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.

 

Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible ThingsFuriously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My introduction to Jenny Lawson began with Beyoncé, the Giant Metal Chicken. Need I say more?

I loved this book. And, I love The Bloggess for simply being her wonderfully wacky self. Several chapters in this particular book resonated with me quite deeply, largely because of her brutal honesty and clarity in writing about her own mental illness. Anyone who has struggled with that voice in their head will know how pernicious it can be. But, in her writing, she makes the reality of living with and dealing with those highs and lows a little more accessible for those who love someone battling the nonsense in their head. And, for that alone, I am grateful to her.

We’re all a little weird. We’re all incredibly quirky. And, we’re all equally wonderful in our uniqueness, whether we struggle with health issues or not. And, when we can, we should all be furiously happy.

And, we should plant giant metal chickens all over place, because why the hell not?!

Giant chickens for the masses

An army of metal chickens spotted in Menton, France, Spring 2014.

 

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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

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…

 

 

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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