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The night of the endless Icelandic earthquakes we sleep all five of us in one double bed. The boys are horizontal at the foot. We three girls are cuddled in the middle. We wake with each violent shake and ask, “Did you feel that?” We nod, too tired to get up, awaiting the next. The century-old Reykjavík hotel shifts and creaks; we’re on the top floor overlooking the bell tower that rings out joyously every quarter hour. The hotel provided earplugs, but the children are up every hour anyway and we never sleep. What is a quarterly bell when you have three kids? The unsetting sun lingers along the horizon like a forgotten tag at your collar. We want out. Just two days into our first international trip since the pandemic and already we crave the curtain close. But where did night go?
In the morning, we internet search the magnitudes: M3.5. M4.1. M2.8. M4.5. M2.3. 4000 earthquakes in 24 hours. The earth beneath us, we read online, is splitting apart, giving way to a magma intrusion. We don’t understand what an “earthquake swarm” is. Living in California trained us to fear the “next big one” and these tremors on a west coast fault would insinuate a massive geological shift.
We text our Icelandic friends: Should we leave Iceland early? What’s happening?
The current unrest along the Krýsuvík-Trölladyngja volcanic system started in January 2020 around Mount Thorbjorn with seismic activity and uplift that was beyond the typical background levels, Says USGS. Scientists concluded that a magmatic intrusion had occurred at several kilometers depth based on seismic and deformation data.
We are in Iceland visiting my childhood au pairs, all five of them, the ones who taught me to appreciate the salty tang of Tópas black licorice, why pönnokökur require their own special pan for cooking, how to roll our rs (so we could say pönnokökur correctly), normalized topless sunbathing for us puritanical Americans. Before COVID (and our own eventual succumbing to Omicron months earlier), I was a constant itinerant in search of the filling of a certain lost feeling inside me I couldn’t name but felt, with some assuredness, that travel outside the US would appease. Then infertility. Then three kids. Then pandemic. Finally traveling abroad again comes with a certain rush, a feeling like there’s something bigger than our cluttered Victorian home where we spent lockdown, and then semi-lockdown, and then masked life, looking out a picture window onto the city street like domesticated cats.
We sit with my au pairs at dinner in a crowded Reykjavik restaurant when Siggy, who lived with us when I was seven years old, reminds us kids grow up so fast.
“Our children are all grown now!” she exclaims, reaching across the table to hold her husband Einar’s hand with the lovingness of the newly betrothed.
Helga says she’s fine with her kids moving out. Case in point: she recently traveled to Spain with a friend.
“Oh, right, I have an update,” she says casually, her tongue clipping briefly at the roof of her mouth. “My husband had his eye removed four days ago. Cancer.”
In Icelandic-accented English, cancer has a lull, an “ur” sound reminding me of ice and furs and the border of madness. I check Helga’s chilled blue eyes for tears but there are none, only insinuate she’s seen more than she speaks of, but can handle it. When we were kids, she was the most reserved of the au pairs. As an adult, there’s an ease to her, an old soul-ness from the shop girl who still works in Iceland’s largest mall, Kringlan. I want to reach across the table to hold her hand, but I don’t, have never been as good as Siggy at physical connection.
No one mentions Siggy’s health scare a few years ago. We talk about how she and Einar jumped into the pool with their clothes on at our wedding in Costa Rica. How they were the last couple left on the dance floor, sopping wet. We talk about how we all got COVID eventually. The baby falls asleep nursing on me. Our toddler, Bubs, sleeps hugging his knees to his chest on a chair next to Helga. Our oldest child, Qi, finger-eats her plate of salmon and I remind myself to wash her hands extra well when we return to the hotel. As we reminisce, the children are like distant planets, immune to our adult talk and entranced by their crayons and coloring menus.
I have a vague memory of eating in this restaurant 25 years earlier, when I first came to Iceland with my mother in her attempt to find a small fishing hut on the edge of the ocean she once saw in a dream (spoiler: she didn’t find it). I have another vague memory that in this restaurant, one of our former au pairs, then just barely an adult, offered us whale meat frozen from before the whaling bans, how I steadfastly refused, how it was the first time I understood the fragile intertwining of extinction and delicacy. I don’t know if this is the same restaurant, but memory is doing that incongruous thing of overlaying truth with meaning and I’m looking for meaning everywhere, hungry perhaps, to undo the gnawing feeling that the world around our small family (pandemic, war in Ukraine, economic collapse, overturning abortion rights, etc. etc.) is caving in, this maternal catastrophizing of future and present, as if I could stave off the inevitability of our demise by naming it first.
The next day, Siggy and her husband Einar meet us at The Blue Lagoon. As we enter, flanked by walls of relocated volcanic rock, Siggy says when she told a friend about our plans, the friend exclaimed, “You guys are going to The Blue Lagoon? Are you crayyyyyzeee?” The tourist spot sits at the foot of the Fagradalsfjall volcano, the site of the most recent seismic activity.
“Maybe we are crayyyyzeee,” Siggy says, her voice with the sing-song lilt I remember from childhood; although we’re both grown women now, barely a generation apart, I’ve always felt drawn to her chesty embrace. Only now, in my own middle-age, am I unpacking the fact that maybe I crave bosomy, maternal women in my life because I am not one, wasn’t raised by one.
(There’s an Icelandic children’s book the au pairs gave my brother and me as kids featuring a folktale about a towering Icelandic troll mother with dozens of snotty, whiny troll children. They were all turned to stone because the mother dared walk out into the sun with them. I’m not sure what this says about motherhood, but I feel an unexpected kinship with an inaccessible mother perpetually frozen in time and space.)
As we’re checking in to The Blue Lagoon alongside scores of tourist groups, the kids running circles around my legs and the baby clawing at my chest, Einar says he ran into his friend, a tour guide, in the parking lot. Just while waiting for his tour group to finish their swim, Einar’s friend felt three earthquakes. The volcano is literally a stone’s throw behind the pools, a small heap of mountain that would mean nothing in a place with a longer geological history; here, in a country straddling the rift between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and widening Iceland by three centimeters a year, the earth is so new it belches and shakes and moans with the growing pains of birthing new landscapes.
Einar volunteers to babysit the baby who isn’t allowed in the sulfuric waters. He watches us from behind a wall of windows as we enter the tourist trap on tip toes, as if fearing the waters will scald us. The kids are oblivious to the crowds with mud clay caked on their faces; instead, they ecstatically float and jump and revel in the bubbling of hot gases at the orchestrated vents entering the lagoon.
“The earth is farting!” Bubs announces with glee, but as they spit out the salty blue water, I have one eye trained on the volcanic mountain, watching for any indication that an eruption is imminent. Like every mother, I survey each new landscape, every room, for an exit plan (endless threats: school shootings, meth-addled drifters at playgrounds, discarded heroin needles on beaches, distracted drivers, lightning strikes, murder hornets, COVID, belligerent neighbors….), trained since their conception for the protection of the gene pool, the continuation of our species.
Siggy, another practiced mother of three, wades closer to the viewing platform to check on Einar who has taken our baby out from behind the glass to watch us swim. Father and grandfather now, Einar has protectively wrapped the baby in a blanket, and she peeks out onto the steamy waters but it’s unclear if she can see us behind the fog. Siggy needs help navigating the muddy shore back into the lagoon, so my husband paddles closer, lending her a hand. It’s the first time I notice how her body is still impacted from her medical challenges, and in the tenderness of my husband’s assistance, I feel a twinge of fear this is a future for us too, our already middle-aged bodies too old to bear the weight of small children.
That night, our skin softened and redolent of rotten eggs, the kids won’t fall asleep. At 10pm, the sky still ablaze with a grandfatherly midnight sun, we take them for a walk along the lake near our hotel. We’re alone on the path (native Icelanders call it a pond, we keep saying lake because we are American), just us and the white swans who seem unperturbed by the lack of night. If keeping kids up past their bedtime is child abuse, as a friend’s mother once said, then we are borderline criminal with the jaunt around the still-sunny city, an otherworldly quiet descended on darkened homes and empty office buildings. I wonder if we’re more disoriented because we were dropped, by way of Icelandair, into this world of endless sunlight—it would’ve been easier, I assume, to enter perpetual day stealthily, the way Einar described, six minutes longer each day, now growing shorter by that same measure, since the solstice.
Earlier that afternoon, Qi found a coin on a Reykjavík street outside a bar where a man stood wearing a “FUCK PHILADELPHIA” t-shirt (this somehow feels relevant – why?), and she hid it in her pocket; now she tosses the coin into the lake and says she made a wish that EVERYONE SHE KNOWS WILL LIVE FOREVER.
“What is it like when someone you love dies?” She asks as we round the lake where a statue of a headless, suited man is holding a briefcase, his torso and head replaced by a large slab of Icelandic volcanic basalt (“Daddy!” the kids call him; no irony to unpack there). I try to answer Qi’s question by speaking of the natural landscape in Iceland. Of what is being re-born every day, like the earth at the site of a volcanic eruption, like the baby swans in nests along the lake (pond!), but she doesn’t want to hear this version of existentialism. She is a young island, quivering with every small creation. I think there’s a quote about the cracks of light – Leonard Cohen, you know the one – and the idea of Godliness in the broken pieces must be in the Zohar but when I look in that Kabbalist text, there’s nothing except some saying about windows. She wants the tidy answer; I have none but this rambling essay. A friend said childbirth cracked her open; modern American motherhood is just finding all the fissures daily, stoppering the holes.
At the Whale Museum the next day, we read that humans are only at the beginning of their lifespan, relatively speaking.
“But what if we’re a virus that quickly kills its host?” My husband and I ask the kids who laugh dismissively, kicking off their shoes to climb a playground orca. Another earthquake momentarily swings the true-to-size fin whale replica above our heads. When I sit on a bench below the whale’s mighty shadow to nurse the baby, I feel an unexpected tremor inside me, a quickening like fetal movement. It’s not the first time I’ve felt “phantom kicks,” as they’re known in psychology and postpartum disorders – a lingering limb that nearly 40 percent of previously-pregnant women attest they feel at some point after pregnancy, as late as 28 years after birth.
The mind and the body are not separate entities and I am certain that an increased awareness of sensation due to grief, for example, could lead to more sensations, says one doctor on the subject matter. Proprioception, they call this in medicine, the conscious awareness of body and limbs. I place a hand on my lower abdomen to elicit a response – this uterus was a home to them all: The unborn ones. The someone else’s ones. The shadow twins. The chemical ones. The hoped for ones. The final ones – all three, legs intertwined with ours in bed that night.
But we can’t sleep, another set of earthquakes rumbling like a sour stomach, so we stand on the hotel balcony and look for stars: none to be seen in the midnight sun. Well technically, we tell each other, the stars are always there.
“And the sun is a big star!” Qi exclaims, ever the optimist/realist.
Six minutes a day, Einar had said… It doesn’t seem like a lot, but already by the fourth stroke of midnight (that cheeky church bell!), the sky glances closer to darkness, a purplish hue hinting at winter’s turn, however distant. When I write to the au pairs with my safety fears as the earthquakes persist, they downplay my concerns.
“Þetta reddast,” they tell me, dismissively. Þetta reddast: an old Icelandic saying that everything always works out in the end. But, I want to ask, what exactly is the desired ending here?
I don’t know if it’s when I finally fall asleep that night or on the car ride around the Golden Circle the next morning that I feel the phantom kicks again; they persist, quiet and unexpected as anything you learn to forget to pay attention to. On the drive across a gray expanse of lava rock and mossy hills, I squirrel a box of Icelandic chocolate in my purse, out of view from the kids. When I was their age, Hraun was my favorite: crispy milk chocolate squares that melt on your fingers. But on this trip, I can’t stop eating Draumur—or “small dream,” a bitter black licorice hidden in a sea of sweet. Everything in Iceland has the hint of disruption buried inside.
Eventually, we find our way from that quivering hotel to a rental home a few hours from Reykjavík, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the most expansive valley I’ve ever seen: the owners named it Sólfaxi – sun waterfall or sun horse? I worry the house will slide off the edge of the sun like an untamed horse and take us with it. Another threat to extinguish my children: collapsing house.
The next day, the earth finally splits open, reports of lava belches not far from Keflavík airport. We drive three hours in the other direction to Vík. Town.
“A town called town,” we laugh. The news of the Fagradalsfjall volcanic eruption, and a fissure lava flow in the Meradalir valley, feels like an afterthought, the manageable scale predictable to all volcano-watchers if not in its timing (predictions said it could be hours or months before an eruption…); Einar sends us a photo of himself standing in front of the lava, a very Icelandic thing to do – hiking four hours by endless day to see the earth’s innards exposed. As with any beginning/ending, the earthquakes sputter to a stop.
Meanwhile, we are on a puffin search with the kids, because it’s another thing you do in Iceland and their father is a lifelong birder. The views on the drive there of the subglacial volcano, Katla, which sits below the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, are incomprehensible – Try: towering, craggy mountain peaks overlooking a whipped, green-gray ocean; snow slathered like dense cream on mountain tops, dripping between crevasses, a perpetual ice persisting even in the middle of summer.
(Fail: ridiculous to attempt to name the thing we see in cracks/chasms.)
The sign at the black sand beach where the puffins nest says this land is only 9,000 years old, which we know is nothing on an evolutionary scale. I can’t square how such a new landscape feels omniscient, like maybe duration of time on earth doesn’t equate to intelligence; the younger the soil, the more innate the knowledge, less worn-down by the elements?
On cue, the Atlantic puffins, stout, awkward fliers, streak the sky like bomber planes, and my husband shouts for the kids to look up, but they are building a fort with driftwood along the beach where several tourists have died. Sneaker waves. We keep shouting for the kids to stay close to the cliffs, away from the drawing tide; Einar had made an off-color joke about the tourist deaths on this beach, the subtext of which was that Iceland is not a place you turn your back on nature.
When we stop at a trendy brewpub in Town, we read that Katla, that towering, marshmallow vision up-valley from here, is due to erupt any day (again: time, prediction, life). When it does, the immediate and torrential flood of quickly-melted glacial ice will bury Vík. Town. The article notes that school children practice an annual evacuation drill during which they climb, hand-in-hand (a relevant detail?), to the highest point in town: Reyniskirkja church. We read a story to our kids of the local legend of Katla, the wicked female cook who lived in a monastery and wore magic trousers. Legend goes that a shepherd attempted to steal Katla’s trousers so she killed him and fled to the mountains, flinging herself into a dark gap in the ice cap, from where she spews angry fire and water on nearby residents.
(Our kids also practice emergency drills at school; “In lockdown drills, we hide from someone who isn’t supposed to be there,” my daughter tells me, recounting how The Blue Table’s students tuck themselves behind curtains and The Red Table crouches beneath the teacher’s desk.)
On the way out of the doomed valley, I envision Vík underwater, the trendy brewpub with its tattooed bartenders and botanical gins enshrined in a slowly rusting frame. Impermanence, I think, is a cool, not so distant cousin to Þetta reddast. Because where is the end on an island always re-writing its beginning? Icelanders know how nothing here feels permanent, learn to brush off that angry, magical woman revenging from the cracks. I think: She must be a mother.
Halfway back to our temporary home in Sólfaxi, the kids are too tired to get out of the car to see Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. I’m tired of their constant noise in the crowded car, so I leave them with their father and walk alone along a pebbled river to the falls, a cluster of sheep meandering the far banks with surer footing than mine. Cowering beneath the mist of the loud, mighty falls, the requisite post-pandemic tourists crowd, all with phone cameras drawn. It’s odd: this could be Mona Lisa, the way we all stop and stare, document. Some linger in awe. Some adjust selfie sticks for the perfect angle. All of us drawn to a common vision of something bigger than our hunched human shapes. We want to contain it, that feeling stretching beyond human quantification, then whittle it into a tidy social media post that fits in our pocket (I do: check Instagram).
By the time we leave the volcanic island, night draws nearer, a hinged horizon. We yearn for it too, the closing shade.
Finally, we fly to Zurich, on our way to a friend’s wedding in the Swiss Alps; we are greeted in the arms and triple kisses of friends we haven’t seen in five years. The sun sets around 10pm and just like that, the children fall asleep at a manageable hour, we all marvel at the moon, gallantly redeemed to its night sky.
At night, sleeping in a mountain hotel in the Alps run by the same family for four generations, I feel tiny earthquakes riveting the antique bed, but do not dare ask if I’m the only one.
The next day, on the way to the wedding by horse-drawn carriage in a valley banning automotives (implication: modernity – technology > present-day life), the stolid, assured Alps differ drastically from the raw, fragile Icelandic landscape days earlier. A fellow wedding guest, an Italian, tells us that in the 1980s, this glacier, Vadret dal Corvatsch, was massive, shoulder-stretched between rocky tops; we look up, squinting at the last, tenuous flick of white snowpack barely visible, tucked into the highest crevasses. The baby jostles in my arms, lulled by the constancy of sleigh bells in summer…
During the wedding ceremony of the couple with a love story including three decades of near misses (vacations to the same town; overlapping college friends; a shared bus to work) and one fateful pre-pandemic collision, a pair of birds circle the hay bale altar. My husband directs my attention upwards.
“Birds of prey.” I note their wingspan. “Are there turkey vultures in Switzerland?”
The birder in him shakes his head no, checks his phone surreptitiously as the betrothed tilt their heads to share a kiss.
“I can’t believe it,” he says. “Bearded vultures.” He tells me these birds were once extinct here but have been reintroduced to the Alps, like California condors in the Grand Canyon. “A super rare sighting,” he confirms.
The next morning, we are on the flight home to California, somewhere over the farthest, most desolate reaches of Northern Canada when Bubs turns to me and asks, “When people die, do they go extinct?”
“No, people don’t go extinct,” I say, but I’m not sure that’s the right tact for a toddler. I check the seatback screen map: we’re above Nunavut, a Canadian Inuit territory so remote, its capital is only accessible by plane or boat. Cruising above a water-locked civilization, I’m not sure which I want: the rootedness of a life in one place, like that family hotel run for over a century, my grave and that of my children nestled in the fields below, or the aimlessness of the uprooted life we’re creating, compelled to always seek some further distance, an expanse of time and space that, in actuality, can never be conquered, named. This dangerous imperial mindset I’d inherited, the same one that stripped me of a community of care, built the false stalwart of a “nuclear family,” also made me meticulously protective of my children, a Katla of sorts in modern America, the easiest scapegoat when the world is on fire. So that now, in middle age, the settling back of bones to roots, of soil seeping into marrow is compelling, if even a minor activism against the capitalist goal of constant growth and expansion. But I am a mother/I digress. My children are young. The universe is infinite, or not quite. This tiny spinning ball we count as home with homo sapiens as viral species is merely a blink in an unfathomable chronology. The six billion possibly habitable planets still twinkle out there, somewhere, even when we can’t see them. I love this place, this earth, these children. Immensely.
“Well, I mean, humans won’t go extinct yet,” I clarify, if only because I want to believe something I love will live forever. But he is three and this is not enough. He thinks extinction and death are one and the same – and I suppose, in some ways, the personal and the anthropological are inevitably linked.
“Sharks go extinct,” he says.
“Some species,” I say. “You know the bearded vultures we saw yesterday were almost extinct but they came back. Did you know they’re the only animals who eat only bones?”
“Wow,” he says, but now he’s marveling at the small screen of his tablet device, a race car game with crashing blasts, and outside the airplane window, a perpetual sun peers over white earth, although I can’t tell if it’s summer snow in Nunavut or salted soil. I don’t know what birds eating bones is a metaphor for in this overly-grasping essay, except sometimes, maybe, what’s buried within us are the building bones of life’s beginnings. You know: earthquakes, phantom fetuses, love for one’s children. Tender as they are tough, extinct as they are everlasting.
That day, when we stood beneath the shrinking glacier in the Alps, newly-exposed rock faces lit by a setting sun, the bearded vultures circled high above our collection of bones, marveling at the shiny skulls – then eventually lost interest in the living, flying to an unseen forest to perch and wait for the inevitability of an ending.