I Wanted To See the Northern Lights Before I Died

Seeking serenity through illness and separation in Iceland


I went to Iceland because I wanted to see the Northern Lights before I died.

I don’t want to impress upon the reader that taking a trip will solve your problems. It will not. I have travelled to many different countries, for work, for school, to visit friends. It was only this year that I really started going on short trips just for the hell of it, by myself. In the past, I would squeeze in short stops, but always had an end goal in mind, other than simply visiting. Most of these trips, while fun and enlightening, are far from transformative. In fact, sometimes going on a trip with the agenda of cheering yourself up can make you feel worse.

But this one did not.

I was about a month into my breakup. I broke up with him the first night after I left my post in Geneva, Switzerland. My intention was to see some more of Europe, where I had been living for the past five years, before going back to the U.S. and beginning intensive treatment. I went first to Istanbul, then Lebanon, then Athens, then Mykonos. Then I flew to Amsterdam, where I had been living for two years, then Berlin, my European hometown. The latter two involved visiting friends, which cheered me up a bit, but my breakup was definitely at the forefront of my mind, all day, every day, and travelling had not eased the pain at all. And maybe that’s ok, maybe it’s even a good thing, as I let myself feel instead of burying it.

My last stop was Iceland. Why did I pick this place? So far, I had had no agenda. I would go on the travel websites and find the absolute cheapest flight out of the city I was in, and take it, factoring in visits to my previous hometowns along the way. Iceland was one of the cheapest out of Berlin. There were plenty of other places I could have gone, plenty of places in Europe I hadn’t seen and wanted to. Iceland had never really been that high on my list. But it just felt right, in that moment, in a way I can’t explain.

And I wanted to see the Northern Lights before I died.

I had had one doctor tell me I was dying. Another said nothing was wrong. Another said I had a rare illness, which I of course googled, discovering my chances were not all that great. Not horrific, but not great. I knew there was a very real possibility that I might not be around all that much longer. This could very well be my last chance to see the Aurora Borealis, something I knew I wanted to do before I died.

Guess what happened?

I didn’t see them.

It was cloudy all week. I drove around on the last night, hoping against hope, but I saw nothing but clouds.

I took this as a message from the universe, God, whatever: “You’re not done.” My time on this Earth was not finished. It was oddly inspiring to travel to such a remote place for one specific purpose, and to not have that purpose fulfilled. It was a gift of time. It was permission to not do everything I wanted to do, RIGHT NOW, as the cliché movie trope about a dying person goes. Frankly, those people in the movies who suddenly travel the world because they have cancer must not be as sick as I was/am, because I could only manage to get out of bed a couple hours a day, from exhaustion.

So what did happen? I’m not sure. I woke up on the first day, and didn’t have my rental car, so thought I’d just explore the downtown area of Reykjavík I was staying in on foot. It was the crappiest of crappy hotels ever. The shower barely trickled down water, the room was the size of a large table, but who gave a shit?

I first went to the Museum of Photography. It sounds odd, going all the way to Iceland to see a tiny photography museum. But this museum, along with the art museum I’ll get to in a minute, truly changed my life.

There was this exhibit by Richard Avedon. I’ve taken multiple photography classes and studied on my own, and somehow missed this guy. I don’t know how; now that I know about him, I see him everywhere. That’s just how it goes. The exhibit was a series of photographs he had done of the U.S. political elite, following Watergate. He had a unique way of photographing people, in black and white, with a white background, leaving the edges of the photograph intact (only possible with traditional, not digital, photography). He somehow managed to capture the personality of the person. My old photography professor had tried to impress this upon us a lot — you had to connect with your subject, otherwise you’d just get a snapshot. You wanted that person to open up to you, to engage in a dance, and that dance is what would make a great photo. Avedon had done this in a way I can’t describe. Here were the most powerful men and women in the world, and they somehow looked so very human. They looked so vulnerable. Some happy, some sad, some nonchalant, but all so normal. Like they were just your buddies at the bar.

Richard Avedon photographs Marilyn Monroe

At the next museum, which housed contemporary art, was the most brilliantly curated exhibit I have ever seen — six videos shot in the deep underbelly of the Congo’s ongoing civil conflict, all shot in this intense fuchsia filter, all playing at the same time, taking up the entire room, with the lights off. You could not escape this overpowering fuchsia, these soldiers with huge guns marching at you from every direction. There was nowhere to sit, of course, nowhere to look that wasn’t a huge screen with these videos. The music was very, very loud, surrounding you. It was the kind of music you hear in a movie like the Shining, building and building, more like noise than music. I stayed for the entirety, around forty minutes.

Upstairs was an exhibit by Yoko Ono. I was one of those people who hated her, mainly because of what I’d read in various accounts of John Lennon’s life. I blamed her for ruining Cynthia Lennon’s life, for depriving John Lennon’s first son of his rightful father. And maybe that’s all true — who knows, I wasn’t there — but she really is first and foremost an artist. There was even a quote from Lennon, saying, “Yoko Ono is the world’s most famous unknown artist.”

She mainly did performance art. I had previously written this off. I thought it was odd, kooky, and well, not really art. That’s because I didn’t get it. Because I would rather feel smugly superior to someone than consider, even for a second, what the artist might be trying to say.

I started to understand in this exhibition. Most art is very detached. The artist tells you what to see. The artist tells you what the art is. The artist is completely separated from the exhibit.

With performance art, the audience is the exhibit. The audience is the art. The artist has no idea what will happen. For some, as I later learned, after my newfound obsession with this form of art took hold, the whole point was just to see what the audience would do, or to create a connection with the audience. For Yoko Ono’s work, the idea was to allow the audience to really get something.

In one piece, she sits on stage, while the audience is invited to come up and cut off pieces of her clothes, to take home. She is literally giving herself to the audience.

There was a “wish tree,” where you wrote your wishes down and tied them to the tree; there were sky helmets, with pieces of a sky puzzle in hanging helmets, and you were invited to take home some sky; there were peace buttons, with the word “peace” written in many languages, and you were invited to take peace home with you (I picked Hungarian, because I have lived in Hungary and it holds a piece of my heart, so it felt nice to take a piece of Hungary home with me). There were giant maps of the world, with rubber stamps that said “peace” on them, and the audience was invited to stamp the part of the world they wished peace for. Obviously, the Middle East was completely blackened. There was an entire blank wall, where you were invited to write a memory of your mother. I wrote, “She saved my life,” in pencil.

There was another wall where you were invited to paint, and you could see little patterns hundreds of people had left behind. There was a landline, rotary telephone, with a sign that said, “Yoko Ono will randomly call this phone during the exhibition. Guests are encouraged to answer and speak with her.” Of course, my heart raced as I walked by, hoping I’d get lucky, but I didn’t.

I left feeling oddly inspired. I couldn’t explain it. Art does something to me. It activates some part of my brain, or maybe some part of my soul. It makes me feel alive. It makes me feel connected. In the space of an hour, I had discovered two new heroes, including a woman I had disdained just minutes ago, and I realized I had not given performance art a fair hearing.

What else hadn’t I given a fair hearing?

What else was out there that I was missing?

What else had I smugly disdained, that might have been my new obsession if given the chance?

I came for the volcanoes, the Northern Lights, the Blue Lagoon, and I got Yoko Ono?

Maybe it was going without any expectations, just going because it felt right. Maybe it was not getting what I wanted, not seeing those Lights. But something happened to me I can’t explain. When I think about Reykjavík, I smile.

But our story doesn’t end here.

The next day, I drove along the “Golden Circle,” a highway in which you basically hit the big nature points, all in a row. I was very hungry, and the towns were very spaced out, so I figured whenever I hit a restaurant, I would stop there, no matter where or what it was.

I came to a giant hostel in the middle of nowhere, a big, huge house. It was a little new age-y for me. The sign asked me to remove my shoes at the door. I followed the signs upstairs to the kitchen/restaurant, and ordered a pizza. While I waited for them to cook it, I wandered to another adjacent room (this was a huge mansion, after all), a library/reading room. Sitting on the coffee table was Moby Dick. I had never read it. Some of my friends had raved about it, while others said it needed some serious editing. My best friend had said only the last thirty pages were good. Well, I thought, I’ve got an hour here, let’s just read the last thirty pages.

As I sat in this house, in the middle of nowhere, Iceland, with the foggy rain outside, the lava rocks covered with bright green moss, reading this book, something happened to me I can’t explain. I felt a sense of awe and wonder take over me. Travelling can make you a little jaded. The thrill of the road really wears off after a while. Actually, this was different. This wasn’t an excitement necessarily. It was more of a calm. I read about each member of Ahab’s crew dying, one by one. I read about him watching Starbuck sink into the sea, and although I hadn’t read the backstory, I could feel how much he loved this man, a brotherly love that went far deeper than blood ever could. As I read about his heart breaking into a thousand pieces, about his crew telling him they were headed for disaster, but him never giving up, pursuing on and on, I didn’t feel sad.

My relationship, the one I thought would last forever, was over. The man I had spoken to every day, many times a day, for five years, hadn’t spoken to me in a month. The life I had built for myself, everything for this family, the family I had hoped we would have, but never did, was gone. Those future children, that little baby girl I wanted to name Holly, would never be born. I couldn’t tell him this. All day, every day, I wanted to tell him everything. I constantly thought of inside jokes to share with him. Every silly thing, every funny thing, every mundane thing, I wanted to tell him. I was re-wiring my brain. I had to figure out who I was outside of him.

And then I realized: he would never have come on this trip. He doesn’t care about art. He never wanted to have children with me. We are completely, totally different people. It was never just easy. And although I missed him with every single fiber of my being, as though someone had reached inside me and pulled out my small intestine, a small part of me, deep down, knew there was something great coming. I didn’t feel relief, I didn’t feel joy, but I knew that I would eventually.

I knew I couldn’t chase him, try to make him listen to me, try to make him grow up, try to make him the person I wanted him to be. I knew I couldn’t chase that stupid white whale, all the way the death of my crew, my ship, myself. I would not go down with my ship. I would not go down with my sinking relationship. I mourned the loss, so very, very deeply, but I knew I was standing on solid ground. I had felt lost at sea for the last year and a half of that relationship, and I had finally found the life boat.

That night, I went to the Blue Lagoon, the other thing Iceland is most famous for. It was very, very cold, and the hot spring wasn’t as warm as you might think, but it was great. The wind was blowing fiercely, so your head was always stinging with the cold. I sought refuge from the wind under a bridge (the lagoon is huge, with various bridges all throughout it), and a nice couple from Germany joined me. He talked about how he built “tiny houses,” micro homes you could buy for 20k (euro). He was extremely friendly. His wife, a little more shy, was also very warm. It felt so nice, to make a new friend, with no agenda or expectation. And I realized something else: there was a whole, big world out there.

My world has been ripped out from under me. I have defined myself through work and my partnership for so long. With the illness, I can’t work; with circumstances, I can’t be in that relationship. I have had to ask myself: who am I outside of the world of my career? Who am I outside that relationship? I had forgotten how good it felt to have a whole world of people at my fingertips. For so long, it was just the two of us. Our relationship started off with me moving to be with him, creating a life for myself in his hometown, making friends with his friends. We did everything together. I swore I would never be part of “that couple,” but I was.

I ate breakfast every morning at a little corner café. I ordered a latte, or a flat white, or a chai, cupped it in my hands, wrapping myself in the black pea-coat I’d bought on my first day at the thrift shop next door to my hostel, feeling calm, feeling clear, reading the local Reykjavík rag, learning about all twelve of the city’s political parties running for office, waiting for them to bring out my vegan breakfast salad.

Chai latte, courtesy of Stofan Coffeehouse

I learned only one word: takk, or takk takk, meaning thanks. I had only one real moment of convincing someone I wasn’t a tourist, when I went through a toll booth, and said takk takk. Normally, when I travel, I try as hard as possible to blend in, to learn at least a few phrases of the local language, to take the metro and not cabs, to look completely inconspicuous, like I just live there, like I’m not going to the tourist spots, I’m going to work, but in Iceland, I allowed myself to just be there to be there. Not visiting friends, not there for work, not there for studies, not there to do research, just there to be there.

And for the first time in a long time, I felt hope.

I wasn’t particularly happy with where my life was… but I couldn’t help but look forward to where it was going.

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