THIS IS HOW the film Mary Poppins Returns ends, with its main characters lifted into the pink-blue London skies by colorful balloons, serenading life itself with a sense of euphoria. All of the conflicts have been resolved, all the relationships are balanced, and the nanny’s work is once again done. In the cinema, my youngest daughter climbed into my lap.
“But is it all true, daddy?” she asked.
“Is what true?”
“Is it true that people can fly like that? With balloons?”
I looked at the screen, at the human shapes dangling in the sky, still singing. “Yes, it is true. Actually, it’s all true, everything you saw in the film. It really is.”
She sat back, content with my answer, and I felt my own sense of euphoria wash across my body. A good, warm feeling it was, a bit of sweat on my temples, heat in my limbs, as if I had just shared my deepest secret. It was a relief to tell her the truth that people really could fly if they were permitted to. Of course, few if any of us can grip a balloon in a park and soar off into the clouds singing like that, but spiritually we are built for transcendence. Humanity is born into the greatest calamity, poverty, conflict, despair. Humanity is born into squalor, failure, countries that war, families that break. Yet from all the ghettos and chaos, its spirit emerges whole and intact. We are engineered to survive, to see the world as beauty. We are wingless but made for flight.
Sometimes though it seems that nothing arouses more negativity than personal fulfillment. In Danish literature, this is immortalized as the janteloven, the Law of Jante, named after a fictional Danish village where the locals look down on individuality and the idea that by transcending one’s realities, the person is somehow betraying the village collective. The second you succeed, the moment your feet leave the ground, there are dozens at your heels, struggling to drag you down back to earth. No one can fly, no one can escape, no one can take off and leave the rest behind in flight.
Estonia, being a northern country, is certainly no exception to this mindset. Estonians have their own Jante village mentality — I call it “Jantevere,” for local flavor. The Estonians’ favorite food is, by their own admission, other Estonians. “I hate all of these people here,” a young man told me at a bar recently. “They just want to keep you down.” “But aren’t you one of them?” I asked him. “Yes, but not in my heart,” he said.
If someone sings well, then they are actually quite terrible, or think they are singing better than they are. If someone writes too well, then his work is derivative or nothing compared to the output of some other. To even call oneself a writer is somehow elitist. The politicians are only in it for themselves. The businessmen are all crooked. There is a trick to everything. On the outside, we are shiny and pretty, but inside we have become as hollow as old-fashioned tin toys.
But, you know, I’m tired of it. I am tired of hearing people say that you can’t do this or that, that your feelings are suspect, your love is misplaced, your ambitions will never be achieved, your plans are futile. I’m tired of hearing that everything would have been better if something else had happened at some random moment in time. If only this had happened, then that would have never happened. I’m tired of hearing that life is hard, or about how miserable everyone else is. I am tired of being told that my soul has no currency in a world where happiness is measured by how long your driveway is.
I’m tired of hearing there’s no hope, there’s no future, or that people can’t fly. It’s junk. Of course we can. Give me the biggest, brightest balloon.
PEOPLE WHO GROW UP by the seaside are a bit different from those who grow up deep in the country. How exactly, I am not yet sure. I have been told by islanders from Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, for instance, that it was hard for them to acclimate to life in Tartu when they went there as teenagers to study. I know this feeling well, because I also used to live in Tartu, a city where the only major body of water is a long river that overflows from time to time. There was something about being nestled among those hills that left a coastal person feeling cooped up, claustrophobic, off balance. You would roam the parks and forests around the city, but still felt you hadn’t really gone anywhere. What you really yearned for was an infinite stretch of unknowable wet silver blue spreading out in every direction, the howl of maritime wind, the sight in winter or in summer of the Christmas-like lights of a distant ship passing along the horizon.
I grew up in such a place, about an hour east from Manhattan, on the Atlantic coast. It used to be a fishing village that bloomed into a summer resort in the early part of the 20th century. Then, at some point after, Italians discovered this sandy paradise and settled there in droves. They held endless parties and forgot all about Mussolini and the cobblestone streets of Europe. As a child, the blue-green shimmer of the bay was visible from my second-floor bedroom window. I developed an intimate relationship with the sea from the earliest age, and came to know the stink of low tide, when the water went out, and the strange artifacts the sea left behind, clumps of fermenting seaweed, the skeletal remains of crabs, and discarded buoys.
In the summers, we would eat bowls of steamed mussels with garlic and butter, or huge red lobsters and even deep-fried soft shell crabs with lemon juice and marinara sauce. My mother or father would buy the lobsters during the day and they would remain in a paper bag — alive — in our refrigerator until the moment they were dropped into the rushing, boiling waters, from which they tried in vain to claw themselves free. I thought nothing of it.
My father had been a clammer for sometime in his youth. He would take his boat out to a good spot, rake up the clams, and sell them on the side of the road for good money. When I was a child, he acquired a larger vessel, and we would explore the coves and bays around our home. I wore a yellow life vest and kicked happily in the bath-warm salty sea waters. I remember the first time I saw a starfish and I remember how I could still feel the flow of the tides in my veins, even safely back on dry land.
Jacques Cousteau would have approved.
Once when we were out on the boat, we got caught up in bad weather and another captain towed us to a private dock, where we spent some time in the home of his mother. She made us tea and gave me a great chest of old toys to play with that had belonged to her son, the captain, when he was a boy in the 1950s. I remember being fascinated by that treasure chest of old toys. Another time, my grandfather came out on the boat and the wind blew away his old-fashioned white flat cap. My father retrieved it with a net, and Grandpa put the cap back on his head.
I tell these stories because I know that the countryside is deep in the hearts of the Estonian people around me. For them the country — which they simply call maa, as if it was an uncharted ocean itself — is a rejuvenating or regenerative place. There is no greater pleasure than picking mushrooms or harvesting potatoes or swimming in a murky lake. Sometimes I get so lost in this country life though that I forget my own origins on the coast. I forget how well I knew the water, I forget its mysteries, I forget its treasures and its allure of adventure. That’s when I head to somewhere like Pärnu or Haapsalu or Kuressaare, and stare out at the water, and regain my sense of balance.
Just the sight of a coastline and I’m home.
An Estonian-language version of this column appears in the winter 2018 issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.
RETURNING HOME from the cafe, I decided to cut through a patch of buildings in the Old Town. This is a little back parking lot alleyway, the kind of place that sounds more interesting than it actually is. A few derelict laundry lines, some broken down shanty garages with graffiti on them. Outside an Asian restaurant, the familiar sight of the Nepalese chef with his exotic hat taking a drag off a cigarette and staring at his phone. Then I paused at the window of the hairdresser’s.
Inside a blonde woman sat reclining in a chair before a mirror while the color set into her hair. She was sliding her fingers over the surface of her device, while the brunette hairdresser stood behind her with her eyes on her phone too. They were in such close proximity, yet so remote.
The distance between modern people continues to fascinate me during this wind down of the year, when all is kottpime, as the Estonians say, “bag dark,” as if most of them knew what it was like to be tied up in a sack. I awake in blackness and I have come to savor it. I light a few candles and set them by the windows. There is something so satisfying about the flames, how they flicker. Then I make a cup of green tea and put on some old blues records, all still by candlelight. I could put on the lights, but I don’t want to. I want to be in the dark. I want to communicate.
It’s just at this time when people are still halfway between the sleeping and waking worlds that I feel I can best summon and interact with life’s true energies. These slip between me and others ghost-like, I imagine, as white and as spirited as gusts of fresh snow. For a long time, I thought that all communication was verbal and, nowadays, digital. Everything was a message, a response, a daily flurry of instant gratification. All meaningful communication could be scrolled through with a slide of the thumb, all feelings, thoughts, ideas, yearnings, could be committed to print. But what I have learned with my early morning channeling is that the most important things are never said at all. They are kept hidden inside of us where they gather silent potency.
This is what the Estonians call the mõtte jõud, the strength of your thoughts, or, literally, your “mind power.” Without ever lifting up a device, or searching for a phrase that will express your innermost thoughts, you can let all them circulate. You can express everything. You can even love someone in silence. On cold bag dark mornings, your thoughts will keep you warm inside.
You can imagine how difficult it was for me as a writer to arrive at this moment of recognition. For the writer is a person who believes that everything can be put into words. Words are all we are. This is how a beautiful woman can become a poem or a pretty sunset can become a sentence. Even as a boy, I had already amassed a collection of material depicting scenes of my daily life. These are fun to read through now, not for what they say, but for the other memories they arouse.
So the words I left behind were in the end mostly useless to me. Everything I had communicated had vanished into the air like winter’s breath. It’s what was lingering behind them that mattered. Those secret wishes, those dreamy early morning thoughts.
The traces of my mõtte jõud.
THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT NEW YORK, as they say, but I am not sure what that something is. On this day, the tip of lower Manhattan that protrudes into the Atlantic is blanketed by gray clouds. The wind comes in off the water and finds its way between the buildings. These unnatural barriers that rise into the sky only embolden the wind. It ruffles your hair and clothes.
The colors of Manhattan are muted. The people dress in black and gray, with the occasional festive hat or scarf. Even the most colorful scarf though loses its vibrancy in the city’s shadows. This is among the most diverse corners of the world, so they say, and there are many tones of skin and angles of faces, African, indigenous, European, Asian. Rather than being some carnival of humanity, these too are rendered in shades of gray.
On a spring day, nearly 400 years ago, a Dutch vessel anchored in these waters, and a man named Peter Minuit, who wore the dashing attire of the Dutch Republic, acquired this sliver of an island for trinkets valued at around a thousand euros. Minuit bought it from a group of Indians he met who resided in what is now called Brooklyn. The island of Manhattan was actually controlled by a different group of Indians. As such, these Indians sold something they didn’t own and enriched themselves in the process.
It was Manhattan’s first business deal.
Ever since then, all threads of the world have passed through the eye of Manhattan’s needle. New York remains the obelisk around which my own life has turned. As far as I have retreated from its allure, to the fringes of Europe, I will never be released from its magnetic tug. I work for New York, I set my clock to New York. When it’s afternoon in Estonia, it’s morning in New York. The story of my family goes through New York. On Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village there is an old house covered in ivy where my great grandmother was born to an Irish family. This same old woman whom I knew as a child. Her name was Genevieve Carroll. It was for her that I received my middle name. Even today on Estonian documents, I sign my full name.
To get into the office where I will work today, I have to show my Estonian identity card, the one with the terrible photo that was taken in a booth in Tartu. It somehow passes the scrutiny of the gray man at the desk, who calls up to the office to check whether or not I am a welcome visitor.
Then I am shown through a security gate to the elevators by another colorless face. You must push your destination floor, and then you are prompted to enter a certain elevator. If you get in the wrong elevator, you will be sent to the wrong floor. To get into the office, you need a code. When I go to use the restroom, I see a shadow on the floor, the shadow of another man. Instinctively, I quicken my pace to get away. In such an environment, everyone is suspect.
This is the era of security, the era of bombings, shootings, political dysfunction. The people work on, the markets of Manhattan rattle on, but something has been lost. The color has turned to gray.
It wasn’t always this way. During the roar of the Nineties, Manhattan was the kaleidoscopic center of frivolity and good will. Famous people who were famous for being famous roller-bladed through the park holding hands. Even a decade ago, before the economic crash, one would only need to pause by the side of the road to hear good hip hop blaring out of a passing radio, or see a smiling girl skateboarding down the street. There was a feeling of camaraderie, of unlimited possibility. Manhattan still felt young then. Now it has turned into my great grandmother, an old gray lady.
Yet there is still hope in old age, I think. The hope of being reborn. The hope of reincarnation.
I HAVE TO BE CAREFUL what I write this time because God is watching. He sees all and is taking everything into account. I am deeply convinced of this, no matter what you might say to me about logic. I was born into a Catholic family, and so things like logic are irrelevant to me. What matters is that when the mathematics are done at the end, I will come out mostly good, not bad.
This is what weighs heavy on my soul.
“What did I do to deserve this?” A common Catholic exclamation. My mother says it. I don’t say it, but I think it. If I trip on the steps, I am merely being repaid. Any negative mishap is not a twist of fate, bad luck, or chance. It is divine retribution for some sinful deed or transgression. This balance of good and evil wreaks havoc on the Catholic soul.
We do lose sleep at night.
I remind myself that Jack Kerouac, who I think of as a true soul brother, and who remains one of the better known American writers to Estonians, was educated by French Canadian nuns, and that he prayed for forgiveness each night after romping with Mexico City prostitutes and sketched a tiny cross in the corners of his diaries. I know that when I divorced, I put a cross over my signature as well. I felt somehow that by putting my little name on that paper I was doing something unholy. In this mindset, there is no happy or unhappy, there is merely right and wrong, black and white. This was no doubt wrong, so the thinking went, even if it might have been necessary or inevitable.
These are things that I feel are almost impossible to explain to Estonians, who tend to shrug off the intricacies of relationships. They are focused on the visceral, the here and now, the physical experience of love. If it’s there, it is, and if it disappears, it isn’t. The forces of good and evil are less at play. Many of them, grounded as they are in the forests, have a very different understanding of wickedness and virtue. In the pagan world, the concept of evil takes on a naughtier, childlike quality. It’s part of the balance of life. It’s just as much a part of us as any other quality. Something to be accepted as part of a whole, rather than denied, or kept at bay, or beaten into submission like nature itself.
For those of us who have grown up in a Latin civilization, though, these concepts are in greater contrast. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to navigate my own way through it. And I have learned that I am of it, whether I like it or not. My grandparents met outside a confession booth in New York in the 1940s. My great uncle was a Catholic priest. When I was an adolescent, we left the Catholic faith though and became Protestants, and then much later, I joined the Orthodox faith, seeing it as somehow more representative of early Christianity, and more aligned with my deep Mediterranean past. What I have understood though during this journey is that you can never really leave the faith. You remain what you are born into, and so inside I remain just a Catholic boy.
How good a Catholic, though, I hesitate to calculate. Whenever the Ten Commandments are set before me, my heart sinks, just to see how many of them I have broken. It was always the material covering human sexuality that was my undoing. There you would be, sitting in church, the most pure and divine of places, and find your gaze wandering over to your neighbor’s wife. The very woman you were not supposed to be coveting!
Then you would realize: it’s just not working. All of the praying and crossing and kneeling, all of the bread and wine, and you still couldn’t escape the unholiness of the self. Later, though, a Catholic girlfriend comforted me when I confessed these sins to her.
“Don’t worry, Justin,” she said. “We all go to church to check people out. I always do it. That’s actually what church is for.”
RECENTLY, IN THE COMPANY of a woman I admire, I sensed her slip away. It was in nothing she said, or did, but I felt it all the same. Sensed it, yet in a physical way, so that my whole body began to quake within, though I did my best to smile through it, nod, and to make small talk and conversation.
If I had been given permission to speak at that moment, if someone had put a microphone up to my mouth and asked me that question, “How do you feel?” no sound would have come out. Maybe only a dull, death-like croak. Inside, lava was bubbling, plates were shifting. I was going to explode.
Yet I suppressed my own voice, my own feelings, because who really has any use for something that cannot be expressed in simple words? The truth was that a simple phrase like, “I love you,” would have been enough to calm me. The “I love you” never came out though. Even that had to be hidden away.
On the train home, I sat stunned, overcome by the sensations in my body. I listened to music, or entertained myself with work, yet I could not describe what was happening to me. Surely, a man at my age should have total control over his faculties, to be able to shut off or turn on certain parts of his psychology as the need arose. My entire life I had been bullied and teased on account of my softness — soft, this is the first word that often comes to people when asked to describe me — and yet as hard as I tried to scrub it from me, my sensitivity had again betrayed me, left me out to the cold.
I was a sensitive man and I had a heart and this just would not do.
At home in my bed, the overwhelming crash of the waves fell upon me. It had been nothing she said, nothing she did, but just that sense of someone being there, being present, and then withdrawing into obscurity.
I decided then, that I would get rid of the cursed feeling for all time. I imagined this soft, pink, membrane of thing, this feeling that some call love. I imagined placing it in a box, and taking it deep into a cave by a beach. I put planks of wood over the box, and covered it with mounds of sand. There it stayed for some time, repressed. Tucked away. Hidden from everyone. Including me.
Life went on like that, and I was happy to have my feelings under control. Everything was in its right place, and such feelings served no purpose. The more time that went on though, I began to feel that something was not right. I felt dry, and stale, and I could no longer write as well or as fluidly as I once had. The fact that I had concealed my heart from all others did not trouble me so much as the reality that I had stopped paying attention to a part of myself. That whatever love or admiration I had felt for this woman was good, and there was no reason to be afraid of it, or to keep it in a crypt.
So on another day, I summoned the courage to descend back into the cave and to find the mound of sand, where I had once buried my heart. I moved the dirt away with my hands until I found the wooden planks, and after removing them, I found the box, and pried that open too, until my heart, my love, once again felt sweet oxygen and began to pump and feel again. At last, I dragged it out of the cave and into the sunlight and let it pulsate. Maybe it was soft, maybe it was vulnerable, but I could not do without it.
An Estonian-language version of this column appears in the autumn 2018 issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.
IT’S TOO COMMON that we spend our whole lives in the company of our closest relatives and friends and still know little about their experiences. I knew my father had been drafted into the US Army on November 15, 1966 — he still remembers the date. I had heard a lot of stories about that time — mostly about the worry young men my father’s age felt about the prospect of being sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Some drank poison to get sent home, others injured themselves so that they would no longer be fit for service. It was my father’s fortune that he was sent to what was then called West Germany: he had enrolled in radio operator school during training, and the previous class of operators had already been sent to Southeast Asia before him.
There was also a helpful hint supplied by a commanding officer while out drinking: If you cannot type more than 15 words per minute of Morse code, you will not be sent to Vietnam. I like to think that my father slyly evaded an almost certain death by slowing his performance, but according to the man himself, he actually couldn’t type that fast.
I knew a lot of stories about my father’s time in Germany that he shared over the years, but I didn’t know until just a few weeks ago that at 4 am on the morning of August 21, 1968, he and his fellow soldiers were awakened in the barracks and dispatched from their base to the Czech border. “We had had these kinds of drills before, but what surprised me was that even the commanding officers were caught off guard,” he told me recently. A full armored convoy moved through the Black Forest toward that invisible dotted-line that at the time separated the West from the East. “We were fully armed with tanks, mounted machine guns, ammunition,” he said.
The convoy disappeared into the forests along the border, until it had nearly lost its bearings. “I had no idea where we were,” he said. There they waited, in the dark woods, for orders to come.
On the other side of the border at that exact time was Arvi, like my father, also 20 years old. A young athlete from Viljandi, Estonia, who had been drafted into the Soviet Army on November 13, 1967 — he also remembers the exact date. “Of course, I remember it,” he told me on the night of August 21, just a few weeks ago, when I went to visit him. “That’s the date from which they calculated my monthly salary.” Arvi was sent to Kaliningrad for basic training. It was there that he, just like my father, enrolled in radio operator school to learn Morse code. The job came with perks — avoiding heavy labor, for instance, because radio operators were too valuable to risk injury.
From Kaliningrad, in 1968, as the relationship between the Czechoslovakian government and its “brother nations” in the Warsaw Pact deepened, Arvi was sent to Poland for nearly a month, before they were dispatched to East Germany and then finally into Czechoslovakia. He rode in the same car as the commander, with two other radio operators. “That was one of the most depressing moments, when we crossed the Czech border,” he recalled. “Someone had painted a skull and crossbones on a boulder at the border in white paint, and underneath it, ‘USSR.’ The commander had traveled the whole time without a helmet. Then he turned and asked, ‘But where is my helmet?'”
They were sent to the border with West Germany where they were stationed guarding a Czechoslovak tank battalion. Each morning after he stood watch, from 6 am to 8 am, he would tune his high-powered radio to pick up the news from Estonia. “The Russians had incredibly strong radios,” he said. One morning he heard that someone had hoisted a satirical protest sign on a street in Tallinn that showed a Russian tank chasing a Czech JAWA motorcycle. And Arvi was there on the Czech side of the border that same morning that my father was in the woods on the German side. Waiting there for orders. Waiting. Then, later that morning, the order came to the American troops to stand down and return to base. The two men never saw combat, and both are today grandfathers to many grandchildren. They never had to fight each other in the woods.
Yet the memory of that time haunts them.
“It was horrible,” my father said. “Almost a hundred people were killed, many hundreds were injured. But as I found out later, President Johnson told the Russians they could do what they wanted with Czechoslovakia. He was more interested in negotiations on reducing nuclear arms.”
One thing that I really understood from talking to my father and Arvi about those events 50 years ago is how young they were. Both of them were 20 years old, both of them had been drafted into the army, both of them were at the will of commanding officers. In almost every conflict it is the young men, some of them still teenagers, who are awakened suddenly at 4 am, who wind up having to give their lives for the decisions of men many times older than them. Brezhnev and Johnson are long gone, but others have taken their places. As conflicts continue to rage, from the sands of Syria to the fields of Ukraine, it’s something I believe we must always keep in mind.