All posts by witch

BURNOUT

Within the last couple years, burnout has made it into the official international classifications of diseases published by the World Health Organization. First classed as a “state of vital exhaustion” under problems associated with “life-management difficulty” it just got pushed over into “problems associated with employment or unemployment”.

I prefer the “state of vital exhaustion” definition. Burnout feels much broader than a work problem. Especially now, while we are dealing with social isolation, the death of loved ones, ongoing disease threats, and associated closures and workplace changes, it seems like everyone I know is burned out to one degree or another. Everyone is depleted. Everyone is to some degree disheartened, feeling low, second-guessing themselves, and wondering uneasily about the future.

I will expect a new definition in the 2021 handbook of ailments:

PANDEMIC BURNOUT: A pervasive state of vital exhaustion, coupled with a disturbing sense that things will never be the same again. Often accompanied by a lack of hope bordering on despair, and a sense of futility. Symptoms include disengagement from others, and a sense of absolute isolation, even with loved ones available by phone or video. For workers over 45, there may be an element of strong fear and confusion regarding the technologies for working from a home office. For the economically vulnerable, symptoms include economic disaster and loss of housing. Additional exacerbations caused by the countless moral micro-decisions, such as whether to wear a mask outside, whether to attend a funeral, or whether to move off the sidewalk each time one meets a pedestrian, add to the pervasive sense of not knowing the possibly disastrous affects of one’s simplest actions. This causes catastrophic thinking in anxious patients.

Of course we could each add several symptoms to the above list. But the section I would like to read would be entitled “effective treatments” to revitalize people with this conditions. Ways to encourage, enliven, and cheer up those of us who have fallen low and lost some of our resilience. Societal and personal changes that could lead to the “new normal” becoming a good normal. A sustainable normal. An acceptable normal. A healthy and vigorous normal. Both for societies and the world. And for us puny, frail, and very human individuals. I hope for effective treatment and positive change. There. I have given myself something to look forward to, after all.

WHERE YOU ARE

I was once being led through an unknown forest by my baby brother, and when I accused him of not knowing where we were, he assured me that he certainly was NOT lost. He further elucidated that he knew exactly where he was, as he was “right here.” He simply was not completely sure as to where he was in relationship to the things around him, like, say, the path we had wandered away from, or the car, to name two items. He, himself, though, was not “lost”. He held up his hands and showed them to me, to prove that he knew where he was. And he tried to reassure me by adding, “Come on! You know where you are! You’re right here! We’re not lost!”

In certain disease processes, we lose some of our ability to find ourselves in space. I am not talking about getting lost in the forest, or forgetting where we are. But literally not having that natural awareness we take so for granted, of knowing where our hands and feet are, what position we are in, whether our arms are crossed, and such. There are a multitude of feedback loops processed through muscle, joints and tendons that constantly let our brains know where we are and how we are positioned at any given moment. These mechanosensory neurons are known as propioceptors, and give us what some doctors now call our “sixth sense” of body awareness in space: propioception.

I was with a patient whose disease was not named to me, who was undergoing an evaluation of his impaired propioception. They did things like moving his hands or arms into specific positions with his eyes closed, releasing them to neutral, and seeing how closely he could recreate the pose. They also posed one arm to see if he could mirror it with the other arm, eyes closed. But his brain could not receive all the signals we take for granted. He was unable to mirror his arm positions or bend his elbows or hands to match. And like an alcohol-impaired driver at a field sobriety test, he had difficulty in touching the tip of his nose with a finger after stretching out his arm.

Many diseases can impact our ability to locate ourselves in space and get appropriate feedback about how we are positioned and the movements we make. Parkinsons, Huntingtons, ALS, even strokes and arthritis can impact it. I can only imagine what it must be like to lose some of this basic function. To not know where my own arm is in space. To not feel whether it is bent or straight. Imagine how you would walk, stand, or balance, or even pick up a plate, without the myriad of constant and consistent feedback loops that we all take for granted, unless and until they quit working.

Luckily, for this patient, there will be a series of exercises that he can learn in order to stimulate and strengthen these connections and feedback loops. He is also being trained to use his sight more in order to have the additional information about where his limbs are in space. Some balance exercises may help as well. He is strong in limb, and otherwise healthy, and I hope for him that whatever his disease is will progress slowly and allow him many years of active life. Just one more of the countless precious things most of us have and don’t ever have to name or even consider.

There is so much for us to be grateful for at the most basic level. To walk through space on an uneven surface without falling. To dance. To have a sense of where my whole body is at, and to know constantly what I am doing with my hands, how tightly I am grasping something, whether I might burn a finger or drop a glass. To sit here and run my fingers rapidly along the keyboard with such facility. To be fully embodied and in touch with every limb, the tip of each finger and toe, to feel all my skin, and to know where I am in the space that surrounds me. I am right here, right now, and so are you all. Isn’t it a pleasure, isn’t it a huge gift, to feel it?

HOLDING LIGHTLY

I had the opportunity to engage with a spiritual worker from our hospital the other day. I had worked with him before in crisis situations such as intensive care, rushed meetings with grieving family members, and other end-of-life emergencies. Because let’s face it, patients doing great in the hospital don’t tend to invite a stranger – possibly from another religion – to come and comfort them at their bedside. But now it was “just us” with no patients in sight – his smiling face appeared at our online weekly interpreter meeting. He had come to encourage us to share our stories, and guide us into some new thoughts about hope and resilience during COVID.

Being an interpreter, I was delayed and missed half the meeting, and most of my colleagues couldn’t make it at all. Welcome to our world. But I still learned something very valuable that has stayed with me. This spiritual worker talked about hope in a way I had never considered, and he started by saying that although most of us think of hope as a “positive” feeling, in fact it has an edge of sorrow and loss. Because after all, we only hope for things that we do not have. Or to keep things that we fear to lose. So there is also sorrow. And when we hope for “things to get better” we are hoping from a place of not accepting this present moment. That really struck me.

He also said something that offered such a powerful image. He said that he regularly (and I am sure gently) cautions his patients and family members to “hold hope in a light hand.” To hold onto hope lightly, and not white-knuckled. Do not let yourself go into that dark night of “this HAS to happen! I cannot HANDLE it if this doesn’t happen!” Or the converse: “This CANNOT happen! I cannot HANDLE it if this happens!” Where hope becomes a plea, a demand, a fist raised to the face of God, the face of the universe. And we become so puny and helpless and outraged and alone.

As interpreters, we see it all. Surgeries fail. People die. Quite regularly. One might even say, on schedule. Not on our schedule, of course. And yet there is hope, which I am just now trying to digest in its fullness. Hope doesn’t mean “things are bound to get better” any more. Because things are not bound to my most fervent, white-knuckled demands, hopes, and desires. Things are as they are. Whether I like it or not. And so I am left with a hope (ironically enough) to become humble. And a hope to become accepting. And a hope to learn to hold hope in a light hand.

STILL LEARNING

I was able to participate in an online training for court interpreters to learn the latest in technology for remote interpreting. They went into great depth about equipment, brand names, and the best systems for interpreting with maximum sound quality and least disturbance. All good information, culled from a pool of professional interpreters and their wealth of experience and knowledge. But the best takeaway for me was not the technical information. It was the philosophical idea of the “flexible purist” – the person who for all her idealism must stay flexible in order to survive. Letting go of the “best practices under ideal conditions” model and accepting “best (and new) practices under these circumstances” is not easy for all of us. And by all of us, I mean me.

For courts, transitioning from our “in-person is required” to trying to avoid being in the same room with others in order to save lives – in a patchwork of independent courts with a variety of equipment – was a leap of faith and a need for technology that confounded many of us. It only grew worse as the weeks and months of courts being mostly shut down dragged on. With cautious re-openings, and most court interpreters working from home, faulty equipment and new and untried applications have added to our transition woes.

Half a year into the pandemic, the idea that interpreters can work from home with high quality equipment, and avoid being vectors for infection throughout the court system, has gained traction and acceptance. Yet some of the technology bugs remain. An added challenge is that court contractors routinely interface with dozens of courts large and small (and deal with each court’s chosen modalities, applications, and anomalies). There is still a lot of confusion about what to buy, what platforms to learn and sign up for, whether to use laptop, desktop, or something else. Lots of us are scrambling. In the webinar, they offered a quote that interpreters will not be replaced by technology, but by other interpreters who are better at technology.

I was surprised to have one of the speakers present at length about preferred equipment, home office setups, and other specifics without the use of any visuals. Then I looked down at the questions section button, and saw there were suddenly 37 outstanding questions. The off-screen co-presenter popped onto the screen and let the the person presenting know that she was not sharing her screen. It was refreshing to have expert speakers on technology face an issue with technology, and they were able to go back and give us a quick look at the slides we had missed.

During a demonstration of several applications, we were shown a sample of remote conference interpreting. There was a small set of languages to click on to hear a sample of live interpreting into those languages. And there was an OFF button for listeners who wanted to hear the actual speaker. As I clicked between languages, I noted that the Spanish button brought up a Mandarin interpreter, and several lines were silent. Finally, our presenter announced, “The buttons are mixed up. For those who are asking how to listen to Spanish, it is somehow the OFF button!”

With a large crowd, participants were neither visible nor audible, but I imagine we shared – remotely – a bit of relieved and gentle laughter that even experts can have their technical glitches. We are all still learning, and it is likely to get easier as we have more practice, says this flexible purist in training.

EVERY DAY’S A SCHOOL DAY

My sister, a schoolteacher working remotely through these hard times, sent me a cartoon with an older fellow sitting on a stool in his kitchen, a pen and paper balanced on his knee, leaning forward and peering intently at the microwave, while asking his wife in frustration, “Where the heck are my students?!” Her calm response was simply, “That’s the microwave, Bob.” Truly a cartoon for our times. My sister also told me that a fellow teacher brought up a good question: “Does anyone know how to make myself the one in charge of my virtual classroom? Because one of my students is the monitor and he keeps muting me while I am trying to lecture!”

As an interpreter, I am fortunate to be allowed to work from home and limit my exposure to disease, but like Bob and many others, technology does not come easy. Especially when we have to try and learn it in isolation. Getting back into court interpreting after their cautious re-opening, I was nervous about it all: the video remote, my new headset, using WebEx for the first time, logging into pre-planned sessions, potentially doing simultaneous and switching different parties onto mute, getting codes, getting more codes, remembering to block my call if I was asked to originate the call to a defendant, and much more – both real and imagined. To add a bit of spice to my day, the court staff were given my phone number, and I was expected to take all incoming calls, which today of all days included frequent spam robocalls from ever-varying numbers with dire warnings about my social security number being hacked – which I had to keep answering in case it was a court clerk working from home.

I miss being physically in court, with my phone on silent and my laptop miles away. I miss running up and down the stairs at the courthouse and reminding the different courtrooms I am available. Seeing for myself who is in which court – whether a defendant has no-showed, whether an attorney is with another client, whether the prosecutor, crime victim, and victim’s advocate are ready for a chat. Whether a social worker or probation officer wants to talk to someone prior to the hearing, whether an attorney wants me to “go down to the tank” and interview a defendant in jail. Whether there is a walk-in for urgent help with domestic violence or housing, or someone who needs to screen for an attorney, quash a warrant, or pay a ticket. I miss seeing the familiar faces and sharing information in person. I want to see what is happening. I want my familiar world.

Working in isolation from home exacerbates my already pathological sense of helplessness and personal frustration with all the new modalities, new technologies, and very distant, sometimes even disembodied, human contact. I miss being recognized and acknowledged, even with something as subtle as eye contact, a half smile, or a silent nod of appreciation. With the inevitable stress and trauma of our work, any sense of camaraderie, of reassurance, would help ease me into the new technology. It can be lonely and scary and sometimes funny, although on the whole it is only funny in afterthought. Kind of a “someday we will look back and laugh” situation, presuming things get better. Things will certainly never be the same. And maybe that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t feel good yet.

My first call of the day was a clerk asking me to get onto the WebEx platform for a video remote jailhouse arraignment, but I had no information about the case because it was not on my schedule. So he emailed me an invitation, and I tried to sign into the hearing from my laptop. But I could not get onto their audio system. There was no sound. I called the clerk back and he told me that had happened to him as well, so I should try to call in via phone instead of on my laptop. So I tried that. But as soon as I entered the meeting room code into my phone keypad, my phone auto-filled some password, then rejected it as wrong, and then hung up on me. I tried several times, seeing if I could input the correct password from the email before my phone took over, with no success.

Meanwhile, the clerk was calling me back, and that call was clicking through while I was desperately trying to call into the hearing. Also meanwhile, I was going into sensory overload and having to breathe to keep myself grounded. I took the clerk’s call and told him what was happening with my phone-in attempts, carefully masking my voice so I sounded like a functional human being. He sighed and then passed the call over the another clerk “who is good with technology”. She in turn suggested I hang up, go back onto the laptop, open my email, use the invitation to log in to the WebEx session again, and choose the option from the dropdown menu for a callback instead of calling in myself, and then stay off my phone, and wait for them to call me back at my phone number. That would bypass the need to keypad in the password, and avoid the auto-fill. Nice workaround.

I did that, but instead of someone in the courtroom making the decision on when to call me, the system called me instantly, and when I answered, I was auto-clicked right into a courtroom, without video, where it sounded suspiciously like they had just started the hearing without me – if it was even the correct courtroom. I couldn’t see anything or anyone, of course. And I knew they couldn’t see me, so I immediately piped up and announced my presence and identity to the judge, stating that I was standing by to interpret.

One invisible person giggled shortly, but no one else said anything. I had no way of knowing whether the giggle was for my interruption, or whether anyone had even heard me. No one directed me to interpret. No one directed me to stand by silently, or hang up, or get into another courtroom. Just the short and mysterious giggle into the void. So I just stood by as my heart rose to my throat and I thought about getting a job in a daycare or as a gardener. Would it really be that much less money? Plus they cannot make you do those jobs remote! After an ice age, there was a short break in the hearing, and I heard and recognized one of the clerk’s voices as they chatted. I called him by name and asked him if I was in the right place. He told me yes, and to stand by. They had passed over my hearing, he explained. A voice from the darkness. A voice of comfort. I was okay. My hearing would be next.

The day crept forward between these blind calls and some short written translations for traffic court. Between interpreting sessions, I exchanged many emails regarding scheduling updates, and received 5 or 6 more robo-calls about “criminal or fraudulent activity in Texas using YOUR Social Security card! Urgent action is needed! Please stay on the line!”

At the final hearing, we had a pro tem (substitute) judge. She was asking a lot of questions and trying to make sure everything was done correctly. This was an old pending case that had been in line to become a dismissal, except the defendant had picked up new charges, and thus lost her chance to avoid a conviction. The two sides had negotiated an overall settlement for both old and new cases with a guilty plea, and credit for time served. The hearing went well, I thought. The sound was fine, and I was allowed to interpret consecutively, which was very nice. Everyone stayed close to their microphones.

Then the prosecutor was asked to fill out the Judgment and Sentence. He did so as we stood by, then announced that when he sent it electronically for all signatures, it had turned into a blank form. He asked for time to fill it out again. Granted. But the same thing happened. He then found that the version that he had originally filled out was still on his computer, and asked if “instead of reinventing the wheel,” he could send it as a PDF, because it was “not transmittable from Library”. A voice from the void stated that a PDF does not allow for signatures. Meanwhile, another voice from the void, likely a clerk, offered the opinion that “you should never send a document from Library, but only from Workflow, because it generates an automated sending to all participants while Library blanks things out”.

The prosecutor announced tersely that he had to use Library because Counts 2 and 3 were being added to the same case resolution, and you cannot have added counts in the Workflow system. Workflow doesn’t allow it! Another voice suggested just printing it and handwriting in the new counts, but that didn’t seem adequate to preserve the record. The judge suggested that the document should stay intact in Library but be emailed for signature as an attachment, and then signed through Adobe Sign. Another voice stated the defendant herself would not be able to sign the document in Adobe Sign, not having a login, and there was an unresolved discussion about whether you need a login.

The clerk circled back around to suggest strongly that “nobody should ever use Library” while one of the lawyers reminded her again that “it’s the only way to add the two new counts!” and this discussion went on for a while. At some point, people clearly moved away from the microphones to look at and discuss the paperwork, presumably looking at each other’s screens, and conferring about how to make this happen. From my perspective, darkness, mumbling, and personal discomfort.

Things were eventually resolved – I was not privy as to how. The final document was sent around and signed electronically, and that was clearly stated on the record, and duly interpreted. The judge brought the case to a close with a sigh of relief, and reminded us that “as a family member of mine likes to say, Every Day’s a School Day… we are all here learning together. And we will figure this out! Thanks everybody for your patience! And thank you, Madame Interpreter! You are released!”

I would have liked to be physically present and look around the courtroom just for that brief second, to share in a communal sigh of relief with my colleagues. To nod in acknowledgment of the judge’s encouraging words. To catch someone’s eye on the way out with a silently shared, “This is hard, right?!” But I am not standing in the courtroom as the case goes off the record. I am sitting here alone at home, in my basement office, with a disconnected phone in my hand. And with all due respect for the luxury of working in a suit jacket with pajama bottoms, it can be disheartening. Trying to figure out the technology, working in the dark, and remaining isolated are heavy weights to bear. Others have it worse, of course, and my heart goes out to them. But I direct some of my compassion back to myself, in a very small circle of comfort indeed.

RIDE MY BIKE

I was interpreting for a mother the other day who had lived through quite a bit of trauma and was seeking healing and strength to carry on. Comfort comes from all directions, when we can see it. Her young child offered a simple lesson of resilience and confidence after falling off his bike and running into the house to find her. Her wonderful therapist helped her notice and appreciate his attitude, and notice how he was living up to her own long-held values of endurance and endeavoring – values he had learned from her. And seeking his happiness in a precarious world.

It was a simple city sidewalk fall, so common to kids on bikes. He lost control for a moment and landed on the rough concrete. He came into the house exhibiting scraped and bloody knees, torn elbows, incipient bruises, and some tears on his face. His fingers especially looked raw and painful, and his mother cleaned them with antiseptic spray. One knee was bleeding profusely. The rest didn’t need band aids, but would scab and heal over the coming weeks. No broken bones. Mom cleaned him up as best she could.

Mom started to tell him how to be more careful. Where to ride and how to ride. Reminded him of the things he already knew. Be careful! Keep your balance! Watch out! Look both ways! Slow down! Maybe you should stay inside! Think about…

Her son interrupted her and explained, “Mom, I know. But right now, I just wanna get out there and ride my bike. If I keep thinking about the fall, I’m not gonna to feel any better. So I wanna ride go my bike. Because it’s fun.”

Mom sent him out with a few more motherly warnings – all things she had already taught him. She was reluctant to let him out so soon. She wanted to feel like she could protect him from future pain. What if he fell again? What if he really hurt himself? So many what ifs. Endless spirals.

Just as he shut the door, he poked his smiling face around it with his helmet on, and said, “Don’t worry, Mom! I’m just gonna ride my bike! I’ll be okay!”

After recounting this in detail. the mother realized that she was getting ready to move on from her own, much deeper trauma. From recounting and reliving it. From focusing on it. From trying to parse it out, and setting up all kinds of avoidance plans to stem potential future danger and harm. Because simply staying in her shell in the futile hope of avoiding the pain of living was keeping her a prisoner of the past. She started to consider with the counselor what “riding her bike” would look like. And there were lots of ideas for ways that she could ease back into enjoying her present life.

“What might give you that sense of balance and forward movement, that sense of the wind in your hair, freedom and ease?” She had many ideas, from being out in nature, to spending time with safe friends, to getting into more social circles, and improving her work situation. Traditional recipes she wanted to cook. Handcrafts she wanted to try. Things she wanted to learn and experience. There was so much she could do with what she already had. So many opportunities. Space for peace. Room for joy.

She wasn’t in her home country, and there were many unknowns, but she had reached relative safety. And she took that in, and thought about her son seeking joy, in spite of everything. Just embracing life. When the session ended, the face of the mother had a brighter look, just as I imagine her son had looked when he announced to her in the doorway that he was going back out to ride his bike, and it would be okay. A look of faith – an anticipation of joys to come. We all fall and rise so many times. I am going to remember both of them with their brave message of hope and resilience. And consider the many ways in which I can ride my bike.

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL

Like a fairy tale movie, imagine a humble and unpretentious young woman who suddenly gets a horrible disease. During her ordeal, her kidneys fail, her liver is affected, and the treatment itself causes the lining of one of her coronary arteries to be eaten away, causing a thinning of the wall. She is now at even higher risk of dying suddenly. But she somehow manages to hang on by a thread of life. She languishes for months in intensive care.

The doctors explain that she is in a race for time. If her organs recover quickly enough, they may be able to operate on the coronary artery before it bursts. If not, well, they are very sorry. It may burst at any time and then she will “bleed out” and die within minutes. She must simply trying and remain calm and let time pass. Try to relax and not panic. Stay strong. A true fairy tale ordeal, calling for the greatest feats of endurance.

Doesn’t sound much like a modern fairy tale, of course, where the ordeals are often quite trivial and last less than an hour on screen. Traditional fairy tales were much more reflective of the human experience. They had more gut-wrenching decision to be made, shifting and confusing scenarios requiring heroic choices and efforts. There were offers of wise or fatal advice from elders and others, often in disguise, to be heeded or ignored at the peril of the explorer. And discernment was required, as things were not as they seemed. Three choices. Two choices. Facing pain and uncertainty. One chance to survive. Fairy tales were life and death warning tales.

In the US especially, we like to pretend that life is safe. If we work hard, and keep our nose to the grindstone, and do our best, we will be rewarded with long life, money, a good partner and healthy children, and probably a house. Yet we, like our fellow humans around the globe, find to our dismay that our life is filled with perils. This young woman went through a long series of painful procedures, with sometimes conflicting and ever shifting high-tech advice pouring in during the daily rounds. She lay there like a boat in harbor, calmly waiting to see whether she might emerge in time, or be destroyed there. Months went by.

Not having grown up in our modern fairy tale rewards-based culture, she never seemed to feel that what was happening was unfair to her in particular. It was nothing personal. It was fate. She simply accepted that she might die, and waited. As the months passed and her health rose and fell in a series of complications, yet not resulting in her death, she quite naturally decided that the doctors, for all their expertise, were ignorant at best. They did not know what her ultimate destiny was to be. They were not, after all, above God. There was something magical, something miraculous even, in her slow and jagged recovery and eventual discharge to her home.

At discharge, she was warned once again that she must always consider her coronary artery and the known fact that it may burst at any moment. It was like a very bad varicose vein. She was not healed! She was still fragile and weak. She was barely well enough to go home. But there was a slight hope. She had made it this far. Over time, if her lab work looked good enough, a cardiologist might decide on her behalf that the risk-benefit analysis made the heart repair a worthwhile endeavor. They would let her know. She should stay in touch and of course see the cardiologist regularly.

She went home and did something that was quite natural if terribly risky. She apparently decided that if she might die so soon, just as her life was beginning, that she should at least produce a child before she goes. Leave something behind her to carry on. Experience the natural progression of events. Apparently. Because she got pregnant. The doctors are dismayed, and they plan to give her a good talking to when she comes to the clinic for her maternal care. I am guessing she will sit and look at them quite seriously, nodding in polite agreement as she did from her hospital bed, knowing that if God wants her baby to survive, then her baby will survive. That her life is in God’s hands and always will be. But the actual words that are to be exchanged at the visit need to be spoken, and adequately interpreted.

As interpreters, we try hard to stay in neutrality. To allow our patients the dignity of applying their own value system to the choices they make. In this kind of a situation, some of us might wish we could advocate for her to live her own life and not feel like the only meaning it could have is through reproducing. Others might support her doing exactly what she wants, even if her choice seems self-destructive or wrong-thinking from our cultural bias. Some might condemn the poor communication skills of the doctors who didn’t make it clear enough for her to process, even during months of hospitalization, and fret about whether she can understand her risk.

The neutrality clause for interpreter ethics is not about not having any feelings or thoughts. It is about being able to put ourselves aside for the moment. Whichever interpreter ends up getting invited to this difficult prenatal appointment for this heart-wrenching discussion, must go into it with a straight face, and allow the parties to communicate without intruding our own values, hopes and fears into the situation. Once we come out of there, we are free to cry or laugh or call a colleague and debrief while protecting patient confidentiality. Meanwhile, the patient gets their care and advice through a clean conduit, and we can lick our wounds, and make up our fairy tale endings, on our own.

TALKO

The only word from Finnish to make it into English is sauna. But there is another important word that is perhaps equally ancient and valuable in Finland. Talkoot – now talko in Swedish-speaking Finland – means communal work, when extra hands are either needed or welcome. A talko can be any sort of endeavor large or small, involving dozens of people, or just two or three. It may last just a hour or two, or go on for days. Of course volunteer work is a worldwide concept, but in Finland, it is very much an integral and natural part of daily life and community-building.

When I travel to Finland, it is my honor to be invited to join in talkos. It might involve clearing small trees and pruning branches along a dirt road leading to a set of summer cabins. Helping someone pack or move. Foraging for mushrooms. Gathering and cleaning berries for the winter, or making jam or juice. Stacking firewood outside the sauna. Harvesting vegetables from the garden, or preserving cucumbers. Carrying dried brushwood and burning it by the seaside. Working together in the kitchen to prepare a large meal for a gathering. Setting out lanterns to celebrate the coming of the dark season. At the heart of each activity is shared labor.

I am quite sure that the people of Finland would survive their harsh winter without whatever small tasks I am able to accomplish during my precious summer weeks here. With their own work ethic, and countless shared acts of kindness between them, my humble work is literally a drop in the ocean. Yet I am enriched, and feel closer to my dear ones, having used my hands in their service. Each talko brings me closer to nature, and is a reminder of the communal living that our ancestors relied upon for their very survival. These shared efforts are useful and healing and lovely. And they provide a deep and abiding sense of deeply-rooted connection. Talko.

YES

I have the extreme good fortune of owning two passports and having dual citizenship in the birth countries of each of my parents. So that even now during our COVID lockdown, I have been able to travel to my father’s birth country and absorb some much needed healing and rest. It is hard to explain why I feel such an open heart, such a deeply rooted peace, in this homeland, but I will try and share it from the linguistic point of view.

Something that strikes me every time I arrive here is that whether they speak Swedish or Finnish (and I would venture to guess the Sami language as well) people walk around constantly saying yes to the person speaking. In one form or another, they are constantly and naturally reminding the person speaking: I hear you. I understand what you are trying to convey. I see your point of view. I am with you. They are giving the speaker permission, consent, approval, and support in such a natural, kind and loving way. Quietly and peacefully acknowledging their humanity. Not interrupting or talking over. Lots of turn-taking time and spaces of silence that are not empty, but filled with the ongoing exchange and the leisurely pace of what is gently being spoken and shared.

Already at the airport, I saw two little boys eagerly move close to the moving luggage return, and in my two US language communities, a lot of tired airport parents would have called out something along the lines of “get back here!” or “that’s dangerous” or simply grab the child’s arm. But the Finnish father said in the gentlest of voices: “Listen now, fellows! You see there is a sort of a line on the floor, and that is so we can all stand on this side and thus the other passengers can see their luggage coming, you see, and that way no one is too close to the moving conveyor belt.” The boys looked and saw the line, and came back and stood my their father.

Think about it. This father had actually not commanded his children to think like him, much less ordered them about or tried to physically move them. He simply offered them some very neutral and factual information, and allowed them to draw their own reasonable conclusions. They were not viewed as people to be convinced or controlled, but simply as two reasonable individuals who could be trusted to form their own opinions and draw their own reasonable conclusions.

This man felt no need to argue or scold or tell them what to think or do. Even though they were very young children, probably three and five years old. How lovely. To accept the individuality that lies at the core of every person – an individuality that is not reliant upon any specific held opinion, but rather upon the reasoning ability and the common sense of each person, developed in earliest childhood and fostered throughout their lives. These children were trusted, and trustworthy.

In my birth country, the United States, this is not the common practice. We love to tell children and adults alike what to think and how to think. We have opinions about everything, and there is no direct correlation between what we know as a factual matter, and how strongly held our opinions about that matter are, unless there maybe an inverse correlation. We are focused on individuating, and showing that we have strong opinions, because those opinions make up a huge part of our personal identity. And when someone tries to shake our opinions, it feels very much like a personal attack, so closely do we identify with them. So it turns out that the listener must almost necessarily fight against another person’s words and negate, deny, or resist their stated opinion – about almost anything under discussion!

Then the listener goes on to try and show how the speaker’s opinion is not quite valid, how the listener knows more, and can correct and enlighten the speaker. Somehow, we must stand out and “know” something that we can then posture about. Even if three people read the same article in the same paper, say, about a sporting event, the next day, they will happily misquote it and argue about the relative merits of the players and why and how the game was really won and lost. It truly is a strange cultural pastime, this constant need to separate ourselves and be right by making someone else wrong. It is as if we fear we would be annihilated without our opinions. We cling to each opinion like a life preserver.

I remember seeing a cartoon with a man sitting in front of his computer in surprise calling out to his wife across the room: “Honey, come quick! It’s the weirdest thing! You’re not gonna believe this! All my friends who were experts in national politics have all suddenly become experts on COVID!”

In my experience, my cousins who have lived always in Finland have no such drive to be “the one who knows” or to correct others. I remember my surprise when I asked an older cousin a few questions conversationally, and he had no opinion. He considered, and then said he didn’t have an opinion, because he didn’t know so much about it. At the end of the visit, he told me that one of the things he had become more comfortable with as he aged was accepting that he knows very little in the grand scheme of things, but that he knows a comfortable amount about the things he needs to know, and so that is just fine. He felt no need to have an opinion on every possible topic.

When I taught Asian students in an international program in the US, many of them reported that the most difficult cultural clash for them was the common academic requirement that they “state their opinion and defend it” in other words, take a side, and then argue against the other side. Several students told me they simply did not feel the need to take a side, and could easily see both sides, and had no problem with the ambiguity. They felt it was strange to have to stand on one side or the other of something that was essentially multi-faceted and complex. The very idea of “two sides to the coin” is odd. Few things are that flat and simple. And if you think about it, if you and I hold a coin between us and each of us sees our side, we are still, in the end, looking at the same coin. To argue about it seems a bit ridiculous.

So I luxuriate for a brief and lovely moment in time, which not coincidentally happens to be the present, as I wander in the forest and along lake shores, in villages and summer cottage areas, along bicycle paths and even “in town”, and all the while, I hear my cousins, friends and strangers saying yes to each other in a hundred ways. Nodding, listening, humming, sucking in air in adorable breathy whistles, almost in birdsong recognition of each other. I have no doubt these traditions have been carried forward unbroken since humans first started cooperating in the misty beginnings of what we like to consider societies. I feel so happy to be immersed in this ancient recognition, this socially condoned and constantly reinforced acceptance of the points of view and personal experiences of each individual member of our clan. What utter rest and quiet, what peace and contentment, when each person’s humanity is so constantly upheld and respected. Yes.

UNDER WATER

Yes, my hands are in poor shape indeed. Along with the rest of me! Working in the cold and damp on the forest floor. Cutting those shiny green leaves people like to have in their bouquets, called salal. We get paid by the bunch. And then in the fall, trimming evergreen for wreaths. Then we can stand up and work, but the needle trees are so poky! Our hands are scratched to pieces. How they sting when I wash dishes! But what can we do? We try to stay above water, but things keep happening.

We cannot speak the language here, and there are no classes for those of us who cannot read and write. We don’t have a car and we don’t know how to drive, so we have to pay another fellow every day to give us a ride out to the forest. We pay for each passenger, so it costs a lot. Because we all have to work.

I often think about luck and adversity, and how much our choices might make things better or worse. I cannot decide how it all works, how to get to safety. It seems like every time we get close, something else happens. I have constant anxiety. And now these health problems. What will happen to us? I am the one who keeps the family together, and feeds them.

The kids remind me it is not my fault. They are the ones who wanted to come here and give it a try – they are the ones who brought me. But I cannot stop worrying – what else might fall away beneath us and leave us without ground to walk upon? How can we scrape it together, with electricity and water bills, trailer rent, paying a driver, things we never paid at home? And they must be paid!

I have talked to the kids about going home. But they say we don’t have the money to get home. Where do we belong then? We have fallen between the two places and they both have their doors shut and we seem to be trying to climb in through a window but the windows are too high for us. And now my health.

Me and my old man, you know. We will pass away here, far from everything we know. Our children made their choice and want to live here, even though their life seems to be one of constant suffering, slender hope, disappointment, work, and worry. My only hope is for the grandchildren. They will be born here, they will fit in, they will have papers.

If God grants me a long enough life to know them, I wonder what they will think of me. What can they know of our suffering, our struggles, born in this new place? I only hope that when they look upon me, they can see me as a real person, and not look at me like the people in the grocery store do here in town. If I live to see them ashamed of me, then I will have lived too long.