joints. The scalding water makes the cramped stall feel that much more confined. As you step out, you wipe off the fog-glassed pictures on the white walls depicting boats navigating the North Atlantic. Suddenly, there’s enough elbow room for seafarer and landlubber alike. But so much water now. You need to piss as you towel off. Once again, it burns and you see traces of blood. That can’t be good, but you choose to ignore. After all, life is full of flames.

It’s early afternoon before the sun appears. It’s getting warm, as you and she linger, seated on a bench, near the fountain in the city centre, people watching, as you wait for the time to board a guided tour by boat through the fjords. You’ve waited forever, all your life, with anticipation, to be closer, surrounded by the swaddling embrace of the Motherland.

You spot a young man with thick brown hair and a dark beard, carrying a travel-worn backpack. He looks like some character out of a wilderness novel. You recall your youth. Your choices. Your doubts. And how it’s too late for you.

“I don’t feel well.” She stands up now, waiting for you. “I’m going back to the hotel.”

You feel a welling of aggravation. “I’m still going.”

“Not without me. Don’t be such a child. You can wait another day. Now go reschedule.”

I won’t, you tell yourself. Not this time. The words grow louder, as you shout at the inner-you that is running out of time. I’m going with or without you. I’m boarding that boat and, I swear to God, I’m getting off somewhere up the coastline and you’ll never see me again.

You walk back to the ticket booth and request a change in departure time. Everyone is agreeable. Well, almost everyone. You walk back to the hotel, the long way, through narrow, old streets. As you walk slowly, you can feel the weight of the city’s centuries’ old fires, of its deaths and rebirths. There’s a fire inside you as well. It can’t be extinguished, as it has spread to far too many fronts. But you know it will end when you end. You want to burn and to burn out the way you want. Defeated, you stare down at the cobblestone, hopelessly realizing how few are able to decide such a thing.

August 1990

The train has been gliding all morning, along the upgrade, climbing through tunnels and mountain passes, as the temperature continues to fall. Here and there, a lone, sturdy house appears either somewhere along a stretch of a rugged, snow-patched mountain side or at the base of a heavily tree-topped fjord. The rising sun shines brightly above as the train travels through The Roof of Norway, passed ice-blue streams and whitewater rapids, meadows and rolling hills.

A young man from Utah, with thick brown hair and dark beard, shares a dream with a young blonde-haired woman, an economics student from the University of Bergen. His backpack has the look of the history of a globetrotter, faded and stained, with tarnished zippers and over-stretched straps. Hers is the opposite, fresh, bright-colored nylon, yet burgeoning with textbooks and opportunity.

“Your country is so quiet,” he tells her, feeling himself falling for her blue eyes. “Too quiet. That’s why I think I had this dream.”

“What was it about?” she asks.

“Old graves.” He smiles. “Like the ones I visited near Lillehammer the other day.”

“Sounds scary. People you knew?”

“My ancestors. Not scary. Just too quiet. But in the dream, I heard voices coming from the graves.”

“That’s not scary?” She smiles.

“No, not really. They were more foretelling than anything. The moans, they sounded as though they were telling me to keep moving. Mooooove.”

“Move where?”

“No where special. Just to keep moving.”

“I think you should follow your dreams, no matter how cryptic they are.”

His smile agreed with her smile.

Now it’s noon. A thick fog occupying the town of Gielo obscures everyone’s view of a steady stream of scenic wilderness, including the bare slopes where Queen Sonja gained her ski instructor’s certificate long ago. A two-year-old girl, an onboard distraction, with Cabbage Patch cheeks and a lazy eye, wanders up and down the aisle, sharing her “hallo” with other travelers. Earlier, during the journey, she had been mesmerized by her mother’s voice emphasizing parts of stories about Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh. But now she quickly makes friends with the university student. They share sing-alongs playing on the little girl’s cassette player, a duet the Utahan finds, at first, both adorable and enchanting. But then he trembles.

In the tiny village of Ustaoset, a half-dozen children are jumping up and down alongside the north-side of the track, greeting the train, in front of a rustic four-story resort building. Despite the fog, Lake Ustevatn, on the track’s south side, spans far, tranquil and gray. The little girl is now sitting next to her mother, sharing an ice cream while new travelers fill empty seats.

As The conductor passes by, he gives the Utahan a look.

“What is that about?” The student asks.

“I don’t think he liked the look of my ticket when he checked it earlier.”

“Shouldn’t he?”

“Probably not.” He whispers, “It’s a fake. I better get off soon.”

Not much farther up the railway, at the Haugastøl station, the Utahan, feeling restless, steps off the train, his appearance, gruff and well-traveled, standing in stark contrast to the group of smartly-uniformed Norwegian soldiers standing at ease on the boardwalk. While others remain comfortably aboard and destined for the security of the port city of Bergen, farther west, he ventures out into the vast wilderness, the dense fog. He’s been told to keep moving. To or from what, he can’t say.

August 1990

The morning weather is overcast and midland – cool enough for your long-sleeve shirt, yet warm enough to keep the coastal breeze confined to the bay. Your breakfast at the Hotel Fønix of sliced meat and cheese on wafer bread is far from hardy, but filling enough. And bland as well, like tired streets and dim buildings where pavements and hallways share the ghosts of Nazis and the dreams of expatriates. An old war ended long ago while a new one begins to brew somewhere far away.

The lazy sounds of an approaching workday seem quiet, reserved. Traffic sputters and hums along while pockets of teenagers mill around, milking the minutes away, smoking cigarettes and yo-yoing. An oddity, as breaths from young lungs go up in smoke, while nonchalant wrists flip yo-yos toward the sidewalk and fingers pull them back, over and over. They may never disperse, this latest generation happily engaged in communal nothingness.

You wander through the meadow at the foot of the hill, long since covered beneath commerce and industry, progress and change, life and suffering. The old generation rests, seated on park benches or in cafe booths, while ancestors hover above, like the shade trees up and down the boulevard. At times, the pallor of an idyllic stillness and the quiet Munchian scream of despair. And at other times, frolicking with indifference while burdened with the uncares of a divided world.

Bakeries. Art studios. Corner shops. A small office where you see someone, through the wide window sitting at a desk, who’s distracted from the revolving world outside. You’re reminded of a desolate place when suddenly you feel a tap on the shoulder. Startled, you turn to see a young woman, petite, pixie-like, with auburn hair bobbed and a pretty nose, standing, holding an unfolded map in one hand and a banana in the other, while resting her palms on the top of the handlebars of a bicycle. She appears out of place, just like you. People quickly pass by.

She says something.

French, you assume. You don’t understand.

She shows you the map. You each hold a half of it, your hand and hers, each crumpling the paper inked with the place where you both are standing at that very moment, shifting it in a joint grasp, with foreheads slowly converging, and two sets of eyes scanning and tracking to that one spot on the map that will proclaim “See! You’re here! You’re not lost!”

Hesitant, you tell her, “I think we’re here.”

She’s not so sure. Neither are you.

There’s doubt and a persistent gap in communication, followed by light laughter. Nothing’s concluded, as far as you’re concerned. Either she’s still lost or she realizes you are and can’t possibly help you find your way. Time blinks. The world refuses to pause. You’re not surprised.

Au revoir.” She’s off, on her way.

The sky begins to clear. Back to wandering. Not toward the bay, but inland. In search of something you’ll probably never find or never knew you found, even if you did.