As a long-time migrant, who’s lived outside her ‘home’ country nearly as long as she lived within its borders, I’m no stranger to existing in a space neither here nor there. Nor is this particular moment my first professional transition.
It is, however, the first time I’ve needed to truly redefine who and what I am at least in part, moving from a space and time in which I identified primarily as an ‘instructor’ of a very specific type to no longer laying claim to that title or identity. I am uncertain, about what role or position I will occupy in future, in addition to a great many other things. But, perhaps, removing the label ‘ & instructor’ from my email signature was yet one more difficult step in this rather lengthy transition.
Victor Turner referred to that betwixt and between reality that accompanies rites of passage within specific cultures as ‘liminal states’. We transition from one thing to another, but that period in the middle of opposing states leaves us hovering between identities, between what we were and what we will become. Typically, participants in processes and rituals have a label waiting for them to claim and occupy, although what that means for and to them might remain rather undefined and illusive.
I was an instructor until yesterday at 12.01 in the afternoon; I am not sure what I will become in the weeks and months to come.
Despite occupying an undefined liminal state, despite being what is referred to as a liminoid, a weird term applied to those of us fortunate enough to live in this post-industrial gig economy that demands multiple skills and talents, I am not one thing. ‘Instructor’ was simply one identity of many, and one which offered more than a paycheck, becoming an identity which was as much personal as it was intellectually challenging and rewarding in equal measure and unexpected albeit welcome ways.
I am a woman. I am a feminist. I am a wife, thankfully to a fellow feminist. I am a friend, as well as a daughter and in-law. I am a craftivist, a reader and a bibliophile. I am a writer, and I am a bloody good editor, although not of my own texts (who is, I wonder?). I am a runner, gratefully so. I am an anthropologist, more precisely a medical anthropologist. I am an American, despite questioning my ability at this point to physically live in my home country again for so many reasons. I am an activist. I am a lover of coffee and gin, depending upon the time of day. I am a birder, obsessed with tiny, loud baby woodpeckers and finding the nests of our neighbourhood goshawks. I am a migrant. I am a Deadhead. I am a science communicator. I am.
So many of these individual identities featured if not required transitions from one state to another, some instantaneous, others slow-burning transformations which took years. Others still feel like goals, as if I am in the process of becoming them. Some identities pervade my every action, whilst others happily occupy less-visible outward expressions. And, naturally, this list does not represent the totality of who and what I am.
There will come a day when I move beyond this liminality, and enter into a status and identity which will offer some new meaning and new status to me. What that will be, I do not know. When that will be is a nonspecific ‘eventually’.
Years ago, one of my mentors would answer the question, ‘How are you?’, with ‘I am.’
So, for now, I am…. Temporarily, I am becoming something else. And, that’s okay.
Bloody hell the last few weeks have been emotionally draining and exhausting. And, quite simply, so very, very emotional.
Since definitively learning that I did not secure a job I desperately wanted and believe I would have done well in, a job I have also done albeit informally for nearly a decade, I’ve been extremely busy.
Doing what? Well, *that* job.
My teaching schedule this spring has been insane, particularly this last month. From 1 to 31 May, I logged 92 academic hours of teaching, which included 7 different groups of students for specific courses and a two-day workshop on grant writing to researchers from SE Asia. I’ve also had more revision work than I normally do this time of year. Sleep and rest have taken a back seat.
This week, however, the pace slowed down significantly. In total, I *only* had two lectures: one on Monday and one this morning. Today’s class meeting, one of my largest ever groups for the advanced grant writing workshop I designed, adjusted-based-on-feedback, and taught and one of the most active classes ever, concluded. It was also a few doors down from the very first classroom I stepped into as an educator at the University of Helsinki in August 2014.
After we finished and the last students left, I took a few moments to linger and just … be.
What am I feeling right now?
Resignation. Sadness. A sense of injustice. And, gratitude. Mostly, a profound sense of grief as well as accomplishment.
One thing I’ve learned in these last few weeks is that my time in these classrooms has not been wasted. Not only have I learned a tremendous amount about the topics I have taught, I’ve also heard from so many students, current and former, how much they’ve learned and taken from our time together. Out a sense of respect for the students I have had this month in particular, I was honest with them about my fate and future, because this affects them as well. And, perhaps more than it affects me — future course offerings available to them will undoubtedly change and shift next autumn.
I’ve also learned a hell of a lot about myself, in these past few weeks as well as looking back on my evolution as an instructor. And, I have absolutely no regrets about any of it at all.
None of this has been easy. Far, far from it. In fact, this has been one of the most difficult professional moments of my life. Partially because I know it is coming to an end based on decisions entirely beyond my own control. Partially because I do not know what comes next (other than a mountain of reviewing of student work). And, partially because I have had so many last moments over the past several weeks. Lasts I’d rather not be ‘the last’.
The last class meeting on the Meilahti campus and for the doctoral programme in health sciences, the programme I initially felt most able to and comfortable working with. [The room itself was bloody awful; the kindness and support from the students were immense and powerful.]
The last two courses on the Kumpula campus, the fields I felt least capable of communicating with because they focus on things like chemistry, mathematics, computer science and (space) physics — the natural sciences. [Forgive me for thinking of space lasers and robots, but I can’t help myself.] My last courses were immeasurably rewarding and the students were incredibly kind and supportive, as well as engaged and vocal, something I wasn’t really expecting, to be honest.
The last class meeting on the City Centre campus and in the humanities and social sciences. This class was in a room with one of my favourite views of Helsinki, and was with a group which remained in the classroom for more than 30 minutes after our course officially concluded to simply talk and commiserate with me. Leaving with three of the participants, they asked me if I needed a hug, which left me just a weebit more broken.
The last class meeting this morning for students in the environmental sciences was just down the hall from where it all began for me, and the last time I’ll teach my favourite course, Grant Writing, Part II. This group was amazing. They all are, but there was something about the dynamics of this specific course that made it … work. And, as I write this now, I am bereft.
And, come Monday, I will have my very last class meeting for UH’s doctoral researchers as a transferrable skills instructor. I am dreading it.
When I arrived back home this afternoon after class, I received feedback from the first of these lasts. Here’s three snippets from that feedback:
‘Everything in this course had a clear purpose, and it was all beneficial to my learning. I know constructive feedback is important for making improvements, but I can’t think of anything needing improvement. Great course, great lecturer, very unfortunate this is apparently the last time it’s taught.’ – Participant 1, Health 135, Spring 2023
Google translate version: ‘Course instructor Vanessa Fuller is excellent at her job! Grant writing 1 and 2 were both full of information and really provided heaps of learning for real life. Vanessa’s teaching style is very good, she gets the audience interested, focused and talking. She has a positive and encouraging attitude towards every student, and that’s why the audience dares to participate in the conversation, even if the level of the English language is not perfect. The lectures are a good immersion in the necessary academic vocabulary. Since she is a native speaker of the English language, it is really pleasant to listen to her speech. I will be very sad if Vanessa cannot continue to teach these courses. These teachings should be offered to every HY doctoral student in the future.‘ – Participant 2, Health 135, Spring 2023
‘Best teacher’ – Participant 3, Health 135, Spring 2023
I don’t know what’s next. But, at least I know I made some difference, helped some of these amazing young scholars achieve their own dreams. They’ve certainly allowed me to realise my own dreams, one’s I scarcely imagined possible.
Most likely, if you’ve seen any of my recent posts to Facebook you understood that something is in the air. And it’s not just the pollen that accompanies the change of seasons in Southern Finland.
tl;dr version: I recently submitted a formal application for a fixed-term position of University Lecturer in English at the University of Helsinki. I was not shortlisted and my last day in the classroom will be 5 June.
If that news shocks you, you are not alone. So, what’s going on? Why did I apply for a job I have been doing since August 2014, you ask? And, what the hell happened?
There’s a story here, y’all. And, I’ll try to clarify as much of it as I can.
The university has gone through some restructuring, a part of which involved creating several full-time, fixed-term teaching positions which will largely be responsible for offering courses on transferrable (or soft) skills, courses such as those I developed and currently teach. Until now, I have assumed a role akin to an adjunct faculty member rather than through a formal appointment or contract. Each year, normally in February, my boss and the PhD programme coordinators would negotiate how many courses they wanted to offer for the following academic year and on what specific topics. Then, I would take a look at that list and decide how many courses I could feasibly take on. [And, yes, I would normally take on more than I should because… well, students want/need the courses and I love teaching them. If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you also know that I’ve always overestimated what I can reasonably achieve. Whatever.] It’s honestly worked rather well and allowed me an enormous amount of flexibility in deciding my own schedule.
Anyway… the exact structural changes within the university are rather complicated and the specific details were largely rather unimportant to me until now. But, those changes impacted my life and especially my role at the university in quite a few ways, which were just weird and, honestly, slightly terrifying once the next steps became clear. Now, that terror has become a gut punch.
Primarily, it meant the woman who recruited me to teach at the university would no longer be my ‘boss’. Processing that is hard, because Leena has been not just a dream to work with, but also the most supportive, compassionate and protective-in-a-necessary-way direct supervisor I’ve ever had. She’s often protected me from myself. [See above about reasonable and translate that to my work plans.] I’ve had some great bosses, y’all. [Some of you are likely reading this and thinking, ‘Yo! What the hell, V?!’ No offence to you, truly. But, if you worked with Leena, you’d understand.] She’s not just my advocate and sounding board, she’s a great friend as well. Not teaching for her seems just… weird (and, right now, wrong). So, I chose not to process that reality until I absolutely had to. Thankfully, I’ll still get to work with her albeit in a different capacity. I’ll continue revising for the university community, which is part of her division as well. Silver linings and all, right?
The truly terrifying realisation for me, however, alongside with not working for Leena, was my future as an instructor at the university. Throughout the application process, and whilst awaiting word on my professional fate, I have had a lot of students in individual courses and will continue to do so through the first week of June (I have 6 courses to finish, each with at least 14 participants). Knowing how to respond to their queries about future courses is beyond my capabilities. I know neither their options nor until this week did I know my own fate as their instructor. If nothing else, this application process resulted in a thorough understanding of just how much I love what I do, and how much it now defines me. The self-reflection has been enlightening and powerful.
Anyway, I did everything I could to put together what I had hoped was a convincing case for ‘why me’ and what I have to offer this professional community that has been my home since 2014. I was supported by seven incredibly kind and rather embarrassing praise-filled letters of support: three from colleagues at the university and four from former students, one of which was sent to me unsolicited. The deadline for submission was 19 April, and following my own advice to students, I submitted on 18 April.
Alas, two days ago, my worst nightmare became reality, and I knew with certainty that I would no longer be an instructor of transferable skills courses to PhD candidates at the University of Helsinki. The reason? I did not finish my dissertation and receive a PhD.
I do not mind telling you that it was and remains a complete gut punch. I was and am heartbroken. If you’ve followed this journey of mine since 2014, you likely also understand that I have loved my role as an educator and mentor. Walking into classrooms this week has been brutal, y’all.
This entire process, though, has left me weeping on multiple occasions. Not just the rejection itself, although that still is enormously painful. What’s filled me with hope as well as with an undefinable sense of gratitude is the people who have had my back and the extraordinary kindness and lengths so many have gone to in showing their support for my candidacy, either by simply being there for me or actively supporting my application. From the gushing letters of support and recommendations to reviewing bits of my CV, cover letter and/or teaching portfolio, often multiple times, to simply offering a friendly bit of advice or strategically timed word of encouragement, I am left transformed. I will forever struggle to meet my own high standards for myself; but, y’all seriously left everything out on the field for me. And, I’m honestly speechless.
I honestly don’t know.
Well, first I’m finishing up the remaining courses I have committed to for this academic year. I owe that much to my boss, but more so to the students who signed up for those courses and to myself. I’m leaving everything ‘out on the field’ in these courses, y’all, and going out with a bang. I also have a mountainous backlog of feedback to send to past students, and maybe I’ll finally empty my inbox.
Beyond that, I don’t know. I’ll continue revising and try to sort out other more practical concerns as well as soon as I can.
I’m also going to do some healing of my shattered heart. The waves of emotions are tsunamis right now, and my I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit angry. So, I’ll be processing my feelings alongside working out what comes next.
I will close with a few lines from my cover letter. These passages perhaps more than any others encapsulate my feelings on that role I had and loved:
I haven’t even begun to understand how much I’m going to miss the view from various classrooms nor how much I’ll miss standing up in front a room full of eager young scholars. But, I will. And, still, I have zero regrets.
Yes, I read. A lot. It opens me up to other worlds and perspectives. I embrace that possibility, particularly since travelling over the past few years has been impossible and in my own life rather limited over the last decade or so.
Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race‘, is still one of the most important books I’ve read in the last few years. One of my students recommended it to me long before the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. I bought it shortly after that recommendation and it sat on my shelf until the summer of 2020. Whilst focused on race history and racism in Britain / the UK, there are so many parallels to our history in the US, a painful yet important-to-understand history if we have any hope of ever truly creating a society based on justice and equity.
As inspiring as the summer of 2020 was, 2022 feels rather disappointing given … well… everything. From additional book bans and a paranoia around CRT to the House GOP voting together to not support efforts to root out white nationalists and Nazis from the military and police forces, it’s depressing in many ways.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to spend a rather intimate few hours at a reception for one of my writing heroes, Colson Whitehead. A quote of his was mentioned in the conversation from an interview he did with the Helsinki Sanomat, something to the effect that he viewed his place as a writer as not so much able to change attitudes or the world [I’m paraphrasing and likely butchering the conversation]. It struck me as odd, since I have found so much of his writing as well as the writing of others fundamentally shift my world and my perspective. And, historic events unknown previously to some after being fictionalised became known to others. Perhaps it isn’t for me to say how any one author’s works affect the broader public. But, I do feel like whether through random musings and social commentary or fictionalised worlds created, writers all have the power and ability to make us think and perhaps think in ways different to what we’ve always ‘known’. That ain’t nothing.
Following Reni’s lead, I am inclined to rely on the words of another writing hero, James Baldwin, a man long dead, but still painfully and rather chillingly seemingly more relevant now:
“The bottom line is this,” James Baldwin told the New York Times in 1979. “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimetre, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
I’ve been following Jared Yates Sexton on Twitter and other outlets for several years. Given his own background and my own, there’s a certain resonance that echoes loudly and clearly for me in his writing and works. His voice makes sense out of chaos, particularly since he’s living in a country which seems like a complete strange land filled with strangers to me after decades of living aboard despite always and first most being my home. It doesn’t hurt that he is an incredibly beautiful writer.
This book is equally informative and heart-breaking. I honestly just want to give him a giant hug and the offer of a shoulder because goodness me he has lived through some shit. I honestly had no idea.
But, I also want to place this book gently into the hands of so many of the men I’ve known in my life, beginning with most of those I grew up with, beginning with my uncle. Toxic masculinity does not merely hurt women — it’s just as harmful and dangerous to the men who must adhere to and live up to it. Perhaps even more so as evidenced by the self-harm and suicide they experience or rely on in order to ease their own pain.
I’ve long held the belief and attempted to live by the ideals that feminism is not simply a practice for women. If we as a society hope to live up to the idea of equality and justice for all — and I do mean all of us — then feminism must enfold men as well as women.
This books is not just a memoir or a survival tale, documenting and recounting one man’s journey through toxic masculinity, a journey he continues to traverse. It’s a treatise on how we might begin to heal very, very deep, festering, unhealing wounds. It’s a warning and an offer of hope of what we might lose if we don’t begin to unburden ourselves of ideals for men (and women) that relegate half of us to living up to standards which are far, far from possible and the other half of us as mere vehicles to reproduce a system and serve as shock absorbers for the inevitable rage that will bubble up from unending frustrations.
This book resonated with me on so many levels. I hope that everyone I know, particularly those who think of migrants / immigrants as individuals to fear, reads it. With an open mind and an open heart.
This week marks the beginning of the twenty-third year I’ve lived in a country other than my home country. And, I would not change a thing. Perhaps that is why I read it both with a sense of hope and a longing for my own home.
I am and always will be a citizen and product of the United States, and I remain steadfast in my hope for her future as a country and for her people, whether they’ve lived there for millennia or recently arrived. But, I also understand that as much, as I love her as a nation, both her troubled and horrific as well as impossibly hopeful history, that we as a people have much to learn from others and that we must look at ourselves not as exceptional but as one of many people who share this big beautiful blue planet.
I can only speak of my experiences as an American living abroad. I view the wealth of our nation in skewed terms these days given my own personal lens. Whilst migrants exist everywhere, those seeking a life in the US occupy a central position within this book.
Our richness as a nation does not come from simple monetary wealth, but in the richness of the various people who arrive on her shores in search of something better and brighter for themselves and their children. To me, the diversity of our people offers glimpses into the richness of us as a species. Our ways of life. Our traditions. Our glorious, luscious, delicious foods. And, this melding of ideas and ideologies as well as cuisines offers us bits and pieces we may both carry onward and leave aside or savour so completely and fully.
Yes, I am an American. But, I am also one of millions of migrants in this world. My circumstances are my own, but the reality of being a migrant — both setting up and creating a new home whilst missing that which I left — is a reality I share with every other migrant in this world. All we ever hope to find is a place of peace and acceptance, and an opportunity to flourish and survive. Not as outcasts or others, but as valued and valuable members of the communities we now choose to call home.
Normally, I’m quite content to spend time on my own or in the company of my little multispecies, multinational family, going days on end bonding with my freakishly fun kitten and The Cuban, foregoing the company of others, parties, large crowds and a busy disco card. As an only child, I learned early in life to find ways to entertain myself. In this home, there is no end to the entertainment on offer given my flatmates.
Despite my constant companions and sources of fun, support and love, I genuinely miss lunches with friends and colleagues. I miss being out and about in the world beyond our lovely neighbourhood. I miss interacting in person with people other than at the supermarket and postal office. I miss the three-dimensional world. I miss a lot of things I took for granted, much as I suspect we all do. It’s no comfort really that I am not alone in missing these things. Beyond a few lunches with friends safely distanced outside our flat and bumping into a friend or two in the neighbourhood, we’ve spent the last 17 months on our own. And, it’s seriously fucked with my mental health.
After the pandemic forced us all to spend more time on our own and largely exist within our own homes and following a rather heart-breaking early beginning to 2020 for other reasons entirely, I confess: my own ability to find hope and joy waned. So, I did what I do when depression and anxiety hit: I laced up and resumed running. Remaining rather inconsistent until March and April of last year, I improved, I logging more miles and steadily progressing more than I had in… years. July of 2020 found me getting out and moving each and every day, either walking or running, an accomplishment which seemed impossible just a few months previously. Following a foot injury in August, in October to cope with pre-election nervousness and stress, I attempted a running streak — a period of time whereby runners log at least 1 mile or 1.6 km on each and every run each day. That streak lasted until election day on 3 November — 33 days — when I freakishly stubbed my big toe and broke it whilst cleaning my desk of all things, leaving me pretty much unable to walk much less run, despite trying to lace up that day. [I made it down the stairs in our building before giving up and heading back up the stairs feeling rather defeated if not thoroughly silly.] Through that first streak, I logged about 112 km. And, you know, I was proud of myself. Gutted that the streak ended, but I gained so much confidence in the process and along the way.
It wasn’t until 1 January that I resumed running. And, again, I began a running streak. That streak was short-lived (15 days), however, since I incurred yet another injury. Too much, too fast, and another valuable lesson was learned: listen to your damn body, V.
For the remainder of the winter and early spring, once my foot (and pride) healed sufficiently, I resumed running, albeit more modestly this time around. With the deep freeze of February, my runs were short yet thrilling. My plan was simple: no training programmes or plans (like couch to 5k or 10k), opting instead to simply listen to and adjust the length and pace of my runs individually based upon what my body told me it could take each day. One run at a time. I started with 1-mile runs, supplemented with walk–run intervals, typically lasting no more than or just a bit more than 30 minutes. The runs lengthened incrementally, although some days all I managed was a measly mile. But, week on week, the distances grew and my confidence did as well. At some point, I decided that my goal was to comfortably run 5.1 km by my birthday when I turned 51. And, you know what? On 22 May – the day after my birthday – I did it! (I would have accomplished this on my birthday, but the weather that day was absolutely dreadful. So, the next day it was.)
And, this, my friends, is where it gets interesting. From 22 May until this past Sunday, 1 August, I did not miss a single day of working out – either logging a run, a walk or an Ashtanga yoga practice. Not. One. Day.
But, something else happened within this period: from 30 May through 31 July, I ran at least 1 mile or 1.6 km every single day. During that time, I also walked and/or practiced yoga each day as well.
Y’all, I am proud.
My running streak lasted for 63 days, meagre amongst streakers, but massive for me. And, really, the only person I’m competing with is myself.
The only reason my streak ended is because the second Covid-19 vaccine messed with my body a bit, leaving me feeling incredibly poorly on Sunday and Monday after the jab on Saturday. So, rather than risk injury and making myself feel even more miserable, I took two days off.
So, what did I learn?
First, the first mile always lies. It’s rather like depression, curiously – don’t trust anything that first mile says.
Second, ignore the voices of doubt. Running a full 5k is now something I know definitively I can do. It may not be a quick 5k. That little inner voice of doubt once silenced means nothing when it comes to getting to 5k.
Third, pace means nothing, although adjusting it can mean the difference between struggling and finishing strong. I no longer focus on checking my Garmin often to see how fast (or slow) I’m going. The less I look, typically the more surprised I am by how steady my pace is and how fast that last km becomes. I run by feel: starting as slow as humanly possible and focusing on my posture and foot falls, as well as my breath. Slow and steady and further beats fast and short, unless I am short on time, when I will push myself just to see how fast I can go.
Fourth, did I mention telling that inner voice telling me that I can’t to shut up?
Fifth, consistency. I knew each day that I would go for a run, even if it was short. Adjusting my plans or schedules or to-do list necessitating putting a run in there somewhere. I knew each day I would practice yoga after my run once I figured out that it was a nice way to get some stretching in. I missed maybe one day a week, but that was intentional. I knew that each day or at least most I’d go for a walk with my husband in the evening. And, whatever else I planned or needed to do, at least 30 minutes of my day was set aside to run.
Sixth, try not to have too many expectations for a run. The days when I expected my runs to rock were typically my worst. The days when I expected my runs to suck were typically when they were awesome. Weird. But, now I know.
And, finally, take support from wherever you can find it. There was one day recently in that last week when I was certain my streak was already over. Rain and thunderstorms plagued our neighbourhood all day and it wasn’t until about 9 in the evening that a window opened up. The rain wasn’t the issue; lightning was. My darling husband, knowing how much this streak meant to me and providing the support I needed, watched the weather and declared, ‘You’ve got a window! Go! Go for your run now!’ Quick change into my kit, I laced up and ran. And, it was sweet and glorious. (Thank you, Tweetie!) I’ve also received some incredible support from fellow runners and streakers, both individuals I know beyond running and individuals I’ve connected with virtually via various running groups and applications. We all need cheerleaders and I’m grateful to and for mine.
Here are a few statistics (‘STATISTICS!’, as my super supportive says) from this run streak:
Run streak days (RSDs): Kilometres (miles) run: Total distance (walking + running): Number of individual workouts: [Runs] [Walks] [Ashtanga yoga practices] Hours spent running:
The journey of a 1000 miles (or a run streak) begins with a single step (or, in this case, a single run). Thus, I’ve already begun my next run streak. Today, once I complete my run I will be on RSD2.
My first goal is to reach RSD64, to pick up where I left off. My second goal is to reach RSD100 for the triple digits. And, then, who knows? I’m also aiming to finish the year logging 2021 km total distance on foot (I’m at 1402 km as of today) and finish the year with more kilometres logged running than walking, although I’m allowing myself an out on this goal. Injuries, yo.
Running may not allow me to resume lunches with friends or bring this bloody pandemic to an end any sooner. I may offer me the peace of mind I crave knowing that my loved ones, whilst impossibly far away, are safe and out of harm’s way. But, running does afford me some sense of accomplishment and does give me a bit of a respite from obsessing over the news every few minutes and far more frightening statistics. Running certainly keeps me from doom scrolling. Running lifts my spirits, because it really is a form of therapy for me even during relatively carefree days (remember those?). And, that ain’t nothing.
So, rather than focus on the Covid-19 statistics, I’m focusing on my own stats. At least a little bit. And, it helps.
Typically each winter, my husband and I escape to some far away, warm, loud southern destination. Truth be told, the darkness of December does something to our psyche and we embark on a quest to find the light (and to preserve what remains of our sanity).
Covid thwarted those plans this winter. And, we’ve been waging a battle with our minds to simply survive. We’re doing what we can to keep our spirits up and focus on the goodness in our lives.
Whilst we’ve made it to February and the days are lengthening day by day, we have not found much warmth this year. That’s alright. Because with the plummeting mercury, we’ve also had mountains of snow. And, Helsinki is supremely special when covered in white, fluffy, freshly fallen snow. We welcome that new snow, each time it swirls and each time it falls. We say bring it on. It just makes the light all the brighter when shining against the purest white, sparkling snow.
But, it is freezing out. If the temp exceeded -10C / 14F (without the wind chill, mind, which was closer to -20C / -4F when I headed out), I’d be surprised. But, with that colder air, we do get sunshine. And, oh my, friends. That sunshine is gloriously welcome. Give me freezing Arctic air over chilly and endless days of cloud cover any day, and twice on a Wednesday in February.
Because I am a runner girl, on my non-running days I tend to head out for at least a brisk walk. Today, was one of those days. But, more so, I had a plan today beyond just moving and getting some fresh air.
A few of our neighbours have created several community art projects, and I desperately wanted to try to capture some decent photos of at least one of them whilst it’s still around. So, I headed out today in three layers of winter gear to keep me warm and to enjoy that Arctic sun hanging low in the sky. I also kept my trusty Sony RX100 V zipped warmly inside my down jacket until I reached my destination, whilst also protecting my beloved and waning Nokia 8 close to my chest. And, I finally got some decent shots. [NB: On two previous recent outings with a similar objective, both my camera battery and phone died — it was so cold that neither could really take it for long at all. Lesson learnt.]
This ice ornament tree popped up more than a week ago, I think. Whilst out on a run, I spied a woman hanging ice ornaments in various shapes and sizes and colours on a completely bare tree. Those shapes and colours and ice-encased objects have increased seemingly exponentially since then to cover every branch within reach on one specific tree. Some are simply ice, whilst others have been coloured various shades and hues. Flowers such as tulips and carnations and roses along with twigs of pine and eucalyptus are also encased in ice. As a knitter, I was thrilled yesterday to discover that some bits of yarn have also now appeared. Each day, other passers-by stop and admire the ice ornaments and snap pictures of the tree, individual items and themselves with the tree. And, they smile. They stand and admire and smile. Those smiles are welcome. If I’m completely honest, I’ve redrawn my running map so that I can pass this specific tree every day now. It’s really just that lovely, regardless of weather and regardless of the presence or absence of sunshine.
Today, I also stumbled upon a little ice fort neighbourhood children seem to be constructing, one of whom was adding to the structure as I passed by and snapped a few pictures. It’s not very tall yet. But, I suspect it will be soon enough given that the temps are unlikely to rise too much for at least the next week to ten days. The ‘bricks’ are made using milk or yogurt cartons evidently, with tints and hues reminiscent of a rainbow. I didn’t realise until I returned home that a tulip was stuck into and frozen within one of the bricks. It’s thoroughly lovely, made even more special because it’s enticed children to take an active role in deciding its final composition.
These little community art projects are such a treat at a time when bits of joy and delight are most welcome if not utterly necessary. These little bits of random public art really do bring a bit of joy to my world. I suspect I am not alone judging by the faces of those I pass near each of these objects and based on a random conversation I had yesterday whilst stopping to take a few pictures.
An older gentleman I passed near the ice ornament tree commented that he’s seen so many things like this this winter, objects made from frozen precipitation by members of communities. Not just here in Helsinki, but in other places as well. He described stumbling upon snow graffiti for the first time when he was in Estonia recently. He seemed to think Covid is inspiring us all to find ways to entertain ourselves and bring a bit of goodness and loveliness to us and to share with others.
I think he might be right.
In Espoo, not far from us here in Helsinki, a few residents created some rather impressive snow art in a local golf course. And, earlier just after our first serious snow fall, the entire neighbourhood around our flat was dotted with snowmen and women and various large and small sculptures and creatures made entirely of snow.
Snow delights me. But, seeing evidence of others’ delight and their own interpretations of the loveliness of snow and other frozen objects reminds me that I am not alone. We, as members of a community, are not alone, even if we cannot gather or meet up at the moment. As we all isolate and socially distance from one another, we need and search for reminders that we are not in fact alone in our loneliness. And, these little reminders are so, so welcome. We might be collectively frozen in time, repeating endless days of remaining safe and hopefully healthy, working and schooling from home and via Zoom. But, we are not alone.
So, here’s to those who are creating these bits of brilliant frozen community art projects. And, here’s to all things frozen. Even if it’s time.
I did not intend on sitting down and ploughing through the remaining two-thirds of Masha Gessen‘s latest book, Surviving Autocracy, yesterday evening. But, that’s precisely what I did.
I regret nothing. (Although I did completely lose track of time and miss my weekly Ashtanga Zoom class, damnit. Let’s talk about white privilege and first-world problems a bit later, eh?)
It’s incredible to me how much of the past four-plus years have faded into our distant, collective memory. So, so much happened during the Trump administration, so many things which are frankly unimaginable, and so, so many things frankly made infinitely worse during the pandemic.
And, yet, so many of those atrocities were normalised rather efficiently and easily, as we moved from one insanity to another at a breakneck, mind-numbing and soul-crushing speed during his presidency (and seem to be continuing in his post-presidency period). It seems only fitting that now, just a week after his reign of terror (and I chose the word specifically) has ended officially he will also be tried in the Senate for a Second Impeachment. [It is not entirely lost on me or many that 45 Senators whose lives were also put in harm’s way during the Capitol siege voted to not proceed with that Impeachment trial because of course they did. I’m looking at you, Senator McConnell. Directly at you.]
Congratulations, asshole. You truly are the best at impeachments. No one single president has more, and you have 50% of them all to yourself. Well done.
Masha Gessen lays out with surgical precision just how utterly dangerous and quickly all of this has happened. And, I’m guessing, somewhat unintentionally provides sufficient evidence for why we are not quite out of danger of succumbing to Trumpism or quelling full-fledged and inescapable autocracy just yet. Chapter after eye- and wound-opening chapter, and in each of the three primary sections, Gessen provides more than ample evidence that we are in the midst of surviving autocracy.
Years of gaslighting, some of which predates Trump’s ascension, and more than 30,000 lies — not tiny embellishments or repeated falsehoods, but full on lies — and we are still dealing with those untruths, thanking no longer from his Twitter account. But, they are there. And, they continue, perhaps articulated a bit more eloquently and in a better package from a more polished messenger. But, those lies and the gaslighting continue. And, so many lap them up all for individuals so reckless, so vile and so callous and with a blatant disregard for lives of others in their charge.
But, this book is not a pity party or focused entirely on the rage-inducing history we are living. There is hope in between the despair. For instance, Masha applauds the civil society institutions and those with the moral authority who continually and unabashedly stood up to the injustices and atrocities and crimes these last four-plus years. Those institutions, sadly and surgically decimated in Putin’s Russia before they really had an opportunity to flourish and gain a foothold in Russian society and so precious to our own American experiment both at home and abroad, largely saved us. Yet, even they are exhausted and battered and bruised after four-plus years of battle. This final year, specifically, the final moments of mayhem notwithstanding, it’s a wonder any of those civil society agencies or agents still exist. But, resistance is a long war, not a single battle. And, that continued, tireless and sustained pushback has helped us perhaps prevented us from sliding in to complete autocracy. We still have far to go, however, and we can’t forget that more than 400,000 individuals have now lost their lives to Covid-19 in the USb alone from the inactions and lies spun by a White House and administration who cared not about us, but a great deal about themselves and holding on to power by any means necessary.
Since Masha finished this book in April of 2020, they did not have the opportunity to add their reflections on the protests that sprung up nationally and globally following the 8-minute live-lynching of George Floyd or the slaughter of Breonna Taylor of the hunting down and slaughtering of Ahmaud Arbery. Nor did they have an opportunity to fold into their book the genuine attempted to coup in the wake of the November elections and the siege of the Capitol as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ wins were verified, albeit somewhat delayed by those who sought to undermine free and fair(ish) elections in the US. Both of those broader events and the administration’s role in them are incredibly relevant to Surviving Autocracy. I’ll be looking for those reflections.
To me, the power of this book lies not just in Gessen’s arguments and the weaving together of a narrative that fits these last four-plus years flawlessly alongside the brutal realties of autocratic leaders elsewhere in the world. The power lies in Masha’s own history. Maybe it takes an individual who stood up to and faced Putin to rip off the mask of ugliness in a second homeland for us all, showing us those parallels we often think of as ‘other’, when in fact it is ‘us’ in this specific moment. That is, it takes the clarity of hindsight after witnessing an autocratic takeover of your homeland once to lay it all out for those who are too naïve or too hopeful or too optimistic and blindly faithful to an idea to realise that it is already happening to them in your second home.
But, we have survived (most of us), and we must endure and ensure that this never happens again. First, however, we really must stop the autocratic designs being laid out so carefully from taking a firmer hold over us and over those institutions we trust to prevail and protect us.
It might take all of us. But, we can survive autocracy.
Sarah Kendzior is a writer and journalist I admire, for her ability to cut through the noise and get to the point. For her ability to pinpoint larger, more systemic issues which remain largely ignored by far too many. The View From Flyover Country is necessary reading. And, so is this.
Despite buying this book shortly after its release, I put off reading it for some time because I knew it would be too enraging and I was too fragile. I knew, in part, it would break me just a little bit more.
That’s quite something given where we have collectively been these last five years, how we got here and where we are headed.
Because many of those remaining 197 Representatives, all of whom swore an Oath to uphold and protect the US Constitution, despite having survived that horrid event and admitting during the debate that the President was directly responsible for inviting the siege and encouraging the attempt to overthrow the Legislative branch of the government, still voted against impeachment.
Because, yet, another smoking gun from the President himself was ignored. And, whilst individuals in positions to hold him accountable, individuals who feel he is not fit to lead or occupy the Oval Office, watched him hold that smouldering gun and refused to use the very tools in place to preserve the rule of law and those precious checks and balances they claim to hold up as so sacred.
They did nothing. One hundred and ninety seven of them did nothing.
As enraging and tragic and heart-breaking it is to read, Kendzior’s writing is so, so beautiful. Sadly, it is also necessary, primarily to preserve this tale of American tragedy for future historians. Perhaps they can better describe and disentangle how the US ended up here, and ultimately how half of us cheered this madness on.