The stars we see

The plane trees on both sides of the street bow towards each other high above me, as if to shelter us beneath. They are still green, although October is coming to its end. A bit further, a whitebeam’s autumn leaves flame in the morning sun. A beggar sits on a blanket underneath a streetlight, her face is expressionless as the face of a Romanian woman can be. I don’t carry cash with me and I mumble good morning, but the words are lost in the drum rolls of an awakening city. She sits there day in day out, from early morning to evening, when I leave for home.

What enables us to look the other way, I wonder during a lecture on malaria. Four hundred and fifty thousand deaths a year, mainly children, and completely unnecessarily. The disease is preventable and very well treatable. Four hundred and fifty thousand, that’s more than a thousand children every day.

How did we learn to look the other way, I wonder again in the evening, when I listen to Verónica’s voice by a campfire. Her words are like shards, sharpened by her Mexican accent. While the flames are licking the branches, she talks about a man somewhere in Africa who didn’t let his sons go when the army came to recruit them. He was shot dead in front of his boys, and they were taken away. Murdering and robbing became the only way for them to survive. At the age of eighteen one of them was able to leave the army due to a gunshot wound. Supported by a charity he was able to go to school and years later he graduated as a medical doctor. Presently he works with Médicins sans Frontières, as a colleague of Verónica’s.

She speaks of a mission in South Sudan, where she’d seen more misery and injustice than she could believe. While she talks, her fingers touch my arm, as if seeking comfort. She’s not the same person she used to be. According to her friends, her views on the world and her place in it have changed radically. After the mission in South Sudan, she felt depressed for several months. And still she cannot freely enjoy life; it upsets her to see people dump bread into the bin, the careless life in London is unreal to her. Verónica may be traumatised, but she’s also determined to continue her work.

What remains of our humanity after we’ve seen children die of hunger or malaria, problems that should have been solved by now? Is it less painful for an African mother than it is for a European mother? Is their problem also ours?

It gets cold. The branches in the fire have turned to little glowing bricks, the flames have faded. Is it justified to look the other way, I wonder, is it justified to pretend that misery doesn’t exist? How can I walk by a homeless woman in the street? It’s so tempting to believe in progression that stands alone, to think that we have no influence on misery and injustice, and that it will all just simply sort itself out. How else can we spend a few pounds in the pub, aware that a child’s life somewhere in Africa may cost the same. But when you’re out there, there’s no way to deny it.

For most of the people the black reality doesn’t even exist, I tell Verónica. People look away, or they think that it happens in a different world, a parallel universe. Only a small minority feels connected to it, still fewer are willing to give up something in order to reduce the misery of others. How can we ever make a difference?

Look, says Verónica, and she points up into the October night, what is it you see?

I follow her finger and there is nothing but darkness.

But then I become aware of a star, glittering somewhere to the north. And there’s another one!

Almost all of it is dark matter, she whispers. All the stars together don’t even make up a single percent of it. But still… the stars are all we see.

Connemara

When I was 18, I worked in a coffee shop in Cork and later in a little restaurant in Salthill, Galway. On the days that I was free from work, I cycled around the country. I loved to see and hear the ocean rocking and rolling against the cliffs. Galway, Mayo, Donegal. It was a magical experience to be there. Stories started coming up, stories of all kinds. Once I saw a mermaid. Months later, when I came home to my family in the Netherlands, I told my little sister about that mermaid. She must have been 5, back then (not the mermaid, but my sister). I showed her pictures of a rock by the shore, with on the background the sun setting in the ocean. There was no mermaid on the picture, but when I closed my eyes, I could see her, and I could hear the songs by which she tried to lure me into her world.

Clifden Castle

While most memories fade over time, my mermaid has become vivid and real. Still, I can she the shape of her body, half human and half fish, and her whispered words. I am thirty-six now, twice the age of the young man exploring the borders of his world, and I’m finally back in the country of the stories. Connemara is the site of my next novel. The country and landscapes play a certain role in the book, like in my previous works: nature mirrors the inner self. The main character is very different from me, so I have to get to know him by exploring his landscapes.

Last week, Ireland was in a state of emergency due to Storm Emma, the first blizzard in 35 years. However, to me it felt she never really came up. Surely, we had some snow and strong winds, but the blizzard arrived only in the late evening in Clifden, the town where I stayed, and the little bit of snow on the roads melted quickly the next day. Nothing compared to what I am used to in Lapland.

Emma, that’s how they called the storm that never came up. Emma, like my second sister. We rarely meet, due to a thousand miles and more. Emma, like one of my fellow students, a decade ago. She played cello and once she wore a dress that uncovered her shoulders and the ivory skin of her back. She was wonderful, but I never fell in love with her. There are many more of them, Emmas, and they must have something in common with the storm that never came up. 

Clifden Bay

Ruska

In Finland, the colourful phase of autumn is called ruska. In one month time, all nearly all leaves change colour. In Rovaniemi, a town located on the polar circle in Finnish Lapland, the onset is in early September, when birches  rapidly turn yellow. Simultaneously, poplars burst out in burning red flames, and soon also the rowans, already carrying bunches of blood red berries, change into orange and red.

Early ruska, (Vaattunkiköngäs, September 2017)

Those who have walked through the forests and watchedg out over the hills during the vividly coloured phase of full blown ruska, will forever be enchanted by Lapland.

Forest flames (Rovaniemi, September 2017)

Tapio is the mythic keeper of the forest.

Tapio’s Gift

Rosebay willowherb can be found throughout the boreal forests. Because of her abundance, her beauty can easily be overlooked. But then, during ruska, the street girl shows her beauty!

As suddenly as they have come, the colors fade away at the end of the month. Most birches are naked and deprived, other still carry some golden coins. But the sadness of this phase of the autumn has its own beauty. In the next picture, I tried to catch the mood of October.

October Mood

Loneliness

After an early cup of coffee in the Neste Oil filling station, where we were nicely welcomed by nearly a dozen villagers, Eeva left me alone in a rented 32 square meter apartment in the empty middle of Posio and she took off for the twelve hours drive back to South Finland (my publisher once told me that writers often don’t have a driving licence, so, Eeva, here’s my excuse).

I went for a walk as the clouds played with the sun, letting its light through but only rarely showing a glimpse of its weakened body. Although there have been many days with full sun and nights with stars and northern lights, I will always remember Posio as a place where clouds sweep low over the lakes and marshes, as in an attempt to erase everything, or to cover life in eternity. More than once I got the impression that the more north clouds drift, the heavier they become, just like thoughts and dreams and all that.

Last week’s snow had disappeared during the night. The path towards Kirintövaara was now covered by putrefying grasses, burning red like Lemminkäinen’s beard, and the half-light intensified all the colours of the marshes. I breathed an indistinct smell of wetness, scents of an eternal nowhere.

As I strolled through the wilderness, I did not meet any people, I saw no more animals than a couple of ravens that flew over the emptiness and cried for time to pass by. I didn’t really search for it, but I found an intense loneliness today. I think that I had expected it, but not yet on my first day of the months that I will spend here on my own. I did not fear this loneliness, because it was, in a way, the reason to be here. For a writer, loneliness can be the wellspring of creativity.

Still snowless skiing route on Kotivaara

I climbed the old ski-jump of Kotivaara that looks out to the north. The wooden tower has not been used for many years. Its stairs are nearly rotten, and as I reached its platform, I felt the wooden construction slowly moving by the force of the wind. There I stood, watching out over the desolate land behind God’s back, where Ultima Thule starts.

Soon, the loneliness started to work on me. Thoughts appeared silently but they disappeared before I could grab them. All I had to do was to listen to the wind and focus on the dancing moves of the ski-jump. New ideas arose, some of them merely touched me, but others shook my shoulders and took my breath. Were I to have a pen that could instantly write down the stream of thoughts, a book or two would have been produced today.

I pondered on how many great ideas must have risen in billions of minds, and how many of those have stayed there, in the mind, dead as thoughts are dead as long as they remain just thoughts. For a moment I thought that I understood why these thoughts and ideas remained dead – out of fear – but a minute later I rejected the hypothesis. A new breeze blew and pulled the wooden ski-jump tower and then I thought of other things. To whom do people relate themselves?, I thought. City men find friends among the similar; writers’ friends are writers, doctors spend their time with doctors, runners with other runners and the truck driver parks his truck between other trucks. In a village, the doctor’s neighbour can be an old and cheerless widow and on the other side of the street lives a farmer. In a village, the social sphere of influence includes everyone; villagers relate themselves to all other villagers.

Many more thoughts came up, but I will not reveal them – not yet. Just like a brook, a thought needs time and place to magnify, before it is great enough to debouch into the sea of all these other thoughts, ideas and confessions.

I went down the rotten steps of the ski-jump, down the snowless skiing route where wood chips muted my footstep and I turned to the road that took me home. In the 32 square meters apartment I played Einaudi and I burned a candle and in the midst of it, the loneliness suddenly turned into a grey sadness. There I sat, with melancholic wordless music that I had brought up north. Even the poetry that I had brought with me (Ted Hughes’s The Hawk in the Rain, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and a couple of Dutch poets) did not include anything that could cheer me, as I had chosen them thematically: the few things that I had brought with me up North were all to promote loneliness.

lompolo


Brons Bronze Pronssi

Seven years after winning a bronze medal in the Dutch national marathon championships, I did it again. This time not in The Netherlands, but in Finland. It was a special marathon, with only competitive participants, 23 in total. Jaakko Nieminen won the title (2:26), and Mikko Tolonen won surprisingly silver (2:28) – he did not only surprise us, he also surprised himself. My own finishing time was 2:29’35, clocking just below 1:13 halfway. Although I had to take a short break after 30k with stomach pain due to a tactical mistake (speeding up uphill), I consider this race one of my best marathons ever, as the route was very tough, with almost continuously hills and several kilometers on non-tarmac roads. According to the organization, we ascended and descended nearly 300 meters during the race. Along the route, we were provided with spectacular ruska views, personal drinks every 3k (!) and helpful volunteers, making me love this wonderful country even more than I already did.

Profile of marathon route in Pyhtää
Profile of marathon route in Pyhtää

I have been able to pick up the training very soon after the race and am now preparing for the Amsterdam marathon, which will be on October 18th. There and then I will try to break my personal best, which is 2:23.

Mikko Tolonen (silver), Jaakko Nieminen (gold) and me (bronze).
Mikko Tolonen (silver), Jaakko Nieminen (gold) and me (bronze).

Check out Jaakko Nieminen’s blog for his (winning) perspective of the race (in Finnish).

Cogito – thoughts on what we are

Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. The proposition by Descartes is especially of importance when running at -10 degrees temperature, without jacket, without hat, without gloves, just your body and your mind and the power of the sun and almost a meter of snow covering the marshes. The proposition is usually explained as a proof of existence by thinking: you can doubt nearly anything, the only thing you can’t doubt is that you exist.

However, while running, and the sun and the coldness ‘are’ (although nothing demonstrates its existence as relative as does the coldness), I discovered that this proposition is also a statement about what you could call ‘the soul’ or ‘the person I’, as you could also interpret Cogito ergo sum as ‘I am my thinking’, so as the thinking stops, I am not anymore.

For example, one could also say: the wind blows, so the wind is. Also this is true, because the blowing is what defines the wind. Surely the wind does not think, but that does not mean that the wind cannot be. Only, the wind isn´t me. If Descartes would have written: I think, therefore I am; the wind blows, therefore it is; the light shines, etc. – if he would have constructed his proposition thus in a wider context, it would be clear that he defines the ‘self’, or, if you like, the ‘soul’, as the ‘thinking’. My body is merely the material requisite to be meAs the body dies, the brains do not function, the ability to think is forever lost and thus the soul ceases to be.

The being, though, does not necessarily vanish when the body dies. For instance, the idea, or the concept of the person (his soul) can persist in the third person. Mozart, for instance, still exists in the third person, as do many famous people from the past, who left there footprints. Even people who have not existed in the reality can actually exist in the third person, as their (fictive) existence may have impact on our thinking, just as real persons of the past may do. Thus, although I am an atheïst, I must admit that God exists, at least in the third person, as the idea of Him exists and has major influence on peoples thinking and doing, but it does not imply that he also exists in the first person.

The concept can also be implied to the animal: the further emotions and higher thinking are developed in an animal, the more we regard it as an animal with (bit of) a soul. Dogs (especially those with long hair and sad eyes) are of course the philosophers among animals, they surely have to some extend a sort of soul, cats are bipolar beings, full of affection, they may have a soul too, and also elephants, horses, cows and reindeer, but not the snake or the fish (not even the goldfish, they are simply too simple), nor birds – not even the parrot, although it can learn to say ‘cogito ergo sum‘ if one bothers to teach him those words.

Cogito ergo sum not only tells me ‘what’ I am, but also ‘when’ I am: I am when I think. When we sleep, when we are severely drunk or in other conditions in which the consciousness is impaired, we are in a lower degree.

These are the things that kept my body warm while running, today. As often before, I can feel that during the running my consciousness expands, and thus, while running, I am in a more vigorous way, my existence intensifies.


(Descartes lived most of his life in Amsterdam, not in Posio).

To pass by and to forget

Today I passed by another runner – I thought. It was at the bridge near the waterfall in the turn of the river, there where the sound of the falling water is louder than the call for freedom. There, below at the waterside, you will normally find fishermen waiting for luck, but now it was a dreary evening as it had been raining all day long and the fields turned dark early today, so there was nobody but me and that other runner.

The other runner wore a blue jacket. He came from the left while I came from the hill behind me. The man ran with slow stride but took big steps and this combination brings just a perfectly medium speed. I thought I would pass by him since I felt just like speeding up as I had some nice loop behind and I longed for home like you sometimes do. So I did. I mean, so I passed by the runner. I passed by the man in blue like you pass by people many times in life and then you just simply forget about them.

As soon as I had passed by the man in blue, I was ready to forget him and think about the race two days ahead. But just as the sound of is footsteps faded, I heard them getting louder again. Although the birds they were singing no matter the rain and there was some wind and there was the sound of the falling water and so on, I could hear nothing but the steps of this man in blue. They were loud now and I could almost feel his breath and then I realised this was a hard man to pass by. He was one of these people who don’t like to be passed by and be forgotten and then they decide to hang on.

I kept the pace because I knew he was pushing but he didn’t give up so downhill towards the footbridge I speeded up and uphill I wouldn’t drop the pace anymore so then I was sure this man in blue he would drop but he didn’t, as his footsteps and his breath were still in my back. We were approaching my house, so I said to myself: I decided to pass by so I will speed up so he will drop dead down the path and when it’s fully dark I will come back and throw his dead body in the river like they do in the movies.

I speeded up, but guess, you guess right, he still hung on, so I turned to full speed as if chased by a hungry bear and it was only then that he finally dropped off. At the turn of the road, at the yellow house for the alcoholics, I waited to great him so I raised my thumb as he passed by and I heard something like ‘hyvä vauhti’, which means good speed, but he didn’t stop and he ran down to the railway bridge and then disappeared.

But I couldn’t forget him.