Tag Archives: Iceland

Finding Awe

The word “awesome” has been tossed around so many times by so many different types of people that it’s become meaningless. Even the word “awful,” which can mean reverential, but rarely does, sounds like the disdainful, pilloried word it has become. Yet both words have their roots in “awe,” an odd-sounding word that has a history with the Old Norse languages. And now the New York Times reports that there’s a chemistry to feeling awe, that it’s more than just a word but a sensation that triggers an intricate chain of molecular behaviors that are actually good for us. It’s the latest among a slew of stories focused on the effort to measure happiness, perhaps an indication that happiness is so hard to come by for so many. It’s a story that appeared in the Times’ health section, but should have been published in its travel section, for travel is the business of peddling “awe.”

We feel awe, the body responds. Which got me thinking, in our plugged in, drone-like day-to-day, when do we feel awe? When did I last feel real, true awe, that kind of jaw-dropping, goose bump-inducing, eyes-wide-open moment when your body becomes extremely alert and still at the same time? It’s not something we get to feel enough during the daily grind of deadlines, appointments, what to make for dinner, when to bring the car in for maintenance. Reading this article made me crave it instantly, for awe is like a drug, a rush of endorphins you want again and again.

Watching my daughter sleep always brings a sense of awe; I still recall that moment we both napped together in the hospital bed. She was a day old. We were just getting to know another. I was getting used to her weight in my arms. Flowers had arrived and there was a gap between visitors. I held her and then I dozed off for who knows how long. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel that goose-bumpy giddiness watching her sleep. This would embarrass her, since tween girls are constantly embarrassed, but it’s true. I still look at her while she sleeps and think “Wow! I made you!”


If my daughter read this blog, she would be relieved to know, however, that most of my moments of awe tend to strike almost entirely outdoors and during vacations. The first time I finally saw Mount Fuji after three cloudy days in Tokyo. I could not take my eyes off it. Majestic sounds trite, but I don’t know what else to say except I felt the humility that is so lacking in America, yet so common in Japan. The dangerous, unguarded coastline that is Big Sur, a drive that made my stomach muscles squeeze so tightly that for two days afterward, I felt like I had performed a thousand sit-ups. The night sky in Taos, New Mexico, so thick with stars that the heavens looked tangled, as if the sky simply needed a giant comb, otherwise it would never be clear and blue and bright ever again. The Grand Canyon, despite all the tourists and signs and guard posts and gift shops, that when you just stood there looking out at its craggy reds and oranges and purples, waves of rock and all that geological history, you felt immense joy and relief; joy that the world could really be this bizarre-looking and amazing, and that you were briefly a part of it, and relief that your daily worries and anxieties were as meaningless as you had always suspected them to be, that you were barely a vowel or a consonant in the endless poem that is Earth, that were you just passing through like the rest of us.


Hiking the black lava fields in Iceland gave me that same feeling of awe as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Iceland is the perfect awe-inspiring reminder that Earth remains in charge; humans may be able to carve out a life on a cold, black rock, and not just survive, but thrive, but the volcanoes, the black stony beaches, the dozens of different types of moss clinging to the rocks, the wind-whipping cold, make it clear that again, you’re just passing through something far bigger, and far more powerful than you could ever hope to be. That impromptu visit from a pod of pilot whales that chose to prance alongside our boat as we were bobbing our way from one little island in the Galapagos to another. No organized whale tour. No tour guide. Just a bunch of white Americans getting sunburned on a boat while a bunch of curious pilot whales swam up to see what we were all about before dashing back off into their world beneath the surface.


Others might find awe in art, architecture, music, even other people, or, God forbid, celebrities. Looking back on it, it’s funny that connecting with the outdoors would prove so meaningful to me. I never thought of myself as a particularly outdoorsy person. I’m not very Gaia-like; I can’t pitch a tent, I’m obsessive about sunscreen, I hate bugs, I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings and am currently receiving allergy shots to alter my immunity against them. I should be the one who finds awe in creative pursuits and indoor activities.

And yet, it’s the mysteries of ever-changing landscapes that wow me and confound me. News headlines would have us believe the world is constantly going to hell, and I don’t mean to diminish the senseless suffering and violence that mars us. But the world is full of contrasts. There is awe and beauty in both expected and unexpected places, and it’s worth seeking out. The quest may even be good for your health.

Mount Fuji and Big Sur and New Mexico’s night sky likely tweaked my body chemistry in immeasurable ways. Human beings crave beauty and magic and wonder, even at the molecular level, our bodies want this. I would be curious to know whether scientists could find out if recalling those moments of awe produced the same kind of biochemical reactions as the first experience had. Just writing this blog post, thinking about these places, has lifted my mood, so perhaps there is some evidence to what feels true? I’ll leave that to the researchers. I’m just a writer on the lookout for more awe.

Why Reykjavik Rocked: A City for Writers

Is it strange to visit a place where you’ve never been to before and where you don’t know the language and to feel totally at home? I’ve been living in the New York City burbs now for over a decade and still don’t feel at home, but I travel to Reykjavik for the Iceland Writers Retreat and get a knot in my throat when it’s time to go. Maybe it’s as President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says, that the city is adorned not by statues of politicians but by statues of writers. Maybe it’s because in Reykjavik, where one in ten residents publish a book, writing is a respected profession and residents adore writers and equally adore writers’ books. Maybe it’s because books are a popular Christmas gift or maybe it’s because when you tell someone in Reykjavik that you put pen to paper every day, you don’t get a blank look followed by the proverbial question “So you teach English?”

Last year, I met a guy in Taos, New Mexico, who was from New York City, but left the Big Apple nearly twenty years ago to go live a more artisanal life, for lack of a better word, and to run his business in a town where many artists live on less than $20,000 a year. “All New York cares about is money,” he said to me last Christmas, and the words stung because it’s true. Tell anyone in my leafy, affluent suburb of lawyers, doctors and managers that you’re a writer and the conversation goes like this:

“So you teach English?”

“No, I don’t teach English.”

“Oh, so then you do what, PR?”


Awkward pause, at which point I feel the need to throw this person some kind of social buoy. “I do communications for nonprofit and corporate clients.” (Because the word ‘communications’ sounds more important and lucrative than ‘writing.’ Anyone can write but apparently not everyone communicates.)

“Like brochures and stuff?”

Ah, there we go! That’s the lingua franca my snobby suburb with all its nail salons and leaf blowers and hyper-helicopter parenting understands. Until I get that first novel published, no one here can picture what being a writer means, so sure, why not: let’s say brochures and stuff, at which point the lawyer, doctor or manager nods in confused approval. Because the people who sit in their jammies all day writing are the weirdos living in rundown apartments in Brooklyn…right?



So let’s get back to Reykjavik, which means “smoky bay” in Icelandic. This city of 200,000-plus people living between sea and mountains, and dealing with constant wind and cold, have a wicked sense of humor and worship color. First of all, the city buses have mustaches. You read that right. We saw buses painted with everything from classic bushy handlebar mustaches to twirly villain mustaches. Secondly, the city pops with color. The houses are painted every shade from lime green to saffron yellow to carnation pink, and the wool yarn spun year-round and sold at stores throughout the city match the houses. When we visited the week before Easter, shop windows were bursting with sunny fashion.







Gray skies may loom above Iceland most days, but down on the ground Reykjavik is a painter’s palette. Color was everywhere, inside and outside. Murals weren’t hard to find, and even the artists behind these murals revealed a sense of humor.




Elsewhere, you can read about what to see in Reykjavik or where to eat or the ten best places to do this or that or all the other “hidden gem” travelogue out there that will show you a great time in this great city. For me, Reykjavik wasn’t about scoring some off-trek adventure or tasting some exclusive dish or checking off another destination from a bucket list (I don’t believe in bucket lists). Reykjavik was a mirror; a place that loves words, loves color, loves a good joke and loves a good story. It’s where what your bank account holds or what kind of car sits in your driveway or how often your yard is manicured by immigrants or where your kid goes to summer camp doesn’t matter. In Reykjavik, to be a writer didn’t mean scraping by and living some off-the-grid lifestyle, but that you were contributing to the world’s bookshelves, that you were adding your story which hadn’t been told by anyone else before you and couldn’t be told by anyone but you. To be a writer was an admired calling in Iceland, something I will remember the next time I get those blank looks at suburban backyard cookouts.


The Problem With Travel

Two weeks after Iceland, I’m still thinking about Iceland. The land is a mood that follows you. It lingers, like the scent of a campfire coming from your clothes days after the fire has died out. Describing its craggy lava fields, its velvety swaths of green moss, the silence of the mountains that watch over those who live there and visit wouldn’t capture things properly. During meetings and get-togethers this week I tried describing what I saw to others, how snow, rain, sun and a rainbow were all right there within my view, not competing for space, just hovering above, each heavy, gray cloud and patch of blue sky simply expressing its individuality. They shook their heads in wonder, trying to picture such a sky.


From the conversations I’ve had so far, my impression is that very few Americans know much about Iceland other than it’s cold and far (though not as far as they would think if you’re coming from the American Northeast), and what they do know is thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones where scenes are shot. The Iceland Writers Retreat did a fabulous job educating me. This retreat was the organizers’ love letter to Iceland. They bridged the island’s addiction to sagas and literature with opportunities to learn from an international team of established authors as well as opportunities to sample the landscape. I would strongly recommend this retreat, especially for beginner writers. My week there was an inspiring mix of craft and sightseeing. Talk about writing with writers, go out and look at Iceland’s beautiful countryside, repeat. Our Golden Circle bus tour was a brief buffet to Iceland, and the organizers of the Iceland Writers Retreat were brilliant in setting up this tease; you’ve tasted the wine, now buy the bottle. Consider me sold. Normally I don’t go for packaged bus tours, but this full-day bus tour was excellent, and was narrated by the organizer’s husband, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, who has a new book out about his homeland’s history. Thanks to Gudni, we now know where the hidden people hide, where ‘the women were drowned’ and that there’s hope for the Icelandic language to survive even as the digital age moves computer commands toward English.


A writer I met at the workshop, Kat Bernhardt from King Salmon, Alaska, put it best, “One of the things I’ve learned to like about travel: you can’t see everything, a place is not a check box, it is never “seen,” a reason to come back just makes the place that much richer.” We didn’t see everything. In fact, because of what we did see in Iceland, I’m now thinking of all that we didn’t see. It’s like that adage, “the more I learn, the less I know.” Well, the more I travel, the more I realize how much more there is to see, especially in Iceland where we only briefly ventured out beyond Reykjavik.



And there lies the fundamental problem with travel. Like any addiction, when or where will it stop? I didn’t get to see the glaciers or all the charming fishing villages along Iceland’s Ring Road. I hiked to Glymurfoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls, and explored a cave my husband and daughter discovered, but I didn’t get to soak in any lagoons or hike elsewhere. Every trip ends this way: I tried this, but not that. I saw this, but wow, wouldn’t it have been cool to have also seen this, this, and this, too. Even while cocooned in hotel ballrooms attending writing workshops, vacation ideas bounced. A poet next to me described her visit to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan so now I’ve got Bhutan on the brain. Thanks to meeting Kat and her partner Dan, a photographer (who took some excellent photos of the retreat), I know I will make my way up to Alaska someday. I met so many Canadians, that I want to get to Nova Scotia and Alberta sooner rather than later. And, of course, I want to go back to Iceland, but the country deserves more than a week. I need a few weeks to drive around Ring Road, try all the different ways the locals prepare fiskisupa, hike somewhere where the horses roam, soak up some midnight sun.





How the Writer Sjón Turned An Idiot Into a Fan Girl

This is a story about me being an idiot. Truly. It begins on the living room floor in the home of Halldór Kiljan Laxness, a son of Iceland, a Nobel Prize-winning author, and a guy with great taste in art. And the story ends in the candy aisle of a gas station about a half hour outside of Reykjavik.

I came to Europe’s most northern capital to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. The penultimate day of the retreat was a break from writing workshops with a guided tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle, an opportunity to see geysers and waterfalls, and shop for wool in souvenir gift shops. The tour ended with a visit to the understated house that once belonged to Laxness. Our group filed into the crowded living room of this famous house. My daughter and I found a place to sit on the floor, this cold spot by the fireplace with a number of figurines balancing on a small table. I was worried about one of us knocking something over. We were then introduced to writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known as Sjón. I had never heard of this writer, it was the end of a long day of sightseeing, and my only focus was on making sure my daughter’s iPad games didn’t disrupt the reading.

Sjón read from his book “The Blue Fox.” And I recall my attention gently shifting from making sure my daughter’s iPad games remained discreet to tuning into the story, and I recall thinking “Wow! This guy can write,” still having no clue who was at the podium reading this interesting book. But I began to listen. And I stopped worrying about my daughter playing on the iPad. And I started following the words. “The Blue Fox” takes place during a harsh Icelandic winter in the 19th century. There is a hunter chasing after a rare blue fox, a botanist and a young woman with Down syndrome. The novel is a skinny 115 pages. Sjón read from the middle of the book, and I can tell you the exact sentence that switched me from an idiot to a fan girl: the botanist blurts out to his colleagues “I have seen the universe! It is made of poems!”

It was love.

We left Laxness’s home, filed back on to the tour bus, returned to Reykjavik and while walking to a noodle house for dinner, we passed a book store. I bought “The Blue Fox” and read it later that night, last night, in my hotel room. I was floored. It was spare and beautiful and clever prose. This book won the 2005 Nordic Council Literature Prize, one of the highest literary honors. Turns out, Sjón is an accomplished genius-of-his-time, an award-winning author, a poet, Chairman of the Board of Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature, and even a lyricist for Björk. Junot Diaz, a writer I enjoy reading, called Sjón “a trickster” and “achingly brilliant.” As I read the blurbs on the book jacket I realized everyone on Earth knew what an awesome talent Sjón was. Except me.

After reading the first few pages of “The Blue Fox” I shouted to my daughter, “ANNA! I can’t believe I let you play Angry Birds during the reading! You were in the presence of greatness!” (Turns out she was doing an iPad puzzle. Still.)

Say the word “celebrity” and who comes to mind? Fat-lipped Kim Kardashian (I still can’t figure out what the Kardashian appeal is…) or maybe Britney Spears or maybe some reality TV show twit. Loud, crass, obnoxious people who haven’t contributed much to this world beyond being photogenic. Everything is so digital now, so immediate, often so loud, and too often confrontational. Everyone wants to be heard and often this information is in our faces. Tune into the CNN punditry circus just to get a glimpse of this noisy neediness.

But to discover a world-renowned writer, someone you’ve never heard of, because you’re sitting on a living room floor just listening to him read to you? To have genuine celebrity be so unassuming, so quiet? Wow.

Which brings me to the candy aisle at a gas station. I’m waiting for my husband, my daughter is begging for gummy worms, and I’m thumbing through my iPhone apps because that’s what we all compulsively do now, twiddle on our smartphones anytime there is a gap in the day. This huge smile crosses my face and my daughter says, “Mom! What is going on? Why are you smiling like that?”

And I said to Anna, “Because a genius is now following me on Twitter.”

How Eating Waffles Inspired a Trip to See Pigs

This always happens with freelancing: work that actually pays slows down a bit so I turn my attention to non-paying creative writing pursuits, like this blog and a manuscript for a novel. Then work that actually pays shows up in my inbox (and for that I am very grateful if any of my editors are reading right now), creative pursuits get sidelined, deadlines are met, invoices are paid, hopefully editors are happy, and suddenly it’s been weeks since I touched my blog or manuscript.

Time to dust off the blog today, despite deadlines, to share with you our favorite Sunday morning pastime—sitting around the table planning vacations.


I’ve mentioned my wanderlust here before, and a crumbling kitchen, not to mention two dead trees in our backyard that require professional removal, do not seem to quell my addiction in the least (a note about living in the suburbs: tree removal can cost thousands of dollars or the equivalent of an all-inclusive to the Caribbean). When the weather starts to suck, which for us is usually mid-November when all the glorious red and gold of fall has blown away, Sunday mornings are spent slowly. We slowly eat homemade gluten-free waffles while slowly perusing our various computer devices for vacation ideas. We sit at the table for hours doing this, so much so that we have spring break 2015 planned.

So what’s on the horizon after all this waffle-making and vacation-planning? Next month, we leave for Taos, New Mexico, to enjoy a Southwest Christmas, and then we’re crashing our friends’ wedding anniversary and New Year’s plans by staying at their place in Phoenix, Arizona. Returning to the Northeast after nearly two weeks out West will feel like it always does: a slap in the face. Some Jersey traffic will set us straight quickly.

Ok, but really happened over waffles was this: after we get back from the Southwest, in April, we’ll either visit Iceland for this awesome writers retreat or I’ll be squealing in multiple tongues because I will have been accepted into Sirenland, which takes place in Positano, Italy. Both conferences are fantastic, and I would be thrilled to attend either. Iceland would be a completely new experience for me. I traveled to Italy in 1996, but that was a four-day drive-through visit to Rome and Florence. The Amalfi Coast? That’s Rome’s pampered, beautifully blonde cousin, someone I need to get to know.

Piggy 2

While outlining Spring Break 2014, our family decided on Spring Break 2015, and it involves pigs. We haven’t been to the Caribbean in years, despite discounts constantly plastered on the Internet and at bus stops, especially during long New York City winters, so in 2015, we’re going to spend a week swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas, which is far better than swimming with the fishes here. Wild porcines have taken over a cay called Exumas, and I have just got to see what this is about. In addition to hating planes, I hate boats, but there are some promising-looking tours that take you out for snorkeling and pig paddling, so I am open-minded about this. Mike thinks the water there will taste like bacon. Not salty water. Bacon. This isn’t surprising given that we planned this trip while eating waffles.