It feels like everyone’s been (quietly) going to Iceland. Maybe we’re tired of the rage and confusion and polemics. All the heartbreak and controversy.
Maybe we just want a place that feels neutral, a place that turns off the street lamps so that you can see the northern lights, a place that looks like we’ve arrived on another planet and yet in some ways we know exactly what to expect.
It started in a bookstore in January, when I turned to the last page of a book (bad habit) and read about an Icelandic photographer. For the past two years I’ve been couched in the sort of travel that puts a wall between me and the land, the people. I mourned modern society a little: too much connectivity can further fuel our intense loneliness. I ran in the other direction, searching for solitude. We bought plane tickets. It was almost too easy. We only had one decision, and it seemed enormous at the time. Once there, do we walk the entire time or do we sit in a car? We walk, we decided. Of course we walk. Hearts closer to the earth, isn’t that how it should be?
Six months later.
Iceland swallowed me into its core, cradled me there and taught me what the earth’s heat and cold had to say about being a body, containing a heart. People make jokes about the “rotten egg” showers, but the sulfuric smells coming from every faucet somehow calmed me- like the earth was telling me that it would be ok. Things that should have been repulsive or alien, like volcanic surfaces, retained a serenity that is not really encountered elsewhere.
Pico Iyer writes, “Perhaps it is because it is so otherworldly that Iceland leaves such an impression on the mind, because it feels so little like the planet that we know; days spent there are interludes from life, sojourns in some other, nether twilight of the mind.”
During my first day trip from Reykjavík, I met a pilot. We talked for hours: about the skies, about the water, about the way Icelandic men fervently declare lifelong love to the women in their lives. “Want to know the secret? You have to stay best friends.”
He told me stories of how in the summer stores will close down for a few hours with signs in the window: “Sorry, it’s too hot to work. Gone to get ice cream.” To them, 75 degrees feels sweltering and merits ice cream.
In The Importance of Being Iceland, Eileen Myles compares the contours of a “kind of epic poetry singing called Kvaedaskapur” to the “contours of the land.” While language is good, in some cases, at expressing the elasticity of place and time—”I had this beautiful arrival before I even left,” she writes about her Icelandic adventure—it is not always so useful for relating, for example, how art is enhanced by environment. In trying to describe artist Roni Horn’s “temple” in Reykjavík, Myles becomes exasperated: “But you know—words don’t do it. They don’t. They never say enough. Ask any writer. Language just fails. It’s no place at all.” (via Dalton’s Bookforum review). I’ve recently come across the same exasperation regarding the inaccuracy (inadequacy) of language in the writings of Anne Carson, Adrienne Rich, etc.
One of the difficulties that I encountered was capturing the scale of everything. I realized that humanity (including our suffering) is so tiny compared to everything before us. Even if we could redo everything, or try to do it all, we are only experiencing a tiny drop in the world of possibilities. I was there, at the foot of volcanoes sleeping before inevitable eruption. Just taking it in.
The pilot offered to fly me to the West Fjords. “To meet fishermen,” he laughed. “The men here are good, very earthbound.” I liked that. Earthbound.
I politely (somewhat reluctantly) declined.
“I’m meeting someone,” I explained. “We’re hiking the Laugavegur trail together.”
He nodded in satisfaction and admiration. He had never hiked it before, but he wished me luck.
“Don’t worry, the fishermen can wait.”
There, in the eternal space between their words and in their clear blue eyes, you see an uncanny sincerity and patience rise almost as tangibly as steam rises from the hot springs of the land. This is the importance of being Iceland.
“Though on the boat I write, I shoot. On the boat let’s face it I’m held. In its waves, its vagueness, in its water. I see only water. Water doesn’t answer. No land ahead. Just water. So my dilemma shrinks to secondary and abstract. How will I live. I want to stay in this primary thing that moves.”
— Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland
More on the Laugavegur trail to follow.
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