The Lasts

The season of "the lasts" has begun in earnest. 

I first noticed it in mid May, around the time of my birthday. The day after my birthday was a Saturday, and a free one at that. As the usual school tiredness had turned into a full-blown exhaustion by then, I decided to hide at home, not to go to church and not to meet up with anyone that day. But as it happened, my auntie sent me a message in the morning, saying that she would drive by and pick me up after church and that we would go to seaside after lunch. My initial reaction was to say no, let's skip it, I'm simply too tired. But then I realised it might be one of the last times I could hang out with her like this, and to the seaside we went. The day after that, my dad came to Tallinn for our traditional birthday dinner and I had, of course, picked my favourite Old Town restaurant for the occasion. And we celebrated my personal New Year in a place where we had done it for three or four years (I think we missed one Covid year) and it was slightly bittersweet to know that we most likely will not sit in that restaurant next spring any more. 

The school year with its "lasts" is finally ending, and I have even written my official resignation letter. The last classes were sweet. There was some hugging and some chocolate and a few teary eyes as we said our goodbyes. And yesterday, as we had our year-end teachers' meeting, T., who is the head of the grammar and lit teachers' department, came to me and said that she considers my leaving a great loss to the Estonian eduacational system haha. It was very kind and a tad dramatic, coming from such a seasoned and award-winning teacher as her.

This past Saturday I preached my last sermon in Tallinn Central. Again, everyone was very sweet and very sad. :)

The emotions about those "lasts" and these goodbyes are complex but the main feeling, as of now, is relief. I am SO ready to turn a new page, I am so ready to reinvent myself (I think that's what always happens when one moves countries - and if not the reinventing itself, at least the possibility of it), I am so ready to start writing a new chapter of and with my life. And what I also like is the way one systematically reviews every aspect of one's life before such a big move. Like, I've started to sort my books a bit, and to clean my drawers, and to throw out (nay, to take to a second-hand shop) all my old winter coats. And there is something freeing, something exhilirating about this. You open up all the drawers of your life and you sort and pack and chuck out and organise and make room for the new... and we probably don't do it often enough. So as much as I have hated moving and packing in the past (some real childhood traumas here), this time it feels like bringing new light and new air to all the stuffy corners of my little life. 

Just yesterday I was cleaning a drawer and found a whole stack of papers from my infamous and failed attempt at a PhD degree in Amsterdam Free University. I had lecture notes and articles there from 2015. Why have I kept that rubbish there for so long? From 2015?

And this evening I have been sitting on my bedroom floor, going trough a box of books. In between the books there were some old postcards and letter. There was one from S., written a couple of months after mom's death. There was a Christmas card from L. that arrived just a couple of days after mom's passing. Even these corners of life get a bit more airy when you sit and reminisce and think about the sheer goodness of people you have had and you have now. No, we don't do this kind of opening and closing and remembering nearly enough. 

I'm planning to go to Tartu this Friday. There are some cafes that I still need to sit and read a book in. Some streets that I still need to walk down, remembering the years lived in Tartu, and remembering my dearest A. Some moments that I need to take to say goodbye to my favourite town in the world. And then - let the new come!

But here are some moments from my birthday weekend:

The 5th graders wrote me a whole birthday book!

My aunt's creation

I know what you're thinking. But no, they were from my little brother. :P


Solitary Studies

Last week I finished and submitted to my supervisor another chapter of my dissertation. 

Studying is such a solitary and lonely thing. At least on the doctoral level. It was very different when I studied in Tartu and in Newbold - I always had a group of people around me who did the same thing and who lived in the same rhythm as me. It was especially so in Newbold where we were also living on the same campus. Everyone went to classes in the morning and everyone went to the library after lunch, it was the most natural of life rhythms and you could always feel the peer support. Always. But now I have to steal time from either one of my jobs - and feel guilty about it - if I want to make any progress. No-one knows when I sit in the library, and I don't think anyone cares much either. Just 1,5 weeks ago I had a long study day and a colleague from the church messaged me and asked if I had time for a phone call. I said I was writing my dissertation and that I could speak later in the evening. "Is that the doctoral thing?" he asked. Yes, it's the doctoral thing, the one I am doing for the fifth year running. None of it is his fault, of course, he doesn't need to know what I'm doing or how far I am or am not but these kind of conversations make me feel terribly lonely.

Over the long Easter weekend I managed to write some 4500 words for my thesis. I barely got up from my chair for a couple of days and my kitchen table was covered with feedback forms that I was analysing. The chapter I submitted was 37 pages long - and I think I have finally found my strategy. I just write so much no-one will ever have time nor energy to read the whole thing. It should work!

It's also very interesting, of course. It's fascinating to go through all that feedback I received for my preaching series. There are all sorts of comments and opinions and statistics. And I hope I will be a more knowledgeable preacher once I'm done with my big study.

But I got terribly tired from the writing marathon - mostly because I also had to keep my two job balls up in the air at the same time, both the church ball and the school ball. I've taken some smaller breaks, like this:

or like this, babysitting my niece and nephew:

But my grandiose plan to go straight to the final chapter without catching my breath doesn't seem to be realistic. So I will go to Sweden tomorrow, I will leave my laptop and the feedback forms home, I will unplug, read a good book, spend time with S, do some wedding prep, and enjoy the spring. I think I deserve it. :)


One Hundred Days

It is exactly one hundred days today until the wedding. I know because I keep checking our wedding webpage every day and they have this gadget there that does the countdown. The time has never moved so slowly. Which is another way of saying that I have never waited for anything so eagerly. 

As to the prep, we are doing well. The big things are in place - we have a church and a pastor, we have the place for reception and the toastmaster and the photographer, I have the dress and S. almost has a suit, all the invitations are delivered and program of the church service is put on paper, we have plans for the honeymoon and we have ran around S's apartment with a tape measure, checking if the new necessary furniture will fit in. Just last week I collected an official-looking document from some office where it states that as far as the Estonian government is concerned, I am eligible for marriage. We have done an online course of pre-marital counselling together and we are also doing a face-to-face one with D. H. every time I am in Sweden. Things look good! Things look promising!

There are, of course, a million little things that still need to be done. Some of them I find more stressful, some less. Some haven't even crossed my mind yet and some things we will probably discover only the day before (or after) the wedding. But what is a constant is that I find it great fun to work with S. on this big project - maybe the biggest one in our lives when it comes to event-organising. It's cool to see what kind of preferences we have and what the process of reaching a mutual agreement looks like and how our habits or cultural/family/personal differences kick in.

The funniest and the biggest difference between us, as far as my observations go, is how we approach shopping. It's becoming a bit of an anecdote for us, truly. Because we both have a very peculiar way of doing it. I do it like this:

- I bought my wedding dress... from the first salon I stepped in (it was the 4th dress I tried on and the shop assistant was rather baffled by my decision to buy it right away)

- I bought my bridal head piece... well, it was the first one I tried on

- my wedding shoes... came from the first shoe shop I went to (ok, I had checked out their webpage before that but still)

It is not difficult to guess where our bed would have come from if we had done things my way. It would have come from IKEA on our first visit there. But since we are doing it S's way, things are very different. There is no bed yet (and that's ok because - chech the first sentence of this post) but there are a good number of bed shop visits on our account. S. has a whole pile of printed quotations from different shops to be able to compare prices. And he has done almost academic research on the different materials of mattresses. Whatever we end up having, I know it will be the best thing out there.   

The last time he was here and we needed to look for some things for the wedding and he did not buy them the first time we were in the shop, I apologised to him in advance for all that **** he will see in his life because his wife is quite literally unable to shop for things in a decent manner haha. But it's good to know at least one of us has the ability of buying things reasonably. 

Other than that, there's just impatient waiting. If I could will the time to move faster, we would be living in July already. There are so many things - everything! - to look forward to. There is a whole new reality to create. A whole new home and family. New family traditions. New relationship dymanics (without this cursed distance). There's also a new language for me to learn. A new place and culture to get used to. A new job.

Just one hundred days to go. 


Small Kernel of Human Kindness

It’s more than six weeks since the war started and the world has changed so much. Not only the big world but also the small one I see every day. Tallinn looks different and Tallinn feels different. There are some 28 000 war refugees living in Estonia now and most of them, I would imagine, are here in Tallinn. So when you go out on a sunny Sunday afternoon, you mostly hear Slavic languages being spoken around you (my ear does not always catch the difference between Russian and Ukrainian). There are so many mothers and grannies and children, clutching their teddy bears, wandering around the Old Town. A young woman who speaks no English gives me a piece of torn paper on a street that says „Ask for an apartment, Tallinn city council“ and I manage to find the right address for her on Google Maps. There’s a Ukrainian lady who works in our school kitchen now, cleaning the tables and helping out. She always says „Tere!“ in the morning when I see her. I have no idea what she did in her real life before coming here. There’s a young girl who had a flower shop in Kyiv and who happened to be in Poland on February 24th, making arrangements to receive 20 000 tulips for the International Women’s Day in March (it is a massive celebration in the Slavic cultures). She never went back but came straight to Tallinn from Poland (with a toothbrush and two pairs of shirts, I imagine). The supplier in Poland was able to help her somewhat, telling her she didn’t have to receive all of these flowers at once as agreed. Now tulpis by thousands arrive in Tallinn week after week and the flowers that should have been given to women of Kyiv on March 8 by sons and sweethearts and husbands are here, some on my kitchen table. I go to the flower shop every now and then, buying tulips from her and also half-secretly looking at her as if she was a super woman. She isn’t. But by selling them here she keeps paying her employees back home who have nothing to sell. I’ve discovered one educational initiative called The School of Hope where qualified teachers who have fled to Estonia are giving Zoom classes to Ukrainian children here. They run it on a voluntary basis right now and I am regularly donating money so they can pay something to these teachers – my colleagues! They say there are more than 300 children already attending this school. I saw my auntie’s in-laws in church this past Saturday. They had just arrived, sat shyly in the pew when someone translated them my sermon. A granny with two grandchildren. The father and mother had to stay in Ukraine.

Just this morning in the news on the National Radio they said that the Estonian government is working hard on a plan for civilians in the case of war. We don’t have metro so there are no ready-made bomb shelters here. There are no sirens for air raids. There is no system as to where people need to evacuate when they have to leave their homes for good. The plans are in the making now, apparently.

It’s all a bit too much to take in. Not to mention the news with horrific pictures that should have forever remained in concentration camps in 1945. Last week I developed a chronic headache and some people referred me to a massage therapist. I went to see her yesterday and she said my neck and shoulders were very stiff. I try to distance myself emotionally from all the news that flood in every day but the body still reacts to it. The body aches. So I will probably have to go to massage again and again this spring, just in order to function normally and to have this one blissful hour far from Twitter and the evil that we are all staring in the eye.

But there are the other news and colors, too. Just today, scrolling through Twitter feed I happened to see several pictures of little liberated Ukrainian towns where people are on the streets en masse, cleaning. There are some cats who have been able to dig themselves out from the rubble, and they are being greeted with joy. Soldiers taking stray dogs with them because the dogs won’t leave. There are spontaneous „first aid“ centres where people who have next to nothing bring things to share with those who have even less left. And my mind wanders back to a marvelous book I read last spring. It’s Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Grossman is one of my all-time favourites, having been a war reporter during the WWII – an Ukrainian Jew, by the way – with marvelous talent and bravery. And after all the horrors of war that he saw, he still wrote his books, and he said this in Life and Fate: “I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

And these words ring true as I read them through tears. The small kernel of human kindness has not yet been destroyed.


War and Peace

On Wednesday evening, I was flying to Stockholm for a long weekend and knowing there would be quite a few hours of useless time in different airports (Sweden was just the first leg of the journey), I took two books with me. One of them was Frederick Buechner's The Alphabet of Grace. It has become a habit of mine to read this book at least once a year. It's an odd one - the first time I read it I barely understood anything. It's so slow and complicated. But there is magic in this book that keeps pulling me back to it, so it has become my annual companion. And some words I found there comforted me in a special way as I was flying out on the last evening before the war broke out. Buechner asks, "What's to be done? And the answer that life gives is: live in the needs of the day. What's to be done? Do what you need most to do this day and what is most needed of you." I have come back to these words again and again over these days. Because the war news can become so depressing and overwhelming that you don't know any more if there is anything that can be done. The whole thing seems nightmarish and paralyzing. But his words have reminded me - do what you can. Live intentionally in this complicated and heart-breaking reality that wants to suck all joy and peace out of you. What you can't do, leave to the mercy of God, but what you can do, do.

I have tried to follow the advice. I have donated more money over these few days than I had done for a long time. I have tried to share information about the possibilities of helping out. I have kept pleading with God to protect the innocent and to make possible what seems humanly impossible. But I have also found that to live in the needs of the day means finding joy in and expressing gratitude for all the good things I have. This is also my obligation. I have to add joy to the sorrow, I have to learn to live in a place where these two intersect. As the terrible and sensless war began, as the Ukrainian people were forced to sleep in shelters, cellars and metro stations, I could wake up in a comfortable bed to clear blue skies in a place where there was no real fear or threat, in a place where bombs were not falling. With my heart aching for these people, I was grateful for what I had. We went out for a walk in nature on Friday afternoon and I couldn't help myself, I kept thinking of all these young women who have had to send their sweethearts to war and who do not know if they will ever meet them again. It somehow made my own luck and the fact that my sweetheart was with me more special than ever. Going to a church on Saturday morning that bombs had not damaged was a blessing I could count. Going to a grocery store laden with all things good was something I saw with different eyes. Warm home and hot water. Medical help. Peace. Do what you can, be grateful whenever possible, live in the needs of the day. 

And now I am in Vejlefjord, Denmark, getting ready for a long week of preaching to highschool kids. On one hand, I want to throw up my hands in despair and throw away all my "pre-war" sermons because I feel so inadequate and I don't really know what to say in these crazy times to the youngsters who will inherit this sick and broken world from us. But on the other hand, I keep reading this quote by Buechner over and over again and I keep reminding myself that even here I need to live in the needs of the day. I will try and share with teenagers the words I have prepared and although I wish so badly I had better and more powerful words to speak, I will speak my small words in my own small way. And if they get anything out of my sermons, it will be by pure grace of God.

And if any of you asks the same question - What's to be done? What's to be done? - maybe you, too, can find some guidance in Buechner's words.  


All Is Well

It's five days since the first symptoms and one day since the first positive test (I wasted a good number of speed tests and one PCR test before that). Being fairly sure it was Covid from the beginning, it was with a great relief that I saw two red lines on my test yesterday.

It may sound weird but that's how it was. Because being lucky enough to have mild symptoms (sore throat, an occasional headache, some bad coughing, a small temperature one evening), what this "extra" red line meant for me was the end of that nerve-racking and never-ending (or so it seemed to me) waiting. So far, every day and every contact meant a potential threat, and even if this thought was buried deep beneath all the other thoughts and cares, it still wore me out in the end. I got so tired of waiting and worrying and counting and imagining - especially in the context of my Swedish trips and my week of preaching in the beginning of March in Vejlefjord, Denmark. Now the famous guest is here. Phew. Let's deal with it. And then, hopefully, I can go back to the world without this burden of nagging fear.

According to the Estonian law, my isolation will not end before another 5 days. But it has barely felt like an isolation. I have been able to have one literature class on Zoom, taking CPR tests means I have a reason to go out and breath some fresh air, I'm constantly keeping in touch with my family members (nothing entertains me quite as much as discussing dress styles with my five year old niece - E. is very worried about what to wear in my wedding in the summer:), my auntie brought me some warm food yesterday. I can clean and cook. And although, as we joke with S., I mostly go from bed to sofa and from sofa to bed, that's alright, too. It's a break from the constant hurrying and working. And while I lie in bed or on my sofa, I put to good use my rocket-science-awesome-brilliant headphones S. got me for Christmas. They are these big and fancy noise cancelling headphones with - really! - a brilliant sound quality so I am constantly listening to something. Some lecture from an Estonian audio lecture program called Night University, or some audio book (it was a Hercule Poirot story yesterday), or my much beloved audio Bible (I literally stopped reading the Bible some three years ago when I discovered audio Bible - soon it will be the third time for me to get through the Bible by listening to it).

And as I had almost stopped coughing by this morning, I decided it was time to get back to my usual 'ice-cold morning shower' routine today. It felt good!

So with humble gratitude and with my heart aching for all these friends and acquaintances who have not had it so easy, I can say - all is well with me.


Eyes to See

Sometimes we need help noticing things. At least I do. Because I live so much of my life on autopilot, always walking the same streets, always thinking the same thoughts and worrying about the same worries, always living either in the past or future in my head, so much so that I barely notice what is right in front of me. Psychologists would probably be worried if they knew how many imaginary conversations I have had in my mind while taking my evening walks. And I don't notice much, living like this.

But I feel things have begun to change of late. I have probably explored more of Estonia (and Tallinn in particular) with S. over the past six months than over the five years combined. But it's not only about seeing and visiting physical places, it's so much more than that. I feel as if by being with someone who sees these things for the first time - and who actually notices - I have gotten a new pair of eyes myself. Eyes that see again. Mind that notices again. There is something wondrous about having the endless and monotonous circle of my routines interrupted. The world is a little newer and richer in detail than it used to be.

We visited the ruins of Pirita convent this past Saturday before the blizzard hit Tallinn. Pirita gets its name from that convent - already in the beginning of the 15th century the order of St Birgitta of Sweden made its way to Tallinn. The ruins are on the seaside some distance from the city center and I had passed them a hundred times - and that's exactly that. I had only passed them by, I had never taken time to go see them. Because, honestly, who has time to visit some 500 year old ruins? One is always so busy. One has always important thoughts in the head.

S., of course, thought he needed to climb every flight of broken and icy stairs and jump into every hole in the ruins. As if he had to. I tried to explain to him that he actually didn't have an obligation to climb and jump and explore every last corner of the place and that it would be perfectly fine just to look at some things and walk past them. But he wouldn't have any of it. We had a good laugh about it but the truth be told, there is also something serious hidden in there. There is something about the precious ability to remain curious and be present that I find really refreshing.  

Some say that when you become a parent you learn to see the old world in a new way. You will once again discover that every puddle and chestnut and yellow maple leave has a potential of being a joy. I wonder if it's really true. 

Just the other week I talked about Astrid Lindgren in my literature class and shared someone's memory about her. Someone has said that when all the other mothers went to park, they sat on a bench and watched their children play. But when Astrid Lindgren took either one of her kids to park, she climbed the trees with them. You can sense this in her books, this ability to push back the dreadful boredom of adulthood that most of us drown in, never to return.

I still remain cautious about broken staircases and thin ice and other such things but I hope that some of this freshness of life I've found will remain a long time. I hope my eyesight will remain sharp, not in a sense of "can you read these letters on a chart" but in a sense of "can you actually notice the life around you".