At our Christmas gathering in 2008, my sister brought a Star Tribune ad: "Norwegian Reality Show seeking Americans with Norwegian ancestors who are interested in their roots and have never been to Norway." It might have ended, "and whose name is Kari."
As a performer and teacher of pre-Christian Nordic traditions over the past several decades, I have learned to look for and trust coincidental experiences - as in the one thing falling through for an even better thing to emerge. In Norse tradition this is called "following oorlag" (a bit like karma). I have felt the presence of my ancestors in my life and work, but had not yet been to my ancestral home.
Who in a million years would think that my perfect moment would be on reality television?
I don't watch much TV, and rarely a reality show. But it seems that reality television (deeply oxymoronic) brings up the most dysfunctional aspects of a culture. This, it turned out, was the perfect platform for my studies.
In my work, the process of discovering and healing the broken threads of my oorlag, the deep cultural heritage, has revealed the origins of certain dysfunctional behaviors passed down through the generations. I call these dysfunctions "inherited cultural grief."
In Norway, the traumatic events of Christianization by the sword, the Black Plague and several hundred years of Danish rule manifest in many ways. Sometimes oppression becomes ingrained in a culture to such an extent that the oppressed perpetuate it themselves.
Our first reality show challenge, "russefaring," is an extreme example of this phenomenon. In two teams we were sent on party buses with russ - the teenagers who would be graduating high school that spring. We wore our list of drunken debaucheries to accomplish on the pant legs of our russ outfits.
The "russ tradition" was a part of Norway I didn't know about. My immigrant ancestors were tea-totaling Lutherans. The idea of a rite of passage into adulthood that entailed extreme (dangerous, even) drinking, humiliation and sexually explicit activities was a shock to me. I kept saying how embarrassed I was. But the young women on my party bus assured me that russefaring was an ancient custom and everyone does it, there is no shame in it. "Even the king was a russ," one of my guides exclaimed.
My team won our russ challenge and our prize was to wear our bunads (traditional folk costumes) and join the parade on May 17, the day Norway celebrates finally getting its own constitution.
When I got home, one of the first things I did was research this "ancient tradition." Russefaring began in the 1700s, before Norway (in its 400th year of Danish oppression) had its own universities. The Norwegians sent their brightest and best to Denmark to be educated. Russefaring was an intense hazing of the Norwegians. The memory of how it started has been obscured.
One of the difficulties for me on the show was my sense of isolation. As part of the game rules we were not allowed to email or phone home, nor were we allowed much access to the Norwegian crew. As for the other contestants, I thought we might all share some common immigrant knowledge such as lefse and rommegrot. Not so much.
I wanted to express the deeply profound nature of what I was experiencing, yet not be a babbling font of historical facts that were meaningless (even annoying) to others. Clinton Admire, the contestant from Texas, put it in a kind, Southern-gentleman sort of way early on. Climbing down Preikestolen (pulpit rock) he said, "Hiking with you is like hiking with PBS."
In Episode 1 we filmed at Hafrsfjord, the site of the civil war that "unified Norway" under one king. I felt so much pain in this place, where the democratic heathen chieftains lost to the new way of "high king" monarchy and monotheism.
At Hafrsfjord we were filmed eating whale steak and toasting Harald for unifying Norway. In my interview they asked how I felt eating whale. "It didn't feel as controversial as hailing Harald," I replied to the obviously confused Norwegian director.
This was no invading force Harald was fighting. These were his own people who upheld the traditional way of life and spiritual values that he was trying to subdue. My director's response was, "Wow, we could make a whole show just on you."
It wasn't the only time a crew member made such a comment.
My three weeks of filming in Norway were filled with magical coincident experiences. Before I left home I had made a wish list of things I wanted to experience. I was halfway through my list by the second week of filming.
Eventually we headed to Gudvangen, where my great-grandmother was baptized. Viking re-enactors have been building here and I had been in email contact with them for two years. I alerted the producer that I might know some people here; I was supposed to act as though I didn't know them.
And there they were. The very people I had wanted to meet were hosting what would be my final episode. To be Norwegian, we had to prove that we could live like Vikings. Here is where the game-show, history, spiritual purpose and oorlag came clashing together for a final crazy-making week. It would take more space than I have to describe what happened in Gudvangen.
I lost at being a proper Viking by taking extra care in butchering a chicken. I had to leave the show knowing that my relatives were literally just around the corner, but that my ancestors had been well served by me. I was ready to leave. In three weeks' time I had gathered enough material for a book on ancestor memory, oorlag, and inherited cultural grief, and I was weary of doing deep work without the ability to express it.
I accomplished everything on my wish list except for the first item: meeting my relatives and going to the mountain farm. But I am heading back this September with my mother. This is a dream come true as well, going to visit relatives with my mother, deepening the bonds of family and the sense of belonging to Norway.
And I know that the land itself accepted me, the ancestors know me and will welcome me home.