On Tràigh Lar Beach- Dianne Ebertt Beeaff

“Stories as thick as clotted cream spring out of these Harris peat bogs.”- Dianne Ebertt Beeaff, On Traigh Lar Beach

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might know about my contribution to Clare Carlin’s Pieced Work. One of the premises of the project is that there are often stories behind objects, and those stories might surprise you. Since I submitted my piece I’ve been thinking a lot about the histories surrounding objects so it felt serendipitous that I came across this book where stories behind objects was a theme.

This book introduces us to a writer who won a prize for her book but since then has had issues with writer’s block. After coming across some objects that have been washed up on a Scottish beach, she is inspired to write a short story that explores the story behind each object. And from writing those short stories she is inspired even further to write a novella based on a fictional Scottish band named Datha. 

The stories in the book to be very powerful, shocking at times. There is often the sense of tragedy and all sorts of strong emotions, things you wouldn’t guess by just looking at the object. Whenever I read a book I often pay attention to the thoughts and ideas that go through my head, and this one got me thinking about humankind on the whole, and how we are all connected, as cliché as it may sound. The objects that washed up on the Scottish beach come from various parts of the world, another reminder.

The author’s writing is very beautiful and I especially loved the way she described nature, which is always there amidst the tragedy, the sadness:

 “How I treasured the velvet dampness of black loam crumbling in my hands. Spring earth sliced with fresh shoots as snappy as wintergreen, autumn’s crunch and rustle, the chilled sea greens of deep summer– those long sunlit afternoons when sweet peas popped like limey jewels into colanders and new potatoes cracked the earth like nuggets of gold.”

The novella, Fan Girls, took me back to my teenage obsession with the Backstreet Boys. I hadn’t really thought about the emotions that go behind being a serious fan of a group for a while, so it was interesting to read the thoughts of the fans of Datha, some of whom remind us just how cathartic and life changing art can be.  As one of my favourite characters, Emily, says, “Datha’s words and the power of their music had ignited a glimmer of my own potential. Isolation melted away with an intensity so intoxicating I could still ball it up in my fist like lightning. I’d stretched my soul out into the glittering darkness, released from expectation, from dependence and fear, determined that whatever threads still held together the thin fabric of my existence, being beaten could not possibly be one of them.”

This was definitely one of my favourite reads of year, especially welcome in a year in which I couldn’t find much to maintain my attention. Thanks so much for Smith Publicity for the complimentary copy!

“Catching” Stories

My grandmother wrote her own obituary. I wasn’t surprised that she did this because this is a woman who has always been strong and deliberate with her words and message. Writing her obituary gave her power over her own story, and it also shed light on what was important to her and how she wants to be remembered. But the obituary doesn’t tell her entire story of course.

As of this date (November 19, 2020), my grandmother is still very much alive. I have a copy of her obituary, which she wrote in Chichewa. She is 91 years old and has been contemplating the afterlife for a while now. I can understand her fixation on death in a sense, I guess it’s only natural at her age. Before she gave me a copy of her obituary in December she made me promise I would contribute to her funeral expenses, and of course I agreed. I read the obituary while I was with her and it felt strange reading about her in the past tense when she was right in front of me. All that’s missing on her obituary is her date of death and the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who survived her. Since I last saw her, a great-granddaughter has been added to her list, so clearly my grandmother is still very mindful of future changes.

As a child I only ever saw my grandmother in the role of grandmother, not really as a person in her own right, with her own history, struggles, desires, feelings, dreams dashed and dreams achieved. I was always in awe of her, a bit intimidated at times, truth be told. I was named after her so we have always shared a special bond because of that (she always likes to remind me of the time when at age 5 I opened her mail because I read my, our, name on the envelope). Even now as she has shrunk to below 5 feet tall she is still a force to be reckoned with and she still commands respect. As an adult I wanted to to learn more about what stories and experiences contributed to the personality of this extraordinary woman.

During the last few years I’ve been working on my family tree and have found out some very interesting information. Names and dates on a family tree are interesting and useful, but what’s even more enlightening are the stories. Families are more than a case of A begat B, C was born on this date, D died on that date, and I’d been thinking about getting my grandmother’s story before it was too late. I wasn’t even sure she’d be willing to share. In the past it was very often my grandmother telling me stories unprompted, and I just wanted to be entertained so I listened. This time I was older and knew the questions I wanted to ask her, questions that would help me understand not only her but my paternal family and where we come from.

She didn’t even give me much warning when she started telling me her story in that very powerful and sure voice of hers. She had been a teacher before she retired and to me she has always embodied that spirit of a teacher. She had taught elementary school English and in her presence I often feel like I’m one of her students. 

She loves us, that we have always known and felt. Family is important to her and we know our visits make her very happy. Her little living room is filled with mementos from her life, including pictures of my sisters and I in our school uniforms in Scotland. She likes to reminisce, and never throws out a single card or letter. I had always joked about my grandmother being a hoarder but now I understand the significance of the mementos she keeps. In that regard I did take after her. I collect too, I collect things to remember but also to understand. My grandmother has lived in the same country her entire life; she has strong ties to it obviously, and she knows the land she came from and where her people came from. I see her history, the history of my paternal family, in the landscape as she points things out to me. My gran told her story with so much authority and certainty whereas for me I am still trying to connect the various threads of my story, to make sense of them being, as it were, removed by distance from my motherland, living a life here in Canada continents away from the majority of my family.

It’s always interested me how different of a perspective you can get of a person when they share something personal from their life. I realized that, despite her conservatism, my grandmother has been, at times, radical. The fact that she and her friend walked from the then-capital city of Zomba to the city where I was born, Blantyre, a distance of 70km, stuns me. She went there for work, in an era where young women got married young and had babies, not move to the big city to find jobs. She talked about how she and her friend were scared that they would encounter wild animals alongside the road because back then there was a lot more wildlife in the countryside. She told me about how broken-hearted she had been when the man she was supposedly engaged to had, all the while, been engaged to another woman. She never did tell me his name, perhaps because it didn’t matter anymore, and I’m glad she had her happily ever after with my late grandfather Arnold, whom she still misses. 

I learned the term “storycatcher” from Christina Baldwin and after hearing my grandmother’s story, and subsequently hearing stories from other relatives, I feel I was destined to be one myself. My conversation with my grandma put me on that path. I now feel inspired to act, to take down my family’s most important stories, share them, make sense of them. I’m grateful for the opportunity that I had to speak with my grandmother and hear her story.

Helen

A coworker of mine, a woman who I considered a sort of kindred spirit,  passed away unexpectedly a couple of months ago. I had always liked Helen; she was friendly and had a warm and exuberant  personality. She was curious about life, and interested in helping people. She was also the first person I knew who lived on a boat and during wind storms I always worried about her because I get motion sickness and couldn’t even imagine being in a boat at a time like that. What drew Helen and I closer, though, was a story, one Helen remembered prompted by something I had said. It was a quiet day at the office and I was chatting about my writing aspirations and my love of literature. My story activated her memory and I remember Helen getting a little bit emotional when she started thinking about her own experiences. Helen said hearing my story brought her back to her university days and a teacher of hers who had encouraged her to focus on poetry and literature. Looking back I feel sharing her story had a healing property on Helen, while hearing her story reinforced my own positive choices. As different as we were, we were able to see a commonality and grow closer in the space of several minutes. 

Helen’s story went on to something spectacular over the next few days. If Helen were still alive I’d have asked for her permission to share it, so you’ll have to believe me when I say that sometimes you never know what path a story will lead you on; it sometimes has a mind of its own. When I think of Helen, which I do often, I think of how we connected through storytelling and I think of how, although she left far too soon, she left me with a beautiful story that I will treasure forever

So Long a Letter- Mariama Bâ

We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ‘hard sweat’ that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive. Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter

Mariama Bâ means a lot to me because she was the first African woman writer I’d ever read. I like to think I recognized her genius at age 14 when I read So Long a Letter for the very first time but it’s only now as an adult with more awareness and lived experience that I really understand how powerful of a writer she was.

This book seems simple enough in storyline, a long letter written by Ramatoulaye to Aissatou, her long time friend on the event of Ramatoulaye’s recent widowhood. The letter  contains so much more than just words to a friend though;  incorporates feminism, Senegalese tradition, religion, and history, all the things that were very relevant to the lives of these two women. Ramatoulaye, mother of 12 children whose husband of 30 years abandoned her 5 years prior to his death for a much younger second wife, details her childhood, marriage struggles and so on. The emotions that are brimming under the surface may not have had an outlet in many circumstances but in this case the protagonist has an audience in her best friend Aissatou who, when her husband decided to take on a second wife, divorced him rather than stay in a polygamous household against her wishes.

I’ve always been interested in stories that take place during times of transition and this letter details a lot of the thoughts and observations of the transition from colonialism to independence. This winter I sat down with my 90 year old grandmother who was a young primary school English teacher during colonialism and she told me about what a hopeful time independence seemed to be for African women. She told me about how empowered she felt being able to work, and another thing she mentioned was how people thought that she, as a woman in the 1940s and 50s, must be pretty eccentric to even want to work. I had always thought of my grandmother as very conservative and traditional but hearing her story made me realize she was more of a rebel than I’d ever be. Mariama Bâ was coincidentally born in the same year as my grandmother so rereading her thoughts on African feminism during this time really made me reflect on my conversations with my grandmother and how life changed for African women during transitions:

We were true sisters, destined for the same mission of emancipation. To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were
the aims of our admirable headmistress.

It’s interesting reading this book in the 21st century, over half a century onwards from independence and realizing that that hope the continent felt was sort of misplaced and didn’t come to fruition in many ways because of poor governance. A powerful book that I’m sure I’ll love forever.

 

Assumptions: what happens when the cover doesn’t “match” the contents?

I remember how, when I was 12 years old my American teacher in Malawi asked me if I had copied the story she had assigned we write for English class. She was kind when she was interrogating me, and looking back I sensed she was gently trying to teach me a lesson. The story I’d written was about a group of children, à la Famous Five, having an adventure in the Scottish countryside. I’d spent my childhood reading lots of Enid Blyton books, and adventure stories by other writers and they were definitely my favourite genre. I was lucky to have grown up with fellow imaginative readers who liked faking adventures in the Scottish woods, and a best friend whose mother worked for Harper Collins, so when my teacher asked us to write a story, it only made sense that I’d want to replicate the theme I loved the most, in a setting I knew well. I didn’t talk very much in class because I was still very conscious about being teased about my accent, so there is a chance that my teacher didn’t know I had just moved to Malawi from Scotland less than a year ago. When I took my international school’s entrance test  I remember the headmaster, Mr D., being so amused by this black kid who spoke with a Glaswegian accent that he invited a group of teachers into the room to hear me speak! I lost track of all the students and teachers who teased and bullied me because of my accent (to this day I still have no idea why I was called a Scottish monk as an insult). There are events that take place, especially when you are younger, that you don’t have the vocabulary  to verbalize, but you know they are important, and hopefully when you are older you can determine why. This was one of those events.

I didn’t even know what plagiarism was in those days, and I thought that the issue my teacher had with me was my writing a story that she didn’t think I had the right to write. Why would I, a black child, be writing about Scotland?  I was always fairly gifted when it came to literature but I wouldn’t say my writing was that good at age 12, so my still naive understanding told me that maybe I had done something wrong by having been inspired by British stories. I haven’t written a story since, and looking back I see that situation was one of several transformative ones that made me understand that how I looked did not align with what people expected of my reality and my lived experiences. Over the years it made me adamant that I would not assume someone’s story based on their appearance.

 Since that fateful day in English class, I’ve  learned plenty about myself and my place in the world, and how people like me are called Third Culture Kids, those who are often stuck between cultures and end up creating their own culture, a third culture. I’ve written and talked about being an invisible immigrant and how it’s hard to find a place to belong. My personal experiences have helped me empathize with all sorts of people and even now I do delight in meeting people with unusual stories, stories you could not possibly imagine based on their appearance, nationality, etc. It’s a learning experience when assumptions are shattered, and hopefully it serves as a reminder for us to get to know people before assuming we can put them in a predefined box without doing the work.  

Had I had the words back then I’d have said to my English teacher Mrs H., yes I was a Scottish-Malawian child writing a story based on the only country I knew intimately, in a country that, although was my birth country, I felt rejected me due to my foreignness. Yes, I was familiar with the gorse, heather, thistles and daffodils because I had not yet learned the flamboyants, jacarandas, and frangipanis. I needed, at that time, an anchor, and literature has always been my anchor. That story I attempted to write and then tore up out of shame was the one I needed to write to feel connected to a country I missed at a time when I felt alien in my own country of birth, when I mispronounced the name of my own neighbourhood, where despite looking like the majority, I still had a strong sense of unbelonging that others could not possibly see or imagine. In the end, it was literature that provided me with a safe place in which to connect with familiar experiences and remember my past, the one where I felt comfortable in, accepted, aware and knowledgeable of my surroundings, the culture.

 

The Door- Magda Szabo

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In Emerence’s world there were two kinds of people, those who swept and those who didn’t, and everything flowed from that.- Magda Szabo, The Door

This is a book I’d gladly recommend to anyone. I love books that focus on a character storyline, and Emerence is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever come across in literature. Szabo really fleshed her out so much that I could almost envision her. She’s one of those stubborn women clinging on to her own way of life, refusing to understand the present changes in society, yet her perspective is crucial and in a way you could say her life is better because it’s simpler. I don’t really know much about Hungary, but this book introduced me to Hungary after the war, after communism. It’s narrated by a writer in post-war Hungary who, with her poorly husband, decides to hire the elderly and energetic, but strange, Emerence as her housekeeper. Emerence is “fearless, enchantingly and wickedly clever, brazenly impudent”, a strange woman with her secrets, and when she enters the narrator’s and her husband’s lives it’s clear they will never be the same again.

What I like the most about the book is how we really get to see and understand Emerence, a woman with a mysterious past, a stubborn nature and just so much strength, as well as a really unique way of looking at life, which perhaps wasn’t so unique back in the day. Being illiterate and folksy, it’s so hard or downright impossible to impress her, and she’d rather trust in her own old school wisdom.

While I was reading this book I was reminded of My Antonia by Willa Cather, another book I love because of how real the protagonist feels to me. Like Antonia, Emerence’ spirit “shines bright, but through a cloud of steam. Such a thirst for life, but so diffused over everything; such immense talent, achieving nothing.”

 

 

 

The Cardinals and Other Stories- Bessie Head

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The whole principle of living and learning is dependent on what is going on in the mind. The mind is like a huge, living tapestry. Everything we see, hear, learn and experience gets fixed into this tapestry for good and, each day, more impressions are being imprinted on it.- Bessie Head, The Cardinals

Bessie Head’s writing really resonates with me. Since I learned a bit about Head’s own sad but inspiring life, it’s been almost impossible for me to read any of her work without thinking of how her own experiences informed her writing by changing how she viewed the world. As painful as it was for her to be an outsider, it also gave her freedom  as she was often able to see what others couldn’t, and she could afford to be more honest, after all, what did she have to lose if she didn’t pledge allegiance to any group?  Born during apartheid of an illegal union between a white woman and a black man, much of Head’s life was clearly about coming to terms with unbelonging, and  one of the ways she did this was by ridiculing the system that deemed her an illegal person. Along with Mariama Ba, Nawal El Saadawi, and Buchi Emecheta,  Head is one of the African woman writers who I feel did a lot to look closely at and critique the systems they were a part of. Like the other women mentioned, she was a keen observer of her society, and was able to point out the hypocrisies and highlight the stories that others ignore or gloss over.

This is a book of short stories, the titular one, The Cardinals, being a novella of 120 pages. It’s the one that impressed me the most, although the shorter stories at the end of the book were also really good. The Cardinals is about Miriam, later nicknamed Mouse, a young woman of uncertain paternity who is described by Johnny, the male protagonist, as having been born in a dung heap. The story calls to mind the many people who are born in environments that don’t nurture them, but somehow are able to make some sort of life for themselves and utilize their gifts. Mouse escapes from a shanty town near Cape Town and starts working for a trashy South African tabloid. Head uses her work as a reporter to illustrate the absurdities of the Immorality Rule wherein the races were not allowed to mix and have sexual relations.

The relationship that develops between Mouse and Johnny is quite unnerving. There’s a connection between them that others can’t explain, because “Mouse is only a woman and a rather dull, drab and colourless  one at that…No man in his right mind would look twice at her.” With Johnny being considerably older and definitely more worldly, there’s also a power dynamic and plenty of antagonism.  We see Johnny as a mentor to Mouse’s writing and Head uses him to share some of her own succinct views of life, love, and writing.

You come from the same environment that I do and there are things that happened that marked me for life. I just cannot obliterate the scars.

 

In writing, as in every other aspect of my life, I observe no rules or style. Just the thought of having to follow a set of rules or wedging myself into a style is enough to make my hair stand on end. Style must conform to me—my every mood, whim or fantasy.”

 

The funny thing about writing is that it makes you start thinking. Once you’ve started the process, you just can’t stop. It makes you articulate too. If you write and write every day you begin to feel that your brain is like a well-preserved machine churning out things that will eventually prove to be of use to someone, somewhere.

 

Definitely a 5 star read.

Between Two Worlds- Miriam Tlali

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I had thought I had seen everything there is to see, heard everything there is to hear, in my experience with people, black, white and brown, in this Republic of South Africa. But I was to realize that I had so far seen and heard very little of this beloved land of ours, especially as far as relationships between the different races are concerned. – Miriam Tlali, Between Two Worlds

I have no idea how I’d never heard of Miriam Tlali before I came across this book by chance at my local library. Tlali, I learned, passed away in 2017 and she had the honour of being the first black female South African novelist to be published.

Between Two Worlds is a story that illustrates apartheid in 1960s South Africa through the eyes of Muriel, a black bookkeeper who is overqualified for the position at the Metropolitan Radio, a retail store that sells radios, electrical appliances, and furniture in Soweto.  On a daily basis Muriel has to deal with petty racism, reminders from her white coworkers that they consider her to be less than human, and knowing she would be able to find better work had there not been an apartheid society.

Tlali’s writing gives us an important lens into various parts of South African society, such as race relations, the Land Act, and Pass Laws. It’s easy to have a basic idea of what apartheid was, what it was like for the people living under it, but without hearing stories from the actual people involved, it’s difficult to imagine how it permeated every area of people’s lives, and the many different ways it manifested. Apartheid without question was a gross injustice and learning more details through Tlali’s novel really had me very indignant at, for example,  how despite racist societies putting down a group of people and seeing them as subhuman, those in power still did their best to take advantage of these people and take them for every penny.

Tlali is so observant and often witty too, and it is so reassuring that she was able to see the hypocrisies she faced on a daily basis so clearly. Also, she never had any doubt as to what a brilliant black woman she was, although the society she lived in tried to say otherwise. She was aware of the ethical dilemma she faced being a black woman employed by white South Africans:

“How was I going to work with people who were not even prepared to give me a chance and who were squeezing as much money as they could out of my own black fellow workers?”

Another thing I liked about this book was it’s a snapshot of how communications were conducted in the 1960s. Before the internet, the main way to communicate was through letters, and it was dizzying to think about how many letters and follow-up letters had to be written before email came along.

These links share more about the life and activism of this incredible woman:

MIRIAM TLALI

http://theconversation.com/rest-in-power-miriam-tlali-author-enemy-of-apartheid-and-feminist-73790

Jeanette Winterson- Art Objects

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Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. – Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

I’ve been rereading the essays in this book slowly this time around, the last time being 3 years ago.  I’m thinking about my favourite essays in more details and meditating on the content. This review is on the titular essay, Art Objects, an essay which discusses what happens when one discovers art and allows it into their lives and hearts, and how one must look for a language in order to express one’s feelings.

I had fallen in love and I had no language.

Winterson likens looking at paintings to travelling to a foreign city, and for me that really illustrates the fact that we expect to understand certain  things quickly but art, like visiting a new place, takes time to reveal itself to us, and so patience, and a desire to learn, is crucial. The first time I read this essay 3 years ago I was actually struck by the fact that Winterson said she’s willing to spend an afternoon with her favourite painting. As much as I love art and certain artists, I can’t imagine looking at a painting for even 5 minutes, so I started wondering what it is I’m not getting about art. I think more than anything, it is that our society that doesn’t encourage slowness of living, and it is up to the individual to slow down and appreciate things slowly and on a deeper level.

Another thing that resonated with me was the importance of having someone to accompany you on a journey. It’s not always possible to have a physical person to do so, even if you are surrounded by people, because people are on their own journeys, so I did appreciate Winterson illuminating the fact that even dead writers can be a guide, or someone to engage with on a certain topic:

I knew my Dante, and I was looking for a guide, someone astute and erudite, with whom I had something in common, a way of thinking. A person dead or alive with whom I could talk things over. I needed someone I could trust, who would negotiate with me the sublimities and cesspits of regions hitherto closed. Someone fluent in this strange language and its dialects, who had spent many years in that foreign city and who might introduce me to the locals and their rather odd habits. Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, wither by taming it or baiting it, cannot success. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Having just visited a giftshop with my friend and seeing how famous art can be used to sell souvenirs (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on a thermos, Monet’s Water Lilies on a wallet), I really did get to thinking about how the ubiquity of famous art pieces everywhere causes us not to really see the art, or just assume we know the art because we see its image everywhere. Related, Winterson talks about how we see out through “the thick curtain of irrelevancies that screens the painting from the viewer.”

Canonising the pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out.

One of my favourite recent articles is “Take Your Time: The Seven Pillars of A Slow Thought Manifesto” by Vincenzo Di Nicola . In it Di Nicola says “Just as fast food works for some meals and not for others, we must remain open to things that take time, both for preserving what is of value from the past and taking the time to forge new approaches in the present.” I may not be able to spend an entire afternoon with a painting, but I will attempt to spend at least 5 minutes on one.

Elf Stories in Iceland

June 24- “It’s kind of an elf date.They are playing and dancing and singing all night long.”- Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, in conversation with Marianne Bjornmyr

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Street art in downtown Reykjavik

If you grew up reading Andrew Lang books like I did, you’d understand my fascination with fairy tales. As a child with an over-active imagination I believed in fairies, elves, goblins, sprites, every fairy creature. It seemed so normal to me that they existed. If you’d seen me convincing my sisters to help me look for fairies you might have laughed, but I was earnest. I never did find any traces of fairy folk and I soon grew out of that belief. Hearing stories about the Icelandic belief in elves intrigued me, and it was one of the reasons Iceland had always appealed to me as a holiday destination. Apparently a considerable percentage of the population believed in Huldufólk , i.e. “hidden folk.” Judging from its landscape Iceland it does seem like the perfect place to have elves. Maybe the word ethereal is over-used but in the case of Iceland it’s very appropriate.

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Near the Skogafoss waterfall area

While visiting southern Iceland’s waterfalls and glaciers with my tour group  I had the following conversation with my tour guide:

Halla (tourguide): Where are you staying?
Me: Hafnarfjörður
Halla: Hafnarfjörður! There are lots of elves there!

Hafnarfjörður is a beautiful port town right next to Reykjavik that has an elf garden that I unfortunately did not visit. Most of the locals I chatted with in this town had a couple of elf stories to share with me, though I’m not sure whether it’s because they were just humouring me as I was a tourist.

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Hafnarfjörður

While on our way back to Reykjavik,  Halla directed our gaze to a large rock that was lying some metres from the highway. Soon I was to hear my first elf story:

The highway was supposed to have been built where that rock lay, Halla said. Do you know why it wasn’t built there? Elves!

We learned that the elves wreaked havoc on all construction attempts. Tractors broke down, people got injured. The rock couldn’t be budged or destroyed. Its reluctance to move defied science.There were so many coincidences, too many to believe that supernatural forces were not involved in making sure that highway would not be built at that very location. Finally, the government decided to invite an elf oracle to figure out what was going on.

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View from the highway

I ended up finding confirmation of Halla’s story in a photobook I read at Reykjavik’s Museum of Photography, entitled “In Shadows/Echoes”. The elf oracle Ragnhildur Jonsdottir recounted a conversation she had with the elves:

“Okay, this is our home, it’s a whole community where you are planning to build this road. But if you agree to move the road over there, in a totally different place, then you are not damaging our village, then we will take care and make sure, as well as we can, that no one gets hurt driving this road.”

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Jonsdottir says the elves are older than humans, and as they are always smiling they don’t have any worry lines. They have very little to worry about because they aren’t greedy like us humans, apparently. There are many different species of elves, and they are very similar to humans but smaller. They even have a royal family. Pulta, one of the oracle’s elf friends, is from that family.

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Another elf story I heard took place in Reykjavik where an elf oracle was consulted before a large rock was moved. It was discovered that the rock was indeed an elf stone. The elves were amiable and agreed to move on two conditions: 1- A week was given to them so they could pack their things, and 2- they were housed in a locale that had a good view of Reykjavik.

On my last full day in Iceland I spend the day in Reykjavik and went looking for that rock. It was hard to find and even the people working at the tourist office only had a vague idea of where it was. But finally I found it, on a hill, very close to the Canadian Embassy. It was in a little park and someone had planted flowers around it.

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Even if you don’t believe in supernatural forces, I believe one of the morals of the elf stories is to pay close attention to signs that the world might be giving you, and not assume you are above nature.  In all the elf stories I heard the elves were always willing to compromise; they only became angry (understandably) if  their communities were being destroyed. Being careful, observant, and learning to read what the signs are telling you seems to be important if we want to live safely and peacefully.

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The black sandy beaches of Vik