Suomi 100 and counting

Independence Day for us Americans is a day of over-the-top patriotism and fireworks displays beyond anything reasonable. Our celebrations, to my mind, mimic the stereotypes most other inhabitants of the world have about us Americans as people—loud, bordering if not completely obnoxious and at times rather unnecessarily boisterous.

Finland’s Independence Day falls on 6 December each year. This year, Finland turned 100, an incredible milestone particularly given that she gained independence from a far larger and more powerful Russia. All of Finland and Finns everywhere have been looking forward to this centennial celebration — Suomi 100 — since last year. Quite rightly. But, the celebrations are still incredibly subdued and rather restrained by comparison to my American garish experiences.

Finland’s celebrations have been rather admirably and typically Finnish—quietly and rather free-from-boastingly proud. More than anything, a quiet pride pervades the atmosphere and celebrations, and it’s really quite moving.

Just about every Finnish company and business has created special items for Suomi 100, particularly the many design companies throughout Finland. Commemorative items to marking this milestone have been advertised and offered. Buildings and landmarks across Finland were lit in Finnish blue beginning on Tuesday evening. That same day, 100 Finnish flags were erected in the Market Square near one of Helsinki’s harbours and many of the landmark buildings. A massive (for Finland) fireworks display closed the festivities yesterday evening. Interestingly, as we walked through our neighbourhood yesterday evening, we glimpsed just about every Finnish television tuned into the traditional Presidential Independence Day reception, broadcast and showing various individuals shaking hands with the President of Finland.

It’s really quite lovely. And, yet, sedate. Much like Finland.

Finns are incredibly proud of their 100-year independence, and well they should be. We’re rather proud to be immigrants to this fine country. To confirm this pride, every single Finnish phone number received a birthday text message yesterday. Rather impressively, the message was distributed in Finnish, Swedish (the two national languages) and English (at least on our phones). What did this message say?

Today Finland celebrates 100 years of independence – Happy birthday everybody!

It’s rather odd to see a message pop up from ‘Suomi 100’. But, it was also incredibly sweet.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to wish Finns and Finland a happy Independence Day in Finnish (Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!). But, it is an absolute honour to be a resident and extended member of Finnish society.

Congratulations, Finland. Onnea Suomi!

On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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On World AIDS Day 2017

1 December every year is World AIDS Day.

This year’s theme is ‘My health, my right‘. That is, one’s right to health represents a fundamental human right, and one’s right to health encompasses and extends to rights to sanitation and housing, nutritious food, healthy working and living conditions, education and access to justice. All of which are accessible free from stigma and discrimination, and free of violence.

I may no longer devote much of my working life to issues surrounding HIV. But, I still very much believe in continuing to focus on the response to HIV and ensuring that no one is left behind in our local, national, regional and global responses to HIV and various other related issues.

On this World AIDS Day, much like each and everyone before it, my thoughts are with all those living with HIV first and foremost. My thoughts are also with those who have died far, far too young and long before they needed to. Their faces remain at the forefront of my mind on many days, but particularly today.

I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all of those who tirelessly continue to devote their voices, time and indefatigable energy to making sure others are not left behind. All those who work on HIV-related issues ensure that people living with HIV continue to receive the attention they need, at times desperately so. From activists to policy makers to aid workers to healthcare professionals, those working on HIV also ensure that those affected by HIV are placed at the centre of discussions on HIV policy, funding and programming, and highlight the necessity of inextricably linking access to health as but one fundamental human right.

Health. Gender equality. Freedom from harm. The freedom to make decisions about one’s health and one’s own life. Respect and dignity. These are but a few of the words which come to mind on each World AIDS Day. And, they represent a world we can look forward to, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Here’s to all those living with, affected by and responding to HIV. You deserve so much more than one day each year. You are worth so much more than one day on a calendar. May we collectively never forget your worth.

AIDS ribbon tree

#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…

 

TBT

On ‘The Hunting Ground’

We missed this documentary from two years ago. I’m not sure how, but given where I was emotionally two years ago, that may not be a bad thing.

Last year, in the wake of the outrageous ‘sentence’ handed down to Brock Turner and other college athletes who sexually assaulted women at various universities, I read Jon Krakauer’s Missoulaan incredibly chilling account of the lengths one university football town would go to to protect it’s star athletes. Sadly, Missoula, Montana and the University of Montana are but one of far, far too many college campuses plagued by an epidemic of sexual predation and violence against mostly young women. By no means are young men spared either, however.

The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary by the makers of The Invisible War, painfully and carefully tracks the criss-crossing of the United States by two brave young rape survivors from the University of North Carolina. Their objective is clear yet anything but simple: to call to account university administrators for their woeful and shameful inattention and at times contempt for those who dare report the assaults they not only endured but survived. In these brave individuals’ own words, ‘the responses by the universities were often worse than the actual assaults [they] experienced’.

In the wake of #metoo and what seems like daily revelations regarding sexual harassment and assaults by the rich, powerful and (in)famous, those of us ordinary individuals who have faced similar experiences and the inevitable doubt which follows from those in positions to hand out justice remain not only unsurprised but angered and feeling let down once again.

Indeed, based on the well-documented and researched figures provided throughout The Hunting Ground, I honesty felt a bit sick at various moments. Yet again.  

From the proportion of college-aged women who are likely to face an assault (11.2%), to the numbers of expulsions resulting from cheating  compared to on-campus assaults (the former vastly outpace the latter, which are negligible at best and quite often zero) to the proportion of all assaults remaining unreported (80%), its all a stark reminder that we collectively have a long way to go vis-á-vis believing women and men who are violated in the worst possible way.

At the very least, we should be able to ensure that those brave enough to step forward feel supported more than those who commit such heinous acts.

The Hunting Ground reminds us that we have a long, long way to go. And, given current events, now seems like as good a time as any to continue on that journey towards justice.

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For more information on creating an environment in which sexual assault is not tolerated or accepted and providing supportive environments for survivors, visit It’s on Us.

 

Silent majority

Across social media, women (and others) declare ‘me too‘ in an effort to shed light on just how prolific sexual harassment and violence are. Yes, it’s incredibly empowering to make a declaration and to publicly describe instances—not all of them by any means, but a sufficient number—attempting to wake others, primarily men, to the realities women live. It is also gut-wrenchingly disgusting. It’s disgusting because women have no problem believing it isn’t most but all of us who have lived with this shit our entire lives.

Whilst my mother’s generation took sexual harassment and assault as a fact of life, likely internalising most if not all of the blame, I suspect most women in my own generation are less reluctant or at least more idealistic about speaking up and out. Yet, we, too, have been silenced. And, we, too internalise it. For every ‘me too’ post we see, countless others remain silent. Why matters, naturally. But, that silent majority has their reasons, and all I or anyone else can really say is ‘you are loved, you are valued and you are believed’. Perhaps more importantly, ‘you are believed and I hope you are safe’.

I’d like to thank those men in particular who have voiced their support, their love and their horror reading our histories. Please, whilst you continue to support us, call out your buddies. Most of us women have tried, and often we’ve failed simply because we are not the dominant nor equal sex.

Simultaneously, and more startling, are the posts I’ve seen by men and more shockingly women suggesting that we all need to speak up. I suspect for many it is far, far too hard to do so. Hell, it’s been nearly 20 years since I was assaulted by someone I trusted and thought I knew better than most of those in my social network. Nearly 20 years later, after posting about my own experiences yesterday, the nightmares I experienced for a least a decade returned. A very large ocean and continent, not to mention a lot of therapy and healing, stand between me and that individual now. I know unequivocally that I am safe. Yet, last night subconsciously I did not feel safe at all. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a husband who not only gets the pain and horror I felt then but continues to support those dark days that return each year around the time of my attack, reminding me that I am loved and believed and safe. And, yet, in an instant, I can return to that incredibly vulnerable place I found myself in nearly 20 years ago.

The worst case involves those countless individuals currently living with similar experiences who do not have any sense of safety or support. Too many still fear their attackers because they cannot escape for whatever reason.  And, just as many are not believed. We may believe them, but those in their immediate surroundings do not. Those who have the power to step in and stop such attacks don’t. Those are the silent majority.

The voices of the silent majority are not to blame for not speaking up just as they are not to blame for the attack(s) they experience(d). Instead, let’s blame their tormentor and attacker. If we ever hope to allow all those who have experienced sexual harassment or violence in any form to speak freely and openly, we have to stop blaming and doubting them. From my very privileged position, it took the case of Brock Turner and nearly 20 years to feel like I could speak up openly.

Out_Of_1000_Rapes 122016.png

Taken from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system.

On a free press

It’s astounding to me that the current President of the United States continues to wage his one-man (or one-party?) war on the press after any and all criticism or negative press is lobbed his way.

Given that a free press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, I wonder if our Commander in Chief’s attention waned given that it extends beyond 140 characters:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I’ve emphasised the text he might be most interested in. He’s a busy guy, you know. I’ll also give him the benefit of the doubt. It takes a huge amount of time to tweet his own discontent with Senator Corker, various football players and members of the NFL as well as Kim Jong-Un. But, perhaps he’d like to know the thoughts of a few others regarding a free and independent press uninfluenced or uncontrolled by the state.

Perhaps the words of Thomas Jefferson might resonate with him, since they’ve shared the same job title albeit at very different times in our short history:

‘If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe. ― from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, Volume 9: 1 September 1815 to 30 April 1816

If Mr Jefferson doesn’t help, perhaps he assumes that this is something that can be simply reversed by whomever at a later date:

A freedom given up is not so easily regained.’ ― Rivera Sun, Steam Drills, Treadmills and Shooting Stars – a story of our times

Perhaps he doesn’t understand the potential power of fact-checking or allowing individuals to decide which writers to trust:

‘Let every writer tell his own lies. That’s freedom of the press.’ ― Norman Mailer, Deaths For The Ladies

Or, perhaps he simply can’t tolerate criticism or opposition:

‘Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose’ ― George Orwell

We’re hurtling down an incredibly slippery slope it would seem. And, whilst comparisons to Hitler are insanely cliche, the reality of that slope becomes increasingly chilling:

‘It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.’ ― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

More than anything, someone needs a reality check. If only the current reality wasn’t quite so terrifying for the rest of us.