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Iceland, An Emotional Landscape

Text by: Erika Anthony

© Erika Anthony
I went to Iceland, because after grad school, I had promised myself a trip — a time to unwind and know what it felt like to be alive again. Working fulltime and going to grad school fulltime sounded like a genius idea, because it was economical, and I was used to multitasking. But it ended up being pretty heinous. I didn't realize how tightly wound I would become. After two years, I had forgotten what it felt like to sit on a chair, my bed, or the couch without thinking of what I should be doing next. I subconsciously started counting seconds in my mind between tasks. Seriously. I would count how long it took to fill a glass of water, brush my teeth, and walk to the kitchen. It was weird. My neck started itching, and I figured I had gotten something from one of my students, most likely a wrestler. So I went to the doctor and instead found out I had stress-induced, adult eczema. In other words, my body was rejecting the way I was living.

Somehow I survived those final months and found myself in mid-June with nothing to do for the first time in two years. All year long, I had been planning different celebratory trips with friends, but just as quickly as a trip was conceived, it was also cancelled due to time or lack of money.

So summer came, and it was amazing for about four days, until I thought I might go crazy. I called the city I lived in, Brea, California to ask for volunteer work, and the woman I spoke with told me they were fully staffed. I was denied volunteer work — this was a low point, and I knew I had to do something, because becoming an avid soap opera fan started to seem like a possibility. I imagined myself running into grad school friends. They would ask how life was going, and I would reply, "Great. I am really into Days of Our Lives." Then they would give me a really disappointed look, change the subject, and back away. That wasn't a reality I wanted.

© Erika Anthony

A went to a friend's BBQ that weekend, and he told me about his recent trip to Iceland. He showed me his pictures, and I was sold: most Icelanders spoke English; it was tourist friendly, safe, beautiful, moderately warm, and rarely frequented. I asked to borrow his map of the country, and he pointed out key places he had traveled. I went home that night and looked up flight prices. Flying to Iceland last minute during high tourist season was pricey. I didn't care. Sometimes in life, we promise ourselves something, and breaking our bank account is more important than breaking that promise. So I bought my ticket and flew out three days later, which gave me just enough time to get excited, but not enough time to freak out and get practical.

I landed in the early morning but wasn't able to check in yet, so I roamed the streets of Reykjavik for a few hours. Eventually, I checked in, showered, and rented a car for the next week. I can't tell you the freedom I felt when I got into that tiny, red Yaris and took off toward day one's destinations. I drove about 30 kilometers inland and found myself in solitude. The beauty of natural hot springs, the stormy sky, and fertile fields overcame me, so I parked the car and took pictures. It felt so nice to stop without needing more purpose than seeing something beautiful and wanting to photograph it. I didn't have to ask anyone's permission.

© Erika Anthony

No, I didn't see Bjork while I was there, nor Sigur Ros, but I did read the weekly paper, in which Bjork was a reoccurring columnist. She had been quoted saying that Iceland had an "emotional landscape." I wasn't sure what she had meant when I first read the article. I have seen Bjork sing, and I have seen her on the red carpet, so I figured she was just being dramatic. But as I was breathing in that fresh mountain air, alone, I had an inkling of the magnificence that lie ahead.

Iceland is a magnificent place, because of its ice and volcanoes. Together, the two have created a beautiful island of extreme landscapes. At the time of my trip, daylight was 20+ hours long. I wanted to see as much of the country as I could, so I planned to spend an entire day driving in every direction possible. I would leave each morning around 6:00 a.m. and drive hundreds of kilometers in different directions and return sometime around midnight, just in time for sunset.

© Erika Anthony

On my second day driving, I decided to drive east, the entire length of the coast. I figured it would take me eight hours and then I would drive the same length back. Within this single day I passed by farms, hillsides, waterfalls, an erupting volcano, a black sand beach, a black rock desert, a glacier, and a glacier pond.

Icelanders like to tease Americans for talking about the weather when they find themselves in awkward situations, but in Iceland, talking about the weather is one of the most important conversations a person could have. This made sense to me when I was driving up the mountainside to the beach. The fierce winds were enough to blow the Yaris off the road, so I had to pull over and wait for the storm to pass. Within a few minutes, it did, which meant I only had a few more minutes at the beach to take pictures before the storm started right back. The random bouts of weather happened all day long. Since I was alone, and could, I pulled over and filmed the quickness of the clouds. In a minute's time, the blue sky was covered with gray clouds, followed by rain and wind, followed by a rainbow, followed by a blue sky, followed by storm clouds, and so on.

© Erika Anthony

That summer, a volcano had erupted, and flights around the world had been cancelled. Instead of paying back the cash the country had borrowed from the EU, they had given back ash. Smoke from the volcano was still pouring into the air, so I stopped for a few pictures of the erupting volcano and then hopped back in my Yaris — this was only a pitstop in the adventures on my agenda.

I stopped to take pictures of the purple and lime green flowers that covered the black rock in the desert and then finally arrived at my destination, the glaciers. I had seen epic pictures my friend had taken here, and I knew I had to see the place in person. I also remember reading that this glacier was as close as Iceland got to Disneyland — tourists would be everywhere. One of the things I had really come to appreciate about Iceland was how quiet it was, so I stopped off at a smaller, neighboring glacier pond that the guidebook said was a place for loners. I turned off the two lane highway and drove a kilometer.

© Erika Anthony

It is difficult to articulate what it is like to stand at the edge of a glacier pond. The air is obviously chilled, but there is also a density to it, which amplifies the quietness of the place. I felt like I was standing inside a picture, a piece of art, because the mountain in the background seemed like a diorama. Everything was motionless, including the aqua blue ice chunks floating in the gray water. It was strange to see the stillness of the water, frozen, but not. I sat for a while on the edge of the hill looking out. And in that quietness, I felt like a person again. I started crying, which was odd, because I wasn't sad.

Here's what happened. Sometimes when life is difficult, we go into survival mode. We don't let ourselves feel, because we can't chance a breakdown. So, we become robotic. We do the menial tasks of each day and hope that eventually we will get through whatever we need to. When I sat at that glacier pond, I remembered what it felt like to feel again. I allowed myself to stop counting the seconds that had been governing my life. I felt like I was returning to the present, and the moment consumed me. I was mad that I had allowed myself to get so out of tune. But as I looked around, I realized that the beauty of this place wouldn't have existed if it hadn't been for the pressure and fierceness of the volcanoes. They were singularly responsible for the vast beauty of the country. So it is with life. Difficulty is mandatory, as it makes way for beauty.

© Erika Anthony

I stayed ten more days in Iceland, experiencing each day in a similar manner. I would wake, pack the car, and drive half the day in a certain direction. I had a few things circled on the map, but mostly I would drive and stop to find pleasure in the simple things along the wayside: abandoned barns, street graffiti, streams, fields of flowers, waves, clouds, city names edged in the grass, horses, whatever. The simplest things held so much boldness. When I learned to stop counting seconds, I returned home.

Slowly, life got busy again. I forgot about Iceland until last week, when I watched the short film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, with my students and was haunted by the song, "A Livin' Man," which plays in the middle and end of the movie as the protagonist is waiting to be hanged. The lyrics read:

A livin' man! A livin' man! I wanna be a livin' man!
In all the world he moves around,
He walks around, he turns around.
I see each tree, I read each vein.
I hear each bug upon each leaf.
The buzzing flies, the splashing fish,
They moves around this livin' man!
A livin' man! A livin' man!
I wanna be a livin' man!

The repetition of "livin'" hit some chord within me, and I opened up my pictures from Iceland. I remembered the deliverance that trip had afforded me and recommitted myself to finding the beauty in the simplicity of each day.

© Erika Anthony

I think traveling helps us refocus, because we are completely removed from the comfort of our daily lives, and we are allowed a moment to reflect on our circumstances. The reality, though, is that we can't always disappear internationally to feel alive — time, money, and responsibilities demand otherwise. The trick, which I am constantly in flux trying to figure out, is how to experience this growth within the confines of daily living, meaning we learn to see the beautiful within the lackluster of mundanity and strife. I asked my 94-year-old grandma how to do this, and she said she hadn't figured it out yet and was tired of trying.

I offer you three parting thoughts that solve nothing, but add profundity to the difficulty at hand:

I believe most people are aware of periods in their lives when they seem to be "in grace" and other periods when they feel "out of grace," even though they may use different words to describe these states. In the first happy condition, one seems to carry all one's tasks before one lightly, as if borne along on a great tide; and in the opposite state, one can hardly tie a shoestring. It is true that a large part of life consists in learning a technique of tying the shoestring, whether one is in grace or not. But there are techniques of living too; there are even techniques in the search for grace. And techniques can be cultivated. I have learned by some experience, by many examples, and by the writings of countless others before me, also occupied in the search, that certain environments, certain modes of life, certain rules of conduct are more conducive to inner and outer harmony than others. There are, in fact, certain roads that one may follow. Simplification of life is one of them.
-Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The glass is neither half empty, nor half full. The cup is the wrong size.
-Buddhist proverb
© Erika Anthony

Oh Me! Oh Life!

Oh me! O life! Of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these,
O me, O life?
-Walt Whitman

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.