Still Life Sunday: The First Day of a New Life

IMG_3008_1

The First Day of a New Life

He had laid in bed for almost thirty minutes now, his eyes open, watching closely the shadows that moved on the ceiling. He felt awake, more awake than he had ever been before but something, maybe the realization itself, kept him under the blanket. The warmth gave him a sense of safety and he was almost afraid to put his bare feet on the cold wood-paneled floor. Because if he faced the cold, it would mean he accepted the mission, the new truth of life.

That was the reason to why he was still in bed: he wasn’t sure if he wanted to accept it. Was he willing to let go of his former beliefs and values and face the new, slightly colder world?

Everything around him seemed to be proof of the fact that he, actually, was ready.

Yesterday, his car had been towed away from the parking space outside his apartment after he had ignored the many parking tickets for five weeks in a row.

It was a matter of hours when the electricity would be cut off. If he would get up now, he thought to himself, he might have time to brew himself some coffee and take one last hot shower.

And everywhere his gaze focused in the room, he saw the signs of a new life waiting for him to take the first steps:

His clothes in the corner of the room were still unwashed and would stay that way until he would find the time and energy to take them to a laundromat or buy completely new ones.

His backpack, leaning against the only chair in his bedroom, smelled like mint-flavored cigarettes.

The red sneakers had muddy smudges on them, telling the tale of the most wonderful and horrifying night of his life that had happened only a few weeks ago and had been the very first chapter of his new life.

He had made an active choice to let everything go this far and he wasn’t planning on tracing his steps back. He had no intention to pay the electricity bill or get his car back. He didn’t care too much about leaving the apartment, even though it had been his home for the past ten years and held many dear memories to him.

Although everything remained, nothing was the same. Not to him, at least, not after that one night. And nothing would especially be the same, if he would get up now, face the hardness of the floor and brew one last cup of the finest espresso one could get his hands on in this town.

His smartphone beeped. One new message.

It’s time.

The words made him spring in action: without even thinking of it, his feet touched the floor, he made his bed one last time, put on his light jeans and a dark green shirt, and packed the rest of his clothes in his backpack. The process felt quick, easy and painless after the many minutes spent in doubt – the text message encouraged him to stop thinking and get moving.

For one last coffee from the former life, he walked to his fridge: instead of an espresso, a store-bought cold-brew would have to do for now. Drinking the mint-flavored coffee in large gulps, he stood for a moment looking out from the window to the street.

He saw the green van park on the space his car had been towed from only sixteen hours ago. It waited for him. It was time to leave: both physically and mentally.

A moment later, as he closed the door to the apartment behind him, he thought of the physical space he was leaving behind but also of the person he was leaving in there, trapped with the old memories, values and structures.

For each descending step, he took in his new identity and his new mission.

The front door of the green van was already open, the empty passenger seat waiting for him. He nodded to the man behind the wheel he had never seen before, placed his backpack on the floor between his feet and shut the door.

“You’re M, right?” he asked the man, somewhat nervous but at the same time exhilarated.

“Yes. And you are Mr. White”, the man answered him.

After that, they didn’t speak a word. But for Mr. White, it was enough. His new identity felt already a natural part of him. As the miles passed, he felt the old values drain from his body and a new determination fill his mind.

Mr. White wasn’t sure if he would still be alive after the mission was completed. But it didn’t matter because the new truth he had decided to take in made him feel more alive than he had ever felt before. It was better than a hot shower, a strong espresso, and clean clothes.

It was, after all, nothing less than the truth.

Still Life Sunday: The Sound of the Ocean

IMG_4660_2

26 The Sound of the Ocean

”Write about your favorite childhood holiday!”

I glance up from my notebook where I’ve been doodling cute animals and old-school road trip cars for the past fifteen minutes to see if my teacher in her colorful clothes and sunny demeanor is serious. She is.

“Come on, go for it”, she says, smiling reassuringly. A photo of a palm beach is reflected on the whiteboard. “Surely you all have a pleasant vacation memory stored somewhere inside your mind. Write about that vacation, the excited feelings for all exotic, the smell of good food, the wonder of all the new things you saw!”

I glance to my sides to see how other people feel about this writing exercise. To my surprise, they seem excited: a warm, happy expression on several faces, a pen ready in hand to start writing. As the teacher urges us to begin, the others hunch down over their notepads and start combining words into sentences. I, however, keep my gaze forward.

I try to think of something, anything vacation-related but nothing comes to mind.

“You have twenty minutes!”

Twenty minutes feel like an eternity when you have nothing to write about. I suppress a sigh and lower my gaze back down to the doodles on the page. If it were an option, I’d do nothing for the following minutes except maybe doodle some more, but unfortunately it isn’t an alternative. The teacher wants us to return the paper on our vacation memories in the end of the class.

It’s not that I’ve travelled and it’s not that I don’t remember anything from those travels. But I don’t have a favorite vacation, per se – because all the vacations were the same. To the same island in the Canary, to the same family hotel with two swimming pools and a gigantic breakfast buffet with chocolate croissants and with the same group: my family and no one else.

I glance at the timer the teacher has projected on the whiteboard. Fifteen minutes left.

The thing is, nothing special happened during those vacations. My mother only wanted to lie in the sun and read books, take a break from the realities of life and her work. My sister wanted to swim in the pool. My father didn’t enjoy the sun very much so he stayed mostly inside our hotel room, listening to Elvis on a portable cd-player. So, I just wandered around, sometimes swimming, sometimes reading, asking for money to run to the local shop on the other side of the street to buy ice cream.

Ten minutes left. Crap. A feel a slightly panicked tremble as my hand clenches the pen I’m holding. If I don’t start writing soon, I might fail this class. As sunny as our teacher is with her colorful clothes and white Pepsodent smile, she’s also extremely strict about how she wants her students to perform.

Suddenly, a memory comes to me. It’s from my family’s very first trip to the Canary Islands, some twenty years back. I almost sigh in relief, bend down over my notebook and start scribbling feverishly, putting down the words faster than they come to my head.

In Tenerife, with only a few days left before we would leave to travel back home, I became friends with this girl from Denmark. She was sweet and kind with a long, blonde braid and blue eyes, like a true Scandinavian. We went on imagined adventures together, searching for secrets and mysterious cats around the hotel area, avoiding our parents who, we decided, were dangerous prison guards searching for us.

The last day, after only a few days of adventures, she gave me the most beautiful seashell. It was light-colored and reminded me of her. I wondered why she wanted to give it to me – maybe it was a sign of trust and true friendship but as we could barely communicate with each other, I couldn’t ask.

With a combination of sign language and some Danish words, she told me to press the seashell against my ear and hear the sounds of the ocean. I did and she watched me do it. I only heard a quiet, ambient sound that didn’t resemble an ocean in any way, but I smiled and told her it sounded amazing, just like a real ocean. She seemed extremely satisfied which made me happy despite my tiny lie.

However, when she left to eat lunch with her family, I hid the seashell in the playground sand. I can’t explain why, but I did it. I left it there and went to pack my things, to have one last lunch at the hotel bar where all the workers knew some words of my mother tongue, before we would leave.

And just as I can’t explain why I hid the seashell, I can’t explain why I in the last minute went to the playground to get it back, to take it with me back home. Luckily, it was still there. I cleaned it from the tiny, irritating sand pebbles, and put it in my pocket to take it with me back home.

“Time’s up! Return your writings on my desk now, please!”

Nineteen years later, I still have the shell. It sits on my bookshelf, and sometimes I put it against my ear to listen to the sounds of the hollow arc. It doesn’t sound like the ocean. But I’d like to know why the Danish girl thought it did.

Still Life Sunday: A Zip Code Error

img_1994_3

25 A Zip Code Error

Sometimes I wonder if I was sent to the wrong country. What if the mail delivery service got it all wrong when they sent me here? Maybe the tag said “Fiji” but I was sent to “Finland”.

I think of this possible error when I struggle to keep the icy wind on the outside and the warmth of my body on the inside of the jacket.

I think of it when I wake up in the morning and see the ever higher piles of new snow, freshly layered on the old coat of white.

In the Finnish language, there are over a hundred different words for these small ice crystals. The fluffy, huge snowflakes have a different name than the tiny small, weightless snowflakes. New snow is called one thing, old snow another.

For instance, the snow that stays on the ground or on the trees has different names depending on how it stays. If the wind is strong, the snow that falls is called tuisku. If you can’t see through the snowfall, talk about pyry.

But for me, most days, the snow is just snow. There’s more of it, there’s less of it. It’s piling up, it’s melting away.

I watch the snow from my kitchen window, how the white flakes fall from the sky, their lightness enabling them to descent in a frolic matter, inviting me to play with them.

If I were the kind of person who enjoyed snow activities, such as ice skating and skiing, I would love it here. So many months of cold weather make excellent conditions for winter sports! But for some reason, I’m more of a runner, a biker, even a swimmer-in-the-sea kind of person. A fact that makes me think that there must have been some sort of delivery mistake made at some point – someone got it wrong.

My longing for Spring and Summer comes at odd times. Once, I was standing on the street, waiting for the pedestrian lights to turn from red to green. As the light turned green, my ears filedl with the loud sound of car tires trying to grasp the snowy, slippery road to get going – but without succeeding. I breathed in the smell of gasoline and enjoyed it because it made me think of Summer. It reminded me of all the youngsters on their motorbikes who roam the streets loudly, leaving behind them the smell of fuel and an odd silence.

Snow is a part of the Finnish identity – more than hundred names for the white fluff proves it. It’s also a frequent topic in the newspapers: how much snow will fall, how cold it will be, and if compared to the previous fifty years, is there more or less of snow, is the temperature colder or warmer than before.

For many, snow and snow-related activities are some of the best things about the four seasons of the North. The fluffy dogs love rolling around in it, the kids shriek with excited laughter as they go sledding down the hill.

Sometimes I like all the whiteness, how it brightens up the darkness and makes the sounds of the world softer. As I lie in bed under the warm blanket, another body pressed against mine, I like the snow. But even then I think, if I lived in Fiji, I could still experience this as a tourist, of my own choice.

I’m almost certain there was a mistake made by the mail delivery service back in time, 24 years ago. Why else would I think of these things? You see, Fiji doesn’t use zip codes but if you must include one, for online orders for example, you can use the code 00000. I was sent to Finland, with the zip code 00100.

A simple error in the zip code.

No wonder I’m here instead of being there.

Only a one-number-difference – a humane mistake that made all the difference.

Still Life Sunday: The Grand Production

img_4815_2

24 The Grand Production

Hotels are like grand theatre productions. You have the life on this side of the curtain, the one visible to the audience, and the other side behind the curtain, where the magic happens. But the magic cannot be seen during the daytime buzz. If you want to see it, you need to opt your timing.

And when is that?

It’s when you wake up at six in the morning to go to the gym for your morning workout or to take a dip in the cold sea, the first rays of sun warming your shivering skin. That is the time when you have the best chance to have a look behind the curtain.

This is what you could see:

In the stairs, you meet a beautiful latino woman who works as a cleaner at the hotel. As she wishes you good morning, you notice her beautiful (she is like a secret talent of the theatre but works as a side character, yet to be discovered).

In the long corridors, you see the cleaning lady, forehead heavy with wrinkles. She’s focused on vacuuming and you do not get her attention (she would be the grumpy caretaker of the theatre, better to watch out for her).

In the reception, two men: one of them has been up all night managing the desk and the other one has come early this morning to take over the shift. Both sip their coffee and chat idly, trying to keep themselves awake (they are two actors from the cast, tired from rehearsals).

And then there is the busybody – a man who seems to be all over the place, organizing the flower setting or straightening up piles of plates and cups that are waiting for the conference guests of the day (he’s the director’s right hand, obviously).

This is something you get to witness at six or seven in the morning. The curtains are still open, the set still somewhat chaotic, the staff running around fixing small details. But when the clock shows eight and most of the hotel room guests wake up to enjoy their breakfast buffet, the curtains close and the magic of it all is left behind the velvet.

The grand show is on.

The cleaners disappear as their shift is over. The tired night receptionist gets to go home for a good morning sleep. The busybody has finished all the tasks that require running around and can take a break, disappearing somewhere behind the curtain.

All the workers seem to improve their posture, build up a friendly smile that never leaves their faces when they work, ready for a new day at the Grand Hotel.

For the guests who make their first appearance of the day at eight, the Hotel is simply like on this side of the curtain – they would never guess the hustle and bustle that happens behind it.

But the early birds who take a morning dip in the sea, a relaxing moment in the sauna or a refreshing walk outside on the grounds – they get to see the production process of the Grand Show: the hustling of making everything seem perfect, the power structures behind the roles, all of the magic.

Most people only come to enjoy the show. But for those who are curious to know how the magic works, what happens behind the curtain… they can see it – if their timing is right.

Still Life Sunday: The Stoic of the Crowd

Processed with VSCO with hb2 preset

23 The Stoic of the Crowd

The town feels all too quiet as it rests under the newly fallen snow. The cars drive by slowly, stopping at almost every intersect to look out for other vehicles and people who walk quickly through the streets, their shoulders drawn up to keep the warmth in and the freezing, unpleasant wind out. No one wants to stay outside in the cold air more than they need to. Instead, they all seek safety and warmth inside their box apartments, closing the doors behind them and drawing the blinds in front of the windows. No one wants to be reminded of the cold, the darkness and the ice that covers the sidewalks.

To escape the quiet, the slow-moving cars and the people who avoid looking anyone in the eye (it’s best to keep the eyes down on the ground and look out for icy spots), my steps take me to the local library. I walk through the lobby, past the shelves filled with books aimed for children and young adults and turn to the right, and take the stairs up to the adult book section.

I can see the wind making the snow fly in swirls outside the window. I shiver and start to wander around aimlessly, simply browsing the shelves with my eyes.

The new books. They stand proudly on a table as if declaring their excellence, that they exceeded everyone’s expectations and now take their rightful place on that surface with the note ‘Newly arrived books’.

I wonder if these books got rejected several times before getting published or if the process was painless and quick, the first publishing house declaring they wanted to publish the book. The books stand here now, proud and convinced that they were meant to be there in the first place. But how long was the journey before they were printed, published and brought to the library?

I move away from these proud books and take a turn to the philosophy section instead. The classics, the Plato, the Aristotle, even a book of Nietzsche’s thoughts catches my eye. Then the modern philosophers, most of them unknown to me.

This section seems all too quiet, too pondering, all too filled with thoughts that would pick my brain if I’d let them do it. None of the books seem to talk, only ponder about the world and the meaning, slightly humming to themselves. It makes me nervous so I continue my wandering. I walk past the religious books, seeing the row of Bibles waiting for curious hands to pull them from the shelf and browse the pages, the scriptures. How many times a year is a Bible borrowed from a library, I wonder.

The travel books are lined up on several shelves, divided into different countries in different parts of the world. They all look similar, giving the impression that all countries are more or less the same. And they are, too: they all battle the effects of the economy, of the climate change and try to make life as enjoyable as possible for everyone living in the country. They all have people who are rich and who are poor, they have cats and dogs, fruits and vegetables, good and evil, right and wrong.

But still, all the countries have been given their own book that tells them why they are unique, why they matter.

I stop at an old book with a brown, blank cover. The book is too big to fit in an ordinary shelf and has therefore been placed outside it, on a single shelf that travels along the side of the wall. The brown, blank cover catches my attention. It doesn’t try to sell me anything or tell me any stories that I could regard as truths – instead, it invites me to create my own, subjective thoughts.

It’s a book filled with maps, drawn by hand ages ago. Filled with exquisite details, drawings and texts, the pages give an impression of the passing of time, thoughts and ideas. It holds on to my focus, not giving me all the answers right away but instead, it invites me to look, to search for the smallest details and then, finally, letting me go and agree on turning the next page.

The book is different from all the other books in this library. It’s even quieter than the philosophy books and is filled with mysteries like the religious works. But this book I like.

And although it has certainly earned its rightful place on this shelf when it comes to the delicate craft and age of the book, the brown covers give the impression of quiet serenity, peace, unlike the brand-new books on that other surface. This brown book of maps could be hidden somewhere behind all the other travel books and would give the same air of serenity as it does here.

And that makes it the greatest book in the library.

Still Life Sunday: Tête-à-tête

img_6652_1

22 Tête-à-tête

”May I open that one for you?”

The voice is friendly and the gesture accompanied by it conscious and balanced. He clearly knows what he is doing.

“I’ve got the bottle opener right here. But thanks, anyway.”

I turn him down, although that self-confidence of his feels appealing to me. He doesn’t seem to mind my refusal.

As the cork falls off and meets the table with a distinct ‘clink!’, I see him nod in an approval. Strong and independent woman, I think to myself and smile. How he analyzes my smile I don’t know but at least it makes him lean in closer – not to look at me but at the bottle.

It is a Japanese beer, blonde in color, its scent thick. Earlier that day, when I had walked to the liquor store without knowing what I was searching for, my eyes had focused on this specific beer for two reasons. First, the owl was cute and reminded me of those zen-like Japanese fish that swim in ponds in a peaceful manner. And second, it was the last bottle of its kind which made me think it had to be good.

“Is that your only drink for the night?”

The voice is still friendly and I can’t read any kind of judgment in-between the lines. Even his eyes are friendly, simply curious on my choice of drink for the evening. I nod.

“I prefer quality over quantity”, I say.

A short chuckle tells me he is amused by my comment which most likely means he has understood my point. Every few minutes I can hear someone opening yet another beer can, the distinct ‘tsskr-POP’, and the laughter spirited by mass-produced lager fills the room.

I take a sip of my Japanese beer. It’s a strong one but I like the taste. Without thinking about it, I offer the bottle to the stranger who has a friendly voice, conscious gestures and a curious look. He takes it, thanks for the offer and takes a sip.

“It’s good”, he says. “You have good taste in beer.”

I give him a short nod and a smile.

“This owl… it reminds me of Japanese koi. Do you know them?” He continues without waiting for an answer. “Did you know that they have an average lifespan of 40 years? The age can be determined by testing the Koi’s scales because they produce growth rings like trees.”

He’s good, I must admit that. He knows precisely the right words to say to get my attention, to keep me from turning my back to him and leaving in order to search for another quiet corner in the room.

So, I stay put. Take another sip, give him another nod and a smile.

That’s seems to be all he needs. And that’s all I need.

Still Life Sunday: The Ten-Round Swimmer

img_7437_2

21 The Ten-Round Swimmer

After I’ve taken a shower, I put on my swimming cap that tightens around my scalp. I adjust my swimming glasses, and already I know that after I’m finished, they will leave marks around my eyes. I’ll look like an urban panda bear for the rest of the day.

When I have my glasses and my swimming cap on, I become anonymous. I become as anonymous as everyone else in the swimming pool. It calms me, makes it easier to focus on why I have come here today. I walk to the pool, take the steps down to the water. First, it feels almost too cool.

Then I start swimming.

I love how the chlorinated water caresses my body. How my ears fill with the steady rhythm of inhaling and exhaling, listening to the sounds both under and above the surface.

I feel my heart beating heavily, trying to distribute blood and oxygen to every cell and organ in my body, to keep me moving.

Sometimes I watch others, how they swim. Especially underwater.

I love seeing how their bodies move with ease, feet pushing the water, taking the body a little bit closer to the end of the pool.

But mostly I just count. The swimming pool is 50 meters. Swimming from beginning to end and back makes 100 meters. My goal today, and every other day, is to swim 1,000 meters, which means I swim ten times the pool from one end to the other and back. This takes me about 30 minutes but I never count time. Instead, I count the rounds.

So, I swim, and with every stroke I chant in my mind: one, one, one, one… It calms me. It also helps me focus, keeps my thoughts off certain things. For every round, I manage to ignore the negative, frustrating feelings and let them go as I focus on the rounds: three, three, three.

At the same time, as my body moves in a movement called breaststroke and my mind keeps on chanting (five, five, five), a process of some kind takes place. It’s the kind of process you are not aware of but when you step out of the pool you’ve somehow found a solution to a problem or decided on something you did not know the answer to before stepping in.

But first, I have to finish my rounds.

Eight, eight, eight.

The last rounds I do not think about anything else except the rounds. I am close to reaching my goal and as I reach it (ten!), I take hold of the edge of the pool and pull myself up. It always feels great. The feeling makes me think of female breaststroke swimmers who are so energetic and happy when they win the Olympics.

In the shower, I take off my cap and my glasses and with my fingers I trace the panda bear shape around my eyes.

From being anonymous for the last thirty minutes, I become an individual again.

This is me.