Discovering Self and Others: Navigating the Baltics of Change

This post was written by Drew Swasey, a Humanities Center student fellow.


On one of my final days in Sweden, I found myself standing on a small, rickety pier facing the Baltic Sea. To my left was my companion; to my right, a lifebuoy on a post. Staring out at the black water felt as though I was standing on a precipice of change that left me tired. How would I knit this person I had become to the old threads I left at home in a non-sacrificial fashion? Was who I had become even worth the trouble? Would I ever experience this merge again? 

This line of thinking has since crept up on me during little moments in lectures, meetings, car rides, and even family dinners. On the surface, it’s plausible that orienting our thinking can simply be defined by those moments we adjust ourselves in accordance with our new surroundings or circumstances. This would explain my sadness in departure—I didn’t want to leave my new normal. But there seems to exist a deeper orientation, one that shifts more like magma than fire, and it is affected by so many things we desperately try to understand and control. 

Nobel Prize laureate Tomas Tranströmer explored this idea in his long poem “Östersjöar”, or “Baltics”; the title, well-known for its rejection of the singular Baltic Sea, creates a multiplicity of seas we navigate to create our selves: the geographical Baltic, the political Baltic, the occupational Baltic, the linguistic Baltic, the familial Baltic, etc. Tranströmer explained the functions of these Baltics as such:  

The key word in this long poem is the word or the concept “gräns”. It is the boundary between present and the past, between east and west, and it is the boundary between living and dead, the boundary between silence and that which can be articulated (TV2 1980).  

In Swedish, gräns means boundaries, but it also means confines, limits, frontiers, and borders; Tranströmer considers these Baltics as the limits of our persons or the frontiers of our characters. The boundaries of what we think of as our “selves” are determined only by our washing ashore a foreign limit and seriously considering our relationship to it. 

What does it do, then, when we expand our boundaries to include new or unfamiliar perspectives in our orientation of self? Do we become the new thing, or do we stay who we were? This is the very question I was asking myself on that waterlogged pier. 

While not fully revealed to me, the answer has always come via creating a connection with those around me—especially those with different borders to my own. We are not islands; at least, in this world, we hope not to be. We are archipelagos, a collection of experiences and Baltics that join to form our connections to ourselves and those surrounding us. It is a false idea to think we are facing unknown ideas when we expand our thinking because it removes the inevitable second party on the other shore who is trying to do the same. In acknowledging this, we survive change because we can originate it in the good we see in these others and the truths we discover in the world. 

What is our East? Our West? Our North? Our South? At times I cannot answer that for myself, just as I could not answer it on the pier in Sweden; but I can always say who is at my right, who is at my left, who is in my past, and who I want to be in my future as I reach for connection with those around me. I throw a lifebuoy to another, and they catch it; they throw theirs back to me, and we both stand ready to pull our perspectives together. Sometimes this is my past self and sometimes this is someone new, but this exercise is how we knit our current selves to the threads of who we once were. We become archipelagos when we involve others in our personal orientation processes. Yes, this process is worth the trouble, and yes, we absolutely will and should experience it again and again as we work to answer Tranströmer’s consummate question: “how well did they get to know each other?” (Tranströmer 2013, 29).  


Works Cited:  

Tranströmer, Tomas. 2013. “Baltics.” Edited by Patty Crane. The American Poetry Review 42, no. 4 (July/August): 29-31. 

TV2. 1980. Tomas Tranströmer—ett möte sommaren 1980. 

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