Twice in Oslo by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison

Twice in Oslo


When I told people about going to Oslo with my baby, I often described taking her on our first evening to Grünerløkka – the neighbourhood called ‘the Williamsburg of Oslo’, though my host assured me it was no longer as hip as it had once been, which meant it really was the Williamsburg of Oslo. In this version of our trip, I would conjure the dusk-stained image of pushing her stroller through the crisp fall gloaming, past the dangling keychain racks of Karl Johans Gate, which sounded regal and exotic but was really just a crowded pedestrian mall, finally emerging into the Norwegian Williamsburg-no-longer-Williamsburg, a wonderland of vintage shops and candlelit bars, where we arrived at a coffee shop with ragged-haired baristas who seemed like they had never sweated in their lives, and they made me a single perfect cappuccino and I drank it in the park nearby while my daughter cooed in her stroller and sucked her two fingers, as she always did when she needed comfort. Some part of me blessed her for this, and some part of me felt superfluous. It was just her and her two little fingers, getting by in this world.

On that long September dusk, it was as if I’d proved to myself, or to the invisible audience for which I’d been performing my entire life, that I could do motherhood this way: expansively, in the parks of Oslo, in the velvet gloom and golden streaks of early evening, with a fine-beaned coffee product in my hand and my baby’s eyes flicking curiously at the leaf shadows. The next night I’d be interviewed at a literary festival held on the old docks by the fjord. And yes, this motherhood could be inclusive rather than claustrophobic; it wouldn’t have to mean sacrificing work at the altar of my daughter, or sacrificing my daughter at the altar of work, but somehow bringing them together – inviting my daughter into the impossible size and beauty of the world, saying we can share this. I generally told this version of the Oslo story to men, or to mothers who intimidated me, mothers whose partners took more care of their children, or else to childless friends who moved through the world without caring for babies. Which is all to say: I told it to people to whom I was trying to prove that my life had not ‘gotten small’, a phrase I put in quotes in my mind, though I did not know whom I was quoting. 

But there was another version of my Oslo story. It started on our plane ride across the Atlantic, when my daughter would not sleep and I paced the aisles endlessly with her strapped to my chest, because it was the only way to keep her from crying, and continued in our hotel room by the water, when I still had no idea how to make her fall asleep, or really any right to ask her to. I’d taken her across an ocean and however many time zones – of course her tiny body was confused! I’d already tried holding her and rocking her in the little pink spacesuit she wore to sleep in those days – in that particular microclimate of seven to ten months – and I’d already tried nursing her, which hadn’t helped. Nursing was my only trick, my last line of defence. So I sat in the bathroom and let her cry, stress-eating gummy candies from the gummy wonderland we’d visited earlier that day. Now I was giving her the chance to self-soothe, I told myself, internally repeating mantras from the sleep training book I’d used: Your baby is protesting, and that’s okay! My mouth was ragged and mossy from all those candies; it felt like it was bleeding from their sour crystal skins. Every one of her cries was a physical heave under my own skin.

So this was the other Oslo: crouched by the toilet under fluorescent bathroom lights, mouth stuffed full of sugar, my baby crying in the darkened hotel room beyond.

I’d been in Oslo four years earlier for another literary festival: a thirty-year-old woman invited alongside a slew of middle-aged men – famous book critics and editors who made their livings by judging the writing of other people. We all got paid in envelopes of cash handed to us in the hotel lobby – some notably thicker than others, as we got paid per event, and each of these men had been slated for three or four panels, while I was doing just one: a conversation with the only other female writer who’d been invited, under the title ‘The Strength to Be Kind’. I thought of making a little joke on stage, saying they should have called it ‘The strength to be paid less and still be kind’, but I didn’t, only tried my very best to sound smart, because I wanted to prove myself to all these men, all these critics, just as I’d spent my whole life wanting to prove myself to my father and my older brothers and eventually my older boyfriends and then my older husband.

That’s why I spent most of that first trip to Oslo holed up in my hotel room, working on my next book, a book about creativity and sobriety, to prove myself to everyone – while all the men whose approval I desperately craved were out there drinking in the city, staying out until early morning in some bar on the other side of Karl Johans Gate.

What I’m saying is that I ended up seeing almost none of Oslo when I went there as a childless woman – with time on my hands and no one to care for – and saw so much of it four years later, when I came back with my ten-month-old baby. If I am being completely honest, there was something a bit maniacal about my insistent desire to prove that my life had not been foreclosed or even narrowed by her presence – that I could bring her into the world rather than resenting her for keeping me away from it.

So we gazed upon the opera house that looked like a giant iceberg made of marble, and we stood inside a dark room full of glowing polka-dotted orbs in a museum perched above a frothing fjord; we walked uphill along the side of a highway for several kilometres until we reached a sculpture garden overlooking the city, where a nervous art student in an information centre that looked like a little Swiss chalet told me that the Louise Bourgeois sculpture was ‘very nice’, and then looked stricken by the banality of his own words – ‘very nice,’ he repeated, ‘what does that even mean?’ – and told me he was trying to write art criticism that read like poetry. Something in that room smelled doughy and sweet, and it turned out he was making waffles, right there at the information desk, in a little griddle hidden among all the pamphlets, and this seemed like a kind of poetry too. He served me one with strawberry jam, and I took it to the Louise Bourgeois sculpture, which was very nice – two silver lovers suspended in the air, dangling from the branches of a massive tree – though the sight of it made me sad about my marriage, which was coming apart at the seams. After the baby fell asleep, I could not pause at any art because I was scared she would wake if the stroller stopped moving for a moment. At a sculpture shaped like a street lamp, a voice emerged from hidden speakers saying, ‘You are now ready to receive information that you were not previously ready to receive,’ but I couldn’t stick around to hear it, because I was afraid the information would wake the baby up – and so I never received what I was ready for, and the baby woke up anyway five minutes later.

And oh, yes, I did my event. I spoke at the festival happening on the docks, behind massive huts where salt cod had once been hung out to dry into leathered strips in the bright northern sun. The whole thing had been organised by a female journalist, all the other headliners were women and my childcare was perfectly arranged. Beforehand I did a newspaper interview in the hotel bar, where the photographer took pictures of me with my coffee and my milk in a shot glass (the sober life!). The photographer told me to go somewhere in the past while he shot his photos, so my face wouldn’t look blank, and I found myself remembering the giant hot cookie I bought after I’d broken up with the man I thought I would marry, because I was so tired of feeling so much and just wanted to eat a cookie and feel nothing. But the truth is, I hadn’t stopped feeling – about him – for all those years, ever since. The cookie stopped nothing. The photographer said, ‘Yes! That’s it! There’s something happening on your face.’ Then I heard my baby giggle in her stroller and I looked over at her and smiled – I wanted to pick her up and hold her tiny, perfect body close – and he said, ‘There! That’s it again! It’s another look entirely.’

This was a good way of putting it, I thought: another look entirely. To see the world with her meant looking at it differently. On our final afternoon, we took a cab to a strange mausoleum nestled in a nondescript suburb at the edge of town. It was a squat brick structure that had once been the studio of a painter named Emanuel Vigeland, the unfamous younger brother of the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Before he died, Emanuel had decided to turn his studio into a mausoleum. He painted the walls with scenes of birth and sex and death, often all at once: people making love on top of skeletons, skeletons making love. The lighting was kept low and the acoustics were so sensitive that you had to take off your shoes and wear the slippers they provided instead. The place was only open for four hours every Sunday afternoon, staffed by a pair of art students, neither of whom was the same art student who’d been making waffles at the sculpture garden, but who probably also wrote criticism that read like poetry – what did I know? I knew that if my baby cried in the room with the sensitive acoustics, it was going to be very, very loud.

And she did cry, actually, and it was loud – or rather, she whimpered a little bit, but it sounded like crying because of the acoustics, sensitive as promised – and I apologised to the twenty-year-old backpackers with whom we were sharing the space, as we gazed at the figures of life and death around us, and gave her a pacifier the colour of green sea glass. It was only days later, once we got home, that I realised that her crying hadn’t compromised anything in that room, all that birth and death around us. Her crying had somehow completed it.

As we circled the mausoleum that day, I kept noticing one painted figure on the walls: a mother giving birth on top of a pile of skulls, triumphantly holding her infant. But it was only on our tenth lap, or our twelfth, my slippers shuffling against the stone floor, the baby hot against my chest, that I noticed this triumphant mother was actually standing on top of a woman on all fours – a grey-haired woman with her loose breasts hanging down, aged and broken by her labours, by the world, by her children. One mother drinks a cappuccino, the other cries in the hotel bathroom. But they are the same mother. Of course they are. The mausoleum demanded that we see them both, just as my baby demanded that I hear her cry. The victorious mother stood upon the back of the defeated one, but it had taken me so long to register this second body in the darkness: the woman who was weary, and couldn’t stand, but kept the baby alive, and the mother alive too.                                                     

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