Calgary, -7C, overcast. A large grey coyote in the garden this morning –looked like a mixture between a wolf and a fox.

I calculated today that I have now lived abroad just as long as I lived in Sweden. Who would have imagined that when I took a job that would last for ”2-3” years? I wrote a lot as young, but when I moved abroad, for many years, I felt I didn’t have a language; the Swedish remained that of a 20-year old girl in the 90’s, and the English just wasn’t good enough. Last week, at the launch in Calgary of Wolf Winter, someone in the audience asked if I wrote in English or Swedish. “English,” I said and one of the Swedish ladies in the audience said quietly, “That was probably a good thing.” Now I think I shouldn’t have let ’language’ stop me – I missed writing and I don’t think I was a whole person without it. When I no longer had a choice – I had to put pen to paper – I chose to write in English which I used every day. I’ll learn, I thought. And I did. But it took time. To write Wolf Winter took four years. I quite like writing in something other than my mother tongue – I don’t have perhaps as big a reverence for the language, which gives me a certain etymological freedom. But I apologise in advance for any rambling on this site – please try and bear with my endeavours, strange word choices and any “Swenglish” that might ensue!

On Others

It varies, but not by much. Most often, he comes just as I have put my daughters to bed. If I am still in their room, I hold my breath. Each time, I worry the sound might wake them up. It never does. For them, this noise is only part of ‘the city’. If I have made it out into the kitchen, I hear him earlier – as soon as the vehicle turns onto our street. He drives slowly. Past the twin brick houses and the parked cars. I imagine him tilting the motorcycle ever so slightly as he navigates that turn which is too narrow for two meeting cars and where someone has hit the pavement so the stones are loose and sometimes end up in the middle of the street. Beneath our windows, he stops. The engine rumbles as he waits for the gates to the apartment complex to open. Then he’s gone and our street is silent again.

Darkness falls. The Asian family that lives in the house across the street, turn on the TV. Their balcony flashes blue, competing with the twinkling Christmas lights they never remove. They had a dark-haired baby one month before we had our two. Most nights when I came to the kitchen to warm bottles, or wash bottles, or something else – seemingly always to do with bottles – the lights in their apartment were also lit. Sometimes I saw the mother by the window. The baby was on her shoulder and she was patting its back. She rocked a little. It was too far to make out, but I thought she was singing. I was jealous of her sometimes, for her one baby instead of my two. I too wanted to hold mine on my shoulder and pat their backs, but it always seemed too hard.

I am ready for bed. I turn out the lights. If I tilt my head, I see the yellow light from the streetlamp. When I lie there in the dark, I hear the floorboards in the apartment above us squeak. My daughters call the woman, ‘Lady’. Her doorbell is strident and when it rings, one of my girls will inevitably nod, point to the roof and say, ‘Lady.’

Lady, too, is getting ready for bed. Now she is fetching a book, I think. Now she gets up again: perhaps for a glass of water. It reminds me of when I lived at home. Our kitchen was above my bedroom. At dawn, my father would put on coffee. The floorboards squeaked then, too. I could hear him whistle. Though perhaps I only imagined that.

In a village or a small town, everybody knows everyone by name and by life. My grandmother spent most of her time by her kitchen window, watching who passed on the road in front of her house, always knowing where they were going and why. But it was Iris who was most important. Iris lived in a large red wooden house up the hill on the other side of the road. Her house, and that of Harry and Greta, were the two houses you could see from my grandmother’s kitchen window. But Harry and Greta had their kitchen facing the back (facing the forest – can you imagine?) and the room we could look into (a bedroom? a spare room? I can no longer remember) was always dark. Iris’ kitchen, however, whilst far away, faced ours.

“Bah!” my grandmother would say upon waking, spotting the yellow squares on the house up the hill. “Iris is up first again.”

And before going to bed: “Iris is still up! Does she never sleep?”

And there it was, the same thing I feel, too: the comfort of the parallel lives of others.

“I think everyone has a place where they cannot bear to be touched,” a young hairdresser told me once. It was at a very fashionable hairstylist’s. She wasn’t the hairdresser but the girl supposed to wash my hair. “For me it is the inside of my arms.” She showed me white teenage skin. “I feel almost physically sick if someone touches me there. You know what I mean?”

“Yes,” I said, but knew that there was a time I would have given any such place away as a trophy. Here, take, this is where I cannot bear to be touched – it is yours.

Her older colleague, the stylist, came and brushed the girl away as if she was a hair that had caught on my shoulder. I never went back there, but I thought about that girl a lot.

Newly graduated, I left Sweden to work for a company in Paris. As a big city, it offered privacy. More importantly, it offered privacy amongst people, for I didn’t want to be alone. I still don’t. No, I want people around me – people that I don’t know, to the extent that if there were desks at Kings Cross station, I think that’s where I would write.

In Paris, there were no others. The company I worked for had put me up in an apartment hotel in a commercial district and outside my aluminium-framed window were office buildings, where the lights went out just after seven. The grey stone piazza beneath emptied. If I opened my window and hung over the window sill, I could see the mall, but that closed at eight. And so I took to falling asleep on the sofa to CNN. There were still others out there. Life was still happening. I wasn’t the only one.

We do joke about it. After nine years of marriage, if my husband wakes up first, he still finds the time to arrange his pyjama so it looks as if the person who was inside might have been snatched up by a godly being, leaving me behind. Alone.

But I listen for the sound of the motorcycle. I look for the light in the window opposite. Then there are the footsteps on that someone’s floor, which is also my roof.

On Time

It occurred to me the other day that I might not have the time to read all the books in my bookshelves before I die. I was dusting my bookshelves while balancing on the red kitchen ladder, which is too short and produces awful squeaks but it comes with memories and so it’s the only kitchen ladder I will have. If I continue reading at the pace of today, I thought, in the time that remains after having finished my working day, after having cooked for, bathed, and hugged and hugged (and hugged) and put my toddler daughters to bed, after all chores, and before I myself lie down – full of good intentions, then feeling an exhaustion so large roll in I can’t even fathom stretching my arm out towards the books on my bedside table – I will manage about one book a week. That is 52 books a year. Take away the weeks when perhaps one of us is ill, perhaps someone visits, perhaps I become obsessed with whatever I am writing or thinking about or doing – then might I be left with 45 books a year?

There are the holidays.

If the last two years’ holidays are anything to go by, they will, for the foreseeable future, be filled with water and frogs (pond ones) and plastic cycles and barbequed sausages with lots of ketchup.

45 books a year. For how many years?

Well, it has often been said to me that, as I have inherited the somewhat weaker constitution of the women on my father’s side, I might not live that long. (The women on my mother’s side conversely have all been given the gift of eternal life.) If I am lucky and if there is no unanticipated event, will I be given another twenty years?

45 books a year for twenty years. That is 900 books.

900 books. It seems a respectable amount. Unless you compare it with the annual number of published books which, in the UK, 2011 alone, was close to 150,000 last year.

At this point, I had to sit down. I looked up at the bookshelf I had been dusting, so full that books have to be stacked lying down, rather than standing up.

I could try and sleep less, I thought, but knew as I thought it, that that would never work. I need eight hours sleep a night and any attempt at short-cuts in that domain are paid for dearly and in kind.

Why had I bought all these books? Surely I could have seen that buying five books in a week where you only manage to read one, is senseless?

I had bought them because they had to be read. They still did. No, the problem was time. The perpetual problem of time.

The time of my childhood had a sound. It’s one of the things I remember most clearly.

Tick. Tock.

A loud, slow measure of passing, as gauged by the wooden wall clock in our kitchen.

Tick. Tock.

The sound was peaceful, time’s rhythm being more unhurried than the one that beat within me. As so often with sounds that are continual, I rarely noticed it, but each time I did, it slowed me right down.

I’d be lying on the floor underneath the window, most likely in a tee-shirt and some white, long underpants, feet up against the balcony door. I would see the grey sky between my naked feet. I would have complained to my mother that I had nothing to do and she would have responded that it was good to be bored. A person had to learn to be bored. My mind would wander. Above me hung an old blind on which was hand-painted a whole town: a castle with towers and pinnacles, red houses with white corners, a white church with a clock tower. A river meandered in between the houses and all along it were tall trees with green leaves – maybe aspens in summertime.

The blind floated in the radiator heat and the village came alive – the church bells swung, the river flowed and the trees waved. People strolled arm in arm across the bridges – they talked and laughed. It was Saturday and they were happy because they had the day off…

Tick. Tock.



My daughters might never learn to be bored. Their room is awash with toys and books and has been since the day they were born. Their days are busy with activities. But there is worth to be had in boredom. In your own mind having to create the impetus and the ideas. Will the girls at least learn to be happy in their own company? I don’t know. I need to take care I don’t always entertain them. When they are at their loveliest, happily playing on their own, I need to learn not to interrupt them.

Do I still know how to be bored?

I am not certain of that, either. I cannot remember when last I was. Most things I do seem to be designed to buy me time. If you tap in a larger amount of time on the microwave oven than you need, you can just put the plate back in and press ‘start’ if the time wasn’t enough: you don’t have to reset it. Saved: three seconds. If you order two magnets to open the childproof cupboards instead of one, you have one in reserve in case the first one is lost. Saved: effort. I have developed an array of time-savers and inconvenience-busters. But what I do with all this time I supposedly have saved, I have no idea.

There have been periods in my life when time has behaved differently. When my twin daughters were just born, the pace of time decelerated and came to a halt. I suffered from post natal depression. Or  perhaps it was as my father-in-law said; shock at finding myself forty years old and responsible for two small beings – me, who had even given away the time consuming cat!

“Each minute is like an hour,” I cried to a friend.

“It is only for a short while,” she said, this mother of three, “soon you’ll think in quarters of an hour, then in half hours and one day, you’ll find that time has recovered its speed.”

She looked sad when she said it.

And, indeed, time shuddered, woke up, and began to move again. Slowly, then faster, then back to neck-breaking speed. Unoriginally, now I would give anything to have just one more day of two small beings lying in my arms, and time standing beside us, watching, absolutely still.

In her book Ten Thoughts about Time, the Swedish professor Bodil Jönsson writes about unbroken time (my translation), about how it felt as a child in Sweden to have ten weeks long summer holidays ahead of you. This was before charter trips abroad, before amusement parks, summer classes and camps. You said goodbye to your school friends and you knew you were going to be off forever. I remember it well. There were breakfasts on the stairs outside on the sunny side of the house, berry picking, playing with whoever else was out and about, and in the evening, a jazz record with my father, cucumber sandwiches and milk. I remember sitting on top of the kitchen table eating my evening snack. Oh, the freedom! On top of the kitchen table! Everything seemed allowed.

Today, there is little unbroken time. There are meetings, appointments, phone calls, emails. Nothing is uninterrupted for long. Everything has been awarded a planned number of minutes in advance, not related to value, but because that is how long it is supposed to take. How much time is given to a conversation with a dear friend? An hour? Time for a phone call to catch up with someone? Ten-fifteen minutes? Less? What about the things that weren’t planned for: the chat with the grocer in the shop, the woman who had lost her parking ticket?

I saw two young people hug outside the library the other day. There had been a fire alarm. We were evacuated. We were waiting to be let back in. She was cold and he reached out. As they hugged, they both checked their smartphones over the other one’s shoulder. It reminded me a of a TV commercial I saw playing in the Middle East: “Watch two channels whilst recording a third.” Perhaps today’s young people have abilities different from my own.

Yet sometimes, when we sit by the table, one of my daughters will hush me and her twin sister. Then, as we sit there in silence looking at her, her tiny index finger will start moving like a pendulum.

Tick. Tock.

And then we hear. The sound from the clock on the wall, not a wooden clock, but, well, an IKEA plastic one. And now my daughters will not speak, but revert back to their baby sign language. They will make the sign for airplane, and then for bird, and we sit still and listen to the sounds. I don’t remember teaching them this, but they are only two years old, so I must have. We sit in silence and time slows right back down to here. And now.

Now I have wasted time by pondering it. Pointless. Some might even say indulgent. Unless wasting time belongs to the same category as being bored, that of simply being.

I look at my unread books again and I write this down. Grand words are in my mind. Something like: Small Thoughts On Time, by Cecilia Ekback.

Though surely, if anything, this is Small Thoughts on Cecilia, as glimpsed by Time.

On Roots


It seems the big horse-chestnut tree outside our apartment window will weather this winter’s London storms. It surprises us. Its neighbour fell one perfectly sunny, calm day some weeks after we had moved in.

I came home from work one evening and there it lay, having luckily fallen away from the house and not towards it. Its body was so large it hid the view of the river, but as I passed the tree, it wasn’t hard to see what had had happened. Its root system was insignificant – a mere clod of earth where there ought to have been snarled limbs and broken bones for a tree of that size.

“No roots,” I said grimly to my husband that evening.

“We’ll grow them,” he said, thinking I meant us and our new home country.

I scoffed to myself and thought, we’d have to grow them fast. A chestnut tree can live some three hundred years, the fallen tree had been substantial and if it hadn’t manage to grow roots in maybe a hundred years, then how would we manage? I thought about the song they taught us in Sunday School, the one about taking great care not to build your house on sand, but on rock, for it to last. It was true; London was constructed on clay and sand and gravel. But surely if the horse-chestnut tree had had proper roots, it would have survived? Could you just decide to grow roots? Decide it and do it? What were they, these ‘roots’, anyway?

I pondered ‘roots’ and out came ‘place’, a particular place. Knaften – the village in Lapland that was my maternal grandparents’ home. Memories of evenings by the kitchen table watching night grow; of afternoons in the baking house making Lapp bread – a cloud of flour whirling around us; of days in the potato patch in the backyard, sun hot on my back. How strange that in this village where I never lived, where only a fraction of my childhood was spent, is where I feel they might be: my roots.

Perhaps it had to do with the large shed at the end of the garden in which you could find treasures and keepsakes from generations past – shoes with soles made of wood, rusty skates, the skin of a dog – each item which, if you carried them back to the house, brought on a story. Perhaps that was roots – the stories? The legends that were our past?

“Every family is a novel,” an older French lady said to me. We were sitting in a lawyer’s waiting room. I was there to sell a house. She was amending her will. “Not necessarily a good novel,” she added.

She was preparing to leave this world. Late, she had come to the realisation she didn’t want to be buried in the family grave in town. She had told her relatives and there had been upset. “My whole life I have done my duty,” she said. “I have done whatever was needed from me. Now, when I die, I feel I want to be left alone.”

I thought, surely, it couldn’t matter where she wanted her final resting place? There wouldn’t be a lot of socialising going on.

When we buried my father in the town where I grew up, the graveyard director told me:

“A difficult dig. Lots of old roots and stuff. But there will be two lots here: one for your father and, later on, one for your mother.” She stopped herself. “There is no room for you,” she said. “Do you want us to try and squeeze you in?”

“Oh no,” I said. I didn’t belong in that town.

Later I thought, why on earth would I feel I didn’t belong in my hometown?

Perhaps it has something to do with religion. My family was Christian. Growing up, there was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. The fault of ‘us’ entirely. Now, it seems so silly, but then, we felt we had to be apart. And we were.

In my grandparents’ village, everyone belonged to Church. They all had to love me: we were part of the same system, we had the same root.

Belonging, then?

My grandfather used to say about the Finnish people: “They know what it is like to live under the Russians.”

I like the thought of the past having been marked upon us, imprinted, of sharing things with a vast number of others – even the awful, terrible things. Again, it is like the trees, each year ring telling us something about that year: fire, drought, bitter cold. A Good Year.

Shared stories. Belonging. Language.

I disliked most of the sayings then. Scoffed at them. My grandmother sighing, “Dear Lord”, whenever something happened – me and my mother rolling our eyes. Later, my mother’s many pointless sayings, such as, “Everything can happen.” Oh yes.

Now I repeat them and they give me a strange comfort.

My mother told someone about her phone conversations with me. “We mostly sigh,” she said. And we do. There is that understanding.

I thought about the horse-chestnut tree standing tall.

So how, then, should we form strong roots for the ones who follow after?

I asked my mother. She said she and I were very different. Her roots were shallow, she said. She was not nostalgic. We had to remember it was all about some seed that fell down and sowed itself, with no help from the outside.

“Pine has shallow roots,” she said. “Fir tree roots go deep. But you can dig up a plant with its root and replant it and it can succeed very well whilst a stagnant root can die.”

We sighed.

I put the question to friends on Facebook and one of them wrote back asking if I had heard about TCK – Third Culture Kids? I had not and looked it up. It’s a concept coined by sociologist Ruth Hill Useem and more recently developed by David C. Pollock.

“A Third Culture Kid   (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her   developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds   relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.   Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life   experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar   background.” (Wikipedia)

Dear Lord. I didn’t like it. It seemed poor in comparison with ‘place’, and ‘people’ and ‘language.’

Belonging, I comforted myself. As long as my daughters feel a sense of belonging.

“It worries me,” I said to my mother when she next visited.

We were watching the girls having their snack. One of them spilled her milk.

“Dear Lord,” my mother said and rose to get a kitchen towel.

My daughter repeated her words.

Behind her, my mother winked at me.