Every-day choices

My schedule these days sucks, if I’m honest. My to-do lists are never-ending.

Between various job responsibilities and shuffling between campuses, volunteering for any number of science communication and university-based events and wanting and needing to spend quality time with my darling husband, I need longer days. Squeezing in a few mental health breaks for a run or a quilty pleasure book or sleep or cooking or any number of other ‘things’ seems absurdly luxurious. Time, much as life, is precious.

But, stepping away from the to-do lists is necessary. I’ve [perhaps] finally learned that lesson so obvious to so many. One item I am placing on my permanent to-do lists is scheduled mental health breaks. Some of these take the form of meditation or at least quieting the mind for a bit each day. Some of these breaks involve grabbing a book rather than my phone when on a bus.

More importantly, each day features some form of lacing up and heading out amongst the trails. When I can, I run. Because, I love running. Recently, the rewards of doing so have been priceless. I’m slow, and I feel horribly out of shape and far from race-ready. But, none of that really matters after a run. And, that’s what I’ve come to focus on lately. That and some of the stunning scenes and quieted mind or much-needed attitude adjustment offered as the minutes and kilometres tick by.

Spring in Helsinki isn’t necessarily gorgeous. Although it can be. Last week, after a rather surprise blizzard hit Helsinki, the views the next day along my run were absolutely incredible — there is nothing quite so lovely as fresh, pure-white snow bathed in abundant late winter sunshine. More than that, my mood after that particular run compared to when I laced up could not have been more different. I felt murderous when I left our flat. I was all about the rainbows and unicorns when I returned. That run was my adjusted my viewpoint enormously not just for that day, but for the days that followed as well.

As my schedule shifts yet again this week, I’m making choices. Why? Because there is only so much time in any one day and at least a portion of that time needs to be spent on preserving my sanity. Not just for me, but for just about everyone around me. So, I choose between accomplishing a few more bits of work each day or walking with my husband (when I don’t have class or haven’t just been on a run) or adjusting my attitude (by lacing up and running a few kms).

Most days, those runs and walks come with rewards. Walks with my husband feature much hilarity, and the opportunity to enjoy one another’s company without the constant pinging of email and messages of various sorts.

When I run, there is nothing else really. It’s an alternate form of meditation for me, one spent in constant movement rather than sat. (Perhaps that’s why it works better for me — sitting idly is torture on some days!) Last week, on that day when I wanted nothing more than to escape from quite literally everything, I accomplished a goal it took me until the end of June to reach last year. That goal might appear rather modest for most runners; for me, it was and is huge. A group I’m a part of consisting of crazy runners from across the globe all aim to run 1018 kms in the calendar year. Last year, I ran a whopping 371 km. My goal this year isn’t necessarily to reach 1018, although I will work towards it. I just want to beat what I accomplished last year. In 2017, it took me until 25 June to reach 100 km. This year, I achieved that milestone on 3 April. Something tells me I’ll hit 371 well before the end of 2018.

Regardless or perhaps against that target number, and regardless of whatever else may be on my to-do list, here’s to choosing me. Hopefully, by doing so, I can be the better, more-present and perhaps more patient version of myself for all those around me.

 

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Happy Finland

What does it mean to be happy? How do we measure it? Ask any one individual or ten random folks, and most likely they’ll have very different notions of how they define happiness.

Finland, in an annual publication from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked first amongst nations on the happiness index. The Guardian perhaps put it best with this:

The UN placing is the latest accolade for Finland, a country of 5.5 million people that only 150 years ago suffered Europe’s last naturally caused famine. The country has been ranked the most stable, the safest and best governed country in the world. It is also among the least corrupt and the most socially progressive. Its police are the world’s most trusted and its banks the soundest.

Not at all a bad place to call home.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation about striving for happiness, that nebulous, elusive ephemeral existence we seek but rarely if ever define for ourselves. The notion of happiness then returned a day later in an entirely separate discussion, again wondering what it actually means to be ‘happy’. And, now, Finland tops the ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report.

Unsurprisingly, the concept—the meaning of happiness—is now foremost in my thoughts.

Beyond any real quantifiable measures and based on a rather subjective comparison of countries and places I’ve called home, Finland by far offers the calmest environment in which to simply be. Life isn’t all rainbows and kittens, naturally. Anyone with whom I’ve had more than a 10-minute conversation about Finland knows that I bitch about lament Helsinki’s weather more than just about anything.

Still, life and living our life centres less on concerns related to meeting our basic needs such as housing, food, etc. than anywhere we’ve resided for any amount of time at all. Our life here remains relatively free from the stress caused by the system in which we live, particularly compared to our lives in Russia, the US and Cuba, respectively. In other words, most of the stress we experience stems from the stuff we have more control over than on anything related to Finland per se.

Finland may not have been on our radar as a potential place to call home, but it certainly has offered us a home and a life in relative calm. And, regardless of how we define happiness or how that definition changes and shifts as we change, we as residents and immigrants face far fewer stresses related to simply living than we have anywhere else.

More than anything, I’m grateful to this quiet calmness in which we exist. And, I’m immensely grateful to Finland for providing it to us. Perhaps more than any other time in our lives, this feels like happiness, in that I feel content.

Thank you, Finland. And, congratulations on yet another milestone.

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Out of habit

It’s been a mere two weeks since we returned from our extended holiday in the sun. And, I still feel out of sorts. Primarily, re-establishing my routine and schedule remains murky at the moment.

I’m not sure that this is entirely a bad thing.

Oddly, this post-holiday confusion that forces me to wrestle with my schedule and how I pass the time isn’t simply the pain that accompanies resuming work. Quite the contrary — I’m happy to be back in the classroom, and enjoying my office-based work immensely. A decent stretch of sleep, rest and relaxation will do that evidently. Falling into a routine for our holiday seemed natural and instantaneous this year. Perhaps that is simply a measure of how much we both needed it. There is a lesson here. And, we’re learning.

Before we left in mid-December, admittedly my mind and body were on auto-pilot. The pace of work in 2017 was relentless. And, exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great year and immeasurably rewarding on multiple levels; but, our holiday reminded me that time is fleeting. Carving out a bit of time for life — those moments beyond work — is necessary. More so, magic happens in that chiselled-out space if only we let it. The mundane somehow becomes memorable.

As we return to our respective routines and all those projects on-hold in our absence, we’re also forming new habits. First amongst these is not working all the bleeding time. I love my job (no kidding, right?); and I’d like to continue loving my job for as long as possible. To do so, I also need to learn to say ‘no’, either because what I’d like or am asked to accomplish is impossible in the time available or because I need to not work all of the time. (Happily, I’ve already managed to say ‘no’ this year, and on a task I normally would have worked day-and-night to accomplish. I’ll take this as a small victory.)

New or re-established habits carried over from our holiday needn’t seem like guilty pleasures. In fact, there’s nothing at all to feel guilty about. Spending quality time with my husband and running or doing a bit of yoga all keep me balanced and mentally healthy and happier. In addition, as with every year, I rediscover my love of books when the 24/7 access to the internet is removed as a possibility. Reading — whether fiction, political commentary or related to my work — provides a healthy distraction and hope in the enormous potential we humans possess.

So, intentionally or not, 2018 thus far has offered an opportunity to form new habits and routines. I don’t mind being out of sorts regardless of how uneasy that would have made me feel in the past.

I’d like to reach the end of this year feeling not quite so tired and rundown. Naturally, that will take work. But, here’s hoping that the work seems more like play and continues to inspire, excite and stimulate me mentally.

(And, for those of you wondering how the half-marathon training is going, don’t ask. I’ll come back to that later…let’s just say one habit I need to re-establish is a running routine. Small steps, eh?)

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Happy 2018 from us to you — and may each day feature a little silliness and just enough laughter to make your cheeks hurt a tiny bit. 

#TBT thankfulness

Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November in the United States, has always been my favourite holiday. I love the gluttony of eating heaps of food which never really feature on menus at other times of year (cranberry sauce, anyone), which inevitably lead to the most interesting leftovers (turkey, mashed potato and cranberry sauce sandwiches on homemade rolls FTW).

But, more than anything, I love the opportunity to spend a day eating, drinking (whether alcoholic or not), being merry and giving thanks to whatever we have for which we are truly grateful.

There’s something simplistically magical about a day devoted to just simply enjoying and reflecting upon the many riches we all possess but typically disregard as unimportant the other 364 days of the year. Annually, the day leaves me more than full regardless of how much I actually eat.

This  year, once again, it’s just a typical cold and grey Thursday in November, as I spend yet another expat’s Thanksgiving far from my home in the United States. This year is just another working day for me, with no real plans to eat turkey or any of the other Thanksgiving-like trimmings. Yet, I’m perhaps more grateful than ever and dare I say rather more emotional this year compared to others. This week and month have provided ample and stark reminders of just how different our fortunes are from a mere five years ago.

In short, despite the absence of a feast, my cup and plate runneth over.

Earlier this month, we had to reapply for permanent residence in Finland. Within two weeks, both of us had our reissued cards, valid for another five years. And, both of us  breathed incredibly loud sighs of relief.

In the moments between receiving our new cards and sending off the old, we both were amazed at how far we’ve come from that hellish time not that long ago. Looking at the photos which identify us as the owners of those cards, our journeys show. We can see how much happier we are. We can see how much less stressed and fearful we both are. We can see how much healthier we both are.

The journey has been hard. It has been heartbreaking and spirit destroying at various moments, and it has challenged us and our resolve at times.

But, we’re here, and we’re both grateful. Enormously, tremendously and inexpressibly grateful.

So, as many friends I miss desperately and family I love dearly sit down with others to eat, drink and be merry, here’s my #ThrowBackThursday of thankfulness. It seems only fitting to share it all with all of you since you’ve helped make it a reality. May I never forget the journey itself or how far I’ve come. May I continue to enjoy this journey through life for years to come, even in the face of obstacles and detours along the way. And, may I continue to be surrounded by insanely supportive folk who help me get from there to here regardless of the starting position or finish line.

Always grateful…

 

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Their success…

I am shattered.

In truth, I’m running out of ways to describe just how exhausted and spent I am at the moment — mentally and physically, but particularly mentally. This does not serve me well when my vocation depends upon the mental acuity to not only communicate well, but to help others communicate their own ideas, plans and findings more effectively.

As a consequence of the need for a mental break and at least a week (or more) of decent nights’ sleep, I confess: lately, I’ve felt less than successful at my job. In fact, I’ve felt like I’m letting my colleagues and my students in particular down.

Today, however, two things happened which reminded me that I’m still doing okay. First, I received an email from a former student, thanking me for helping her with grant writing. After multiple attempts and failures in the past, she received two years of funding for her PhD research. Reading this over my morning coffee made me smile. But, this evening, during an entirely different class on conference presentations, one of the participants shared that she actually won a prize for her presentation at a local conference last week. And, she believed that recognition resulted from her experiences in and feedback from that class particular over the preceding three weeks.

Today was a good day.

My success as an instructor and a member of the extended University of Helsinki community isn’t so much about cataloging accolades for my own resume. It’s much more about these seemingly small-scale successes for my students and colleagues. Their successes are my successes. Their awards reward me even if I am neither recipient or beneficiary. I don’t need to be.

If I am at all effective in my job, these individuals—who spend 12 to 24 hours sitting in a classroom with me or painstakingly address each of my seemingly infinite number of suggestions and revisions—gain one skill or another to help them along in their careers. Whilst I don’t often know what happens to them once they leave my classroom or inbox, I thrive on hearing their success stories and victories. And, it could not be more meaningful; it could not make me happier.

Several weeks ago, I noticed balloons randomly placed around the city centre campus. They seemed so celebratory, although at the time I did not feel at all festive. I honestly cared now why they were there; I just liked seeing them and snapped a picture.

This evening, they seem relevant. And, celebratory in an altogether different way. And, this evening, as with most, I am immensely proud and honoured to serve as a member of this community of brilliant scholars. Here’s to our collective success.

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If this is how it affects me…

A little over five years ago, my husband and I endured what seemed like an impossible task at the time. It felt never-ending. Because of a set of circumstances we could not predict, we found ourselves applying for permanent residence in Finland on grounds then called ‘humanitarian reasons‘.

What strikes me as odd now is how that one event—an event stretching out to nearly a full year—continues to haunt me today.

Humanitarian reasons, or protections, as the Migration service refers to them now, are no longer accepted as justification for residence applicants. Thankfully, that classification no longer applies to us since we now hold permanent residence. I cannot imagine if we had not had that as a valid reason for submitting applications at the time. As an American with that all-important blue passport, I still find it weird that I personally fell into that category at all. Still, then, our only reason for meeting the conditions related to our mutual passports and an odd convergence of circumstances which meant we fit no other viable category.

Today, we will make our way to a Finnish Migration Service (or Migri) service point in Helsinki to renew our permanent residence cards, cards which arrived and filled us with the most immense relief I’ve ever known or am likely to ever feel. Months of waiting in a near-panic state, months of uncertainty and tidal waves of what-ifs should either or both of us be denied residence, months of simply putting everything in our life on hold until we knew what was possible. When those cards dropped to the floor as we ripped the envelope open, we didn’t merely cry, we sobbed and choked and laughed and hugged and cried some more. A period marred more as a form of psychological torture came to an abrupt and welcome end. That torment still awakens me in a cold sweat five-plus years later.

Today’s trip is already so vastly different to that hellish submission process in 2012. Then, we were armed with a bundle of paperwork (which were supplemented by three more bundles in the months that followed). Today, we need only bring our passports, our residence permit cards, and new passport photos. Then we waited hours to be seen in a numbered queue system. Today, we have an appointment.

Yet, the anxiety and worry persists despite the vastly different circumstances. Last night, I awoke in a cold sweat after having a nightmare about my handbag being nicked. What was I most concerned with? My precious residence card being amongst the items stolen and our appointment at Migri. This is not the first anxiety dream; I expect it won’t be the last.

Despite the lingering memory of that time, I know how fortunate we are, particularly compared to others who have endured far worse journeys to Finland and infinitely more stressful circumstances surrounding their own applications and long waits. If this is how this process affects me—the privileged, middle-class, white girl from the suburbs of Middle America—how does it affect those fleeing real humanitarian crises? How long do their nightmares last? And, how deep is the despair for those denied a peaceful life in this at times overly quiet country after surviving the most hellish conditions?

You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is ‘illegal’. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal? — Elie Wiesel

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Days like these

November in southern Finland is not child’s play, particularly once we set the clocks back that one precious hour and live on ‘winter time’. The nights become unending and the sun — if it appears at all — shines less than brightly. Couple the darkness with a heavy dose of stress and finding any joy at all becomes excessively difficult if not impossible.

But joy can be found even in the darkest of places. At least, that’s the hope we hold on to even on those darkest of days. This week featured an array of stressors and frustrations. Don’t get me wrong: bright spots shone. Yet both of us acutely feel the effects of an entirely overly optimistic and far from restful year as we near our long-awaited and overdue holiday and annual escape to the sun.

Before our escape, we must take whatever opportunities arise to break free from the daily grind. It may be a fully working weekend for us both, but we work just as hard to find time to get out and break free for our peripatetic bonding session before night falls and the darker darkness of winter characteristic of these nights descends. We made our break sometime around 16.00.  And, here’s what we found on this wintry Caturday afternoon/early evening:

  • The street lights were on well before we made it halfway through our walk. We appreciated the light on our return journey home. But, it’s weird and eery to see them turn on well before 16.30 in the afternoon. A month from now, it will be fully dark at this time of day. And, that darkness is intensely black, standing in stark contrast to the dusk that pervades throughout what counts for summer nights. (Need I say, we prefer the darkness of summer.)
  • Despite needing multiple layers on our walk, as we approached the beach nearest our neighbourhood, a lone, brave swimmer made her way from the changing rooms to the pier and finally down into the icy waters. She wore a wool cap, gloves of some sort, slippers of some sort, a bathing suit and was wrapped in a towel. We shivered simply watching her as she submerged into the waters and swam from the pier. As she emerged after her swim, she confessed that the water ‘wasn’t so bad once you got used to it’. We both thought, ‘Better you than us, girlfriend!’ We prefer the warm bath water of the Caribbean, thank you very much.
  • Despite living in Finland for 10 years now, we still don’t understand the weather here. We left under relatively cloudless skies. At least, it looked as though the clouds had moved on to elsewhere. As we stood watching the less-than-sane swimmer [our classification of her mental state, naturally], rather large and cold drops of rain plopped on our heads. Once again, we were stuck far from home without an umbrella.
  • Mosquitoes still survive even now. Surprisingly. As I typed this post, one lone little bugger landed on my hand.

Days like these, I’m happy to be alive.