The mountain shoots out of the water stretching into misty clouds. It’s rainy, cold, and the chill is in my bones. Local Norwegians have outfitted me in full rain gear. The rubber boots lace up to my high calf, and the soles sink into the soggy soil as I leave the fishing boat and clamber onto land.
This is my homeland, which I do not call home. I don’t speak their language and yet they accept me, feed me, cloth me, and care for me as if I was their own. I am traveling with five of my family members; a small group of locals have taken us to see where we come from. We are all descendants from farmers who lived alongside this cold, steep fjord surrounded by deep waters where orcas swim. As if life then wasn’t hard enough, one December day in 1811 an avalanche swiftly rolled down across the land and plummeted into the water, leaving my ancestors farmless, or in modern terms “homeless.”
My mother gathers us at the landing rock that juts out over the waterway. It’s unlike any other majestic beauty. She tells us, “This is the spot my grandmother Sigrid stood before coming to America. She left not knowing what America was like, what the trip would hold, and courageously said goodbye to her family and home knowing she would never see or hear from them again. Sigrid became ill on the ship and was presumed dead; they placed her body on the side of the ship to be tossed out to sea when she gasped for air and came back to life.” She then remarked smiling, “Thank goodness because if she hadn’t we wouldn’t be alive.”
Her words enter my ears and scatter throughout my body in the form of thoughts and emotions: sadness for all Sigrid left behind, thankfulness for the fragility of life I often take for granted, remembrance of times I’ve gasped for air wanting my soul to become alive, admiration for the courage and hardiness of my ancestors and their ancestors, the Vikings.
As we crawl up Vikji, the marshy forest-filled mountain across the water from Fjærland village, in search of the rocks that once were the homestead farm, I ponder if the brutal conditions, uncertainty, and challenges of staying alive are what grow the bravery and strength that is passed down through generations.
The terrain is slushy, muddy, and the wet soil pulls our boots down. My toes dig into the unfamiliar boots like talons, grounded yet sinking. I hold out my hand to my mother who is sliding and say, “I’m sturdy.” She cups my hand with both of hers and replies, “In more than one way.” My eyes well up. The mist from the hovering clouds above coats my face with water, crying for me.
So many times in my life I haven’t had strength. I’ve blamed the soil, boots, or weather for my lack of sturdiness. I’ve clung to others, or anything I could grab onto, in hopes of finding my footing. I forgot that the strength I seek resides inside of me: a process of going inward rather than looking outward, staying humble and digging deep within. This is a much-needed lesson: becoming sturdy in the unstable soil requires the strength from our bones.
After all, our skeletal structure is what holds us up. Weight-bearing exercises build bone mass. In the ancient Chinese practice of qigong, a metal rod or bamboo stick is used to tap the joints and other parts of the body in order to cause vibrations that open up the pores in the bones and make way for qi (“life energy”), thus strengthening the entire skeletal structure. For centuries, warriors, martial artists, and Chinese medicine have trusted bone tapping to build bone strength, and they prove its powerful potential, such as by breaking a solid brick in half with the side of a bare hand.
Bones have significance in many cultures. I once heard a Native American use the phrase “hollow bones” to describe when a person acts out of wobbly intentions or uses long-winded, smoke-filled words instead of quiet, humble strength. He explained how the slightest of winds would easily crumble these hollow bones. In nature, at the time of death, bones remain on the earth for many years, and some become frozen in time. These carry DNA, and we yearn for this information or wisdom from the past.
Sigrid found a home farming the flat, rich soil of Northern Iowa with her husband and two sons. She passed at the age of 77 in 1912. Her family was the last to live on Vikji. Today it’s uninhabitable, only visited by local hunters. This seems fitting since her grandfather was a local legendary bear hunter. Sigrid’s father left his mark on the community by being an innovative farmer, councilman, and skilled craftsman (his ironwork and woodwork projects have been found in surrounding fjords). Little is known about her, but I can’t help but think she was much like her father and grandfather: innovative, adaptive, resilient, courageous, and quietly and confidently strong.
Now more than ever, we each need to become sturdy and stable in an unstable environment. To prevent the wet, soggy soil of blame from dragging us down or causing us to become frustrated with unfamiliar lands. The conditions are chilly and brutal. When we sink into our bones, regardless of how fragile they may feel, we tap into the courage and strength stored from the vibrations of our ancestors’ hardships. I realize many will never know the extent of weight and degree of difficulty their ancestors endured, yet we carry their ancestral qi in our unhollow bones. This allows us to find footing in unfamiliar slushy soil, be grounded in borrowed boots that don’t fit, tap into the courage to move through difficult terrain in the frigid rain, and develop the self-confidence to glide across deep, orca-filled waters. We gasp for breath and become alive. Mother Earth cups our hands with bones within and whispers through the wind, “You are sturdy in more than one way.”
4 thoughts on “Becoming Sturdy”
Thank you Kaylee Berg, for your meditative and moving article about Growing Sturdy. I was transported to my own family roots from the Norway Fjords. I only have the mythology, the stories my grandfather told, and the dollhouses he built which were replicas of his families’ homes there. These stories also infused me with the heritage of strength that is enduring and faith in something unseen. My grandfather had long since cast aside a faith in the church — he and his cousin boarded a ship, it is told, before they were full teens, to escape conscription to the Lutheran priesthood that befell bright budding young men young in Norway at the turn of the 20th century. They learned the carpentry trade on the ship and entered the New World as new men, to seek their way. What really resonated from your story was a quiet, enduring survivalist self found in the simplicity of daily ordinary living. This was something I continued to seek after my grandfather’s model, in a lifestyle, in a husband, and finally in a place of worship. Mind you, I didn’t always do this in consciousness, but it was a guiding force. As I read your story, the image came rising to the surface, ever more clear.
There is much truth and beauty in this piece. As we excavate the historical trauma passed down from our ancestors, it is so important to also recognize the resilience. Those of us who are descendants of pale-skinned European cultures can find much resilience in our ethnicity which was unwittingly bargained away for white privilege. Looking into my own heritage of German (Prussian) immigrants, I was dismayed to find that they settled in what was then the Northwest territory (Ohio and Indiana!) and took Indigenous land in what’s now called Toledo. Yes, we need to acknowledge that our strength and sturdiness can come from within, from our bones and the hardships and resilience of our forebears, AND it comes equally from our community, our belonging-ness to our group. Part of belonging, I now understand, is making amends for past (and present) acts that harmed others, individuals or groups, whether done knowingly or not. May we each find the beauty, the qui and the sturdiness within, from our own struggles and from our forebears’, as we confront the wrong-doings and dismantle white supremacy in order to build the Beloved Community so longed for.
I so enjoyed reading your Becoming Sturdy article and have a greater appreciation for the people in the communities where I grew up in SD and MN of Norwegian descent. These are talented proud people. Thanks for writing.
Becoming Sturdy is a very inspiring article.
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