My sister and I are on a ship somewhere off the west coast of Norway. Tomorrow we will dock at a pier in the Norwegian city of Bergen and take a tram outside the city limits to visit a uniquely Norwegian building called a stave church.
I have been thinking about this trip for more than fifty years.
In high school I read – and reread – a novel called Kristin Lavransdatter, written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset. It’s the story of a woman who lived and loved in 14th century Norway.
Undset, the daughter of an anthropologist, researched the historical period so thoroughly that there are endnotes at the end of each of the three volumes. (It’s a long book!) One of those notes describes a stave church that figures in the novel, and that’s where the determination to make this trip was born.
What I can’t explain – not even to my sister, who probably knows me better than anyone else – is why we’re making this pilgrimage.
It’s not that I think I’ll find Kristin and her family sitting inside the church when I open the door. I don’t need to. I already know them on a far more intimate level than I know many of my relatives and friends. No one will ever convince me that the people in the novel – Kristin, Erlend, her parents, and her children – are just fictional people.
Somehow – and I know how crazy this is – I feel an obligation to honor them by spending at least a few minutes in their world – for example, by opening the door to a stave church.
And I’m far from the only person who feels such a strong connection to this novel. Kristin Lavransdatter won a Nobel Prize in 1928, and Sigrid Undset is such an important writer that she’s pictured on Norway’s currency.
So I’m not going to do a literary critique today. Instead I’m going to make an impassioned plea for all of us to have an encounter with a story, book, poem, or play that we can’t shake off afterwards. It doesn’t even have to be something brilliant or profound. I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers on Broadway, and for a month I was lost in the New York of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom.
I want everyone to have an experience like that, and there’s something else. I want all of you, the writers who read this blog regularly, to commit yourself to making that happen for someone else.
When I taught literature, I used to ask my students to do a presentation about a literary work that moved them. “Literary” could (and did) mean works as diverse as the Star-Spangled Banner, a rap song, a children’s book, or a Hollywood thriller. Some of those presentations were amazing, and I still think about them.
My own contribution was to read aloud (with my New York accent – sigh) Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” We never analyzed it. I just wanted students to hear the words. And for days aftewards I would hear inside my head, again and again, “And I sang in my chains like the sea.” (Some of my students told me that similar things used to happen to them after a class meeting.)
If you can hold tightly onto a line of poetry, or a snatch of a song or a story, you can start to find ways to use words to connect deeply with others. Please think about that – and don’t worry if it seems strange and difficult. On some level the doors will begin to open, and you’ll embark on an extraordinary journey – similar, in its own way, to what I’m experiencing as I wait for tomorrow to arrive.