The Things We Care About

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Strange, the things we care about. Some people care about the fate of the timber wolf or the prairie gopher or the red legged wombat. Others care about historic events, are fixated on Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo. Others are passionate about Mediterranean frescoes. There’s no accounting for taste.

Me, I care about Iceland. If someone asked me why, I’d have a difficult time explaining the reason.

My mother was born of northern Irish parents. That makes me half Irish. And the family tree goes back to Scotland. If family lore is accurate, two brothers came with Cromwell. One stayed, one went back to Scotland and disappeared in the fog and heather. The one who stayed is an ancestor of mine.

My father, in spite of his Icelandic name, was a quarter English. One of his grandfathers was a Bristow. There are in and around Oxford, lots of graves with stones that say Bristow.

So, that leaves me three eighths Icelandic. That’s not much to hang a passion on. Of course, there’s genetic folding in. Icelanders have a lot of Celtic background. The people who settled Iceland weren’t just Norwegians or Danes. However, that strengthens the Irish background, not the Norwegian.

A big part of that involvement in things Icelandic came from growing up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli was the centre for Icelandic immigration to Canada in the 1870s on. A lot of people came, stayed for a while among people who spoke the same language, who were relatives and friends, then moved on to places with better land and more opportunities. However, a core remained in Gimli and the neighbouring villages of New Iceland. There was Hnausa, Arnes, Ness, Riverton, Arborg, and, although it fell slightly outside the New Iceland boundary, Lundar. To the south there was Selkirk and, of course, Winnipeg, with its concentration in the West End that was known affectionately as Gooli town.

In the 1940s Gimli was still very Icelandic. People spoke the language at home and in conducting business. Church services were in Icelandic. However, my mother didn’t speak Icelandic so my father didn’t speak it at home and when I was an adult, I was surprised when I heard him talk to someone in Icelandic. So, it wasn’t the language that made me interested in all things Icelandic. It’s not like I knew the secret code. I couldn’t smugly talk to some of my friends and classmates in a language others couldn’t understand. I did learn pig latin but it didn’t make me identify with pigs or latin.

The defining event in Gimli every year was Islendingadagurinn, the annual Icelandic Celebration. There were official events. A woman was chosen Fjallkona, the Maid of the Mountains, dressed in regal robes, laid a wreath at the foot of a memorial cairn that, at that time, was across the street from our house. An elegant car would turn up, there’d be a bit of a cortege behind. The Maid would be led to the cairn, people from the cars would descend and gather. The Maid would dedicate the wreath to the pioneers, get back in her car and go to the Gimli Park. There, she would be led to a stage where she would preside over a toast to Iceland, a toast to Canada, numerous speeches, many of which were in Icelandic and were listened to raptly by an older crowd.

We’d have run the two blocks to the park to watch the formalities, then leave for the far corner of the park to compete in foot races in hope of winning enough for a hot dog and coke. From a kid’s perspective, the day was mostly about hotdogs slathered in mustard and relish. In the evening, we’d go with our parents to the park pavilion to watch adults dance to old time music. The Icelandic part of the day was eating Icelandic pancakes, prune tort, donuts, pickled lamb flank on brown bread.

There were a lot of Icelandic flags. Mostly, however, we hung around our parents’ house because relatives dropped by from far and near. There was a lot of eating, drinking and talking. The talking sometimes went on all night.

The town was very Lutheran and, at one time, services were in Icelandic. However, I don’t remember that. I’d have been at the Sunday School which was in English. We did have some ministers from Iceland. I don’t remember that having any effect on us.

When I was in grade three, Icelandic lessons were offered after school or on Saturdays. However, the first thing we were told was that in order to learn Icelandic you had to be exceptionally intelligent. I didn’t have any reason to believe I was exceptionally intelligent so I didn’t go back.

There was the Sunrise Lutheran camp. I went there a couple of summers. The only thing Icelandic I remember about it is the sago pudding. Icelanders consumed a lot of sago pudding. Someone said it was frog’s eggs and, after that, none of us would eat it.

There was, of course, the visible existence that the town was Icelandic. There was Tergesen’s general store with a drugstore and soda bar on the south side. Nowadays, it is mostly clothes, many of which are Icelandic and a bookstore. It’s the one place where you can go to get books by Icelanders and Icelandic North American writers.

There was Bjarnason’s store that was a mainstay of the town. It was half grocery store and half dry goods. There was Arnason’s dairy bar. Arnason’s had a dairy and delivered milk that was so rich that, in winter, the milk froze, popped the cardboard lids off and the cylinder that rose up was pure cream. We ate it. You could hear Icelandic being spoken in any of those places.

I don’t remember Gimli as being particularly Icelandic. I never heard of rotted shark or brenevin, nothing of Iceland’s history except that, at one time, there were Vikings there and not much was made of that. I never heard rimur, no toneless, tuneless chanting of rhymed verses. I don’t remember anyone quoting Havamal to me to get me to behave myself.

I was a voracious reader but I read the Hardy Boys and Robin Hood, not the sagas.

When I went to university, I met some students my age who were from the West End of Winnipeg. I don’t remember them talking Icelandic or any discussions we had being about Icelandic subjects. However, a process began to draw us into the Icelandic community. There were coffees at Walter Lindal’s and, if I remember correctly, I found myself discussing the Icelandic Canadian Magazine. Somehow, I got involved in the local Icelandic club. There may have been meetings at Will Kristjanson’s. Caroline Gunnarson became part of my life. These were stalwarts, promoters of all things Icelandic. Walter and Will both wrote important books about the Icelandic communities. Caroline was an editor.

Somewhere in there was Professor Besseson, the head of the Icelandic department at the University of Manitoba. He was offering a non-credit course in the evenings. It was the sagas in translation. My wife and I took it. The Icelandic department and the Icelandic library had begun to play their part.

Terry and Lorna Tergesen drew me into creating a literary event at the Icelandic Celebration.

And there is where it all starts to break down. You see, my Gimli experience wasn’t all that Icelandic. I loved perogis fried with onions and served with sour cream, hollopchi baked in tomato sauce, bowls of bright red borscht made with beets straight from the garden, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, pickerel fillets, sweet and sour pickerel, Cantonese food from Sam Toy’s café.

I loved going to Ukrainian weddings and dancing the polka and the butterfly. Add to that, the airport two miles from town with air force personnel from all over Canada and, eventually, from all over the world meant I was used to hearing French being spoken in Olsen’s bakery or Bjarnason’s general store.

There were, of course, Icelandic elements. Local women knitted sweaters made from Icelandic wool. There was Betel, the Icelandic old folk’s home. Tergesen’s store was an anchor for all things Icelandic. There were women who, on special occasions, wore the Icelandic dresses that women wore during the time of immigration. There were a lot of Icelandic books around because Icelanders are great readers and writers. However, if any of my classmates could read Icelandic, I didn’t know about it.

But the Gimli experience was skating and hockey, curling, eating pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked goldeye, not cod, fresh or dried, although some people did still make hardfish. We didn’t practice glima, Icelandic wrestling. Instead, we played soccer on snow covered fields. We hunted rabbits and deer, geese and ducks. Some of us had trap lines for rabbits and muskrats.

In Iceland, the Little Ice Age put an end to growing grain because the fall in temperature meant that grain would not ripen. Icelanders did not farm. They grazed sheep and milk cows.

In Gimli the settlers had to become farmers and fresh water fishermen. Farmers broke land, learned to plow, to seed, to harvest grain, rye, oats, wheat, barley. I grew up with my father fishing through four to six feet of ice with nets created for Lake Winnipeg.

In Iceland there were no forests. Gimli was surrounded by forests. Wood in Iceland was rare and expensive. In Gimli, we built with wood, heated our houses with wood, cooked our food with wood. One of my childhood tasks was throwing stove wood into the basement in the fall. We lived in a wood economy.

In Iceland there was a homogeneous population. In one of the travel books I’ve read, an Icelandic farmer says to a visiting Englishman that he is the only foreigner he’s ever seen in his lifetime and he expects that he will never see another. In Gimli, we dealt with “foreigners” every day. My mother and her parents were foreigners, so were all the Ukrainians, Germans, and Poles. There were the summer cottagers, many originally from the UK but many Jewish immigrants from Europe. There were the local aboriginals.

There were few “real” Icelanders, that is Icelanders who came from Iceland during the time that I was a child. There were a couple of ministers and a fellow called Ragnar.

The only person I knew who went to Iceland to visit was my great aunt, Stina. She was going to come back and tell us about all the bishops and poets and rich farmers who were our ancestors. When she came back, she never said a word about her trip. Our ancestors were indentured servants, farm laborers and, in some cases, had children out of wedlock or were married numerous times because their wives died in childbirth. Her dream of a past filled with prestige and glory died like the grass in a cold Icelandic summer. We can’t claim to be related to Snorri Sturluson or any Viking heroes.

Stina’s belief in a golden past when our ancestors weren’t poverty stricken share croppers or indentured servants wasn’t so strange. A characteristic of Icelanders is an abiding belief in a glorious, golden past during the Viking age.

The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of years of poverty, of domination first by Norway, then Denmark, makes no difference. Icelanders, in their heart of hearts, know that not too long ago their ancestors were raiding and pillaging, driving their foes before them, risking everything on endurance, bravery and good luck. Never mind all those hundreds of years of sheep farmers.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like Icelanders. They are, on the surface, restrained. So much so that there are discussions and speeches about whether or not Icelanders actually have a sense of humour. However, scratch the surface or have a couple of drinks with them and a romantic streak is revealed. They don’t see themselves as bus drivers, fishermen, dentists, caretakers, stock brokers. No siree, beneath those daily facades, they are Vikings. That suit, white coat, overalls, covers up a Viking heart ready on a moment’s notice to row a longship into the North Sea in search of wealth and fame.

Even those of us who have only three eighths Icelandic blood share those distant dreams and memories. That belief in a golden age survived centuries of oppression, dire poverty, devastating epidemics, starvation, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fjords filled with ice. Generation after generation said, well, things are pretty bad right now but there was a time when we ruled the seas, when we were honored guests at the king’s table, when no one spun greater stories than us.

That attitude served us well during the time of emigration. Faced with starvation and oppression people emigrated to North America. In the early years New World hardship replaced Old World hardship. People went hungry, died from everything it was possible to die from, struggled to survive, sometimes failed, but they still had those memories of the ancient past to comfort them.

Maybe part of my interest in all things Icelandic is that I’m linked to this difficult past. We celebrate and honour the people who died and those who survived the trip from Iceland to the New World, who survived Kinmount, who survived the cold and poor food and small pox at New Iceland. Hardship and overcoming it shapes people, determines what they believe, how they behave, creates an identity separate from those who did not share the experience.

So, who am I? Where did I come from? How can anyone know who they are without knowing their past? Without kings and queens, without wealth, without great cathedrals or mansions, Icelanders chose to determine their worth on their behaviour.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned. –from Havamal

Not everyone lived by the advice in Havamal. Not everyone lived like a proud Viking warrior but there, in the background, was an understanding of what behaviour should be like. The sagas, those replacements for the great cathedrals, the castles, the elegance of Europe, gave everyone a history of the golden age.

Much of this was lost by the time a fourth generation, that’s me, appeared. There was intermarriage, the desire to integrate so that better jobs, greater opportunities existed. Yet, there was enough retained to hold firm to an identity. The Icelandic Department at the University of Manitoba was funded, the Icelandic library, for a time, the Jon Bjarnason Academy, the Icelandic Canadian magazine, the newspapers, Logberg and Heimskringla, the various clubs that were formed, the INL. A lot of it is based on nostalgia for a past that is romanticized, not just that distant Viking past but the past of immigration, but it doesn’t matter. What immigrant past isn’t romanticized and idealized?

With the internet, publications and documents that before were hidden away in distant libraries have become available at little or no cost. It is possible, today, to read about what life was like for our great grandparents and great great grandparents, to read back, to the times beyond them, to know ourselves.

Maybe that’s why I identify with Iceland and Icelanders. The dream of a golden age infuses everything, is always there, Gunnar and Njal and dozens of other characters, so that while I’m caught up in the mundane, cutting the grass, washing dishes, buying groceries, there is the world beyond that, the world of bravery, excitement, daring, strength, adventure. It rises closer to the surface during the Thorrablots, the INL conference, the club events, the Icelandic Celebration, the Beck lectures, August the Deuce, Icelandic summer camp, the Snorri program.

What causes me to identify with Icelanders and Iceland is not just a personal question. It is a critical question for the continuing relationship between people of Icelandic descent in North America and the people of Iceland. Canada is a multi-cultural society. Intermarriage is the norm. History appears to have been abandoned by the educational system. I’m three eighths Icelandic. My children are three sixteenth. My grandchildren are three thirty seconds. How will we infuse them with a belief in the Golden Age, make them proud of their Icelandic history, make them feel it is their history?

Olive Murray’s Love of Iceland 1929

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I was unable to find another good picture of Olive so I took the picture from her book about her winter journey across Lapland by sledge and reindeer. However, this post is about her final days in Iceland.

It’s always difficult when you make a good friend and then she or he has to move away. That’s the way I feel about Olive Murray Chapman.

I’ve taken my time reading her travel book, Across Iceland. I have found her account of traveling in Iceland in 1929 fascinating. It is probably more fascinating for me than for my sometimes readers because I’ve read and written about many travelers who came to Iceland in the 1800s. The earlier accounts are all about horses, the lack of roads, the isolation, the wickedly bad weather, the accommodation in churches, farmhouses and tents.

By 1929 great changes have taken place. There are now the beginning of roads and, in a country where there have been no wheeled vehicles because there were no roads, there are not just vehicles but motor vehicles.

Olive mentions, time and again, specially made Buicks that can stand the battering of these primitive roads, full of rocks, mud holes, roads that degenerate into stream beds and barely discernible tracks over mountain passes. More startling to a reader of 19th C travel books on Iceland is the mention of a telephone.

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone.”

“I started off in the public motor from Reykjavik on June 18th. It was pouring with rain and the car was tightly packed with country folk bound for different farms along the route. Their baggage was tied onto every available part of the car; two great sacks rested on the mudguards and a packing-case was strapped on the radiator. I had a front seat beside the driver.”

“We now followed the dried bed of a river, splashed through several streams and finally stuck once more in the middle of a particularly wide one, with the water well over the axle…the driver and another man tried in vain to restart the car.”

“At last a farmer came to the rescue of the driver. Together they dug away the mud from under the wheels, and finally got the car out of the river.”

These two changes mark the end of Iceland as it has been. All travelers in the past have explained about the tremendous isolation of the Icelandic farms, of the impossibility of travel for much of the year, of the hardship and danger crossing rivers. Olive mentions that a bridge is being built. This is a major change.

There are other changes occurring. With steamships, regular tourists can afford to come to Iceland. It is only three or four days from Leith. There can be schedules. People can make plans. No one needs to be a Lord or millionaire businessmen who can rent a yacht.

In spite of there being more visitors, Olive is still a novelty, so much so that people are fascinated by her.

“About 8:30 we reached Halldórstadir farm, perched high up on the hill above the river. I was welcomed by a charming Scotch woman, who had married an Icelander thirty-five years ago and had lived here ever since. She was quite excited at my arrival and told me that, with the exception of an English sportsman who had stayed the night four years ago, I was the first British traveller she had seen or spoken to for ten long years!

“She made me very comfortable, giving me a dear little bedroom, and a delicious supper of Scotch porridge, eggs, scones and home-made jam, to which I did full justice.”

She offers to pay the owners of the homes where she stays but many refuse any payment. Tourists are still guests, not paying clients. Hospitality comes before profit.

“Is it not possible for me to have a room to myself?” I asked him anxiously.

“No,” he replied, “they are very poor people. They have only one room,” adding cheerfully as an afterthought, “but you can have the sofa to yourself”.

The next morning the húsmódir brings Olive hot coffee and cold pancakes and a jug of hot water. At 9:30 breakfast was provided. It consisted of a wild bird cut up and mixed with a thick lukewarm paste plus lots of hot milk.

When they were ready to leave, Olive tries to pay for their room and board with five Kronur. Such a sum would have been significant to people who were so poor but they refuse the money.

There are, though, other major changes taking place. Earlier travellers have recorded that there are no hotels, no inns, that accommodation is in churches, farm houses or in their own tents. Now, Olive reports that there are hotels being built, that there are hotels already built, some farmers have enough travelers passing by that they have set prices and have built accommodation.

At Thingvellir she hears the ring of a hammer, imagines that is from fairies or trolls but discovers that on the bank of the river “some workmen were busy erecting a little wooden hotel.” At Stykkishölmur there is a little hotel where she stays. She and two Icelandic businessmen guests have their meals with Jón Gudmundsson, the proprietor.

However, when she leaves Stykkishölmur by horse, she once again enters the Iceland that is still untouched by roads and telephones. At the foot of the Haulkadalur pass, they asked if they could stay for the night at a tiny cottage. “A dear old couple welcomed me warmly. They had no food ready at hand, but their son took his rod to the lake and presently returned with some fine salmon-trout.”

Having reached Akuryeri with some days to spare before her boat will leave for Leith, she explores the surrounding countryside.

On her return from Námaskard to the parsonage of Skútustadir, she says the “ride was a dream of loveliness, in striking contrast to the bare desert of sand and lava through which we had so lately come.”

And there we will say goodbye to Olive. It is with some regret. I wish the book were longer, that she’d returned to Iceland and written another book about it but she was off to far places so she could write about her adventures in other countries.

Nineteen twenty-nine is a long time ago. I was born ten years after her visit to Iceland. Although I lived in Gimli, the centre of New Iceland, I never came across her book. I wish it had been there. I wish I could have read it when I was ten or twelve. It would have created in me a burning desire to visit Iceland. Sadly, although I was a great reader, I never came across travel books about Iceland when I was young. If the high school library had been filled with the works of Burton and Henderson, Waller and Taylor, Pfeiffer and Kneeland, and
others, many hearts would have been stirred and many thoughts would have been turned toward the country from which our ancestors came.

The Good Guest, Olive, 1929

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Olive Murray was welcomed everywhere she went in Iceland. That is partly because of the generosity and kindness of the Icelanders but it was also because she was a good guest.

When she stays at the parsonage at Setberg with Séra Jósef Jónsson and his wife, Hólmfridur Halldórsdóttir, she doesn’t just observe but participates.

She says, “before going to bed, I strolled out to watch the pastor and his children, who with some of the farm hands were busy sorting great piles of sheep’s wool, which had been spread out to dry in the sun. This work was going on together with haymaking in all the valleys where there were farms. The wool is washed, dried and afterwards collected in piles, packed in big sacks and sent off to be sold to merchants who, in their turn, ship it to England, Spain and America, mainly to America. On my return from Iceland in August in a freight steamer round the north and west coasts, we put in at eight little ports for the purpose of collecting this wool, and arrived at Leith with 3600 loaded sacks on board!”

“I stayed out till nearly 10 p.m. at Setberg, enjoying the warm evening sunshine, helping to sort the soft, clean wool and taking some photographs and sketches.”

Later, at Miklibær she spends most of the afternoon helping with the hay. “Haymaking time is very important in Iceland, for the number of ponies and sheep which a farmer is able to keep during the winter depends largely upon his stock of hay which he uses for their fodder.”

Her willingness to help pays off for this kindness is repaid in kind. She does not want to continue her trip in a car for the previous experience of the roads was not good. However, she has not been able to find available horses at haymaking time, nor a guide.

“The pastor’s wife and her brother-in-law had ridden off to a farm some miles away to take coffee with some friends. On their return we all had supper together and then, while the sun s hone upon a golden evening, bathing the lovely valley in glory, I energetically did some more haymaking. To my joy, a farmer, who was helping with the others, offered to supply three ponies for the rest of my journey, which he said would take a couple of days. A young man whose name I think was Magnússon, a native of Akureyri, and who had been at the farm at Miklibær on a visit, offered to be my guide.‘

“My spirits rose in leaps and bounds, for it looked as if I should be able to ride into Akureyri after all, and if my luck held I ought to reach it on July 17th, a day sooner than the date on which I had roughly calculated”

“We sat in a circle among the sweet smelling hay while the price of the ponies and the wages of the guide were discussed. Magnússon wished to know if I would be afraid of fording a rather difficult and swift river, to which question the pastor´s brother replied:
“Oh, no, she is not afraid: The farmer from Bólatadahlid told me that she rides the ponies not at all like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander!”

The next day when they reach the river, they “then plunged into the swirling water. My pony was splendid: stones were whirling past his sturdy little legs, but he bravely battled on and I found the best plan was to keep my eyes fixed steadily in front on the tails of the others and not to look down at the foaming torrent of icy water which was splashing over my legs. Had I slipped in, I should probably have been swept away by the current into the deep part of the river where rescue would not have been easy. However, we all got safely across and another little adventure was over.”

They travel all day and don’t arrive at a farmhouse until nine o’clock. “Haymaking was still in busy progress, but the farmer left it and came to greet us, asking what we wanted. To our anxious inquiries as to whether we could stay the night, he replied:

“Já!”

“Have you eggs?”

“Nay.”

“Fresh fish?”

“Nay.”

“Porridge and milk””

“Já Já!”

“I was so faint and tired, Magnússon had to lift me from my pony.”

The farmer’s wife feeds them the porridge and milk. Olive finally sleeps. At eight o’clock the next morning, the farmer’s wife brings “coffee and thick bread and butter…and at 10:30 she had ready a substantial meal of sandwiches, salted fish and a delicious Icelandic pudding, a sort of custard eaten with sugar, cream and nutmeg.”

After breakfast, they are on their way and eventually, Olive sees a sign “20 kils. to Akureyri.”, her destination.

Shortly, she “rode up to the little Godafoss hotel and was shown to the luxury of a real bedroom once more, with a comfortable bed, a hanging cupboard and—joy of joys!—I learned there was a bathroom!”

She has made a difficult journey, one that few foreigners had ever attempted and which even Icelanders seldom made. Instead, travelers usually traveled by boat. She’d made her way from farm to farm, her phrase book and her growing notes about how to say words and phrases in Icelandic allowing her to communicate enough to get by. From time to time she has been fortunate to meet Icelanders who speak English.

She is always greeted with courtesy. People cannot always do as she wishes, there is hay to make, wool to sort, animals to take care of but if they can’t help, they find someone who can.

Relationships are never one sided. If Olive had been arrogant, difficult, demanding, critical, all those things that make travelers ugly and unwelcome, she would not have found Icelanders so helpful. She may have had kronur in her purse but, as she says time and again, her offer to pay for her lodging and meals, is turned down. Icelanders, in 1929, are often poor but they are proud. She took nothing of that pride away from anyone. Respect gathers respect. It is obvious that her willingness to put up with hardship, to make the best of things, to not be afraid, to participate, earned her the respect that was evident when the pastor’s son says she doesn’t ride like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander.

Olive understands and appreciates that she has just had a great compliment.

The Value of an Education

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I was never meant to go to university. It was not something that had crossed my parent’s minds. My mother finished grade ten. My father left school mid-way through grade eight.

My father never wanted anything except to be a successful commercial fisherman. He had no capital. He also had a wife and child (me) when he was twenty. He took a barber’s course and cut hair in Gimli, Manitoba, a small rural fishing village on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. He was up before dawn, out on the lake lifting nets, would ice the fish, then get cleaned up and go to the barber shop. My mother said that he needed to make enough money from the summer cottagers and tourists to get them through the winter when the only customers were local people. It took him a long time but, eventually, he reached the point where he was able to stop barbering and earn a living from fishing. However, he worked two jobs for many years, neither of which provided enough money to support our family.

The normal path for someone like me, the son of someone seasonally employed, was to go fishing. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was hopeless as a fisherman. I didn’t share my father’s passion, had no desire to set nets, lift them in weather both fair and foul, suffer the vagaries of a catch that might or might not appear; in winter, chop through four to six feet of ice, lift and set nets in thirty and forty degree below weather.

Instead, I wanted to read books. I was fortunate because we had a complete set of The Books of Knowledge. In those days, that is the 1940s and 50s, The Books of Knowledge were full of history and mythology rather than science. I reveled in stories of battles and bravery, in poetry and stories of the gods.

Every Christmas relatives gave me books. There was no one with an advanced education to guide my reading. Still, I got copies of the classics: Robin Hood, The Black Arrow, Swiss Family Robinson, The Man in the Iron Mask. I became a voracious reader. High school introduced The Red Badge of Courage, Pride and Prejudice, Return of the Native, numerous plays by Shakespeare, poetry that was more than verse and, surprisingly, Canadian poets like Earl Birney and Anne Marriot. “David” and “The Wind Our Enemy” revealed that it was possible to write about Canadian subject matter from a Canadian point of view.

I was hired for a summer job at the United Grain Growers because a great uncle worked there. I was probably the only child of someone seasonally employed. The other summer employees were the sons of middle class parents. It was these summer co-workers who said since they were all going to university, why didn’t I also go?

To my parents’ credit, when I phoned and said I’d like to go to university, after some stunned silence and a consultation between my mother and father, they said yes. My grandparents said I could live with them, free room and board. I had enough money from my work to pay tuition and books.

The university was a strange and foreign place. Professors stood up in front of classes and lectured. There was no one checking home work. There were just suggestions about what we should read. No one was taking responsibility for me, for making sure I read my texts, read other sources, made notes, studied. At first, it seemed like a lark. Then the Christmas grades came out. The lark was over. I was, I realized, the only person rowing my boat. Lesson one. How to be responsible for myself. Lesson two. Learn how to learn. Lesson three. Learn discipline. Turn up for classes. Make choices, study or party. Understand consequences.

I don’t remember the periodic table or even what we studied in first year physics. The lesson I do remember is realizing the difference between arguing and discussing, arguing and debating, yelling louder than someone else or marshaling a group of facts to support a position. Pounding the table and shouting didn’t get you anywhere in a seminar.

I learned about things I never knew existed. I took Philosophy and along with learning about Aristotle and Plato, I took logic, formal and informal. Although I was the despair of my professor, Davey Owen, his course in logic opened up my mind, showed me how to dispel faulty arguments and to prove that they were faulty. In place of punching someone with whom I disagreed, I was able to analyze and identify the logic or lack of it in their argument. There is power in being able to say, “You are arguing in a circle.” And demonstrate it.

In Gimli, it seemed that there were few choices. Local people who had gone to university had become a doctor or lawyer, dentist, pharmacist. No one mentioned astrophysics or the multi types of geologist or economists or archeologists. No one ever mentioned becoming a plant pathologist. University was like a cornucopia with possibilities spilling from it. It presented possibilities I never knew existed.

I stumbled along taking courses because I was interested in them, not because they led in a coherent fashion to a job. After first year, I took political science, philosophy, economics, English, the sort of conglomeration that many who see university as a sort of trade school rail against. I wasn’t learning a trade. I was getting an education. I was learning to think and to understand. And gradually, my love of literature was turning into a desire to become a published writer.

When I look back, I wish I’d taken courses in history. They would have provided a framework for everything else I was taking. There were no courses in journalism but as a famous journalist once said to me, don’t worry about the specific techniques that go with a genre. You can teach yourself those or learn them on the job. Focus on learning to write. Once you can write, you can write anything and he was correct. I learned to write short stories, novels, children’s stories, poetry, plays, articles.

Lately, on the internet and sometimes in the media there have been attacks on higher education. It is, according to these writers, a waste of time. They use examples of someone with a university degree working as a barista or a waitress. They want universities to become trade schools. They equate training to education. The rail about all the student debt that is accumulated by the time someone graduates. They never talk about the opportunities that are created, the possibilities that now are known that were not known.

Something sinister, destructive has happened to our educational system. Going to university used to mean getting an education, becoming an educated person. However, over the years it became to mean getting a degree. Before I retired, it became common to hear students talk about getting a degree as quickly as possible, with as little effort as possible. All they were concerned about were getting credits. Some would even argue that it was their right to have a degree because having a degree would get them a job.

What had been a journey to being educated was becoming obtaining a piece of paper whose only purpose was getting hired. Somewhere, lost in this transition was the reason that people with degrees used to get jobs is because they were educated, that is they were knowledgeable, could think logically and could communicate effectively. They had learned to learn and any employer hiring them could be confident that they had the ability to learn the necessary specifics of any job.

I first taught high school, then college and, finally, university classes. I taught in the Fine Arts faculty, not in Engineering or computer science or Chemistry. Worse yet, I taught people how to write fiction. The ignorant clamor against such courses, such degrees. But our graduates made fine editors, used their writing skills for a wide variety of jobs. Every business needs people skilled in communication. Poets, with their attention to every word, every punctuation mark, make fine editors. Writers who understand narrative create everything from advertisements to television shows and computer games.

Part of the attack on higher education is coming as a backlash against the exposure of ignorance. Remember, I said that I took formal and informal logic. I learned to think critically, to analyze, to search for the truth. In the past year there have been reports of men in Africa who, out of ignorance, have shot and killed women who were inoculating children against serious diseases. In Texas recently a law was proposed that the teaching of critical thinking be banned. Critical thinking, after all, exposes nonsense, superstition, lack of logic. There is little distance between the murderers of women in Africa who are trying to protect children against disease and the banning of critical thinking. Both champion ignorance.

Education dissipates ignorance and superstition. It gives the most critical skill of all. It taught me how to learn. After a lifetime of learning and teaching, I can say that was worth every penny, every minute of effort, every sacrifice.

Búdir, the most beautiful place in Iceland: 1929

“I had intended to leave Stapi for Búdir where there was, I learned , a good farm, not later than 4 or 5 p.m.; but, although a message arrived from Búdir to say that horses and a guide would call for me by the hour, it was nearly 9 p.m. before they finally turned up.”

”It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we got started, for the guide Jónsson, a handsome youth with curly red hair and bright blue eyes, had to have a meal and the ponies a rest before we could get away.”

“At midnight…stopping after a while to rest them (the horses) at a tiny farm out of which ran a couple of men. After looking at me with great interest and curiosity, and inquiring of Jónsson who I was, one of them disappeared, returning in a few minutes with a welcome glass of fresh milk which he offered me, refusing to take any payment. When at last we rode away, the men stood outside their door watching us and waving their hands, till we were out of sight.“

“About one o’clock my guide pointed out the Búdir promontory far ahead along the coastline, and soon after we passed one or two solitary riders, farmers I imagine. They stopped in each case to shake hands with us both, and to exchange snuff with Jónsson from out of the quaint bone horns which they all carried.“

“In the more remote parts of Iceland one seldom sees a man smoking; tobacco is too expensive, and the people—both men and women alike—take snuff instead, throwing their heads back and sniffing large quantities up their nostrils.

“I gathered that the riders all inquired of Jónsson, with great curiosity and a certain amount of chaff, who I was! In other words no doubt using the Icelandic equivalent for: ”Who is your lady friend?” His answer seemed to satisfy and surprise them and, after warmly shaking hands again, they would ride on, crying out: “Verid thér saelar!” “Be ye happy!” the customary greeting invariably exchanged between passing travellers. When a stranger accosts another in Iceland, it is considered polite to fire out a battery of questions: “What is your name?” “Whither are you bound?” “Whose son are you?”

“It was nearly 2 a.m. when, very weary and sleepy, I reached Búdir farm. It was a two-storied wooden house, and I was shown upstairs to a bare boarded room with the welcome sight of a real bed in one corner. A good sized table in the centre of the room, a locked cupboard and one or two chairs completed the furniture. A smiling, good-natured woman bustled about putting clean sheets over the usual eiderdown bedding, and then hurried off to prepare eggs and bread and butter as if it was the most usual thing in the world for a stranger to turn up at two in the morning!’

“I spent the afternoon sketching and exploring the beauties of Búdir and its estuary. It was certainly the most beautiful place I had yet seen in Iceland. The outline of mountains round the coast was magnificent, while behind, away to the west, rose up the mighty snow-capped peaks of Snæfells-Jökull. Among the sheltered hollows in the dunes were grassy patches where I counted a variety of wild flowers, among them quantities of forget-me-nots and wild pansies of a lovely violet shade, patches of golden saxifrage and the delicate sea pink. Búdir is, indeed, famous for its flowers, of which there are said to be 150 different kinds, more than in any part of Iceland.”

Olive stays at Búdir for three days. She sketches but with difficulty because the weather has turned bitterly cold with a wind from the north and frequent cloud bursts.

So, imagine 1929, an English woman, an artist, rural Iceland, still so few tourists that when one turns up, especially a woman, she is a great curiosity. We´re inclined to think of women in earlier times as delicate but nothing could be further from the truth. They rode horses, they managed house holds without any conveniences, no automatic washing machines, dishwashers, electric stoves. They had children with the help of a mid-wife, if they were fortunate. If not, they managed on their own. If they were well to do, they had servants and had to hire, manage, fire them.

There is nothing shy about Olive. She exudes self-confidence. She goes to Iceland with nothing but a phrase book and the absolute certainty that she can handle whatever turns up. She finds accommodation; she hires guides, rents horses, eats whatever is put in front of her, rides through the night over trackless wilderness.

She has read about Iceland and Icelanders and what she has read has given her complete confidence in the honesty and decency of the Icelandic people. She travels from place to place with Icelandic guides and trusts them completely. Her trust is well placed. She is treated with courtesy and kindness. Her book, beneath the surface events, is a testimony to the Icelandic people. It shows them as generous and considerate, as honest and trustworthy.

Who could read Olive’s account of her Iceland travels and not think well of Iceland and Icelanders?

A Theory of Disease

After a triple bypass, two visits to Emergency with arterial fibrillation, I’ve developed a theory. Heart attacks (and other diseases) attack disorganized, messy people more often that organized, tidy ones.

Now that I’m one day away from four weeks after my operation, I’m sitting in my office a few hours a day. I noticed the piles of paper, one the floor, on the desk, the books, the binders, the chaos that goes with my creativity.

I’m positive that diseases lurk. I think they lurk under messy piles of paper, piled up books, dirty clothes in the closet in a corner, clean clothes on the drier waiting to be hung up. I can hear them snickering, rubbing their hands as it were, in glee.
A pile of dirty dishes on the cupboard probably has bubonic plague under it. A bunch of opened and unfilled letters is likely hiding something more benign, like the common cold.

I have a friend who is super organized, is a model house keeper. Nothing is ever messy. No piles of this and that here and there. She’s never sick. “Sick?” she asks, “what is that?”

I do my best. I remember, now and again, that the car needs vacuuming, that when I get gas, I should run it through the car wash. However, that sort of thing is always somewhere just on the edge of my peripheral vision. The need to clean the car, wash it, usually catches me by surprise. It’s the chocolate bar wrappers or the empty ice cream sundae in a drift under the seat that does it.
When I hear voices from the closet, I know that it is time to hang up everything, haul clothes to the washing machine. Either that or there are no more shirts on the hangers.

I get a lot of work done, writing that is, research, but daily life frequently comes as a surprise. When I notice the flowers on the deck have started to droop, I apologize. “Sorry, sorry,” I say, as I bring a pot of water out to drench the shrinking soil. I was going to put a micro watering system onto the deck so the begonia, the Astilbe, the geraniums could depend on being watered instead of suffering drought and floods. Didn’t make it before the operation. When I’m able to haul stuff around, puncture holes in pipes, I’ll do it.

I’m a good cook but hunger sneaks up on me. I’m deep into writing a piece of fiction and lunch time comes and goes and sometime in the early afternoon, if I smell the neighbour’s BBQ, I go onto high alert. Food. Hungry. Eat. Now. My hunger instinct isn’t into grammar. It’s pretty basic. The problem is that by that time of day, something quick is needed. This is no time to be cooking anything complicated. If the dishes in the dishwasher are clean, no problem. There’s always something to put into a pot and heat up or into the microwave. Well, nearly always.

If the dishes in the dishwasher aren’t washed and the dishes on the counter are hiding some terrible possible germ war aspirant, then it’s time to plunge into the reality of life. I fantasize servants who, at a call, appear with plates of exotic food but I probably settle for a toasted sandwich and soup.

I’m convinced all this lack of control, lack of being in charge, lack of a schedule that sees floors washed, carpets vacuumed, dishes washed and put away, meals planned a week in advance, clothes washed and hung up on schedule, is responsible for my triple bypass. No one who is properly organized, in charge of their life, keeping track of what they eat, getting exercise on a schedule that maximizes their physical health, would allow this to happen.

I vow to change. I’m going to file, sort, organize, leave no pile where Beri Beri or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease can hide. I’m going to clean out my car before the floor in the back seat looks like the debris caught in a Saskatchewan barbed wire fence. Hopefully, like rats, the lurking vermin of disease will look and leave, knowing there’s no place for them here.

On to Stapi: 1929

olive crossing desert

olive crossing desert

Olive decides, on returning from Thórsmork, that she will travel around Snaefellsnes and to Akureyri. The distance will be three to four hundred miles and will probably take about three weeks. Quite the trip for a woman traveling alone on horse back in 1929.

She prepares for the trip by sending her luggage by sea on a mail boat to Akureyri. She takes two haversacks and includes in them all her sketching materials. Her friend, Stefán, discovers that the Sudurland, a small cargo boat will be going to Stapi. There is a farm there where Olive can stay overnight before riding to Búdir. She will have a guide and three horses to take her from Búdir round Snaefells Jökull to Stykkishólmur. That part of the trip will take five days.

Stefán takes her to see the Sudurland. “We had to climb across some planks, over the sides of three other small vessels in order to reach it. Accommodation appeared very scanty, but the captain, who was on board, told Stefán that he would promise me a berth if possible.”

“These arrangements settled, I climbed back over the other boats, across planks and up and down iron ladders to the quay, where I stood for a while lost in wonder at the glory of an Icelandic night.”

“Five nights later the Sudurland sets sail. Olive discovers that she should have bought her ticket in advance. All the sleeping accommodation is taken. As she says “the little boat was already packed to overflowing with Icelandic farmers and fisher-folk”
She tries to sleep on deck but it is too cold. The ship’s mate finds her a bench “between the side of the ship and the stair rail that led below….In spite of a calm sea the “Sudurland” pitched and rolled like a trawler, and I had difficulty in not falling off my narrow bench.”

In the early morning the ship anchors off the creek at Stapi. “One had either to jump or be lifted into the boat from off the iron steps down the side of the Sudurland. Olive’s haversacks get thrown into the boat and one of the boatmen carries her. “At last we were all wedged safely in between a mail bag, a lot of sacks, and some timber that had been taken off the “Sudurland”.

She crosses a creek, gets one foot soaked, climbs up a steep bank to the farm where she will stay overnight. “It was a primitive-looking little cabin built of wood, peat and lava boulders, with a corrugated iron roof. The front door led into a narrow passage very dark, with an earthen floor, and walls built of peat and stones with tufts of grass growing in between. The entrance was so low that I had to stoop my head for fear of hitting the roof! My friend, the farmer (from Búdir), kindly inquired for me if I might spend the night there before riding on the next day to Búdir.”

“The woman of the house, who was regarding me with great interest and curiosity, understood no English, but I gathered that I was welcome to stay as long as I liked, although she could only offer me a sofa in the bath-stofa, as all the beds were occupied by her family. Thankful for small mercies, I accepted the somewhat hard and narrow sofa which my hostess did her bet to make comfortable for me.’

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone. It was constantly ringing, and either the farmer, his wife, or one of the other women, and occasionally all of them together, would hasten to answer it, continually repeated: “Ullo! Ullo!Ullo!” sometimes for as long as five minutes on end.

It is 1929. How Iceland has changed. Olive often travels in trucks or cars for part of her journey. The roads are primitive, full of pot holes and rocks, sometimes no more than a dried creek bed, but there are roads. People and goods are moved more easily and quickly. Horses are being displaced and the change can be seen clearly when Olive reports that horses are frightened by motor vehicles. Before, there was nothing to frighten the horses.

Symbolically, the horses being frightened by the vehicles presages the near future in which these vehicles will replace the horses, taking away their essential part of Icelandic life. Now, there are telephones. Telephones that change life in Iceland dramatically for isolation was an essential part of Icelandic life. The farms were far apart, the weather, harsh, traveling conditions extremely difficult and dangerous but now there were telephones. No wonder the farmer’s wife and his daughters jump up and run to the phone every time it rings.

Although Olive is simply recounting her travels around Iceland in the year 1929, she is, inadvertently, recording profound changes in Icelandic life. The very foundations of Icelandic society as changing.

Immigration

immigrant

When our Icelandic ancestors were faced with starving to death or risking their lives immigrating to North America, they had little idea of what they were getting into. An entire continent covered in endless forest. Just the size of North America was beyond comprehension. In place of valleys and mountains, there were days of traveling through dense forest. Winter, in Iceland, could be bitter, but not with the temperatures of the prairies.

The immigration agents came. There were brochures. There even may have been some letters from people who left early. But nothing prepared them for what was to come. The Canadian government was not soliciting immigrants for the benefit of the immigrants. They wanted immigrants to produce goods and order goods that would be transported on the railways. Politicians and businessmen wanted immigrants because they could make money on them.

There were no preparatory classes. No one said “We want immigrants to come to Canada. How can we help assure that they are successful?” No one bothered to look at the country of origin, learn about the immigrants and create a program to prepare them for what they would face. It would have taken very little to provide classes. Those could have been held in the harbours as the emigrants waited for their ships or they could have been held on the ships that went from Iceland to Scotland and from Scotland to Montreal.

How intelligent did someone have to be to look at Iceland and say, “No trees. They live in rock and sod huts. We’d better have a class on cutting down trees, preparing the logs for building, chinking the logs. Using an axe. There are no large wild animals in Iceland. We’d better teach them to use rifles and shotguns and how to hunt and trap. How to fish. The kinds of nets to use. The best way to clear land. The preparation of Canadian food. All of this, and more, could have been done on board the ships.

Local natives could have been hired for next to nothing to instruct the settlers how to best prepare for a winter in Canada.

The result was that the situation of the Icelanders became so desperate that they had to have help for internal relocation. They were the only group to receive such help. That help came from the sheer good luck of having Lord Dufferin as a powerful friend in Ottawa. Even with that help, there were desperate times.
What help and advice there was had to come from the Icelandic agents who helped recruit them. However, they did not have the resources to arrange for teachers on the ships who would over a period of two weeks or more teach the immigrants the basic skills they would need. The government and the railways had all the resources necessary.

The callous treatment of the immigrants wasn’t because the government didn’t have any money. They were spending millions on building railways. Graft was rife. To make matters worse the government, unless they were completely incompetent, knew that the immigrants were highly vulnerable. Many Icelanders didn’t speak English. They didn’t understand the Canadian legal system. They were dealing with corporations that cheated them on prices while providing poor equipment and food. All this could have been remedied by providing someone to represent them in business matters.

We often talk about the hardship of our pioneer ancestors but hardship can often be alleviated and alleviated at minimal cost. The hardship of the immigrants was, in large part, caused by dishonesty, corruption and callousness. Immigrants were seen as an opportunity for exploitation.

I’d add racism for many times I’ve heard about how Icelanders were not treated as equals by the British population in Winnipeg. Most people know the story of the Falcons and their struggle to be treated as equals in hockey. Or Icelanders killed at work sites simply being dismissed as Icelanders rather than as individuals.

Except, if you read Barry Broadfoot, you discover that even though the government preferred English, Irish and Scots settlers, they didn’t treat them any better. The immigration brochure at the top of this article makes no bones about how British subjects were preferred. Yet, the clerks and bakers and bookbinders from London, England who believed the propaganda about the glories of Canada and found themselves in sod huts on the prairies, miles from help and support, faced with trying to clear and break land, received less help than the Icelanders. The casualties were high. Suicide was common. Disease widespread. Despair everywhere.

And the agents that hung around the train terminals were no more honest with the English settlers than the Icelandic. Many cheated and stole at every opportunity.

Some decisions made by the government were just acts of gross stupidity. When people emigrated, they needed mutual support, they needed neighbours nearby. They couldn’t get that on 160 acres. The breaking of the land into quarter sections and, to make matters worse, often making intervening sections unavailable, isolated the settlers, deprived them of family, friends and community. How smart do you have to be to say this is not in the best interest of the settlers? We should organize the land in ways that made it easier for people to support each other. Instead, the land was divided up in a way that would maximize profit for the railways and the government.

However, the politicians and powerful businessmen, particularly those on the railways, weren’t interested in the welfare of the settlers, the Icelandic ones, the English ones, the German ones, none of them. Fortunes were being made by people closely connected with the power brokers in Ottawa. Your people and mine were cannon fodder. That they survived and, finally, prospered, is a miracle that needs to be recorded, honored, remembered.

When I look at old newspapers and magazines from Winnipeg and see advertisements for Icelandic businesses, I am amazed. The fishermen and farmers carved a living out of forest and lake and the Icelandic businessmen elbowed their way onto the streets of Winnipeg and made a living in a hostile environment.

To deny the callousness, the corruption, the exploitation, the dishonesty that existed is to take away credit from our people.

Putting food on the table, establishing a business, getting an education, making a place in society wasn’t made easy. It wasn’t just the land and the weather that our people had to overcome.

But people like my great grandfather, coming to Canada with nothing, created a dairy, bought a farm, partnered in a general store. I don’t think the establishment reached out a helping hand. For that, he needed the Icelandic community.

I think as we celebrate Islendingadagurinn, we need to pause and look around at what we have accomplished, as a community, in Canada, in the USA, and say, “The lives we lead, our place in society, was built on sacrifice and hardship, bravery and determination. We need to stop at the pioneer graveyards and say, “Bless you. Bless you.”

Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part II)

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There is the myth of immortality. At some time we all believe in it. More people believe in it than in any organized religion. Without it, there would be no armies. High risk jobs would be shunned. Crazy antics and stunts would not happen. Although, before we enter into dangerous activities, we do not kneel and pray to the god of immortality, we do offer him obeisance in our complete trust in his power.

I distinctly remember, at noon hour on a school day, racing along the highway outside of Gimli in a new Ford Fairlane owned by a friend’s parents. The goal was to see how fast it would go. No seat belts in those days. No air bags. Big motor. Big car. Public highway. Going at a speed that allowed for no mistakes, no farmer crossing the highway with his tractor, no rocks on the road, no potholes.

The land outside Gimli is flat. There’s no downhill skiing. Didn’t stop us. We found an old pair of cross country skies, tied a rope to the car bumper and raced along the highway, one of us driving, another in the ditch, skiing. Whooohoooo. We didn’t know how to stop so when we were coming up on a traffic sign or a post or anything else, we let go of the rope and fell over.

We worshiped the god of immortality. Yet, around us, teenagers died from drinking and driving (oh, did I mention that? Drinking and driving. Only an idiot would have thought you could drive properly without a few drinks to loosen up, sometimes, quite a few drinks.). Changing drivers at 60 miles an hour was a good trick. So was trading positions with someone in the back seat. You climbed out the window and into the back, then the person in the back climbed out the window into the front seat.

Hunting was usually an exercise in bowing to the god of immortality. You know, two friends in a duck boat in the marsh at Willow Island, one yells duck, his partner stands up and says where just as his buddy lets fly with his twelve gauge shotgun. The god of immortality took care of them that day. Left one of them with a throbbing headache but at least he still had his head.

Sometimes, worship wasn’t enough. There was an airbase next to Gimli. The young pilots were learning to fly Harvards, bright yellow trainer planes. From time to time, while we were watching, one of the planes would fall out of the sky. We’d be shocked, say something like “Did you see that?” and there would be sirens followed by a day of gossip but it made no difference, we never wavered in our belief in our immortality.

Getting older robs the god of Immortality of adherents. Older men don’t make as enthusiastic front line soldiers. They are inclined to wear seat belts. They calculate the odds, insist on wearing safety helmets and steel toed work boots. They lose friends and family members to accidents, disease. They sit at bedsides and hold the hand of someone who is dying. They have kids, kids are hostages to fortune, kids may believe in immortality but mom and dad know too much about head injuries, have read too much. They’ve lost the faith.

Later, later, as the years slip by the god of immortality is revealed as a fraud. No one gets out of life alive. No one has found the fountain of everlasting life.

Recently, I had a triple bypass. My belief in my immortality was long gone but now with an unexpected disease that was on the verge of killing me ((I saw the cardiologist’s report. It said “Urgent”), I felt vulnerable, fragile, exposed, of little more substance than the fish flies that rise from Lake Winnipeg each summer, then turn into empty exo-skeletons.

I denied there was a problem. My parents didn’t have heart disease. My friend Dennis Stefansson died of heart disease a while ago but his family is known for having heart disease. I took the stress tests as a bit of a joke except that I discovered to my dismay that I couldn’t finish them. I just need more exercise, I said to the cardiologist. He wasn’t impressed. An angiogram sorted that out. Ninety percent blockage in the artery called the widow maker. Blockages in other arteries. I protested. This is crazy. I’ve been a folk dancer, hiker, rock climber, wood cutter. My diet, while not perfect, is good. I seldom eat packaged food. I cook from scratch most of the time. I eat a gluten free diet. I was only five pounds overweight. I was often walking two miles a day.

Protesting did no good. JO came from Salt Spring Island to see the surgeon with me. She was still hoping that diet changes, supplements, stents would do the trick. The surgeon said, “Too late.”

Bad DNA was the most likely culprit. But from where? Mortality forces one to confront various truths. My mother’s parents were from Ireland. The internet reveals all secrets. Mortality from heart disease is high in Ireland compared to other countries. Ireland has the highest rate in men and is third highest in women.

Iceland, all that fish, I guess, is #158 in the world for heart disease. That’s in spite of butter, skyr and whipped cream. Icelanders love desserts. There was always such a shortage of fat in Iceland that there are folk tales about trying to obtain it. Maybe a shortage of fat isn’t a bad thing.

My Irish grandmother’s favorite saying was, “Butter betters everything.” Except your heart, of course. Slather your heart in butter and it’s going to plug up.

I’ve been checking my family’s health history. On the Icelandic side, my father’s eldest brother did die of a heart attack. My father died of pneumonia. His younger brother died of cancer. His youngest sister died of a stroke. When my grandfather’s wife died from the effects of diphtheria, he married again and had four more children. The eldest has had a quadruple bypass, his younger brother has a couple of stents, the third brother, and the youngest sibling, a sister, have no problems that I know of. So, from where came the heart disease in the eldest and next eldest? Their father was Icelandic. Their mother Polish-German.

It is hard to pinpoint a villain in this. I suspect the Irish side of the family for the dangerous DNA. However, would it have mattered if I had not believed that I was immortal, immune to vast numbers of perogis, vinarterta, rich gravy, lots of meat, pie, butter tarts, cookies, French fries, as I grew up. My mother was an exceptional cook and food was an expression of love. When my father got married, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.”

Our families had come from hard times. To be thin was the mark of poverty. To be chubby, if not fat, was a sign of prosperity. One mother, after her son had died of a heart attack in his forties said, “I thought his being fat meant he was healthy.”

If I had known, when I was young, what I know now, I would have gone Icelandic. I’d have eaten dried cod, baked cod, cod heads, rotten shark, lamb, skyr, potatoes, some occasional desserts for the calories. Would it have made a difference or are Irish hearts, slathered in butter for generations, doomed? Even when it’s only half an Irish heart.

When I am over this operation, I’ll change my diet, swallow supplements, walk every day. I’ll do my best to live until the bypasses wear out.

Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part 1)

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I’d gone to see my doctor over a small matter that took about two minutes to resolve. He then said, “How have you been?”

I said, “Fine. Except when I’ve been hiking up McInnis Rise to my house, I’ve become short of breath. One day when I was carrying groceries, I had this odd sensation like someone was pricking my left chest with a needle.”

He whipped out a form and started asking questions. Unfortunately, I answered yes to all of them. “I’m arranging for you to see a cardiologist”, he said. I was taken aback. My mother and father lived to be 90 and never had any heart problems. I didn’t take it all that seriously. I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I walk nearly every day on ground that rises and falls. I was walking, with no problem, to the local mall which is a mile away.

The cardiologist asked me questions, used a model of a heart to display possible problems and arranged stress tests. The stress tests looked like they were fine, except, except, except, the numbers weren’t right for someone resting. Not enough blood going through.

Back for another test. Indecisive but worrying. An angiogram was arranged. There was no indecisiveness about the angiogram. Ninety percent blocked main artery. Seventy percent a second artery. Fifty percent another artery and the blockages precluded stents. It was a bypass or nothing. A rupture of the plaque in the main artery and I was history.

I had no idea what I was getting into. However, I did know that Victoria was one of the two top places in Canada to have heart surgery. They perform over 800 operations a year. Lots of practice. If you’ve got to have it done, this is the place.

JO went to the cardiologist with me. When an appointment was made with the surgeon, she agreed to leave Salt Spring and come to Victoria. We met with the surgeon. He drew diagrams, made a list of percentages of possible failures. There is a 2% chance of your dying of this during the operation. A 3% chance of dying from that. Etc. The medical world is a world of percentages and technologies. New technologies allow operations to be done that could never be done before. The operation would take about 4 hours. I’d be on a heart lung machine while they stopped my heart and made the bypasses. They’d harvest veins and arteries with which to make the bypasses. Probably from my leg and chest. They’d cut my sternum in half, make the bypasses, then wire my sternum back together.

I would have an IV in both arms and my neck. There’d be tubes running from my chest to drain fluid. There’d be wires on either side of my heart for a temporary pacemaker. I would look like a monster from the Dark Lagoon. Or a space alien. I’d have a breathing tube down my throat.

I was given two books that dealt with pre-op, op and post op. On a Sunday, JO and I went to an all-day pre-op session. It scared the crap out of me. All I could think of was “Into the Valley of Death rode the five hundred. Cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them.” Doomed, the brave soldiers faced certain death. The people preparing us all for the coming day were very good.

JO and I had read the two books they gave me. Still, in these high stress situations, it is hard to take in everything you are being told. Having someone there with you is a blessing. One fellow was alone. He was in for a new valve for his heart. God help him, I thought.

However, there wasn’t much time to worry. I had to have a full body anti-bacterial shower. I was rattled. JO made sure I did everything that needed doing. She set four alarm clocks and then, just in case we didn’t wake up, I called my daughter and asked her to call at 5 a.m.

Last minute decisions had to be made regarding my coming home in five days. Five days! It seemed like madness. I was going to have my heart stopped for four hours. It was going to be cut into. My chest was going to be chopped in half. Veins and arteries were to be cut out and relocated. Five months recovery, I thought, in some Hollywood style recovery sanitarium in the Rockies. With nurses bringing fresh flowers and food while lambs nibbled at the grass. It turns out that only happens in Hollywood movies and in the lives of the super rich.

There were a number of surgeries scheduled for the day. Mine was an early one. JO took me to Jubilee Hospital for 5:30 a.m. I kept thinking, is this really happening? I had to have another shower. Other than that I don’t remember anything except lying on a gurney.

I woke up but I have no memory of it. JO tells me I looked terrible, my face swollen, my mouth wedged wide by the breathing tube. Someone leaned close and said, “I’m giving you some morphine.”

JO said “You had a triple bypass plus some other work.” The surgeon had called her and said the operation had gone well. However, she’d come to check for herself. I’d suggested she take pictures for my blog page. She wasn’t amused.

I was in shock. My body had been assaulted. There were tubes everywhere. Yet, a nurse appeared at some point and said you need to sit at the edge of the bed but time had lost all meaning. “Why didn’t I just walk in front of a bus?” I wondered. Still, I sat up.

Meals appeared but I was so violently ill to my stomach and bowel that I couldn’t eat. “Your oxygen level is good,” someone said. They’d used no blood transfusions. There was never any pain. If I started to thrash about someone would appear and give me a pain killer. If I couldn’t sleep, someone popped an ativan under my tongue.

JO would appear and disappear. She was the only semblance of normality. Everything else was foreign. Gut rumblings became central to my life. Why am I so seasick, I kept thinking? Someone said, I’m taking out your catheter. Food trays came and went back unused. Tubes and IVs were pulled out.

I got help at getting out of bed. Roll onto my side, put down my feet, press as gently as possible on the metal rail on the bed. Stagger to the bathroom.

“I don’t want this to be my movie,” I thought. “Lousy script for the leading man.”

JO told me the short sofa in my room could be lengthened to become a bed so she could lie down and rest.

Somewhere in there I went for a walk using a walker and thought “I’ve become my mother.”

And then I had a shower. It all seemed impossible. I’d just had a triple bypass and I was sitting in a shower trying to remember the rules. Don’t put your hands behind your back. Don’t bend over. Don’t get the spray on your chest. Sit with your back to the shower. Pat yourself dry. Don’t rub.

My right leg, I noticed, in my absence, had gone Goth. It had more metal in it than the most Gothic of Goths has in their faces. Four strips of silver staples. That’s what they do when they steal your veins for a bypass. I’ll never think of the office stapler in the same way again.

Five days, five days, then they kick you to the curb, if there’s no one there to rescue you, they feed you to the ravenous packs of dogs outside the hospital. Or so my drug induced dreams said.

Day 4 there was pre-release training. I had to climb 16 steps when I got home. They have a set of stairs and I had to climb up and down them to demonstrate that I could actually get into my house.

There was a group session. Three bypass patients and two heart valve. The guy that was alone at the beginning was still alone.

We got all the reminders of what we must not do and dire warnings about the consequences of forgetting. Patients have gone home and chopped wood, moved furniture, etc. so that their titanium wires holding their sternum came loose and they had to go through the operation again.

On Saturday I’m the last of the five to leave. JO has come to get me, take me back to the real world. I end up being the last patient released because of my problems with the violently upset stomach and bowel. However, there can be no dilly dallying as there are hundreds more waiting for this operation. Also, there are always emergencies as the para medics bring in heart attack victims

“I wonder how we’ll get you up those steps?” JO says after she’s helped me into her Honda CRV.

“It’ll be okay,” I say. “I’ll be fine.” But I don’t say anything about the packs of ravenous dogs hurtling about the entrance to the hospital. They are as real to me as everything that has happened in the last five and a half days.