Norway: Legends of the Sami and a Search for a New Year

Unexpected friendships in search of the same

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If I could summarize the our honeymoon with just a few words, I’d say: silence, balance, loss, beauty, and awe.

The minute we left Connecticut to fly to Norway, we were faced with unexpected challenges and received the equal in unexpected kindness. Upon arrival, we were constantly reminded that as we searched for one thing, something different answered: the dreaded dark nights opened with unforgettable lights, the mornings carried a heavy blue fog that gave us glimpses of snowy mountains. A lover of sunny, long days, I looked forward to the darkness for the first time.

On New Year’s Eve, we traveled to Camp Tamok for a day of activities, fat biking and dog sledding. The morning began with our using fat bikes to discover scenes for photos. Sliding up and down the thick, snowy trails covering sheets of ice beneath, required balance and relaxation. Falling off the bikes or failing to get back on, my Company and I laughed at one another uncontrollably.

A few hours later and after an outdoor lunch of reindeer stew over a fire pit, we finally walked over to the dog sledding. The excited dogs pulled us around for 1.5 hours through narrow trails along the woods, up hills, and best of all, down them. Half-way through, I had the chance to steer, testing my weight against the brakes and trying to shift our sled through the narrow, windy trails. Ecstatic at the speed of the dogs while I was steering, after we had crested a hill, I kept shouting, “Mush!” just as my Company kept shouting, “Honey, slow down!”. We continued our contradictory instructions to the dogs, “mush!,” “Slow!”, all the way down the long hill. We picked up more speed, right up until I overcooked a sharp corner, our sled ramming up against a snow embankment. My Company, who had up until then been filming the entire experience while shouting at me to slow down, squealed and tipped out of the sled, his hand still holding and filming with the Go-Pro, while I flew off the back and onto a snow pile. The dogs stopped, looked at us, and I could swear, laughed. Giggling at our own antics, we clambered back onto the sled and began again, with my Company shouting, “I have documentation! I told you to slow down,” intermittent with our own hysterical laughter. Afterward, we rewarded our pack with food and took off their harnesses, petting the satisfied dogs until sundown.

That evening, warmed up and hungry, we had a New Year’s dinner with new friends from Europe at a common table in our resort. We invited others to join us, having seen them through the past few days. We shared stories of our homes, our views on the world that seemed to be collapsing around us, and our fanaticism over finding the northern lights. Some in the group spoke English, though most were native German or Spanish speakers. But in the warmth of the dinner and wine, it felt like we could all understand one another. We all had a common thing we shared – the stories of the snow, the trek to find the northern lights, and the desire to take a break from our typical lives to do something a little more adventurous.

A few of our new friends had not been as lucky as we had been in spotting and photographing the aurora. Anxious about only having a day or so left, we collectively decided to hike back up to Camp Nikka and spend New Year’s Eve searching for the northern lights in the forest. What we did not anticipate was the snowstorm that fell in and clouded the night skies.

But still, we were not deterred.

We trekked up the hill and to the camp, lighting up the trail with our phones. At Camp Nikka, we found firewood in one of the half-covered tents and lit a fire, playing music from a phone and sharing more stories huddled in the cold. We scanned the skies for stars, a single sighting giving us hope that luck may be on our side that night. The storm subsided after about 30 minutes. The stars appeared one after another, until a break in the clouds allowed a light shimmer of aurora peak through, as if the universe had opened us to another world with a whole other set of stars and colors, before the clouds rolled back in and the snow fell once more.

As midnight ticked closer, we kept the music and the fire roaring, sharing the joy of an unexpected evening. As the clock ticked into a New Year, we kissed our loved ones, hugged one another, and laughing at how different this night had been from others past.

Soon the snow came down harder, and our group wandered back to the hotel, sharing champagne in front of indoor fires before cozying into our warm beds to contemplate resolutions. My Company and I ran through the past year in our minds: it was a year of change, of tremendous gains and unbearable losses. But at the end of it, we were there together, holding onto one another for support in our fledgling marriage and taking the next steps into a new adventure.

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“Well, what do you search for now? In this new year?” he asked as we stared out the window and into the dark waters of the fjord.

“For my own childhood,” I replied, “I hope in finding this, I would see how far I’ve come but still know who I am, and I would learn which things to let go.” And deep into the night we slept, as the stars came out one by one, dropping from the clouds and nestled in between the peaks of the mountains.

Stories of the Sami and Souls of the Dead

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The northern lights teased us during this entire trip, reminding us constantly that we had no control over whether we’d find them or not. They teased us up until the very last day of our honeymoon. On New Year’s day, exhausted from the night before and after a relaxing morning in the sauna overlooking the mountains across the water, we walked back to our cabin, fell asleep, and slept through one of the brightest light showings that occurred the entire week.

We only found out later that evening over dinner when the dining room was buzzing with the excited chatter over a vortex-like aurora that lit up the sky, sea and mountains. “Did you see it?” our waiter asked us as we sat down.

“No, see what?” My Company asked. He had been disappointed with some photos two nights before during the solar storm – they were overexposed, and we had lost an opportunity to document some unbelievable views of the northern lights overlooking the water from my deck.

“Oh, well it was this unforgettable aurora. Lit up everything. We haven’t seen one like that in a while. What were you guys doing?” our waiter replied.

At this, my Company and I slumped in our chairs and replied, “We were sleeping.”

After our waiter walked away, I turned to my Company and said, “There’s no predicting any of this, is there? Well, I suppose we’ll have to come back.”

That evening, irritated and feeling angry with ourselves, we decided to keep a lookout in the hotel. Just as I began to settle in my book and my Company into his article, we looked up at the window and saw a tinge of green appearing from behind a cloud. Running out and setting up the camera with cold and shaky hands, we managed some of our best photos of the entire trip. It was no whirlwind vortex, but it was beautiful, and we caught it just in time.

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Several mythologies emerged in the Laplands to explain the aurora phenomenon: Norse mythology has it that the northern lights are the spears, armor and helmets of warrior Valkyries, women fighters who rode on horseback to lead fallen soldiers to their afterlife in Valhalla. Finland, a Lapland neighbor, shared stories of the lights coming from the bushy tail of a mystical fox that runs across the snow so fast, its tail sprays snow and sparks into the sky. Fishermen in Sweden saw the northern lights as a prosperous prophecy, believing these lights were reflections from the nearby seas filled with large schools of fish.

The Sami, the Lapland’s indigenous Finno-Ugric people who inhabited the snowy mountains and valleys of the Arctic, used to say the aurora were the souls of their great ancestors emanating from the night sky, singing and cackling. Now of course, today, sounds of the aurora are attributed to charged particles hitting the inversion layer of the earth’s atmosphere. During the late night when we saw our first aurora borealis, the skies made no noise other than the soft whispers of our breaths and the light beating of our hearts.

While I looked up at the glowing lights, I could not help but wonder about the souls of those gone. Could the Sami be right? Were those our ancestors and old friends, engaged in a beautiful festival above us, shining down at the top of the earth where the atmosphere hugged the space of stars?

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Still ironed onto our hearts, the dim glow of friends and loved ones whom we’ve freshly lost make heavy imprints. We can still feel the heat from when they last touched us, painful and tender and filled with those joyous memories without sequence.

There are a few images that are hard to erase, even to this day. These are images that cast a glowing memory long after the events and sequence of the memory disappears: the aurora seeping through the clouds against the backdrop of constellations, as if the skies came from two worlds; white egrets flying low over the reservoir reflecting the blue green of the redwood hills; cold winter mornings around Richmond park covered in a light frost that lights up when the low sun hits it; the smiles of each one of you now gone, unexpected, happy, joyous.

“Bags of water. That’s all we are,” my Company once said to me. I suppose it never fully goes away. As people enter and leave, each one begins imprinting their own footprint, marked into us with that same hot iron that stays glowing long after they’re gone. Our imprints of their touch glow with a remarkable sadness and with that ineffable warmth of having been touched by their presence. Perhaps all this warmth escapes into the atmosphere and visits us as the Sami had believed, souls of the dead, lighting up the otherwise dark and cold night sky. Looking into the night, I could not help but wonder.

Loss feels like a very deep cave deeper than words, and even deeper perhaps, than tears. It’s as if the feeling is wedged away somewhere in the hidden walls of arteries, clinging to your insides out of the sheer inexplicable haze of its emptiness. Tears are the representations of anger and frustration, sadness, humiliation and injustice suddenly freed in physical form. But loss? Withoutness? That’s something I can no longer say.

So what is time? Here, now, always, the sad, sad inefficacy of time. Joy, always; wonder, unending.

Those memories flash immediate – the glow of your voice, the sound of your smile, the memories lost in forward time that we never made. But perhaps, again as the Sami would have it, those memories (those souls) are saved in the night, keeping the memories we would have made alive and dancing across the skies.

Dance now.

Dance yesterday.

Dance tomorrow.

Dance with the stars, in the sky, singing, flowing like the green river that fills the horizon and enters from a cloud to finally weave through the Milky Way, lighting up everything beneath it. Until tomorrow, until tomorrow, keep dancing.

Child — yes, small voice, keep moving.

Until tomorrow, child, when the sun rises.

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The Northern Lights

Imagine –
To walk amongst those lost in the evening skies,
Lighting up the surrounding clouds.
 
To sit amongst celestial warriors or singing maids,
Or to walk the Bifost Bridge to Valhalla.
To embrace the love of Nanahbozho the Creator,
Reminding us in bright colors the lasting warmth of his care.
 
To feel the spirits of the dead,
Sit at the dress tails of Aurora, Goddess of Dawn.
To hear the voices of those who have gone,
With heaven cracked open and light casting through,
Green, red and indigo blue.
 
All our lives will be filled with the passing and going,
Of footprints on our hearts, and glowing
Long after the person is gone, waiting, unknowing
To run like the revontulet kicking sparks across the moving skies.
 
—written, January, 2017.

 

The sun rises.

dsc0592-640Original content for series found here

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