My mother and her sisters, now passed, capture my thoughts more than they did when alive. They were born in the early twentieth century, descendants of Bjarni Bjarnason (1761-1805) and Steinunn Sveinsdóttir (1767-1805), the two main characters in the most infamous murder in Iceland. These great-great-great grandparent farmers were accused of murdering their spouses, pushing one off a cliff, and poisoning the other. It seems like bad karma to start your life together after killing your first spouses. But I suppose divorce lawyers were hard to come by in Iceland’s 18th century West fjords. I was in my early teens when a relative told me the family news, and added that Steinunn’s body remained outside Reykjavik’s ancient graveyard with those not deserving of eternal rest in consecrated ground. Full of intrigue, I asked my mother, who answered, “Don’t you have something better to do, like clean your room.” So it’s true, I thought. A criminal grandma was far more interesting than cleaning my room; I headed for the library.
I can’t say what impact this may have had on my mother and aunts born two hundred years later, but when I think of them, a picture emerges of women who lived by the sea where giving up was not an option. In some ways, their inner strength, toughness if you will, was embedded in my four sisters and me.
Before gurus came to America with their chants and mantras, women everywhere found ways to keep their sanity. Although alcohol is a common escape for Icelanders, the women in my bloodline found forms of meditation they worked into their daily routine. Meditation was folding laundry, cleaning windows, cooking, or having a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper. Meditation was walking to the fish store for the evening’s meal. Standing on a wood platform, arms in ice-cold water scrubbing or de-worming cod and haddock, ideas came to Mamma for creating Christmas dresses for her daughters and repurposing Father’s old pants.
The focus inward continues in my generation, the Baby Boomers, with younger people, and now corporate America. Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, a fortune 500 company has added meditation rooms throughout his buildings in the world, as well as delegating the top floor of the headquarters not for CEOs but as space for workers to enjoy the view. We seek mental breaks, although we may not think of them as mediation, like baby turtles instinctively seek the sea. If we like our own company and value time alone, we’ve have found our own way to meditate no matter what we call it.
When babysitting my granddaughter, Andrea, she said her mom told her that sometimes she would get into trouble at school for not finishing her work. I appeared shocked, although this was no breaking news to me. “What! Your mom didn’t always finish her schoolwork. Well, when she comes home,” I said in a stern voice, “I’m sending her to her bedroom.” It was Andrea’s turn to look shocked, “No, no!. Don’t do that. Mom likes to be alone in her bedroom.” It’s how I learned that my baby daughter was beginning to go inside. By example, generations communicate the importance of finding time to rest in the seat of our soul, the title of a book that inspired millions to find the best version of themselves.
But being alone doesn’t always equate to mental refresh. You may think, well I’m going inside. Right? Locating a tranquil place, then rehashing conversations and worst-case scenarios doesn’t count. That’s just finding a nice and peaceful place, but it’s not meditating. Nor is a state of preoccupation with past pain. Sitting with thoughts of regrets leaves no open space for feelings and images to rise to the surface for us to observe without attachment.
As we grow older, the list of people who are facing illnesses or have died also grows longer, creating a greater need for going inside. Jean Shinoda Bolen suggests what older women do in a space of their own is better described as heartfulness where memories show up. In meditative or prayer moments, we hold loved ones gently in our hearts – rest hand over hand on chest, a gesture that says “I feel for you” or “I love you.”
In younger days, we explored the world with our senses, what we saw, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. But like the seasons change, in time our senses of the external world fade. We don’t see as well, sounds are muffled, and we load up on salt for taste. This is why aging, in particular, is a time of reflection to look back at how we lived our lives. From this advantage, we see ourselves with more detachment. Perhaps for the first time, without any doubt, we know the importance of character over appearances. When we say “the emperor has no clothes,” it’s not with the voice of the innocent but with the voice of reality. We know what we know in our bones.
When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears. From the seat of the soul, thoughts of past people and events visit, and we find ourselves seeing more clearly the progression of growth and life’s journey. I was born in Reykjavik, the youngest in a big family, at the cusp of the Baby Boomer generation. My parents were laborers, and I spent my days reading. At nine, after a year in a sanatorium, I returned home with the premature understanding that we travel life alone and die alone. I spent a year in Britain to learn English, then moved to the United States, where I’d be the only of my parents’ children to go to college, and so on. Few of us write novels, but we live a life that has chapters, plots, and transitions. To read it requires a journey inside, a time with yourself, in a pew, meditation, or wherever we can rest in the seat of the soul.