Little Things

I used to do nothing but apologize for who I was. I thought that was the way to live out some fictional virtue that would make me an objectively good person. Part of it was the culture in which I grew up; I’m grateful for being raised in an environment of social and economic privilege, but that doesn’t solve the cultural problems that create an environment of shame, face-saving and self-absorbed ambition.

I thought apologizing would make me virtuous, that being self-deprecating was the same as being humble, that passive aggression was the same as modesty. I was very wrong.

I don’t apologize for who I am anymore. It’s not because I’m particularly proud of who I am, at least not any more than a person should be; it’s because I don’t think life is that simple. The vast majority of us are not either good or bad, and all of us, whether good or bad, are mostly flawed anyway. But it’s not entirely our faults, it’s just the way it goes. We’re all just trying to get by, and sometimes that makes us selfish. It’s easy to fall– there are many reasons to do bad things and not enough reasons to do good ones.

Some things we make into moral issues are not moral at all but simply reasons to brag, and some things we think are moral are really ethical, or legal, and none of those words mean the same thing.

It’s a different kind of awareness to see how someone else sees the world–someone who disagrees with you. It’s easy to put yourself in someone else’s position when you imagine yourself in their position. It’s so much harder to imagine being them. We go through life so self-centeredly, I think most of us never able to really think as another person.

In a way, it isn’t necessary. Connections between people aren’t driven by mutual deep understanding, they are held by the drive to understand itself.

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I haven’t been practising Finnish. I still ask for words and I think about it constantly, and I try to read news articles and the back of porridge boxes. I try to remember things and pronounce words, and I make more mistakes than ever. But it now seems pointless to me to stress about it if I’m going to be moving again in a year. It’s too much to worry about if so soon I have to worry about another new language. The thought of just existing in yet another foreign environment is exhausting already.

And there’s the little material things, like desperately wanting to make a home for myself. My apartment now is the closest I’ve ever gotten, and I still have IKEA folding chairs and no real furniture to speak of. The bed and the bookcase were already here when I moved in. I have a curled and faded poster of Monet’s Sunrise Impressions thumbtacked to the wall and those ball-shaped fairy lights; a few strings of a bright yellow bunting hung over the bed and some Chinese paper cuts I bought in Beijing taped to another wall. Nothing framed, which according to certain apartment design blogs makes me less than an adult. Some things I have bought because I knew I’d get a lot of enjoyment out of using: a large ceramic baking dish, a tea set, a nice linen towel. But other things I just keep thinking… what’s the point? If I’m going to move again. I’d rather not deal with the hassle of buying and moving and selling furniture, or having to make the decision to sell something I love or risk it getting lost or broken in a move. And the expense of doing a real-person move, as opposed to the pack-my-life-into-a-suitcase routine I’ve been doing, is stressing me already. These things most make me feel like a nomad, just waiting for my real life to begin. And at the same time it feels like time is running out. Not the time to achieve things, but the time to make those decisions about my life.

It makes me sad to think about making new friends. Not because I don’t like making friends or because I dislike my old ones, but because I know how much of a long and lonely process it is. I’ve kept in touch with the closest of my friends over the years, and I see them occasionally, but it makes me sad that I can’t spend more time with them and the guilt about the little we keep in touch nowadays. And there’s always the nagging doubt that I’ll be able to find another great group.

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Work has been difficult lately too. Sometimes the hardest part of this job is finding agency. Just believing in myself enough to make my brain stop shutting down. Releasing my hold on reality and going down the rabbit hole, long enough to think of something before the panic that it’s wrong or uninformed or uncreative sets in.

It’s so easy to come up with fantastic ideas when your ideas don’t matter. If I had felt this way as a child, and in college, I never would have come through with a passion for learning. I had all sorts of ideas, making connections between everything, wanting the power to put my ideas in motion. But now that I have the power, it’s more complicated to claim it, and it just keeps getting more complicated. You can get blamed now, for having bad ideas. Bad ideas have consequences. I’m not sure I have what it takes, that I’m smart enough or ambitious enough or believe enough in my own ideas anymore.

Part of the problem is that I don’t do the sexy research. I’ve been working basically alone, affiliated with very small groups for a while now, and I haven’t worked on any intervention projects or anything with super-sexy buzzwords seen in the science media. Alzheimers, depression, obesity. I don’t have sexy brain pictures with functional areas colored in–I barely have waveforms, and they aren’t particularly fascinating unless you’re really into this kind of thing. I would like to work with a larger group eventually, not because it’s sexy but because it would be nice to have a larger support network, and more people on my level to bounce ideas off and to share the workload. It would be nice to have more funding opportunities, and feel like I make more of an impact. It would be nice to feel important.

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I’m starting to think that being static, if that’s what you can call this, makes me inflexible. Makes me less tolerant. I get entitled. I feel entitled to ride the tram without an unwanted conversation with a drunk stranger. I feel entitled to having more than a day–more than a week, even!–that goes by without feeling adrift. Does that sound ridiculous?  Probably. But I’ve been adrift for so long that I feel as if I’ve conquered the first small island I came across and made a kingdom out of my molehill.

I like it here and I’ll be sad to go. I wish I had a choice, but that’s the life I’ve got. I made that choice once and gave up my freedom to choose for the future. There’s always the hardest choice to make–to give up–but it’s always more complicated than that.

And it often makes me angry. Angry at the world, angry at myself for choosing this path. Angry that I can’t be one of those braggy foreigners who uses the language all the time because even if you do that, there will always be people who whisper behind your back that she has a funny accent and give you sidelong glances that say she’s trying too hard to fit in, and she’ll never be one of us. Friends will say that you’ll never fully understand them because you’re not a native speaker, and even if you know it’s true, it still hurts to hear. Feeling like whatever connections I make, there will always be a cultural disconnect, and somehow it’s worse knowing that it’s a smaller gap than the one I feel with my own culture. Sometimes I feel like my own little island floating in the sea, trying to stick to a coast. But at the same time it feels inauthentic to me. It feels like a weird combination of trying to soak everything up too fast, and halfheartedly following along, knowing these things are far too ephemeral.

I feel angry about the situation, about how complicated everything is. And I know that everyone’s life is complicated in different ways, and I can’t expect people or places to be perfect just for me. And although it probably sounds that way, I don’t really feel like a victim. I know I made choices. I feel more like a spider, sitting in the middle of a web that’s slowly falling, holding the ends of the strings that keep it aloft. I can give up and let it fall, or I can keep holding the strings, and it’s a decision I made to get into the middle of this web, but meanwhile I can still feel miffed at fate or karma or whatever for making me a spider in the first place.

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Because I don’t think we can really change who we are. We can modify the expression of it, but in the end we’re all so very different in ways that are so small but cause such huge rifts between us. You can’t really argue about someone’s values–it’s pointless. But you can argue about the little things. In the end, it’s the little things that we notice or don’t notice, and how we react to them, that defines our existence in the world. It shapes our worldview and the way we interact with the environment and each other.

I’ve decided to name my house elf Toivo Tonttu. He’s been unusually active lately with my socks and dishes. After finishing a sink full and walking away for just a moment, I found a five-cent coin sitting on the sink. Recently I was looking for a water glass and could only find one of a set of three–a situation that’s still baffling me as for the past week things around the flat have actually all been in their rightful places (a rarity for me).  And I’m still missing one grey sock. Apart from providing the necessary Finnish alliteration, toivo means hope. Maybe “hope” is too sparkly a word for what I mean, but resilience doesn’t have the same ring.

I’m trying not to stress too much. The stress is always there under the surface, but I think that’s part of being human. I can try not to let it affect living in the moment, and I can continue to believe that life will go on. Something will happen, and I’ll deal with it as I’ve dealt with everything else so far. In the meantime, the light is now from six-thirty in the morning till nearly eight, and I’m feeling more human and less hibernating bear. We took a walk over the Easter weekend to Seurasaari and sat on the rocky beach enjoying the afternoon sun. The snow is entirely gone except for deep parts of the forest, and soon the street sweepers will clear away the ice grit. The ducks are all frantically mating and the swans are paddling around, and humans are starting to sit out on the cliffs in the evening. The geese are back in town and soon there will be hordes of goslings marching around the bay, reminding walkers and joggers to mind their steps. The seagulls are calling, and we even spotted some strawberry leaves already poking out of the mud. I’m looking forward to the first hikes of spring, foraging for nettles and dandelions, spotting the first ketunleipä and waiting (and waiting… and waiting…) for the berries.

Time does such funny things when you start to think about it, so maybe sometimes it’s better not to worry but just to let it be.

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