I blow myself across the world and use the wind to take you with me.
The Five Ws (1)
I went back to New York City for a visit, staying with an old friend. We actually went to Meadowlark Elementary School together and played in the bell choir at the First Presbyterian Church in Great Falls, Montana. Our heights fittingly dictated the size of our bells, so as I clonked on the low D, G, and F bells on one end of the table, she clinked at the high A, C, and E…
She was and is one of my smartest friends and lives with her evil genius neuroscience/artist husband in the Biggest of Apples. I was staying with them after escaping a particularly stressful stint with family and was feeling the sort of I’ve gotta go restlessness that, when it strikes, tends to inhabit my body like a lethal version of Restless Life Syndrome. While they went to bed early to prepare for the next day’s work, I would stay up until the ungodly witching hour of four, all the while listening to the sounds of the drunken stragglers on the street with one of the 4 “W” questions in my mind drumming away: Where.where.where.where? Where should I go?
A month or so after my husband Dan died and while I was still in our Wall Street studio apartment—after I’d completed incomprehensible but necessary tasks such as closing his credit card accounts, sending out nearly a dozen certified copies of his death certificate to the care of Bank of America, NA and Student Loan-fill-in-the-blank, my night pacing reared its ugly head in earnest. I would prop myself on the floor in Plan Position until my elbows developed near-permanent red marks; I’d do lunges in the world’s tiniest living room, shoving aside the coffee table which moonlighted as the dinner table (the gym was closed in the wee hours); I would punch the couch cushions like some violent version of “Sit and Be Fit”. I would Rage, rage against the dying of the nightlight with nowhere to turn but the devastated radio of my mind or…the Internet.
And so it was without fanfare or official training, I decided to become my own travel agent—a free agent with no time limits and no particular destination in mind. I lay down on the cool fake wood floor until all hours scouring travel websites like Kayak, naming my price on Priceline; attempting to expedite my grief on Expedia…
Africa, India…oh, the places I could go! Dan’s first Oncologist had cited activities with which to otherwise occupy the mind as a legitimate clinically sanctioned therapy— “Distraction Therapy” was its clinical name. For a year I had been the distraction provider, but now I was its hungry recipient. Internet searches for safaris and ashrams and volunteer trips became my (DTC) Distraction Therapy of Choice. Anywhere on the Planet Earth was fair game…and actually, I wouldn’t have discounted Mars if it could have transported me far enough away from my grief.
Iceland is Only 5 Hours Away (2)
One fine internet search day I plugged in an inquiry for Iceland. A lifelong devotee of the famous punk girl singer Bjork, it had been a place on my radar for some time—I even had an American friend with ties to the place. And Iceland Air gave me a favorable result—it was not only inexpensive, the flight was direct and relatively short. It certainly seemed like an easier solution than India, Africa, or Mars. The next day I was on the subway and I saw a sign positioned where New Yorkers like to stare when they’re not busy looking down: “Iceland is only 5 Hours away.” I thought, “Sure this is just an advertisement, but I choose to believe this is a capital ‘S’ Sign.”
I thanked the Subway Gods and booked a one-way flight to Iceland as soon as I returned to my temporary home. This one-way ticket scheme was to become my modus operandi. Only one decision at a time required. I just went—with one idea of where to stay (some Icelandic Hipster Hostel), the best place for vegan carrot cake (how progressive of the elves!), and not much else. No guidebook, no other planning…that’s what plane rides and airport wait times were for, right? Free brochures! I felt a twinge of a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a good while—I was able summon up enough cognitive emotional memory to interpret it as “excitement”.
I was really going—by myself (which didn’t scare me), but with limited clothing options (which did). This was when reality of what could potentially go awry sunk in: “I have nothing to wear!” I supposed I should at least procure some variety of coat because (snicker snicker), it’s Iceland! After consulting with weather.com to see what the projected temperature would be, I woke up early at 11 AM (late nights, remember?) and headed to the Manhattan REI (there’s a lot of bouldering going down in Central Park) to get some Icelandic gear. I’d been fairly surprised that Iceland in April is a balmy version of cold…the sometimes number of 35 degrees made it seem like Bermuda compared to what I had imagined. “Just a warm coat”, I decided, “And nuthin’ puffy…if any of those elves resemble Orlando Bloom, I don’t want to look like the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Girl when I run into Bjork.”
So I went to REI, only searching in the clearance section as is my practice, and spotted a fancy-brand black hooded just-below-the-waist coat with Bubble-Yum pink accents and a little bit of felt inside. Really, it was a glorified wind-breaker fit for a brisk mid-May Minnesota day, but I was so overtaken by the steal of it all (it was like 70 percent off), that I summoned my inner-Oregonian and thought: layers! I had plenty of those in my suitcase at my current home—by which I mean, the Harlem apartment of my childhood bell choir friend.
I packed my joke-of a-coat, a couple of aforementioned “layers”, some sad suede boots from the DSW Shoe Warehouse (feet coverings which combined style and near-function into one just-a-wee-it-snug shoe), and, quite literally, my hopes and dreams into my ripe-off-the-vine orange Marshall’s deep-discounted Tommy Hilfiger hard-back suitcase. I was as ready as I’d never be to go to Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon: Portal to Bjork (3)
The end of April in Iceland is an in-between time of year. It is a few weeks before 24-hour daylight begins with its relative teems of tourists, but it’s also the tail end of the time of mystically colored Northern Lights. Having not purchased a single guidebook before heading out, however, this information was news to me as I watched the plane‘s tourism channel. By the time I learned Icelandic temperatures are always, well, icy, REI was miles and miles and a locked passenger door away.
A life of travel, I was learning more by the minute, was not only a “series of experiences”, it was a series of oversights and under-sights and miscalculations which asked me to flex my adaptability muscles in previously unused ways.
When I got off the plane in Reykjavik it was really early—like 6:30 in the morning BST (Bjork Standard Time). Time-wise, it had been like taking the red-eye from LA, but there I was—worlds away in a land less famous for juice bars and yoga pants than it was for fermented shark (the National Dish). Beards were less hipster than necessary—a way to keep one’s face freezing in a way your mom never intended. After the non-transit passengers headed onto their respective gates, only a few of us remained in the airport—a bit of a ghost town, really. The Iceland Air tourism channel recommended a variety of activities, but I did not need any persuading that my first activity would be a trip to The Blue Lagoon. It was practically required by the immigration authorities. I ‘d been a Superfan of the 1980 movie with Brooke Shields, and then the 1991 sequel, Return to the Blue Lagoon, but this Blue Lagoon was a different thing entirely. I couldn’t wait to find out how. But wait I had to since the first bus did not leave until 9 AM. This gave me plenty of time to do what most other tourists spend the weeks and months preceding their trips doing: figuring out a loose itinerary.
In “typical Susan luck” fashion, I ended up on the bus with only one other person—a guy working on the lower end of the totem pole for billionaire Microsoft honcho Paul Allen. The kid—we’ll call him Seattle since that’s where he was from, was my exact age at the time—30. He played in a 12-person band the power of suggestion convinced me I’d heard of but had not…and had on an equally underwhelming jacket. Best of all, our obsession with all things Iceland seemed equal. I was happy to be riding with my male doppelganger. As we headed into the Icelandic landscape we were like kids in a candy store—giddy over the volcanic landscape of Bjork’s birthplace. “I bet this is where she wrote “Human Behavior”, I said, and Seattle gave a knowing nod, in complete agreement but too enraptured with puffy black rocks peppering a flat landscape of…beautiful Nothing to add more. We arrived at the Blue Lagoon before the rush that would come 4 hours later when we coincidentally left at the same time again. To “hang at the Lagoon” was to wander around a magical palace of silica and silence, blissfully floating like manatees on Xanax. It was one of my favorite mornings of all time. It haunts me sweetly in my dreams to this day, urging effortlessly, “Iceland is just 5 hours away…”
Beards, Bands, and the Big(gest) City (4)
The next stop was really the only stop: Reykjavik, Iceland’s biggest city—one could say, without hyperbole, Iceland’s only city. With a population just over 120,000 human inhabitants (elves and fairies have their own unique census), it was large enough to house a world-class performing arts center, but small enough that, as a typical tourist, your itinerary would turn lackluster after 2 or 3 days. I, of course, stayed nearly two weeks. Post-Blue Lagoon bliss, I explored the landmarks and colorful buildings, walked and walked like I love to do, enjoyed a few raging concerts, and even found the Icelandic Carrot cake I’d heard rave reviews about—learning its origins were from the place I could not escape: New York City. I basically froze to death wearing the REI not-a-coat coat, and my main motivation for walking fast through this otherwise sleepy place was to stay warm. I understood immediately how and why the locals drank so much and covered their bodies in hair and wool: survival. I also semi-understood the rationality behind Iceland’s National Dish: fermented shark—except, well…no, I never could figure that one out. I could accept the Icelandic Hot Dog, but not the shark. Not one to get bored, I was getting restless. It was “about that time” to go exploring somewhere on the one road which encircled Iceland’s circular island.
“Ok, Susan…let’s do this!” I said to myself like a motivational speaker and convinced my plan-averse self to begin the necessary planning. It was important for my mental health I continue talking aloud to myself—it also kept me on track and on task. I decided to rent a car and see what was (or rather, what was not) out there in the Great Icelandic Beyond Reykjavik. The sparseness of this place is precisely what either scared and repelled or fascinated a person about Iceland. I was a member of the latter camp—perhaps it had something to do with the landscape of my childhood and formative years—the endless fields and flat roads which led—far in the distance—to mountain ranges and buttes—and an endless sky you kept reaching out to touch but never could. Iceland, of course, was drastically different from Montana, but still there was something about it…and of course there were also elves and fairies to connect with as opposed to cowboy apparitions and the ghosts of The North American Buffalo.
The Icelandic people believe that there are fairies and elves living in the mountains and volcanoes. On Iceland’s most popular bus tour, “The Golden Circle”, the guide states this as the kind of fact that needs no “X is real” sort of justification. If X is already real, it’s only a matter of describing accompanying stories about it. “Water is wet. Fairies live there.” This national truth-lore makes more sense in context when one learns there is literally almost no life in Iceland—unless you count the abundance of pure and geothermal water, which I really do—the giver and sustainer of life; the most essential nutrient next to air. Iceland only has evergreen trees because they were imported. Same for any animals besides the Icelandic fox and the magnificent, fuzzy, and powerful Icelandic horse. This makes an ideal environment if you are insect or creature-phobic, but it also leaves a ton of open space for these “mythical” beings to roam.
Circles and Signs (5)
I rented a car from a company I’d never heard of called SIXT Rental Car and then I booked a hotel room for 2 nights in a town nobody had ever heard of not too far away or off of the circular ring of a road I couldn’t possibly get lost driving down. That was my plan-averse “Plan”. I was really looking forward to my adventure—especially since I had brought along my new fancy pants “professional-looking camera for amateurs” camera to practice with. Taking photos with this camera and “in the raw” was a skill I’d recently acquired by snapping several hundred photos of Mennonites at their restaurant in Clarksdale, Mississippi…in case you were still unclear about the nature of my need to keep moving, learn something new—never stop outrunning the anxiety and the fear of encountering the intense emotions of my new reality. None of it was random—just planned by the last-est of minutes.
I woke up early on a silent Sunday morning when I was due to pick up the rental car. As I noted before, Reykjavik is not a big city, and it’s fairly straightforward, but I am one of those mythical people who indeed CANNOT find her way out of a paper bag—we are real. Nevertheless, I managed to follow the nearly-straight line on the map to my destination, where, in the place of cars for rent, I found a big orange-and-white SIXT Rental Car sign that read “We have relocated” in both Icelandic and English, with a phone number for the new space. Although I didn’t have as much luggage as a TAW (Typical American Woman), I had just schlepped my way from A to B with my soon-to-be famous orange suitcase in tow and a heavy backpack and was looking forward to a rest…but the only thing I could do was go against my cheapskate nature (Remember the REI), suck up the international call charges, and dial the other location’s number, all the while assuming I’d be walking. I took out my American phone and I dialed the number. After a few rings, the SIXT man answered with his perfect English and said he’d come pick me up and take me to the new location, which was actually minutes from the hotel I’d just walked from. “C’est la fermented vie”, I said aloud.
This good news reversed my International Roaming Blues as the SIXT man arrived in record time! Even this ride turned out to be worthwhile and interesting as Mr. SIXT, a Polish man who spoke better English than me as well as Icelandic, explained that many Polish people had come to Iceland in search of a better life and jobs. “So you’re in a band, then?” I joked, and thankfully my sarcasm wasn’t lost on him. “No”, he replied with a glint in his eye and we left it at that. It was a silly question even in jest—he didn’t have a beard.
We arrived at the new location and proceeded to check in at the “we just put this together with an emergency Allen wrench-yes-it’s from IKEA” desk and discovered that, being the cheapskate I am (did I mention this yet?), I had reserved the smallest car and therefore, of course, a manual shift. This was not a problem problem since I basically learned to drive on my 1959 purple VW bug (this is #truth), but that was a long time ago. I was rusty. When SIXT handed me the keys, however, I imagined how it would look if I said “no”. I would instantly lose the Independent Woman cred I so desperately sought. I instead replied, “Oh, yes, of course I can drive it—it’s been a while but—no problem.” This said all while a twinge of terror passed through my body and an overactive imagination flash of “What if I hit an Icelandic horse!?!?” sped through my mind. But as I got into the car and fired up the navigation device (just in case—circles can be deceptive), Panic Mode morphed into excitement and I started driving—by myself; on the western coast of Iceland. The Widow Fritz on her first solo-expedition. This pure freedom was stunning but did not scare me, because I was also on a mission.
I was on my way to the Unpronounceable Volcano: this Snaefelles-ness place. I had my fancy-pants SLR camera prepped and full of juice, and I was ready to play newly-skilled photographer/explorer girl/ash-scatterer. Right off the bat I assumed my role of National Geographic Photographer-in-training as I pulled over every ten minutes to snap photos of a place where nothing grows. Iceland is stark, but magnificently so. I was captivated and my camera contained more digital space than Mark Zuckerberg on Mars . I soon realized, however, that the entire island was going to be similar and I should probably only take 50 photos of the same rock if I planned on reaching my hotel destination before The Rapture. So I kept going until I reached the short-cut-bridge I’d found on the map during one of my photography pull-over stops. It cut out several kilometers by drawing a straight line through a “bay”. Seemed like a reasonable idea to the self-proclaimed “Shortcut Queen”!
As I approached the bridge, there was a designated stopping point, but no humans inside of the “toll booth” and no cars in front of me to follow. So instead of stopping just to make sure, I sped on through. I was confused the way most of us are when we travel anywhere—logically or not. What do you suppose the red light means in Des Moines, Marjorie? By the time I sped up the hill I thought, “Ok, Speed Racer, I think maybe you were supposed to stop”. I waited a few minutes for sirens and a bearded Icelandic man on fuzzy horseback to stop me and read me my rights as dictated by the fairies, but after a few minutes of nothingness, I proceeded on. I learned weeks after the incident when I was far away from the bearded authority of the Icelandic government, safely ensconced in the protective arms of Uncle Sam, that I did get a ticket. But SIXT helped me out and I was left only with a 10-euro fee for “administrative costs”. This lead me to believe it had literally been a “tourist trap” all along.
But that happened later. Right now we are still in rural Iceland, travelling along the western coast of this desolate place with an actual destination and a confirmed reservation for the night. I remember exactly what the hotel looked like, and thanks to www.Booking.com, I am reminded of its name: Hotel Framnes. It is 5 times more expensive now than then, but I visited in the off-season, which is how I got away with so much…and why I was cold but not freezing…and why I saw a few Northern Lights but dimly. It’s how I found myself alone in the middle of Iceland’s main “highway” taking photos without a worry in the world that another car would drive by. It’s what allowed me to stay for so long for less than the cost of a hostel; why I drove 45 minutes to an open hotel restaurant to be asked, “And what made you come here to Iceland alone?” It’s how and why I could put my fancy pro-am SLR camera in the snow on its timer setting and make snow angels until I captured the light just right. No one would see because no one was there…and the elves and fairies were polite enough to mind their own. In the quiet and calm place where almost nothing was open, I ate my Siggy’s Icelandic Sykr (the kind they sell in almost any American grocery store now) and contemplated the question the restaurant man had asked; rephrased to face me: Why am I in Iceland alone?
Contained, There (6)
I didn’t have the best “modeling” for ash distribution. My family has a “history” with ashes…the kind no one wishes to inherit.
Most people do something with them and that’s it. And the sooner, the better. Sure, there is sometimes a period of weeks or months as a family member or members organize a trip to the motherland to distribute Aunt Judy on the White Cliffs of Dover—or maybe there’s a reluctance to spread the ashes because it seems so final, so the ashes wait their turn in the urn until the spirit moves. These seem like reasonable scenarios to me, but my family’s approach was to take no approach at all. The tendency stretched across divorced party lines. My maternal grandma was a fairly tolerant human being, but I don’t believe she would have approved of being left in the back of a 2000 Ford Focus for years on end. My (only) Aunt Betty on my dad’s side died fairly young and, according to my dad, my uncle “hoarded” the ashes and “hasn’t spread them to this day.” So poor old Betty is slowly fossilizing in a basement or a hall closet or—better yet, the back of a late-model Ford for all I know.
Would I carry on this disturbing trend with Dan’s ashes? Well, although my plan was ever-evolving, I adopted my own version of the family tradition: scatter them slowly but deliberately. During the first few days after he died—the frantic, frenzied, desperate-to-do-something days, I wrote down ideas. Ideas for what to do, where to go—how to live. There is penned evidence of me thinking the strangest ideas which seemed perfectly reasonable in my grief-stricken state. Although I’d always aspired to be a wallower, my DNA rejected this strand and instead contributed the type of DNA that creates professional comedians and amateur “grin-and-bear-it” types who use pain as fuel. I am not a clown, but I am a person who cannot tolerate intense emotions without a Clown Car escape. My body, mind, and spirit urge me to flee and fly away from pain and discomfort.
In a flowered journal—the type one is usually given for birthdays but I was given for a funeral, I’d written down the following in a state of grief-inspired mania. I actually used an exclamation point:
Dan’s Ash-Scattering Tour!
*take his ashes to all the places you wanted to see together—the ones written on the postcards he sent to you, etc…record with photos & video (?) Write about it—
These thoughts were real—their bullet-points shooting holes in my desire to disappear or at least crawl out of my skin. The state of My State was Desperation. I was not trapped in bed with the covers-over-my-head like any other reasonable widow. Nope, I was ready to go! I was attempting to outrun my emotions lest they catch up to me and, like a Pac-Man character, swallow me whole. I could not lose this game—and the only way to win was to let the emotions chase me and not the other way around.
This was, after all, the most extreme stop so far on Dan’s Ash Scattering Tour, which was worldwide. As such it needed to be Epic—a rock-star event minus the music or stars which would propel Dan to places he/me/we’d never been. In my mind we would go together. It was going to feel somehow cathartic if my heart didn’t rip out first. It had to.
Spread ‘Em (7)
So This Woman Walks Through Security with a Container of Ashes and the TSA Says…
“I am sure he’d never imagined going to Iceland…” I thought as I drove to the Unpronounceable Volcano. He, of course, being the living, breathing Dan I spent over 11 years with. He being the man who initially intimidated others but intrigued me—as I did him, I suppose. Aside from introducing him to my beloved Bjork freshman year, from his perspective, the only ice we ever discussed was the temperature of my hands and feet against his warm body, even in summer. “It feels like someone trying to stab me with a dull refrigerated knife” he’d calmly say if our toes touched in bed “by accident”. He accused me of doing it on purpose, which I denied but was 100 percent accurate. My feet sought warmth and his body was like a steadily burning furnace.
This trip to Iceland was my posthumous surprise to Him. I took the him that wasn’t Him…I carried him with me inside of two containers: my heart and a plastic Chinese food box. The volcano was not too far from my hotel—the place where nothing was open. And again, although it was nearly impossible to get lost, I had my trusty GPS set to Snæfellsjökull, relieved and impressed that the GPS lady recognized this foreign word as she instructed me in her British-accented English.
“For the next 50 kilometers, continue straight.” I continued straight until I was required to make just a few minor turns. I saw the sign for Snæfellsjökull and felt the presence of butterfly wings in the pit of my belly…or were they miniature fairies direct from the caves and hills of this country? I drove only a few yards before seeing a sign that said, “Do not pass beyond this point”. I passed beyond that point just a little. I stopped the SIXT rental car, retrieved the ashes, and then thought,
“What am I doing? This is absurd. If anyone pulled up—the Royal Mounted Icelandic police on their fuzzy Icelandic horses, I’d have to explain myself and how would I do that?”
If I did tell the truth it would go a little something like this: “Um, officer—Mr. Icelandic…ahem. I have my husband’s ashes here in the car…no, that’s not Chinese takeout…why? Is there Chinese food around here? No? Ok, of course not. Yes, ashes, and was going to spread them on this magical mountain. It’s very lovely, by the way…and I don’t really want to stop now. I mean, these ashes have been waiting to be scattered for over three years…”
This would have sounded creepy and insane but I probably would have said it. I was willing to risk arrest and verbal SNAFU. It was Ash-spreading Go Time.
The day was cold, but not too cold. There was snow, but not too much snow. I put my hand to my eyes to shield the sun and gazed out like people do when they are alone in a TV movie-of-the-week—self-aware and conscious that no one was looking with just a smidge of but what if they were? In the distance I saw a waterfall. It was not, “technically speaking”, a part of the volcano. It was sort of “next door”, but I decided the elves would give me some leeway, and it became my mission to set out to the very apex of this waterfall because…
I have this lifelong habit or practice of going the distance—and not necessarily in the ambitious sense. More in the OCD “I need to touch every pole on this block” sense. Like when I decide I have to “go there”, I can’t just get close or see it from a distance of even 2 inches. I have to go all the way to the point upon which I have fixed my gaze. Perhaps today I would be given a diagnosis and sent home with a prescription, but I grew up post-all that, in that moment, I was an adult with ashes in her rental car. I had set my pupil on a point, and come hell or falling water, I was going to scatter the ashes THERE.
I had two mismatched gloves—I think because I had lost one of the reasonable gloves and I was too cheap to buy a new 2-gloved pair so I replaced one OJ-Simpson-style with a glove-orphan from the side of the road. I claim practicality, not classiness. I was also equipped with a brown bear hat that I’d bought at a store on my way to the hotel for the equivalent of 2 dollars…since I neglected that purchase at the REI. It was some cheap knock-off version of an anime bear made, undoubtedly, by bear cubs in a sweatshop, but I bought it for its warmth and adorable bear ears which stuck out of its head like a good listener.
I was ready and prepared as I’d ever be with bear hat, my mis-matched OJ tribute gloves, and the ashes in their Ziploc baggie that had been taken out of the re-used plastic Chinese food container. It was time to pass waaay past the “Do Not Pass” sign and head to the waterfall claimed as “the spot” in my line of vision.
I talked to Dan the entire way.
“Ok Dan, we are going there”, my italicized pointer finger extended. “To that ray of sunshine next to the top of that waterfall.”
I could guess his response. I heard it inside and out of my own thoughts.
“Susan, I don’t need to go there. I don’t need to go anywhere. You know I’m everywhere.”
Maybe I did or maybe I didn’t…know where he was. I hadn’t operated on all cylinders since he died. For the first time, I tuned his ghost voice out. This moment wasn’t about him anymore. This moment had evolved into my moment. I needed to make it There. I had decided it was Important. That it would change something. What, I wasn’t clear on. Maybe it would be another piece in that mythical Closure Pie I’d heard about. The only way to know was to go all the way. If I failed to make it “there”, I’d miss the Answer, and the elves and fairies did not hand out second chances.
So I continued on stumbling and sliding like the boy from the NeverEnding Story until I made it to the very top of There. Without additional fanfare I checked the direction of the wind, opened the baggie, and traced the ashes with my eyes as I poured them into the flowing stream. Flowing down, down, down the hill until I could only assume they were carried away by magic and the elves and fairies.
I was sobbing, but I’ll admit I’m not sure if this was a legitimate moment of catharsis, or instead what I thought to be an appropriate bullet point or button on the scene…because sadness was implicit; sadness was constant and needed no special occasion—no magical volcano adventure to appear.
I watched the ashes until I couldn’t anymore, and slogged all the way back to the car with my mismatched gloves and my newly freed hand.
I got in the car and I drove away.