And, just like that…

I run because it helps me battle my worst inner demons. I run because running is one of the only things that allows me to empty my head of all the nonsense that accumulates each day. I run because I can.

Yesterday was tough for a multitude of reasons. Today remains anxiety-riddled, largely because Irma has adopted Cuban time and appears stalled in between Cuba and Florida. She’s ravaged Cuba, although perhaps sparing Havana her worst. But, we still await word on those we love in Cuba, and continue to hope that they are well. Florida is another matter entirely. And, all we can do is continue to wait. Wait and hope we shall.

But, yesterday was also a victory for me. A seemingly small one. But, a victory all the same.

I can’t say that my Helsinki Midnight Run went at all smoothly. But, I finished, and I am proud.

Here’s what I’m taking away from the experience:

Two weeks ago, mentally I hit a gigantic, immovable brick wall. For reasons that don’t really matter and which I’m still processing, I sank into a state of despair and antipathy that I’ve evaded for a while. My little black dog barked and growled loudly and stripped me of my running and all other mojo. Thus, my last run prior to yesterday was two weeks ago today.

In addition, the last week or so, I’ve also been trying to ward off a bit of a chest cold or bug. Thus, earlier this week, when I looked at my schedule (which is mental) and the weather forecast for the run (which predicted rain, rain and more rain), I was certain I would not line up. Rather unfortunate given that I’d spent the last several months working hard towards that 10 k / Midnight Run goal.

But, sometime on Friday, I decided, ‘Fuck it. I’m running it. I may not have a great time and I may walk bits. But, who cares?! I signed up. I’ll at least start it!’

So, I started. One of the best moments came just before I started. As The Cuban and my close friend Jules escorted me to the runners’ starting area and relieved me of my jacket and bag of post-race crap, they believed in me even when I was uncertain. The Cuban, perhaps sensing more than anyone just how anxious and filled with doubt I was simply said just before the final pre-race smooch, ‘I’m so proud of you’. [Yes, I’m all choked up now reading that.]

My Race

After the finish and after the post-race swag grab, I snapped this before meeting up with The Cuban and my friend Jules. Yeah, I’m proud.

My Midnight Run

Images from a Helsinki Midnight Run: the start, the masquerade runners, my start group banner, the post-race hydration mission — G&T, and water of all sorts — and back home once the hat finally came off.

It struck me as odd since I hadn’t started yet or run a single step in two weeks. But, at the same time, that short little declaration said everything, and reflects why I’m proud of me.

I signed up. I laced up. I lined up. And, I started. More so, I finished. And, yes, I’m proud of me for that.

The race itself was hard and lovely at once. I went slow. But, slow beats standing still. I had breathing issues about 4 km in and had to find a port-a-potty, but I kept going. The skies opened and the rains came somewhere between the third and fourth kilometres and didn’t really stop, although it did let up to a gentle mist at some point.

I walked bits, but I kept going. I high-fived as many bystanders as possible because they helped me to keep going, and I’m grateful that they braved the elements simply to cheer us crazy, mad near-midnight runners on. And, I smiled. Even when it hurt, I smiled. Because I could continue to put one foot in front of the other, and just keep going. Before I knew it, I was passing the 9 km marker and then the 500 m to go banner.

And, just like that, I finished. Truth be told, it hurt I finished strong. More importantly, I finished!

As much as the worst critic (that little black dog barking in my head) wants to find fault in what didn’t go right last night, the runner in me is screaming, ‘Shut up, fool! You got out there and you did it! Who cares that it didn’t go smoothly?! Not every run goes well.’ And of the three Midnight Runs I’ve completed, this was my best.

For that, I’m proud.

My running story isn’t over — it’s just getting started.

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¡Felicidad! ¡Felicidad! ¡Felicidad!

Today is the best, most important day of the year.

Today is The Cuban’s birthday, and my absolute favourite day.

Today, we celebrate the day when this thoroughly lovely, witty, silly, insightful, thoughtful, caring, infinitely patient, creative, and at a times crazed creature entered this world.

There will be pie (banana cream, because bananas!). There will be singing and dancing (because that happens every day, but especially on birthdays). There will be much pampering and spoiling (because he deserves it). And, there will be laughter (because we like the laugh lines and chicken!).

Happy, happy birthday, my love. You make this world infinitely better each and every day. And, if you ask me, we need to celebrate your birth every day.

¡Felicidad! ¡Felicidad! ¡Felicidad!

Crazy Cuban

The Cuban & The Che Fufu doing what they do.

 

Stolen moments

This ‘summer’ in Helsinki has not exactly gone to plan. It hasn’t been bad; just not entirely what I expected.

But, moments—collections of seemingly insignificant moments—have made this summer much more memorable and heaps lovelier, best intentions and expectations aside.

Whilst work has kept me crazy busy and completely disinclined towards boredom or sitting on the balcony to enjoy a bit of afternoon reading in the sunshine, Helsinki’s weather hasn’t brought the sunshine and warmth our balcony garden needs to flourish let alone temps comfortable enough to sit without multiple layers for any amount of time. My free time has also coincided with days utterly devoid of sunshine. Sod’s Law, naturally. Rather than chillaxin on the balcony admiring giant sunflowers in July and August, we only seem to find a few moments at a time to spend tending to our balcony garden / wildflower ‘patch’ or to fill up the bird feeders. We do finally have tiny little wildflowers just now opening up, which thankfully go largely ignored by our community of feathered friends.

It’s lovely enough out there even if we have not spent any amount of time truly enjoying it. Those tiny little flowers are gorgeous. They’re also a nice reminder to be patient and accepting—there simply isn’t a whole lot we can do if we don’t have just the right balance between across and elements.

It is what is, this Helsinki summer. So, we’re finding the bits that are lovely and focusing on those. I’ll focus on these lovely little bursts of purple for as long as they stick around.

From seed to flower

From seed to flower, from our balcony garden and ‘wildflower patch’

As I add miles to my weekly run tallies, it’s also been incredibly important to find time to bond and unwind with The Cuban. So, nearly every evening that we can, we go for a walk, no matter how short on time we are or how stressed we may be and, lately, regardless of weather conditions.

This last week, we’ve spent a bit of time on our jaunts sitting on a lovely little bench just at the water’s edge, enjoying the view and completely letting go of all that ails us.

A few days ago, we were treated to an incredible sunset and absolutely tranquil conditions.

sunset in munkkiniemi

An evening sunset in Munkkiniemi. 

Stolen moments these are. And, as my schedule intensifies for the autumn term and life gets busier and more chaotic, I’ll not only remember these precious moments, but also try to steal and enjoy a few more.

 

Right place, right time

Timing matters.

But, so does taking opportunities as they arise.

Yesterday when my husband and I were out for an evening stroll, we chanced upon three geese. Spying these geese wasn’t particularly unusual—loads of them live along the shore near our flat in Helsinki. But, as we approached the water’s edge, they took flight from their positions in that majestic and magical way that mimics the illusion of walking on water. I’d just taken my phone out to capture a pic and snapped one before they flew out of the frame.

One moment. One photo. One opportunity. This is what I captured.

geese_Fotor

I’ve come to look for those moments when I’m in the right place at just the right time. And, to take whatever opportunities may be on offer. In some ways, much of my life over the past 20 years has resulted from those chance opportunities and meetings. Taking advantage of such timing at any one moment to simply go for it and see what happens wasn’t always a simple choice.

Whilst some things haven’t gone quite so smoothly, some of those choices worked out amazingly well. And, it’s those which stand out now.

My husband, for instance. I cannot imagine a life without him had either one of us not decided to set fear and uncertainty aside and just see what happens once we realised we were falling in love. It’s not a happy ending quite yet (thankfully), but it’s worked out well enough thus far.

To add to this item at the top of my list, landing my current job and what appears to be a career I’d never envisioned came about when I had no real direction or plan. My move to Moscow in 1999 resulted from a chance dinner at a conference, and lead me to so many places and further opportunities (including my husband and current job) I’d never imagined. And, so many moments and choices in between.

The importance now is that each of these moments became opportunities only because of my choices in those moments. Being mentally in a place where I felt ready to face what came next, willing to take a gamble in some cases and able to take on new challenges and shifting sands were sometimes more important. Without knowing it, in each of those moments I was ready to bet on me.

I don’t necessarily lament opportunities lost or which passed me by. In truth, I’ve no idea how many of those have faded into the distance on days when my mental demons shouted down and drowned out the voice of reason.

What I do know is that I am incredibly grateful for those moments when not only someone else took a chance on me, but when I accepted those challenges and bet on me.

 

Loving

Flashback to June 2005.

Little did I know that a meet-up with a rather crazy lovely Cuban from an online forum of Moscow expats would become so meaningful and life-changing. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew prompted a private message, and an invitation to chat about and swap music. (This was the third bit of music he and I virtually bonded over, the other two discussions consisted of gushing over Alison Kraus and Union Station and all things bluegrass, and, naturally, waxing silly and paying tribute to the Grateful Dead.) We didn’t keep track of the specific date when we met for the first time (at which point neither one of us was thinking anything other than ‘new friend with whom to geek out over music’). Nor did we really make note of our first ‘date’, which wasn’t intended as a date, but ended up sparking ‘something’.

But, thanks to Google, we can trace it back. How fitting that our first date / non-date fell on 12 June, a rather significant date for far more important reasons.

The decision in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, the case that invalidated laws criminalising mixed-race marriages, fell on 12 June 1967. Prior to that case, mixed race couples in the US were rare. More significantly and perhaps why they were so rare, prior to Loving, mixed-race couples who defied laws (and cultural norms) and wed faced jail time and prison sentences along with being ostracised from their community and outrage from their families and friends.  The laws changed, but attitudes persisted. Mixed-race couples continued to face rather unwelcome words and glances, if not outright discrimination and recrimination, some of which persist today. Today’s reality is certainly better than the era of the 1950s and 1960s, but that uneasiness continues today, at a time when 17% of newly married couples in the US involve individuals from various ethnic backgrounds.

The New York Times paid tribute to the Lovings along with other mixed-race couples on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision. It serves as a stark reminder that even today it isn’t easy for couples claiming various backgrounds who fall in love with someone ‘different’ from them. Different from their community. Different in terms of how they look and what they ‘know’.

The Cuban and I are lucky, I suppose. We don’t look that different from one another despite coming from completely opposing worlds. Middle America / Texas hill country versus Havana, Cuba. At times, we both marvel that we have anything in common at all let alone that we even met. But, given how similar we look given our fair complexions and lighter coloured eyes, we are still not free from those long-held notions of who should marry whom. It’s exceedingly rare amongst our circles, thankfully. But, given our respective backgrounds, we have felt the assumptions others make about us. We have experienced stereotypes and some rather odd statements regarding our relationship and marriage, and its validity in the eyes of some. I can’t help but wonder what we’d experience if we weren’t living in Europe.

We may be living out our relationship 50 years from that landmark case. In some respects, we in the US are nowhere on truly becoming tolerant and, well, loving. For everyone. Even if we have come far from jailing mixed-race couples, there is still further to go.

Love is love. And it is a beautiful thing in whatever form it takes. Maybe we should spend a little more time loving and little less time deciding who may love whom.

just-us_malecon.jpg

Just the two of us being us on holiday. The Malecón, La Habana, Cuba. January 2017

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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Metamorphosis

As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…