Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Journey of A Smile

A boxful of old photographs almost fell into my lap from a closet where I have been keeping them – a surge of memories, moments from the past, frozen by camera. Instants fixed on paper, remnants of times when images still had a material form and feel against the hand. All shoved into a brown cartoon box, sealed with thick packing tape.

Nicaragua uusin

I spread the pictures on the floor and sit down amidst them. There is so much of everything – places, people, events, experiences, and feelings. Episodes that had already disappeared and gotten lost into the labyrinth of my memory.

In one of the photos there is a serious-looking girl of six or seven years old. She catches my attention, and I begin to follow how she changes in the photos.

In the first photo – which is black-and-white – the girl’s posture is slightly stooped and she is tilting her head to the left. There is an air of sadness around her. She is standing in front of a Sami style tepee somewhere in Lapland, with a group of people, one of who is dressed in a traditional Sami costume. Her father is not there, but her mother and elder teenage sister are present. Everyone is looking straight into the camera. Only the two dogs in the front have turned their backs to the photographer. It is summer and the sunlight is bright.  The shadows on the ground are sharp, and everyone is squinting their eyes.

The next photo is taken a few years later. In a class photo the same girl is wearing her first eyeglasses, and that makes her look what she already was at that time – a bookworm. She has created a private world of her own, a place where she feels safe. The early signs of adolescence are visible in her greasy, straight hair, and the coat that she is wearing looks a bit too big for her.

More photos. The girl is growing and changing. Trips with schoolmates. Moments with friends during the years at the university. One photo is taken on her first trip abroad: three young women, the inseparable threesome, are standing in front of a cathedral in Florence.

In one of the photos she is floating in the water in the Dead Sea in Israel. It is a field trip of her theology class of the university. She has raised her arms up and her feet are sticking out of the water. She is demonstrating how well the salty water carries her.

Then there are a couple of photos of a mysterious Janus-faced young woman. She is already married. She is sitting on a basket chair, wearing hexagonal glasses and a classy dress. She has a plain short haircut. Her head is slightly turned to the side, but her eyes are looking straight into the camera. The look on her face is veiled, inscrutable, and her closed mouth looks like it is holding words inside. Is anger her shield, her protection against the world?

And then another photo, on the same basket chair, completely different. Again the young woman’s head is turned to her right side, but she is also looking up, past the camera. On her face she has a bright smile that reveals her teeth. Her glasses are reflecting the light that comes from the opposite direction. A careful inspection reveals a reflection of the photographer on her glasses.

In the next photo she is 23 years old, and she is standing at a railway station. A railcar and people are standing right behind her. Her old father is next to her, looking down. He is wearing a leather hat with a brim, and a brown winter coat. The coat is slightly open and reveals a striped tie. The young woman is keeping her hands in her pockets.  Her head is covered with a green woven cap that does not quite match with her winter coat. Her shoulders are slouched, and her eyes are down. She looks sad and depressed. There is snow on the ground, and the afternoon shadows behind the father and the daughter are long and distinct, like the seventeen years that have elapsed since their previous encounter.

Kodan edessä - uusin

Next photo. She is already a mother expecting her first child. She is sitting on a bed in a light blue night-dress. She has had her hair permed to get herself curls that nature did not give her. She is leaning against a bed head, and a pillow is supporting her back. Her tummy is big and heavy-looking. Her arms are resting on the sides of her tummy, both hands meeting in front of it. She is pursing her lips and tilting her head forward. She does not look into the camera. What is she thinking, that serious young mother, behind the thin curtains through which the light filters into a quiet bedroom?

Next photo. The turbulent years of divorce are behind, but there is still a shadow of sadness in the woman’s eyes. She is on her first trip to Africa, under the  brilliant sunshine, on the shore of Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Right behind her back there is a huge flock of birds, hundreds of pink flamingos. On the  left side of the woman stands a man with blonde curly hair, tangled by the wind. They both have a very straight posture, as if they had decided to defy whatever life throws at them.

Then there is a very different photo. The woman has come to Nicaragua to pick coffee. In the photo she is laughing with her mouth wide open, and tilting her body backwards. It looks like the laughter is coming out of her whole being. She is standing on a dirt road with another woman – and a guerrilla. A machine gun is hanging from the guerrilla’s neck, and he is holding his arms on both women’s shoulders. It has just stopped raining.

… And so the stream of the photos goes on, and over the years the images begin to disappear into the hard drive of the computer, and they become more ethereal and intangible. The sadness of the little girl in the first black-and-white photos gradually begins to fade in later photos, and the veil in front of the eyes of a young woman disappears, for most of the time. There are more and more photos with a smile and laughter on her face, but even in the later photos, that are now stored on the computer, there are still moments when she does not look into the camera, but into a quiet place inside herself.


Äiti ja minä

There I sit on the floor looking at the story of my life unfolding in the old photos. It comes into my mind that in everyone’s photos there are those fleeting moments when the camera has captured the instant of a sad child peeking through the armour of an adult person.

I sit and think that actually my story is not so unique, that we all share the same story; the story in which a defenseless and helpless child faces something overwhelming, something that she cannot deal with. It is the same story for everyone, experienced in myriad versions and in varied quantities. The story in which we all experience our bigger or smaller share of human suffering.

And as I look at my old photos I think of the lesson that I’ve been studying during the past years. It is the lesson of acceptance, compassion and love, not only for other people, but above all else, for myself. For me it has meant meeting the little girl inside, feeling her feelings – and then embracing her with all my love and warmth. She is part of me, part of my life and my history.


The Treasure of Encouragement

This time I’m sharing with you a post that is written by my blogger friend Sharon. Read her thoughts about encouragement. You will understand why I think as many people as possible should read this beautiful post.

A Leaf in Springtime

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”~ The Buddha

SONY DSCEncouragement is commonly understood within the context of lifting up another who is down and out. But for me, the hallmark of encouragement is the wholehearted support and celebration of another person’s finest and happiest moments.

It is generosity, magnanimity and big-heartedness at the highest.

It is one of the most beautiful gifts in life, more sustaining than any extravagant present – to know that someone is selfless enough to have our best interests at heart.

Encouragement has the power to release one to fulfill one’s destiny. To encourage is to protect and confer honour to another. It replenishes. It soothes. It uplifts. It imparts life. It can be likened to the sweet nectar of the soul. Rain on a parched desert.

We are saved in moments like these. We are found in moments…

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The Wonder of The Human Body

Death recently walked past me with quiet steps. He did not come very near, but I could sense the cool breath of air that followed him.

Two people died in different corners of the world: One was a grown-up child of a very dear friend of mine, and the other was a professional who had regularly taken care of my health for many years. I did not know these two people so well, but particularly the sorrow of my friend who lost her child has deeply touched me.

These two events have made me to remember the passing of my old mother, and I thought I’d like to share with you the last moments that I spent with her.

My mother died twelve years ago. It was a cold winter night in the North, and she was already in the hospital, unconscious. As the night progressed, her breathing got heavier and heavier, and the pauses between each breath got longer. Then came again one arduous breath and a long pause after it. For a moment I sat and waited  – and waited. There never came another breath. She had left.

The peace that settled into that sterile and quiet hospital room was indescribable. All the agony was gone. Everything was so quiet and still that I could almost touch the silence of the moment. There was nothing, absolutely nothing frightening about death.

I have never experienced such a beautiful and deep peace.

I got up from my chair and walked to the window. The landscape that opened in front of me was covered with pristine, white snow. The little town in the North was sleeping.

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Living in the physical reality

Why have I chosen this slightly dark topic to write about?

One reason is obvious: This is my way to say goodbye to the two friends who are no longer here. They have been in my mind. I’ve been thinking of them, their lives and families.

Another reason is that I’ve also been contemplating, on a more general level, our life in physical reality.

I think we don’t give our humble human body the respect, love and care that it deserves. Yes, we do polish it and beautify it, and try to feed it with all kinds of healthy food, and we exercise to make it stronger – but it seems to me that unconsciously we still consider the body as a kind of necessary evil, something that we drag along, because there is no choice.

It is the head that we consider the centre of our life. The head governs everything below it. The head is, so to speak, the rider, and the body is the horse – that has to be thrashed every now and then for better performance.

Life without a body?

Let’s explore for a moment what living in the body means.

Without the bodies of my parents I would not exist. There would not be that specific “entity” that my parents named “Maarit” – that entity of body and mind, and that something special that we call consciousness that can observe even the thought processes of Maarit’s brain.
Without the body I would not have the brain.
Without the brain I would not be able to write this blog.
Without the senses I could not tell you what I have seen, heard, tasted, touched and smelled.
Without my fingers that now tap the keyboard I would not be able to pass on my ideas and thoughts to you.

And if it were not your physical eyes that see these marks on the screen and your brain that processes the information, we would not be able to communicate like this, mind to mind.

We are all this and so much more!

It is not only my thoughts that matter.
I am not only these words that I write.
It is not the weight and height of my body, or the color of my skin, or the shape of my eyes that make me who I am.
It is not only my personal history that created me.
It is not only the culture that produced me.
I am much more, just as you are so much more.

But it is absolutely sure, that just now – though I can’t promise you for how long – I exist in this body, in this world, in this country and in this house, and I’m happy for my body, because it supports me while I sit on the couch. I celebrate my body, because I can still feel in my mouth the taste of an apple that I just ate; because my eyes can see the clouds moving in the afternoon sky; because I can hear the dog parking in the neighbour’s apartment; and because the fragrance of coffee is spreading into my nose from the kitchen.

And if you were sitting in front of me, my dear reader, you could sense that I exist, and that you exist, not only in the artificial world of the Internet, as words and images on the screen, but in flesh and blood, in a human body that carries in it all the memories and experiences, all the capacities and possibilities.

* * * * * *

To celebrate all the precious people who have been or still are present in my life, or who have already left or disappeared for various reasons, I want to finish this post by playing a song by Violeta Parra: Gracias A La Vida (Thanks to Life), performed by Mercedes Sosa. Both artists have left us but their music lives. You can find the English translation of the lyrics here.

The Beatles Were Right: Let It Be

Energy has been cumulating inside me. It hasn’t had a proper outlet because it has been boiling under the tight lid of somewhat limiting circumstances. For about a week it has made me feel like an old stuffy attic or a stagnant pool where the water is not moving.

I’m talking, of course, about my need to write, about creative energy.

I turned on the tap of words last September, after years in the world of images and visual art, and now it seems I can no longer close the tap.

Why did I start to feel like a boiling water under a tight lid?

March was a very sociable month for me. First of all, our lovely, funny and wise daughter was staying with us, and she brought a lot of fresh, young energy to our home during her visit.

At the beginning of March I spent a fantastic long weekend in Austria, visiting an old friend who is presently working in Vienna. This friend of mine is a lively person with a great sense of humor, and of course we spent those three days laughing a lot together. On the other hand we also wept tears of sorrow when we shared some sad stories of our lives.

A big social event was my trip to Sweden at the end of March. I stayed a week at Ängsbacka course centre near Karlstad, studying Zen coaching. A very intense week passed quickly in the company of inspiring people and with an intriguing topic, in a relaxed atmosphere. (Zen coaching is an approach developed by Norwegian Kåre Landfald, and it aims, among other things, at recognizing our own nature as awareness. This realization helps us to be less identified with our mental positions and judgmental attitudes toward ourselves and others. You can read more about Zen coaching here.)

After a stimulating trip to Sweden I came home at the end of March full of ideas and inspiration. My deep desire was to withdraw into my own world and mull over everything that had happened during the past month.

More than anything, I simply wanted to sit down in some quiet corner and process my experiences through writing.

But of course I could not do that.

The social life continued at home. It was Easter holidays in Finland, the usual several days’ break of springtime.

Blessed haven of privacy

Now, if I have to define myself on a binary scale of introvert versus extrovert, I am definitely more on the introvert side of the scale. Not to the point of being a misanthropist though – I do love the company of people and the exchange of views with friends and acquaintances. But I also need a lot of privacy and time in solitude, and just as I like to travel and meet people I also enjoy exploring the horizons of my inner landscapes.

From the fact that I’m now writing here – in a public library – you can conclude that I’ve finally succeeded in conquering for myself that blessed and longed-for haven of privacy and creativity. My internal and external worlds are in harmony, and I can take a deep breath.



Boiling under the lid

But let us not quite finish the story yet.

You see, my suppressed energy of creativity forced me to make an inquiry into the essence of frustration. Why did I get so frustrated? Why was it so difficult to postpone my writing?

Sure, I have set myself deadlines, but my personal deadlines are very relative, and in the big picture of life there is actually only one real deadline, and it is The Deathline – which, by the way, is getting closer and closer as I age.

I was frustrated because during the past week I have felt like I had been prevented from fulfilling my need to write. That then created another kind of need – a compelling urge to kick hard against the circumstances.

I understand that the more expectations we have in life, the more we can expect to be disappointed, too. The harder we try to control life, the harder it often hits back.

“Panta rei”, said already Heraclitus. Everything flows. Life moves, changes, surprises us. It gets out of our control. – All this I tried to say to myself.

Why then didn’t these philosophical viewpoints help me when I was on the peak of my frustration?

From resistance to relaxation

I finally discovered the answer. My problem did not resolve, because I was not having an intellectual problem. My feelings were very much involved. I had become irritable and crotchety toward my closest people. And isn’t it that having an emotional state like that is not quite acceptable, is it?

So I condemned my “bad” feelings – and that made me feel even worse. On top of my crotchety frustratedness now settled another unpleasant feeling – a heavy weight of moral disapproval.

I soon realized that by means of thinking and judging myself I was not getting anywhere.

I gave up.

It was exactly then that something interesting happened. The very moment I gave up trying to understand intellectually my feelings I remembered my fresh discovery: I can allow myself to feel my feelings as they are! Accept them.

– “Let it be”, like the Beatles used to sing.

I took another look at my frustration. I wished it welcome, stayed with it, spent time with it. I allowed myself to feel its every single sharp edge in my whole being. (But please note that I no longer put that feeling into action!)

What a relief!

I have been studying this lesson with other feelings, but this time it came in the form of frustration. Again I had to remind myself of the fact that it is the resistance to my own feelings that creates my misery. It is the judgemental words of my inner talk that create the tension, whether as acceptance of feelings opens the door to relaxation, and relaxation allows solutions to come to me through intuition, without hard thinking.

My solution was right in front of my eyes. I remembered the public library, the fragrance of old books, the rustling of paper when someone turns a page, the muffled voices of people speaking to each other in the reading room. Could there be a better place for writing!

It was so simple – I just had to look at my feelings with compassion.

But that is often the most tricky part. I’ll come back to that in another post.