This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Goodbye 2020

On the last day of December, over a home-cooked borscht soup, we said goodbye to the unforgettable 2020. In retrospect, it was not too far from the sci-fi books written throughout the twentieth century, projecting some futuristic craziness like a viral pandemic. In December 2019 I knew I would need to find a new job some time during 2020, but I thought I would first spend January studying more Spanish in San Sebastián; February in the US Midwest, visiting dear friends; April in Kyoto finally experiencing Japan and the cherry blossom season; and the summer in the cottage in Finland followed by a panchakarma somewhere warm like Sri Lanka. It was going to be the year I turned forty, and I wanted it to be free and fabulous. I wanted to redirect my career, but not until after the summer.

Well, nothing is as constant in life as change. Turns out the themes of my 2020 were COVID-19, Copenhagen, and Alzheimer’s disease. The first requires no introduction; the second I covered here; and the third is nothing new (my mother was diagnosed in 2017), but combined with the pandemic our family has been balancing on a tightrope all year long. For my part, the last monthly weekend visit turned out to be just days before lockdown in March, after which I had to lose days in post-travel quarantine and lots of money in expensive private tests in Finland, in order to spend time with my family.

Instead of feeling free and fabulous at forty, I felt homeless, nearly jobless, and family-less in a foreign city I just moved to. The few local friends I had I could only see outdoors, for brief whiles. And so I turned into a productivity machine: I studied languages online, I completed a big creative project, I did a course in global public health, and I revised my career plans together with a kick-ass career coach.

I did not end up in Sri Lanka having cleansing tonics and massages twice a day. Instead, I signed a new job contract, decided to stay in Copenhagen, moved to another apartment, and spent six weeks in Finland over the summer. In the fall, I chose to put my head down and become productive in my new job by christmas. 2020 began to feel like a split reality: on the one hand, wasting away time stuck at home; and on the other hand, stock-full with five years’ worth of life experience in just twelve months.

Lots of looseness in life means lots of opportunity to rebuild. The coming year will continue to be a balancing act for my family, but we have grown closer, more communicative, and more functional. And so, as I enjoyed the last meal of 2020 and lifted a glass to toast the coming year with my family, I felt grateful for the shake-up of 2020 – and for the premonition that 2021 was going to bring a few strong aftershocks.

(Loviisa, Finland; December 2020)


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Lost

“It says we can see this island at sixty degrees starboard, so have to be here, just off that rock.”
“No way, sixty degrees starboard means we’re already way past that island, so we must be right here… wait, that looks like dry land?!”

And on and on, for another two hours it went, before we solved our position and direction, using some very unorthodox methods of projecting off the map. Reading a map is relatively easy when you know where you are. But how about when you are out at sea, need to broadcast your position to ask for help, and you think you recognize a landmark off the map but have no idea exactly where you are? For very obvious reasons, this type of problem was the main one, repeated throughout my sister’s navigation course book.

In the end, navigation with a map is all very simple logic and trigonometry, but boy did it take me hours and a quite some googling to swipe away the dust and cobwebs over the section in my brain that stored the crumbled remains of a navigation course I attended some fifteen years ago. My sister pushed on with admirable resilience, after realizing that the classes she invested in all fall would not guarantee a passed exam. Two days later and with the help of Youtube tutorials (in Danish!) we were finally able to find ourselves, on demand.

(My sister’s exam was canceled due to COVID, of course. But hopefully this time around the skill is not lost).

(Loviisa, Finland; December 2020)


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A mindfulness exercise

Pomegranates sustain my life force throughout the winter. I crave that juicy goodness, impossibly red even when it stains my fingertips, and the satisfyingly crunchy mouth feel. The juice is packed with vitamins, and the seeds with healthy oils. And no, I do not buy juice nor even the cleaned, pre-packed seeds – I take an entire pomegranate and clean it out by hand.

Neither do I violently whack it like Jamie Oliver seems to prefer (not only is it brutal, it is messy and still leaves lodged-in seeds to be dug out afterwards). Instead I cut off the top and bottom, slice the fruit in two along the vertical ridges (where it naturally splits with light prying), and then split both halves again. The seeds come out by turning the clusters inside out. Soaking the quarters in water before starting helps if the fruit seems dry.

Coaxing pomegranate seeds out of their shell is gentle, methodical work. The more one rushes or exerts pressure, the worse the outcome (and the mess!). Perfect mindfulness practice for winter days – and the reward is a bowlful of summer energy.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; December 2020)


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Interlude: about high-independence relationships

Lovely ones, even if I spent much time writing about creativity, introspection, and a quiet but robust sense of inspiration, just like most (all?) of you my 2020 was difficult, too. It seems that we all have gone through seismic shifts in our lives, even if many do not seem to relate to the coronavirus pandemic at all (perhaps they still do?). And so, while warming myself with a golden latte and new woolen socks, I want to share my journey.

I have spent much time this year thinking about high-independence relationships. I used to live with someone who needed much independence in order to feel free in a relationship. And if he was not feeling free, anxiety and unhappiness would slowly eat him from the inside.

The preference for high independence seems to be a millennial generation problem. Instead of getting hitched young and building up our selves in teamwork with a partner (a “cornerstone relationship” according to couples therapist Esther Perel), we first form ourselves as individuals and then, maybe in our thirties, we need to find a partner who checks all the boxes on our long list of demands. We look for someone who will maintain our individuality and help it grow (a “capstone relationship”). In our search for a life partner for whom we do not need to compromise anything, we run the risk of looking for a copy of ourselves. Yet, would a copy of ourselves keep us charmed and interested?

High-independence relationships take it a notch further. I did not even know this was a “thing” until I met someone who had all the arguments for why it was the best model: allowing each other the space to do what we liked and to grow as we liked sounded like just the right balance of teamwork and personal growth. “I do my thing and you do your thing, together” was his unspoken mantra. But when this philosophy ran into the minutiae of daily decisions, we ran into trouble. It would take us an hour to choose a movie because the only way for him was to choose a movie we both were in the mood for. Taking turns in allowing the other to indulge was not a worthwhile use of his time. Sometimes we got tired of searching and did not end up watching a movie at all. Choosing a restaurant was exhausting and 9 times out of 10 we gave up and went for sushi because it was optimal for his taste and health, and I did not mind compromising.

When we choose to live with a partner, we choose by our own free will to subject ourselves to a level of dependence. There is no way we can live with someone without depending on them. At the lowest level of functionality this means agreeing on how to share the contents of the fridge and how to stock it; and at the highest level, how to walk through life together in synergy as a loving, well-functioning team. “I do my thing and you do your thing” only works if both put the relationship first, not themselves. This is what clinical psychologist Stan Tatkin calls a “couple bubble”: a safe, loving, supportive space a couple creates and maintains around them, and which protects them from the rest of the world. It is also “an intimate environment that the partners create and sustain together and that implicitly guarantees specific promises.”

My partner and I never managed to create a couple bubble. I never truly felt I was included in his life plan. Often, I felt scared that his high independence would lead to a situation where he chose move to another city or country, and I would be given the choice to follow – or be left behind. Because it was against his values to ask me to forgo my freedom and come along, for his sake – and to say he needed me and he would support me in return, if I ever had a big ask for him. I felt afraid that he would not put our relationship first, and he felt shackled by my needs. There was much anxiety and anger. Living under the same roof was not sustainable, even with constant open communication and all the intimacy and love.

And so, just before the pandemic hit us, I moved across the country, to Copenhagen. On my own. And when the world locked down I realized that if I were to catch the virus, my partner would not have my back. I would have to create that bubble of safety, love, and support all by myself. And you know what? I found it quite easy to do because I, too, have enough independence to find my footing when the world is a windy place.

We millennials are a very individualistic generation, and along with our parents’ generation, we have in many developed countries pushed the divorce rate to fifty percent (and an increasing number of couples choose to not marry at all). And so, one year later, with better language to put my 2020 journey into words, I wonder whether it is possible to have a deep need for sovereignty and still share a household and a life with someone, in partnership? Is the need for high independence just a fear of unhealthy dependency? And what is the definition of healthy interdependence?

(Copenhagen, Denmark; December 2020)


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Fresh start

Lovely ones, here I am again. Spring sunshine and a Saturday morning to myself are the best remedy for clearing up any cobwebs in my little head. And boy have there been cobwebs, especially the last month of 2020 and the first month of 2021. Not because nothing moved inside, but because so much was going on that I had no time to tidy up. And so, this last weekend of February, I am finally sweeping up those cobwebs, organizing my thoughts and feelings as much as I am able, and opening the windows to let the sunlight in.

Just before christmas holidays, Denmark went into another lockdown – and I went to Finland for a month. Even with the still life and the darkness, I discovered so much. There will be a backlog of winter photos while I post all the things I wanted to share with you, without the headspace to do so until now. And we may well be half-way through spring before my ramblings here have caught up with the weather outside.

2021 may seem like a sluggish continuation of an unexpected 2020. Or it may seem like a fresh start into a post-pandemic time bursting with opportunities in a world that looks the same but will never be the same again. 2020 gave me the opportunity to rewrite my life plan more than once (Yes, literally. I have a life plan and it takes up 4 pages in my notebook). And I can’t wait to begin to live it, step by step. What about you?

(Copenhagen, Denmark; February 2021)


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Always a beginner

My pretty pink yoga mat had spent most of this year rolled up, propped up against the wardrobe wall. Save for post-work yin on Fridays, I had not touched it. The last time I did a sun salutation was in November 2020. What happened?

Life happened. And when life happens too much, too fast, and too painfully, I am overcome by the urge to run. And so I ran. Every other day (because every other day I forced myself to just walk). In fact, I ran so much I hurt my knee again in January 2020. This time, no surgery was required. Just spending most of my home-office hours with my leg stretched out on a chair. After all these years, I still find it impossible to roll out the mat when I need yoga the most: when I need to just spend the time to mindfully pay attention to my body and breath.

In August, I started a new job. The life change and pressure to do my best caused my back to stiffen up like a slab of concrete. “Not good”, my Thai masseuse tutted on my monthly visits as I groaned underneath her hands and elbows.

And so, one weekend in November, I finally grabbed my pretty pink mat, rolled it out on the bedroom floor, said the ashtanga opening chant, and folded forward into a first sun salutation. A very stiff one. I wavered like a toppling tree in the leg lifts. My hips refused to comply in the warrior poses. Like a beginner, I went no further than the standing poses, followed by the second half of the finishing sequence (and sore shoulders for three days thanks to the chaturangas). But the second time I went into the first seated poses. And the fourth time I completed the entire finishing sequence except for the headstand. This is a new beginning – and truly a beginning, once again.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; November 2020)


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Around Damhussøen

Saturday sun felt like the first bright day in a month. What a nice day to saunter around the lake in Vanløse with a friend. There were swans, dog-walkers, and yellow leaves on the gravel road. And there was much head-shaking between the two of us, about how this year turned our lives upside down in such profound ways.

In the bleak but welcome November afternoon sun, we concluded that life still tasted good. So did the tea, cake, and waffles.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; November 2020)


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Just sitting

“Just sit, every day. Doesn’t matter if you can concentrate or not. Just sit down and be present for a while.”

This was the most practical meditation advice I got, from the late Michael Stone. And I went on to discover it really is as simple as that. He also defined mindfulness as simply coming back to the present: refocusing when the mind has wandered. Over and over again. Because the mind will wander, and it’s okay.

When I sit, I do not try to accomplish a meditation. Sure, I have analyzed my meditation with Muse a few times, noticing what it’s “supposed to feel like” when I heard bird song, which is the app telling me I am in a deep, calm, meditate brainwave state. I know I can get there within five minutes, sitting on a bar stool in the middle of a busy conference exhibition hall, like I did the first time I tried Muse. But I also know it is not my goal. Sometimes, the best meditation is simply to sit for fifteen minutes and observe the cramp in my foot after a long day and too little hydration. I used to think anything less than twenty minutes is not useful, but I also used to skip sessions because I did not feel like meditating for a full twenty minutes. So I cut it to fifteen. Because the main goal is to just sit, every day.

Through the tumultuous 2020 I did not feel a need to sit down until I changed jobs. With that major change addded on top of other major life changes, I felt the need to get back to just sitting. Two months later, after just fifteen minutes a night, at least six days a week, I am so glad I re-established this little daily reset routine. And no, I do not have that short legs – I just spare my knee by sitting on a higher zafu (try it if you have a runner’s knee!).

(Copenhagen, Denmark; November 2020)


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Quiet week

It has been a silent week. Unlike Belgium, France, and Spain, Denmark is not yet in lockdown, but we have been given further restrictions, and my employer issued a stricter recommendation to work from home.

With the clocks turned back, running in a Danish park after dark resembles moving around an African village: little streams of light from lanterns barely light up the path in front of my feet between pools of darkness, while my head is constantly enveloped in the black night. All around me I hear talk and human noises. And as I cannot see around me, walking or jogging after dark is a strange meditation on the importance of light and sight.

Low lighting of parks must be some kind of climate action, but it surprises me that even here in the capital people are not encouraged to stay active after dark. Forget about footpaths and bike paths in Brande or Vejle after dark – they are not lit at all. After-work joggers pound the pavement for four months each year. In Finland this would be unthinkable, both because people are encouraged to go out even in the darkest time of the year, as well as for personal security after dark.

Under the lamp, after dinner, I have been busy bringing order back to the life of my weeping fig bonsai, which I brought over this summer. It looked like a big green wig after growing untouched for the most of 3 years. Lacking sufficiently thick wire for the thickest unruly branches, I tied them to a trunk until I could find the supplies I need. According to the rules of grooming I should probably have cut off the low branch crossing the trunk, but given how bare the tree is now, I left it for the time being. We all need a break in this strange new world order.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; October 2020)