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Monday, April 28, 2008

Violence

I've lived in 3 different countries in my life time, two of them extremely violent nations, one quite peace loving. Last week I finished reading 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult, a compelling story about a high school shooting that takes place in the United States, which happens to be one of the violent countries I've lived in. This week I finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, a very famous Swedish author whose story was set in Sweden, the peaceful nation that I now live in. Years ago I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a famous Colombian author, so hence it is Colombia which completes the trifecta of countries I've lived in. Colombia falls into the violent place to live category. I don't recall the Colombian story being laced with violence but the other two were. 19 minutes had my stomach in knots for much of the read. It chronicled the lives of school children, one who seemed destined to be outcast from the start. It was painful to read about the bullying, the lack of adult intervention, the deep, wounding pain that this young boy experienced almost from the beginning days of his socialization process. Of course, equally painful was reading about the school shooting and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of such a horrific event. That this novel was fiction, yet based on events that do unfold in the US is pretty hard to absorb. (I liked the book, a lot. I did, however, hate the ending. I think generally, Picoult weaves a great story, then ends poorly.)
We moved to Sweden just before the Columbine shooting. Since I was outside looking in at the US at that point, I processed that entire experience through very different eyes. America is a violent nation. That is a sad piece of our national idenity. One man from New Zealand once remarked to me that "he would never move his family to the US. Kids shoot their mates there." Such is the perception from those who live in countries where gun violence isn't on the radar. I have a hard time understanding why people want to protect the right to bear assault weapons. You'll hear people say, "I've got to protect myself. If 'they' have them, then I need them." I don't buy it. Who in their right mind really wants to shoot another living being, even if they themselves are being threatened? I'd rather die at the hands of a gunman, then live with having killed someone else. Why can't we figure out how to stop gun violence from being a so called solution in our society?
My life in Medellin, Colombia was for all intensive purposes, delightful. Great city, great climate, great food, lovely people. Except of course for the Colombian Drug Cartel who were housed in my fair city during the years that I lived there. The violence in Colombia was totally different than the violence we see in the US. The machine gun presence is overwhelming. They are everywhere. My building was guarded by an armed guard, a fact by the way, that didn't bring me a great deal of comfort. I hated the presence of heavy artillery that surrounded me in this most lovely of places. The thing about the violence in Colombia was that it was directed violence. None of this random act of violence business. If you were messed up with the drug cartel, or if you had political influence, etc. then you were a target. If you were an American high school teacher living in Medellin, they were not so interested in you. So while I never felt personally threatened or nervous about being shot at, the violence that surrounded me impacted my psyche in dramatic ways. One morning on an early walk, I stumbled across two guys on a motorcycle who had been shot down. A grenade went off in my next door neighbor's backyard. I heard shots being fired on a regular basis. I didn't feel personally unsafe, but the presence of violence around me was palpable. I eventually needed a break from a culture that had violence embedded into its very center. I needed the noise of violent shooting to cease. I was lucky. I could move back to the US where I might get gunned down at McDonald's but at least I could escape the startling bang of guns shooting or grenades exploding and for better or worse, I didn't see the presence of guns all around me. Even so, I hated seeing how many stories during the nightly news told of bad outcomes in gun related situations. The presence of armed guards in Colombian society has not cut back on the violence. The "right" to bear arms has not created a more peaceful safe society in the US. Rather, in both situations, the presence of armed guards and the "right" perpetuate violence.
The violence in the Swedish story was totally different as it was rooted in violence against women at the hands of sadistic men. Numerous accounts of kidnap, torture, rape and abuse were embedded within the pages of this exciting thriller. It shook me up at bit, I must admit. Sweden is safe and the presence of violent crime is not a real and present threat. Up until recently assault crimes such as rape and battery were almost never heard of. This is, sadly, on the rise. Even so, it has been a great respite to live in a city where you aren't internally afraid every time you are outside. What this novel did illuminate for me however is the presence of domestic crimes against women. You don't hear much about this here in Sweden. There are bold media campaigns against school bullying, but violence against women is hardly reported at all. Does this mean it doesn't exist or does it point to something more insidious: that the women don't know how to report it? One line in the book chilled me. It said, "Women disappear all the time. No one even notices." Not exactly a stunning byline for a nation that considers itself a leader in equality concerns for men and women. I read this book for my Book Club. I'm anxious to hear from some of the women who have a clearer eye into the unwritten lines of Swedish culture as to whether this story is pure fiction or fiction based on certain realities. I hope for the former. I fear the latter. Sweden is a peace loving nation, but their inability to give voice to the ugly things in their society perpetuates a different kind of sickness than the gun presence does in the US. Both cultures need to figure out how to give voice to the actions and attitudes that tear at the fabric of the very high quality of life most should enjoy in both the US and Sweden. Our inability to accurately articulate the violence in our societies and seek to change it does not bode well for our countries, our kids, our communities.
We all need to feel empowered and valued. Unhappy people who feel powerless and outcast will find ways to assert their authority and lord it over another. The particularly disturbed will do this through violence towards another. Their pain comes pouring forth in act of hurt and violence and often a sense of revenge that is directed toward a member of the human race, the race that has inflicted such agony upon their lives from the beginning. It's not an excuse for their behavior. It's an attempt at understanding why these violent acts come to fruition in order to better equip ourselves to intervene before the perpetrators wreak havoc in the lives of other while wrecking even further their own chance to understand how to enjoy life in community.
The violence must stop, but how?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Human Sunflowers


The latitude of Stockholm is 59.3 degrees. In other words, way up there. That means that those of us who live here spend a great deal of the year in the dark. For much of the winter, we get up in the dark, we go to work in the dark. We walk our dog in the dark, we come home from work in the dark. I've had many an afternoon at work where I feel utterly shattered and think it must be midnight, definitely time to go home. I glance at my watch. 3.15 p.m. You've got to be kidding me. I'm pretty much thinking, go home, quick dinner, time for bed. By then it would be 4.30. It ain't easy, those dark months. But there is a bright side.
Another interesting fact of Swedish life is the no nonsense manner in which they describe their version of day light savings time. In the fall, we change our clocks to winter time. In the spring, we turn them summer time. One of the most significant metamorphosis of culture occurs on the day that Swedes lovingly turn their clocks to summer time. I'm surprised that Sweden has not declared a national holiday accompanied by a complex cultural ritual to usher in this most welcome rite of spring. When you live this far north, it is not an insignificant movement of time. It is the bright side previously noted. The switch to summer time means that we have once again cast off the saddle of darkness that has been weighing us down for the past several months and are now breaking forth into the season of light.
When we first moved here, I could not figure out why everyone talked about the weather so much. Now I talk about the weather, a lot. I also puzzled over the way in which Swedes turned their face to the sun, no matter where they stood, no matter what they were doing. Stand on any street corner in Stockholm on a sunny day and all you'll see are necks craning to push the faces attached to them towards the sun. It's kind of funny at first. Then it becomes part of your own life 9 summer times down the road. You really, really, really can't help it, any more than a sunflower could deny itself the bright light of the blazing sun. On a sunny day, a magnet in your brain forcefully pulls your face upwards towards the sun. Your eyes close, your neck snaps back as your face takes in the warm caress of the sun's rays for the first time in months. You can take a vitamin D supplement during the winter, but nothing beats the real deal washing over your skin and bringing you back to life.
The cruel twist of summer time is that there are no guarantees of warmth in this country. A really hot summer day would be 80 degrees F. There is usually one of those. Beautiful as the spring is, it is filled with a hovering anxiety about how the approaching summer will be. The paucity of warm, sunny days in this country does give birth however to another Swedish rite of spring and summer. When it's warm and sunny, you do not have to work all day. In fact, if the temperature actually rises over 75 degrees F, you don't have to work at all. Instead, it is practically required by law that you grab a picnic, head to patch of grass or a rock by the sea, put your face to the sun and bask in the fact, that for today anyway, summer time is living up to its name.
This week we've had 5 days in row of real deal summer time. The temperature hasn't broken 60 F yet so I still had to work, but at least for now, my neck is craned backwards, my face is reaching forward and my hopes for a warm summer have stilled my anxiety about living at 59.3 degrees north, at least for a few gloriously warm, sunny moments.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Spring on the outside, and the inside


Spring takes its sweet time here in Stockholm. We wait in anticipation for the trees to bloom, the daffodils to open their jaws and finally scream, it's spring, it's spring! Downtown Stockholm is framed by cherry trees and once those bloom, then we know that perhaps we can truly trust that the dark, barren days of winter really are behind us and soon, we will be surrounded by the fullness of nature that the spring bloom brings.
I am not a cold weather person. I love warmth. I secretly wanted Doug to put in his wedding vows that he would not move me further north, ever. I was thinking Duluth. Stockholm wasn't on the radar at that point, but here I am, loving the arrival of my 9th spring in this far north city.
The paradoxical reality of spring in Stockholm however is the sad fact that suicides often rise. The theory behind this is that when people feel blue all winter, it isn't so unexpected so they tolerate it a bit more. But when spring hits, they expect to feel better, but of course, don't. That's when they feel really hopeless and thus lose the will to move forward.
Spring is a wonderful time of year full of signs that indicate new life and rebirth. Unfortunately, if our insides don't mirror the seasons and do not feel the fullness of life, we aren't able to embrace the bloom of color that splashes out around us. That's why it's important to understand the difference between feeling a little blue due to unpleasant circumstances that we know will change and feeling really blue no matter what the external circumstances are, perhaps indicating that it's something on the inside that needs changing.
If it's January in your soul but April on the calendar, find someone to help you bloom instead of suffering through your winter of pain alone.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lanzarote







One of the amazing things about living in Europe is that we get to take great vacations! Our most recent adventure was to Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. For those who are geographically challenged, the Canaries are located off the northwestern coast of Africa, practically due west from Morocco. They are volcanoes that rose up out of the sea. One of the challenges of living in northern Europe is finding a warm spot at the end of March. You have to travel really, really, really far south to obtain even a modicum of warmth. Lanzarote was a 6 hour (extremely unpleasant) flight from Stockholm and fortunately for us, our timing was brilliant. Warm air and beautiful sunshine. OK, lots of wind and freezing cold water (a theme in our lives) but still, in a word, lovely. The Canary Islands are owned by Spain so the language is Spanish and the currency the Euro. Both are an advantage for us as I speak a bit of Spanish from my years living in Colombia, South America and because we keep Euros in our drawer for traveling in Europe. We needed a vacation where basically, there wasn't anything to do except soak up sunshine and relax. Lanzarote was the ticket. We were a 3 minute walk from Playa Flamingo, a gorgeous little cove with amazing views of Fuerteventura, another of the Canaries. We enjoyed a cute little apartment, with a good size fridge to keep our beverages of choice nicely chilled. The area where we stayed was called Playa Blanca and fortunately for us the city planners put in a beach promonade that stretched for miles in either direction so walking along the beautiful shoreline was pleasant as well as a feast for our eyes. The photos tell the story of this secluded beach hideaway. OK, so if you are Swedish, German or English, it is not very secluded, but for Americans, pretty exotic. We found ourselves refreshed, renewed and really tan when all was said and done. How lucky are we? I think we were the only Americans in Lanzarote at the end of March.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Simple Pleasures







I am not the first person in the world to have my heart utterly captured by the presence of a canine, but the sheer joy of having a dog in one's life is always worth commenting on. (Here's a funny little reality...when typing I love my dog, at first I wrote I love my god...hmmm. A simple typing error or a something I need to ponder?!)



Anyway...I do love my DOG. I love walking my dog. I love being with my dog. I love watching my dog do just about anything. I love my dog.



What is it about walking with a dog that makes the walk that much more enjoyable? Tanner's enthusiasm for life, his curiosity for everything, the joy that he exhibits through his swishing tail are just pure pleasure for me to experience.



We were out at our boatyard on Monday doing some work on our old motor boat, The Sea Dog, affectionately named for our former dog, Lucy, who died right before we bought the boat. Tanner loves the boatyard. He gets to run free, chase birds, chew on sticks and jump into the water. He loves the water, even at 8 degrees C (about 48 degrees F). He loves to jump off the dock, into the water, fetch the stick that we've just thrown in, swim to shore, bring it back and do it all over again. Watching him fly through the air into the water is pure joy.



Simple Pleasures.



Like walking him through Stockholm while listening to ABBA. Honestly, you can't listen to ABBA and stay in a bad mood. So the combination of Swedish pop music from the 70's and the beautiful golden boy we call Tanner running by my side brought me to a place of quiet contentment on Thursday afternoon.



Like the morning greeting he gives us, so happy to start a brand new day, understanding that every day is better if it starts with a big lick.



Like jumping off a dock into freezing cold water, unfettered by care or concern, focused on the simple pleasure of getting that stick and swimming ashore.



It's good to experience unfettered joy. Tanner helps me do that.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lunch Music

Sweden has a nice tradition of having 20 minute mini-concerts over the lunch hour for people who are in the city and want a midday break. Yesterday one of our very gifted high school students sang at a nearby church so I went. The church was a huge, stone, state church with enormously high vaulted ceilings and pitch perfect acoustics. When the five 17 year old students came processing out in black robes singing with these clear, lovely, and truly heavenly voices I was transported to a spiritual realm. How can such lovely music come from these young, adolescent children? I wondered what they did when such sweet sound was not coming from their mouths. Young talent is an amazing thing to experience. Perhaps it's even more amazing when it really does move your spirit and bring you closer to God.
The five short pieces of sacred music that they sang were all written in the 1500's. Hard to imagine anything sitting on my iPod will still be around in say 500 or so years. The sacred stuff lives on. In more ways than we realize.

Brand New

This is kind of a big deal for me, to actually start a blog. All of the usual feelings about ego, and self-involvement emerge for me and yet, I have finally decided that instead of thinking about everything I would ever want to write about, I'm simply going to write about it instead. I figure, I look at other people's blogs, why wouldn't someone look at mine now and again? And if I'm bored with someone else's, I just stop reading it. Sometimes I come across something that is particularly meaningful to me. I hope the same will be true for those who take time to peruse my writing. Several things prompted me to actually create The Blog on this particular day. A good friend asked me yesterday what inhibits me from doing the things in life that I really want to do. I didn't have an answer, but I at least knew I needed to start doing some things that while risky, were desirous. So, starting a blog is one thing that I've always wanted to do but never did. At least now I can say that I did start a blog, once. The pond that I am across is the Atlantic Ocean. The photo in my header is taken from the Canary Island, Lanzarote. I am an American living in Sweden and have been doing so for almost 10 years. A 3 year adventure has turned into a way of life for my husband and me. So a lot of what I think about is conditioned by being a foreigner and a Christian in a very secular place where my church roots also happen to be. A bizarre cocktail of religious, cutural, and sociological circumstances. This morning when I was out walking my dog, I saw a poster for a concert...Matthew's Gospel will be sung in a church some time soon. The Swedes are big concert people, in fact, they are big religious concert people. It puzzles me why they like to sing about the gospel when most think it is fiction. More on that later. It feels good to start.