I first came to Stockholm when I was a month shy of 22, took a room in a hostel in Zinkensdam on Södermalm, the city’s fashionable southern district, wandered its streets. I never would have thought that I would return to this place so many times in my life, or that it would continue to fertilize my spirit with its custard- and mustard-colored houses, yellow-headed pretty people, green parks, Indian curries, long-playing vinyl, bell-ringing bicycles, high cliffs, and soothing cool harbor sea air.
PEOPLE WANT ME TO SAY SOMETHING intelligent about divorce. I have nothing intelligent to say. This is not because I am one of these stiff-upper-lip characters who try to shrug off the greatest changes in their lives. Far from it. If I could articulate it, get it down good on the page, I would do it.
“You should just write it all down and be done with it,” a good friend told me over coffee in Viljandi. “You can should call it the last bit of mourning, the ‘viimane leina tükk.'”
I don’t know if I can even mourn anymore, but I do know that I have at last reconciled myself to the changes in my life. This wasn’t always the case. I remember how angry I was when I read Jaan Tätte’s book, Vaikuse Hääl – The Sound of Silence — just a few years ago. I remember where I was exactly, in Haapsalu, how from a high window I watched a lone truck driving along the Suur Viik with the autumn sun setting behind it, the book open in my lap. “Monogamy is not encoded in us, it is but a cultural recommendation,” wrote Tätte. “No one belongs to another,” he said. “We all die alone when our time comes.”
Such was Jaan Tätte’s grim prognosis for the married life.
As Estonia’s principal renaissance man, a sailor-adventurer type with a guitar, wispy hair and those steely eyes, it was hard to be angry with Tätte. But I was furious with the man.
Mostly because I knew he was right.
Divorce is something that illustrates his idea well, I think. We cling to the illusion of stability, to permanence, but when it ends, things do get windy. It’s like an airplane door being opened mid-flight, creating enough pressure to suck the passengers out and into the air where they float, vulnerable.
Sometimes I think of two mountain climbers roped together, suspended over an icy crevasse. One slips and is pulling the other one down, so the top climber pulls a knife out and then decides to cut the rope and let the other one fall.
It’s not the fear of colliding with the ground and dying that scares you, but that recognition that you are in free fall, that exhilarating and death roes sensation of being left loose in the air, that moment when you realize that you really are on your own and there is no one there to catch you. There is such wind all around that your lungs feel heavy and hurt deep.
It’s like ozone poisoning.
For months that sensation of falling would revisit me. I would feel it in the supermarket, or while I was driving. I would read sometimes or listen to music just so that wind would die down. Another friend promised it would get less windy. Maybe there would be a gentle breeze? I hoped he was right.
Sometimes I really felt like someone had died and I felt like mourning. But we both survived, fortunately, and there was no one to blame for what had happened, because nobody can control the wind. Only in recognizing your loneliness can you at last look across the line and empathize with the other person, who probably felt as much in free fall as you did. You must mourn, you must feel sad. Then you must decide to let go.
This is something you must decide to do.
When my Viljandi friend mentioned mourning, a final image came to me: a solitary tree with one last leaf. We have all seen these autumn trees, how those last few leaves cling. Until another stronger wind comes along and frees them and they float slow and elegant to the crisp piles on the ground.
And then it’s done, just like that: the last bit of mourning.
The “viimane leina tükk.”
IT MUST HAVE HAPPENED SOME TIME AGO, around the time that Fred Jüssi, the naturalist, pulled me aside in Tallinn and asked me how old I was. It was at a library. He had come to read from one of his favorite books. He must have known something was going on with me. But what was it?
“Thirty-five,” I told him. I was at the time.
Jüssi has a solid countenance — you could chisel that old face into rock — but when I answered him, he winced a bit, as if I had shown him a flesh wound. “Thirty-five?” he said. “That’s tough.”
When I asked him why, he gave me his rundown on life. “The thirties are hard on everybody, but they are especially hard on men,” said the venerable Jüssi. “At some time during this decade, you will reach your murdeiga — breaking point.” He clasped me on the shoulder with a heavy hand.
“Breaking point?” It sounded ominous. “What does that mean?”
“Everything that once mattered to you will soon become meaningless,” said Jüssi. “And suddenly things that meant nothing to you will become the most important to you and mean a great deal.”
With that Fred released his stone grip and headed along on his way. Jüssi is in his eighties now. He knows.
I think of Jüssi’s words now that I am on the other side of this imaginary breaking point. At least, I better be on the other side of it. It’s hard to even imagine or conceptualize such a break. A fissure in the ice? A fracture in the bone? A darkening horizon? Whatever it is, it makes sense. You begin life as an idealist or optimist, and so you remain, deep into your twenties, when decisions are made and paths selected.
By your mid-thirties though, there is a breaking down, a diminishing, an unraveling of the dreams. Reality trickles in with those first few gray hairs, those divorces and drama. You live through it, true, maybe even feel tougher for weathering the storm. What is harder though is to see others, male and female, a little younger or older, entering their own eras of upheaval, their own hurricanes of discontent, and then being asked to take on the role of Jüssi, to grip them by the shoulders, give them the wise old man talk, tell them it will be all okay when nothing is for sure.
Each of my friends’ stories is different, but they do a share a common theme — a loss of interest, a diminishing appetite for life after some kind of setback. It is that awesome moment of awakening, arriving on time, as Jüssi said, in your mid-thirties when you learn what people are really capable of, that leaves only emotional devastation and confusion in its tsunami wake. With all great hopes dashed, life’s beautiful chaos floods in, sinking once reliable philosophies and belief systems. There is no faith anymore, there is only heavy water. It rushes in and commands you to swim in it.
This is the real breaking point, the breaking of the waves on the shore, that moment of clarity when you understand you absolutely must swim. You must. The only alternative is drowning, and we have seen too many people do just that. So you leave behind your old self, you suffer a tiny death, you must use muscles you never even knew existed only to propel yourself forward. There is a kind of majesty to these kinds of life changes and Jüssi’s words ring out true. Everything that once was was, and everything that will be will be. What else is there to do but swim on, happily.
THERE CAME A POINT during this year’s European Sauna Marathon, which was held in and around Otepää and had about 900 participants, that I had to turn to my teammate Allan and ask him an uncomfortable question.
We were standing outside the maasaun overlooking a frozen pond that, fortunately, did not have a welcoming ice hole awaiting one of our team members. I was the first team member to go into the ice hole at the Kekkonen Sauna at the start of the day in Kääriku. We weren’t permitted entry into the sauna until one of us went in. Down I went, down the ladder, thrusting myself into the chill water until it covered my shoulders. I came out blinking and cursing, feeling like I had just been baptized. But baptized by what I wondered? Tradition? Stupidity?
At the maasaun, we stood about with the other teams. Four grown men from Germany dressed in matching lederhosen and sauna hats. We saw their truck — which had a German flag painted on the side — at most of the saunas. There was a Mexican team, too, with sombreros, and a Danish team with Viking helmets and the red and white Danish flag, supposedly gifted to their countrymen during a siege of Tallinn in the 13th century. Yet it was the Estonian teams that were by far, the most varied and bizarre.
Some came in Spider-Man pajamas, others wore what looked to be their grandmothers’ bath robes. One team wore matching silver helmets, another wore fluorescent wigs and little else. There was a man in a full-body pig costume. I think I saw a man dressed up like a sheep at the indiaanlastesaun — a sauna located in a giant tee pee in the hills outside Otepää — but I am not sure. It was really smoky in there. There were the female teams dressed in bikinis with glittery tassels, like exotic dancers from space. They gathered around a karaoke machine at one point to sing along to the Estonian classic, “Viska Leili.”
Viska leili! Küll on mõnus, soe, ja hea! Viska leili! Viska leili!
This song was originally called “In the Navy,” and recorded by The Village People, a (mostly) gay disco group in 1978. Yet somehow the Estonians took a song about gay sailors and turned it into an anthem for tossing water onto the hot stones of the sauna. That’s not all they tossed on the rocks. At one sauna, marathon participants apparently ran out of water. Someone had peed on the rocks instead. We called this one the pissisaun.
Outside, dudes named Juss and and Janar were skating around on a frozen tiik in nothing but their swim suits and drinking beer. “Hey, Juss, would you throw me another can?”
That’s why I had to ask my uncomfortable question at the maasaun.
“Allan,” I said. “Did you ever think that the Estonians are a little, you know …” I put a finger to my temple and twisted it back and forth.
“What?” he asked. Allan’s Estonian himself, tall, big, and blonde with decades of sauna experience, especially at his country house’s sauna, which he insists is the very best.
“You know, when a man marries his sister and they have a kid. What do you call it?”
“What? Hmm. I don’t think we have a word for that in Estonian,” Allan replied.
“Oh well,” I pushed my freezing hands deeper into my wet pockets and thought of another way to present my question. “Have you ever thought that you Estonians are a bit crazy?”
Allan just laughed. “Not so much up in North Estonia,” he said. “But down here in South Estonia,” he cast an eye at some of the other, strangely dressed sauna goers and sighed. “The people down here are a little cuckoo, yeah.”
I HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR 2017. For one, it’s not 2016. That alone is an incredible improvement. The past year took enough beloved artists to crew a ghost ship. One can imagine them all — David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, and Leonard Cohen — sailing that wonderful ship into the heavens while the rest of us are stuck here with Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin.
But we should not despair. We still have ourselves.
The self, yes, the most holy and high entity there is in the modern age. Isn’t that what all health and fitness magazines are about really? The self. You must exercise it. Maintain it. Finesse it. Love it too. Even practice self love — in private. You cannot do without it. At all times you must be testing it, probing it, exploring it. It’s like one of those Russian Matryoska dolls. You open one “self” only to find another, and within that self is another, and then there’s another. There’s even a tiny little self inside of that one too. It’s fascinating. The process of self discovery never ends, rather this game is supposed to keep you entertained for the majority of your time here on the planet.
Until you join the ghost ship with Prince and Bowie. Then a new journey of self revelation begins.
The self is only the vehicle though, the ship. The destination is perfection, or rather a perfect self. The goal is not really about improving the well-being of your community or your family, or if it is, it is through improving yourself. After all, how can you help others if you don’t take care of yourself? Surely, if enough people become vegetarians and do yoga, all will be right with the world. Stronger muscles, a healthier digestive track, healthy skin that glows, great sex — but not too much, an uncluttered mind as mindful as minds can be. Not the Dalai Lama, but close enough. We must hit the gym, lift weights, change our diets, not to mention daily meditation and asanas. And if you feel lost, you can go to India. Many others seem to be able to locate themselves there.
I know I sound like a cantankerous old bastard but hear me out.
As 2017 dawns, I must determine what to do with myself. Should I putter on as I did through the windstorm year that was 2016? Should I binge on coffee, on Internet, on apathy? Should I eat more chocolate, shivering in the cold waters of modern anxiety and restlessness? Or should I flip through one of those fitness magazines and download a bunch of self improvement applications, sign up for tantra courses, and commit myself like the others to the glorious cause of the self?
Mediocrity or perfection, that is the question. And I am starting to think perfection is a worthy goal.
I admit this with some hesitance. Why? Because being mediocre is so comfortable, isn’t it? When I look at the images of men and women who labor away in gyms, I cringe. It’s not jealousy, but a repulsion to anything to do with weight rooms and rowing machines. I hate fitness clubs. For one, you have to pay to go in. You pay to do work you don’t really feel like doing. It’s like college. Also, they stink of sweaty dudes — not my favorite aroma. I think I’d rather shovel horse manure. And yet, other than cross-country skiing, this is really the best place to improve your physique. Other people swear by it and say that it’s the greatest feeling in the world, working out regularly. They all want to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger but the truth is that I’ve never wanted to be like Schwarzenegger. Yet I may no longer have that choice. I’m getting older. I need more energy.
Like Arnold, I must pump iron.
And despite my apprehension about toying with Eastern Philosophies, the reality is that my mood and mindset do improve if I take time out each day to space out for a while. In fact, it’s been happening spontaneously more often, probably because my children are sucking my life essence. I’ll just sit on the couch and find myself staring off into oblivion. Apparently, this is what the Tibetan Buddhist monks do all of the time, other than eating. Maybe those guys are really on to something.
Or maybe these are the earliest stages of dementia?
Whatever they are. I’m in. It’s time to join up with the rest of you here in Estonia. A perfect amount of exercise in a gym next to big smelly dudes named Priit and Märt, a perfect diet of strange dishes cooked up at some vegan restaurant, and some extra expensive tantra courses, of course.
As much as I would like to deride it and resist it, the writing is on the wall for me in this fresh year.
In 2017, I must improve myself.
STOCKHOLM. Whenever I used to come here years ago, I was struck by ‘country envy.’ This was the sense, having left the then-derelict Port of Tallinn behind me, with its roving bands of Finnish vodka brigands, that Sweden was somehow superior, cleaner, better kept, more efficient. The moment I stepped onto the T-Bana and rocketed into T-Centralen with its many cute shops, I understood that Sweden was some kind of wonderful paradise, a promised land, where the cinnamon rolls were always softer, the coffee stronger, the Scandinavian people genteel.
Recently though, I have come to learn more about its seedier side thanks to my Swedish friend Jonas, who regales me of life having grown up in the tenements near the harbor, which is now pocked with litter and graffiti, making it look like some sad distant sister to Tallinn’s Linnahall, and reducing my faith in Swedish superiority. This is a neighborhood where the long-faced residents often live alone, watching TV and loading up on polarkaka and tabloids at the local supermarkets.
“But don’t they get lonely?” I asked Jonas, during a recent jaunt to the Swedish capital.
“Oh, they have ways of finding company. It is quite common in Sweden to have a knullkompis, you know,” he answered, as if he was one of those Gamla Stan guides talking about local culture.
“This is like a neighbor that you have sex with regularly, but aren’t together with.”
So it was true. Sweden had devolved into a big Melrose Place, just like Estonia. It was a land of isolated, lonely people seeking thrills. It was no longer the land of morally absolute Lutheran kings. It had become the land of knullkompis. In Estonian, I think the term might be kepivend or kepiõde. Or maybe it’s sõbrad boonusega. Whatever the locals call it, it exists.
I was recently told by a Tartu lady who is more or less my age and has been single forever that the city oozes with carefree sexual encounters. “Really?” I said. “It seems like it’s full of old folks named Aino and Endel.” “Watch out for Endel,” she answered me dreamily, as she was caught in a memory of some regrettable tryst.
I started to look at the people of Tartu differently after that.
I guess that this is now common all over the world. In Stockholm, or Tartu, New York or London, people have come to see life as as a one-time free pass to a vast amusement park. The purpose of life is not to live well, or properly, but rather to get as many thrills as you can get. You may even be married and have children, but that roller coaster on the other side of the park is too fetching. The family collapses and you chase after it in the name of happiness. And meaningless sex.
It sort of disgusts me, yet I must reconcile with it for I also dwell in the world of knullkompis now. Since I am officially single, people keep asking me if I am on Tinder, and someone stopped me in the street because her girlfriend wants to know where I hang out. “At the supermarket,” I told her, naturally. “Sometimes I am also at the kindergarten picking up my child.”
I have sworn off the idea of Internet dating entirely, even if it means remaining solo until the end of my days. I tell myself I would rather be dead before I would let someone select me for a date based on my online profile. Yet I’ve seen Jonas do just this. He likes dogs, so he always picks the Swedish girls who have dogs in their profile pictures. “That way I know we have something in common,” he says.
I admit I have found this mentality sneaking up on me. As I spent more time on my own, I find myself wondering why people would even want to be in a relationship at all. I marvel at politicians or celebrities who marry multiple times, as if this latest one will actually be built to last. Why waste your time?
Better to be alone, I think. Better to curl up in your place with a warm blanket and a good film. Better to keep a journal to absorb your self absorbed thoughts. Better to have some hot cinnamon rolls, some good Swedish coffee. Better to live each day for life’s simple thrills.
And if the neighbor should come knocking, well …
IT’S HARD TO RECALL when the elves first came into our lives, but it must have been during our oldest daughter’s second Christmas. The jolly child — who was adorable, with fat apple-red cheeks — would awake in the weeks leading up to Christmas to find some sweet waiting for her in a slipper beside the window. “Oh, päkapikud tulid,” she would mutter to herself on those long-ago mornings, munching on a chocolate, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
For her, as an Estonian, it was natural.
To me it was strange. Having grown up with different, American traditions, I understood that two tasks were assigned to elves. The first was to observe children in the weeks leading up to Christmas to see if they were deserving of gifts. The second was to spend the rest of their waking hours toiling away in some kind of massive factory at the top of the world to produce those goods. So, espionage and slave labor. Such was the lot of the elves as understood by the Americans.
The Estonian elves were different. Independent, crafty. They were the undisputed Lords of Christmas, to whom everyone else, even Santa Claus, was secondary. The entire Estonian Christmas holiday revolved around their stealthy movements. From the moment the first sweets arrived at the beginning of the advent until the last bites of blood sausage were digested on Christmas, the elves were essentially running the Republic of Estonia. Children would gather and sing songs to revere these tiny gods. “Meil on päkapikud käinud, aga neid me pole näinud …” “Kuidas kõnnib, kuidas kõnnib, väike päkapikk.” “Seal elab päkapikk. Seal elab väike päkapikk. Seal elab päkapikk.”
They were also active in commerce. I will never forget the day I strode into a home goods store in Estonia, only to be greeted by an enormous icon of a wise-looking, red-hatted elf that read, “Päkapikk soovitab” — “The Elf Advises.” The Estonian elves, like the Estonian themselves, were quite resourceful. Not only did they deliver chocolate, but they could advise on sponges, rat poison, moth balls, and the like.
Our nine-year-old daughter has kept me up to date on the activities of the elves this year and I continue to learn more about their habits. For one, I am told that the elves are no longer peddling only in sweets. Some children come to school boasting that the elves have brought toys, even hover-boards. Others get whole boxes of candy, rather than just the traditional one or two pieces. She also knows exactly when the elves arrive. “Well, considering they start at midnight, and have to take care of the Finnish kids before they get to the Estonian kids, I would estimate that they come anywhere between 2:30 AM and 4 AM,” she informed her curious younger sister. When I asked her how she knew that, she scoffed at me. “Huh. Everybody in school knows that.” Selge.
It’s interesting how these children understand intuitively that the Finnish elves and the Estonian elves are connected. I know that it was several years ago when an Icelandic acquaintance mentioned to me in passing that the elves had recently visited her children in Reykjavik, leaving behind the same offerings of chocolates and modest gifts in slippers placed by the windows. As I began to read more about the role that elves have played in ancient nordic pagan beliefs, I understood that elves have been prowling around this part of the world for a long time. It made their appearance in our home, year after year, seem rather precious and sacred.