Escaping with Grief…Iceland

The bitter wind today reminds me of the first morning I woke up in Iceland. My grief took me there last April, desperate to be surrounded by a backdrop of nature that was as secluded and barren and desolate as my soul.

Can I just say that you know you’ve found a true friend if one day you casually mention you wish you could escape to Iceland, and your friend says, “Me too!” and then starts sending you links to tickets, because there are some really great deals if you fly there in the winter? 

Lost in Reykjavik

Our flight arrived at 5am, with our bodies protesting that it should still be the middle of the night. We spent the day meandering our way across the country, getting lost, trying to decipher road signs in Icelandic, chancing upon the most amazing vegetarian lunch buffet ever, and stopping a hundred times to take photos of the increasingly stunning scenery. We found a famous landmark and ventured out of the car to explore, only to give up a few minutes later because the gale-force winds blew us around as if we had the weight of dead leaves. The Icelanders seemed unfazed by the weather, going about their morning business. I think continual exposure to all that arctic wind builds exceptionally strong leg muscles. 

We were headed for Hellnar, a tiny fishing village with only 10 permanent residents. As we got further north, the rain that had pelted us all day switched over to a white-out snow storm. We drove the last half-hour white-knuckled and sliding on a cliff-side road along the ocean. It was late by the time Kelly and I arrived at our cabin, worn out, relieved that we survived without being blown off the road into the North Atlantic. We settled in, fixed a quick dinner, and found our beds. 

Ominous yet cheerful warning in our rental car

Sometime in the night I woke up to the cabin shaking. A howling storm slammed against our little house. Surely Icelanders know how to build structures to withstand conditions like this, I reassured myself. I pulled the covers over my head, and eventually fell back asleep to the roar of the storm.

I awoke with the sun. There were no sounds from Kelly’s room, she was still asleep. I put on my wool layers and new boots, and slipped quietly outside. I was elated. The icy wind stung my face, but the storms were over and my gloves were warm. I made my way towards the sea with a sense of awe. Mountains rose up to the empty sky behind me, and I could hear waves pounding the cliffs just down the hill. There were no other people. 

Isolated. 

It felt wonderful.

I explored, soaking in the hugeness of the landscape.

Right outside our cabin stood an old church, overlooking the sea. A picture of faith, standing alone in rocky fields of frozen grass. 

Church at Hellnar

Was it strong, unshaken through the storms, offering light and shelter to anyone wandering through the wilderness?

Or was it abandoned, a piece of history, the empty remains of a dying tradition?

Iceland is one of those places where nature dominates. Beauty and power, I alternately felt amazed and frightened by it. The mountains on the Snaefellsnes peninsula have been asleep for almost 2000 years, but evidence of their eruptions was still obvious. The ocean and storms demanded current respect. On multiple occasions I was afraid I would be blown into the frigid ocean. Even on calmer days the waves crashed into the cliffs with unsurvivable force. Falling in would be fatal. My primary goal on the trip quickly became, “No matter what, don’t end up in the water.”

The mighty North Atlantic

Everything about Iceland made me think of Psalm 46. 

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.

I wondered at tenacity of the people who landed in this spot, a thousand years ago, and thought it was a good place to live (without any of the modern conveniences that were helping me be comfortable). There were no trees, and there wasn’t even dirt for farming, the ground was all lava rock. Rock, mountains, sea, and wind. Somehow they hung on, made homes, and lived.

At home I am surrounded by a world that frets about things like technology and organic ingredients and traffic, and parades it’s excess on social media for all to applaud. I shrink into myself, because in an environment like that, there is no proper place for my grief outside of my own home. I’ve always been on the fringes of culture because I am a little too intense, too serious. Grief has amplified this. 

Wandering this rugged corner of the world was the first time since Samuel died that I felt free. My grief fit in that remote place. It was right to explore the endless empty foothills, to feel the world so much bigger than myself. It was OK to enjoy making friends with an Icelandic horse, or find satisfaction in a bowl of warm soup, coffee and cake, because all of Iceland was about finding small comforts in a harsh land. Just like grief. It was about being determined to survive in inhospitable conditions. Just like grief. It was about the hope of finding beauty in unexpected places. Just like grief.

 

Escape

I want to get away.  I want to check out of life for a few months and hike the Appalachian trail.  (Not that I’m capable of a hike of that magnitude, it just appeals to my romanticized notion of escape.)  Or I want to use my passport and disappear somewhere I’ve never been before.  Getting on an airplane can fix all kinds of things.  At least for a little while.

So I’m going to Iceland.  Because, it’s gorgeous.  And there are mountains.  There aren’t any trees blocking the view of the sky.  It’s Europe, so that’s fun, and it’s offseason, so it’s cheap.  It’s an adventure.  And no one knows me there.  And because Jeremy put his foot down when I started wish-gazing at trips to Antartica.

I’m traveling with a friend (a generous, kind, and wise friend).  Jeremy is quite happy to stay home and take care of the kids for a few days while we’re gone.  He doesn’t feel the appeal of Iceland, and is relieved that he doesn’t have to go with me.  We’re staying in a remote cabin a few hours away from Reykjavik.  We’ll have heated floors and a cappuccino machine.  A view of the north Atlantic out the front, glacier-covered volcano out the back, in an old Viking fishing village, with only 10 permanent residents.  Time to hike, explore, or watch bad weather while warm inside with lots of coffee and chocolate and cheese and soup.  I can’t wait.

I hope it’s as barren and windswept and isolated as I imagine.