Finding a hyphen

This post was written by our guest blogger Ruth Tauber. Ruth is a Scottish-Swedish writer who lives near Stockholm. With a deep interest in migration, place and the natural world, she writes compulsively, and loves hip-hop, staring at campfires, ancient Scottish poetry and talking about creativity with anyone who will listen.

In early February, following months of deep-winter apathy, I finally felt the first stirrings of spring energy. It happened to be Imbolc, an ancient Celtic celebration of the returning of the light. I was chewing on an apple that tasted a bit old, no great surprise since it was no doubt harvested in the last colourful days of autumn, before the mercury plunged below zero.

That morning, after the kids had left for school, I went into the forest for a walk. I’ve lived in this house for a couple of years now, and since the forest at the end of the street is more or less untouched, the paths are difficult to navigate. There are few distinguishable landmarks to navigate by, and I have spent many a lunchtime walk getting lost on the trails.

Finally, I have reached the point where I know which route to take according to how much time I have. Instead of signposts and marked trails, there are just small paths, pounded into existence by my neighbours’ feet. A distinctive rock here, a faded red stripe painted round a tree trunk there. Now though, I have been here long enough to know that if I walk straight for about four minutes, and turn right around the big rock, then follow the small path back around in front of the slanted rock that tilts upwards, offering a rare vantage point in the crowded wood, then turn left through the last great trees that rise up like trefoil shafts in a neo-gothic cathedral, I pop out, back on to the unfinished streets that lead me back to my own.

The sun through trees - a forest landscape from Högmora, Sweden
Walking in the forest near Högmora, Sweden

Wherever I have lived, and I have had a lot of different addresses over the years, I have relied upon a short walk to reset. Often it is my mood that needs resetting, sometimes I need to escape someone else’s mood, or there’s a professional or creative frustration that is usually solved by motion. Regardless, a twenty-minute walk is like essential medicine to me. After a couple of years of getting lost in the forest, it gives me a quiet satisfaction to be able to navigate this landscape by only its natural features.

In the last year or two I have found something else that gives me a quiet satisfaction, in the form of a piece of punctuation.

I left Scotland around seven years ago, coming to Sweden as a love refugee, a trailing spouse, a soon-to-be migrant mother. The choice of words that determine our status are pretty grim, and there are a lot of us. People who have chosen, but also not quite chosen, to live in this land.

As I navigated a new culture, a new language, and a new landscape, and I tried to find my place amongst the cinnamon buns and serene lakes, I found myself mourning the person I left behind (who, incidentally, was neither mother nor migrant). That canoe-polo playing, ambitious arts marketer who was carving out a space for herself, both as a writer and professionally, underpinned by a secure understanding of the culture she was living in.

I was thrown into a new city, one whose language is peppered with difficult to pronounce vowels, and whose culture of lake-swimming, beautifully executed watercolour paintings, and elegant typography is both easy to love and easy to resent. Eventually, I found solace in beautiful words and friendly faces. I am now proudly fluent in Swedish, confident enough to banter with the old ladies in the queue for the post office.

But I mourned that writer I left behind, because she was a Scottish writer, and how on earth could a Scottish writer survive without immediate access to ceilidhs, haggis and bagpipes?

Then, during the depths of the pandemic, while I was stuck at home (weren’t we all?) with two small children, I was invited to interview a Scottish writer who had experienced considerable international success, despite not even being based in Scotland. Through that interview, and the rightly celebrated work of this writer in portraying Scotland from afar, I realised I don’t have to mourn the Scottish writer I once was. Like the Scottish-American writer, I could use a hyphen to invite this new part of myself into my identity.

As a Scottish-Swedish writer I can be a writer in this land of moderate mountains and endless forest. I have both the muscle memory to be able to dance the Gay Gordons and I can also weave a flower crown for Midsummer, bake Lussekatter – small saffron infused raisin buns that are traditional to Lucia celebrations on the 13th of December – and know how to dress to stay comfortable while sweating my way around a cross-country ski arena in the brutal pink mornings of deep winter.

By adopting a double-barrelled identity, I no longer need to mourn the writer that was left behind, because she is still here. I can light a candle on Imbolc and a candle on Lucia morning; I might be distracted from the twists and turns of Scottish politics by those taking place here in Sweden, but the dash symbolises an ‘and’ not a ‘but’. We love refugees, we trailing spouses and we migrant mothers see the world through a slightly different lens to those who were raised here, and that is a good thing.

The only thing I can fault myself on now is that it took me so long to figure out that a piece of punctuation could fix my identity crisis.

A candle lit for Imbolic
Ruth’s Imbolc candle

8 Comments

  1. Christopher Tauber

    A lovely piece of writing, – an ingenious use of punctuation.

    • Thanks mum, adding a whole new nationality is not without it’s challenges, but it does have it’s benefits sometimes. x

  2. Thanks for writing this for us, Ruth. I like the hyphenate concept – it’s “Anglo-Swedish” for me! (And the first Swedish dish I learned how to make was Janssons frestelse … Lussekatter call for a lighter touch than I can manage.)

    • I loved the opportunity to think about my position as a temporary ‘Pen Around the World’ John, thank you. Jannsons frestelse is one of my favourites, often gracing our Christmas dinners on both sides of the North Sea.

  3. Frances Denerley

    That’s pure enlightenment Ruth – I love it! X

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