Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Northern Lights

When I made my attempt to see the Northern Lights, it was a total failure. Stormy weather made it impossible. We tried. We drove to the very end of Seltjarnarnes and walked as far as we could into the night, to try to escape the city's lights, but the low cloud made it impossible.

I don't think I've ever been colder. Walking back, we struggled in the teeth of the wind. It had been ten degrees under during the day, according to the dash thermometer, so I can only guess what it was out in the storm. For a moment, I could understand why polar explorers and mountaineers sometimes feel the urge to lay down and give it up.

Reykjavik is a wonder, its centre like a toytown, a model. It does not seem at all like a real place to live. It is on a human scale entirely, a warm place. I often think about it because, for me, it is exactly how our towns should be, heartful, unaffected.

The first time I went to Iceland I found the people distant, rude even. It was summer, when there are many tourists. I don't know why we assume that people in service industries will be happy to serve. I suppose in my case I have become used to the almost entirely faked jollity of Australian shop staff, who trot through their days like Stepfordian robots, grinning like fools, wishing you a good day through gritted teeth. Often they are schoolchildren, earning pocket money, cowed by the fear of losing their jobs. I should think Icelanders have far less reason to be happy to be servants. They are generally well educated and need to work more than one job just to stay alive in a very expensive country.

When I went back in the winter, I found it a much warmer place. People seemed genuinely welcoming. Perhaps they were touched that people should visit them in times that drive sane men over the edge (the winter depression grips many in Iceland, the lack of sun bringing on a gloominess that they cannot shake).

I rarely return to a place, once I have visited it, because there are so many I want to see. The contrast in seasons made Iceland very much worth revisiting, and I so much wanted my family to share it. I knew -- and I was right to know -- that my mother would love it too. I wanted her to share that with me before I came back here. I couldn't begin to express what she means to me. Love does not cover it, or even begin to. Now I have three children of my own, I'm beginning to understand how much I owe her.

Of course, there are places I want to see again. There were opportunities I missed, understandings I did not acquire that I might now -- or perhaps not! I flatter myself that I have grown but I so often let myself down that I know I must not deceive myself about that too much. But I would love to walk again from Brin to Enampore, and stay in the impluvium, feel once more the perfect calm of the afternoon there. I would stay longer. And if I heard the villagers' drums, this time I would not be too shy to join them. Or if I was shy, I would force myself to face up to it, because I can, I have learned I can.

I would sit there and read Songlines, my bible, I suppose, a book I love without reserve:

'I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song; and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man shouted the opening stanza to the World Song, "I am!"'

We are! We still are despite all that! And not one of us has yet learned the whole of the map of who we are and what roads we should tread, no matter that many believe they have.

I would return also to Shimla and drink coffee once more in the main square. I was happy, truly happy then, and I have never been since. Yes, my world has changed too much to ever go back but I would go just the same, because it will remind me that you can always begin again, even if it seems you cannot, and that I must never lose faith entirely in myself, however low the flame flickers from time to time, and now it is so close to going out altogether.

Wherever we go, we gather a part of it into us, and, if we are lucky, we leave a part of us behind. Do I hope that if I return to this place or that I might find the parts I lost, or do I want a second chance at ridding myself of enough that I am fit for oblivion?


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