Address to the Annual Nordic American Breakfast

Reflections on the Theme “Family and Friends”
November 26, 2013

Good morning, everyone!  I bring you greetings from the students, staff, and faculty of St. Olaf College, now in its 139th year of operation and still firmly committed to nurturing and deepening our ties to the Nordic countries generally and especially to Norway.  As examples of that commitment, the St. Olaf Choir completed this past summer a concert tour of Norway to mark the 100th anniversary of their first tour to Norway.This December PBS will air nationwide a one-hour special, Christmas in Norway with the St. Olaf Choir, filmed in Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral during the choir’s anniversary tour to Norway. The study of Norwegian language and culture flourishes at St. Olaf:  we have the only free-standing Department of Norwegian of any college or university in America.

I’ve been asked to reflect this morning on the topic of Family and Friends. For many of us, families and friends define the holidays, for these days away from work and other pressures provide us with both the time and the occasion to be with one another, to affirm and to renew deeply held relationships, to care for one another, to express our love for one another, to relax in the intimate comfort of those who know us well, and to be thankful for the blessing of those around us.

This morning I’d like to introduce two other words into the conversation about family and friends — “stability” and “change” — and to think for a moment about how those words help to deepen our understanding both of our personal relationships and of our identity as Nordic Americans.

The poet Robert Frost defined family is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. That’s a pretty good way to think about friendship, too. Our closest friends have seen us at our best, at our worst, at our most vulnerable, our most triumphant, our most indecisive, our most happy, and our most sad.  Family and friends represent the verities in our lives, along with faith and freedom, the other topics on our agenda this morning. That’s one of the reasons we cling to family and friends:  they give shape and order to our lives and meaning to our sense of our selves.

That’s the stability part.  Now for the change part.  Embedded within those verities I spoke of a moment ago, and intrinsic to them, is the fact of change.  Families change.  They grow with the addition of a new spouse or partner and  children, and they diminish with the loss of loved ones.  Friends change, too.  They develop new interests, take new jobs and move away, become absorbed in other things, make different choices. The eighteenth-century English writer Samuel Johnson famously said, “A man, sir, should keep his friendships in constant repair,” and we work at that, but change happens nevertheless.

You often hear people say, “Change is good.”  I disagree.  Some change is good. Some is bad. Some is indifferent. As His Majesty King Harald of Norway said in an eloquent address during his recent visit to St. Olaf, “Change is certain. Progress is not.” It falls to us to manage, as best we can, the change that happens around and to and through us, so that as much of it as possible is the good kind.

Which brings me to our Nordic neighbors.  I am guessing that, like me, many of you grew up hearing about, and experiencing, the immigrant culture of our grandparents and great grandparents who left the Nordic countries in the 19th-century for a better life. In my case it was my Norwegian great grandparents who came with friends and family in a little boat across inhospitable seas, survived a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland, finally landed in America, and made their way to Westby, Wisconsin dairy farmers all. I’m talking lutefisk and lefse here, krumkake, aquavit. For many of us, our view of the Nordic countries, seen through the mist of sentiment around family origin, is still colored by traditions that are more vibrant in the upper Midwest than in the Nordic countries.  For example, you’ll find lutefisk and lefse  — not the aquavit because of the whole dry campus thing — on the menu of our Scandinavian buffet at St. Olaf at Christmas time.

But Norway and the other Nordic countries have moved on.  North Sea oil has transformed Norway from one of the poorest nations in Europe to one of the richest. Climate change has made the high north an epicenter of scientific research. The movement of peoples in Europe has made Scandinavia a destination for immigrants of all kinds, and so the countries there are struggling with how to create one out of many: e pluribus unum.

These and other changes in the Nordic countries require us to be open to changes in our relationship with them, just as changes in our families and friends alter but do not overturn those relationships.

So at this Nordic American breakfast, as we give thanks for family and friends, for our ability to comfort in the stability, the familiarity, the intimacy, of those closest to us and to accept the energy and the possibilities inherent in change in those families and friends, let us also regard our Nordic family and friends in the same light:  familiar, intimate, comforting, and at the same time full of new potential, new identities, new energy, new connections.

It’s wonderful to be part of such possibilities. Thank you for your kind attention.