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.

Springing forward

As the world springs back to visible life in Helsinki each year, tiny seemingly imperceptible changes create what one friend referred to as a ‘green haze’. It’s incredible. And, such a contrast from the sepia monotones of winter.

Each evening as we stroll through our neighbourhood for our daily peripatetic spousal bonding sessions, we can’t help but notice the tiny explosions of life that seem to change immensely from one day to the next rather than from week to week.

Yesterday, we ventured down (and up) a path we’ve never explored before. The views from the top were truly stunning, particularly given the calm water below and the blue, blue skies above. And, everywhere that green haze of new leaves and grass and even moss and lichen.

Closer to ground, the buds of new leaves and fleeting fresh flowers provide close-up signs of that change from one season to another.

Regardless of the particular lens — macro or wide and expansive — these signs move us forward from the slumber of winter to the rejuvenation and rebirth of spring.

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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Solidarity

I’m of the mind that educational institutions should be palaces — and those who educate should be paid more than just about any other profession. To me, investing in education, particularly through public support to universities and research institutions, helps all of us within and across societies. When we know how to process information and distinguish fact from fiction, we can discuss issues which affect us all through informed debate, and shift our thinking as new information and evidence comes available.

Society at large in my mind should reward the many, many, many individuals who ceaselessly and unrelentingly dedicate their lives to educating others. It simply makes sense to me, as an individual, as a member of society and as an extended member of the University of Helsinki staff and faculty.

As further cuts to education and research are discussed and pushed forward as sound policy, I am appalled. I may not be a member of a particular union at the university; but I unequivocally support the unions and their members as they strike today. All those who work at and with the university to make it one of the best in the world deserve better. This collective of amazing, talented and indefatigably dedicated individuals should certainly be valued rather than continuously and rather callously put under increasing pressure to do more with stagnant (if not falling) wages and with the added understanding that their jobs and vocations may be but fleetingly secure.

Academic life is no joke. Nor is it particularly lucrative for the vast majority of us who have chosen it. And, most academics do not expect outrageously generous salaries or benefits. However, most of us understand that continual cuts result in increasing burdens on the entire system. Certainly, as employees, we suffer. But, more importantly, those seeking an education and knowledge suffer more.

If I were a member of one of the university unions, I would be striking today. Proudly. And resolutely.

Solidarity, my comrades! Your worth is immeasurable!

Solidarity-fist

There are days….

There are days when things just flow easily, effortlessly and seamlessly. There are days when everything falls into place.

Today is not that day.

From work to my run to errands and administrative crap, it’s been a chore. A slog through bogs, both literal and figurative.

Helsinki’s skies offer nothing but rain, snow and the darkest of days. And, right now, both of us just want to hibernate, as both an escape from November’s nastiness and because mentally we are spent.

Soon enough, all of this will be a distant memory. We’ll soon be on that long overdue holiday, sleeping soundly and setting aside our gadgets and the daily grind for a stack of books and a lounge in a hammock. And, we’ll face reminders of just how uncomplicated our lives really are here in Finland.

But, until then, we just need to get through each of these days where night is endless and seemingly darker than ever….

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.

University of Helsinki