Cuyahoga River

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Inspired to Write about Moments--Astrid & Veronika

Linda Olsson’s first book, Astrid & Veronika , was crafted within the cocoon of a writing program. Every word counted, every moment was worth the time spent. It was an excellent book, tight and pregnant with sensations and meaning. It left me more with a feeling than a story, the preciousness of thoughtful and deep friendship stays with me. Olsson explores the passing of time and importance of love, and what it means to live life well. I knew the author as a mature person and a young writer.

There were passages in this book that deserve reflection. The quality of life's moments are what is left in its waning years, as reflected in Astrid's statement, “’My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all my time, while years of my life have left no trace.’” Astrid, an old woman living in isolation in a small northern Sweden town, opened to the gift of Veronika’s presence and willingness to listen in the last year of her life. The reader experiences her life in snippets, as when she took Veronika to a hidden overgrown strawberry patch that was at one time nurtured, “’Like memories. You can make yourself believe that they have been erased. But they are there, if you look closely. If you have a wish to uncover them.’” The fruit from that uncovered patch was later celebrated by the women, who enjoyed a luscious strawberry liquor made by Astrid and kept for special ocassions, symbol of memories hidden and now brought to life. Astrid drives the point home when she explores, “’My life now consists of fragments where some are so blinding in their intensity that they make everything else indistinguishable. What shall I do with these glittering shards? There is no pattern; I can’t make them fit . . . I know there is more—there are less intense fragments that I need to make it whole . . . face the truth of what is really there.’” Slowly, as the fragments are strewn together to make a life, we learn that Astrid killed her own child in her desire to keep her close.

Veronika, isolated on purpose to get on with her writing, accompanies Astrid to the nursing home where Astrid’s estranged husband lay dying, and a nurse asks whether Veronika is the daughter, when the only daughter died within her first year. Surely this mean man whom Astrid had been made to marry didn’t mention a daughter. Or did he? That part of the story, his side of things, was never told, and there were many things left out—all those years were not told, just the bright highlights and the deepest truths. One cannot tell a whole life. That’s the lesson I take with me. Like Virginia Woolf, writing for her memoir club, who said she had to just pick one thing, and she chose, “Am I a Snob?”

I paid attention to what was eaten in Sweden where this book was set. On Veronika’s birthday, at a restaurant, “There was homemade rye bread, dried as well as fresh, and butter. A small juniper-wood bowl with pale brown soft whey-cheese, a bowl with fried chanterelles, a mixed salad of a variety of leaves and flower petals. Egg halves and a small bowl of whitefish roe. Two varieties of marinated herring. Small new potatoes sprinkled with dill.” For dessert: “a plate with one piece of dark soft cake.” Another celebration produced “a serving plate with thinly sliced gravlax [salmon] and a small bowl with mustard sauce. A basket with dark rye bread stood to one side, and two champagne flutes next to a chilled bottle of fine French champagne.” I served those foods when I hosted our book discussion of the book.

The reader hears the stories of Astrid being married in a traditional wedding costume and life in a small town near the Arctic Circle. We absorb the slow day-by-day rhythm of the lives of Astrid and Veronika. “They had adopted a comfortable routine that involved daily walks and dinner once or twice a week, alternating the hosting. Life has taken on a gentle, predictable rhythm. Veronica felt at peace, resting in the moment.” Here is where the preciousness of their unlikely friendship is born, in the sharing, in the resting in the moment, together. While Astrid told her story, she was allowing Veronika to embrace her own and go on to live fully. In the end, theirs was the friendship of a lifetime, and Astrid left her home to Veronika. Astrid's last words to Veronika were in a letter where her voice resonated on paper: “Love comes to us with no forewarning and once given to us it can never be taken away. We must remember that. It can never be lost. Love is not measurable. It cannot be counted in years, minutes or seconds, kilos or grams. It cannot be quantified in any way. Nor can it be compared, one with the other. It simply is. The briefest brush with real love can sustain you for a lifetime. You must always remember that.” Astrid’s story became the story Veronika needed to hear to write her book and once told, it inspired the story I needed to tell. In the forward to Daffodils and Fireflies I write:

The form of this book was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being and Alexandra Johnson’s Leaving a Trace. I was reading Linda Olsson’s Astrid & Veronika when I found my voice for the moments of being descriptions of daffodils and fireflies I wrote months earlier; I credit her with reminding me that much feeling can be felt within 250 small pages. But this passage, from Astrid & Veronika made me think Olsson and I are kindred spirits who read the same books before writing our novels: “’My life’s memories take up space with no regard to when they happened, or to their actual time-span. The memories of brief incidents occupy almost all my time, while years of my life have left no trace.’” This was precisely what Woolf spoke of in her memoirs and exactly why Johnson chose to call her book Leaving a Trace. The spirit of these writers and their work lives in Daffodils and Fireflies.

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