One of the towns we visited in Iceland is a place called Borgarnes. It was one of the first settlements on the island and was established by a guy named Skallagrímur, who is written about in the Icelandic Sagas as a rather brutal fellow and generally not a very nice person. He made it into the Sagas partly because he was one of the first settlers and partly because his son, Egil, would go on to become one of the heroes of the Sagas. The photo above is a monument in Borgarnes. It stands on a small cliff overlooking the bay and memorializes a Celtic slave, Þorgerður Brák, who was owned by Skallagrímur and who served as Egil’s nanny. As the story goes, one day, the father and son were playing a game, and the son did something that angered the father. The father, being a horrible person, went after the boy to beat him. The nanny stepped between the father and son, giving the son a chance to get away from his dad. Now angered to a murderous state, the father began to chase the nanny, and she ran for her life, knowing that if he caught her, he would kill her. She pelted, with him on her heals, up to the edge of the cliff and, seeing it as her only chance for survival, bravely jumped, plunging into the bay below. When the father arrived at the cliff’s edge, he looked over to see that his quarry had survived her valiant leap, so he picked up a large stone and hurled it down onto her head, killing her.
The monument to this slave stands in honor of her bravery in her willingness to give her life for the life of a child who was not her own and of her compassion in saving an innocent boy who was the son of a horrible man who had wronged her in life and who would be the cause of her death. This beautiful statue says so much about Icelandic culture, that they would memorialize a woman who was not from their country but who, when the chips were down, did the right thing and sacrificed herself so that their hero could live. They also renamed the bay so that the body of water where her body was laid to rest bears her name. While there are obvious connections to make here to current events and the way those from other countries are treated and the way innocent children are being thrust into, rather than out of, danger, what strikes me most about it, perhaps from a broader perspective, is how much the things we memorialize matter. Our memorials, what we put up in stone to show the world tell that world who we were, who we are, and who we want to continue to be. They should remind us of the best of our culture, the best people among us (regardless of where they come from), and the best actions that have been taken on our behalf.
This idea, though, goes deeper than just statuary. I attended an academic conference a few weeks ago, and one of the speakers talked about working with her memories and how she had these bad memories from her childhood that came back to her over and over again. It was like the memories had a hold on her and wouldn’t let her go. She began writing them down as a way to better understand them and also, possibly, as a way to exorcise them or at least give them less power over her. I empathized with her, because I too (as maybe we all do?) have memories, mostly bad ones, that creep up on me and play themselves through my mind, often taking me off guard. In thinking about the idea of memorials and the power that they have to tell us who we were, who we are, and who we can become, I kept coming back to this idea of these powerful negative memories. I began to see them not as just memories, but as memorials in my mind—things that, for whatever reason, my subconscious had decided to erect monuments to, had set in a kind of stone to try to dictate not only who I was, but who I am, and who I can become.
Once I made that connection, I decided that it was time to try to tear down some of the monuments that I had erected. When I find myself dwelling on a negative memory that has plagued me for years, I now attempt to deliberately tear that memory down and, in its place, put up a monument to something more positive, a memory of a time when I was happy, when the people involved were good to me, when I felt safe and at peace. Just like some of the actual monuments in our country that are being torn down, my process is not about forgetting what happened. The events of my past can’t be rewritten. But, I can more carefully and deliberately choose that which I memorialize, that I put on a pedestal as important, that I set in stone as a reminder of who I was, am, and will be. Putting up a memorial to the Celtic slave woman did not bring her back to life and make everything peachy, but it does say that she was important, worthy, someone to be revered and remembered. Working to lessen the presence of the negative stories that run through my mind won’t make those events less hurtful or impactful on my past, but perhaps, by more carefully choosing the memories that become memorials in my mind, I can make them less hurtful and impactful on my present and my future. I’m going to give it a try anyway. Being deliberate and selective about that which we memorialize and what those things say to us and about us is certainly worthwhile.