Journal

Fragments of a Story

16 June 2017

On New Year’s Day, I left Sweden with a one-way ticket to Edinburgh and a promise to slow down. Volunteering at a castle, then illustrating another children’s book, I followed one clue to the next on a four-month journey through fields and forests, along streams and coastlines, over bogs and waves, up hills and mountain paths, into concert halls and forgotten alleys. I met a jumble of characters; a storyteller, a poet, a path-maker, a rewilder. A woman who stopped me on a rainy street to read my mind. A tree that held me when the world moved too fast. While most moments were captured only by heart, I carried a notebook and a camera, uncovering fragments of a story along the way. I have put my blog on hold to write it. Until I return, here are some visual memories from my journey.

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Journal

A Year of Challenges

20 January 2017

IMG_1160I can’t remember the weeks before Asia. Just a silent, frozen Gothenburg at 3 am, an airstrip sunrise and a journal filling up with ideas.

The first two months, I rent a student apartment next to Chiang Mai University. I never meet my neighbours, but I’m lulled to sleep by late night bass practices, and every morning, I see an old man on the rooftop terrace across the courtyard screaming at the doves. I wake up early to run in a park full of trees from all over the world. I count my breaths and run and run, to the sound of chanting monks and the rising warmth of sunbeams leaking through the foliage.

In March, I fly to Japan. I arrive late and spend my first night at a hotel close to the airport. Walking through a dark industrial area with a bag of onigiri from 7/11, I can’t stop smiling. This is the furthest I have ever travelled, still it feels like coming home. My journey through the Japanese countryside is like a chapter from a Murakami novel, filled with the strangest characters and coincidences. I gather clues and write and write to make sense of everything.

Back in Thailand, I hold on for my life as a bus speeds through the April night. I’m convinced we will run off the road. Instead, the bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere and we arrive six hours after our scheduled time. Starving and sweating, I run into an American girl in the bathroom of the bus station, and it turns out we are both on our way to Mindfulness Project for a few weeks of volunteering. Living so close to other people is a challenge, but when we watch a documentary about environmentalism one night, I realize I’m exactly where I should be. Working together with others for a common goal, rather than trying to save (or ignore) the world on my own.

When I return to Sweden in May, I make a stop-over at my grandfather’s house in Gothenburg to run my first half-marathon. I remind myself of the mornings in Chiang Mai, count my breaths, and make it through the longest run of my life. On my way to the central station, my tram gets stuck, so I push the doors open and run another three kilometres to pick up my bags and get on the train back home with a few minutes to spare. Then I fall asleep.

At the beginning of June, my mother drops me off in Mundekulla, at the retreat centre where I will work as a volunteer for three months. I spend the afternoon painting garden furniture, dreaming of a peaceful summer, still thinking it will fit an eternity. A month later, I crash. My energy slips between my fingers. My thoughts melt together. My usual clumsiness is amplified to a point that scares me.

But there is wonder, too. In the quiet mornings and the afternoon runs. In the moonlight swims and the talking circles. In the simple act of staying through the challenge instead of running away from myself. As the weeks pass, I talk and cry and laugh and dance and yoik myself back to a place where I can breathe again. A place where I belong.

At the end of August, I take a train to Copenhagen with a bag full of homemade beetroot hummus and seed crackers for the birthday picnic of the most inspiring girl I know. I hug her, give her daughter my children’s book and stumble on the wrong words. When I bike back to my hostel after the picnic, I curse my social anxiety for holding me back when all I want is to reach out and be normal.

In September, I move into my grandmother’s old house in the forest, just a few kilometres away from the little town where I lived with my dad before he moved abroad. Back then it was too far away from everything, but now, it’s not far enough. I walk through the middle of the forest and come back with blueberries and my hair full of deer flies. Every Monday, I bike into town for yoga, and little by little, I learn to slow down.

The last weekend of October, I take part in a weekend course organized by the local Transition group. After years of keeping my pain for the world at a safe distance, it stirs me awake and breaks my heart open. I know I have to do something, but I don’t know where to start, so I book another journey in January to make space for finding out.

In the middle of November, I leave my grandmother’s house to a more long-term tenant and make another stop-over at my mother’s place. One day, my mother returns from her annual check-up with stitches. It’s the first time since she recovered from skin cancer thirteen years ago, and while we wait for the test results, I hide behind my work, terrified that giving too much weight to things will make them real.

On the fifth of December, I hold an envelope to my heart and squeeze my eyes closed. I place it on the kitchen table and tremble in my room until my mother comes home. When she shows me the letter, I have to read it over and over before the words sinks in: No signs of cancer.

Ten days later, I’m on my way to Stockholm to visit Sofie, the drummer of my old band. On the train, I check the website of the Swedish Authors’ Fund, where I have applied for a translation grant. I know it’s impossible, but there it is: my name on the list of granted applicants. It’s just enough for a small monthly salary in 2017. Just enough to know that all my unpaid work wasn’t for nothing.

In the evening, Sofie and I go to a concert with a band I fell in love with as a twelve-year-old. Their lyrics are engraved in my bones, and I let the music catch me, thinking that after a year of running from challenge to challenge, of getting lost and finding myself in the strangest places, everything might finally be falling into place.

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You can read my summary from last year here: A Year of Early Mornings

Journal

December Reflections

31 December 2016

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For the fourth time, I have ended my year with Susannah Conway’s Unravel the Year Ahead, a little workbook full of questions for reflecting on the past year and finding inspiration for the year to come. This time, I needed it more than ever. It helped me see the beautiful moments of a year that has been quite dark for many of us, and now I can’t wait to make 2017, a little wiser and much more gentle with myself.

As some of you have seen on Instagram, I joined Susannah’s December Reflections project, where people all over the world share a picture a day in December, in response to a list of prompts, with the aim of looking back at the year. Here are my 31 pictures, some old, some new, each telling a tiny story of my 2016.

1Day 1: On the table
Pushing past bedtime until the needle breaks, reminding me there is still tomorrow.

2Day 2: Light
Catching flickers of hope from each other’s eyes, we build a flame to guide us closer.

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Day 3: Fave photo of 2016
A moment in March, reminding me of how we rush through this world, even when it reaches for us. How we could sit down instead and breathe it all in.

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Day 4: Circles
Circling my mind, collecting loose ideas to fix into something brilliant.

5Day 5: Best book of 2016
”I don’t know exactly where I was born. A hospital, I suppose. Surrounded by spotlights and freshly laundered bed-sheets and a trolley of sterilised birthing tools. I find it hard to picture some scrubbed-up stranger wielding my naked, squawking self about as though I were a broiled ham. Instead I like to pretend I was born all alone without any fuss, without any gore. And right here, in my father’s house. I like to believe the house itself gave birth to me, that I slithered down the chimney, fell ignobly into the fire grate and inhaled my first breath of cold, swirling ash.”
– Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither

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Day 6: In the air
I fall out of bed into crisp mist, filling my lungs with firewood smoke and clouddust.

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Day 7: Five things about me
I fall in love with places, languages and books far more often than with people. As a teenager, I was so obsessed with vampires I once took a four-hour train to Volterra to run across the town square at twelve o’clock. My arms are unproportionally long, so I blame them when things fall over, which they do, often. When I drive alone, I talk to myself out loud to practise English or untangle my thoughts. Dancing barefoot in the forest is like medicine to me.

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Day 8: On the ground
A year of barefoot runs through morning dew. Mud between my toes and splinters too deep to catch. My back against stones and tree trunks and moss. A whisper from the earth to lean closer.9
Day 9: Best day of 2016
Leafing through my journals, my heart expands until it hurts to fit all the memories. I can’t pick a single day. I just know that my best ones were those when I could look into the sky in the evening and tell myself I had really been there.

Day 10: I made this
This morning, I finally opened my folder of clips from my months of volunteering at a retreat centre in the forest, composing a tiny reminder of the magical moments and the fact that I made it through the most stressful summer of my life.

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Day 11: Biggest lesson from 2016
Still learning to let go, letting life float into place instead of chasing the lost pieces.

12Day 12: Precious
A morning walk with my mother through glistening fields, my heart glowing with gratitude for the test results that calmed us a week ago. Gratitude for the fact that she is here and all is well.

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Day 13: Soundtrack of 2016
The creaks and whispers of the forest.

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Day 14: Texture

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Day 15: Best decision of 2016
My decision to bring nothing but a small backpack on a four-month adventure, letting my curiosity guide me to places I had never expected to go, was a life-changing one.

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Day 16: A secret
No matter how much I challenge myself, I still feel out of place.

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Day 17: Five years ago
Five years ago, I felt safer on a stage than in a classroom.

18Day 18: Reflection
The moments when we dare to let our light echo through the darkness, every flickering breath reshaping it into something beautiful.

19b

Day 19: Something I love
I love to explore tiny places in the middle of nowhere.

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Day 20: Snuggle
Learning to ease myself into the mornings.

21Day 21: Solstice sunset
No sun today. Just a milky sky silently slipping out of itself.

Day 22: This year was (golden) – magical?

23Day 23: Sparkle
Sometimes we just have to open our eyes in the darkness to find the sparkling hope.

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Day 24: Traditions
Another snowless Christmas. A heart aching for the cracks of the Earth, then softening with gratitude for being here. At home. Safe and warm.

25Day 25: Today is…
Today is the first day of my last week in Sweden for a while.

26Day 26: Nourish
Unravelling my 2017 tonight, longing to fill it with mornings like this one, when I slowed down just enough to catch a golden sky instead of rushing into the day.

27Day 27: My smile
While I am slowly coming to terms with the body I used to hate so much I hurt it, I am still mad at my childhood dentists for never even bringing up the subject of braces. But here, in an article about my journey from social anxiety to creative freelancing, is my smile, crooked and unhidden.

28Day 28: Quiet moment
This afternoon. A single star. A silent surface to slow my undercurrents.

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Day 29: My wish for 2017
I just wish for the world to be a little softer and lighter next year.

30Day 30: Thank you for…
Thank you, forest, for holding me and teaching me so much.

31Day 31: My word for 2017
Presence. Being here, wherever I am.

Interviews

Shadow Creates Clarity:
An Interview with Gunilla Blom

23 December 2016

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Silence has fallen over Mundekulla. The last guests left a couple of days ago, and the retreat centre is in repose after the last event, a giant Acro Yoga Festival. For four days, I have been running between the kitchen, the café and my translations, weaving between swaying towers of colourful yogis. With two hundred participants, the facilities have been pushed to their limit. We have run out of water, fuses have broken and Gunilla Blom, the head chef, has been working from dawn to dusk to keep everyone fed and happy.

A Chance to Recover

In the aftermath, we meet in the Sanctuary, a tiny straw bale roundhouse at the edge of the meadow. Gunilla is in the middle of four weeks of summer chefing in the Mundekulla kitchen, filling the buffet table with delicious vegetarian food that makes avid carnivores raise an eyebrow in appreciation. Today, she is battling a throat infection. I ask if she wants to postpone the interview, but she tells me it will help her process the last few stressful days and recharge before the next the group arrives tomorrow.

‘When I take on jobs like these, I have to enter the fog. I step into the flow to deliver something, and in this flow, I, Gunilla, must step out of the way completely. This can be a very high threshold to overcome. When I think about tomorrow, I feel like: “Oh, no, I can’t do this. What am I supposed to cook?” But I know the other part of me, the guide, will step in and somehow know exactly what to do. If I just stop pushing and worrying and stay completely calm, this process will begin in the background while I’m giving my body and soul and spirit a chance to recover.’

Gunilla has a batch of strategies to help her through the stress, and refuses to let her health stand in the way for the work she loves. She often gets a massage at the end of an intense event, spends time in nature and even drives into Emmaboda for a pizza once in a while.

‘I make sure to take care of myself first. That way I will have more to give once I step into the kitchen.’

Leading with Clarity

secretEver since I first stepped into Mundekulla’s kitchen at the Jazz Festival at the beginning of the summer, I have admired Gunilla’s ability to stay calm in the middle of the chaos, handing out patient instructions and keeping everyone’s spirit high while the assistant chefs and confused volunteers run all over the tiny kitchen.

‘The secret is to know what you’re doing and be completely focused on your goal. I depend on the other players to get to where I want, which means I have to set my whole ego aside and let them flourish. I can’t go around patting their shoulders, telling them to do something this way or that way. If I am crystal clear from the beginning, I can let them do it their own way.’

Not taking things too seriously also helps Gunilla to stay positive through the mishaps and mayhem.

‘I can see the little joys in life, and that helps a lot. We have been laughing so much all the way through this hard work. Friday was completely hysterical. When the tension breaks, everything is just insanely funny.’

The Joy of Cooking

Gunilla began her line of work in healthcare as a fourteen-year-old. She has worked with social justice issues as a union representative and spent thirty years in the legal sector before she switched her focus to food. Her interest in cooking sprouted early; her dad had a knack for traditional Swedish dishes and her mother brought sauerkraut and other healthy ingredients from her home country.

‘My life has been quite wild. I have been hitchhiking and used to live in England and France. Then I got lots of infections. I had a lousy immune system because my body was so worn out. So, I went to a wellness clinic, where someone put a book about macrobiotics in my hands. It changed my whole life. Over a night, I made up my mind to get disciplined and structured.’

Over the years, she has kept travelling and spent many nights cooking with friends in Italy.

‘In Italy, cooking together is an important part of everyday life. I learned a great deal from this creative way of spending time together and all these fantastic ingredients. That’s where I discovered the joy of cooking, and I realized I was quite good at it too.’

Beyond the Limits

magicalIn 2012, Gunilla launched her own business, Blommans kök (‘the flower’s kitchen’), and today, she travels all over Sweden as a freelance chef, cooking at different retreat centres and events. While Gunilla loves cooking, she points out that there is so much more to it than what goes on in the kitchen.

‘I am even more interested in what the food can do for us, and what it means for our bodies and souls. Food is medicine. Food is joy. Food is pleasure. And most importantly, while food is wonderful, it also does wonders. And I hope I can help people see that.’

This is also the theme of a book that Gunilla started writing this year. It will be more than just a cookbook – a tribute to food and to life. The idea emerged from a chance meeting at another retreat centre in the middle of Sweden, where Gunilla was going to cook together with a woman she had never met before. The woman turned out to be an author, and when she heard about Gunilla’s plans for 2016, she encouraged Gunilla to write about her adventures.

‘When she had left and I kept working, my cooking seemed to have gained another dimension – a new meaning. There was so much energy in this idea, and suddenly, I could picture the whole book. It was magical.’

Gunilla has previously written the skeleton for a book entirely about porridge and has an idea for a children’s book inspired by her granddaughter. She thinks her creativity is one of the things that help her get through challenging situations in life.

Shadow creates clarity. That’s a really important mantra to me. I even have it tattooed on my shoulder. Sometimes you have to do things you really don’t want to do, but when you commit to the challenge and understand that somewhere, there is a bloody reason for all of this – that’s when you really have a chance to be creative. To me, creativity is about going beyond the limits. Not being limitless, but being able to look beyond the way things ought to be. That’s an important skill to have in life, no matter if you invent a product or decorate a home or paint huge paintings or write or cook.’

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Stories

The Moon Keeper

19 December 2016

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Ten. Another dream. This time you and your father are both alive. I hold off the alarm to stay a moment longer, but it wins. It always wins.

Nine. Up and awake. Ice-tripping through the moon keeper’s cabin, a creaky jumble of beams and stairs. Boots on. Helmet on. Out and away.

Eight. The sheep are glaring. I don’t remember which morning they arrived. I don’t really mind them, because they soften the moonscape and I like to make voices for them, but it would be nice to know who put them there and if they’re for eating or for clothing. I haven’t had meat since ’69 because all I see is your body with that cut like a zipper all the way to your chin.

Seven. I take the usual path along the ridge and do the usual musing over gravity and whether I should let it have me.

Six. At viewpoint one, I scan the sweep through your father’s binoculars. Except for the sheep, all is in order.

Five. When I reach the summit, a boy is on my stone. Around ten, I’d guess, in wellingtons and soft pyjamas and a tremble so wild I want to scoop him up and hug him warm. He turns at my shuffling and stiffens like a deer. I don’t think he can see my mouth behind the face shield, but I smile just in case and stop at a safe distance.

‘What on earth are you doing out here all alone?’

He makes a gesture towards the rooftops of Eir’s old farm peering at us from behind the hill, all haloed by cloudlight.

‘Right. New neighbours. Explains the sheep.’

I wiggle my helmet off and scratch the creases out of my scalp. He rises to his feat, staring from my face to my bulky overall, sewn from your father’s old raincoat decades ago, cracked and patched and soiled, but whole enough to keep the wind out.

‘Do you like my space suit?’

He shrugs.

‘Not a talker, are you?’

Another shrug and a half-step backwards. A stab for every time I’ve scared someone away. He looks like you, too. Just a little cleaner and a little older than you ever were.

Four. He scurries down the path towards the farm and then it’s just me and the wind again.

Three. The screen flickers to life in my head. It always does, sooner or later. Your father and I glued to it and the phone ringing itself hoarse in the hallway, out of pace with the countdown, bracing itself for tearing our world apart.

Two. I sit on my stone, pressing my fists to my chest to stop it from aching. The boy grows smaller and smaller and I whisper I’m sorry, but of course he doesn’t hear.

One. In my head, I never pick up the phone. I just let it ring and ring while the shuttle bursts into the sky on the screen as if somehow that would keep reality from ever reaching us.