Stumbling through darkness

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The arrival of autumn in Finland is one thing. Life is quite another. This late summer / early autumn has offered us much in the way of tumult, upheaval, change and a multitude of unanticipated stressors.

Today, I think I reached saturation. Running away offered an all-too-welcome option, even if unlikely. And, finding any good or lightness or loveliness in any of it was damn near impossible.

After reaching out to friends and asking them to share any signs of goodness they’ve come across, each nuisance became a little more bearable. And, I am grateful. After sorting through work and what must be done, after conquering a few issues and problems, and after a much-needed evening stroll with my beloved and the most reasonable voice of reason in my life, not all seems so tragic and awful.

We will reach the end of this very dark tunnel at some point. We will make it through the darkness and find light again. And, we will continue to navigate the rough waters as best we can, even if we stray off-course and take on far too much water from time to time.

But, hopefully, at the end of each day, we’ll find bright spots. We’ll find that little bit of hope to hold on to. We’ll find the goodness even when it seems we’re drowning in a sea shit. We’ll be able to accept and understand how incredibly fortunate we are, even if things aren’t always easy.

 

 

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.

Channeling my inner spring chicken

I’m turning 48 as of midnight tonight. Technically, I have until 13.40 tomorrow local time in Brenham, TX until I officially turn 48. But, time zones don’t really matter, do they?

There was a moment earlier today when I was pondering my ’38th trip around the sun’. If only. After a few minutes of feeling utterly gutted that I seemingly lost 10 years, I rejoiced. This year, this life, my life. It’s not half bad.

I am healthy.

I am happy.

I am sharing my wacky life with a brilliant, kind, silly-sometimes-serious man whom I adore and who makes me laugh even when I want to throw things (sometimes at him).

I am free.

I have a roof over my head, food in my cupboard and plenty of Marimekko to clothe me regardless of weather or occasion.

I am employed. But, more than that, I finally feel like I’ve found my ‘calling’ in terms of vocation. Regardless of how utterly shattered I may be at times by the volume of work—largely because I cannot say ‘no’—I am inspired each and every day by those with whom and for whom I work. I’d do this gig for free if we lived under the Prime Directive.

I feel loved by those in my life in ways I never thought possible.

And, I have without a doubt the cheekiest of cats to entertain and annoy me each and every day.

A few weeks ago, The Cuban asked me what I wanted for my birthday. After thinking for a bit, I said, ‘This. Just this.’

I want for nothing except more time. How fucking lucky am I?

Thank you all for making this year simply incredible.

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The Cuban created this for me for my birthday. There’s being a spring chicken, and then there’s being a Marimekko chicken.

Run happy

Run happy.

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What’s a Caturday musing without a cat?

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Me and my chicken-loving guy during my 48th trip around the sun.

 

 

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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‘Be silly. Be kind. Be honest.’

Yesterday. Yesterday was a week of bad days smushed into a mere 24 hours.

By the time I returned home, nothing mattered, other than crawling into my favourite pjs and crabbing a giant gin and tonic (although we were sadly out of gin). If I’d had the energy, I would have grabbed my colouring books and pencils, built a blanket fort and hid from the world until next week.

Call it the end of a long, long year, the need for our holiday to begin N O W, a case of being overly tired from lack of sleep or simply a bad day. Regardless, yesterday sucked.

Evidently, my husband thought it best to channel Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both men’s mottos are ‘Be silly. Be kind. Be honest.’

Knowing that yesterday wore me out—psychologically and physically—The Cuban aka my hero sent me the perfect email sometime after I drifted off to sleep. (Never mind the weirdness of a couple who work from rooms next to one another sending emails back and forth—we (and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’) are forgetful at times and email occasionally works best.) This email was silly. It was kind. And, it was honest. And, it was precisely what I needed to put yesterday behind me.

As the holiday season descends upon us, it seems as though everyone is overtaxed and overly tense and perhaps more than a little sensitive. Words and facial expressions and simply sighs may be taken out of context and in ways not fully intended. Individuals may be stretched to their absolute limits to such an extent that a smile can ease their minds or bring them to tears. This all rings true for me at the moment.

So, let’s all channel Ralph Waldo Emerson with a slight update: Be silly. Above all be kind And, be honest (unless it contradicts the first two).

And, for everything else, here is a picture of The Cuban’s grandmother with a rooster. Just because.

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#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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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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