Iceland is a treeless island isolated in the mid-Atlantic. Its north coast flirts with the Arctic Circle, and the southwest coast is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Iceland sits atop the juncture where the European and American tectonic plates pull apart, rending the land like torn cloth. Volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and gasses gurgle and erupt from rifts and fissures transecting the island.
I’m here for my cousin Ben’s wedding to Heida (“HAY-tha”). Ben met Heida in Massachusetts where she was working as an au pair. Now they live in Boston. Heida, a native Icelander, is so fair she’s translucent. Her face falls into a smile even at rest, but her slate-green eyes reveal her steely core. Via email and phone, she’s coordinated her wedding in Iceland, arranged lodging and entertainment for twenty-seven unruly American relatives and friends, and planned her honeymoon—a five-day driving and camping trip with seventeen guests.
It’s early July. Today we start the two-day drive to Höfn where the wedding will take place. We are unlikely traveling companions, this group. Our ages range from 72 to six and represent three generations. My mother, brother and sister are here. My stepfather is the oldest of the group and my nephew is the youngest. Ben’s father is my mother’s baby brother. When I was a teenager, Ben and his siblings were little kids, insurmountably younger than me. The summer after I graduated from high school, Ben’s mom hired me as the mothers’ helper for her children, nieces and nephews on the coast of Maine. Now, the children I drove to sailing lessons, watched at the pool and taught camp songs are adults, here with their spouses and friends. Heida’s mother is only three years older than me. I am adrift between generations.
The drive from Reykjavík to Kirkjubaejarklaustur where we’ll spend the night takes us along the south coast through landscape so unfamiliar I struggle to find a comparison. As we leave town, we stop at a volcanic field. Under a concrete sky, great slabs of lava and earth heave up at sharp angles. The black lava is coated in moss, lichens and tiny wildflowers. Against the black, the greens fluoresce in the watery light. It’s amazing that this delicate beauty resulted from such a brutal thrust. We cross a glacial river running in rapids, the water clouded with silt like malted milk. Hekla, a volcanic peak, looms in the distance. We glimpse a glacier at the horizon, a strip of white porcelain glittering against the cobalt sky.
We stop for a picnic lunch at Skógafoss, seventy meters of sheer white water spilling over a parrot green cliff. Sunlight hitting the mist at the bottom throws double rainbows into the air. A muddy path runs up the side to the top of the falls. At the top I find no barrier to the wide roiling stream rushing full tilt over the edge. The water doesn’t flow in an orderly stream. It plunges against the banks. Ropes of current split, twist and converge, jostling against each other like ferrets struggling to escape a canvas sack. I walk down the grassy bank until my feet tilt sharply toward the water. I fight the desire to leap in and fly down the face of the falls. There’s something seductive about plummeting out of control. I wonder if the fall would kill me, or if I’d only be badly injured.
I’m four years sober after 18 years of drinking and I’m still adjusting to life without alcohol. Some people in AA say that you have no defense against the first drink, that the impulse to grab a beer could strike as naturally as breathing. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s a choice, like standing here on the bank and deciding whether or not to lose my balance. Sometimes the choice is hard, sometimes easy. There’s really nothing to prevent me from sliding back into my old life. Slipping out of sobriety would feel like stepping over the falls—exhilaration followed by humiliation and pain. I’m balanced between two worlds, and it’s up to me to tip the scale towards abstinence.
The countryside on the drive to Höfn is as otherworldly as the day before. We hike in light drizzle to Svartifoss, another waterfall. Ahead of us, mountains push through the gloom, sharp and jagged like the ones children draw. Svartifoss is a narrow plume plunging into a black-rock pool. We scramble on the rocks and climb behind the falling water. Looking up I see that the action of the falls has exposed hexagonal columns of basalt—perfect geometric order arisen from tumult.
Four years ago, I had a nervous breakdown. I used to think a nervous breakdown was romantic. I clung to a vision of swooning women in gauzy white nightgowns reclining in darkened rooms. “Hush, she’s had a nervous breakdown, don’t trouble her with the responsibilities of life.” The reality is harsher and mundane.
After nine years of living with an increasingly distant alcoholic wife, my husband kicked me out of the marriage. My life ruptured at that moment, but I didn’t roll my eyes back or throw myself down a flight of stairs. I checked into a hospital rehab, curled into a fetal ball and shook and cried uncontrollably and unceasingly for three days.
The chaos that overtook my life revealed a core of strength I didn’t suspect. I found rough rock under the muck and my feet stopped slipping. I knew there was a structure on which I could build a different life. I just didn’t know at the time how to make it happen.
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