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Lagom: Or, why we’re not Swedes


a pile of balanced smooth stones arranged in bigger to smaller sizes vertically, from the ground up. Set against a blurred nature (green) backgroundBalance. Who knows what this term means anymore? Do you feel balanced? I don’t. Everything is off. Maybe since 9/11/2001, everything’s been off for us as a nation. 

“Off” is that feeling you have when you suffer a loss of a loved one or experience a terrible trauma. The world is still turning, but you’re not. Traffic is whizzing by, packages are showing up, and money is changing hands. But when you look out your window, the scene is in various states of skew. “How can those people just walk down the street like that?” You think. “How can that old woman sit there and sip her tea like nothing?”

We all have these times when we exist in this alternate dimension. I’ve spent my life in it, having experienced a few traumas as a small child. I’ve heard it called “The Other” – a dimension one degree off from the automatic life we’re bred for. Once you’re in, it’s almost impossible to get out. The old metaphor of the forbidden fruit works: information can permanently knock you out of your groove. I contend that everyone is off in some way. Everyone has been broken. Everyone has been, at one point or another, disabused of their bliss. Some are just better than others at finding a new rut to settle into.

I, like many of my suburban mother peers, claw at new ruts. We’d love an escape from this helter-skelter scene we find ourselves in. We are suckers for rut markets, like the wine industry and self-help books.

Cover of Niki Brantmark's book titled Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life

So I, like many of my fellow feminine-mystified women, come across a trendy book about yet another culture’s solution to this skew, I can’t resist taking a look. I have now read about hygge, minimalism, Japanese tidiness, the Tao, the 8 fold path of yoga and Danish happiness (not to mention all of the American and British “positive psychology” research). This week, I’m reading about the Swedish concept of balance called Lagom. “Not too little, not too much,” according to this book by Niki Brantmark, is the rule Swedes live their lives by. 

Ms. Brantmark is a Brit married to a Swede. She translates her adopted culture for us English-speakers via her books and her website, which, admittedly, I’ve spent hours looking through. Everything is beautiful, of course. And tidy. And overwhelmingly white. The Swedes *really* like white. 

“I found myself captivated by this slower, fuss-free way of living,” says Brantmark in her book’s introduction. She offers that “…our Nordic friends take their time to do things right – in a wonderful, uncomplicated way.” 

“How nice for them,” I thought.  

Most of us are forced into ways that aren’t so pretty or starched clean. Despite the bullshit meter I’ve been building as I’ve read all of this “silly Americans don’t know how to be happy” canon, I kept reading. Ms. Brantmark’s subtle superior tone doesn’t ever disappear. She seems to lack an awareness of what life is like for those who don’t live in dense cities like London or Philadelphia. For example, she mentions “forest school” on page 172. From what I can understand, a forest school is a sort of nursery where kids can go year-round and play outdoors while learning about the environment. This sounds like a commercial version of scouting, which we already have but without the market interest. (I think I prefer it that way). The book is simply a descriptive list of traditions in Sweden that, frankly, have their counterparts in our culture. Americans have fewer words for them, maybe. “Lagom” seems to be a great catch-all concept that all Swedes innately know but can’t exactly explain to foreigners. It’s like cash, for Americans.

These little hardcover books make great hostess gifts, if your hostess is ultra-secure in herself and what her messy house looks like. If not, she’ll assume you’re sending her a signal to gut her house and start over. Better stick with wine. 

But what about this concept of the middle? All the talk is about balance lately. Balancing work and life (by the way -work isn’t life? and life isn’t work?), balancing a marriage and kids, balancing meals, activities, hobbies. Everything is “balance.” But how much hate is too little? How much love is too much? Some things simply can’t be balanced. There is no room for some things in extreme, and there is no room for lackluster efforts in others. 

I try to balance my career goals with my mothering goals. Mothering has been winning, so I guess I could be considered off-balance. But as I’m getting older, I’m beginning to finally accept that off-balance is the natural state. We can course correct; we can resettle and resurface. But we’re still in The Other. What’s surprising is when we realize The Other is reality. The dream was an illusion, a hypnotic hum, a rose glass that broke and showed us life’s inner workings. We weren’t put into The Other; we were always there. 

To everything there is a season, we’ve been told. Some seasons are getting longer, though, and we’re all ready to turn the page. Read up on balance, perhaps your inner ears will learn something. Read up on filters, maybe your eyes will see it all more clearly. Read up on aging, and a middle-ground may appear. Every new book delivers promise.

I used to pride myself in being a middle-of-the-roader, that shrugging state sufficient for most things, but now I can see there is no middling when it comes to accomplishing important goals. There may be baby steps, but they are steps and not half-hearted side rolls. We need one or two extremes in our lives, perhaps more. What have you been middling that deserves your guts and gusto?Use Lagom for everything else. Use cold hard cash, in terms of money or time, for the dream. 

a tall, single pile of coins set against a blurred clock in the background


For photo credits (other than book cover) click on the photos to go to the Pixabay user’s page.