Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Outward Curve

Tomorrow I will need to say goodbye to students, friends and colleagues who have formed the web of my day-to-day life these past few weeks.  I really dislike saying goodbyes.  I take some comfort in the fact that in this high-tech, internet world it a little easier to maintain connections.  And there are relationships rooted in this place that are very precious to me.
At Gustavus, and during my sabbatical I am teaching a number of courses on the role of story and storytelling in our lives. I always draw from Christina Baldwin, author of the book Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story, and say that how we make our experiences into story determines how we live our personal lives.  Ever since we left on this journey, it has been my experience that there are many, many individuals in this world who are kind, friendly and willing to help you. On our flight from Minneapolis to Toronto we sat across the aisle from a family of three returning home to Stockholm. By the time we had gone through multiple security checks, and spent the wee hours of the night in the Reykjavik airport - we had almost become old friends.  When Josh’s computer was infected with an aggressive virus, Stephan, the IT guy from the school and Jimmy, a computer savvy guy from one of my classes, spent hours with Josh helping him save the material on his computer and eliminate the virus.  While I can’t even begin to cover the friend’s of friends who have offered to assist us on the road ahead I can name a few:  My former student, Sonoe, who lives in Australia, who e-mailed her friend Lotta, who lives in Stockholm, who friended me on facebook and offered to assist us when we are there the end of next week; and my friend Maria from St. Paul, who e-mailed her friend Cathy, who e-mailed her friend Mirka, who lives in Prague, who e-mailed me and offered to assist us in any way she can while in her city.  While I know the world also has more than its share of dishonest and dangerous people, I truly believe the balance tips in favor of the kind and caring ones.  
Anna Aronson, her son, Isak and Josh on the narrow roads in Färnäs

Josh and Cesar, a cross-country skier from Venezuela

 Anna, Josh and me at restaurant in Mora
 Josh just returned to the room and said, “I can’t believe we have to leave here in a few days.”  I asked him how he felt about that.  He simply answered, “I like it here.”
All I could think was, I do too, my dear – I do too.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Colors of Dalarna

Dalarna, is the historical province in the central part of Sweden where the town of Mora, and the Folk School are located.  One of the first things you notice when traveling in this area is the distinctive red color of many of the houses and wooden buildings.  Iron pigment from the more than 1000 year-old Stora Kopparberg copper mine, located in the regional capital, Falun, was used to produce this particular hue which is known as “Falu Red.”  Author August Strindberg, is said to have written “The colours of our Swedish flag are blue and gold, but really they ought to be green and red: green for the deep green pine forest, and red for the humble red cottage glowing against its edge.”  The green pine forests look much like the coniferous forests further north in Minnesota.  It is easy to see why so many Scandinavian immigrants found the landscape of Minnesota familiar and chose to settle there.

Sadly, in the year 2010, one distinct difference between Minnesota and central Sweden is the color of the lakes.  Mora is positioned on the banks of the magnificent Lake Siljan.  Josh and I travel along side it when we walk into the central part of town.  It is the most amazing color of blue.  I know there are certain mineral deposits, etc. that contribute to this incredible blue color, but I also believe the much stricter environmental policies throughout Sweden have prevented the degradation caused by agricultural run-off that is so prevalent in the U.S.  No murky green algae ridden lakes here.  The lakes in Sweden look vibrant and healthy.

We spent much of yesterday in Färnäs, at our host, Anna Aronson’s home.  The definition of an “old house” varies greatly depending on geography.  In the U.S. an old house on the east coast might be 200 years old, while an old house on the west coast might be 60 years old.  In Färnäs, an old house could be 600+ years old.  There are buildings standing that were constructed in the 14th Century.  The very old buildings have this wonderful “Lincoln log” type construction.  They have a layer of birch back at the base, and under the roof for extra insulation.  Most of the houses in the village  are painted the classic Falu Red.  The houses, barns and other historic buildings have being lovingly restored and re-purposed.  A number of barns have been made into workshops or guest cottages. 

 Anna's house   
Kjell's barn

Just up the road from Anna’s house is one of two Maypoles located in Färnäs.  Next to the Dala horse, the Maypole is perhaps the most recognized symbol for Sweden. Amid much music and dancing, each village raises a Maypole at Midsummer, near the end of June, to welcome summer.

The Maypole by Anna's house

Anna’s son Isak is 11 year-old and speaks excellent English.  While Josh and Isak shared the common language of The Simpsons and X-Box, I visited with Anna and Kjell in the kitchen.  When I am remembering the colors of Dalarna, I will also remember the bright red of the apple-beet-ginger juice the Kjell prepared for us, and the lingonberry juice that Josh could not get enough of, and the food from the garden and homemade pizzas.  As Anna drove us back to campus for the evening I commented to her that my favorite thing in the world is to sit around the table and enjoy good food with friends and while is should not be a rarefied experience, in my everyday life it often is.   Anna concurred it was all too rare in her life also.  

Isak and Josh looking out the treehouse window

One of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, wrote  “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for.  And the most you can do is to live inside that hope.”  I have one small piece of the first part figured out.  I want more leisurely time with good friends and good food.  How to embody that dream, I have not yet figured out.

Friday, October 22, 2010


It is easy for me to come up with adjectives to describe Skeriol, but difficult for me to come up with a simple definition.  It is one of the “Folk High Schools” located through out Sweden.  It is very different from anything called a “high school” in the U.S.  First of all, the students are 18 or older.  Some are significantly older, what we might think of as “non-traditional” students.  The overall objective of all the Swedish Folk High Schools is to provide “general civic education.”  In other words, to provide not only knowledge and skills, but also to provide experiences which raise social awareness and ideally lead to broader participation in the democracy. 

Created in 1907, credit for the development of this particular Folk School is given to Anders Zorn (1860 - 1920), perhaps Sweden’s most famous artist.  He had a vision of a school for adults where students could “take advantage of old skills and learn new things.”  Some of the “old skills” that students can study are loom weaving, birch bark weaving, ceramics, painting, carpentry and blacksmithing. The “new things” include studying ecology and conservation.

At Skeriol there are also distinguished programs in Design and Cross-Country Skiing.  The other morning at breakfast I started hearing the music from West Side Story play in my head as I observed the individualistic artists gather on one side of the cafeteria, and the spandex-clad athletes gather at an opposite end.  But this community is far more complex than that.  A portion of the student body is made up of immigrants to Sweden.  Today at my lunch table were students originally from Spain, Turkey and the Philippines.  One of these students informed me, “when there is soup for lunch, there will be dessert!”  And just as she had predicted, a delicious apple crisp appeared soon after the main meal had been served. 
Something about that moment just sparkled for me.  As much as this is a warm and welcoming community, I am clearly a bit lost trying to make sense of all I do not understand.  I love that this young woman showed me how to connect two dots that I might not have put together.  I am quite sure I will remember her smile, and most likely be on the lookout for dessert whenever I have soup for lunch. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

thoughts from josh

today a lot happened surprisingly. my new friend from skeriol was lost in the woods while running today. i received my luggage, and i went to a Swedish school . the Swedish school was very interesting its much more hi-tech classes were much more straight forward and very easy. also we were able to leave at anytime and they had a ping-pong table in the hall. i was very happy that my luggage arrived (clean clothes)yay. i also am finally able to consistently do 5 ball juggling. its quite rainy outside there are lots of puddles. I'm also happy theirs a weight room here.    

Monday, October 18, 2010

So far, so good

Many years ago the theatre department at Gustavus produced a Japanese folktale with a Robin Hood-like narrative called Find Hakamadare!   A recurring line throughout the play was “So far, so good.” (To really appreciate this you have to imagine Midwestern college students in exaggerated make-up saying this with their best Japanese accents.)
Today, as I was thinking about the first few days of our journey, that line popped in to my head.  So far, so good.
Since I chose economy over efficiency, our path to Mora, Sweden, involved flights from Minneapolis to Toronto, Toronto to Reykjavik, Iceland, Reykjavik to Stockholm followed by a train from Stockholm to Borlänge, then a bus from Borlänge to Mora.  We should have been able to take the train all the way to Mora, but they were repairing the tracks.  We left our home in St. Peter, Minnesota at 11:30 on Friday morning and arrived safely in Mora, Sweden just before 6:00PM Saturday evening.  So far, so good.
We got to explore a number of new airports, and Josh, with his shoulder length hair, earrings and Bob Marley t-shirt, triggered a few extra security measures along the way.  Minneapolis was the most extreme requiring a full-body scan and pat down, whereas in the airport in Reykjavik required every electronic device to be removed from your carry on and placed in bin, in addition to the usual shoes, belts, coats, etc. 
While we arrived safely in Sweden, Josh’s suitcase did not.  We filled out all the appropriate paperwork and just learned today that it had been left in Toronto.  The good news is it has been located, arrived in Stockholm this morning and we should have it very soon.  Okay they said it would be delivered today and it is now 10PM local time – so we have our fingers crossed for tomorrow.  But it was found!  So far, so good.
Sunday afternoon we had a wonderful dinner at our host Anna’s beautiful home got to meet the two charming men in her life – her partner, Tjell and her son, Isak. Sunday evening Josh watched movies with a friendly international student from Venezuela who is here training to try and qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics in cross-country skiing.  This is Mora – home of the historic Vasaloppet Ski Race from Sälen to Mora.
We spent this evening with another colleague from the Folk school and her two sons.  It was so fun to listen to them compares favorite TV shows (Simpsons and Scrubs) and Game Cube games, eat homemade food and hear stories.  Tomorrow Josh will attend school with her 14 year-old son.  I cannot wait to hear about his day. 
Everything, so far, has affirmed my decision to begin our year of travel here.  We have truly been warmly welcomed.  Now the little voice in my head saying So far, so good has a Swedish accent. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Returning to Skeriol

In the spring of 1995, two weeks before I turned 40, and after seven years of modern medical intervention, I was told I was pregnant.  In fact, the exact words used by the nurse practitioner who read my lab results were, “Michele you are REALLY pregnant – we know there are at least two and no more than five.”  While the news of carrying a long tried for but possibly complicated pregnancy sank it, I began to disentangle myself from all the plans I had made for my upcoming sabbatical.   A year filled with domestic and international travel and study would not be on the agenda with a December due date.  At my eight-week ultrasound, I discovered that there were two gestational sacs but only one fetus had a heartbeat.  At fourteen weeks, the surviving twin’s heart quit beating. To say it was a difficult time would be a huge understatement. 
Slowly I began to devise a Plan B.  I traveled to Northampton, Massachusetts to study authentic movement with Mary Ramsey, Daphne Lowell and Alton Wasson.  A long ago issue of A Moving Journal described authentic movement as “a deceptively simple form of self-directed movement. It is usually done with eyes closed and in the presence of at least one witness. The mover follows inner impulses to move freely, and the witness watches and tracks inner responses to the mover with the intention of not judging, but working on self-awareness.”  For two weeks, in a quiet, safe and supportive environment, I closed my eyes to the outside world and tried to listen to what was going on inside of me.  I remember feeling drawn to the floor and wanting to have both hands and both feet firmly holding on to the floor.  Within the practice, there is often a time when the mover can share their experience with the witness.  I said I needed to hold on because it felt like the ground kept shifting underneath me.  I remember saying it felt “like the rug had been pulled out from under me.”  And in one of those “ah-hah” moments I realized it had been.
At the end of the summer I spent a wonderful week studying contact improvisation with Chris Aiken.  In contrast to authentic movement, contact improvisation requires you to be aware of all that is going on all around you.  In her book Caught Falling, Nancy Stark Smith's describes contact improvisation as “a dance form, originated by American choreographer Steve Paxton in 1972, based on the communication between two or more moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion—gravity, momentum, inertia.”
She describes these improvisations as  “spontaneous physical dialogues that range from stillness to highly energetic exchanges. Alertness is developed in order to work in an energetic state of physical disorientation, trusting in one’s basic survival instincts.”  It was during that week of righting myself from disorienting positions, surrendering my weight to the support of a partner, and catching and supporting others that I began to trust my body again.  My basic survival instincts needed, and received, a tune up. 
That fall I began a yearlong, modular training program in Body-Mind Centering with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.  I traveled to Berkeley, California in September, December and March, to join students from all over the globe in studying with this master teacher.  During the third module I discovered I was pregnant again.  This time there was no fancy lab work – just a plan drug store pregnancy test. 
While no one would ever accuse me of having a zen-like personality, I somehow managed to develop what I thought of as a zen-like attitude toward this pregnancy.  I knew in my heart if it was meant to be - it would be.  And if it was not, there was nothing I could do to change the outcome.  I don’t let go of control easily, but I knew from the beginning I had no control over this. 
With that attitude, at three months pregnant, I got on an airplane and flew to Sweden to teach for a month at the “Folkhogskola” in Mora, Sweden known as Skeriol.  My time in Sweden was wonderful.  At Skeriol I taught a course that combined dance, embodied anatomy and writing stories. The students in my class were from very diverse backgrounds but all approached the class with open hearts.  I still remember so many of their stories. 
When I left for Sweden, no one except my husband and a few of my closest friends knew about the pregnancy.  When I returned it was a little harder to keep it a secret.  My favorite memory is seeing a colleague at the St. Peter Food Co-op.  He put his arm around my shoulders and asked in his wonderful French accent, “Mee-shell, you look different.  Are you different?”
My little stowaway is almost 14 year old now.  And I am bringing him back to Skeriol.  I can’t wait.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

The fall leaves were in full color in the days before my father died.  I remember driving from St. Peter to Minneapolis day after day overwhelmed with sadness, yet filled with awe at the beauty of the Minnesota river valley showing off its finest plumage.  I remember thinking that it seemed fitting that his life would come to an end during the brightly colored fading days of autumn.  I can still hear him singing in the kitchen with his rich yet untrained voice, “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold.” 
Today is the tenth anniversary of the day he died.  There is a wonderful prayer from the Reform Jewish Prayer book, Gates of Prayer, called “For as long as we live, they too will live, For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”
At the rising sun and at its going down we remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter we remember them.

At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring we remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer we remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn we remember them.

At the beginning of the year and when it ends we remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us.
 As we remember them.
 When we are weary and in need of strength we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart we remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make we remember them.

When we have joy we crave to share we remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs we remember them. 

For as long as we live, they too will live,

For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
In keeping with that thought I could add, when I look in the mirror, and see a face that looks so much like his, I remember him.
We leave in four days and there is so much to do.  But today, in the spaces between the busyness, I want to enjoy the beautiful colors and remember my dad.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Dancer who Writes

As any Broadway gypsy can tell you, there is a very significant difference in expectations between an audition labeled “For Dancers who Sing” and one labeled “For Singers who Dance.” If you show up for an audition for “Dancers who Sing” you darn well better be a REALLY accomplished dancer who can carry a tune respectably.  If you show up for a “Singers who Dance” audition, you best have a well-trained voice and be able to pick up musical theatre choreography.
Labels and expectations are not so clear out here in the blogosphere. That said, this blog is clearly written by a “Dancer who Writes” and not a “Writer who Dances.” Much of my life I have been suspect of words.  Before I even studied Martha Graham I bought into her tenet that “movement never lies.”  My expressive vocabulary has always been more comfortable in the silent zone of movement.  But lately I have been drawn more and more into the world of words.  For me putting, my words out there for others to read is far more terrifying than dancing in front of a huge audience. 
So right now I am going to pretend Christopher Robin was addressing me rather than Pooh when he said “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think, ” and send this blog out into the world.
MAD and TAJ leave in ten days for the first leg of their year in the world.  I am going to do my best to write accurately and thoughtfully about our experiences.  I love author Abigail Thomas’ advice on writing memoir – “The writer of memoir makes a pack with her reader that what she writes is the truth the best she can tell it. But her original pact, the real deal, is with herself.   Be honest, dig deep or don’t bother. “ Amen to that sister.  And the final countdown to departure begins.