Every year in Sonkajärvi, Finland, zany and athletic men follow the dubious example of Ronkainen the Robber, who led his nineteenth-century band of thieves to neighboring villages to steal women and food. What was once marauding is now a sport—a world championship, in fact. You sling your wife over your shoulders and splash into a pool, stagger up its slope, run toward an obstacle course, hurl both of you over barriers, and dash for the finish line. Reach it first, and you win your wife’s weight in beer.
This is probably how life feels to a lot of men. Or at least how it used to feel when they were the primary breadwinners, expected to be stoic, strong, and successful and make it all look easy. When the pressure grew too intense, some of them stole women from neighboring husbands in the subdivision.
Today’s primary breadwinner is often a woman with a husband, two kids, and a Goldendoodle piled on her back. I suspect she would opt for a yoga class rather than carry them all a few steps farther just for fun.
Wife-carrying leaves me with mixed emotions. It sounds prehistoric, conjuring images of flickering firelight and women slung over one shoulder, screaming. But carrying one’s new wife over a threshold? Carrying your girlfriend out of the lousy factory where she slogs away every day? Something primal, locked deep inside me, still thrills to those images. I am perhaps living in the wrong century. It took me quite a while to convince my polite husband that I liked the idea of him ripping a bodice every once in a while (or more likely, a cotton shirt), and I did not mind sewing the buttons back on the next morning.
How many historical romances are published without a scene in which a man picks a woman up and carries her—over a flooding stream, a mud puddle, out from a fire, off a trail in which she has sprained an ankle, or out of a war zone because she refuses to seek safety while he battles the demons?
Anatomically, it usually is more possible for a man to carry a woman than vice versa. But lord, is the practice out of date. Not only is its charm heteronormative and pathetically fairy-tale, but women have fought too hard to stand on their own two feet.
So nobody carries anybody anymore. Unless they are competing in Finland—or in inspired satellite contests in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Germany, the U.K., Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and the U.S. (Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine). Half goofy, half earnest, the sport does require some practice. But instead of racing over rough, rocky paths slashed with fences and brooks, today’s version takes place on a sandy 253.5-meter track with a shallow pool hollowed out of the middle. Competitors may experiment with three possible maneuvers: piggyback, the over-the-shoulder firefighter’s carry, or what I would call trapeze, with the wife upside down, legs wrapped around his neck.
I wonder if the competitors are all really married. There, too, I am confused: I like the sweet domesticity, the implication of partnership, the removal of any possible awkwardness in the proximity’s intimacy. But wives have been hoisted or dragged for centuries, the legal arrangement granting a sick permission . . .
There is a reason my husband bought me a T-shirt that reads “Hold on, let me overthink this.”
Nonetheless, I dig up the rules: “The wife to be carried may be your own, or the neighbor’s, or you may have found her further afield.” This leeway strikes me as healthy. Sportsmanlike. But still, I will be honest, a disappointment. I even like figure skaters and dancers to be married in real life, the intimacy they enact just a polished version of their hard-won daily interactions.
What does it mean, to carry someone? You might be granting them a reprieve from an immediate debt, “carrying” them without demanding payment, making it possible for them to carry on their journey. These days, this is branded “socialism” or “entitlement.” But to carry is simply “to take or support from one place to another.” A performer who carries an audience has moved them; a politician who carries a state or county has won them, brought them into the fold. Charon carries the souls of the new dead across the River Styx.
When we do not carry each other, we carry our judgments instead. In a Zen parable, two monks, one old and wise, the other a jumpy young grasshopper, encounter a woman who needs help to cross a river. Though they have vowed not to touch a woman, the old monk scoops her into his arms and carries her to the other side. The young monk is appalled, broods for hours, then finally demands to know how the old monk dared break his vow.
“I set her down hours ago by the side of the river,” he replies. “Why are you still carrying her?”
And then there is that sappy Christian story I learned in grade school, in which a man looks back on his life and sees, despite God’s promise to be with him every step of the way, times of crisis when there was only a single set of footprints. When he demands to know why God abandoned him, God corrects him gently: “When you saw only the one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Lovely, but a bit treacly; I prefer the ethereal edge on Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels album:
When you see a man who’s broken
Pick him up and carry him
And when you see a woman who’s broken
Put her all into your arms
At the end of the 2019 wife-carrying competition, a guy did pick up a male buddy, noticeably larger than he was, piggyback, and then a woman jumped on from the front, and he carried them both. In 2015, a British competitor carried a male friend in drag. In 2013, BBC presenters Steph McGovern and Mike Bushell reversed roles, and she carried him.
Maybe we should all start practicing, so we can carry one another when the time comes.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.