Category Archives: Essays

My 16-year-old self: Here to tell you all about the gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby


I was going through some stuff in my flat the other day, and I found a folder of assignments from my high school English class. One of them was an essay that we had been assigned to do on the novel Rosemary’s Baby which we had read in class. We were free to pick our own angle on the novel, and I had decided to go with the subject of the gender roles displayed in the novel. 

Pop culture, gender roles and all, it reads sort of like a blog entry from a time when I had no idea what a blog was and had only just discovered the internet (which I mainly used to surf fan sites about David Duchovny. They were almost exclusively set in Times New Roman or Comic Sans and they had lots of clip art and pixelled animation and glitter. Oh, the nineties!).  So I thought it would be fun to publish it here on the blog for you guys to see.

I should warn you, however, that it is in no way a groundbreaking, let alone good, piece of writing. It’s a perfectly average high school essay. English is not my first language and was even less so at the time, and I use the word “very” about 1.003 times, being the eloquent, versatile, sexy 16-year-old that I was.

 I actually got an A, though, if anyone’s interested. I also remember that my teacher also told me to read it aloud to the rest of the class, which I willingly, proudly did. Unrelated: I had very few dates in high school. This was a cause of much distress to me at the time, although it did leave me with much more time to go through David Duchovny fan sites online.

My English teacher was really awesome though, and in addition to my essay I will include a note she wrote in comment to some very naïve statements I made in the essay about the equalization of the sexes, setting me straight.

Here we go:

Rosemary’s Baby

by Marie [Mylastname], grade 2.c

As I read Rosemary’s Baby, I found that apart from being a horror story about Satanism and witchcraft, Rosemary’s Baby deals with gender roles and the liberation of women. This aspect of the story is very important, I think. It creates an image of the time in which it was written and takes place. It is of course up to the individual reader how much he [or she, gender-aware Marie of 1999! OR SHE!] wants to focuse [SIC] on this, but I do think that the gender roles play a crucial part in the story.

The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are terribly traditional. Rosemary is the sweet and sensitive hausfrau while Guy is the strong, rational man who goes to work in order to provide for his wife and family. Rosemary is also a very emotional person in comparison to the more cynical Guy. This is made clear by the fact that Rosemary – in her heart – is a Catholic and that Guy is an agnostic. But the traditional gender roles also have their effect on Guy and Rosemary’s every-day life. An example of this is the scene in which Rosemary and Guy are introduced to the Bramford:

‘It’s a marvelous apartment!’ Rosemary said back in the living-room. She spun about with opened arms as if to embrace it. ‘I love it!’
‘What’s she’s trying to do,’ Guy said ‘is to get you to lower the rent’.

Apart from acting in this little girl like manner, Rosemary also lives up to the old-fashioned ideal of a woman by being remarkably dependent on Guy, both financially, because she needs Guy’s income,  and emotionally. She does get angry with Guy, but she never really stands up to him and tells him what she wants. During Guy’s preoccupied phases, Rosemary has to wait for Guy to apologize. Even when Guy claims to have taken advantage of Rosemary’s unconscious body, she does not manage to tell him how she feels about it.

Rosemary tends to use her vulnerability and femininity when wanting to get her way. This is very obvious as Guy declines the Castevets’ dinner invitation:

‘You don’t have to sulk about it, he said.
‘I’m not sulking’, Rosemary said. ‘I see exactly what you mean. (…).’
‘Oh hell.’ Guy said. ‘We’ll go.’
‘No, no, what for? We don’t have to. I shopped for dinner before she came so *that*’s no problem.’
‘We’ll go.’ Guy said.

If these traditional gender roles had continued all through the story, I would have been on the verge of stating that Levin was simply an old-fashioned sexist, but when reading the last chapters of the book I found that the roles changed. Rosemary appears to be strong and independent while Guy is weak and insecure. Actuallay the last chapters make you understand that Guy was never the strong one in the relationship. Guy is willing to sell his own wife for a good acting career, and after having done this, he is not even able to stand up for himself. This is particularly clear as Rosemary enters the Castevets’ apartment in search of her baby:

He stood looking down at her, his hands rubbing his sides. ‘They promised me you wouldn’t be hurt’, he said. ‘And you haven’t been, really. I mean, suppose you’d had a baby and lost it, wouldn’t it be the same? And we’re getting so much in return, Ro.’
She put her handkerchief on the table and looked at him. As hard as she could she spat at him. He flushed and turned away, wiping at the front of his jacket.”

I think that it is very important for us to consider this apparent change, because I believe that this indicates that Levin has an idea with letting the gender roles of his character appear to be as traditional as they do.

The fact that Rosemary develops during the story supports this theory  Rosemary seems from the beginning and right up to the point where she figures out that Guy is somehow involved with the Satantists’ cult to be very much in love with Guy. It is actually her love for an loyalty to her husband which leads to the disaster – the fact that she is impregnated with Satan’s child. The one time we sense that Rosemary actually wants to be come an individual person is when she is by herself in Hutch’s cabin. Here she seems to allow herself to get a little angry with Guy:

On the third day she thought about him. He was vain, self-centered, shallow, and deceitful. He had married her to have an audience, not a mate. (Little Miss Just-out-of-Omaha, what a *goop* she had been!)

Shortly after, however, she gives up all thoughts of rebellion and elides to go home to Guy. By going home to go on as if nothing has happened, she accepts Guy’s alleged abuse of her body and by this, one might argue, she resigns to Guy and gives up her independence. As a result of such a resignation something awful is bound to happen.

The fact that something awful does happen, and how awful it actually is, is another side of the story, which I will not try to define nor explain here. However, it is remarkable that Rosemary, as soon as she learns that Guy is involved in the conspiracy, leaves him. At this point in the story, one experiences for the first time, that Rosemary is a strong person. She realizes that she needs to take care of herself in order to save herself and her baby. Eventually, however, Rosemary is forced to acknowledge the fact that she is too late – she is trapped, because she cannot leave her own son in the lurch.

I think that the liberation of women is one of Levin’s points with Rosemary’s Baby. That it is a main point is arguable, but I do believe that Levin has meant to discuss the old-fashioned woman’s situation with this story. How dependent should she allow herself to become in her marriage? What might the consequences be? These questions were indeed relevant in the sixties when this story was written and takes place, because the liberation of women was just about to begin at the time (1). Is it still relevant, one might ask, today, when the equalization of the sexes is almost total (2). I think it is. The gender roles in Rosemary’s Baby are probably a little too antiquated for us to identity with, but I do think that we an still learn from this  thriller story. I think that as long as we live in a society with even the slightest possibility of discrimination, we need to be reminded of the consequences of resignation, however bizarre they may be.”

(1) The struggle of the sexes and the process had been going on for a hundred years then – but the sixties saw the birth of the feminist movement.

(2) I wish you were right [about the equalization of the sexes being almost total] – but I’m afraid there is still a long way to go – I remember a heated discussion in a Scottish youth hostel with my best friend in 1962: She said that men and women were equal now, I said they were not. She learned her lesson later!

La commedia è finita! – on the Cuckold as a Comical Figure

I recently saw my first Pagliacci ever, and I was blown away. What a powerful, tight, intense piece. Although I did not know the story in advance, I knew enough about operas to know where it was going, but I still got goosebumps at the ending with Canio’s rash act and his wonderfully meta declaration that “the comedy is over”.

And then I also really feel that Pagliacci marks a pivotal point in the history of male characters in theatre, namely the point of intersection between the cuckold as a comical and a tragic figure.

Certainly the comical cuckold is the more prominent one of the two. In the history of theatre, the figure can be traced back as far as to mimes and pantomimes in the 1st century B.C. The few surviving descriptions of the aliterary mime shows make it clear that infidelity was a recurring theme within the genre, and representations of the mime in various reliefs show tableaux of beautiful ladies, their charming lovers, and their stupid, cuckold husbands. As Marianne Grandjean notes in her article on the mime of late antiquity, the cuckold is often depicted as a bald man, perhaps to indicate that he is older than the woman and her lover, and it seems clear that these cuckolds are comical figures: The charming young lovers point at them with ridiculing attitudes, and the audience are supposed to laugh at these men. It is of course difficult to say exactly how these men became the butt of the joke, but as oscenity and sex jokes played an important part in the mime shows, it seems pretty safe to me to say that it was the cuckold’s unsatisfied sexual appetite that made him as a character: He wanted some, and he wasn’t gettin’ any.

No link has ever been identified between late-antiquity mime and the commedia dell’arte tradition of the 16th century, but the cuckold of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, has a lot in common with the cuckold of late-antiquity mime shows. Often known as Pantalone il Bisognosi (Pantalone the Needy), his trademark was, to put it bluntly, that he wanted to have a lot of sex, especially with his beautiful young wife, the female lead, who didn’t care for his advances and who would cheat on him with a younger, more handsome lover, while the audience laughed at the silly, cockblocked old man.

Pantalone. Even in the 16th century, footsie pajamas apparently did not do it for the ladies.

The Pagliacci characters are a typical travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. There’s no Pantalone in Pagliacci, but the character of Pagliaccio seems to be based partially on Pantalone, partially on the more recent commedia dell’arte character of clownish Pierrot. However, Pagliacci came about in the time of the Italian verismo in the 19th century rather than in the heyday of Pantalone and his fellow commedia dell’arte characters, and I think this shows when it comes to the motif of the cuckold. As late as in the 18th century the ridiculous cuckold could still be found on stage in plays by the likes of Molière or Beaumarchais, but by the end of the 19th century, the tragic cuckolds started appearing: Most prominently, I suppose, in plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the revelation that Hedvig may not be Hjalmar Ekdal’s daughter marks the crux of the tragedy, and of course in Strindberg’s The Father the entire plot revolves around the notion that Laura has made a cuckold out of The Captain. And there is certainly no humour in the Swedish realist’s take on the theme. Not only does The Captain genuinely grieve for the loss of the love that once was between himself and his wife:

CAPTAIN. (…) I feel your shawl against my mouth; it is as warm and soft as your arm, and it smells of vanilla, like your hair when you were young! Laura, when you were young, and we walked in the birch woods, with the primroses and the thrushes–glorious, glorious! Think how beautiful life was, and what it is now. You didn’t want to have it like this, nor did I, and yet it happened. Who then rules over life?

The idea of his wife’s possible unfaithfulness (and, thus, the fact that Bertha may not actually be The Captain’s child) also disrupts his entire perception of his own existence:

CAPTAIN. (…) I do not believe in a hereafter; the child was my future life. That was my conception of immortality, and perhaps the only one that has any analogy in reality. If you take that away from me, you cut off my life.

I haven’t done enough research to determine whether or not it is plausible that Pagliacci composer and librettist Leoncavallo had read or attended the cuckold tragedies of Ibsen and Strindberg, but the verismo opera composer clearly shares their interest in exploring the psychology of the cuckold. What is so exceptionally fascinating in Pagliacci is, however, that Leoncavallo examines the tragic aspects of the cuckold man all the while acknowledging the comic potential of the motif. The central aria of the opera revolves around the idea of laughing at the cuckold buffoon (“Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), and in the frantic play-within-the-play ending the opera, the ambiguity of the cuckold as a comical/tragic figure is constantly at play. The audience-within-the-play wants nothing more than to laugh at the buffoon, but cuckold Canio’s very real despair is constantly creeping into the caricatured pantomime grief of the cuckold Pagliaccio.

Significantly, Canio’s unfaithful wife Nedda is not dealt the demonic tendencies of Strindberg’s Laura. Rather, she becomes a painful inbodiment of the conflict between the comical and the tragic cuckold: We can’t help rooting for the poor woman who loves her Silvio so dearly, and it’s for her sake that we want to regard Canio as the fool. As several researchers have noted, the theme of the cuckold in late-antiquity mime shows as well as in the commedia dell’arte did not come out of nowhere. The motif became popular in the male dominated patriarchies of late antiquity and 16th century Italy in which women would often be at the mercy of their controlling husbands and have very limited means of personal or sexual emancipation. Tellingly, both the mime shows and the commedia dell’arte marked themselves by allowing women to rise to fame and fortune on stage at a time when women were generally not allowed to star in theatre productions. In late anitquity there are even instances of women becoming managers of mime troupes and it is easy to imagine that these women would have been a driving force in the furthering of the ridiculous male authoritative figure in the mime shows. Pagliacci was written at a time when women’s liberation was slowly building and the need for ridicule of partriarchy was less acute, but the beauty of it, to me, is that the cuckold story of Pagliacci doesn’t claim to hold any simple solutions to the infidelity issue. Canio may declare that the comedy is over, but the tragedy that lingers instead pertains to both sexes. And the commedia dell’arte tradition with its clownish cuckold lives on within the verismo tragedy whenever Pagliacci is staged.

What then of the cuckold character today? More than a decade has passed since Pagliacci, along with a sexual revolution, so surely we must have reached some new level of awareness when it comes to the issue of infidelity?

Well, I guess maybe we haven’t. When it comes to the tragic cuckold at least, many of the perceptions of biological paternity found in Strindberg are very much alive today. I have noticed it, for example, in Per Olov Enquist’s excellent novel The Visit of the Royal Physician (2000) about King Christian VII of Denmark and Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. In Enquist’s take on the highly dramatic story of the German royal physician’s rise to power as de facto king of Denmark, enlightenment-inspired Struensee is portrayed as the hero in a horribly backwards, medieval Denmark, and his wrongful execution is depicted as a terrible loss. However, Enquist allows Struensee some vindication in the epilogue in which he notes that the child that Struensee fathered during his affair with Christian VII’s queen, Caroline Mathilde, lived on and granted him a kind of immortality. “The little daughter Louise Augusta grew up in Denmark (…)” writes Enquist, and goes on to describe the beauty and fertility of the princess:

“She is described as very beautiful, with a ‘disturbing’ vitality. (…) She married the Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenborg who was hardly her equal in any way. She did, however, have three children with him (…) today there is not one European monarchy that cannot trace its heritage back to Johann Friedriech Struensse, his English princess, and their little girl.”

The juxtaposition of sexual potency and immortality is striking to me in this paragraph in which the Danish monarchy seems to play the part of the cuckold husband whose DNA is not carried on or at least only carried on to a limited degree, opposite Struensee as the handsome lover who fathered a beautiful, vivacious daughter.

"I'm bringin' sexy back/Them Danish boys don't know how to act/I think it's special what's behind thy back/So turn around and I'll pick up the slack."

I also find it telling that the theme of the cuckold as a figure is still something that is predominantly associated with a male character. The betrayed woman has always been, and continues to be, a tragic figure, doesn’t she? Even today we love to revel in the not-at-all-funny pain of historical betrayed woman characters struggling to make it in a partriarchal society, such as Betty Draper or Saul Dibb’s Duchess of Devonshire. It’s still hard to imagine a hilarious comedy about a younger, handsome man cheating on an older woman who is laughed at for her inability to maintain her young husband’s sexual interest. I can’t even imagine a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall with the tables turned so that it’s the betrayed woman we’re laughing at, rather than Jason Segel’s naked, unattractive, blue-balled, cuckold boyfriend character. The idea that a woman might be a ridiculous sex-crazed authority rather than a vulnerable victim with hurt feelings still seems alien in our contemporary narratives. The only character vaguely of this sort that I am able to think would be Jennifer Aniston’s sexually harassing boss in Horrible Bosses.

I guess you could say that the development of the cuckold motif in the history of drama and comedy is a good indicator that we still have a long way to go towards equality. Still, I think I prefer to see it as a testiment to the genius of Leoncavallo, rather than to the backwards nature of today’s cultural perception of gender, that his tragic comedy Pagliacci still feels so intensely relevant today.


Thursday night, September 15, I was glued to the tv screen well past my bed time. I was following the Danish elections, and it was quite the thriller. Every opinion poll had been pointing towards a new government, but when the counting of the votes started, it was a closer call than I would have preferred. Yet it ended well: After ten years with a right wing government, the left is taking over. I can hardly express how relieved this makes me feel.

As Annina Teatime noted in her latest entry, this also means that we have elected a woman Prime Minister for the first time ever, 96 years after Danish women gained the right to vote: Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of the Social Democrats.

She didn’t bring up the gender issue in her victory speech Thursday night. I guess she felt that the fact that she was standing there – clearly a woman, in her discreetly fuchsia jacket, accepted by cheering crowds as the future leader of the country – spoke volumes. It did.
The next day, there was a series of interviews in Danish national newspaper Information with several high-profile Danes about what they thought this new situation, us having a woman leader. One of them was influential businessman Asger Aamund who stated:

“The fact that she is a woman will have no significance at all. Women are just as good as men, and the fact that women have taken over the political leadership in Denmark is old news. (…) Out there [internationally] people won’t care about the sex either. They will look to see if she creates results.”

I’m sorry, but I have to say that this belittling of the gender issue is a luxury that only a man can afford. We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but I find it dangerous to even entertain the notion that we’ve reached equality yet. Only last week, one of the Danish tabloids ran a story on the front page titled “READ ALL ABOUT HELLE [THORNING-SCHMIDT]’S BODY” with the subtitle of “OBSESSED WITH YOUTH”. In the article, interviewed “experts” gave their opinion as to how much work Thorning-Schmidt puts into her looks. The tackiness of the subject matter aside, I was struck by how gendered that whole angle was. Nobody would ever write a story about a male politician titled “READ ALL ABOUT [name]’S BODY”. Even in cases when the body of the male politician actually had some relevance – Bill Clinton or Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes to mind – nobody would have thought to write a feature on the politican’s body, singling out his physical form from the rest of him. It would read “Read all about Dominique Strauss-Kahn”, if anything.

If you’re a woman, even if you’re a competent woman candidate to the prime ministerial post, there’s always that mistrust that you don’t possess your body completely. Our woman bodies may betray us at any time, and despite all your achievements they remain mysterious things, worhty of, or even demanding, scrutiny or deciphering.  I don’t think we can ever hope to gain equality, until we have stopped looking at women with this nonsensical duality. But I think we’re on step closer to equality after  Helle Thorning-Schmidt stood competently on that podium, unhesitatingly hailed by the publich as a new leader.

And she will not stand alone either: With her is, among other prominent women politicians, Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, member of the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten), the left-most of the Danish political parties.

Foto: Mark Knudsen

She got my vote during this election and her victory speech was the highlight of the election night to me. An excerpt from her speech:

“This election is about people, it’s about the lives of real human beings. The elections are about fugitives who have been kept in asylum centres for years (…) paying the price of what the non-socialist have had the nerve to call “a fair immigration policy”. The new majority in government has promised that in the future, fugitives will stay in asylum centres for a maximum of six months, and we [the Red-Green Alliance] intend to hold them to this! (…) Today is also a wonderful day for the thousands who have unfortunately lost their jobs. The vast majority of these people have slaved away all their lives, and paid their taxes. Yet on the day when they needed the community, on the day when they were holding their dismissal notice in their hands, they were met with suspicion by the non-socialst government. The new majority in government has promised to replace the ridiculous activation courses with [supplementary training courses] that are actually useful. […] The new majority in Goverment has promised to create new jobs. And we’re talking about wellfare jobs here – we need more nursery teachers, we need fewer children per teacher in the class rooms, and the home help needs to be able to visit [the elderly and the handicapped] more often!”

In all its rhetorical artlessness, this speech articulated so many of my dreams of a new start now that the non-socialist government has run its course.

I am hopeful.

The Mixtapes of my Summers

When I was a kid, I used to go on summer vacations with my parents and my brother, and every year from the age of 10 and onwards – like many other vacation-bound kids I imagine – I would make a mixtape of music to bring on the trip so that I would have something to listen to, sitting in the backseat or late at night when falling asleep in a hotel room or a summer cabin somewhere in the world. Sometimes I would just copy an entire album I liked on to a tape, and sometimes I would pick out songs from lots of different albums and by many different artists and mix them together. But I always chose the songs or albums with great care, acutely aware that whatever music I picked would be – to my ears – affected by the impressions of the holiday, and would come to remind me about the holiday forever after. Below are the most important songs to me of each year between the years 1993 and 2001.

1993. “All That She Wants” by Ace of Base
I was ten, and had been taught English in school for a year. This had tuned my ears to English-language pop music, and Ace of Base was all the rage for Danish tweens at that time, more melodic and sweeter-sounding than the eurodance that was in fashion. I brought a tape containing their entire album Happy Nation with me when my family went on holiday to the Danish island Bornholm that year. The album was a hand-me-down from my brother who had liked the group for a time, but quickly tired of it as I believe most people did who knew English well enough to see how bad the lyrics were. He rolled his eyes at me when I sat next to him in the car with my walkman, bopping my head to the music and smiling broadly. Bornholm is situated very close to Sweden, where the pop group was based, so in a way it was a site-specific album for me to bring on that holiday, although I never made that connection back then.

Years later, 11 years later to be exact, chance would have it that I was to work with the actress who played the Man Eater in the video. She was lovely and attractive, but sweet-natured and intelligent and not an cynical man eater in real life at all.

1994. “Fuld af nattens stjerner” by Sebastian
In the fifth grade, which I had just passed in the summer of 1994, I had become very interested in musical theatre after playing the princess, a singing role, in a school production of Aladdin. I also sang in a school choir that put up a musical every year, and somehow I had become convinced (mistakenly) that the production of the coming season would be a popular Danish musical version of Treasure Island, composed by a popular musician who went by the name of Sebastian. My family and I were visiting another Danish island, Ærø, that summer, and I ambitiously devoted my holiday to the studying of that musical. I had my heart set on the part of Mrs. Hawkins, Jim’s mother, who had the following solo:

Every chance I got during this vacation, I snuck away from my family so that I could unabashedly practise singing this song – I remember singing it to the waves on a beach facing the Baltic Sea on a grey, windy day when I was absolutely sure nobody would hear me. It’s kind of a lovely song, I suppose, even if the synthesizer sounds crummy.

The choir never did produce that musical, but I landed the lead in the production we did put up – a musical about Moses, so I guess my efforts weren’t a complete waste. This would also be the year that I landed a part as a child dancer in Tannhäuser at The Royal Theatre, thus developing the love of opera that has followed me since then.

1995. “If I Only Knew” by Tom Jones
In 1995 my family went to Scotland. I was 12 and still mostly a happy, innocent child. An unpleasant incident that had taken place on a summer camp a few weeks earlier, however, had stirred something within me and still haunted me and made me uneasy.

What had happened was that I had met a boy, a bold-looking, redhaired, freckled boy, whom I thought to be flirting with me when once, at the beginning of the camp, he appeared leaning casually in a doorframe, looking me over and delivering some kind of pick-up line, the wording of which I have long forgotten. I was immediately charmed and during the next weeks of the summer camp, I made sure to smile at him whenever I had the chance, hoping to encourage him. Maybe he wanted to be my boyfriend, I thought. Maybe we would hold hands. He must have humored me a little for at least a while, but in the end he apparently got tired of the charade. I was walking through a hallway one hot, sunny afternoon when he came walking towards me – chance would have it that we were alone. I smiled at him as usual, but in return he suddenly quite roughly grabbed my upper arms and pushed me hard up against a wall. I hurt the back of my head. “How ugly you are,” he murmured at me, his face close to mine, his eyes angry and hard-looking, his hands squeezing my arms so as to almost leave bruises, “How skinny and disgusting. You’re so ugly. You look like a mouse.” I managed to free myself from his grab, and scurried away.

The experience had deeply unsettled me, and the violence of it kept coming back to me as I sat in the backseat, watching the landscape of the Highland rush by. Sadly, but typically, what I took away from it was not the conclusion that the boy was vile, a bully, an abuser, but rather that I had been foolish to think that he would ever be interested in me, that anyone would ever want me in that way, and that I should be ashamed of having felt for him the things I had.

Tom Jones’ “If I Only Knew”, however, seemed like a fun song to me, and provided a kind of haven from these thoughts. It treated the confusing adult sexuality that I was dimly becoming aware of with a humoristic, easy-going attitude that comforted me.

1996. “Why Does it Hurt So Bad” from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack
I swear I did not even like this song. But the confusion that I had vaguely felt the preceeding summer, had in the course of the seventh grade grown to become a full-blown chaos as puberty had hit me. We went to Wales that year, and the pictures of me from the trip show a person who looks more like a hobo than a young girl. My hair was stringy and too long, my clothes never matched, and when I smiled I revealed a mouth full of metal and strategically placed, small rubber bands, designed to fix my prominent overbite. I was so confused by everything that was happening to me that when it came for me to put together a mixtape, I just picked the only album I had on CD (I had only just gotten a CD player for my 13th birthday), which was the soundtrack from Waiting to Exhale, given to me by an aunt.

I had not even seen the movie.
I never listened to the song again after that holiday.

1997. “Jesus to a Child” by George Michael
People roll their eyes when one mentions this song – it really was played into the grave during 1996 and 1997. But it held a real significance to me during this particular summer.

I’ve sometimes looked back and wondered if I wasn’t suffering from an undiagnosed mild-to-moderate depression during this time. I felt terrible, permanently terrible. It didn’t come out of nowhere, it had been brought on by the diagnosis in late May that I had scoliosis and would have to wear a scoliosis brace until I had stopped growing. I was going to be hospilatized for a week in August when the treatment would start, and I spent the interim summer months in a kind of limbo of hopeless expectance and dull dread. For the first time in my life I felt that there was nothing to look forward to. Whatever I hoped to do after the summer would be marred by the thought of the brace, and I couldn’t even allow myself to long for the time when the treatment would be over, because nobody knew when that would be. Women grew to be tall on my father’s side of the family, while their growth stopped much sooner on my mother’s side of the family. There was a risk that I would be wearing the brace until I was 18, maybe even 20, maybe even older than that – my father’s mother had continued to grow even after she had given birth to her first child. And during all this time, I would be physically restrained, and I would be different. Stilted, not in my actual growth, but in the growth that makes young girls attractive.

My family went to South England, and then to a summer cabin by the sea in Northern Jutland, but I hardly remember any of what we saw. I had no use for reality and all its bleak prospects, so I withdrew from it. I was sulky and my family tried in vain to cheer me up. From inside the walls of my mind, I remember fantasizing vaguely about picking up some boy at my own age, perhaps a year older, and let him have his way with me behind one of the numerous dunes in the vicinity of the summer cabin, sandy, barren dunes, full of sharp, dry, yellow straws that would leave your fingers bleeding if you let them slip through your hands. This wasn’t a fantasy of physical pleasure or romance. I was so young that the idea of sex was still something scary, perilous, and unpleasant to me, anecdotes about blood and grotesque-looking body parts, grainy close-ups of stigmatizing sores and blisters in the books we studied in health class. The fantasy was a wish for selfdestruction, for self-ruin. Not quite like wanting to cut your own arms like the teenagers do these days, and not quite like wanting to pinch yourself in the arm to try to escape a bad dream. But something in between those two sentiments.

I had brought George Michael’s Older album with me, and I do recall getting some small kind of consolation out of “Jesus to a Child”. The minor key, the idea of a Christ-like comforting or redemption, and the sexually ambigious singer with his almost falsetto voice. It made me feel safe.

1998. “Many Rivers to Cross”
My family went to Norway to go hiking, I was about to start high school.

I had taken a liking to Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and included it on my mixtape, and I distinctly remember sitting in my parents’ car in Oslo on a summer evening, waiting for the ferry back to Copenhagen to dock, listening to that song. The seat of the car pushed up the brace so that it dug into my ribs, my skin was hot and blistered under the massive plastic material from lack of ventilation in the summer heat, and I felt somewhat melancholy, but mostly I was hopeful, wondering what the future had in store for me. A month after our return to Copenhagen I was examined and it was concluded that I had stopped growing, taking after my petite mother after all, and the discontinuation of the treatment commenced.

1999. “To Emily Wherever I May Find Her” by Simon & Garfunkel
In 1999 I had just discovered Simon & Garfunkel and thought they were great. Nowadays I’m mostly sick of them, but this is one song I still think is rather pretty.

We went to Paris and Alsace with that year. I was annoyed with the presence of my parents, (ungratefully ignoring the fact that they were paying for my trip), but I liked the mild evenings down by the Seine when we would all stroll and sip foreign, delicious beer. And I liked gliding through the pitoresque Alsace landscape, listening to my mixtape, which, absurdly, also included several tracks from Songs from Dawson’s Creek. Surely the darkest of dark horses in my CD collection.

2000. “Death of Queen Dagmar”. Traditional Danish ballad
I was 17 and thus now certainly too old to be going away on holidays with my parents, but I was eager to go because the destination was Southern Jutland. In the past year I had abandoned my sulky, egocentric teenage self for good, and had started becoming genuinely interested in  a number of different cultural phenomena, among these Danish medieval culture. And as chance would have it,  Southern Jutland was one of the most important and prosperous part of Denmark during that era, and still the home of a number of interesting medieval landmarks and artifacts. For the trip, I had borrowed an album of choir versions of medieval Danish ballads to bring with me on this holiday, to create the right mood.

My favourite was “Death of Queen Dagmar”, a ballad describing the untimely demise of a popular Danish queen. Dagmar lived in the 12th century and died in childbirth, mourned by the entire country. The stanzas of the ballad take us through the final stages of her illness, her husband King Valdemar (also a highly popular monarch) receiving the news of her fragile state, his rushing to her side only to find her already dead, and her ghost’s brief return from the dead to bid Valdemar farewell and have him promise to do certain things after her death – making her son Kanute the heir to the throne (which Valdemar did) and refrain from marrying a lady named Bengard (which Valdemar went and did anyway) among other things.

It’s a beautiful ballad. I was delighted to find that the chimes of the dome of the Southern Jutland town of Ribe, which is mentioned in the ballad, play the melody every day at noon, in celebration of Queen Dagmar.

2001. “Det første møde” by Edvard Grieg
We went to Norway again, in July. In late June I had been sitting in the auditory at my school, waiting to go up on the stage once my name was called. I remember reminding myself to straighten up and walk confidently and elegantly when I crossed the stage to receive my high school diploma from the principal. The erect, proud posture and the confident stride seemed to stay with me for the rest of that summer. I trotted through the Norwegian mountains with a pride and dignity that I had never had during my actual high school years. My limbs felt long, and strong, and supple.

My mixtapes that year included Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, because by that age the love of opera that I had harboured since Tannhäuser in 1995 had overtaken my taste in music almost completely, and I rarely listened to anything else. But in keeping with the summer before and the idea of bringing along site-specific music, I had also brought quite a lot of Grieg lieder, and I listened to them over and over and enjoyed them immensely. Feeling healthy and young as I did, and my dark hair brightened somewhat by the Northern sun, I felt connected to the strong, sturdy, nordic girls of the Grieg songs who loved and made love and lost and grieved. My favourite song was “Det første møde” – “the first [love] encounter”. It fascinated me how the melody was first straightforward and happy and in a major key, only to become mysterious-ringing, piano like a whispering, flirting with the minor key and hinting at something magical and strange and maybe even dangerous in the repetion of the stanza.

This was the last holiday I went on with my family, and my last summer mixtape. By the next summer I had moved out to live on my own.

Happy Birthday, Mormor

This month, March 2011, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) would have turned 80, if she hadn’t died of cancer eight years ago, much too soon.

I usually shy away from writing personal stories on this blog, but I want to write about her, because she was in a lot of ways my one true grandparent.

It didn’t seem like she would have been, at first. My grandfather, (my mother’s father), was in fact the most likely to take this part. He and my grandmother had divorced years before my birth, and I think it was obvious to anyone what the reason was: My grandmother was not an easy person to live with. She was most likely suffering from bi-polar disorder, although she was never diagnosed, and for as long as I can remember, there was this general sentiment surrounding her that she was a difficult person, a problem of sorts. She was highly emotional and would often cry and be inconsolable over things that seemed small and insignificant to others. The rest of the time she would go shopping, returning with bag after bag of useless trinkets. I remember visiting the National Danish Museum with her once when I was little, and her picking out an expensive viking drinking horn to give to my parents. “They’ll enjoy that, don’t you think, Marie?” she asked me, excillerated, and I nodded, influenced by her infectuous enthusiasm. When we got home to my parents that evening, my mother stared at the oversized bone drinking horn in disbelief. “But mother,” she said, “What in God’s name were you thinking? What use do you think we would have of this? Why would you spend all this money on such a thing?”. My grandmother looked helplessly at the drinking horn, unable to explain herself, and I felt ashamed, more for myself than for my grandmother. I had let my guard down around my grandmother, I had allowed myself to believe that she was an adult, an authoritative figure, I had endulged her, and I should have known better. Now I was partly responsible for this painful situation. My grandmother shamed, scolded like an unruly toddler. My mother forlorn, a virtual orphan, painfully confronted with the incompetence of her parent.

After the divorce, my grandfather had got to keep their house, while my grandmother moved into a one bedroom apartment, and this was the official reason why my brother and I were always sent off to stay with our grandfather, and only paid short visits to our grandmother: She hadn’t the room to accomodate two children. This arrangement worked well for quite a few years, and my brother and I had a lot of fun at our grandfather’s as children. He was stable, reliable, active, and resourceful when it came to entertaining children. We must have looked the picture of harmony; my grandfather with his disinguished and kind wrinkled face and blond culrs, a sun-kissed, cute, smiling boy and a his slightly younger little sister by his side, off to new adventures. I never realized how perfect this picture was until suddenly one day I found that I didn’t fit into it any longer.

I was 13 years old, and it was a difficult time for me. Puberty had kicked in with a violent force, and when I visited my grandfather along with my brother I was shocked and horrified to find out during this visit hat not only did puberty change my body; it changed my relation to the world. I showed up gawky and awkward-looking at my grandfather’s door step and for the first time ever in my relationship to him, I was painfully aware that I was a girl. My grandfather had usually taken us on traditionally boy-related adventures, such as fishing or camping, and it had never mattered before, but now all of a sudden, it did.

I’m sure my grandfather must have taken one look at my suddenly acutely teenaged self and realized as much, but he chose to ignore it, and one of the first words out of his mouth during our visit was: “Let’s go to the movies – we’ll see Cutthroat Island!”. My brother was excited about this, and I didn’t want to go. I tried to explain to my brother and my grandfather, but I was ignored. Not out of cruelty, I’m sure – it’s just that they didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fit into the formular any longer. I was brought along for the pirate movie that I had no desire to watch. To this day, all I remember from that movie is a mortifying, disgusting piece of dialgoue as Geena Davis’ protagonist is sitting in some kind of carriage with Matthew Modine’s rogue-ish love interest of a character. Fumbling for, I believe, a treasure map hidden somewhere in her pants, she says: “I’m going to show you something I’ve never shown anyone before.” Matthew Modine, looking at her hands unbuttoning her garments, nodded at her crotch, saying “No offense, ma’am, but I’ve seen one before.”

The crux of the unsuccesful visit to my grandfather’s came for me the next day when my grandfather and brother decided that it would be fun to go to a waterpark. I panicked. “I can’t!” I protested, “I don’t want to!”. And when they asked me why not, I didn’t know what to say. Even if I hadn’t been faced with the impossible task of explaining to my grandfather and brother about feminine pads and tampons, these strange grown-up woman accessories that I still fumbled with so helplessly, how could I explain to them all those other factors? How could I explain to them how awful I felt about bathing clothes, how much I hated the way my hips suddenly looked broad and strange and bizarre in my swim suit with its childish starfish pattern? How could I make them understand why water slides seemed distasteful to me all of a sudden, unwelcoming platforms of plastic that served my unsavory goose-bumped self to the world like on a dish? I didn’t know what to say, and in the end I just repeated that I didn’t want to, and I was deemed ‘difficult’. Complicated plans were made for me and my brother to go visit my grandmother and then we would return to my grandfather’s house from whence my brother would go to the waterpark with my grandfather while I stayed at home.

I was being difficult. I knew that. I was not what my grandfather had expected. I longed to go home, I missed my equally adolescent girl friends. But then my grandmother rescued me when I had least expected to be rescued. I wasn’t really looking forward to visiting her that day. My brother always rather disliked seeing my grandmother, embarrassed by her strange and unpredictable mood swings, and I dreaded having to witness my brother’s discomfort and see it added to the strained atmosphere that I myself had initiated when I protested against going to the waterpark earlier that day. But there she was my grandmother, and I’ll never forget what she did for me that day: As soon as she saw me, she looked me up and down and them promptly announced: “Oh, I have just the thing for you, Marie. A lady I know dropped off all these magazines that she was done with. I want you to have these.” She put a large pile of magazines into my arms, and I sat down and started to examine them right away. They were trashy kind of magazines, the kind my parents would never buy, being the highly educated cultural people they were. The kind of magazines that are full of real-life sob-stories about dogs rescuing children from flaming buildings and young women losing their fiancés in horrible accidents the night before the wedding; novellas about heaving bosoms and secret lovers; recipes for casseroles; health advice columns. In short; they were the kind of magazines that adolescent girls love, and I took an instant liking to them. More than that, I felt ok and normal again because of this gesture of my grandmother’s. She had recognized me. She had seen me for what I was; a scrawny, awkward, 13-year-old girl, and she had accepted that and encouraged me to be exactly that. I had grown out of one formular, but I had grown into another.

For the rest of the stay with my grandfather, I mostly stayed in my guest room, and I think my brother and my grandfather were very pleased with this development. I certainly was. I went through the magazines systematically, starting with all the novellas, which were my favourite part. I giggled secretively at a story about a man being caught with arms around his mistress when his wife threw him a surprise party, and I felt my heart drop at the story about the jealous man who set out to kill his would-be rival, but mistakenly killed his girlfriend instead. I then went on to the real-life sob-story and read a story about a Danish girl who had a stroke at age 12, but went on to win a gold medal at the special olympics. Then I read the advice columns,  and I ended up reading an article series called “Slim with Anne Herdorf” with photo after photo of a certain third-rate musical actress trying and at least succeding to squeeze into a medium-sized clothes. I was an adolescent grandchild, and I was okay.

It’s strange to think that only six years later after this, my grandmother was dying. I went over to see her the summer when I was 19 because I knew that this might be my last chance to stay with her. My grandmother had been placed in a hospice by then. I stayed with my grandfather and his new wife who lived near by. My grandfather was still ok to drive back then and he volunteered to take me to my grandmother’s hospice. Before starting the car he paused and looked down for a moment. Then he looked at me gravely and said, “I think it’s wonderful that you are going to see her, Marie. But I’m not coming up there with you. She wouldn’t want to see me. She never got over the divorce back then.” It was the first time my grandfather ever talked to me about the divorce, and I was glad he did this while she was still alive. For a second I could imagine my grandmother in that role; as a woman. An angry, hurt, mournful woman, abandoned by the love of her life, the father of her four children.

She was too weak to walk by then, she was in a wheelchair. We went for a walk and I pushed her chair through the streets of Aalborg, the provincial city that had always been her home, but it wasn’t a nostalgic tour, like you might expect from an elderly woman who is terminally ill. She didn’t take me to see her childhood home or all the other landmarks of her life or anything like that. She wanted to take her young grandchild shopping. We went around looking at clothes for me and my grandmother found it all very interesting and was disappointed that I wouldn’t let her buy anything for me. “Yes, yes, I do like your style” she said, nodding at my red halter top and my low-cut jeans. “It’s trendy, and it’s daring. But it’s not vulgar”. We ended up in a café, where we had coffee and chatted and I was amazed even then to find how easily she slipped into the role of my girl friend rather than that of my grandmother. She asked me about the boyfriend I had at the time. I told her that I was so happy, so in love, and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. This was true, or at least I wanted it to be. The painful reality was that I was too young to make such a commitment, and I was starting to realize this. I made the mistake once again of thinking of her as a grandmother – grandmothers believe in early enagements, I thought, because they themselves married so young, straight out of school. I was wrong, of course. My grandmother eyed my halter top-clad self once again, narrowed her eyes and shook her head, laughing good-naturedly. “I don’t believe that’s true, Marie,” she said. “No, there are too many temptations ahead of you.”

I saw her one last time after this event – six months later. I had left my boyfriend, and I was wearing a conservative black turtleneck sweater and my hair was wearing my hair up in a demure style with numerous braids bound together around my head in a rural fashion. My grandmother disapproved of this retro style, pointing at a more modern-looking fashion model in a magazine she had lying by her bed, telling me that style would be good on me, and curiously interrogating me about my love life. Had I found a new boyfriend, was I seeing anyone?

I wasn’t. The next time I was seeing anyone, she was already dead. I cried myself through her funeral and I still miss her terribly. Sometimes, I still get an instinct to call her and tell her about the new boyfriends I have had (for there have been several, several since she passed away, and I know that she would have been happy about that fact), or the job I’ve got or what celebrity I saw in the street the other day.

One of my eyes is slightly slanty and I inhereted that from her, and I think that’s wonderfully apt. She was the one who regonised me when I needed it, and now I have her eye looking back at me in the mirror.

Happy birthday, Mormor.

Reviewing Becoming Jane ~ or ~ How I learned to appreciate Jane Austen

Last night I watched Becoming Jane for the first time. I hadn’t seen it before, because I generally don’t care much for Jane Austen.

Now, a statement like this needs some kind of explanation coming from a feminist literature scholar like myself, and I think a brief history of my relationship to Ms Jane Austen’s writing would also help to make clear how I felt about Becoming Jane, so here goes:

A Brief History of My Relationship to Miss Jane Austen’s Writing
The first time I read a Jane Austen novel was when I was about 15. The novel was Sense and Sensibility, and I mainly read it because I was going through my rebellious phase, and I hoped it would annoy my mother who, despite her master’s degree in English literature, never liked Jane Austen (my other great act of rebellion? Going to church on Sundays, because my parents were atheists. YES, I HAD A REALLY LAME TEENAGE REBELLION PHASE. I am aware of this. But stay with me here.) I found that I was more like my mother than I cared to admit, in that I didn’t really like Sense and Sensibility. It didn’t move me, it just annoyed me slightly, and the characters seemed high-strung to me. Then when I was about 16 or 17 the 1995 BBC series Pride and Prejudice was re-run, and all my girl friends loved it and made a fuss about it, and I started getting annoyed. While I agreed that Colin Firth was super hot, the series left the same impression on me as S&S had: Silly romances between spoiled, high-strung characters, paired with a social commentary that was witty in an annoying, coy sort of way. Why the hell should I care whether some stupid middle-class girls married their love interests of choice some time in the early 19th century? I scoffed snottily and picked up Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and felt superior. The politics leading up to the Vietnam War, now there’s something that felt important. People died in that war, and the Western world lost its innocence.

In other words; my mind was made up that Jane Austen was a grossly overrated writer. I maintained this point-of-view for years and years – until I caught the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation on TV some time in 2009. What made a difference for me in this movie was the character of Charlotte Lucas (Claudie Blakley), which I thought was so wonderfully and thought-provokingly dramatized. I’m thinking particularly of the scene between Charlotte and Lizzie in which Lizzie berates Charlotte for having accepted Mr Collins’ proposal. Lizzie is all “Ew, Charlotte, but he is SO GROSS, WTF???”, and then Charlotte loses it. Charlotte is plain and poor, she explains. She is not likely to get another offer. And yet her entire life, her future, and her family depends on her landing a husband. Without a husband she will be an old maid and a financial burden to her loved ones. The scene was incredibly well played, I thought – there was a desperation in Claudie Blakley’s acting that stirred quite the revelation in me. What I realised was that of course Jane Austen is not just about silly romances. And if there is a tendency towards a coy satirical tone, then it’s completely justified. At the time of the novels’ release, they were a highly over-due satirical take on the impossible situation of middle-class women in the Western world. Taught nothing more useful than to look pretty and to convincingly sing arias like “Voi che sapete”, they were at the same time forced to abandon the idea of love or even partnership in marriage and freely use themselves as a commodity that their families’ could sell in order to keep the roof over their heads.  Jane Austen spoke on behalf of a group of women who were leading depressing half-lives.

Becoming Jane
I realise of course that there is nothing ground-breaking about what I’m writing here – this is exactly what feminist scholars have been praising Austen for for the last few decades, and I was just too prejudiced or proud (tee-hee) to notice it before. But I still think that a lot of people tend to overlook this part of Austen’s oeuvre. Mostly when I hear people talk about Austen, I hear them talking about how romantic she is, and what a great source of escapism her works make. In 2008 this was the entire premise of a mini-series – Lost in Austenin which the protagonist fulfils a life-long dream by escaping into the universe of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And I can’t help thinking that we’re all missing an important point if we choose to see Austen this way. Austen’s world was certainly not an enviable one.

Which is why I actually liked Becoming Jane quite a lot. The story is probably far from being a biographical account of what happened between Jane Austen and Thomas Lefroy, but I love the idea of an unhappy love story as the on-set for Austen’s authorship. In the movie, Jane experiences first-hand what it feels like to be brought up on love poetry and arias, only to be faced with adulthood and the realisation that your hand in marriage is a matter of business and not of the heart. It makes beautiful sense, I think. Even if Jane Austen never did experience anything like this (indeed the only record of any supposed relationship between Lefroy and Austen are a couple of brief mentions of Lefroy in Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra), the awareness of this injustice towards women must have been an urgent matter to Austen and at least part of her motivation for writing novels such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

More than that, I think the movie was well directed (by Julian Jarrold). I like how the art direction is markedly different from the one we saw in the BBC P&P series. The sun hardly ever shines in Becoming Jane, the sky is mostly grey, the carriages get stuck on muddy roads, and the middle-class houses look tainted. In one great scene, city boy Tom Lefroy is encouraged to go for a stroll in the allegedly pitoresque landscape surrounding the Austen cottage, and is irritated to find only mud and swamps. No escapism to be found there, certainly.

The acting is also quite good. I am a huge fan of James McAvoy who is a divine actor, and Anna Maxwell Martin is always a delight, too. I am not convinced about Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen, though. She and McAvoy have a nice chemistry between them, but this doesn’t say much, as James McAvoy is so brilliant that he would be able to have chemistry with a piece of fried liver on screen if he had to. And Hathaway does a fair job with her acting, but her personality is not right for the movie, I find. She looks too Hollywood, too smooth-skinned and perfect and never becomes quite believable as a person who has grown organically out of the drab English countryside.

Just look at her in this poster. It's just wrong. She looks so mainstream, like she was really supposed to have been in some movie called "Objection!" starring Matthew McConaughey as a cynical divorce lawyer who learns an important lesson when he unexpectedly finds love.

I’m not saying that I am now an avid Austen fan. I still don’t really like Austen much, and I don’t think I ever will – she simply doesn’t speak to me. If I want satirical social commentary, I’ll turn on The Daily Show, and if I want feminist romance, I’ll pick up my worn-out copy of Jane Eyre, which is much more my style, with all its delicious gothic tendencies.  But I recognise the fact that Austen is rightfully appreciated, and I really enjoyed Becoming Jane as a reminder of this.

Calendary Music – December – Lars Erik Larsson: Disguised God

19 years ago in December, my father took ill. It turned out to be nothing serious, but he was hospitalised until they figured out how to treat him. Around the same time my mother sang in a choir that performed the piece Förklädd Gud (Disguised God) for a Christmas concert. The co-incidence of those two events came to be of some importance to me at the time.

The way I remember it, it seemed at first that my father had just caught a really bad case of the flu. This was not uncommon; unlike my mother who was often sick for one day (headaches, minor colds), then well again the next day, my father was rarely ill, but when he was, it was usually quite bad and he would be in bed for days and days, unable to go to work. But things took a strange turn with him sometime in late November or early December. Suddenly, he couldn’t get out of bed at all; his legs were very weak and wouldn’t carry him. My mother was increasingly concerned and she went to see a neighbour who was a nurse and was given some advice as to how to care for my bedridden father. When there was still no improvement, my mother called the doctor and it was decided that my father had to go to the hospital.

It was almost Christmas, and the house became so empty without him. He would usually come home late, around 5 or 6pm, but even the early afternoons felt too quiet, and bleak, without the prospect of my father’s return from work colouring them, and the evenings were just dead wrong:  the three of us, my mother, my brother and myself, around the dinner table, the sound of our cutlery against the dishes echoing in the kitchen.

We soldiered on bravely in spite of this, I remember, and we visited my father every day in the hospital. My mother drove me and my brother there. It was our parents’ car, but it always seemed to us like our father’s car; our father would drive it to work every day while my mother rode her bicycle, and on our summer holidays my father would sit competently behind the wheel, while my mother was in the passanger seat, managing the map, because there was no way, of course, that our father could study the routes and drive the car simultaneously.

Now my mother was sitting alone and tense, shoulders almost up to her ears in the driver’s seat as we drove through the small suburban town where our father was hospitalised. I had a Mickey Mouse comic book with me that the publishers’ had scented with candy-cane peppermint in celebration of the season. Above us in the streets as we drove through them, Christmas decorations were hovering, and although we didn’t talk about it, I think we all perceived the immanent threat of these pine garlands: There was a risk that Christmas would come and my father wouldn’t be out of the hospital yet.

We got a taste of what this would mean on the second Sunday of advent. We’d always celebrated these four Sundays at home, playing games and lighting up a candle in the Advent Wreath for each of the four Sundays, as per Danish custom. We couldn’t do that this year, and my mother attempted to make light of it: “It doesn’t matter!” she told us, smilingly, “We will bring the wreath with us to see your father in the hospital. Then he’ll get to see the advent candles, too”. It sounded easy, but that afternoon was awful and marked the crux of the whole situation. We awkwardly balanced the advent wreath on my father’s hospital bed and produced pastry from sterile plastic bags. My father looked pale and sick in his hospital shirt. His legs were hidiously bloated and discoloured. And then my brother, 11 years old at the time, asked my parents what the matter was with him – what was the diagnosis? “The doctors don’t know yet, sweetie,” replied my parents, “but it’s nothing serious.” My brother and my parents had had that exact same exchange numerous times before. I was only 8 and still young enough to just accept this answer, but my brother wasn’t:

They just keep saying that!

my brother said, suddenly crying desperately;

They just keep saying that and then it will probably end up with them needing to cut off his legs!

I don’t remember what my parents said. Something soothing no doubt, undoubtedly they assured him that nothing like that would be necessary, but their comforting words didn’t reach me at this point. My brother’s outburst had altered my world and now my mind was busy trying to process all the implications of it. Most prominently, I saw an image of my father sitting in a wheelchair with little stumps for legs, the image contrasted by another image of my once-sound father playing soccer in the hallway at home with me and my brother. “Attack, attack, Marie!” he’d holler at me encouragingly, while skillfully passing my clumsy self the ball, “Follow up! Follow up on the ball!”. Contrasted, too, by my father striding confidently through the halls at work, like I’d seen him do when I visited him there, happily greeting his co-workers, casually chit-chatting with the nice old lady who sat in the reception. It was an outrage, it was unbearable. And it also opened up an entirely new perspective: Maybe my parents had been lying to us about him being ok, and my brother was old and wise enough to see it. Maybe the doctors would never be able to find out what was wrong and my father would only get worse. Maybe all adults were really incompetent and I had just been too young and helpless to understand it. A gullible baby, eternally  thankful and trusting of any grown-up who wiped my nose or put a band-aid on my scratched knee.

It clenched up like a fist in my stomach that wouldn’t release its grip on my insides. But then around the same time, I did find some release after all, and the source was a piece of music. It was Lars Erik Larsson’s neo-romantic suite Disguised God. My mother was a high school teacher and had joined the school’s prestigious teachers’ choir and they were rehearsing this piece this year. They were going to perform it for their Christmas concert in a church, and my mother prepared by going to rehearsals, but also by listening to a recording on our record player in the living room, and I sat down and listened to it with her. “It’s about an ancient greek God who comes to earth,” she explained to me, “but in disguise, so no-one knows that it’s him. And then he goes around secretly performing good deeds and playing his flute to lowly peasants.”
“But what does it have to do with Christmas? Why are you performing this for a Christmas concert?” I asked. “A God coming to earth, that is kind of Christmas-y, don’t you think? And not all music for Christmas has to be about Christmas.”

“…around the bonfire of harvest, he assembles the shivering sheep, and protects with wise hands the wounded animals…”

my mother sang along softly as the record played. The words and the music spoke to me. Or rather, I felt like it spoke on behalf of me. It wasn’t Christmas music, but that wouldn’t have worked for me anyway – Christmas music would have been like those Christmas decorations hanging above us in the street, threatening us with a holiday without our father. It was grandeous music, but it wasn’t falsely comforting. The brass players spoke of something great and God-like, but the strings swept sorrowfully and earthbound over the piece, and the flute sounded almost child-like and fragile. It gave voice to the confusion and sadness I was feeling at the time, and while I would have preferred a promise that everything would be ok, this was the second-best thing I could have had.

By the time of the Christmas concert, my father was diagnosed and recovering. He had erythema nodosum paired with some sort of infection, it was easily treated, and when the holidays came along he was already walking again.  I sat in the church where my mother’s choir was giving their performance and listened to the suite and felt – not safe, and not saved from anything – but at least communicated, heard, through a piece of music.