...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

It’s closer than you think

I came home from a great concert yesterday night. It was the best experience I have had in a long time. Absolutely amazing – notwithstanding that the concert was held in a church, which may even have contributed to that special rapport between the band and the audience. Sitting in the pews were jazz diggers of all ages, faces with pure silent delight, all moving their heads to the beat of the music. The band also seemed to have lots of fun (they said so too!). Their distinct riffs flowed into amorphous improvisations that were playful and witty and not least masterly executed, that each return to the refrain caused wild applauses from an enthralled public. It was a real load of fun. Just like music should be.
Somewhere in that concert, I had a feeling of epiphany.

The dictionary defines epiphany as a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience. I guess like having an “aha” moment without trying to analyze or look for an answer at all. And without placing any religious meaning to this sudden insight, the message to me in this moment of clarity was that Life was good. Alright, that sounds like an incredibly banal insight. But I felt both a feeling of being fortunate and that things will turn out well. The human mind seems pretty hardwired to look for and analyze problems, often looking for circumstances to be fixed. I’ve heard one too few conversations about others’ spiral of problems. The feeling of contentment that washed over me was that things were alright as they were.

Now, this might sound self-contradictory but it really isn’t: Before sleeping that night, I told myself that I would finally go back to regular runs again and to spinning. For the longest time I have been telling myself that I was too tired / had too little time due to my weekly commute to Jönköping to even think about regular exercise. I kept telling myself that the price of getting a nice job in another city is time, and that therefore, something’s got to give. In the course of one year, I have only been to group training 3 times in Norrköping. But I have started to run some days – which has been rewarding so far. On closer thought, isn’t it that almost the same feeling in the concert that I also have when on a good run and on a spinning pass high? It’s the feeling of awe. The feeling that circumstances don’t matter, but it doesn’t mean a thing since things are alright as they are.

The beauty of things being alright as they are, is that you don’t need to change outside circumstances to be happy. We can’t change all outside circumstances anyway. But we can always change the way we perceive the circumstances as being advantageous or disadvantageous for us. Also it gives perspective on what you can and can’t change. I thought that I had no time to exercise, but actually I spend a lot of other time doing nothing instead. I fooled myself into thinking that I was too tired to take myself to the gym or go out for that run, but in fact, the way there is much closer than I thought. For running, it’s really just outside my door. 

“It’s closer than you think”. That is my new sports mantra from today, to be repeated on a day I need to remind myself that exercise requires less effort than I think.

Today’s run, in 4 degrees C, offered a fantastic morning scenery. The low sun shone through a fog that slowly sank its way closer to the ground. The lazy blurry light cast reflections in the river, and Canada geese flew overhead, circling to an elegant landing. Absolute beauty! And of course, I had Mezzoforte songs in my head.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Reach for the slope!

I didn’t – like as I wrote on my New Year’s plans last year – go on a skiing vacation this season. To be honest, I realized that it would be more sensible to spend a season or two learning downhill skiing technique in the first place.

I learned downhill skiing three years ago. The teacher said she never saw anyone advance from never having had a pair of alpine skis on in her life. On the first day, I went from the children’s slope to plow turns and parallel turns. I thought it would just go uphill from there (mind the pun!), but the years that followed brought mild winters, and the first time also became the last for a long time. One year I even managed to book another lesson , but later that month the snow on the slopes melted away and it got cancelled.

 2013. First day on skis, second hour of lessons. Considering how hard it was to get back on skis again this year, I'm surprised it went this well back then!
Last year, I learned that even if it looked slushy and snow-free in the city center, the nearest ski resorts in comfortable driving distance were still actually open, and it paid off to check just in case. Ditching my skiing vacation plan, it was much better, I thought, to practice in some nearer and more forgiving slopes, than spend a considerable amount of money somewhere far away on just a few hours of lessons and the rest of the week scrambling down the slope. I haven’t regretted my decision. In hindsight, with my Plan B, I had so much skiing done than what I would have otherwise.

The first day of this season was not easy though. It was in many ways like starting from square one, when I hoped I could just pick up where I left off three years ago. To up the ante, I was on telemark skis with loose heels, also for the first time in my life. Memories of learning to cross-country ski on the infamous “Joy’s hill” got back to me, as well as all those years of slipping down on it, all well-documented. Joy’s hill was of course a fun laugh, but in the moment, it really can be frustrating when you want your body to move in a way that neither your mind nor your muscle memory has learned yet. Like that time you want your right and left hands to move independently when learning the piano. Or like the times, as a kid, when you practiced blinking on the other eye or raising the other eyebrow. Or when you were learning to blow bubble gum, or to whistle. Even though you still try to do it, it can still be frustrating enough. In downhill skiing, after falling a number of times, it’s quite painful too. 

It helps to have my own version of a Zen’s “beginner’s mind”: an openness and lack of preconceptions in learning. Actually, it’s not hard to have a beginner’s mind when you literally are a beginner. It also helps to think that nobody on the slope really cares how I look anyway (since they’re busy with their own stuff) so I might as well just focus on myself and my own goals. As for the friends I am skiing with – thanks go to Kristian and Susanne for much patience, encouragement and tips – they need a correlated “Joy’s companion mind”: an understanding that I am learning these things people may think are normal since childhood, for the first time in my adult life. I've also had four hours of individual lessons to help me on the way.

Like a child, I feel like a sponge in my capacity to learn. At times, it feels like taking two steps forward and one step back. But the point is, I am going forward. I clocked in 24 hours of skiing so far since January, all in nearby slopes. I have learned to make telemark turns, and one day even started to feel that it really had fallen into place (to be continued…). Like running, creating variation and sticking to a schedule helps to motivate me even when I mostly ski alone. I’ve been falling less and turning more. I have overcome my short-lived fear of ski lifts. I have also overcome another fear by skiing on the longer slopes without companions. And I am all for telemark now, training my balance and doing lunges when I’m exercising.

Down in Germany they were surprised that there were ski slopes as far down as in southeast Sweden, but there are at least two in good driving distance, Yxbacken and Tolvmannabacken. Both have well-maintained pistes. Järabacken might have been a good practice slope but quite icy and also further away.

 Yxbacken, Norrköping

 Tolvmannabacken, Kisa

Järabacken, Jönköping

At times when I practice on the children’s ski slope in Yxbacken, I observe the parents and their kids. Some parents ski behind very small children. The small small kids had small small skis on their small small feet. They really looked like miniature people in overalls. Their parents would instruct them to turn and they would exclaim in pride when their kid made it. At times, small kids would ski  alongside their parents. They would beam, proud to show their parents what they could finally do. Sometimes kids fell and they would whine a bit, but they usually got up on their feet again. At worst, there would be a few bouts of angry tears, which disappeared as soon as they were up riding the lift. Then, after a few hours, the parents literally have to drag their children out from the slope since the kids couldn’t get enough of the fun, yet need to go home. I can totally relate to all of this.

I have two positive mental images when I practice. The first one is of my friend Kristian on his telemark skis, dancing down the slope like a ballerina, looking light as a feather, playful and flowing. I think about this when I try to work on skiing less stiff / less square / more relaxed on the slope. The other image that I have is of three Chinese triplets on snowboards that I saw one evening. They may just have been 6 or 7 years old by the looks of it, but they were good. In their matching reflective overalls, they hovered down the slope like a breeze, easy peasy, looking like miniature teenagers just chillin’. A future goal would still be to go on a skiing vacation one of these years. I think I would enjoy it immensely. Perhaps I won’t look like Kristian or the Chinese by then, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to think that I would one day!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The most beautiful thing I had ever seen

Last Tuesday, I and a couple of Finnish students went to the Blue Lagoon. It was a wonderful place. On the way there, the bus passes through mountainous barren landscapes, and then a big lava field draped with bright green moss. It truly looked out of this world. As we approached the Lagoon, we could see big clouds of steam coming from the geothermal plant nearby. Later, I found find out that clouds of steam rising from the ground wasn't uncommon in the Icelandic countryside. In these particular sites with strong vulcanism, Icelanders put up powerplants, villages (that are powered by the nearby plants), greenhouses, and of course, steam baths and hot springs. Blue Lagoon is one of these hot springs, neighbor to the big geothermal plant.

The Blue Lagoon really is blue. Milky, powdery blue. Actually, the water is transparent, but the sun reflects on it in such a way that the surface looks milky blue and you can't see farther than a few inches off the surface, which is also out of this world. My students and I enjoyed being there -- it's worth a story for another time. But the real point of this entry is what happened after the Blue Lagoon.

The Lagoon closes at 8PM, but we didn't know that the bus (a charter bus) didn't leave until 9:15 in the evening. We were disappointed to know this because we hurried to catch the non-existent 8:15 bus. Waiting out in the Icelandic cold night, we tried (without success) to hitch rides with couples leaving from the Lagoon, and a company tour bus (again without success). We just had to wait there for an hour so I decided to write postcards in the meantime.

Suddenly, someone saw something. Could it be??? The other people waiting for the bus had scattered. Someone told us we could get a better view from just behind the bus stop, where there was a hill and it wasn't well lit. At first, it looked just like a strong streak of green, like a brush stroke in the air that became brighter and brighter as our eyes got used to the dark. Then parts of it grew, swelling into something that looked like a waterfall.

At this point, the bus came. But apparently the bus driver had seen the aurora on the way to the bus stop, so he called in the passengers to say that we should walk a little further down the road to the parking lot, where it was darker still. For I don't know how long, the bus driver and we were just standing at the corner of the parking lot, looking up to the sky into the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.

The bright streak which we first saw from the bus stop became even brighter still, turning into an arc in the sky. It stretched across from one horizon to the other like a mythical bridge.

On one side of the sky, the waterfall of green turned into a bright curtain, fluttering and dancing. It was a sight to behold. Everyone was very excited, holding their breaths, taking pictures and holding each other (at least those who knew each other!).

The arc also danced, but in a different way. It split in two and combined again.

I didn't know until then that you could still see the stars so brightly though the northern lights.

Needless to say, nobody cared about the bus schedule anymore. Especially since the bus driver was with us watching the lights. He said he had been living in Iceland for eight years and that this was one of the best displays he had seen. Many tourists go out nightly without even seeing these mystical lights, or at least not this bright and big.

Apparently the sun activity was very bright that particular evening and the aurora was even seen in central Reykjavik, where there is a lot of light pollution and where it is normally just seen as a weak streak in the sky. I know this because the next day, I took a tourist bus tour. Two of the other tourists were a couple who watched the northern lights near the central church in Reykjavik. The man proposed to her there, under the aurora. Talk about slick!

Anyway, my students and I were very happy to have experienced this together. We were just grinning all the way back in the bus to the city, thanking our lucky stars that we had no luck hitching an early ride. I thought for a moment that I could die happily right there and then. But luckily, I didn't do that either.

The bus driver, instead of taking us to the bus station late at night (we arrived in the city at 11PM), even dropped all the passengers off in the vicinity of their respective hotels. Talk about good vibes. The whole evening was just magic!

Monday, October 12, 2015

From The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

Earlier today, I sat on a plane bound for Iceland. Captain Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone around the World” lay on my lap, a memoir of the first solo circumnavigation of the world. As far as I had reached in the memoir, Slocum was now in South America, trying to ward away pirates and anchoring in uninhabited shores to collect firewood for the Spray. As I imagined the voyage of the Spray and Slocum’s adventures, I just had to look out the window to my own little journey.

Below me was a thick sheet of cloud – a whole world away from the waves and the rolling sea of the Atlantic, across which Slocum had just sailed. Like the sea, the sheet of cloud also seemed featureless; yet its contours created its own strange landscape. From time to time, there were bumpy elevations that looked like cloud mountains on cloud valleys. When the cloud opened up to reveal the sea below, it resembled lakes in the sky. The clouds dispersed even more, and the cloud mainland broke up into a cloud archipelago. 

As we started descent by the coast of Iceland, the clouds were scarce enough to reveal an outline of a coast, and then something large, dark, jagged and snow-covered: A glacier! My thoughts were slowly taking me back to land.

As a young girl in high school and when we first got cable TV, I used to tune into the Travel Channel or Discovery and watched about destinations that I had only dreamed of going to. “Globetrekker” was a favorite. Europe seemed very far away, so foreign yet so intriguing and full of different cultures, food and buildings. I only saw pictures in books otherwise, or in my sister’s Lufthansa training CD (She worked back then in ticket sales) where one could learn to memorize airport codes. Going back even further, back in grade school, air travel was an expensive luxury that only very rich families could afford. The only frequently traveling relative we had in the family was a missionary nun, a cousin of my grandmother. She told me interesting stories of how the horizons looked differently, as seen from a plane entering to the night / day side of the earth. (OK, we had some relatives that frequently visited Disneyland too, but that wasn’t quite as interesting for me, even then!)

If I could tell Younger me that she would end up travelling to different countries at 31, she would probably be so glad, almost not believing her ears. That thought made me realize what a privilege things really are, that if unappreciated, would seem normalized and quite “usual”. Like: You’re flying to Iceland, for goodness’ sake! No matter if it’s for the job – you’re actually here! I felt gratefulness for the things I have, for the people in my life, and to how life turned out to be, the good and the bad.

Quoting my college classmate Carlo on his 32nd birthday some weeks ago, “When I look at myself as 32 and compare it with how I thought things would be, I think: Life’s not too shabby!”

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