A Five Star Experience

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Every morning from Monday to Friday, I take about thirty to forty-five minutes to write my journal. I reflect on how I feel, the thoughts that are running through my head and the overall mood of the day. However, for the past three days, my morning writing sessions have looked like in the picture above.

Instead of writing at our white work/dinner table at home, I have been sitting at a brown table for two. Instead of drinking my morning coffee from the grey and blue Keep-Cup, I’ve been drinking a beverage made by someone else.

As you might guess, I’ve been out of town.

A Five Star Experience

I went on a short trip initiated by my mother, and I got to choose the country, as long as it was in Europe. I didn’t want to fly and I didn’t have a need to travel very far – therefore I opted for a spa holiday on the other side of the Gulf of Finland, only a two-hour cruise away from Helsinki: the city of Tallinn in Estonia.

The hotel we stayed at was a five-star Estonian-Russian hotel. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a five star hotel but I can tell you that the place was excellent.

When we arrived, a concierge carried our luggage to our room, telling about the hotel and where we could find the spa and the restaurant. The building was old and the rooms where small but high in ceiling, at least five meters straight up. Every day, there was a new pillow mint and a bottle of water waiting for us when we returned from walking around the city.

The service was amazing and the spa was great. Because I had wanted a spa holiday, I got to choose two different treatments. On Monday, I enjoyed a whole body scrub and on Tuesday, I fell asleep during a head massage.

The hotel breakfast was healthy and good, and the staff attentive and helpful. The hotel receptionist was happy to book a table for us every night in a different restaurant, saying politely: ”Consider it done.” And on the last day when we checked out, he gave us both a bottle of water to go so that we wouldn’t go thirsty on our way back home.

But none of these things listed above became my favorite parts of the trip. Instead, it was something else.

Caffeine Confusion

Every morning after breakfast, I took my journal, walked to the lobby and sat down to write down my feelings, thoughts and reflections on the day that had gone and the one that was ahead. The hotel was quiet as the tourist season starts later in the Spring and I wasn’t disturbed by any hustle or bustle of the usual hotel life.

Every morning, as soon I started scribbling down words, the same concierge who had carried our luggage to the room the first day, would walk up to me and ask: ”Can I get you anything, maybe a coffee or a tea?”

The first morning I was so taken aback that I just said no thank you and smiled, probably looking flabbergasted by the question. But the next morning I was ready, and asked for a coffee. The third morning, I didn’t feel like drinking more coffee than I already had, so I decided to ask for a cup of tea. The conversation went something like this:

The Concierge: ”Can I get you anything, maybe a coffee or a tea?”

Me: ”Yes, please. I would like to have a tea. What different flavors do you have?”

The Concierge: ”I can’t remember them all, there are so many. There’s green tea, Earl Grey, black tea…”

Me: ”Do you have something without caffeine?”

The Concierge (looking bewildered): ”Without caffeine…?”

Me: ”Yes, without caffeine, you know, like…”

The Concierge: ”You mean decaf?”

Me: ”Yes! Decaf.”

After a moment, the concierge is back with his tray and puts on the table some milk and sugar and…

Me: ”But this is coffee?”

The Concierge: ”It’s a decaf coffee. Didn’t you want…?”

Me (realizing the mistake I had made): ”Oh, no, it’s okay. It’s decaf, that’s the important part. This is okay, thank you.”

The Concierge (smiles and laughs, still confused by the situation): ”I hope you enjoy it.”

Well, I did enjoy it. It was the first time I drank a decaf coffee and I thought it was as good as a regular cup, and I told it to the concierge when he came to check up on me later. I’d say the whole thing ended well.

(And now I know how not to order a tea without caffeine.)

Lessons Learned

Although the trip was, well, interesting to say the least, the hotel made an excellent impression on me. On most of my trips, I’ve opted for the three star accommodation because the city and the activities have been more important than the place I’ve slept in. Isn’t the city, the architecture, the cafés and the cultural experience more important than the place where I sleep?

However, this hotel was one of the things that made the trip as good as it was. The people working there, the service, the spa treatments, the food… Everything was in its place. Although I was obligated to go on this trip I really had no need for, at least I learned this:

Sometimes it really is worth every single penny to invest in accommodation while traveling because it can become the thing that makes the whole trip into a memorable experience.

(Although this time it was my mother who paid for the trip. But you get the point.)

Writing In Good Company

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I’ve been quite cautious about my book project. For the past year, when someone has asked me how I am or what I’ve been up to, I’ve just told them about my thesis or, well, not told them much more than ”I’m fine, how have you been?”

There’s only a handful of people out there who know about Yellow Tails (if you don’t count Instagram and this blog, of course). You might wonder why I’ve kept quiet about it, and the answer is this: I believe in the idea of silent success.

Many people announce their 30-day detox from social media or from candy or from alcohol to their friends and family in order to keep them to their word. The silent success, however, is about starting, executing and finishing a project in silence, and telling about it first when you’re done.

There are at least two good things about keeping your success to yourself: 1) the pressure and expectations comes from you, and you only, and 2) you do not have to deal with the people who have difficulties being happy for other people’s happiness and development (something I have first hand experience on, unfortunately).

But silent success wasn’t precisely what I wanted to talk about today. Rather, I’d like to write about the opposite. Being successful – and telling about it.

(But only to a few)

The Happiness of Telling

Last Tuesday, a friend of mine called me. The last time we talked was a few years ago but in a few weeks we’ll actually be working together which why she called to ask a few questions about the up-coming work week. But those questions took only a few minutes. After that she asked how I was doing, what I had been up to for the past months. I told her about the thesis – and I told her I had written a book I was now editing.

And she was so excited for me!

The best part was that she told me she’s also a writer, that she’s been writing for years, but that it’s been only a thing, not a career or anything. For me, it didn’t matter. I was simply filled with some sort of calm happiness for knowing that I had a writing friend in the same city. We had a fun conversation comparing our writing routines and how we plot or not our stories.

It really is true that writing is a lonely job and that friends who write are golden. But I don’t think one realizes it before finding a true writing friend. For me, it happened last Tuesday, and I noticed how much I’ve desired for one.

Searching for Community

After I decided to take a longer break from Instagram, which was a few months ago, it’s been quiet on the writing community side of my life. On Instagram, there were so many writers, aspiring authors and writing coaches who were there every day to cheer you on and share the happiness and pain of being a writer. But as I’m not there anymore, I haven’t really been cheered on by so many.

However, as I’m not very excited about going back to Instagram and everything it entails, I’ve been thinking about what other options I have. A writing group? A writing forum? A writing course or an entire education?

I write this blog in English and write my Master’s thesis in Swedish. However, Finnish, which is my mother tongue, is the language I write my journal in and also, my fiction. Therefore, as I’m thinking about my options, I’m restricted by my language.

Finland is a small country with only 5.5 million people. This means, at least when compared to many other countries, that there are even less writing people and that the likelihood of me finding them is, well, small. Plus, that I have no idea where to start looking if I wish to hold on to my principle of silent success.

At the moment, attending a writing course or enrolling in University for another degree, this time in creative writing, isn’t an option. I’m busy with finishing my current degree and after that I have other plans.

That leaves me with writing forums. But I’ve been reluctant to return.

Considering a Comeback

There’s nothing wrong with writing forums – it’s just that I haven’t been on one since 2011 and hadn’t thought about going back. At the time, I wrote mostly fan fiction and was all about writing love stories between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, Susan Bones and Terry Boot, and Lily and James Potter. Today, however, I’m not returning too eagerly to fan fiction because it feels like I’ve outgrown it. Therefore, I didn’t even think I’d have any business on those forums again.

But the call from my friend had a curious timing. Her excitement, encouragement and support for my book project gave me a boost of energy and motivation, something I didn’t experience getting from Instagram. This made me think that maybe I could return to those good old forums – but publish something original instead.

As I’ve noticed a longing for a Finnish-speaking writing group, this thought seemed to get wings the moment I decided to give it some actual thought. Ten years ago, when I was publishing at least one story per week on these forums, I got a good deal of feedback and cheers from fellow Finnish writers. But today, as I’ve been writing Yellow Tails by myself without publishing it anywhere or having anyone read it (yet), I don’t know how other people see and feel about my writing. It could do me good to write something shorter, try out different styles and in that way, develop my writing skills.

I haven’t done a comeback yet. But I did go and check if my old username still worked – it did. So maybe I’ll start drafting something in the coming weeks. Nothing too big, no full-length novels, but maybe a short one, something like the Still Life Sundays I’ve been publishing here, and see where it takes me.

After all, I’d guess a writer never turns down some feedback and writerly support from other writers?

***

Where do you publish your writing?

Still Life Sunday: Meeting a Stranger

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29 Meeting a Stranger

I look at the elderly man standing next to me in the line. He is wearing a long, brown jacket that matches his thick beard of the same color. His eyes wander around the café we have walked into, resting on the flower arrangements that somehow don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the interior.

“Is it true you wrote most of your book here?” I ask, unable to control my curiosity.

I can see this man sitting at one of the tables, reaching his hand to a pile of notebooks to check some timeline or other detail from the history; the black coffee getting cold as it waits for its drinker’s attention. The wrinkles on his forehead bear the signs of deep concentration, of thoughts working hard on tricky plot lines that need to be aligned to build a cohesive storyline.

He nods and points to a table next to the railing. From there one can observe the life on the lower floors without being seen. I should have guessed: the favorite place of a writer.

“Not even once did I have to sit somewhere else”, the man says, his thoughts trailing somewhere back in time. “I almost think the workers in this café kept the table empty for me, so that whenever I came I could sit at that table.”

He looks forward to the counter where a young man is taking orders from a customer.

“But time has passed and none of them work here anymore. Or Frank does but he has become so old he does only one shift a week, and even that he does just for fun.”

I love listening to his calm voice, somewhat strained with age and thought. I’m actually supposed to be choosing what I want to eat and drink but I can’t focus on the colorful pieces of cake in the glass cabinet. Instead, I observe him with fondness, unable to believe that it was only a week ago I managed to gather my courage and talk to him.

I had been bumping into him for weeks. For years, I had been a fan of his work, of his words, of his way of creating magical entities that were turned into books. Never ever had I imagined I’d have the opportunity to talk to him or even see him in real life – but suddenly I had.

The first time I saw him was in the library. I knew it in that instant who he was and followed him while he browsed through the History section (of course).

The second time was in the traffic lights. He was on one side, I was standing on the other. It was a sunny day and light was in his eyes, but I observed him while the light was red, and, as the light turned green, observed his quick steps.

The third time, the time I finally walked up to him, was in the food market. He had been examining the oranges and I thought it was an opportunity good enough to say something. So I did. I presented myself, told him I was a fan of his books and then, without even panicking about it, said I would love to sit down with him for a coffee sometime and talk about writing.

“You’re a writer yourself, are you now?” the man had asked, raising one of his eyebrows in a friendly manner. I nodded and told him about the book I was writing, gave that elevator pitch I had been working on. It seemed to make an impression because the old man took out a small notebook from his brown jacket pocket, scribbled a date, a time and a place and ripped off the page, giving it to me.

And here we are. He seems to be deep in his own thoughts but I don’t mind the ticking of time, the minutes already wasted on silence instead of spending them exchanging thoughts on writing and on being a writer in this hectic, money-driven world.

But then, quite suddenly, he wakes up from his thoughts and grabs my hand with both of his hands and shakes it in a way that feels desperate but in a relieved way. He looks into my eyes, properly for the first time after the food market talk, and his eyes are filled with warm gratitude.

“I really appreciate this, I do”, he says. I don’t know what to say so I just stare at him, trying to keep myself calm and keep his gaze, let his hands hold my own, still shaking.

“Is there a problem, miss?” the café barista asks, looking at us nervously. His eyes dart to the old man and I realize he doesn’t recognize him, doesn’t know he is the great writer, the regular who made this café famous.

The situation probably looks strange to an outsider, too: why would a young woman and an old, rather shabby man go for a coffee? I hate to say it, but the old man’s brown beard and jacket make him look a little bit like a homeless person, so I’m not all that surprised. But – –

“No. Everything is fine”, I say with confidence, and then add, slightly nervously: “He’s my… mentor.”

I glance at the old man to see what he thinks of my words. He releases my hands – but the gratitude in his eyes does not. In that movement, I see his loneliness – the loneliness of being an old unmarried man, of being a writer, of the preference for isolation. And instead of bearing the weight of loneliness, the man only wishes to have someone to talk to, to pass on his wisdom to.

“I think I’ll take a piece of lemon meringue pie”, I say, looking at the barista who now tries to hide his embarrassment with a neutral expression. The old man looks at me and I nod to him.

“And he will take one as well.”

The man smiles and I smile back. We are both amused for our similar taste for sour in desserts.

Who knows who of us two needs the other one more?

Choosing What’s Important

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I had been hoping I would be able to write a nice update on how my editing process is going. A month ago, I had just read my manuscript of Yellow Tails from beginning to end and was excited to share some facts about the plot and the main character, Jello.

I thought that the notes I took while reading the manuscript for the first time would be enough to start editing the story, but I decided to go a different way. Instead, I chose to focus on planning a more detailed storyline before diving into the editing process of the actual manuscript.

And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past month: working through every scene, creating an external, plot-focused arc and combined it with an internal, emotion-focused one – trying to create a well-flowing, interesting story.

However, I haven’t come very far. This past month hasn’t been a glorious month of progress when it comes to editing Yellow Tails. Why? Because I’ve been focusing on my Master’s thesis. And that hasn’t been a completely conflict-free decision.

Work Before Passion

I’ve been beating myself up many times for not focusing more on my book project. For many weeks now, on my list of to-dos for the week, I’ve had a box waiting to be ticked off, saying Plan Act 2, Part 2 and the next day, Plan Act 3, Part 1 and so on – but none of those boxes have been ticked off. There hasn’t been any progress, which makes me incredibly disappointed, even a bit sad.

Instead of editing, I’ve been focusing on my thesis (and this blog, in order to allow myself to think about something else than qualitative research methods). One could say that I’ve been prioritizing work over my passion for fiction-writing for the past month – and that does not sound nice to my ears.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who puts obligatory to-dos first instead of things I’m passionate about. But as the deadline for my thesis is closing in on me… so are the thesis-related thoughts. I just have to make a choice and that choice is, this time, to work.

So, instead of an update on Yellow Tails, how about some facts about my thesis?

I’m doing qualitative research about a relatively unknown phenomena called digital volunteers. To find out what is known about the phenomena in my country, I will be doing semi-structured interviews with local authorities and then try to find some patterns in their thinking that describes their awareness.

The deadline for my thesis is in the end of April (or, if I don’t make it then, a month later), after which I will graduate.

(At the moment, I’m in the part of the process that is, for me, the most daunting one: I have to call people and try to find authorities who would like to participate in my study and give an interview. For some people, calling up unknown folks isn’t a problem but for me it’s something I always try to postpone as long as possible.)

After I’ve found enough participants, what’s left for me to do is to interview them (which I’m not that nervous about because of my background in journalism), transcribe and analyze their answers and write write write until my thesis is done.

So… Any wonder the thesis has taken over almost everything else?

Reminder of Balance

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with myself because the editing process of Yellow Tails has been standing still. Last week, I even noticed some thoughts on giving up on the whole thing. The questions of Is this still worth it? Many first books don’t get published (although this isn’t my first book but third), should I just move on to the next and forget about editing this one? where actively bouncing around in my mind.

I couldn’t believe myself.

I’ve been working on this manuscript for a year now – and so quickly, so easily, I was thinking of giving up? That’s so not me! I’m no quitter and most of all, I have belief in my own story! I think Yellow Tails has something great in it and I can’t simply give up on the story because of an academic, obligatory paper. Giving up would be an incredibly shortsighted thing to do. But still, I was having these thoughts. It made me realize that somehow, my balance was off.

And that forced me to reason with myself.

In the beginning of the year, I wrote about finding balance during the year of 2019 (and onward). It’s a journey of finding the right ratio of everything, between accomplishing things and taking it easy, in understanding when you need to give your best and when it’s enough with the nearly best. But I’d like to say that finding balance is also about prioritizing.

Until now, I’ve been pushing myself to work on three projects at the same time: writing this blog, writing and editing Yellow Tails and working on my thesis. The blog-writing process has been an uncomplicated one, something I have in the system, but balancing between the other two has been tough. When I am working on Yellow Tails, my mind is constantly reminding me of the to-dos with my thesis and I feel bad. And when I am working on my thesis, my mind keeps going back to Yellow Tails and wondering how much I am dragging behind those self-imposed deadlines I have decided upon earlier this year.

I am constantly feeling bad about not working on the one while working on the other.

Therefore, I have decided to prioritize. From now on, as my thesis has an actual deadline created by other people than myself, I will give more attention to writing (and finishing) the thesis. I will continue prioritizing it as long as needed, probably for the following two months. Hopefully, this will help me lower my stress-levels, keep me from beating myself up for not doing everything I’d like to do and also, focus my energy on one thing at a time because multitasking never did any good.

However, I’m also aiming to maintain my balance. Working on Yellow Tails makes me happy and calm, and that’s why I’ve decided to dedicate one hour every day to edit the manuscript. But instead of having amount-of-work goals, I am opting for amount-of-time goals. Hopefully, this will give me the best of both projects during these up-coming months.

Keeping it Positive

Although I don’t have a passion for doing academic research or writing only things that are based on something someone else has written before and not what I think about things, I’m trying to keep a positive attitude to the whole thesis writing project.

For instance, the thing I mentioned earlier about calling: I was extremely stressed out, nervous, even horrified about calling up those authorities and talking to them about a topic they probably didn’t know about. Trying to get them say yes to an interview about something even I don’t know if it exists in Finland, was like trying to sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t exist yet. Talk about taking a walk outside one’s comfort zone… However, everything went fine! I begun making those calls last Friday and although I’m definitely no sales woman, I managed to find four (4) authorities that were interested to participate! That sudden gush of hope and motivation was really rewarding.

And, if nothing else, writing my thesis and being forced to stay away from my true passion for fiction writing, has helped me see what I really love to do and what I’m passionate about. We get blind so quickly, we humans. We seem to need a reminder of things we love and respect, as often as possible.

I wish you an energetic Thursday!

Still Life Sunday: Unable to Connect

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28 Unable to Connect

The forest is dark but the sky is clear with stars. I stand in the snow, holding a phone in my hand. Behind me, the camp fire lights up the night and laughter from the people around the fire reaches my ears. I turn my face up to stare at the sky and the stars, then I look at the fire and after that, forced, my gaze turns down to the phone.

I hesitate to take off my gloves to dial the number.

My muscles feel heavy and tired after today’s hike but my mind races like a wild horse on an open field. Instead of the luxurious relaxing feeling of a good day’s work, I feel anxious and ashamed. The conversation from just moments before has left my body burning.

“What does your second child do nowadays?”

 “She’s finishing her Master’s Degree. You know, writing her thesis.”

 ”Oh, she’s come a long way! What is she writing about?”

 “Hmm, I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with communication?”

 “Does she plan on graduating this Spring?”

 “Um, I don’t know. Probably.”

 “What does she plan to do after that?”

 “I… I don’t know what she’s been planning. But then again, who knows what the kids think and do nowadays?”

I had always been sure I would be able to give equal affection, curiosity and discipline to all my three children. I had brushed away the talk about how the second child tends to get the least attention because the first child is the rebellious rule-breaker and the third the slightly spoiled because of her youth and take all the attention they can get.

I had been sure it was just talk.

And suddenly, here I was, in the middle of nothing, realizing how little I knew of my second child. How I had fallen into the stereotypical pattern and failed to give equal affection to all three of them.

After the conversation, there had been no more questions because everyone had realized I didn’t have any answers to give. In the silence that followed, I had reached out to my backpack, taken my phone and walked away from the group, saying I needed a moment for myself. Now, I look at the phone and finally, after several moments of hesitation, take off my gloves and press the home button, making the screen fill with light. I have 72% left of the battery, enough to make a call.

My body is filled with a mixture of cold and grey shame, a feeling of loss and wonder. I feel a strong need for compensating for all these years of failure, a need for fixing everything. I try to understand what has led to this moment in the woods, to this burning sense of shame in my body. Where did everything start to go wrong?

The screen goes dark. I press the home button again. Now the battery says 63%. It doesn’t like the cold. I don’t like the cold. In fact, I’d rather be at my second child’s door right now, ringing the door bell, asking if I can come in for a cup of tea and a friendly talk. Would she let me in? I really don’t know. But I could call her instead.

I could call her, but the battery on the phone keeps on announcing dropping percentage. Soon I won’t be able to call her because there won’t be enough power left to make one.

I could call her. I should, I really should. But what would I say?

I stand in the snow, thinking about calling her, searching for the right words to begin with. I almost find the courage to do it, but then the cold starts to creep into my fingers and toes and neck, and I shiver. I slip the phone into my jacket pocket and walk back to the people and the fire. I feel disappointment and anger with myself but can’t help but think

if there’s even a point in trying?

Even if I could call her or walk to her door, I wouldn’t know what to say. Because how do you pick up the conversation after ten years of hollow small-talk?

Still Life Sunday: The First Day of a New Life

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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

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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.