The poetry of a Swedish autumn (and a Chinese one)

We spent the weekend in the country in our drafty peasant cottage, and while the forest has settled into a dull mass of gray and brown and green, save for the rotting row boats tied up along the river and now suddenly visible, our yard was full of texture, of fallen crunchy yellow mottled leaves, of a towering sunflower still blossoming, of a crunch to the high grass already bowed low by the autumn.

The house was cold too, though it warmed well with radiators and a fire. We’ve had a mild fall here in Sweden, which is not good, really, because it means lots of days in the 40s (5-10 degrees celsius) with no sun. I happened to read a book of poetry this weekend, and lo and behold, the Chinese poet in the eighth century had a country cottage outside of the city.

This is Wang Wei, translated by Vikram Seth:

Autumn Nightfall at my Place in the Hills

In the empty mountains, after recent rain,
A sense of Fall comes with the evening air.
The moon is bright and shines between the pines.
Over the stones the spring-fed stream runs clear.
Bamboos rustle: washerwomen go home.
Lotuses stir: fishing boats make their way.
At its own will, the scent of Spring has gone.
But you, ‘O prince of friends,’ of course may stay.


taking back our own (tiny) adult space in daddyland

I wrote a while back how we were giving the kids the master bedroom, in an attempt to find our own, if smaller, adult space.

Well, we did it.  And did it work?

Oh, yes.

I wrote about this for last week:

“When I wrote (about the shift), our apartment was filled with boxes, and the day seemed as far off as ever before. We got busy, and then realized that the kids needed a transition time.

So their beds moved into the big bedroom, but our bed did not move out.

We fell into the daily grind, an IKEA closet broke on us and, well, I started to think that we wouldn’t make the move. But then my wife just got out the boxes and put the damn closet together.

Within a few hours, we had the room.

And I got nervous.

It’s been so long. How would we really like it? Was it too close? Would we actually lose touch because we were no longer forced to get creative when it came to finding those small moments of intimacy?

Um… the answer is no. Oh my goodness, no. No no no no no. This tiny bedroom feels like the most luxurious hotel. We go in and roll around together. We lay and talk. We hug. We go in by ourselves, leaving the others in the living room to—gasp!—have their own thoughts or do their own thing.”

You can read the whole post here.

would you give your kids the master bedroom? we are.

I write twice a month for a blog on parenting and relationships at

Here is my latest post.  It’s about compact living, and how, in yet another attempt to make our tiny apartment work for a family of four, we have decided to give the kids the master bedroom and move into the tiny, closet-like second bedroom.  Here is an excerpt:

“After years of creating spaces for first our daughter, and then our son, this is about us. We need our own room, a place with no cribs or child beds or towers of chewed-on children’s books, a place where we can lay at night and read, where we can actually fall asleep together.

So we are giving up the big bedroom. It seems a little counterintuitive, but by squeezing our bed into the closet-like second bedroom, it’s giving us an outside shot at an adult space.

We’ve both felt the need for this growing, the months and years of co-sleeping and doubling down on our economical small space slowly building up. Both kids are in daycare now, and I have started work after nine months of paternity leave, while my wife is in school and working. With one parent always home on parental leave, it made for a slower-paced life, which worked well to ground us.  Now we have a busy family calendar, and no touchstone. We miss each other more.

Of course, the kids miss us more, too. We’re not suddenly changing our parenting philosophy. Yes, we’re going to get the children to fall asleep in their own beds. But by morning, we fully expect them to have crept into the big bed in our tiny room.”

You can read the rest of the post here.

choosing a summer in the country over a car in the city

Summer is over in Sweden.  You can no longer walk barefoot in the grass; the earth numbs your feet in 15 minutes.  The geese are in full flight south and the blueberries are overripe and falling to the mossy ground.  The weather is like eastern Croatia in early October, or New York in late October, or maybe Northern California in December.

With two sniffling kids in tow, we took two commuter trains north on Saturday morning for one last weekend in our summer cottage.  Every time I write those words – summer cottage –  I have to explain:  summer cottages are cheap and common in Sweden, we have no water in the cottage and we live near a big road, a train line, a power line and a Swedish army firing range.

Yes, I doth protest too much.  The cottage is glorious.  But it comes at a price – which is a car.  We had to make a choice last year.  Do we buy the cottage and stay in the tiny apartment in the city with two kids?  Or do we buy a car and maybe move to a town house in the suburbs?

We chose the cottage and the cramped space.  This is an easy choice in a mild Swedish summer.  I gushed about it here on the blog  in July.  But it is a choice we start to pay for now.  Getting the family to the train is a pain.  The cottage is chilled, and we can’t light fires because of the out of control toddler.  The kids will get sick.  We will have to turn off the water.  The momentum is gone, the cottage is no good until next spring, and we will be left with 500 overflowing square feet and a long, dark Swedish winter.

But now that the summer has faded, we still like that we passed on the car and big space.  We still like that we have stepped off the pre-set life path of bigger jobs and bigger houses, of cars and long hours of daycare.

It still makes me feel like an adult, making all these seemingly un-adult choices.

A long time ago, in eastern Croatia, my future wife invited me over for dinner.  At that dinner, I went on and on about what is still good about America, about how you can find your way on the edges still, that some sort of freedom still flows there.

That’s how I feel about our life now.  We just made it happen in Sweden.

in the no man’s zone between Daddyland and the world beyond

Tomorrow I leave Daddyland.  The border check will be when I buy my monthly subway pass, I suppose.  For now, I am in a kind of no-man’s land – two days of alone time, waiting around for any emergency calls from my son’s daycare.

They call it “in schooling” and I’ve been doing it for weeks now.  But finally the little guy had to go for longish days – dry runs, so to speak – leaving me alone at home in a disaster zone.  We are switching bedrooms, giving the kids the big one, and taking the tiny one, in yet another attempt to double down on the tiny apartment, after a summer of space in the Swedish forest (more on that later, probably).

But I’m not cleaning because two days of silence is to be treasured.  I had plans but instead I have just laid in bed, not depressed, but reveling in it.  The silence was stressful, actually, my head spinning in the sudden freedom of my thoughts, uninterrupted by a toddler holding a book or a preschooler wanting to play “dead fish” (that game is way cooler than it sounds, a NK original).

I’ll actually have more personal space when I leave Daddyland.  But somehow in the chaos of my 18 months here (between two kids over three years) I’ve come to a sort of spiritual peace, I’ve prioritized my life in a way that soothes me, not producing anxiety or doubt, I’m fascinated by the whole idea of redefining masculinity and fatherhood, and I started really writing again.

Not bad for time dominated by sand boxes, baby food, 4am wakeups and, through the long winter, slush.

creating the life we want in the swedish summer

My wife told me the other day that only three percent of Swedes buy their own summer house. However, it’s not that Swedes don’t have summer houses. I would say at least half, if not a huge majority, of people in Stockholm have a place they go to in the country for at least part of their long summer break.

But the houses stay in families, bound by tradition and the home village. There is no American equivalent because Americans don’t have summer cottages like this – cheap and rustic and gorgeous, spread out through this California-sized country with only 10 million people. It explains why I talk to people at work, and some are heading for summer homes six hours away in a flat forest by no body of water.

We are part of that three percent, our old house that used to be split into apartments for two sisters with no water. It is in a clearing down a hill, which protects us from the noise of the trains and the road. We can walk to the lake in five minutes, the beach in ten.

And we chose this, and that makes us proud. We chose not to buy a car, and subsequently chose a house near a train line, like some 19th century vacationers headed for the Catskills out of New York City. We chose not to move to a bigger apartment. We chose to stretch our parental leave. We chose for E to go to grad school. We chose to buy a summer house close enough to her family so they can visit on her birthday.

For a good while there, we didn’t feel like we had a chance to choose much – and I get this feeling about much of modern digital life, that it spins away from a lot of people. And I am now bound by a lack of car, the needs of two toddlers and swarms of mosquitos in the forest shadows. But it is still a good feeling to be living a life that you consciously created, for better or for worse. And right now, with the sun still up at 9pm, with two kids asleep and a sneaky sleepiness coming over me, it is definitely for the better.

learning to fix up a summer cottage with no car in sweden

We are living in the country now, the Nordic summer sun finally out after a too-long winter.  The swarms of Swedish mosquitos are out too, and we still wait for blueberries though E picked the first wild strawberry yesterday.

We have an old house, one that was left to gentle decay for a couple years before we bought it.  The fence is disintegrating, the bushes on one side have turned into a bramble (albeit a tasty raspberry one in late summer), a drain fell off the roof in front of our door.  Oh, and we only opened the playhouse today because we fear it is filled with mold and won’t let the kids play in it.

So there is a lot to do, many projects.  We had certain priorities, like taking down the playhouse and building a new one, or putting in a new fence, or carting away lots of extra wood.

Then we come up here and are faced with the reality of a life-style choice.   We have no car – we load up two strollers and take the train and walk through the woods to get here.  And we have no drivers license, though I may get one next year.

It’s tough, you know, to haul stuff to the dump in your stroller.  And bring a truck’s worth of building supplies on the commuter train is, well, frowned upon, though we come close with our two overpacked strollers, two huge backpacks and children forced to walk behind (this is not true … usually)

We can’t really complain because we would not have the summer cottage if we had a car.  So we are learning how to renovate on-site, going really earthy out of necessity, not some big statement.

So the fence?  We are taking it down and not replacing it.  We will saw it up and burn it in the fall.

It looks great with no fence.

The playhouse?  There will be no new one.  We bought a tent.  The old one will also get taken down and burned.

We are ripping out the bramble and filling it with dirt from the overgrown root-filled neglected compost pile in the back.

Not fun, but it is good hard work, and we have no choice.

Eventually we will get someone to bring a truck in.  Or I will get the license eventually.

But that is not a problem today, as we’re still trying to get the lawn all mowed at once (it is a huge lawn, and we have very small kids).

And when we need a break, we can always go hang out in the tent.