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.
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."