Min Otroliga Svenska Resa: Immersion

aka My Incredible Swedish Journey: Immersion

August 2021: This morning I walked in Kungsholmen along the Norr Mälarstrand promenade in step with my desire to swim again in the waters of Riddarfjärden. A week before, I had taken the advice of a local and with new friends Nikki and Melody strolled to the beach a mere twenty-three minutes from the hotel for a brisk 7 a.m. dip before the filming day began.

The small, sloping sand crescent nested in a green space in the shadow of high rise apartments, its views facing Langholmen, another island nearby. The inky waters had buoyed my spirits then, and I was ready for more now that I had a day to call my own. Cold swims were not a habit for me, but I had been exhilarated by them over the years (the Wenatchee in Washington State, the Pacific off Catalina Island, and how could I forget the Mediterranean on the Spanish coast at Costa Brava!). I felt a pull of connection no less than genetic — a root, a calling from my homeland, where cold swims and dark water came with the territory.

The wind this morning was fierce. I forged forward on the dirt path, staunch joggers and power walkers serious as they approached me with eyes either piercing the forward horizon or lowered in pensive contact with the ground. Who were these others moving about on an early Sunday journey to toughen their thighs or strengthen endurance or force the deep breaths required to empty the toxins that build up in the soul? They seemed determined to resist a passing glance at the snow-haired Scandinavian sister, long lost, who moved among them like a ghost confirming her own identity simply by walking into the wind.

My pull toward my ancestors had been awakened in the months before when I applied for the popular Swedish television program, Allt för Sverige. Since being cast for the tenth season in early 2020, I, along with the rest of the world, put my dreams on a COVID shelf for well over a year. During that time, I started studying Swedish, listening to Swedish music, watching Swedish movies, reading Swedish poetry and prose. I began to imagine the lives of my great-grandmothers, their mothers, and theirs. Had any of their stories survived them? What were their daily routines, their private yearnings, their fears, their griefs and joys?

Being in Sweden has enlivened these women in my imagination. Gotland’s ancient ruins, morning walks in Mariestad, Skovde, and Karlstad, a quarry in Kinnekulle, a church in Vasterplana, the burned Enebacken inn, and Stockholm’s waters all kept serving up gifts that buffeted my soul as I walked against the wind for another swim.

The waters of Riddarfjärden, Kungsholmen, Stockholm

February 2022: It’s 70 degrees outside, and I’ve just hacked at least one worm in two in the soil I’m loosening for a spray of wildflower seeds. For a moment, I feel like a goddess in a complicated world where one thing is severed so another can bud.

I posted a short stack of photos from my Allt för Sverige special day on IG this week and began one of the comments with “Words cannot convey. . . .” Here I am, tasked with doing just that. I’ve been looking for cohesion in a non-linear collection of pieces composed over the past two years during times of contemplation and reflection about what it means to be a descendant of Swedish women.

I maneuver toward the bull’s eye of my intention, my attempt at honoring the women who came before me, those whose bones now feed Swedish soil. They are permeating my soul space, these women, as I feel their stories infusing mine.

Motherland

In my family of origin, the Big Bang exploded us away from each other when? All I know is that we’ve been swimming away from each other for a long, long time. Separations have defined us. Leaving, a common ritual — packing up, moving a new direction, setting up housekeeping apart from all that is known. What triggered these disconnections, the drive to turn away? Was there loneliness around the hearth when our feet felt like glaciers and our teeth clattered in an icicle chorus? Did the winter darkness douse the embers of our hearts? What was it that we felt at the first sign of spring? Did our spirits rise with the MayPole? What bound us? And what slung us apart? How did our compass become a starburst of arrows angled by the need to decide, each for ourselves, where we belonged?

Born in me was the swell of the ocean, the yank of goodbye, the adrenaline of new vistas, changing light, shifting rules. My resistance to a nailed-down life may have budded in the bellies of my great-grandmothers as each traveled the singular Atlantic from Scandinavia along with the hoards who climbed aboard vessels of transport to the shiver of the unknown. Karolina, Anna, Hazel, and Tekla, what were you hoping for? How dreadful life must have been to leave behind the traditions of the past, Jul candles, the midsommar sun. How frightful life must have been to escape across waves, angry and cold, that made no promises but that a distant land offered a new story. How did you sleep that first night on the sea, wrapped like vines in your blankets, unrooted, wilted, thirsty for ground?

Summoning Foremothers

How many dreams have you planted upon my eyelids in the darkness

when the walls of my soul were blank screens for their tellings?

How many times have you lighted in near branches

cawing your invocation: Now Is All There Is Or Ever Will Be!

You soar on, migrating skyfarers, mapless and blind,

bent on unsteadying my attachment to the known.

Come along, come along to The Meeting Place, you sing,

beyond gravity, beyond patterns, beyond righteousness.

Discover the unsung valor of Nurture, from which all life arises.

Grant me the wisdom of your earthen days,

Supply me with visions of your grace, portions of your mercy.

Send your signals to my open palm.

The Meeting Place

Karolina’s mother Elna calls us to hear her story. She transports us to the shores of a lake where a large tree shadows us from the summer sun of the Arctic north. It is late. We are hungry and have traveled far to gather with her here. Elna’s mouth is shielded by a silver shawl. She has taken an eternal vow of silence and will not speak except through one of us. She rises and walks the circle, passing her daughter and her daughter’s daughter, and her daughter’s daughter’s daughter until she stands behind me. I hug my knees into my shoulders in a fetal pose, shivering. Her presence at my shoulders makes it clear as she covers me with her shawl. You are the one to tell this story. Let us sleep in the twilight where the story begins.

Anna Eugenia Ahlstrom Leo

In December 1892 at ten years old, Anna left Sweden with her mother Katrina and five siblings to join her father Olaf in Blue Earth County, Minnesota, where he had sailed six months earlier. Anna grew to marry Carl Leo and to bear three children. In 1913, Carl died at 38 in a quarry accident, and Anna died of illness shortly thereafter at 32, after twenty years in Minnesota as a first generation Swedish-American. The children, aged 12, 10 and 4, were left to be cared for by grandparents Katrina and Olaf. The oldest of the three children was my Grandma Sig, an intrepid woman who survived to the age of 101.

Anna, far right, pictured with sisters; The ring I wore around my neck during Allt för Sverige was Anna’s.

Loss is a binding agent that strengthens the fabric of love.

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