So far, Iceland is black lava. So far, Iceland is water of all sorts: glacially tinted ocean, sulfur-soaked hot springs, and sleet-laden rain. So far, Iceland is rump-facing sheep and horses with blonde-ancient manes. And today, Iceland is a wish.
According to local lore, the spirit of a woman named Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir’s grants three wishes to the pure of heart who circle her grave and then climb to the top of Helgafell Mountain, or “holy mountain”, without looking back or speaking a word to anybody. Guðrún was a woman who was married four times and then lived out the last part of her life as a nun in a convent she built on the top of Helgafell.
Just a few minutes ago as my friend Jessie and I rounded a corner on our way to the grave, the sky cracked open over the tiny red-roofed church where Guðrún is buried. The sky’s break, a flood of majestic light, was so otherworldly that it appeared as if the church would be sucked up in an ascension of sorts. This perfect, I thought to myself, a sign of wishes granted.
“Okay. So the book says that we circle the grave counter-clockwise. As we walk we think of three wishes. After we make our wishes we hike up the mountain without looking back or talking to anyone.” I look over at Jessie who is sitting in the driver’s seat to see if she’s tracking my instruction. She nods while pulling on her gloves. I continue, “It also says that our hearts must remain pure in order for our wishes to come true.” We look at each other and smirk. “Doable,” I say, “right?”
Jessie is wearing all black. She’s a no-nonsense native New Yorker. Our early life experiences couldn’t have been further apart since I grew up on a farm. Yet when we met at work several years ago, we became fast friends and endured work with sarcasm as our survival mechanism. Pure of heart is not our strongest suit when we are together.
This trip marks both Jessie and my entry into our fortieth year. And, so far, we’ve taken on Iceland as if performing an extreme sporting competition, racing to see every exterior inch of this northern island. But, now, as we push our car doors open against a blustery wind and begin our walk toward the church, I decide that I need to enter the raw interior of my soul. I want to enter into the next chapter of my life with purpose. And the wishes, though superstitious, seem like a good way for me to slow down, reflect, and fully acknowledge what I am leaving behind as I chart a path for my future.
We enter the graveyard and waste no time waking directly to an official looking grave that is framed by a white picket fence. “Three times. Counter-clockwise. Pure of heart,” we repeat our instructions in near unison, knowing that we cannot talk to each other until we come back down the mountain. Next we circle the grave, walking slowly. I bow my head into the harsh wind while I formulate my wishes. Then, without looking at each other, Jessie and I start our ascent up the mountain in silence.
The walk is slow, winding, and cold. And with each step I hold my wishes—lofty aspirations about my future—in front of me while I also review my thirties in flash-card images. While much has unfolded in the last ten years, it is the ending of a sixteen-year relationship within the last one that takes up much of my reflection. In ending the relationship, I had finally done what I thought I’d never be able to do: let go and start anew.
I hear Jessie’s steps on the earth behind me. She is a recent survivor of Leukemia. Her diagnosis had socked me in the gut. Fully recovered now, she spent seven weeks in the hospital not knowing what her fate might be. Her battle makes the ending of my relationship seem like a staccato of an inconvenience.
At the top of the mountain we have two options. We can either descend down a path in front of us, which looks like it was worn by sheep, or we can turn around and go back down the manicured trail that brought us here. Because I can’t consult Jessie, I decide to follow the narrow path ahead. After all, we can’t look back.
The way down is steep, rocky, and a tricking brook makes traversing the path messy and slippery. At several points I have to place my hands on the ground to scoot down. I know, instinctively, that Jessie is probably swearing in her head behind me, questioning my decision. Pure of heart, Jess, I try to send her subliminal messages to remain calm.
After a tricky handful of minutes we finally near the end of the path, which brings us down to the backside of the church. As we get closer I notice a grave sitting outside of the graveyard. I pick up my pace, walk to the grave, and bend down to study the letters etched within the mossy granite. “No! Jess, this is the grave we were supposed to circle,” I say, breaking my silence.
“Unbelievable,” Jess responds, “just unbelievable.” This little mishap is for us a continuation of wrong turns, unexpected weather, and many other blips that often come with traveling. “And, by the way, I don’t think that was the right path,” she says. “I slipped and fell at one point,” she adds.
“Oh well,” I say. “It was an adventure, at least.” Yet while I shrug it off, and we both chuckle at our luck, I feel unsettled. Perhaps Jessie had taken this lightly, but I counted on this moment to—at least symbolically—set the foundation for my next decade.
Defeated, we start back down the road to where we parked. As we walk I study the clouds. All morning they have filtered the sun like a prism. Their beauty, their movement, lightens something within me. I glance at my friend. She is healthy, living. We are so lucky to be here, I think, in this land of sea and sky, of rock and shore. And my heart, while hurting, is healing. It is in this moment that I know that life has been, always will be, more interesting than any wish. Because it is within the unforeseen, the bittersweet, the space after pain where life is always the best, the sweetest. “Thanks, Guðrún,” I whisper and smile.