Photography by Angi Sullins and Silas Toball
I admit it. I’m a wonder junkie. An inspiration addict. My fairy-tale fanaticism led me to create immersive Muse Juice Tours around the world so seekers can discover their own personal once-upon-a-time enchantment both “out there” and “in here.” My goal is to leave folks so completely filled up with their own creative juju, they have to run home and create something, anything. And yet I have a guilty secret: I get busy, distracted, and so completely filled up with must-dos and have-tos that magic gets put on the back burner. A lot.
A window can be my greatest guide and most powerful nemesis, encouraging me to while away hours daydreaming, making friends with cloud shapes. I delight in the dreamscaping and then feel guilty for squandering my productivity. My wonder ideas fight with my practical plans, and my coulds often battle with my shoulds.
So in the winter of early 2019, when my dream self encouraged my practical self to go on a month-long journey into the rugged winter wilds of Lapland to explore the land of fairy tales and the concept of hygge—the fine art of intimate, cozy contentedness—a full blown war broke out.
All those hours without internet or cell coverage, Practical Self said. No emails. No business planning. No social media. No binge watching. Ahhhhh. Dream Self said. Windows for dreaming. Books for reading. No emails. No social media. No binge watching. Yeessssss.
Dream Self eventually won. And it changed my life.
It’s four p.m. and completely dark, except for the golden fairy lights swinging from the trees that light our path to the reindeer cabin. Awaiting our arrival is a toasty fire; a pile of thick, fleecy blankets; two cups of lingonberry tea; and a stack of fairy tales—the perfect ingredients for an evening of hygge. My husband Silas and I have rented a tiny, one-room cabin on a reindeer reservation out in the middle of Mother Nature nowhere, north of the Arctic Circle, where days can be a short four hours and deep evening dark up to twenty.
But it’s not just the long night that encourages the cozy conviviality of hygge. Winter wraps its snow-soft blanket around the earth and stills the trees and rivers with a lullaby of hush. One can imagine the Snow Queen living quite lavishly here, feasting on silver apples, while around the corner any minute we’ll discover a clearing in the woods where Tchaikovsky’s Clara and the Nutcracker King sit enthroned in the Land of Sweets surrounded by dancing sugar plum fairies.
Everywhere, everywhere it is quiet. Out in the forests reindeer outnumber humans, and along the paths there are more sled dogs than cars. The hush seems to slow everything down. When in town, people smile at each other and stop to chat on street corners. Eating a meal can be a two-hour process, and the server will never bring your check without your expressed wish. At the market, the cashier calls you by name (if you’re a local) and asks your name and where you’re from if you’re a visitor. Everywhere you look, it’s obvious there’s no hurry to get anywhere.
By day we shoot footage for an episode of my show, The Wonder Hunters, so that awe seekers everywhere can discover the magic of the north. By night we practice the fine art of being cozy. Many a fairy tale has been born in this place, and the research I gathered before landing here indicates there is an ancient tribe of people who still live close to the land—its stories, animals, and spirits. I want to learn more about their way of life, out here under the midnight sky made of swirling lights.
I encounter the Sami people while attending their winter market in Jokkmokk, a tiny town in northern Sweden, just a few hours drive from our cabin. The annual event is a 400-year-old tradition, filled with the sights, sounds, flavors, and traditional Joik music of Europe’s only indigenous people.
One afternoon we sit cross-legged in the lávvu—the traditional Sami tent—with our guide Nils, a Sami tribal leader we met at the reindeer reservation. He pours coffee from a fire-heated black iron kettle, the biggest I have ever seen and something you’d expect to find in Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed hut. We’re each given a kåsa—a handmade cup carved from birch burl that almost every traditional Sami carries on their belt—from which to drink the hearty magic-bean elixir. While the coffee warms our bones, Nils explains to us that we are not the only beings in the tent: Sáráhkká, goddess of women and childbirth, lives in the hearth. Juoksáhkká, the goddess of boys and wilderness, dwells in the kitchen area, while Uksáhkka, who protects babies and children until they’re old enough to go out on their own, lives in the doorway.
Nils also tells us of his life, growing up Sami in a fast-changing culture deeply affected by global warming, technology, land resource mongering. Generation after generation his family followed the reindeer, living in traditional lávvu tents, dependent completely on the land and its provisions. But now the herbivores of the woodlands, like the reindeer and elk and rabbit, cannot feed themselves. Increasing temperatures force early snow melts, causing ice to form over the forest growth that hooves and paws cannot penetrate. Year after year, the animals face starvation, many of the young dying before they grow to adulthood. Sami families have been forced to stop their migration, build houses, and seek new ways of supporting themselves. Nils is the youngest of three brothers and the first to be born in a physical house after his parents decided to settle and build in 1963. He now runs an eco-tourism business that educates tourists on the peaceful ways of the Sami.
“We have no word for war,” he says, sipping his coffee, turning his eyes skyward to follow the smoke as it escapes through the hole in the tent’s roof. One hundred and eighty words for snow, but no word for war. I put my coffee down and wonder if this might be the underlying magic of this land. Not the whipped-cream trees. Not the lavender twilight ice cream rivers. Not the liquid chocolate eyes of the reindeer. Not the fairy-tale forests full of gingerbread secrets and mossy troll stories.
But peace. Peace held like a legacy in the hearts of a thousand-year-old tribe.
Something about the slow pace of contentment must have seeped into our soul bones, and our month is filled with the intimate conversations and easy joy these northern people seem to embody. Even when we’re thrill seeking and adventuring, the peace seems to punctuate our every move. And through it all, Nils’s words haunt and inspire me. Racing through glistening forests on a sled of barking Huskies. One hundred and eighty words for snow. Dancing around the fire under the aurora borealis. No word for war. We hike the storybook woods and frozen rivers, make daily pilgrimages to feed the reindeer, and shiver our way through several cocktails in a bar made entirely of ice surrounded by the most exquisite ice sculptures. But all I can think about is what it would be like to belong to a tribe of people whose very language sings of peace.
I remember a quote from Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, about hygge: “It is a defining feature of our cultural identity and an integral part of the national DNA. In other words, what freedom is to Americans … hygge is to the Danes.” And I realize, perhaps in my valuing of freedom and the American dream of having it all, I sometimes look past all the simple joys I do have. In my rush to accomplish and produce, I might be bypassing the peace and charm of a quiet gratitude. Maybe my business sometimes turns to busy-ness, creating an internal war, when this culture seems to be telling me there is another way.
I’m just sitting there with my feet propped up in front of the fire, doing not much of anything, when I realize that hygge has hijacked my heart, and I feel Dream Self and Practical Self shake hands.
I look out the cabin’s window. The window, my familiar friend and guide, shows me a wave of green sky curtains billowing across the silent stars. I put on my extra pair of thermal socks, my boots, my coat and both sets of mittens and walk out into the snow. I lift my hands in surrender, marveling what the ancestors knew that we might remember, and I send it out to wonder hunters everywhere, those whose hearts might be heavy with warring thoughts and worried fears: May we remember that wonder and enchantment are as natural to our hearts as the rivers and trees are to the earth. And may we one day know the simple pleasures of these northern people. One hundred and eighty words for snow. Dozens of words for love. No word for war.
And hygge, always, for an internal peace … the contentment and joy of knowing that once upon a time is really here and now.