In the blink of an eye

10 years_2

Arriving in Helsinki from Sheremyetyevo, 21 July 2007

Ten years.

Ten years ago today, we took our three suitcases and Che Fufu carrier (with Che Fufu less-than-pleased to be in it) and made our way to Sheremyetyevo with one-way tickets to a country next door and yet worlds away. Several security checkpoints and an hour-long flight later, we arrived in Helsinki’s very clean and quiet airport.

Ten years. It simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

There’s still so much of this city and country that remains utterly foreign to us (Finnish language, perhaps?). And, yet, we’ve built a life here. I remember that first summer missing a bus whilst standing at the stop because we didn’t signal as it approached. I remember being in awe at how huge and well-stocked the supermarkets were and how cheap things like clothes were. I remember the novelty and delight of an online journey planner which would tell us how long it would take to walk to the bus stop and what time the bus would arrive at that stop. And, even better, how long to the minute the journey would take. Furthermore, it was typically correct!

After Moscow, this was utterly unbelievable. Much of our new life was. It all seems so normal now, but was completely surreal ten years ago.

Helsinki has been good to us, and it isn’t at all a bad place to live. It’s clean, it’s well-organised and safe. It’s quiet—so quiet that when we first arrived the quiet proved unsettling.

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve celebrated milestones (getting married counts, right?) and birthdays, endured unimaginable uncertainty (residence permit saga anyone?) and come through it all to enjoy a bit of calmness and serenity. The world beyond may be crumbling or chaotic, but our little life here is relatively peaceful and stress-free these days.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine living in Finland. But, here we are. I never imagined marrying a Cuban until I met mine. I’ve no idea how long this glorious-in-summer / abysmal-in-winter land will be home to us, but here’s to ten years and counting. It’s passed in the blink of an eye.

Milestones and markers

Change comes slowly, none more so than changing some rather embedded bad habits. It may come later in than life than I’d like, but there’s a certain joy and relief that accompanies working towards various milestones. And, succeeding. Bit by painfully slow bit.

One habit that has plagued me my entire life is my penchant for procrastination. I’ve told myself time and again that I do my best work when I wait until the last moment to tuck in as that deadline creeps inevitably nearer. This has not serve me well at various moments and has caused far too many sleepless nights. But, more so, the stress that accompanies that penchant for procrastination as any deadline approaches and as life becomes increasingly busy have taken their toll in unintended yet predictable ways. Coupled with an inability to say ‘no’ (another issue I’m working on), my schedule no longer allows me to both procrastinate and still meet whatever deadline exists. Never mind my inability to cope with the stress I’ve caused myself in the process. My work and mental health have suffered, and thus the vicious cycle continued.

As I  work towards feeling better mentally, I’m also recognising that I need to adjust how and when I work, and make some changes towards procrastinating less. Note: I’m not even considering eliminating my tendency towards ‘tomorrow’—I’m simply attempting to procrastinate less and, thus, diminish some of that mental anguish I cause myself.

Habits formed long ago and stuck. It doesn’t mean they must remain.

This week and last mark a milestone for me in multiple ways. I’ve not only made it beyond a running milestone that I’ve long wanted to shatter,  but I’ve sat at my desk and worked when I didn’t really need to. As much as I love my job, there are days when I just don’t want to work.

Sure, I could have taken off most of last week and this, and still made my two deadlines tomorrow. But, I did something weird and completely uncharacteristic for me: I made a plan of action (that is, working towards a goal each day), reached those targets, and then had the rest of my working days to do with what I wanted. Not only did I complete both tasks well ahead of schedule (one on Tuesday and one today), but I finished in the morning (after requiring a mere two half-days of work earlier this week), enjoyed a three-day weekend for the first time since our holiday in December and January, and managed to spend some quality time each day with my darling husband.

Who is this person? More importantly, can she stick around for a bit?

As I work on improving my physical stamina, I’m realising that much of the same mental battles I face running apply to habits in general across the rest of my life. Pushing through those moments when the temptation to twiddle my thumbs rather than work on my to-do list relies on the same determination I need to put one foot in front of the other. Naturally, I could take the easy route and quit. Or I can take one extra step and another and see how far I get. One small step may seem insignificant at any one moment; but, add them up together and they become a journey. Reaching one marker or goal allows me to place another a bit further along the path. Any path.

Change may come slowly. But, it comes. Eventually.

 

Snail's pace.jpg

Progress may appear slow. But, quitting halts it altogether.  

I love running

I love running. I do. I’m slow, and I have yet to go very far. But, I love running. And, I suspect it loves me. It’s at least good for me.

Last summer after years of stifling the little black dog that barks and growls and nips at my heels and mind from time to time, I made a series of slight adjustments in my behaviour and routines. I’d sunk so low that breathing hurt. Changes were necessary and long overdue.

One of those changes involved recommitting to running regularly. Whilst various forms of exercise obviously carry benefits to one’s mental and physical health, running has always helped me empty my head, meditate on whatever shit floats around up there. Somewhere during those runs, I let go of the garbage that wears me down, both real and imagined. As August turned into September, and September gave way to October and November, regardless of how busy I was or how much I felt unmotivated to lace up and hit the trails, I did. And, it helped. The fog that had clouded my everyday existence slowly dissipated and lifted entirely, and I felt infinitely better as the weeks and months passed.

Running wasn’t so much simply physically beneficial; it was a mental health necessity.

After injuring myself in January whilst running the Malecón in Havana, I was forced to take four painful months off. My ankle healed by late March / early April, but then the flu season hit and, then, I fell and hurt my knees, running to catch a bus of all things. Fast forward to May — four months after my initial injury — and I’m finally getting back into my routine. A few days shy of four weeks back into my running rituals and again the fog is lifting.

This. This is why I run. And, this is why I love running.

I don’t really care how fast I get through a particular route — each run feels like a battle won and conquered at this point. I don’t have any long-term ambitions other than to continue running three or four times a week for as long as my legs will hold up, and hopefully taking part in the Helsinki Midnight Run come September. I won’t win races, but I will stay in the ultimate race — that crazy race called life. Undoubtedly, depression and my little black dog will come barking again from time to time. Whatever I can do to tame him quickly and without too damage to myself or those who love me most, I’ll do. And, I firmly believe that as long as I continue to add miles to my running logs, those visits from the canine beast that haunts me will become fewer and further apart.

I read a story several years ago about an incredibly young 92-year-old woman finishing a marathon. Harriette Thompson, that same woman, just surpassed another milestone by becoming the oldest woman at 94 to complete a half marathon. I won’t break any records, other than those I set for myself. But, I will keep running. For me.

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Summer ‘schedule’

Summer. That glorious time of year when the days are long, the birds sing loudly and the sun stays high in the Northern sky for more hours than you can imagine. I welcome summer and the glorious green and long days. But, I also dread it.

I’ve never been good at managing my time in the absence of a schedule. I need structure; I need a plan. If there is no plan, I’ll make one simply to ease the inevitable anxiety of not having a plan. When we’re on holiday and not confined by the schedules of work or others, I force my husband to come up with a ‘plan’ even if it goes to hell within days if not hours. Planning relaxes me.

As absurd as it sounds, I keep three calendars on my desk. These are separate from my weekly to-do list(s), which complement my electronic calendar and to-do lists which annoyingly pop-up on various devices reminding me to procrastinate another half hour. [Just writing that out makes me cringe at how absurd it all is. But, well, what can I say? I like my calendars and lists and procrastinating.]

It’s a relief to be free from my lecturing schedule at the University of Helsinki. With the end of my classes last week, Monday morning—day before yesterday—brought a bit of weirdness and a mild panic. Seeing so few items on my calendar and to do list this week left me somewhat disoriented and bereft. In fact, my deadlines for Tuesday this week were all met before 9 am on Monday, representing perhaps the first time in months I’ve delivered early rather than late.

This is not to say that I don’t have things to fill my time. Just the opposite in fact. As a freelance contractor, I’ll never not panic when I have no work in the pipeline. Alas, this summer is already proving vastly different from last. And, this is a very good thing. But, all of those others things I’ve put off for far too long also await.

June is booked. Even if I wanted to take on more work, I cannot. The rest of this week is oddly devoid of deadlines. Yet, my to-do lists are filled with various items simply prioritised as ‘ASAP’ or ‘eventually’. This is where I typically struggle. I need a ‘complete by’ date. For everything. The most pressing issue aside from cleaning my desk and the windows (yes, those are on my to-do list) involves sorting through multiple assignments my students sent during the last month or so, and which have sat patiently in my inbox. (I’m a weebit behind—don’t judge; my students worked entirely too hard!) But, without my own self-imposed deadline of ‘the next class meeting’ procrastination takes over. Little by little, I review their work and send feedback. I will get through my inbox and back to zero. And, I will endeavour to do better next year.

But, distractions and ‘other stuff’ seem so much more pressing or necessary.

So, scheduling. I must schedule when I work on my inbox. And, then, when I can, go for a run (ideally every other day) and clean my sodding windows. Spend a bit time daily peripatetically bonding with my husband. And, sort through all of the other things I want and need to do this summer.

It’s only 12 weeks; but, those 12 weeks leave me restless and somewhat unsteady, particularly without milestones and goals and a plan. I need a plan. My summer schedule may be less structured than that during the academic year, but the structure it takes will either leave me desperate for a schedule or empowered by it. And, I’m determined to be empowered come the end of August. [Where does that fall on my to-do list?]

Calendar

One of three calendars I keep — this is my master class schedule / academic calendar calendar from several years ago. 

The Devil’s Brew

Ask me what I’d rather give up—coffee or breathing—and I’d have to think about it. I suppose it’s a good thing that breathing occurs unconsciously because coffee is always on my mind.

This time of year, my coffee vehicle of choice becomes cold brew, that luscious, dark nectar that provides the quickest of caffeine jolts. With the long-awaited arrival of spring / summer in Helsinki, my precious elixir of life has been sitting and steeping for two days now, all ready to slowly filter (twice) and then sip and savour and enjoy. I’ve been waiting for this process for what seems like years.

Alas, something was slightly amiss when I opened the fridge this morning and reached for the pitcher of black loveliness.

Saatana coffee

To me, cold brew is the elixir of life; to The Cuban, cold brew is ‘The Devil’s brew’. (NB: Saatana in Finnish is Satan.)

My husband, The Joker.

He understands and accepts my love affair with coffee, just as much as he accepts my obsession with office supplies, books, yarn and Roger Federer. But, cold brew evidently is where he draws the line.

To Cubans, coffee is delivered in tiny little cups that resemble those itty bitty china tea sets for children’s make-believe tea parties. Those cups, which are so cute, simply don’t provide more than a sip or a gulp. In other words, it’s a coffee fairytale. The first time someone handed me a ‘cup’ of coffee in Cuba, I thought they were joking. ‘Where’s the rest of it?’, I asked The Cuban. He quickly explained that Cubans drink tiny cups throughout the day rather than opting for my giant bowl with a handle vessel. [NB: I now know to ask for a double every single time I ask for coffee in Cuba. It’s just easier and less disappointing that way.] Shortly thereafter, The Cuban developed the ‘Vanessa drinks coffee this way…’ explanation. I’m fairly certain our friends and family all think I’m certifiable or so wired that my heart will leap out of my chest at any moment. But, I will have my proper dosage of caffeine.

cafe cubano wink

Two cups from a friend’s flat in Havana. Each cup featured a different face. As cute as they are, they’re fall too small for this girl’s coffee.

Despite the Cuban climate being insanely hot and humid especially when compared to Finland, cafe cubano is always served hot and just off the stove, typically with sugar. To my mind, cold brew is perfect for those sultry, sticky days and nights. I am so wrong, it would appear. My husband’s reaction upon introduction to cold brew went something like this:

‘Cold brew?! What is this evilness you are making? You’re ruining the coffee! Have I taught you nothing?!’… as if this girl ever needed lessons on making or drinking coffee.

So, this morning’s little message, one of a million tiny quickly scribbled notes scattered across our 12 years together, once again made me laugh silently and smile adoringly. To my darling husband, cold brew is indeed ‘The Devil’.

He may have embraced a more reasonable measuring cup by which to drink his own coffee. You know, a proper cup of coffee (still far too small for me, but progress is progress). And, I may have accepted the joke that is a Cuban thimble of coffee. But, just as I’ve had to draw the line at a respectable size for that all-important cup of coffee in the morning, The Cuban evidently drew his own line at cold brew.

Something tells me my summer caffeine jolt will now and forever be known as ‘The Devil’s Brew’.

The greenness of spring

It seems like we wait all year for spring to arrive in Helsinki. This year in particular — a mere two weeks ago we endured days of snow flurries and living in a giant snow globe when our feet should have been enjoying the freedom of sandals. But, whenever that shift from winter to new growth arrives, there’s an unnatural greenness to the landscape which never ceases to surprise, delight and amaze me. Each and every year.

I don’t know if it is simply the newness to the green leaves or the sudden explosion of them everywhere. Leaves seem to grow overnight, transforming from tiny buds to giant leaves so, so quickly. But, this green. This green against the darker trunks of some of the indigenous trees becomes fluorescent. Add in the budding green shoots of the grass, the insanely loud cacophony of the birds screaming for their mates and the lengthening days and shadows of those long summer evenings, and you can’t help but smile and feel alive.

Winter—the long, dark, greyness of winter—often seems never-ending and at times unbearable. So when spring comes, perhaps my mind simply doesn’t recognise the loveliness that is this new growth, leaving me confused and processing that colour as something almost other worldly.

Whatever it is about spring and this green we experience in the far North, I welcome it. It is truly glorious and I’ll soak it in for as long as it lasts. After my class this morning, I was standing at a bus stop marvelling at the dark blue, stormy sky of summer as the backdrop to those bright green leaves of new growth. Those are the moments we carry with us as we suffer through the darkness. Simultaneously, those are the images we forget on the darkest days as a way of perhaps protecting ourselves from the darkness. And, those are the images we delight in each spring.

It takes a specific mindset to survive in this environment and not lose all hope of the sun returning to it’s brilliant glory. And, looking at trees in winter, it’s hard to imagine them ever living again. Perhaps this is what makes summer so incredibly glorious and wonderful.

Whatever makes the leaves this green, I’ll take it.

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All that I need….

In the lead up to today, my 47th birthday, my husband has asked me nearly daily what I want. My response has been the same each and every time: ‘I don’t know. There’s nothing I really need or want.’ And, it’s true. I genuinely want for nothing for perhaps the first time in my life. At least, the things I want aren’t necessarily material goods or even things which impact my daily life. (Although, I’ll never turn down a new Marimekko frock or office supplies or chocolate. But, I don’t want need them.)

My life—my little, seemingly insignificant life—is rather comfortable and free of conflict. I have a husband and best friend I adore more with each passing year, a cat that is thoroughly cat-like and lovely at once, a job I never thought I’d love more and which rarely seems like ‘work’, more books and yarn than I will ever need and a collection of kind folks scattered across the globe to catch me when I stumble or with whom I can share the good times. Certain elements of my life may not be perfect, but I don’t need them to be. I don’t know that I want them to be. I rather enjoy challenges, perhaps more than I should.

At 47, I don’t feel the need to look behind me so much as I look forward to what’s to come. Goals are more realistic and simple these days, and what I hope for isn’t for me as much as it is for those around me. For the world around me.

This past year or so seems like some sort of wicked nightmare we’ve collectively imagined in some ways. After battling my own demons, and finally feeling as though I can live with them, current events in various regions have provided far too much surrealism and sleeplessness on occasion. It’s relatively easy for all of us to lose hope given some of the ugliness that screams more loudly than the kindness I know to exist. Yet, here I am, still full of hope for all of us and still firmly committed to the belief that what binds each of us to one another is far, far stronger than that which divides us.

At 47, this is what my life has come to mean: I won’t change the entire world, but hopefully I can change someone’s world just a little bit for the better. I won’t fix all the problems in this world, but perhaps I’ll help at least one person overcome some problem that consumes their world. I can’t love everyone, but I hope that I can provide love to someone who needs it in the moment when they need it most.

So many of you have done exactly that for me, both when I was acutely aware that I needed help and at moments when I didn’t. You have provided me with all that I need, and so much more. I am immensely grateful and I thank you, and I hope that I live up to your examples.

Me at 47

Me captured by The Cuban at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, 6 May 2017, Espoo, Finland.

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