Still Life Sunday: The Stoic of the Crowd

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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

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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

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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.

Still Life Sunday: The Difference Between Two Minds

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20 The Difference Between Two Minds

Assignment: A young girl stands on a road that leads to the woods. With her she has only a backpack, on her a pair of hiking boots and in her hand, she clutches a first aid kit. It is up to you to write a beginning to her story, in 200–300 words.

Student Z:

The girl walks in the forest. It is green, the leaves are hanging from the trees and the path she walks on is wet. Somewhere, a bird sings but the girl can’t see it, as it’s hiding in-between the branches. She walks forward and comes to a lake. It is dark blue and silent. On the other side of the lake she can see a deer drinking the water. It’s a beautiful animal. But when the girl steps on a stick, it disappears into the forest in the blink of an eye.

The girl continues her walk, listening to the birds that sing in the woods. Somewhere she hears noises, maybe a rabbit hopping away, but doesn’t see anything. She starts singing to herself a song she heard on the radio. Suddenly, she stumbles on a root and falls. Her knee starts bleeding. Luckily, she has her first aid kit, which she now opens to find a band-aid. She needs two for the sore. After that, she stands up again and continues her walk. Her knee hurts but she tries to ignore it even though it doesn’t help. Finally, she gives up and turns around to walk back home.

Word count: 200

***

Student W:

Sandra had tied her bronze colored hair into a bun so that her vision would stay clear through the journey. She held the first aid kit tightly in her hand, hoping it would help her when help was needed, and most important of all, keep her alive. As she took the first steps into the forest, Sandra could feel her senses sharpening: her eyes searched for anything unusual, her ears seemed to catch even the smallest cracks and rustling sounds. Even her nose seemed to catch smells that were new to her.

She could feel the nervousness in her stomach. It made her shiver, the thoughts of what was waiting for her. At the same time, she felt courageous, the strength of her body, her fixed mindset. She had promised her grandfather to find the little fox that had disappeared some days ago, and a promise was a promise. No matter how much she feared the forest, how disgusted she sometimes felt about the bugs or how she would have rather stayed at home reading a book – she had to keep her word.

The thing was, the fox wasn’t an ordinary fox. Sandra’s grandfather had a special connection with it, the brown-orange furry thing called Paw. Grandfather called Paw his spirit animal, although his family had always thought it to be some kind of joke. But Sandra had known his grandfather’s words to be true, when Paw had disappeared: her beloved, laughing and hugging grandfather had turned into a different person – a darker, grumpy, silent version of himself when he was separated from his beloved Paw. And that was why Sandra knew she had to find the fox, no matter how much she wanted to be somewhere else. She wanted her grandfather back.

And with this thought in mind she entered the forest, without looking back.

Word count: 306

Still Life Sunday: A Goodbye Said in Silence

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19 A Goodbye Said in Silence

When he closes his eyes, he can see it.

He can see the grey rock he is standing on and the small guest harbor on the other side of the silent bay. He remembers how he and his friend rowed on a small boat to the other side one summer to pick up two girls who were curious to attend their Midsummer Night Party. It had been a good night: the other girl was a good kisser who hadn’t been afraid to use her tongue.

Now, he can feel the late August warmth on his skin, the setting sun coloring the view into pastels. He hears a bird – the crow of the island. The old grump keeps an eye on everything that happens, sitting on a branch high up in a pine tree.

Taking a few steps forward, he is now standing in the exact place where the five-year-old he fell into the water. It was his father’s favorite story to tell how he had jumped in the water to save his son, and chuckled at how only a few minutes later he had been drying his banknotes on the rock. The son lived and so did the banknotes after a moment in the sun, he’d say.

This island is filled with memories. Everywhere he looks he sees something that reminds him of a project long gone, a day or a social happening from a few years ago. He has spent thirty summers on this island with his family and friends.

He loves that island, the trees that sway in the wind, the fish that jump in the water, the smell of the wood-burning sauna. But he will no longer visit this place – the summers here have come to an end.

Not because his family is selling it or because he is moving away, but because it is time for him to set himself free from his past.

In his mind, he turns around to look at the red cottage they repainted the previous summer. He wonders if the credit cards cut in half and the keys to his childhood home, that he put in an envelope and sent to his parents, have arrived. He left no note, letting the contents of the envelope speak for themselves.

However, he isn’t curious to know how his family will react to his actions. He won’t answer any of the phone calls he knows they will try to make. He has set himself free from the traditions, the norms, the expectations and the people he used to call family.

He is letting go of something to gain something. What his family represents is keeping him in place, holding him from getting onward, keeping him from developing into something else that could be better and more fulfilling.

It isn’t exactly easy to do what he is doing. Sometimes he thinks it would be easier to live his life as expected, without too many surprises or plot twists. Then there would be no conflicts, not too many questions. Only silent and satisfied approval. But that isn’t a way of life he can accept. How can he ever learn how he wants to live his life if he is constantly hindered from trying to live it?

And that is why he opens his eyes and says goodbye to the island quietly in his mind. Life is revealing itself to him in a new way and he is ready to welcome it with open arms.

Still Life Sunday: Reviving Resilience

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18 Reviving Resilience

First, everything’s quiet. But then – a crash of ceramics on the wood-paneled floor. Then a yell, someone telling someone else to grab something, maybe a jacket or the phone. A door opens, panicked footsteps echo in the corridor. Someone trips on their own shoelaces or misses a step or something, but gains their balance quickly and continues their way down the stairs.

Then the scream comes: “Fire! Everybody out!”

The doors open, almost in a synchronized movement, as if all the residents of the house have been waiting behind their front doors for the order to come.

Until this moment, an elderly man on the third floor has stayed in his armchair, not bothering to stand up in vain. But now the smoke is starting to seep into his apartment too and he feels like he must get up and join the others.

As he grabs the armrests with his white hands weakened with age, the doorbell rings.

“Tom! You need to get outside! Are you in there?”

He walks to the door and opens it. It’s his friend, Elsa, from the apartment one floor down. Tom feels warmth in his chest, appreciating Elsa taking the time to walk up the stairs to warn him despite her anxiety and bad knees.

“I’m on my way”, Tom says, keeping his voice calm, and glances at Elsa. What does she have with her? “What should I take with me?”

“Nothing!” Elsa’s first answer is colored with panic and some sort of determination. But then she thinks for a second, and decides differently. “Take your jacket. It’s cold outside. And your keys, of course.”

“What about my…”

“There isn’t time for anything else, Tom”, Elsa interrupts with a high voice that sound like a cry, unable to stop the panic from taking over. “Come!”

Tom follows in the steps of his friend. He walks from his apartment, carrying his coat and keys. He glances into the apartment, only for a second, letting his eyes rest on the old wooden writing desk of his for a short moment. He would like to sigh, but he doesn’t seem have time for that – Elsa begs him to stop wondering and start walking.

So, he walks down the steps, three floors down to the front door of the building, and joins everyone else in the yard.

It doesn’t take long before the fire is raging in three floors out of six. It had started on the fourth floor, the floor above Tom’s, and continued in two directions, up and down, quickly and aggressively.

It’s as if the fire knows it will be extinguished soon enough by the fire department, and decides to destroy as much as it possibly can before its time is out.

That’s a thought Tom would’ve liked to write down. But it isn’t possible. All his journals are inside, probably being eaten by the fire at that precise moment.

I hope the fire likes my words, Tom thinks to himself and wants to chuckle at his own joke. But it isn’t funny, not really. He’s aware that it’s only a mechanism of the brain to protect Tom from the truly awful truth he already knows – that all his work is being destroyed, right now, inside that building. Everything he has created, every word he has written. Gone. And there is nothing he can do.

In the distance, the fire trucks sound their alarm. They are close, coming at a surprising speed. But it’s already too late.

However, as the cold November wind makes everyone shiver, Tom thinks this: maybe all the thoughts will come back to him. Maybe he can write them all again, just like they were before. But at the same time, an elderly man with dementia… Tom sighs, this time out loud. What are the odds of him remembering everything again?

“Tom, it’s going to be alright”, Elsa says to him, in an effort to sooth both her friend and herself. Tom pats Elsa’s hand that has a tight grip of his arm. He appreciates her effort.

“Life has a tendency to find its way”, Tom hears himself say.

He is unsure if he has belief in his own words. But that isn’t anything one thinks of in a moment like this. At moments like these, one holds on to hope, to resilience, at any price. And Tom does that too, for now. Just to keep Elsa calm.

Still Life Sunday: An Instant Message on a Saturday Night

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17 An Instant Message on a Saturday Night

 Hey friend,

How does life in a new town feel? Do you already have a favorite café to pick your morning coffee from (where the barista is cute so that you have someone to wink at)? And have you learnt a route to the office from your apartment that you already walk like you’re on auto pilot? 

Somehow, today, my thoughts go to you. (And yes, I’m aware that it’s a cold and grey Saturday night. But don’t read anything into it, my friend. Don’t get too excited. It’s just a regular evening for me and on nights like these, my thoughts, well, they tend to wander.)

I think about that year in elementary school when I decided to write a play. I wanted the whole class to participate and I came up a role for everyone. But when I announced the different characters and who would be playing whom, it came apparent that no one wanted to be the other end of the dragon, the butt. Sarah was super happy to play the head of the dragon so that was fixed, but no one wanted to be the other end.

Not at least until the teacher told you to switch role from a villager to a dragon butt. I’m sorry you had to do that… but at the same time I’m not. So, sorry for not being sorry. 

Even after all these years, the memory makes me laugh. You were so angry at the teacher and frustrated with me – you kept asking me why I had to choose a dragon. Why couldn’t I just choose something that stands on two legs, like a Minotaur? You even tried to persuade me so that I would change the dragon to something else – how you knew I loved dried dates, I still haven’t found out to this day.

But in the end, you performed the role of the dragon tail. And today, on this Saturday evening, my thoughts go back to that and I realize that the whole play wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for you. Maybe the teacher could have appointed someone else to do the role but I don’t think anyone would have performed it as whole-heartedly as you did in the end.

So today, I just wanted to say hi, write a few words and tell you that I’ve been thinking about your Oscar-worthy performance as the dragon butt 15 years ago. 

And I also wanted to tell you this: I don’t think I would have become a theater enthusiast and ended up working for theaters if it hadn’t been for you. If the play had been a total catastrophe, I wouldn’t have thought that I could do it in the real world.

So, thank you for helping me out that day. Thank you for grinding your teeth, putting on the dragon tail and kneeling behind Sarah’s bum all those rehearsals and finally, the actual play.

Thank you for finishing the play.  

(I hope that barista winks back at you one day.)