Notes from a Swedish island

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The first thing I do on the island is walk around it. I want to see it from every angle. I want to know what’s contained within the little cabins, where the birds lay their eggs, which side gets the shadows and which side the sunshine. I want to see that we are surrounded by water, to reassure myself that yes, we really are on an island. An island so small it doesn’t have a name; but for this week at least, it’s ours. Nothing and no one can get to us.

Five years after we first met, one islander to another, we meet here and become islanders again. Both in our natural habitat.

I wake up on the second day full of bad dreams. I know I was jealous in the dream, because I had the hangover of the feeling, despite not remembering its source. My mind is purging all that it doesn’t need for this stay, all that will complicate the simplicity of my happiness here.

“The dream is the body’s best expression […] The dream calls our mind’s attention to the body’s instinctive feeling. If man doesn’t pay attention to these symbolic warnings of his body he pays in other ways. […] None of us [will be] left to sit, and dream, in the sun.” — C. G. Jung, The Earth Has a Soul, p.151

After that will come true peace, not just the overwhelming relief of stopping which hits us when we first arrive in a new setting, but the tranquillity that fills us completely from the outside in, at which point we imagine we could stay here with the quiet and the birds and the water for ever and not tire of it. But before that, I must suffer the bad dreams as they draw out my repressions, my sadnesses, my boring, everyday anxieties.

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I gather my books and go out into the windy, cool, light-filled morning to sit by the lily pads and the little boat which carried us here in its belly, bobbing humbly on the strong waves. The water is cold, the wind fresh, but the morning sunshine is strong and it holds me. I hear no sounds but those of animals around me, and the lapping of the lake water, which I cup in my hands to drink.

Perhaps this is where I belong, with other islanders on other islands. Homes away from homes. Places one can feel isolated and comforted at the same time, with neighbours on their own nearby islands that you can wave to. Community from a safe distance.

“What is needed is to call a halt to the fatal dissociation that exists between our so-called higher and lower being; we must unite the conscious aspect with the primitive” – C. G. Jung, The Earth Has a Soul, p.18

I am unable to resist my primitive instincts, really; if I wake up to a sunny day, I scramble to get outside as soon as I can. I am never happier than when sitting in the sun. All my strongest, most positive memories – apart from at Christmas – are ones bathed in summer sunlight, the long days stretching out and making life feel limitless. If I strip everything away and really focus, my overriding instinct is to follow the sun, and to be near water. Following it and being in it: this is when my whole self is most content.

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“If we wish to investigate our own nature, dreams are the most suitable media for this purpose.” — C. G. Jung, The Earth Has a Soul, p.190

The sun takes its time with everything here. If I were to live in this part of the world, I would sleep all winter so that I wouldn’t need to in summer. The fabled land of the midnight sun gives and gives. At 17:00, there is no rush for anything – there will be at least another six hours of daylight.

One evening we are treated to a very special sunset, rich in purples, pinks, and reds that reflected off the strangely still wall of cloud above us. The colours changed every few minutes, morphing into some other shade or shape, but didn’t lose any potency. It took until nearly midnight for the light to finally subside, and even then it was so reluctant that an eerie glow still lingered over the water. A few hours later, the sun was back, having never truly gone to sleep.

One grey morning, we awake at 06:00 to row our little boat over to the “mainland” and catch a lift with a friendly family to the nearest metro stop. From there, we go into central Stockholm, and are some of the first to arrive at the famous Vasa Museum. This turns out to be an excellent decision, because the place is soon swarming with tour groups some 20 people strong.

The magnificent specimen we have come to see – the Vasa ship – is as tall as a four-storey building and sits in a cradle several metres in the air. Built in the early 17th century, it set sail on its maiden voyage in 1628, only to sway dangerously and capsize in Stockholm harbour just 1,500 metres into its journey. Top-heavy and light on ballast, armed with huge cannons and decorated with hundreds of ornate sculptures, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Around 30 crew members died and the ship sank 30 metres down, coming to rest in the silt and clay below. Despite several attempts, it wouldn’t be recovered until 333 years later, in 1961, when a specialist team hoisted it whole from the depths. Some 600 tonnes of mud and debris were sprayed from the ship in a painstaking restoration process that culminated in the museum we see today, which opened its doors in 1990. The ship on display is a staggering 95-98 per cent original.

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Dragged up to the world above from its protective silt bed, the ship started decomposing immediately. With all the oxygen in the air, humidity and heat from visitors’ bodies, and the weight of Vasa’s unsupported hull, no one knows how long it will last. But for now, it is spectacular.

We return to the island happy and I, for one, am desperate for the quiet and solitude again after our visit to the city. I go for a swim in the lake, staying in the water an extra long time so that I can feel its coldness penetrating my skin. Water holds so many secrets. I feel the heat of the late afternoon sun, thrilled at the knowledge that it will last several more hours. It is as though we are living in Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. I read a lot that evening – and that is all I desire to do.

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See the likeness?

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