Mar '03 [Home]


My Norwegian Son Asks Me to Change My Name

by Ren Powell

. . .

STAVANGER, Feb. 15. I don't feel safe these days. The embassy issued a warning for Americans to avoid public demonstrations. I phoned my grandmother last night for comfort, and this morning she reached down and grabbed a handful of powdery soil and said, "Lengt ikke hjem."

She said that right before my alarm clock sounded. I remember some theory I heard in college about how we can't think without words, but I woke knowing exactly what my grandmother had said without remembering the words she had used until I sat down to write them. They were Norwegian, but my grandmother doesn't speak Norwegian. It only stressed her point, I think:  There is no use in longing for home.

I moved to Norway ten years ago. Twenty-seven and pregnant with my first child, driving along the coastline riddled with German bunkers and trenches, I felt a part of human history for the first time. The pregnancy was difficult and, as we wondered into thousand-year-old churches and detoured around avalanche spills, I was acutely aware of the fact that people die. Arbitrarily. Banal realization, perhaps, but one that Americans of my generation have been able to stave off until we are necessarily cordoned off from the mass media, pushed into the subculture of mortal beings with—and there I go again. I don't believe any of that. The farther I get from home, the harder it is to resist the propaganda of my host country. To resist simplifying America. And American politics.

I grew up in Orange County, California. The box boy at our local market was killed by a mass murderer. My parents' friend was shot on the beach for his watch. My own cousin drowned at the age of 2. America has plenty to offer in regard to arbitrary death. Europe doesn't have a monopoly on the death of innocents.

And yet, I still find it difficult to comprehend how my mother-in-law's family home was raided for food by German soldiers. I sliced bread on the same kitchen table they used. I didn't know what questions to ask my husband's grandmother, sitting there with her hand on the Bible, talking about what a comfort religion is to her now that she's so old:  Did they knock first? Did you hide your children in the attic? Did you have to resort to some weird kind of game of charades to understand each other? I didn't want to be rude and change the subject.

My grandfather has medals for his service in WWII. For his birthday a few years ago, one of his children had them framed. But the medals don't hang on the wall. I've never asked him, but my guess is that it was all more complicated than a parade. I regret never having asked him the right questions, either.

I was in high school in the mid-80's, when we all flopped onto the sofa to watch The Day After. But I was young, and it was all so glamorous—the hoarding and the worrying. Later, when the wall fell, the glamorously dangerous USSR fell, too, into the same childish category of fiends as the boogeyman. Vietnam? I've seen the movies, read about the martyred, but largely forgotten students at Kent State. I was a student at Texas A&M during Desert Storm. Once, some students spread out on the "sacred grass" for a picnic. The ROTC students surrounded them, not daring to tread on the grass to remove the romantic hippie wanna-bes. It seemed pretty limp as far as protests went. Hardly a seductive rebellion. More importantly, the "other" was still a boogeyman. Show me a map; I've been as far as Juarez. I turned off the TV and studied for exams. Attended funerals, weddings. Shopped for groceries. Fell in love with a Norwegian. Moved from my homeland.

On September 11, 2001, during those first few hours after the plane hit the second tower, I had a difficult time considering that a foreign enemy had done this. It was another Oklahoma City. An internal problem. A family dispute of horrific proportions. (What is it? Two out of three homicides are committed by family members?) America just doesn't have to deal with an "other" on her mainland.

When Bush decided to bomb Afganistan, we cancelled our trip to Egypt. That's when my third-grade son began stressing the fact that he is Norwegian. That was when he asked me to change my last name.

Yesterday, my son came home from his day in the fourth grade repeating slogans about Bush's stupidity, American arrogance, innocent victims. He wants to protest; it's all pretty glamorous.

Yesterday on CNN's website, I read about the protests in Europe—CNN says they will be protesting a non-UN backed war. But that's not what the protests are about. Not in Norway, anyway. They are protesting against any war.

On the national Norwegian channel, one politician makes the case that there is no proof of wrong-doing on the part of Iraq's government in regard to sanctioned weapons, then adds that he believes bombing Iraq will only lead to more terrorist attacks. Several of the representatives suggest that in the event of war, Norway will refuse to participate as an American ally. An academic gives an historical account of the success rates of similar anti-war protests (not good). However, he says, in this case, the timing is excellent. No decisions have been made by those with the power to make the decisions. I can't help but wonder if any successful protest is only successful when decisions haven't been made, and only in hindsight. The small minority here compare Iraq to post-WWI Germany, the rest of the world giving the benefit of the doubt to the wrong man—as if it were all foreseeable.

I listen to NPR; the pros and cons voiced by my countrymen. I read the less-than-subtle bullying on the academic list serv to which I belong:  What intelligent person could support this war…? There is a furious siding-up right now. Most of the time I feel ashamedly privileged to not be one of those who makes the black and white decisions based on gray information, misinformation, and propaganda. (Either I'm matured enough to discover true humility, or true cowardice.)

I didn't join the protest today. Instead, I towed our old car to the wrecking yard and watched a giant forklift pick it up, cradling it like a dead child, carrying it to the compactor. I thought about the children of Iraq, though I wasn't carrying the mass-produced drawing of a brown child with ridiculously large eyes, or taking part inthe politically correct event of the year.

There are some things of which I am certain:  That, surfing the web for a half-hour an evening and comparing propoganda, I still don't know much; that there are men and women who are grappling with this issue more than sixteen hours a day, every day; and that I am truly afraid of war. However, I'm not going to protest because I'm afraid of war. I can't join the ranks of those who believe in peace at any cost, because I don't believe peace is the absence of falling bombs. Because I don't believe Norwegian pacifism is an effective response to change the course of the Bush administration.

I'm not on the fence. I've called the White House, signed petitions, grappled with the political and moral issues with sincere attention. I listened intently to Powell's presentation as it was broadcast on the local military station. I wasn't convinced. However, living in another country, having children with a different citizenship, means a casual political remark can take on unexpected weight even in my own house. I didn't vote for President Bush, but denouncing him can be interpreted as denouncing America as a whole if I'm not excruciatingly particular with my words. The slightest nod in response to a negative comment about American policy can open one to a flood of anti-American sentiment. These days I long to wriggle back into the family bosom and bicker freely. I'd love to get a plane in the morning and picket the White House. But it's too late for that. I have to pack my sons' lunches in the morning, send them school. As a mother, keeping my children safe and healthy is my first priority. It's a luxury mothers of young children are afforded. If only it were really that simple.

As for my grandmother's handful of soil? I can't explain that. After all, my grandmother doesn't (and never did) look anything like Vivian Leigh.

(Ren Powell is an American writer/translator living in Stavanger, Norway. Her first book of poems, Fairy Tales and Soil, was published in Norway in a bilingual edition in 1999. Her work has also been included in Barnes and Noble's Voices from the Cutting Edge:  New Works for Theater series in Los Angeles. Her long poem, "Dark. Like Snow", appeared in the Sep '02 issue of Big City Lit and was heard on WNYE 91.5 FM as performed by Thad Rutkowski as part of the magazine's 9/14 event, "Degree 365:  Change and Reclamation — Year One of 9/11" recorded at the Museum of the City of New York.)