The After Flow

My (misspent) youth featured who knows how many concerts, shows, festivals and gigs, ranging in size from the small local pub with sometimes fewer than 10 to 20 of us devotees to general admission behemoths featuring tent cities and reincarnated walls of sound with 200 000-plus music-loving freaks all sharing a moment. Almost exactly 20 years ago, I attended my last large-scale festival in the United States, the Lemonwheel in upstate Maine quite literally on the Canadian border (featuring actual mounted Mounties!) for the most epic of Phish shows during four days of camping and two days of shows.

Today, festivals at least in Helsinki, appear much more grown-up in many ways. Or, perhaps it’s the attendee. That was my impression of the Flow Festival. Situated near an electrical power plant and the heart of Helsinki’s rather more colourful districts, this festival blew me away. With around 28 000 attendees each day, and featuring acts I’d not expect in Helsinki, surprises lurked around every corner of the venue. Ten stages, loads of amazing (mostly vegan and sustainable) food on offer, and plenty of port-a-loos, some which even flushed, this was fantastically fun. (My last festival could boast no such luxuries, and the port-a-loos were an unbelievably unpleasant experience by the second day of that misadventure! Trust me.)

I confess: most of the acts at Flow aside from Patti Smith (who rocked the house contrary to the review the Helsinki Sanomat), Lauryn Hill (who slightly disappointed me only because she played short, the song was off and she did not reprise any classics from The Fugees) and Kendrick Lamar (who connected and amazed me, even if I did fear the bruising from the hyped up audience at moments)  were utterly unknown to me before this weekend. Some I’d probably heard on one All Songs Considered or another. However, I’d never heard of most of them, particularly the Finnish acts. But, what a treat they all were.

Sunday began under dark, ominous clouds and threats of rain. But, as our crew entered the venue, the skies appeared a bit clearer and the air was filled with anticipation and excitement and joy. Overwhelming joy just being at Flow. This was a common theme across the three days. Everything up to that point had been oodles of fun. Why shouldn’t Sunday be any different?

Finding a man in a jacket with my husband’s name on it was one thing; my husband he most certainly was not. The first song I made it to by a Finnish band, Pyhimys, featured a kitty cat. Purrfect. Lyrically I understood nothing, but I liked this act. A lot. Not understanding the lyrics represented another common theme to my weekend. But, that mattered not. The vibe was funky and sweet. So sweet in fact, a little girl appeared on stage and sang along with the band and the crowd. More of that, please.

Next up was a lot of random-stage hopping and a bit of food.  One take away from the previous two days was eat early if you plan to eat at all or don’t want to wait an incredibly long time for so-so food. The queues get long the later in the day you eat. Whilst the previous day featured Ethiopian food to die for, Sunday offered up another Helsinki favourite, Na’Am Kitchen. North African and Middle Eastern flavours combined creating some of the most tasty treats imaginable. Spicy red lentils and black-eyed peas never tasted so good. Unexpectedly, there was even salad — fresh, gloriously crunchy mixed greens! And, this was at a festival cooked out of a tent! If you happen to be in Helsinki, go to their brick and mortar location. You will not be disappointed.

Next top was Moodymann, a Detroit legend, provided some of the best dance music I heard all weekend. From New Order to more contemporary funk, he had us all grooving and feeling fine. I rather regretted dashing to get to the next stage. But, that is also the Flow experience. So much is happening simultaneously that you have to sacrifice the beginning or end of one show to catch the next. And, on it goes….

Enter Kendrick Lamar. Poet. Rapper. Historian. Urban fable-ist. Artist. Former thug-turned-performer. Pick your label and apply as you will. Kendrick was fun. I completely lost all of my peeps before he went on — the main stage area was jam packed like sardines by the time Kendrick’s performance began, which made it all the more interesting in many ways. I have no idea how long he performed — I don’t really care. It was fun, it was compelling and he had us all right there with him. The best bit of irony of the entire weekend also popped up at this point. Flow sent out messages to attendees via its mobile app and displayed huge screens asking the audience not to film or photograph Kendrick’s performance. (We appreciate your kind request and mostly rejected it.) Yet, somewhere in the middle of his set, the man himself asked us all to pull out our ‘lights’, which consisted of thousands of mobile-phone powered torches. Naturally, no one took a single photograph. Uh-huh. Well played, Kendrick. Well played.

The final act I caught was St. Vincent, and I honestly do not have the words to describe what I witnessed. Massive power guitar. Haunting lyrics and vocals. Surreal costumes and choreography. And, boundless beauty. Girlfriend is quite honestly gorgeous. I immensely enjoyed this act, but it was also time to go home.

Flow introduced me to an incredible amount of music, most of which I’m still listening to thanks to the Flow Playlist on Spotify. There’s so much I didn’t see. But, there’s more than enough for just about everyone.

My takeaways:

  • Use the earplugs. It’s Thursday after Flow and my ears are still ringing ever so slightly.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t fret about what you might miss; something else will intrigue and delight you just as much. And, you might be surprised by something utterly unexpected and/or unintended.
  • Pick your landmarks and make sure your crew knows them well. It’s damn near impossible at times to find folks.
  • Spend a bit of time people watching. This weekend gave me such a different perspective on Finns. And, I’m infinitely grateful for and endeared by it.
  • Removing that three-day wrist band is weird. I’d grown to rather love it.

So, when do we get to do it again? Here’s to Flow 2019. I don’t care who is playing; I’ll be back.

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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Running on ice

I should have been running on ice since we returned from our holiday in the sun. To put it incredibly simply, I have not. I’ve lost my running mojo. And I blame it entirely on… me.

Despite my best intentions, despite my desire to train and be ready for not one but two half marathons this May and June, respectively, it’s time I admit that I won’t be. Not even close to ready.

I certainly won’t be ready for anything until I hold myself accountable and get out there and hit the trails once again.

So, how do I reignite that running fire and get out there more than once a week?

Perhaps it’s cosmic coincidence that landed a link on the 10 laws of productivity in my news feed today. This week, I have thought so many times about wanting to run, but simply can’t seem to lace up. So, any link that mentions my fellow runner and eclectic music lover, and favourite author Haruki Murakami is certainly going to rank high amongst the reads of day. Combine that with a bit of self-reflection on re-establishing some necessary and beloved habits, and I’m in.

The truth is, I’m a bit intimidated by that number: 13.1. Thirteen-point-one miles, all in one go. Can I do that? I’d like to channel that little engine that could and say, ‘I think I can’. But, the voice of doubt creeps in just as I think about lacing up.

The trick, I know, is to quiet that particular voice, and allow all of the other cheerleaders to drown out the dissenting opinions. Deep down, I know that anything is possible, as long as I just get going and believe. But, my journey of however many steps there are in 13.1 miles will never get started until I train for it. And, I know that the hardest part of any run is simply lacing up and getting out the door.

So, borrowing from Murakami and those laws of productivity, I shall develop a routine and start small. I will break this little journey up into smaller chunks and phases, the first of which entails that routine and starting small.

And, when I fall behind or can’t quite accomplish what I want, I’ll forgive myself first and then regroup.

Running on Ice

I’d like to blame my lack of motivation on the weather. But, it’s gorgeous when running in snow. 

 

 

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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On ‘Assata: An Autobiography’

Assata: An AutobiographyAssata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that makes me uncomfortable, but for all of the right reasons. If we are ever to confront racism head-on, we need to listen to and attempt to understand the effects persistent and institutionalised racism have on those it targets.

Assata, the book (and the woman who wrote it), is raw and unfiltered in many ways. Her anger and frustration and rage at social norms and the systemic racism that imprisoned her again and again and again and the criminal justice system who offered her anything but justice justify that rage.

Her rage should make us all examine why her anger and words make us squirm. It should force us to examine our own biases, and begin to shift our thinking and our actions.

This book made me think. A lot. And, I’ll undoubtedly continue thinking about my own privilege, my own biases and my own prejudices because of her words. This book will also make me more inclined to call out injustice of any kind when confronted with it, whether directed at me or others, friends / family or strangers.

#blackhistorymonth

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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. 

Until then…

We are nearly off. And, I cannot tell you just how much we both desperately need a nice long, luxurious kip for about a week.

I’m not sure when I’ll post here again — it may be later this week or sometime next year. As we’ve prepared for our annual escape to the sun and the land in which we unplug and unwind, I’ve had a bit of time to also reflect upon this past year.

What. A. Year. I can’t say that I’ll really miss it.

Rather than look back, though, I’m looking forward. 2017 has proved more than a little challenging, and more than infuriatingly frustrating at times. But, it’s also been a whiplash-inducing mixed bag. My year has been stellar professionally (if not utterly exhausting) and personally rewarding. Yet, 2017 was horribly marred by politics and current events. Unfortunately, those politics inevitably bleed into my own life, partially given my political junkie tendencies, but also because of the reality in which I reside as an American expat (member of the diaspora?) married to a Cuban living in Europe.

I have no idea what 2018 will bring. But, I’m ready. All I really know is that I can continue to work on this corner — this tiny seemingly insignificant part of the world I inhabit. I can do my best to ensure that it is fair. That it is compassionate. That it is just. And, I can work towards increasing the ripples of that world ever-outward, hopefully extending that fairness, compassion and justice if not by my own deeds at least by my own example.

So, dear reader,until we, meet again in either a few days, weeks or two months’ time, here is my wish for you:

May your holiday season be filled with boundless joy and delight, and may the New Year bring you peace, prosperity and better days. 

 

2017-2018