Friday, July 25, 2008

Typically Finnish: Coffee and the Blues

Just back from a trip to Vaasa in Western Finland to visit my other aunt and my amazing cousins. My two aunts are so different and each so very delightful and full of good cheer and loving kindness. One aunt is in her early eighties, is a world traveler (trips to Estonia and Egypt planned before the year is out), is adorned with the coolest designer glasses (Dior), has a rather new computer hooked up to the internet (hence my ability to keep blogging) and still speeds around town in her sporty little red Renault. My other aunt is Finnish-Swedish, has deep blue eyes and is a mother of four, grandmother to eight and great grandmother to two! She confessed that she doesn't care much for travel, tends to like classical Scandinavian culture and has a home adorned with antiques, family heirlooms and Finnish glass and crystal items.
She emanates grandmotherly love, warmth and always has some kind of good food available to urge you to be eating--potato and vegetable casseroles for example (just like my mother used to make).

Which brings me to this post's installment on Finnish cuisine. I will surely have put on a lot of weight by the end of this two weeks what with all the mandatory afternoon Finnish coffee and cakes that I am served when visiting each new family member and friend. Finnish coffee is certainly a cultural institution.

But I was mentioning my trip to Vaasa. I got to meet three of my cousins. How I admire and adore each one of them. It is quite sad that I have been so out of touch, but on the other hand it has been SUCH fun to discover so many new things about my family and learn more about Finland in the process. There are large groups of Swedish minorities in Western Finland and my cousins are half Swedish-Finnish and half Finnish so they are all fluent in Swedish as well as Finnish-- and English for that matter. They all went to Swedish schools and even Swedish university--all in Finland. Much to be researched there by those interested in bilingualism and language and education. So I have some relationship to Sweden too it seems :-)

All three cousins have lovely families and they are all working on gradually completing the construction on new houses.
One cousin has an important position in the municipal government of Vaasa working for the mayor. Another is a music composer, lyricist, guitarist and vocalist in a Finnish blues band! Hard rock and the blues are very popular in Finland I hear. I love to hear my cousin talk about his passion for the blues and how African Americans in the southern US have somehow been able to speak to his heart and soul and express his feelings with such beauty, shape and form. Through the blues this tall Scandinavian man has found a language to express his own emotions and find solace and comfort as he confronts life's inevitable tests and trials. He is a walking encylopaedia on all things American blues. I just find it so touching and beautiful and intriguing. And he is a very good musician indeed. I am so hoping one day he will be able to visit the US and take me on a tour of Mississippi. I was fortunate enough to be able to go and watch him and his band--The Cotton Blues-- playing in downtown Vaasa. Here is a video (not sure if this an original composition or not but much of what they play is.)

He is also a music therapist in his day job where he uses music to work with mostly young people with severe psychological challenges such as autism and other troubles. Music therapy is a cutting edge field and he is continuing his studies at the best program in the world at the university at Oulu.

His beautiful daughter is also a fan of American musical culture--Elvis to be specific :-)

It was also such a delight to meet my cousin Tuija who is also a psychologist. On our visit to her we dined on the freshest salad I may have ever tasted (salad is NOT traditional Finnish fare) and a couple of different kinds of Finnish cheeses and fish pie and ice cream. I did not have a chance to meet her husband and son as they were on their annual summer fishing trip to Inari, in the far north of Finland near the arctic circle in Lapland where the Sami people have traditionally farmed reindeer and that is the legendary home of Santa Claus. This is the place where you can really experience the midnight sun and truly pristine forests, lakes and rivers. Sigh... I will have to make it up there one day in summer or winter. So much left of this beautiful country to see and explore.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Birch trees and berries

So here I am glorying in the cool Finnish summer in Hämeenlinna. I am so enjoying getting to know my very elegant aunt. Her English is certainly far better than my Finnish but she likes to rely on her dictionary to communicate.

She has the sweetest little garden that feels just like another magical room of the home. Large picture windows in the living room and dining room look out onto the garden so you always feel like you are in it.
Every day she takes her little dog Ines out for a walk in the forests that surround her little apartment. The forests are of silver birch trees--the quintessential Finnish tree and they abound with wildflowers.

I do try to pick up a bit of Finnish from my aunt and she gets most enthusiastic about teaching me when it comes to the names of wildflowers--Yesterday she picked kamomilla (chamomile), clover, lupiini (lupines) and others to make a big bouquet to take home. Finland is the land of berries and what berries they are!! We bought a big flat of fresh strawberries and those were REAL strawberries. I am afraid I will never again be able to eat an American strawberry. These strawberries run deep red with juice and they are so very very sweet.

My aunt made several jars of strawberry jam which we ate with the fabulous porridge that she makes in the morning. Such delicious porridge! I also love the rye bread and cheese so much. Everything seems to taste so good to me here.
Speaking of berries... it is not quite raspberry season yet, but when it is the forests will abound in raspberries. This morning I spied two raspberries in my aunt's garden. I popped them right in my mouth after I took the picture. Just sweet sweet and full raspberry flavor--not the slightest bit sour.

I have always LOVED berries and forests. I have decided to claim this as part of my Finnish inheritance somehow passed down to me.

I was up at 4:30 this morning in the garden. (Still jet lagged). It was still slightly light out when I went to sleep at midnight. And as you can see in the raspberry picture it is light out at 4:30 in the morning too. Not sure if it ever gets completely dark during the Finnish summer. Haven't seen pitch black yet. While up in the garden this morning I also had an exciting encounter with a hedgehog. To a Finn, encounters with hedgehogs are as unexciting as encounters with a squirrel for those who live on the east coast of the US but it may have been my first encounter so I was delighted. Here is more of my far from stellar cinematography if you would like to share the encounter with me.

Today we made a trip into Helsinki to visit the Kiasma museum of modern art.
You can have several chances to interact with the art including if you would like to take a nap on one of the unusual benches outside the museum.

Monday, July 14, 2008



This is a word in Finnish that I have just learned how to write. Yes indeed it is one word. It means one thousand nine hundred and eighty three and is also how you say the year 1983 in Finnish. 1983 is the year I went to visit Finland with my mother. My mother was Finnish. She moved to Africa, to the then Republic of Rhodesia, in 1968 to marry my father and to serve as a Baha'i pioneer--perhaps the first Baha'i pioneer from Finland to the African continent. I wonder if there have been others since.

Tomorrow, twenty five summers after my last visit, I am making a journey to Finland again. I will visit my aunt and hopefully be able to meet some of my other relatives. My mission is to learn a little more about my mother and to discover a little bit of my Finnish cultural heritage that has really been invisible to me but surely is there given that I was raised by a Finnish mother. I hear that in contemporary Finland most of the young people speak fluent English. My aunt speaks very little and somehow I love this idea and I am eager to learn a little Finnish though I do realize that two weeks is a rather short stay to make much progress in this difficult language.

I gave myself my first language lesson just now using the book Beginner's Finnish. I had so much fun with it!! I realize that I do have some foundation in the language. A familiarity with the sounds and rhythms. My mother taught me just a very little as a child. She had a set of Finnish flashcards for me and I learned words like ice-cream and sun and peanut. I realize I LOVE the Finnish language. It has such a soft and light hearted feel to it. Makes me think of humming while skipping.

Here is a sampling of what I learned today (it is taking some energy to type the umlauts (ä):
Hei! Hauska tutustua. Minä olen Tanja. Asun Amerikassa. Olen työssä yliopistossa. Minä puhun vain vähän suomea. Kiitos kaikesta.

(Hi! Its nice to meet you. I am Tanja. I live in America. I work at the university. I speak only a little Finnish. Thank you for everything.)

I also learned my numbers as you can see above. Not bad for the first lesson. The book is as good as the recommendations on Amazon suggested.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Thou art even as a finely tempered sword"


Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer's knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

Picture from

What does it mean to be a "finely tempered sword"?

A dear friend recently sent me the following meditation on the sword making process. Becoming a finely tempered sword requires a great deal of fire, testing, polishing. Not a comfortable process to be sure:

1. HEATING AND BELLOWING: the process in which steel is exposed to intense heat

2. FORGING: the process of removing impurities and homogenizing the carbon content by repeated beating of the metal

3. ADJUSTING THE FORGED BLADE: less intense, but repeated hammer blows to shape the blade

4. HEAT TEMPERING: to remove stress in the metal

5. QUENCHING: placing the hot, stressed sword into a cold bath of water to see if it will hold together, or break apart after having been exposed to the aforementioned processes

6. POLISHING THE FINISHED BLADE: repeated filing and sanding of the metal to add to its luster

7. SHAPING THE TIP: the process of forming and sharpening the tip

8. FINAL POLISH: giving it that extra shine by removing excess material

9. GRIP MAKING: wrapping the handle with leather strips to assure a firm grip

10. FINAL ASSEMBLY: putting it all together to be tested out in the field

Sword Making - Click here for more blooper videos

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Baha'i shrines chosen as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO

The Baha'i blogosphere is abuzz with the news that
the Shrine of the Bab and
the Shrine of Baha'u'llah have been chosen by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. You can read about it from the Baha'i World News Service:

QUEBEC CITY — A United Nations committee meeting here has determined that two Baha'i shrines in Israel possess "outstanding universal value" and should be considered as part of the cultural heritage of humanity.
The decision today by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee means that the two most sacred sites for Baha'is - the resting places of the founders of their religion - join a list of internationally recognized sites like the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Stonehenge.
The World Heritage List also includes places of global religious significance like the Vatican, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the remains of the recently destroyed Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Continue reading-->>

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

eat pray love

I just finished reading eat pray love.

This book has received quite a bit of attention. Liz Gilbert was even nominated as one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people as a result of writing this book. The book chronicles the year she spent traveling in Italy, India and Indonesia following a divorce and a terrible rebound relationship. She resolves to remain celibate for a whole year and embark on a journey of exploration and discovery. In Italy she relishes in the pleasures of food, in India she immerses herself in spiritual nourishment and purification and in Indonesia she sets out on a quest for balance.

I was ambivalent in the first third of the book and couldn't help but feel that the book was not really worth all the fuss but after finishing it i decided it was at least very worth reading. Liz Gilbert is inspirational really and the book is fun and chatty and humorous as well as reaching surprising depth of insight on a number of occasions. If I were to put together a recommended reading list for Baha'i women in a year of waiting this book would definitely be on it.

Let me post a couple of random quotations from the book:

"I can't seem to get my mind to hold still. I mentioned this once to an Indian monk, and he said, 'Its a pity that you are the only person in the history of the world who ever had this problem.' Then the monk quoted to me from the Bhagavad Gita, the most sacred ancient text of yoga: "Oh Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, strong and unyielding. I consider it as difficult to subdue as the wind." (p. 131)

Reading this book has actually made me determined to put a little more oomph into my own daily meditative practices. This morning I almost made it up at my goal time of 5:30am. I want to really take this early rising in order to pray and meditate seriously as a daily life practice. This morning I put on some meditative music--I thought I would start this attempt at daily meditative practice with something Yogic in honor of Liz Gilbert's Indian inspiration so I put on Aruna Sairam [one of the world's most renowned performers of Carnatic music]--it is quite possible you will not find Aruna Sairam conducive to meditation but it worked so well for me this morning.

I LOVE the drums. Drums have SUCH a power to take one to a place of transcendence. While listening and sitting in a yogic crosslegged posture I endeavored to focus on my inner connection to God, my inner divinity which seemed in keeping with Liz's experience in India. I focused on the verse from Baha'u'llah's "Hidden Words"

"Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting." Arabic Hidden Words, no 13

And then performed my 95 Allah'u'Abha's as my "mantra" with so much more purpose than usual. When I got around to my morning prayers and readings there was a very marked increase in my ability to focus my mind. I wonder what might happen if I could really make a life habit out of daily practice of pre-dawn meditation. It really has been a wish and longing of mine to actually be able to accomplish such a thing and when I think of all the things that people wish for in the world this seems so incredibly accomplishable. Let me see if I can do it again tomorrow...

And the inspiration from Liz that got me thinking that maybe I could really do this:

"The search for God is a reversal of the normal, mundane worldly order. In the search for God, you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult. You abandon your comforting and familiar habits with the hope (the mere hope!) that something greater will be offered you in return for what you have given up. Every religion in the world operates on the same common understandings of what it means to be a good disciple--get up early and pray to your God, hone your virtues, be a good neighbor, respect yourself and others, master your cravings. We all agree that it would be easier to sleep in, and many of us do, but for millenia there have been others who choose instead to get up before the sun and wash their faces and go to their prayers. And then fiercely try to hold on to their devotional convictions throughout the lunacy of another day." p. 175

The above is an excerpt from chapter 57 which I think might be my favorite chapter in the book. She goes on to meditate on faith. A few more excerpts from this chapter:

"The devout of this world perform their rituals without guarantee that anything good will ever come of it...Devotion is diligence without assurance...Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch. Faith is walking face-first and full-speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God adn the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith adn it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be... a prudent insurance policy.
I am not interested in the insurance industry. I'm tired of being a skeptic, I'm irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don't want to hear it anymore. I could care less about evidence and proof and assurance. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way the sunlight amuses itself on water."

Finally, I love this greeting that she received from someone she met in India..

"Congratulations to meet you"