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.

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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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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Read to write

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

In my Academic Writing class, my students often ask what they can/should do to improve their writing aside from learning grammar and stylistic conventions in English. Aside from referring them to the various style guides around, my answer never waivers: ‘Read. Read as much as you can from writers who write well and writers you admire and enjoy.’ The clever sods typically follow-up my response with a question that inevitably stumps me: ‘Who should we read? What books do you recommend?’

So many amazing writers , both contemporary and historical, provide excellent examples of clear, clean and crisp writing it’s a challenge to come up with a list of any kind. Given that so many others have created their own lists of ‘must-reads’, it feels weird providing my own answer this question let alone that anyone is genuinely interested in my response. But, as their guide in all matters related to Academic Writing, I have thought about this quite a lot since returning to the classroom. At the very least, here’s hoping I’ve added to their holiday reading list and possibly provided them with a few gems previously unknown to them.

Given how often I get this question, I decided to put together a list (and link) that I can refer them to.

So, who should my students read?

Typically, when I’m asked I immediately respond with John Irving. To me, anything written by John Irving is a) brilliant; b) weird and slightly surreal; and, most importantly, c) exceptionally well-written. I tell my students to read anything he’s written (because I love him), although my favourites consist of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read each of these books over the years. I love them each time. His characters are always tragically and bizarrely flawed. But, it’s the writing that astounds me anew every time. Mr Irving’s use of language and style combined keep me reading him, even when the stories fell well short of my hopes. In short, I love his writing—stories and characters aside.

In terms of other writers who provide excellent examples of style and language, here’s my full list (I supplement my own list with recommendations from friends gathered in Facebooklandiastan below). This inventory is in no particular order.

  • John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but anything really.
  • A S Byatt: Possession.
  • Haruki Murakami: Anything goes. Despite being translated into English, because Mr Murakami knows English so well, I suspect he plays a significant role in the translations of his books and short stories into English. He’s a masterful story-teller, and has a brilliant translator.
  • Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar.
  • Vikram Seth: An Equal Music is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. This book moves me to tears, quickly advancing to uncontrollable sobbing during several passages. Absolutely incredible writing and an exceptionally example of carefully placed phrases, words and punctuation.
  • Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man & The Sea are my favourites. But, just about anything Papa ever wrote is worthy of reading and demonstrates simple eloquence in all its brilliance.
  • Maya Angelo: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Norman Rush: Mating — another incredibly beautifully crafted piece of writing which earned Mr Rush the National Book Award.
  • Ian McEwan: Atonement.
  • David Sedaris: Just about anything ever written as well.
  • Edward Abbey: Dessert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved.
  • Alice Munro: Just about anything she wrote.
  • Paul Farmer: As my discipline-specific idol, I love his entire body of works. But, he’s also an exceptional writer, academic or otherwise. AIDS and Accusation was one of the most important works of his which still resonates with me roughly 20 years after I first read it.

Now, the recommendations from others. Friends from all walks of life provided the following list. I’ve placed an * next to those I fully agree with and neglected to include in my list. If you have additional writers or titles that you think belong here, please share them!

  • Charles Dickens for his beautiful eloquence. (Interestingly, John Irving loves Dickens; Dickens is not a favourite of mine).
  • Kurt Vonnegut*: I haven’t read any Vonnegut since high school, but I love him still. 
  • Stephen King: Despite borrowing from his own book on writing for my class, specifically his insistence on the active voice, I don’t find his writing that compelling. But, it is incredibly sound technically, and, undoubtedly the man has a wicked imagination.
  • Ursula la Guin
  • Richard Dawkins* ‘makes science easy to read without trivialising it’, commented one friend. I fully agree. I haven’t read much of him since I left graduate school. He’s incredibly eloquent as a speaker and writer both, and bloody brilliant.
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Anne Rice for her prose. Again, not one of my favourite writers, but that’s mostly because I’m admittedly a snob.
  • Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and chemist. I’ve not read anything by him, but will do.
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • George Orwell*
  • David Lodge: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.
  • Julian Barnes* — I can’t remember which book it was that I read first. But, I love Julian Barnes. Amazing writing.
  • Jane Austen: just about everything. 
  • PG Wodehouse
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Isaac Asimov
  • TC Boyle*: I’ve read both Drop City and A Friend of the Earth and loved both.
  • P J O’Rourke
  • Barbara Trapido
  • Christopher Hitchens*
  • Mark Twain: Rather embarrassing that I neglected to include him in my list, given that I adore him and grew up not far from Hannibal, Missouri. 
  • Henry Miller
  • James Joyce: Dubliners
  • Christopher Brookmyre
  • Arundati Roy*
  • Salman Rushdie*
  • Marmon Silko
  • Michael Chabon
  • Margaret Atwood*
  • Donna Tartt: The Secret History seems to be a favourite amongst others.
  • Hunter S Thompson*
  • Douglas Adams*
  • Terry Pratchett: According to one friend, you should start with Guards! Guards! and move onward through his catalogue.
  • Spider Robinson
  • David McCullough
  • Gina Berriault
  • Joy Williams
  • Richard Yates
  • John Cheever
  • Virginia Woolf*: A Room of One’s Own
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Bertrand Russell*
  • Harold Pinter
  • J M Barrie
  • Alan Bennett
  • Jean Paul Sartre
  • Albert Camus
  • Conan Doyle
  • Russell Brand
  • Truman Capote*: In Cold Blood. What an absolutely amazing piece of writing.
  • Richard Feynman: QED and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman were both recommended.
  • Gloria Naylor
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • James Lee Burke
  • Marilynn Robinson
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Nicholas Kristof
  • David Brooks

I am grateful.

Indeed.

Indeed.

I am grateful. This thought, more than anything at the moment, occupies my mind.

As many things as there are in this world that drive me batty and leave me constantly questioning our humanity, how we as a species got here and how we may ever hope to advance, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that my life is pretty damn good.

Is it perfect? Hell no. But, it is perfect for me.

I’m insanely fortunate to have married the one person on this planet with whom I don’t mind spending 24 / 7 / 365. Good thing, too, because we do spend an inordinate amount of time together given that we both work from home. As odd as it may sound, I’m looking forward to our holiday so we can spend more quality time together without distractions such as email and the 24-hour news cycle.

I know love, both from my families and from friends literally all over this crazy, big world, even if I don’t see many of the people I love as often as I’d like.

And, I have a job I absolutely love, amongst colleagues who are incredibly talented and in the midst of students who challenge me to do better and work harder, a challenge I gladly accept. It isn’t a particularly high prestige job, it doesn’t involve travel to exotic locations any longer and it doesn’t break the bank, but I am grateful every day to have found this job at this time in my life. There are no ‘bad’ days at the office; but, even the less than perfect days leave me smiling.

More than these things, I know peace and comfort and security, which are merely reflections of where and to whom I was born rather than any sort of accomplishment on my part. These are not small, insignificant things although they are intangible. I see them as extreme privileges many only dream of attaining, and I am grateful.

I also know that I drive many around me nuts, bitching about what’s wrong in and with this world, never mind my persistent moaning about the endless Finnish winter. I may not be able to do much about the weather or climate much to my chagrin, but, as naïve as it may be, I’d like everyone to enjoy the fortunes I’ve been afforded and enjoyed merely as consequence of my nationality if not heritage.

I’d like the poor to know the joy of guilty pleasures without sacrificing food or heat or a place to rest. I’d like those who live in conflict zones to find themselves unable to sleep from the safe silence that envelops them as they lay down at night. I’d like the persecuted to be surrounded in a sea of acceptance and love. And, I’d like those left hopeless to find themselves blinded by possibility and opportunity.

I am grateful. And, I want a better world for all. I don’t see these statements as inherently contradictory. I see them as complimentary and representing possibilities to give something back for all that I have been granted.

Neither here nor there

As an anthropologist, I’m intellectually familiar with and fully comprehend the concept of reverse culture shock. As a person experiencing it, I just want to crawl into bed with the covers over my head and hide from the world for a while until it subsides or we return to Cuba.

My first real experience feeling bewildered by coming home hit me full on when returning from my first trip to Moscow in 1998. After a mere 9 weeks, landing at JFK was one of the most surreal experiences of my life up to that point. E V E R Y T H I N G felt unfamiliar and odd. Whilst my body was firmly planted in New York and eventually back amongst my things and in my flat in Connecticut, my mind persistently resisted leaving behind my surroundings and new-found friends in Moscow. Any time a question was asked, my response came in Russian (unsurprising perhaps since I hadn’t heard English for the last 3 weeks of that particular trip). Everything which at one time had been automatic in my US-based life became awkward and … difficult.

The unfamiliarity and disconnect subsided, replaced not necessarily by normalcy but passive acceptance that I was cognitively straddling two worlds. When I moved to Moscow the following year for what I assumed was a brief 6-month to 1-year teaching gig, I experienced culture shock upon my return to Russia, largely because I was on my own rather than sheltered and taken care of by a host family; the shock was somehow less pronounced. I continued to straddle my Moscow-based and other life in the US, but the divergence and cognitive dissonance between those worlds seemed less traumatic and … well… shocking.

Fast forward 17 a few years and insert two different worlds and that oddly and unsettling familiar feeling of reverse culture shock has returned. Whilst two different countries feature as home (Finland rather than the US) and home away from home (Cuba vs Moscow), the experience and feelings differ very little.

We returned from our epic journey to the land of rum, cigars, 1950s cars and chanchullo 3 weeks ago today and I’m still experiencing the worst sort of disconnect from life and missing Cuba and, more importantly, Cubans desperately. Finland, which is a relatively comfortable and easy place to live and has become home to us, feels wrong. It is too quiet. There are too many products and options and things from which to choose. And, it’s too clean and organised. Weird, right? (First World Problems, anyone?)

We knew before we left for the airport that our return to ‘civilisation’ and the ‘real world’ would be a slap in the face. How could it not be when we had such an amazing 6 weeks in Fidel’s Cuba? But from the moment we landed in Amsterdam and the experience of navigating Schiphol, once a favourite place for me, to returning to our flat and our life here, I cannot shake that sense that something is misplaced and off about my situation. Or more precisely where I am situated. My surroundings, including my beloved workspace, are somehow not quite right. I wake up each morning utterly confused, having dreamt about various goings on in Helsinki, but all situated and populated by those familiar faces from Cuba we left behind. In some cases, the actual stage is Cuba, but the events and people are all from our life in Finland. It’s maddening really.

This past weekend, the sense of longing for Cuba was so strong that after writing about chicharritas in the morning, I went on a quest to find green plantains and black beans so that we could at least eat Cuban food again, even if it wasn’t prepared by our favourite home cooks.

Perhaps it’s that the weather simply sucks this time of year in Helsinki, particularly this year. Perhaps we’re just missing our friends and family ‘over there’. That’s natural. Perhaps we simply haven’t ever really connected to Finland in the way that we should to properly ‘return’ to it. I know my toes will never prefer being stuffed into boots for 6 months to freely wiggling in the seaside air and burying themselves in the white sand beaches of Cayo Blanco.

For now and until this maddening mental state passes, I shall endeavour to be patient and ride out the reverse culture shock. I have great friends here, I love my students and teaching, I’m surrounded by brilliant colleagues and Finland possesses so many conveniences and a vast array of fresh produce that we truly missed when we were in Cuba. And, we have the internet once again. More importantly, my Cuban is here.

Eventually, my head will catch up with the rest of my body and realise that we are here in Finland. But, my heart remains in Cuba. For now…

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Full circle

What a wild, unpredictable, and thoroughly life-affirming ride the past five years have been. Why the past five years? Well, that was the last time we found ourselves on the precipice of a much-needed, long overdue holiday.

Recently, a friend tagged me in a post designed to prompt individuals to reflect upon and post photos of five things for which they are grateful. I have yet to post the actual photos, largely because, at the moment, I’m filled with gratitude for many, many things. I’m fairly certain that I would not have said the same thing this time last year, let alone five years ago. But, given that this will be my last post for 2014, and I started off this year attempting to post daily on all things grateful and lovely, here is my list of things for which I’m most happy. (For those who didn’t know, I have not mastered pith and my list exceeds five.)

The primary and most-persistent and consistent aspect of my life for which I am always grateful remains and will continue to be my husband. We left for our last holiday completely wasted and spent from too much work and not enough time for ourselves. Neither one of us was completely content in our jobs, and we knew then that specific changes were necessary. Since then, some decisions were made for us, others we made for ourselves, and we’ve faced more uncertainty and obstacles in the interceding years than in our entire relationship (and, I’d say, these events have eclipsed everything else in my life). Five years on since our last holiday and facing our 10th New Year together, I’m amazed by him each and everyday. Still. There’s no one with whom I’d rather spend six weeks, 24/7. Hell, we practically spend every waking moment together as it is. I doubt at this stage in life that I could spend 24/7 with anyone other than The Cuban. But, I’m looking forward to disconnecting from the digital world and focusing all of our time on one another and the family and friends we haven’t seen in far too long.

Alongside The Cuban, I’m truly blessed by membership in a tribe of folks both near and far who continue to support both of us in ways that astound me. Too numerous to name them all, as well as the many forms their helping hands assumed, it humbles me and fills me with such awe to call each of these individuals ‘my friend’. I can only hope to reciprocate their kindness and care in some way, particularly when they most need and least expect it. After all, that’s precisely what they did for us.

As much as we harp on about the nuisances of life here in Finland, we’re profoundly grateful to whatever bureaucrat decided that we represented no threat, but might actually contribute a little something to Finnish society and granted us our permanent residence permits. I’ve never known the terror of sorting out the myriad documents true immigrants must navigate and understand. After our ten-month battle, we’re safe to remain together and that’s golden. Above everything, that’s all we really want or need.

This year progressed in the most unexpected ways career-wise. Nearly 15 years since my last foray into a classroom, I found myself standing at the lectern attempting to impart some tiny bit of knowledge, wisdom and experience to eager young(-ish) minds once again. Perhaps more surprising to me more than anyone else, I find myself loving it. Combining a bit of activism and advocacy by way of editing and writing alongside teaching took me from the mind-numbing boredom and frustration of being perpetually underemployed to absolute delight and excitement about returning to work after our holiday. I’m honoured to be a part of the University of Helsinki’s Language Services, and indebted to all those who worked towards granting me this opportunity. And, I’m delighted to find myself with a new set of talented, inspiring and dedicated colleagues and mentors. What a difference a year makes.

If you haven’t picked up on the common thread running through this post yet, I’ll let you in on a not-so-veiled secret — I’m tremendously grateful for this crazy little life I find myself living. Never in my wildest dreams would this life occurred to me. Yet, it’s pretty f*cking awesome. Is it perfect? Not even close. Is it filled with richness? I’d say so, although not the sort of wealth measured by money or bank statements. Regardless of the many obstacles, difficulties, and nightmarish moments, there’s no other life I’d like to be living.

As we embark on our epic holiday in the sun, be well, my friends. Most of all, be happy. Until 2015…

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