When I was in India, I learned to meditate. Or at least it was on the schedule. Twice a day at sunrise and sunset, we would meet in the main hall and meditate. The hall was the roof of the women's dormitory, a covered loft but with no walls. We could look out into the woods next to the building and see the monkeys climbing the trees. Sometimes we would even do nature meditation, and I could sit even higher, below the water tower, and watch the sun rise. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
But the meditation hours were torture. I would fidget, things would itch. My mind would go racing off to the future or to some memory from the past, never wanting to stay right there in the present moment. They called that "monkey-mind". Very fitting as we could hear the monkeys in the distance. Going to India was one of my first endeavors of self-love. I did this for me. So given this space, I started noticing how horribly I was talking to myself on the inside. I would berate myself for not being able to sit still. I would beat myself up when I found my mind wandering. I would get bored and peak with one eye to see if anyone else was having as hard a time with this as I was. I finally surrendered to the fact that I had so much to learn and adjust to during this time, so I simply decided to give up on the whole meditation thing. I would just sit there and not worry about "getting it".
I have heard people talk about getting a warm buzzy feeling during mediation. "Slipping into" the stillness of their mind. Experiencing enlightenment. I felt since I couldn't "get there" I must be doing something wrong. Maybe there was something wrong with me?
I have tried different types of meditation since then. When doing breath meditation I would find myself getting agitated. I tried zen meditation, only to find myself increasingly frustrated when I found my mind wandering and I had to go "back to 1". My most agonizing experience was a 10-day non-denomination silent retreat with 12 hours of meditation a day. I sat through it for 9 days, only to quit one day before it was supposed to end. Toward the end, I couldn't sit down to meditate without crying uncontrollably.
I wonder, how many of you have had this experience? Or a similar one? Of trying so hard to meditate, but "not getting it"?
Looking back at it now, I gotta give myself credit for really wanting this so bad. I kept hearing about all the benefits of meditation, but I couldn't seem to reap the benefits myself. On the contrary, meditation seemed to simply make me agitated and miserable. So I gave it up for a while.
I recently had what I, for lack of a better word, would call an enlightenment moment. But it didn't come through meditation. It's hard to explain since I am still wrapping my head around this baffling experience. What I can explain is how it has altered my view of meditation.
Going "back to 1", pulling your mind back is meditation. It IS doing it right. What was making me miserable were a set of factors:
The bottom line for me was my inner voice was so critical of me that I couldn't sit still with it without being miserable. Now, when I do meditate, I do it differently. Here are some of my takeaways from a decade of meditation mal-practice:
Now that I don't expect anything specific from meditating and my inner talk is more loving than ever I can sit for longer and enjoy the process more. My mind always wanders, but my reaction to it is different. Sometimes it quiets enough for a truth, a feeling, or an insight to come through. Sometimes not.
I have now started applying the "back to 1" routine to multiple areas of my life. When I want to instill a new habit, like staying away from sugar, or working on my road rage, when I find myself slipping I smile, and go back to one. No criticism. No judgment.
In the end, my buzzy warm feeling and enlightenment experience didn't even come from meditation. It came from years of seeking and reading and journaling and clearing. It came from understanding how I had been talking to myself and deciding to treat myself differently. It came from years of working on loving myself more.
This episode of my podcast is about how meditation practice was a hard one for me to wrap my head around, but how the process of going "back to 1" ultimately became a wonderful tool for self-love.
My first memory of uprooting my life was when I was three years old. I have this vivid memory of my mom staring off into the distance telling me we were going to Denmark. My mom and dad had recently divorced and my mom was feeling called to go back to Denmark, back to her homeland, where she had a family to help her raise three young kids. I don't remember the exact words or whether she was expecting to return. According to her, she had a return ticket, because she wanted to stay in the U.S. more than anything. I remember it being sunset and I remember her being sad. I remember feeling the significance of it.
We uprooted our lives and moved to Denmark. This was my first experience of it, but not the first time in my life this had happened. My parents had been missionaries in Chile, where I was born. Having two children, they felt they couldn't stay and moved to Tacoma, not far from where I live now. I know from their tales it was a turbulent experience for them. I know I ended up with an American passport, not a Chilean one, which at that time in Chile's political climate could not have been easy. I was six months old.
My childhood memories started in Skanderborg in Denmark, living with my grandparents while my mother looked for a place to live. We were fortunate that my dad overpaid his child support and alimony, he wanted to support us so my mom could stay home and raise us. Only as an adult do I understand how unique their understanding was. I remember not being able to communicate with my grandparents because I hadn't learned Danish yet. My first Danish word was "saftevand" which is a kind of juice. It was the best way for us to tell them if we were thirsty. Little by little the words snuck in. By the time we found a place of our own we were fluent in both languages. By the time we moved again, I was six years old answering my mom's English questions in Danish.
The next chapter of my life was a longer one. I think my mom was tired of moving around. Her entire life had been moving from place to place as my grandpa built the paved roads all around Denmark. I know she swore she didn't want to do that to her kids.
Isn't it funny how parents often try to spare their kids something that they found terrible, not knowing that their own kid would have loved it? Far be it for me to give parenting advice, but in my experience, by trying to avoid one type of trauma, we usually create another.
So Haslev was my new home for the next 11 years. Many things about Haslev were great. It's in an incredibly beautiful part of the country. With a bike, I had the freedom to go and do anything. The train ride to Copenhagen was only about 1 hour, which came in handy as a young teen wanting to spread her wings. I made friends, had crushes, dreamed about what my life would be like. I also had long stretches of not having any friends close by, feeling trapped, and feeling like my life would never start. During this time my mom would sometimes air the thought of moving to another town. Every time she did my heart would leap with excitement. But we always stayed put. The closest we ever came was when I was 16 and we visited Hillerød about 100 km north from where we were. I was exhilarated, even though I knew I wouldn't be there long. I was already planning to move out and start my own life. Once again, we stayed put.
At 17 I moved to Nykøbing Mors, to be with my then-boyfriend. Incidentally, it is believed that this town was the one used as the backdrop for "A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks", the book that created the Law Of Jante. It was the longest six months of my life.
Uprooting again I finally moved to Copenhagen. This was a city I had revered for so long I couldn't believe I was finally there. I could still go anywhere with a bike and the narrow winding streets were heaven to bike along. I went to art school. I joined my first band for a stint. I felt like my life had finally started.
In 1999 I moved to Barcelona for two years, subletting my apartment to a friend. I explain more details of my Barcelona experience in my blog post: India and Other Detours.
When I got back I had a hard time getting back to that feeling I had when I left. Instead of feeling like my life had just started, I was floundering, aimless, didn't know what to do or what I wanted. I can't even keep track of my uprooting after this. Perhaps I just never rooted. All I know is by the time I was 30 I counted that I had moved 33 times in my life. I call it my Copenhagen nomad life. I became more and more unhappy. I would move to see if that helped. I had endless stretches of three to six-month leases, moving again and again, partially due to Copenhagen's housing crisis, partially due to my own restlessness. By the time I finally settled, I bought at the top of the market before the crash in 2008 and felt trapped in an abusive relationship and a duplex I couldn't afford. The year and a half I lived here were the longest I had lived anywhere for over a decade. Like most people I had accumulated things, memories, a CD collection, my old teddy bears from when I was a kid, you name it. A flood in the garage of the house ruined everything. Including most of my art from Barcelona. By the time I up and left this horrible situation, I only took a few bags of clothing with me. I chose to leave everything else behind, it was a sacrifice I needed to make in order to sever ties from this abusive and manipulative person.
Once again, I was uprooted, but this time it felt freeing. I started noticing that I had choices, I could do things, I could be things. Don't get me wrong, I was a wreck. I lost my job due to depression, I couldn't function. I stayed on people's couches before I finally found a room. I had to make myself a new life from the ground up. And with this, in 2010, I went to India. I tell more about India in another blog post.
Upon my return from India, I felt like a whole new person. Depression was gone. And I'm happy to report it never returned. I felt clear, motivated, in tune. I felt everything deeply. Including the need to uproot my life once more. At this point, I remembered how my mom explained moving again and again, as something that would make her very unhappy. I realized that this was not true for me. Yes, I had been unhappy through all those years of living as a Copenhagen nomad, but I was also unhappy living all those years in one place, in Haslev. It wasn't the moving or the staying that hurt me. Stagnation did. I need to grow, to soar, to feel free.
So I got rid of or stored everything I owned (which wasn't much) and moved to the U.S. This time with a suitcase and a dream. I finally had that feeling again of my life starting. The one I felt back in Copenhagen years ago.
I have moved a few times during my 10-year stint in the Pacific Northwest. I have seen a bunch of this beautiful country and there are still so many things I want to see. But I have never felt uprooted in quite the same way. I think because I finally realized that stagnation comes in many forms and it has nothing to do with where you are physically. It's all mental and emotional. As long as I keep growing as a person, it doesn't matter where I live... but I sure had to move many times to finally realize that!
In the end, my heart lives in my music, and that I can do from anywhere. So whether we stay put in the house we live in now or we sell everything and buy a motorhome, it really doesn't matter. I am still soaring and growing. I am still free.
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” - from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
I just announced to the world that I am "changing" my name from Jessica Lynne to Jessica Lynne Witty. Here's the journey behind that decision. It's a bare and vulnerable one. But it's a truthful one.
When I first was met with the decision of what to call myself as an artist I wasn't sure what I wanted. Back in Denmark, the road didn't seem all that clear to me. All I knew were the first few steps. All we ever know are the next few steps. Mine were as follows:
Looking back, I then did most things out of fear, except for some few brave moments. I googled and googled, searched iTunes (Spotify didn't even exist in the US yet), and found only a photographer on the east coast under that name and a gospel singer who hadn't put anything out in a decade. So, I felt certain I had got it right.
I remember asking around to see if there was any way to protect my name. It seemed to me back then people were more involved with (and afraid of) copyrighting the music itself rather than the brand that carries it. I know I asked some lawyer friends and friends who had been in the music industry forever, but I doubt I ever asked and actual entertainment lawyer. At the time, I was so new to the music industry I didn't even know they existed. The message I got was that there was no way to protect a name.
In 2014 I first found the other Jessica Lynn, on the east coast. I was now signed to a label so I asked their advice. I asked anyone's advice who would listen. Most people had none. "Well, that sucks" was the most common reaction. But no one could tell me what to do. Even my label's advice was to "stay the course". Once again the advice was "if you're both using your actual names, there's nothing you can do".
Sometimes the ostrich approach (burying your head in the sand and hopes it goes away) works. Artists do come and go. But not this time. Because, as far as I can see, the other Jessica Lynn is a go-getter and a great artist in her own right. And I want her to be successful and have everything she ever wanted. I just wish she had done her research and not picked my name to do it under.
I stayed in this limbo for 6 years. It was heartbreaking and exhausting. Every month or so I would be confronted with the fact that there were two of us. "That's confusing" the fans would say. "But there's another Jessica Lynn" the radio people would say. The news outlets would link to her video in my article and vice versa. The presenters would put the wrong picture on the event. Within this limbo, I kept keeping myself small, because I felt like I couldn't properly do my work without constantly being compared, and comparing myself. I toyed with the idea of changing my name, even slightly, to set us apart but was met with overwhelming grief over "losing" everything I had worked so hard for. I was torn.
I do a lot of inner work, and this year I finally did my work on this scenario, both inside and out. I talked to multiple entertainment lawyers. I meditated. I talked to iTunes, Spotify, CDBaby, Tunecore, Distrokid, and many more. I saw my spiritual healer. I did my work.
According to my outer work, it turns out I have a really good case for trademark infringement. I was at one point even ready to pull the trigger and see where that would lead. But all my inner work was telling me to stop. I felt, and I looked within. I could tell this wasn't the right choice for me. I kept coming back to: "Do I want to make music, or do I want to sue people?" And the right choice for me was changing my name.
Even though I had every right in the world to fight for my brand, in my heart I knew that wasn't the right course for me. There were too many variables. The quickest way for me to get back to making music and sever this connection between us was to change my brand.
Telling this story is excruciating for me. I am noticing how blindly I was still following others. How I chose to stay in an unnecessarily painful place, simply out of fear and paralyzation. It also becomes clear to me that my obsession with numerology at the time drove me more than my own inner truth.
In rearview, we can always see where things went wrong. In 2014, when I first saw the other Jessica Lynn, I should have filed my trademark and pursued her then. I should have seen a lawyer, gotten a second opinion, protected my brand. Spent that money. But I chose to stay in the hurt and victimhood, rather than detaching myself and looking at it as a business.
This experience has taught me so much. It has taught me that there is no such thing as getting it right. It also taught me that no one can tell you what to do. Do your research and get informed, but don't listen to anything but your gut. Even if people around you don't understand. And that all you can do is your best. When you know better, you'll do better. (I have become a recent big fan of Maya Angelou!)
Would I have made this change if this hadn't happened? No, probably not. I like the brand I've created as Jessica Lynne. But it's one of those things where life happens, and we are met with obstacles. It's our choices that determine how long we have to deal with it. I chose to use this scenario I was given to deal with, as an excuse to keep myself small. I now choose to make a change that can help me grow.
I want to make this clear. This was not the "easy way out". It's going to be a lot of work and take a lot of time to get everything in place with the new brand. Most likely more work than any other option. But to me, it's the right way. And as always, the universe is showing the way. With artists like Lady A and The Chicks choosing to change their brands, it makes it less pioneering that I am too. I am doing it for different yet equally valuable reasons.
I like traveling just for the sake of traveling. But I LOVE traveling with a purpose behind it. To me, things just make more sense that way.
When I see other people put "traveling" on their bucket list, it's never resonated with me fully. Just "traveling". Not where to go or why. Not that I don't absolutely love traveling, but I like to have some greater purpose behind it.
So while I was searching for my purpose in life I did some incredible traveling and experiencing the world in a way that most people don't get to.
When I was 6 years old I traveled to the US from Denmark along with my older sister to visit my Dad. This is the first plane ride I remember. I remember saying goodbye to my mom at the airport and being handed over to a flight attendant who would accompany us from parent to parent. My Dad would be greeting us on the other side. My older sister started crying the minute mom was out of sight and she told me: "Don't tell mom I cried". Goodbyes have never made me cry. Frustrations and anger make me cry. But not sad things. Yet another way my family and I were so different. We stayed with my Dad for the allotted three weeks we had planned and then I remember my Dad arranging for us to stay longer. My sister wanted to stay a week longer, and I ended up staying two weeks longer. I'm not entirely sure how this came about, but I know my mom was terrified that after a full five weeks away, her 6-year-old daughter was traveling across the Atlantic all alone. I, on the other hand, was thrilled. When I arrived at the airport I didn't say "I missed you mommy" I said, "Look, Mommy, my teddy bear". Funny side-story is that I completely forgot my Danish. I came home only able to speak English and after being teased by the other kids on the playground I locked myself in my room for two days until my memory of Danish returned.
I'm telling this story because it was my first memory of traveling. I was brave and adventurous, even as a 6-year-old. I lived in the moment and wasn't afraid of anything. I didn't bother being upset over little things like saying goodbye to my Mom, or missing her while I was visiting my Dad. I enjoyed the adventures thrown at me and I thrived. I loved it.
The rest of my childhood was spent traveling back and forth between Seattle and Copenhagen. Somewhere down the line that 6-year-old learned to be afraid, learned to be cautious, and learned to care about what other people thought about her. Rarely did I have any other type of vacation than visiting my Dad.
As a 20-year-old, I decided on visual arts (painting, drawing, art installations, etc) as my way to pursue something creative that wasn't music. Music, I had at this point decided, was too hard to mix with my upbringing, my religion, and on top of that, I had no idea how to pursue music. Besides, I had unconsciously asked myself, what if I fail at the thing I am best at? I couldn't bear that thought, so for the next decade or so I decided to pursue the things I was second best at. Or third. Or not good at, at all. Art, it seemed, was a nice compromise. I could still be quirky, the eccentric artist that didn't have to fit into anyone's box. But I wouldn't have to put myself on a "pedestal" as I would with music. Music would put me on stages where the whole world could see I thought I was better than them. And they would shame me for it.
So art it was. I found an art school called Metàfora in Barcelona and went there with my then-husband and one of our closest friends. (Yes, I was already married at this time, but that's a story for another chapter). When we took off for Barcelona, I had never been. Never even visited, just took off with two suitcases and a month-long rental in the gothic part of town, with a plan to live there for two years. Barcelona taught me many things. Their pace was slower, but their days longer. I fell in love with electronic and lounge music and Calatan Modernism (an offshoot of Art Nouveau). I would spend my mornings drawing or painting or studying the latest exhibition at MACBA, the art museum. I would spend my midday breaks (my siesta) at the beach. My afternoons and evenings were filled with the creation of art. I attended countless art openings and countless parties. I was young and in "mi ciudad guapa".
I also lost my faith in Barcelona. This may sound like a bad thing, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. While soaking up my new life in my beautiful city, I started realizing that I no longer believed the things I was taught as a child. I started deciding for myself what I wanted to believe. I slowly but surely crafted a new life. Here, in Barcelona, away from the influence of the church and the family, I was able to try on a new way of living. At first, it was like trying it on for size, but by the time I left, I had a whole new identity.
I decided I was done with this chapter in my life when I no longer was gasping over the beauty of the city and I could walk down Carrer de Pelai without looking up. I was done with the art scene, said a loving goodbye to my beautiful city, and headed home.
Fast forward to 2010. Still in therapy over that abusive relationship (mentioned in a previous chapter) I had booked my ticket and planned my trip to India... totally, Eat, Pray, Love -style. I had gotten my shots, saved my money, and booked a 4 week 120 hour Yoga Teacher Training at the Sivananda Ashram in Madurai. This time under the impression I was going to study yoga and become a yoga teacher when I came home, little did I know that I was headed for the biggest rollercoaster my life would take yet.
In our first lesson with the Swami (the teachers at Hindu ashrams are called Swamis) he told us that the first week would be "excitement", the second week would be "hard", the third week would be "even harder" and the fourth week would be "what now?". He nailed it. Let me try to sum up what my days were like.
We would wake at 5:30 for a 6 am meditation and lecture. Then tea. Then 8-10 am yoga class. Then 10 am food. Then 11 am karma yoga (doing chores and such). Then 12 pm break. 1-4 pm lectures. 4-6 pm yoga class. 6 pm food. 8 pm meditation. 10 pm lights out. For every new chapter of the day there would be a bell to guide us.
We would observe silence while eating. Sunday was our day off, but it was often filled with excursions we could choose to go on. Some of which I just couldn't turn down. I walked 500 steps to a holy temple once. Hiked a small mountain to meditate at the top. Visited the holy of holies of a temple normally not available to outsiders (non-Indian peoples). I have other fond memories, like the one time it rained, they said it hadn't rained there for 3 months so about half of us yoginis jumped out into the torrential downpour to dance around and enjoy the cool beautiful rain.
During my two "hard weeks" I had a terrible UTI, my eczema spread to my entire body and I was exhausted all the time. It took me 2 weeks of hard extracurricular work both morning and evening just to be able to get up into a headstand. I never mastered the crow. I learned about the 8 limbs of yoga. About the Bhagavad Gita and about how happiness doesn't equal ice cream. (That's an inside joke for anyone who has done this particular training).
Did I come back a yoga teacher? You bet I did. But I only taught a handful of classes. What my experience in India taught me was that I am here for a completely different purpose. There was no doubt about it after all the meditation and inner work - I am a musician. And my purpose in life is to heal with my words and my songs. I may have left thinking I would return to Copenhagen and start teaching yoga. But I returned with the determination that I was going to move to the US and become a country singer.
Growing up, many of my classmates and peers from church would go to Mallorca or The Canary Islands* or Crete for one or two weeks of sunshine, food, playing in the pool, and relaxation during the summer break. My family never did. It's not that I felt like I missed out, I got to do way cooler things when I was out of school. It was that it made me different.
My faith also made me different. Denmark is a Christian country, they even have a protestant state religion. But most Danes feel like talking about religion is "way too personal". The standard reply to "do you believe in God?" would sound something like this: "Well... I believe there's something more between heaven and earth than I can see." And that's about all they want to say about it. I heard it many times.
My religion was different. It was all about preaching the good word of the Lord. Once again I felt different.
My brazen outgoingness also made me stand apart from my peers. In a world of adolescents, pre-teens, and teens, who made it cool to be shy, who made awkwardness seem better than confidence, I learned to hide that part of me. They did so, of course, by bullying. Anyone different, yet trying to fit in would get their fair share of teasing, ridicule and questions asked simply to provoke. Not respected for being different, not accepted when trying to fit in, I simply hid.
It's no wonder that I spent most of my later teens and early adulthood in each of the extremes: trying to stand out even more (but not in a good way) or trying to be as normal as possible.
First, in my later teens, I fell in with a crowd from church who all wanted to be as different as possible. But not in the way that I was different. My outgoingness and confidence were not desired qualities in this crowd. Rather it was a strange combination of rebels and good girls/boys. All were "good Christians" but somehow we also all wanted to take things to the very edge of what was deemed acceptable in the church. We would dress differently, listen to some obscure and wild music and dance weirdly at parties. Think Bjork, with a touch of Green Day. I learned to like this music, not because I chose it, but because it was "cool", eccentric and weird. Although this crowd did eventually lead me to Barcelona and to leaving that church, both amazing experiences, it was just trying on another kind of different. One that also didn't fit.
Once returned from Barcelona (a story for another episode) I was done being "different". Since that hadn't really worked for me I thought it was time to squeeze myself into that box called "normal", the one that seemed to make everyone else around me so content. Unburdened by belonging to a religion I was now free to take on the Danish normal. The one where I didn't have to talk about religion because it's considered a private matter. Where life was about dating, having a good job, having friends to party with, and talking to your girlfriends in not so low voices at Sunday's brunch about this weekend's escapades. Basically, living in an episode of "Sex in the City". In this time I did make some healthy discoveries. I made great strides in learning about my own opinions. Those that had been so ruthlessly driven by the church were now mine to figure out. I would find myself in conversation not saying a word because I didn't know how I felt about the given topic. Was this my opinion or the church's? It was good and healthy for me to have time to figure this out for myself.
But I was anything BUT healthy. I battled with what was "ok" and what wasn't. I ate and drank away my feelings and spent way too much time watching TV. But that's "normal" isn't it? I guess I had yet to figure out that normal and healthy are not always the same thing. It was a downward spiral of unfulfillment, increasing insecurity, feeling wrong and out of place. Because of course, I didn't belong in the box I was trying to fit in. I got more and more self-critical. This wasn't working! Why wasn't this working? There must be something wrong with me.
Enter a terrible emotionally abusive relationship that further gave me proof that I indeed was wrong, I was broken. I doubted myself so much that I gave my power away and shriveled into a shadow of myself. One that this so-called partner could prey on until there was nothing left. My wakeup call was when it turned physically violent. It jolted me out of my snooze box. I left immediately and I have never seen his face again. Slowly but surely I started finding myself again. I found people who didn't seem to care that I was different. In fact, they loved it about me. Therapy was a huge help, my therapist helped me realize what healthy was. To heck with normal, to heck with different. I learned to ask "who am I?" and "what's right for me?" rather than try and fit into anyone else's world.
From here I finally moved forward. But not before the world around me burned. My family did not understand this new me. I had a nervous breakdown and lost my stressful sales job. I was an exposed raw nerve-ending in a life I had never wanted to live in the first place. This lead me to a new career path and to India where like so many others I found clarity and well, myself. To be continued...
In Denmark, we have a concept called "Janteloven" or more often translated as "The Law of Jante". If you say "Janteloven" to any Dane, they will immediately know what you are referring to. And most of us have felt the influence of this "law" during our life in Denmark.
What is this "Law of Jante" you ask? And why on earth am I bringing it up in one of my blog posts as part of my story?
"The Law of Jante" was first introduced in 1935 by author Aksel Sandemose in his novel "A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks" (footnote: I also saw a translation that said "A Fugitive Covers His Tracks" which not as accurate as the former.) In it, he describes the lead character Espen Arnakke's experiences living in the small provincial town of Jante. In this town, the inhabitants have kept each other down, generation after generation, with envy and narrow-mindedness. It is these unwritten rules that Sandemose has translated into the ten commandments in the "Jantelaw". They are:
Sandemose spells out exactly how the city operates and how the inhabitants think. The city's self-suppressing lower class and the petty-bourgeois who want to be so better-than-thou, teach their children inferiority and distrust of the outside world from a young age, all to make themselves feel better.
It does come across rather two-sided. On one hand, this community is suppressing their peers with these 10 commandments, yet at the same time, them saying "don't think you're better than us" is expressing exactly that they indeed think they are. I enjoyed this conundrum immensely.
The thing I do love about the story, which is not an easy read or even all that enjoyable, is that the lead character finally does muster up his courage to break out and sail the seas, something that in my experience doesn't come easy when met with this kind of deprecating forced inferiority.
I do think Sandemose was making a rather flamboyant sarcastic attempt at showing the small towns in Denmark just how silly this whole concept is, but I think his point fell to the wayside and the concept was adopted. He finally put into words what was already there.
So why does this book belong in my story? Well, growing up in Denmark, this book has made its impact. I don't think the Law of Jante came from a book, I think the Danish community saw itself in these commandments and thought: "yes, that's exactly who we are and what we do". I think of Aksel Sandemose as someone who put into words something we all were seeing and feeling around us, and this whole concept was then made famous as "The Law of Jante". It belongs in my story because this written, yet unwritten law has been an interwoven part of my culture for as long as I can remember and has been there, well-enforced for generations.
I'm sure you can imagine what happens to a little girl, with a big voice and wilder than wildest dreams when she is presented with 10 commandments like this and told, this is a part of your culture. Not only that, but I felt the spirit of these writings intertwine in my daily life, I saw it when I was told not to shine too bright. When I was proud of an achievement, I saw it. If I ever felt like I was going to do something special, I felt it.
I don't think this concept is reserved for the Scandinavians, I believe it is a small town syndrome. I have seen many examples of trying to explain this type of "community culture". One is "Crab mentality" or "Crabs in a bucket syndrome". The urban dictionary describes it as:
"When a single crab is put into a lidless bucket, they surely can and will escape. However, when more than one shares a bucket, none can get out. If one crab elevates themself above all, the others will grab this crab and drag'em back down to share the mutual fate of the rest of the group. Crab bucket syndrome is often used to describe social situations where one person is trying to better themself and others in the community attempt to pull them back down."
This is exactly what the Law of Jante is for me. I am sure many communities have their version of this behavior, we are pack animals and this fear of falling out of the norm did once upon a time mean literal life or death. I'm sure the crabs are just trying to keep each other safe! But when we use this kind of fear against each other to hold each other down, there's a problem. Then it is no longer beneficial. Especially in a time where there is no need for this kind of conditioning.
I do think there is one key difference to the Scandinavian version of "Crabmentality". In Denmark, we owned it. Almost to the point of being proud of it, as something that was innately Danish, that made us who we are. It was never presented as a bad thing, just something we had or even worse something we were. Like a little guideline for how to act in society once we were all grown up.
To some, it may not make a difference one way or the other. But to me, it was devastating. Every time I wanted to sing or step on a stage, every time I excelled at anything, every time, I would be discouraged and feel like I was making everyone else look bad, embarrassed or mad. Here's another kicker: as a person who moved to the US there will still be people who think I am badmouthing Denmark or being disloyal to my roots. I mean in no way to be disrespectful.
Here's the way I see it: if the Law of Jante never made you feel the way it made me feel, then you're good! Denmark is the place for you. Have fun and live out your wonderful life. Just don't let other people tell you how bright to shine or how far to reach. I did what was right for me. Only YOU know what is right for you.
Here is the book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Fugitive-Covers-His-Tracks-ebook/dp/B07F8Z62RV
Side note: I planned to re-read the book in Danish when all this crazy quarantine stuff set in. Since it will be a while before the book can get here from Denmark I had to settle for the translated English version.
This blog post is also available on my new podcast "Packing a Punch" - listen on your favorite podcast player!
My story is not ordinary. I feel pretty ordinary, on the inside. But when I tell people where I come from and how I got here, it usually stirs up a gasp or two. My official story simply states that I grew up in Denmark and now live in the Pacific Northwest, but there is much more to it than that. So I decided to tell it.
My childhood was spent divided on three different continents. Strangest of all, I was born in South America. Valdivia, Chile to be exact. My parents were missionaries, but soon after my arrival, they decided to move back to the US. I was 6 months old. Needless to say, I don't remember anything from Chile at all. I ended up with dual citizenship - but not a Chilean one, as you might think, but a Danish/American citizenship.
My parents met in New York. My mom, from a small town of Sejlflod in Jylland, Denmark. My Dad from the Pacific Northwest. So when they decided, with 6 months old me in their arms to move back to the US, they settled on Tacoma, WA. Kind of fortuitous that my journey should lead me back here - only about 10 blocks away from my first American home. But that's for a later chapter.
My parents divorced when I was three and my mother decided to move us, three girls, to Denmark. First Skanderborg, then what I now consider my hometown, Haslev. This is where I went to school, where I had friends, where I learned about life, and love and longing. This is where I grew up. If you can call yourself a "grown-up" at 17; that's when I moved away from home.
I then became what I would call a "Copenhagen nomade" moving almost 25 times in the 13 or so years I lived there, interrupted only by a 2-year stint in Barcelona - also a story for another chapter.
I finally up-rooted, if I ever had roots, and moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2010 when I was 31.
And that's the short, cliff notes version story. But that's not really how I want to tell it. I want to tell my story by delving into how that story made me, me. What it was like, being a part of two worlds, and what sometimes felt like not being a part of anything at all. Feeling like an outsider for all the wrong reasons, trying so hard to belong, but not feeling like I belonged at all.
As a child, I would spend the entire year going to school and living my life in Haslev and every other summer I would visit my Dad in Seattle. The alternating summers, he would visit us. I spoke (and still do speak) both languages fluently... mostly without an accent in either language. My dad would call every week long-distance to keep in touch with us girls. And in the '80s that was not cheap! My mom, even though she is 100% Dane, would make traditional Danish cooking right alongside fried chicken and cornbread. I felt the duality every day.
Consequently, it somehow made me feel divided. Instead of belonging everywhere, I felt like I didn't belong anywhere.
I suppose, with a different outlook on life, this duality could have made me feel abundant, like a citizen of the world, who had many homes. But my upbringing in so many ways nourished lack and dependence. And it made me feel stretched too thin. I was too American to be Danish and too Danish to be American. So I was, effectively, neither.
Every time I came back to Denmark I would miss the US terribly. But it was never actually true the other way around. This only occurred to me when I finally moved here, that the homesickness I would feel for the US when gone, never set in for Denmark. Yes, I missed my family, but not the culture, not the place itself.
In reality, moving to the US clarified a lot of things for me. I have always been more American than Danish, I know that now. I've been loud, brazen, and always had big dreams and big gestures. Not in any way the proper little girl my mother tried to raise me to be. I had a terrible temper, that felt uncontrollable at times and a big voice that was repeatedly told to not shine too brightly, not to make the other kids feel bad.
This may seem harsh, but anyone from Denmark would notice this as "Janteloven" or "The Law of Jante" - a culturally-induced oppression that the Danes all know too well. Again, this is a phenomenon I will explain in depth in another chapter. Suffice it to say, it's a classic "crabs in a bucket" syndrome. When one tries to climb out the others will pull it back down.
So I suppose I was not entirely caught in the middle. I sometimes describe myself as "half-and-half", with a chuckle. But that doesn't really describe me. In reality, I am more like 75/25. In the last ten years, I have learned to embrace my Danish roots, while also fully encompassing how American I really am. Immigrant heritage and all.
In truth, it probably doesn't matter what continent we are on. Denmark for me was a time in my life when I tried to hide who I truly was, in order to try and fit in. It was a time of listening to others over my own intuition, my inner voice. It was a time of not being and owning who I truly am and what my life's purpose is. The US for me has been the journey of fully growing into my true self. A journey of growth and self-exploration. Of owning all sides of me, even the ones I don't necessarily like. And most importantly listening to my own truth rather than what others say. It's not about Denmark and it's not about the US. It's about what each country represents to me and who I became during each timeframe I spent there.
I can now look at being "half-and-half" and feel grateful that I was blessed with so much diversity. And I can own my big voice and my larger than life attitude and put myself on a stage and feel right at home. But I can also remember where I came from, and what is truly important in life. Love of family, love of friends and most importantly, self-love.