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Thursday, February 2, 2012


In 1998, I traveled to Iceland to teach a short course in "writing with technology" at the university. The opportunity came about because my colleague, Donald Graves, couldn't make the trip and he asked me to fill in. That's the mundane reason for this sudden chance to go someplace new. But I was also at a strange place in my life, and traveling to Iceland took me into a stranger realm, beautiful and surreal. It was fitting.

Gulla -- a double for Liv Ullmann -- met me at Keflavík Airport and we drove into a moon-like terrain. Iceland is studded with volcanic rocks and lava formations, and it was easy to see in them the faces and shapes of trolls turned to stone when caught in the sunlight. Icelanders like their trolls and respect them. As with the elves, they maintain a quid pro quo relationship, returning good for good and avoiding the mischief that arises when this pact is ignored. When we arrived at the seaside apartment I'd been assigned, Gulla and I walked out to the shore at the edge of Faxaflói Bay and poured some gin on the rocks (I'd brought several bottle of liquor as gifts) as an introductory offering to ensure a trouble-free stay.

Galleries and gift shops boasted shelves of troll dolls, stuffed troll mamas with babies snapped to their pendulous breasts, elf maidens and Vikings. But no one in Iceland apologized for the seamless overlap of folk belief with daily life in the twentieth century. One night we had dinner with a science professor and his wife, and the subject of trolls and elves came up. The year before, a highway had been re-routed so as not to interfere with a rock dedicated to elves. The  professor smiled when he told the story, but he didn't laugh. "After all," he said, "it's best to be safe, especially with a highway." 

 Throughout my stay, I poured gin on the rocks every morning and nodded to the troll faces that blinked back at me until I looked again. Elves were more reticent. I didn't see them, but they were there, especially, I think, in the sudden green of of valleys and among the small herds of Icelandic ponies that rose up in the mists.

I taught my class, met students from all over Iceland and some who had traveled from Greenland. They all spoke English, but when they chatted among themselves I listened to their ancient language which, by design, allows no interlopers from other languages. It was beautiful to hear. Only one word sounded familiar: Bless. As words will do, it had passed from Old Icelandic to Old English and down to us. Bless. That is how Icelanders say goodbye, and every parting was sacred to my ear.

I said at the outset that this was a strange time in my life. A few years prior to this adventure, my sister Sue had been diagnosed with and died of Inflammatory Breast Cancer, an insidiously fast moving form of the disease, often misdiagnosed or ignored until too late. That year was my turn. Just before my trip, I discovered symptoms identical to my sister's: a painful lump under the arm and slight rash that, because of its similarity to orange peel, is called peau d'orange. My doctor wanted to do a lumpectomy immediately, but I couldn't bring myself to cancel my trip. I was supposed to  leave the next day. The odds of dying from this disease were good. Even if I didn't die, the treatment itself would be so rigorous, I wouldn't be able to travel for a long time. Adventure, whether it would be my last or merely the next, spoke to me and I listened. I decided to go, and scheduled surgery for the day I returned.

Standing on the shore of the North Atlantic against a backdrop of story, gin bottle in hand, the deep magic of the land and whatever or whoever peopled it seeped into me. I already knew that death was nothing but a crossing between realms, but I learned here that in life we cross into other domains as well--if we are open to the offerings of chance. I returned home more peaceful than I had left, despite the tumor that had doubled in size. I sunk under the anesthetic as into another world where adventure might reside. I came out the other end with battle scars like the Vikings of old Iceland, but nothing to be mourned.

So, whatever journeys lie ahead, let's embark. Cast out to sea and let the waves take us or the gulls lead us. Let's listen to stories and believe for a time what those we encounter believe. And when we turn our sails towards home, leave behind the word "bless."


  1. I enjoyed reading about Iceland - it is on m list for 2012.
    I had not remembered ( or ever knew) the sequence regarding your sojourn with cancer and the Iceland trip. I'm glad you chose the trip and life