Private Thoughts

A friend of mine is off in a few days on a vacation trip of a lifetime. If circumstances cooperate when she visits Norway, she will see the Northern Lights, visit the northern part of the country where she will experience the culture of the Sápmi—both the Sami people and the region once called Lapland—and, I hope, visit Oslo. For as long as I remember, I have wanted to visit Oslo and another town nearby, Drøbak, where “The Three Mermaid” statutes frolic on the edge of the Oslofjord. I feel an inexplicable kinship to Norway and the Norwegian people. One of my fictional characters, Kolbjørn Landvik, is an old Norwegian fisherman from days long ago, a crusty but gentle old man who communicates with me mystically over time and distance.

My sense of kinship is at odds with one of my few experiences with Norwegians. though. For example, I learned several years ago about a guy locally (who lives in a small town near Hot Springs) who is the epitome of stupidity: a Trump-loving, gun-toting, hillbilly bully who moved to the U.S. to escape the open-mindedness of Norway. I do not remember details; only that I was stunned to learn that a country with which I was so enamored could have produced such an offensive deviant. Yet, in spite of my disgust with a single lump of Norwegian stupidity, I maintain my deep appreciation for the country, its people, and it culture. A few years ago, my late wife and I drove to some friends’ post-wedding celebration near Madison, Wisconsin (our friends, both male, wanted to celebrate their union in their former home state, a place then disgraced by its rabidly homophobic governor, Scott Walker). There’s a town near Madison, Stoughton, that’s known for its Norwegian heritage. For example, it hosts a celebration of syttende mai (seventeenth of May), the day the constitution of Norway was signed. I felt like I had found Kolbjørn Landvik’s kinfolk when we visited that town during our trip to celebrate our friends’ marriage.

By the way, if I do not post to my blog for a few weeks, look for me in my friend’s suitcase. I may hiding in there. I just hope I survive the flights in the cargo hold.


I firmly am of the belief that deep exposure to—and possibly at least brief immersion in—other cultures should be a requisite for recognition that one has reached adulthood. Failure to demonstrate an understanding that other cultures have intrinsic value should be grounds for treating a person as a perpetual child; a ward of the State, as it were, who is consigned to living as an impotent, non-voting, powerless slug permitted to do only what his elders (both temporally and intellectually) and betters tell him to do. Well, I may be overselling the idea. But I believe exposure to other cultures expands one’s understanding of both the value and the failings of one’s own. And it forces one to realize that acceptance of emotional mistakes like nationalism are akin to deliberately adopting debilitating mental illness as a lifestyle choice.


Yesterday, as I was scrambling to remove everything from the floor of a “study/work area” behind my garage, I came across several certificates of recognition for pieces of writing I had submitted to writing contests. Some certificates were for “first place” and several were for various levels of “good but not quite good enough” recognition. I’ve long since stopped writing for submission to contests. All the contests to which I have submitted in the past were judged by people who were no more qualified to judge my writing than I am qualified to judge the quality of a surgeon’s first cut. Besides, “winning” a writing contest is, for me, hollow and essentially meaningless. In every case, I wrote in response to some sort of prompt, rather than submitting something I wrote because I wanted to write it. So, already my writing was manipulated to fit into a slot that I do not necessarily fit into. My writing does not fit into the square hole or the round hole; it slides around pits and canyons, looking for an escape route. At any rate, I found those certificates. And I wondered why, if they are so meaningless to me, I kept them? Good question. I suppose, in spite of my disdain for writing contests, I am sufficiently vain to bask in the artificial accolades heaped on me through my participation. But not vain enough to keep the certificates after discovering them. I did make a note of which ones I won and in which ones I “placed,” but then I placed the cheap certificates in the recycling bin like the scrap paper they were.


Private thoughts. Secrets. Confidential information. Whatever they are, everyone has them. All of us know things we opt not to share with the world. Maybe we share with one person or a small, close-knit group of intimate friends, but we keep our broadcasts small and close by. The ones I find most intriguing, though, are the ones we share with no one else—the ones we may wish to hide from everyone and the ones we want to share with someone but dare not. We dare not because of the consequences of disclosure. But what could those consequences be? Abandonment. Rejection. Arrest and imprisonment. Ridicule. Wave after wave of embarrassment. Diminution of social position. Assignment of pariah status. Or nothing. Nothing at all. But fear of the possibilities keep us from revealing what we think or know. The concept intrigues me. It finds its way, in one form or another, to my fiction (when I write fiction, a rarity these days). One day, I may write extensively about those private thoughts that so control us. And I may write about what can happen when we open up about secrets. How the way the worlds sees a person can change in an instant. Imagine learning that your closest friend is a murderer. An adulterer. A true believer in the power of witchcraft. A Nazi. A member of the KKK. In love with your wife. Suspicions about the secrets those closest to you might have can torment you, if you let them. That’s another fascinating thing about private thoughts: the reaction of others to what they think may or may not be locked inside one’s head. A psychological thriller could be based entirely on one person’s real or imagined private thoughts and the way a close confidant might react to the idea…hmm, I feel a short story, or even a longer one, coming on.


It’s approaching 7:30. I’ve been up for almost two and a half hours. Back to my old reliable habits.  I think it’s just about time for breakfast.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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