I became interested in Iceland after reading “The Geography of Bliss,” which a student-led group had chosen for their McCallie summer reading. American author Eric Weiner devotes a chapter of the book to describing Iceland as a place steeped in creative energy. As a writer and teacher who spends her days trying to awaken such energy in her students, I was intrigued. What makes Iceland’s populace one of the happiest in the world? What drives so many of them to create?
After 26 days of hostels, hikes, bus rides, museums and geothermal pools, all accompanied by vigorous conversation and roughly 117 cups of coffee, I figured out that Icelanders do indeed love their verbs. Collectively, these are not people who wonder if their ideas are good enough, if they’re talented enough or if there’s someone who’s already doing it better. If they want music, they make it. If they want art, they create it.
If they have an idea for a book, they write it. (One in 10 Icelanders has published a book). Most Icelanders feel like they are both benefitting from and contributing to a vibrant creative culture.
I took a ferry to Grimsey Island, the only part of Iceland above the Arctic Circle. Nondescript ranch houses were clustered together in the village, and the thought of all 75 residents huddled inside during windy, dark winters made me feel desperately lonely. I wanted my own porch where I could watch the sunset and drink sweet tea. Lacking that, I headed to Gallery Sol.
Gallery Sol doubled as a coffee shop. It was staffed by four women and open only when the ferry was in. A woman who spoke only Icelandic took my order for a waffle with cream and “einn kaffi” - one coffee. I sat down in a room lined with knit sweaters, mittens, hats and scarves, all elaborately and beautifully patterned. While I sipped my kaffi, ferry passengers wandered in to order food or ask one of the women to sign the document which certified they had crossed the Arctic Circle. Whenever someone purchased a sweater or mittens, the women shared the name of whomever had made it and some small detail about her life. Life on Grimsey was not as forlorn as it had first seemed to me. It had a rhythm to it, and within that rhythm, the women of the island had developed both an art and an outlet for it.
Later, I did some grocery shopping and fell into a conversation with the teenaged cashier about life in Grimsey as opposed to life in a city like Reykjavik or Akureyri. “We find our own things to do here,” she told me, “and we are totally free.”
Now that I am back, I’ve been thinking of ways to bring some Icelandic sensibility into my classroom. The most important thing really has been the verbs. I want my students to do and not worry about whether they are the best or even qualified. So far, this means that they have hand-drawn maps of their lives and acted out portions of Hamlet from memory. In America, we tend to push our young people toward specialization, and that has its place, but I learned this summer that sometimes you just have to embrace the punk rocker within and see where all that creation leads.
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