The Boy Who Rescued #MeToo

Last week I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford tell her story, and I got about ten minutes into the follow-up questioning when I had to stop watching because I was experiencing anxiety at a level I had not felt since the summer of 1974.  The experience Dr. Ford described was much different and far worse than what happened to me that summer, just before I turned 14; still, certain details of Dr. Ford’s testimony triggered such a powerful adrenalin rush in me that I could hardly bear to contemplate the physiological struggle Dr. Ford was likely enduring at that moment. An hour later, when a violin student came to my house for a lesson, I still could not control my shaking bow.

Over the past year, as I have read one heartbreaking #MeToo story after another, I have remained silent about my experience mostly out of respect for those whose memories are infinitely more painful than mine. But today, when our country is so deeply divided and so many are deeply suffering, I present my experience because it occurs to me that my story might offer a glimmer of hope.

Like Dr. Ford’s story, mine contains two possible male predators, the fear of being raped and killed, and the humiliation of being mocked and laughed at. You will notice other parallels as well, such as my vivid memory of a few emotionally charged events and my hazy or non-existent memory of almost everything else.  But my story also has a male hero—and even though I can’t remember that hero’s name, his kindness and decency profoundly affected the course of my life for many years to come. If it is necessary to share our tragic stories (and I believe it often is), it is equally important to remember and celebrate the men in our lives who treat us well. They need to know how important they are, and we need more of them.

I was much more girl than woman in my fourteenth year, but change was on the horizon. The mirror finally showed some justification for my double A-cup bra, and by the time I boarded a plane in June (or was it May?) for a summer with my family in Lahti, Finland, I had had one period. My feelings about finally growing up were conflicted. My childhood had been happy, and the hormonal changes I was experiencing were major nuisances.  But it was a relief to catch up a little with my friends, and I was discovering other perks.

My protective parents, for example, surprised me by often allowing me to ride my bike to the lake with my older sister and some neighbor girls; and when my family left to visit friends in Stockholm, my parents trusted me to stay with my grandmother in Lahti so that I could attend an orchestra camp in town.  Every day I rode two buses by myself to get from my grandmother’s house to the downtown building where we rehearsed for many hours. I loved playing the violin and I loved my new independence, so my life during those two weeks (or was it just one week?) felt perfect.

The orchestra was a cooperative venture between some Finnish and Hungarian music teachers, and I suspect that most of the youth participants were their students.  I believe—though I’m not sure of this—that I was the only American in the pack.  The rest of the group consisted mostly of young Finnish girls–some looked as young as 10 or 11—and older, Hungarian boys (or did I just notice the boys more than the girls?)—some as old as 18 or 19.

Every morning I was coached privately by a kind, good-humored, 40-ish Hungarian teacher. He didn’t speak a word of English or Finnish, and I knew zero Hungarian, but we quickly learned to communicate through the universal languages of music and body language. He would point to a passage of music, play it for me, motion for me to play it, and then either smile or point, play, and motion for me to try again. I was exhilarated by the musicianship and friendship that I was developing without any help from my parents.

After my private lesson, I would head for orchestra rehearsals with the Finnish and Hungarian kids. When I wasn’t focused on the music, the Hungarian boys consumed most of my attention. I enjoyed watching them show off both their playing ability and their masculinity. However, I watched only from a distance.  I was feeling and noticing a lot of new things that summer, but from my perspective, the older Hungarian boys were way out of my league. Their laughter made me uneasy. And soon I became intensely afraid of two of them.

During our breaks, when we all hung out together without much adult supervision, two of the older Hungarian boys would often grab the young girls and start tickling them.  Many of the girls laughed and seemed to enjoy and even sometimes to initiate the interaction. I wanted to believe then, and still want to believe now, that these older boys viewed the young girls as children and were treating them as perhaps they would their little sisters. Many of the girls still really were children; perhaps this was why they seemed more comfortable than I with the tickling. Looking back, however, I recognize that I don’t really know how long their comfort lasted because I never stayed in those situations long enough to find out. What I saw filled me with dread. I quickly made myself invisible to avoid being in the same situation.

Still, like every young person, I longed to fit in better. I felt self-conscious, uncomfortable in my isolation, and thus grateful and somewhat flabbergasted when our 19-year-old concert master, the best-looking young man in the group, started inviting me to play ping-pong with him during our breaks. Even though he was a friend to the two ticklers, he won my trust by never touching me in any way. He spoke to me in gentle, respectful, broken English; and feeling his gaze made me weak in the knees.  I thought about him in private and watched him in rehearsals; however, the age difference between us was too overwhelming for me. I was a completely inexperienced, late-blooming girl. All my romance education had come from novels. I wasn’t ready for a real, flesh and blood man-boyfriend. So I played ping pong self-consciously with him daily and otherwise spent my free time with a sweet Finnish girl named Marja.

One day, toward the end of the camp, we all went to another building for a reason I don’t remember. Then we were all walking back to the building where we had our normal practices. I was starting to walk with the others up a hill when the two ticklers approached me from behind. With smirks on their faces, they each grabbed one of my arms and steered me away from the others, down the side of the hill, and onto another path.

Looking ahead, I could see that our new path would eventually go under a bridge and into the forest that wove throughout the city. I believe—though I’m not certain of this—that the path also forked left immediately before the bridge. I could not see anyone walking on the path beyond the bridge, but there were still a few people walking toward us in front of the bridge, so perhaps my mind has added another path veering left to explain where those people had come from.

I had resisted the grip of my captors enough to know that they weren’t going to let go of me voluntarily, but I hadn’t given the attempt my “all” (dragging my feet, screaming, kicking), and I hadn’t said a single word to my captors. My legs were moving, but otherwise I was paralyzed by the conflicting thoughts racing through my head. Were these boys just flirting with me, or did they have sinister intentions toward me? Were we in this situation because they knew I was afraid of them? If I displayed my fear, would they be even more inclined to do me harm? Was their intent just to scare me? Did they plan to take me into the forest and just have a little “fun” with me, or were they capable of raping and even murdering me?

As we approached the bridge, I noted that the path beyond it was lined on both sides by forest, rather than buildings, and there were still no people there. The risk of remaining silent any longer was too great. I focused my gaze on a middle-aged woman coming my way and said “help” in Finnish as loudly as I could. What actually came out of my mouth sounded to my ears like only a whimper, but I was certain the woman had still heard. She looked startled. Then she looked away, pretending she had not heard. And just then, we were all startled by another female voice loudly and frantically yelling something above us in a language I didn’t understand.

My captors, the middle-aged woman, probably a few other people on the path, and I all looked up and saw the orchestra group (or at least some of them) standing above us on the bridge. Immediately I understood that they had been watching us. They had seen my terror, and an older, very sarcastic Hungarian girl had recognized my cry for help. I knew she had yelled “help” in Hungarian. I knew she was mocking me. And then, when the orchestra members all burst out laughing, I knew the laughter was at my expense.

When I had said “help” in Finnish, I don’t think my captors had understood. Then when the Hungarian girl screamed “help” in Hungarian, they were as stunned as I and for a moment looked guilty and exposed. However, when everyone started laughing, they quickly recovered their composure, released their grip on me, and started walking back up the hill toward their friends, probably devising a wise crack that would put them in control of all the joking. Their friends seemed to view my fear as unfounded and amusing. It was in my captors’ best interests to reinforce that view.

Meanwhile, I was dealing with more conflicting emotions than I could bear. I was overcome with relief. I was still shaking at the thought of what might have happened. I was simultaneously grateful and embarrassed that the Hungarian girl had heard my cry for help. I wanted to believe the kids who thought I was being silly, and I wanted to tell them they were all fools. I wanted to return to the safety of the group and in fact headed in their direction, but I felt loathe to face their mocking. I wanted to cry, and I was hell bent on not crying.

Where was my concertmaster friend? I want to believe that as soon as he stood on the bridge and saw the scene playing out on the path below him, he headed toward me to rescue me. But I don’t know that he was quite that noble. Perhaps he hesitated for a moment, weighing the costs of helping and not helping me. If so, however, he didn’t hesitate long. Only seconds after my captors released me, he was by my side. I heard him say something reproachful to his friends in Hungarian. Then his attention was all on me. The concern and sympathy in his gaze surprised me and brought my tears dangerously close to the surface.  He instinctively put his arm around me to comfort me, to help me hide my tears, and, I think, to silence those who might still want to taunt me. He tried to assure me that his tickler friends just didn’t know when to stop with their joking, but even as he spoke, he seemed to be questioning the truth of his own words. When he heard me stifle a sob, he held me still more tightly and did not try to engage me in any more conversation. That was the only time during our one or two weeks together that he touched me.

I have no memory of my bus ride home to my grandmother’s house that day. However, I vividly remember hiding under my friend’s protective arm until we reached our rehearsal building and then racing for the bathroom and sobbing behind a locked door for what felt like hours. I don’t remember considering whether I should report the incident to any adults. I do remember thinking that if any of them found out, they, like the other kids, would probably think I was silly. I know I did not leave the bathroom that day until the coast was clear of all camp participants.

But because of my concertmaster friend, I had the courage to go back the next day and complete the camp. I have no memory of the ticklers after that day, and I believe I have my friend to thank for that.

My memories of the rest of the camp are few but vivid. I remember how proud I was of our final concert and how happy I was that my parents were back from Sweden and able to attend. My parents and I had a good relationship, but it was many years before I told them about my incident with the ticklers. I wanted to attend more music camps. I wanted to keep having independence. And I didn’t want them to worry more about me than they already did.  Telling them would have changed all that.

I believe our orchestra also performed at another venue, or at least visited another venue together, either shortly before or after the concert for our parents because I remember sitting on a bus feeling simultaneously giddy and dumbfounded by the continuing sweet attention of my concertmaster friend, who stood in the aisle next to me, asking me about my life in America.  The dawning recognition that he might have as much a crush on me as I had on him still felt unbelievable—especially after I had just been so recently humiliated by all his friends. During our conversation, I noted that the stubble on his face made him look more like 30 than 19, and I wondered what about my acne-infested face could possibly motivate him to to stand there, in all his manliness, focusing all his attention on me. It occurs to me now that perhaps he was the one with a little sister he loved.

After our last concert, my friend presented me with a rose. It was a sweet, tender gesture destined to be recorded in my journal, but I was so nervous that I accidentally dropped the rose and then stepped on it. If this boy truly had a crush on me, I’m sure that at that moment he came to his senses and decided to look for a girlfriend closer to his age. But even then, he remained kind, gentle, and self-controlled, recognizing that I just was not ready for the physical affection he might have liked to show me.

That was the last time I saw my concert master friend. 44 years later, at the age of 58, I think of him with a mother’s gratitude. I hope he still plays the violin, and I especially hope he found a beautiful partner who loves him as much as he deserves.  I doubt he remembers me, and that’s totally okay. I also doubt he understands what a gift he gave me and probably other girls throughout his life—and that’s totally NOT okay.

My interpretation of those events that happened 44 years ago is and has always been ambivalent. I still don’t really know what kind of kids the ticklers were. Were they capable of the worst that I feared? Should I have reported them to an adult? Might I have saved some other young girls from having their own #MeToo experience?

The fact that I never had to find out the answers to these questions might be my friend’s greatest gift to me. It might be because of him (and, strangely enough, the mocking Hungarian girl) that I didn’t have to deal with all the difficulties so many of my sisters (and many brothers) across the globe are struggling with—though, if that is the case, I definitely worry how the other girls at the camp fared.

On the other hand, if the truth is that the ticklers were harmless and I was just a silly, hyper-sensitive, overly-sheltered girl, I appreciate my friend even more for trying to make me feel safe and comfortable and for standing up for me. Because of his friendship and protection, I was able to finish the camp mostly un-scarred, with mostly good (and even some wonderful) memories. Because of him, I was able to keep trusting and giving men in my life the benefit of the doubt.  Because of him, I had the courage to keep venturing out into the world and having new experiences. Because of him, I was able to stay focused on music and school, and I did not have to think about sex until I was ready to think about it. Because of him, as well as my teacher, I went home at the end of the summer and told my friends in Utah that Hungarians were awesome, kind, and beautiful people.

Even if I was never really in danger, my friend influenced my future in important ways. He helped me to believe that I was lovable and that a boy who loved me should care about my feelings and wishes. He helped me understand that physical attraction should never have to be accompanied by fear or violence. I was not ready to be loved by him, but I knew that some day I wanted to be loved by someone like him. When I met my husband, I recognized him as a good man because of past interactions with this friend and other good men in my life.

My married life has been consumed by boys. I raised three of my own and had many others in my home. I was a cub scout leader for 6 years. The boys in my care have been just as fragile as girls, and I know most of them have wanted to be good. But I’ve also seen that unsupervised “good” boys can sometimes do really stupid things, given a very prevalent kind of peer “culture” and in the absence of anyone modeling wiser behavior.  When fueled by feelings of superiority and entitlement, not to mention testosterone and/or alcohol, this culture can be especially toxic. It exists to one degree or another in every land across the globe, and it is time for good male role models to help change it.

My concertmaster friend was such a model for his friends. He showed them a different kind of behavior than the antics they were engaging in. I believe it’s very possible that he prevented two “good” boys from going down a path they would have regretted for the rest of their lives.

I wish I could tell this friend what he meant to me, but perhaps the most important thing now is for me to tell others what he meant to me.  Many people are in pain right now. Many feel broken. Some are extremely angry. Some of their stories simply have to come out. And these are precisely the reasons good men are needed now more than ever.

To those of you who have the courage to step up to that challenge, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

 

Collaborative “Sisu” and Modesty: Finland’s Story of Accidental Happiness (Part Two)

Part Two: No Expendable Finns

This is the second of a three-part essay exploring how the Finns may have stumbled upon happiness even though they don’t seem too impressed by the happiness award they received in Feburary from the United Nations. In Part One I proposed that the Finns have been  more focused on survival than happiness and that a trait called “sisu” (grit, resilience, tenacity, and stick-to-it-ness especially for the sake of one’s fellow Finns) has been more useful to their survival as a nation than happiness.

Sisu requires sacrifice and is really bigger than happiness; however, sisu itself can be an important contributor to happiness. One reason the Finns are not big into flattery and compliments is that they view both as unnecessary counterfeits compared to the natural satisfaction that comes from real personal growth and achievement. And I believe the Finns have learned that satisfaction is still deeper and more lasting when accomplishment is shared.  In this section I will argue that in the 73 years of peace since World War II ended, the Finns’ inclusive no-Finn-left-behind mindset has especially led to programs and policies which have at least made it possible for the Finns to pursue happiness.

At the end of World War II, the Finns surveyed their broken nation and collectively agreed that they could afford to lose no more Finns. Everyone’s needs must be considered. Sacrifice and compromise must be made, consensus ardently strived for, individual greed restrained, and equity established.

The first test of this resolve came in dealing with long lines of Karelian refugees fleeing Russian rule and entering independent Finland on foot. In response, the Finnish government compensated these refugees for the loss of their homes with either land or money, and Finnish citizens cooperated with what my mother tells me was a government mandate that they share any home with more rooms than occupants. My mother’s family turned over their two upstairs bedrooms to a 30-ish woman and her mother and their basement bedroom to a carpenter and his young son. All three families shared the kitchen and one bathroom.

This remarkable collaboration got Finland through several years of severe post-war housing shortages and helped the Karelians to assimilate despite the destitute condition in which they had arrived and the overall poverty of the entire nation.

The Finns then created a strong safety net and a mind-blowing list of human rights which currently include not just universal health care but guaranteed internet access, free higher education for life, month-long paid vacations for every citizen, and above all, a host of benefits for children, whom the Finns recognize as the greatest of their limited resources.

Collaborative Focus on Children

Support for Finnish children begins at birth with extended paid leave for both mothers and fathers of newborns. Finnish parents can then continue to receive financial compensation for staying home with their children or return to work and take advantage of government-paid day care and pre-schools provided by college-educated teachers. These care givers identify and treat many learning disabilities early and bridge the gap between high-risk and more privileged children before they ever begin formal schooling.

In 2014, my husband and I visited with many Finnish teachers in Finnish schools. We learned that there are often two teachers with a master’s degree in the classroom—one for group instruction and one for students needing extra individual attention, and teachers collaborate extensively (without many government-imposed standards) to find and share solutions for every child. The term “no child left behind” is not a political catchword but a completely unique way of thinking. If a few are not keeping up, classroom instruction slows down and proficient students work with those who are struggling until the entire class is ready to move on. The Finns don’t feel the need to isolate their “best and brightest” into “gifted and talented” programs so they can move faster. Rather, they turn such students into leaders by encouraging them to help others around them to succeed.

In our conversations these teachers repeatedly insisted that the goal of Finnish education has never been to produce the highest test scores in the world but rather to equip all students with the basic skills they need to survive and contribute to their community. In fact, Finnish students take no standardized tests until they are 15 years old. Thus, in 2000 when Finnish students scored at the top of the pile on the international PISA standardized tests, our educator friends told us they thought “surely there must have been a mistake.”

But as Finnish students have continued to perform well on the PISA tests, even the self-deprecating Finns have begun to acknowledge that their collaborative “survival for all” mindset has resulted, not just in survival, but in a high standard of living for a well-educated, high-functioning, highly creative population.

In fact, last year “in honor of Finland’s centenary celebrations,” an organization called Statistics Finland likely went out of its comfort zone to compile and publish a statistical report from independent sources showing some of Finland’s accomplishments. Trying to balance national pride with their discomfort with bragging and their desire for inclusiveness, they suggested, not that Finland is the happiest country, but that in many areas it is “among the best in the world” [emphasis added].

How Is Finland “Among the Best” in the World?

For example, the report states that Finland is the “most stable,” the “safest,” the “best govern[ed]” country in the world with the “least organized crime” and the “soundest banking system. It has the “most independent” judicial system, the freest elections, and the “third best press freedom in the world.”  Finland is the “fourth most innovative country” and second in “using information and communication technologies to boost” BOTH “competitiveness” AND “well-being.” And finally, according to the report, the Finns enjoy “the most personal freedom and choice in the world.”

Of course, much depends on how one defines freedom, and many Americans consider increased government programs a loss of personal freedom. Most Finns are well aware of but also puzzled by this American perspective, not only because their taxes are not really much higher than Americans’ total combined taxes, but also because what they get in return for their taxes opens much opportunity for them. In her book The Nordic Theory of Everything, Anu Partanen argues this point especially regarding government-funded health care. Partanen suggests that companies, when freed from the tremendous burden of having to provide health care coverage for their employees, are more likely to stay financially afloat, and individuals have the option to leave unsatisfying jobs and start their own businesses. Similarly, Finland’s free-for-life higher education enables citizens to keep up with rapidly changing technology and even to re-train themselves for new careers if theirs become obsolete.

Has Equity Led to Happiness?

Perhaps the most important part of the statistical report is what it suggests about the Finns’ true feelings for their country. The Finns may poke fun of themselves on social media–especially when writing in English for their international friends to read. (See Part One for my example of this.) But according to the report, Finns are “the most satisfied with their life among Europeans” and the “second most common to have someone to rely on in case of need.” They trust their government, they have high consumer confidence in their economy, and they report low “excessive job strain.” They may still struggle too many months of the year from sunlight deprivation to be perpetually cheerful or alcohol free, but I believe many of them would agree with their president (see Part I) that they have done the best they could with their circumstances and that whatever happiness they can own up to is deeply connected to the solidarity they feel with each other.

In his centennial presidential speech, President Niinistö explained,

“’Together’ begins at home within our borders, in our communities. As a nation of 5.5 million people, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. . . . Equality between genders, in opportunities and in education provide the backbone for the resilience of our society. The backbone of what I have called participatory patriotism.”

My purpose is not to suggest that the United States try to copy everything about the Finnish system. What works for Finland would at least have to be modified for our system of federal and state governments and our many diverse populations. But as we search for solutions that fit our national circumstances, I believe we would be wise to consider that the Finns have significantly improved their overall standard of living by looking out for the most vulnerable among them.  And though their richest one percent can’t match the wealth of their US counterparts, most Finns view their low overall poverty rate and even lower child poverty rate as more important indicators of their country’s success.

It’s also worth noting that the strong Finnish safety net has not led to generational welfare or an attitude of government dependence. Most Finnish parents have small families and return to work outside the home despite government compensation for those who stay home with young children. In fact the economic problem Finland now faces is not generational welfare but rather, too few children to support an aging population.  Have the Finns become too fulfilled? Too interested in their careers to take time out for children?

If so, is a generous immigration policy the solution? Many Finns say yes, but the Finns have not yet achieved consensus on this issue for reasons we will discuss in Part Three. Any solution will undoubtedly require struggle, compromise, and transitional pains; but I believe one thing is certain. The Finns will do what they can to preserve their many human rights and maintain their current social services because in their view, those services have helped them through the last 73 years at least to achieve more happiness than they would have otherwise enjoyed.

 

Collaborative “Sisu” and Modesty: Finland’s Story of Accidental Happiness (Part One)

Part One: Why the Finns Don’t Seem to Know (Or Care to Know) If They Are Happy

In February when the United Nations declared Finland the “happiest nation on Earth,” the announcement was posted all over my Facebook news feed by congratulatory Americans with close ties to Finland and much affection for their Finnish friends. However, every one of my Finnish friends in Finland stayed characteristically silent, and most Finnish expat friends or Finnish-American friends like me seemed primarily interested in discussing the award’s over-simplification. (I wish I could share these friends’ cool Finnish names, but unfortunately I will have to call them Finn #1, 2, 3, and 4 because I have promised to respect their privacy.)

“There’s something wrong,” said Finn #1 in a Facebook conversation thread, “if the world’s happiest country is the one with half the population ill with depression and the other half suffering from repressed emotion. Could we just not use the word ‘happy’? Instead we could talk about well-being.”

Finn #2, an expat who had posted the news, responded to Finn #1, not by taking offense, but by acknowledging Finland’s high rates of alcoholism and then by sharing another article poking fun of the stoic Finns for their inability to show emotion or take compliments. Finn #2 then went on, like every good research-loving Finn, to ask Finn #1 for stats to support her claim that “over half” of the country’s citizens are depressed, and Finn #1 admitted, “I might have exaggerated a bit there. Not even meaning to be accurate.” Finn #3, who left Finland 54 years ago, affirmed that Finland “was that time definitely not one of the happiest,” and Finn #4 suggested that the recognition should have been, “not for the happiest people,” but for “the most . . . services, etc. to be happy of.”

If by this point you are thinking that the Finns are a strange, gloomy people determined NOT to be happy, you are not alone. In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner affirms what most Americans tend to notice: the Finns’ show of happiness is not the “American idea of overflowing with joy.”  Further, the Finnish cultural taboo against bragging and the related national habit of self-deprecation make it impossible for the Finns to openly celebrate their accomplishments the way that many Americans would. Last year as they gratefully contemplated their 100 years of unlikely independence and remarkable achievement, the closest some brave, young Finnish entrepreneurs could come to self-congratulation was to awkwardly ask the world to brag for them “a little” on social media with the hashtag #bragforfinland.

There is good geographical and historical reason for the Finns’ stoicism and modesty. The 5.5 million people in this nation bordering Russia know both the tenuousness of their good fortune and the wisdom of not calling attention to it. Better to keep their happiness to themselves than to advertise to political opportunists how desirable their country is.

On the other hand, I think the Finns sometimes don’t recognize their happiness because they simply have not had the luxury of valuing happiness the same way Americans do. The character-shaping history they share is not a quest for happiness but rather a centuries-long, exhaustive, and arduous struggle to survive. For the Finns, happiness is like their sun-filled summer—breathtakingly beautiful and soul-replenishing but far too short to be relied on.

legssummer evenine

The real business of living occurs in their struggle to endure the long, cold, dark winter.

winter 2

And throughout their history a trait called sisu (which I will define in a moment) has been more useful and valuable to their survival than happiness.

900 Years of Finnish History in Three Paragraphs

Finland was part of Sweden for almost 700 years and then a Grand-Duchy of Russia for another hundred years, and these two super-powers fought numerous wars on Finnish soil with Finnish soldiers. When internal strife weakened and distracted the Soviet government in 1917, the Finns seized their opportunity and established their independence without Soviet resistance, though an ensuing Finnish civil war took another 40,000 Finnish lives. 22 years later, in 1939, the Soviet army decided it needed Finland back and began bombing Helsinki. My mother, the daughter of a Finnish Air Force pilot, was four years old at the time. She remembers fleeing Helsinki with her family and watching the city burn through the car’s back window.

By 1945, the Finns had given up their beloved Karelia (the eastern 10 percent of the nation) in a peace treaty with the Russians, and 95,000 more young Finnish soldiers (almost ten times the number per capita of US fallen WWII soldiers) lay in graves.  Yet miraculously, the rest of the nation was still intact—the only remaining independent democracy bordering the Soviet Union after World War II.

Considering that the Soviet Union’s population outnumbered Finland’s by 54 to 1, most Finns credit their survival to sisu, and the term is such a powerful, multi-faceted symbol of the Finnish national character that you’ll need to bear with me for a few paragraphs so that I can define it adequately.

The Power of Sisu

To begin, sisu is strength, resilience, and stamina on steroids.  During World War II sisu was the Finns’ hardy acclimation to the cold, Finnish winter and a winter defense strategy that claimed the lives of five Russian soldiers for every Finnish casualty.

winter war

Today sisu is displayed by Finnish birthing mothers who accept far fewer pain numbing medications than their American sisters, by adults riding bikes to work on snow-packed roads, and by children snow shoeing or cross-country skiing to school or playing ice hockey on frozen lakes during their few hours of winter daylight.

biker

snow shoe ice fishing    Sisu is also fierce determination and tenacity bordering on insanity (probably aided sometimes by alcohol) or as  Wikipedia explains, a “grim, gritty, white-knuckle form of courage” which “expresses itself in taking action against the odds and displaying … resoluteness in the face of adversity …. [and] even despite repeated failures.” Recently a Finnish friend told me about a skate-skiing race he participates in where someone dies almost every year from over-exertion. This is Finnish sisu.

Collective Sisu

Finally, since before Finland’s birth as a nation, Finnish sisu has been associated, not just with individual strength and tenacity, but with strength and tenacity for the sake of one’s fellow Finns.  During the early 19th century period of nationalism, the Finns began to perceive sisu as their stubborn maintaining of their language and culture even though they were peasants living under the rule of governments whose wars threatened their extinction.  Then sisu was daring to dream of and fight for their independence despite the stunning odds against them.  Today, collective sisu continues to be enforced by the Finnish constitution, which requires every young Finnish man to serve in the military for 6-12 months, and by the Finnish school system, which intersperses 15 minutes of outdoor recess, no matter how low the temperature, between every 45 minutes of classroom instruction. Even when Finns are exerting sisu in private and personal activities, they are doing so to be “good Finns,” true to their national character.

Last year the Finns displayed the importance of their collective Finnish identity by choosing “together” as the theme of their centennial celebration. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö explained the theme in Washington D.C. for Americans who might be surprised by it.

“At first sight, [together] may look like the exact opposite of the word “independence.” Doesn’t being independent mean the freedom to do things on your own and your way? Yet a closer look makes it clear that “together” is the very essence of our independence. It always has been.”

Finnish sisu is thus bigger than happiness and bigger than even personal survival because both must sometimes be compromised in the struggle for collective survival. However, I think the really wonderful, parodoxical part of Finnish history is that, since World War II ended, the Finns have also used their “sisu together” mentality to improve individual well-being and in some cases (whether they can admit it or not) even happiness.

In Part Two (my next post), I will discuss the programs and policies the Finns have implemented to promote individual as well as collective well-being. In the mean time, however, I would love to hear from those acquainted with the Finns and their history. What do you think of my theory that the Finns have been more consciously focused on survival than on happiness? How do you explain the Finns’ apparent lack of interest in their happiness award? Do you think they are secretly more pleased with the award than they let on in Facebook conversations or do they view the award as meaningless hype? What, if anything, did you or other Finns think and say when you heard the news?

For Those Who Can’t Go Home

“My Missionary Son Returns, Refugee Sons Don’t.” These words form the title of a blog post graciously sent to me by Melissa Dalton-Bradford.

She might just as well have punched me in the gut.

Last year, Melissa’s son returned from a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as the LDS or Mormon church). Hours before his arrival, Melissa wrote these words:

He will land on a jet plane. I will be on my toes at the arrivals gate. I will strain at every blond head coming my direction. My heart will thud, my palms will sweat, my voice will jitter, my eyes will tear up. And then I will see his face, his dimples, his smile, his whole healthy self. And I will run, arms flung wide.

Three weeks ago, my son Sven returned from a Mormon mission in Sweden, and I was the mom having the experience which Melissa had so eagerly anticipated and so accurately described.

 

For Mormon parents, there is little that compares with the adrenaline rush of welcoming home our missionary sons and daughters. For one and a half to two LONG years our contact has been limited to weekly emails and three or four short skype visits on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

When our children finally return home, it is surreal to hold them in our arms and feel their hearts beat again.

And being safely home again is a moment, even for our strongest, most independent children. Relief surges, sometimes against their will, to their throats, eyes, and shoulders.

Melissa’s Reminder

After three weeks I’m still constantly patting Sven to make sure that he’s real. And I am pained by Melissa’s poignant reminder that for millions of refugees there is no reunion—or at least no known reunion date—with loved ones from whom they are separated.

For many refugees, there is also no going home. They “survive months on end in tents, shared facilities, or … small camping caravans” and wait. They wait for residency. For work. For education and language training. For news of surviving family.

And they mourn the many family members they have lost. Family members who, like them, were imprisoned, tortured, gang-raped, mutilated, threatened, and driven away.

Melissa, an expatriate American writer, teaches German to refugees near Frankfurt.

Melissa teaching German
Photo by Aaron Dalton ©, pictured in Melissa Writes of Passage

In her blog post, she writes of the day she told her students about her son and realized that, though she had been separated from him for two years, she had never “seriously, frantically feared for his life.”

At that moment she felt “the weight” of her students’“thought bubbles—the ones filled with loving memories of togetherness and the stinging, exquisite hunger to be united with beloveds in one safe place…”

Melissa’s Mother Heart

I don’t know Melissa personally, but two things are obvious from her vivid prose. First, despite cultural differences, her refugee friends have clearly captured her heart. And second, their suffering has compelled her to action. She is ALL IN and has embraced their cause with the fierceness and tenacity of a mama bear.

Besides giving them crucial language skills, she uses social media to connect them with people who can help them find work. She pleads for blankets, clothing, supplies—the things they need this very moment to survive, and she uses her rare gift of image making to tell their stories. You can find them, among other places, on Facebook at Melissa Dalton-Bradford, in her blog Melissa Writes of Passage, and in her award winning essay “Strangers No More,” published by BYU Magazine.

Melissa's team
From the TSOS website

Melissa and a team of volunteers have also created a medium for their refugee friends to tell their own stories.  They have interviewed, filmed, and photographed hundreds of refugees; transcribed and translated their stories; and posted many of them on their website Their Story Is Our Story.

Kamaria

On the website you will meet Kamaria, a math teacher who fled the war in Syria with her husband and four sons. Kamaria and her youngest son lived in three different camps and now share a house in Germany with 25 other women and children. Her thirteen- and fourteen-year-old sons are with their father in Turkey. They work twelve to fourteen hours a day in a bakery and a grocery store because their father has been unable to find employment.

Kamaria
©2016 LINDSAY SILSBY, TSOS website

After fifteen months Kamaria has been given temporary asylum. She has one year to learn German and show she is assimilating into German culture. She hopes at the end of that year that her husband and sons will have the financial and legal means to join her in Germany, and she dreams of one day attending medical school.

Firoz

Firoz
©2016 LINDSAY SILSBY / TSOS

You will also meet 13-year old Firoz, who lived happily with his family of carpenters in Syria until ISIS invaded his village and began “killing people without mercy.” Firoz fled with his family to Turkey and then traveled with his aunt from Turkey toward Greece in an inflatable boat that sank. He treaded ocean waters for an hour and half, made his way (with the help of Nigerians on his boat) to an island, paid fishermen 100 euros to get him to a beach in Greece, and then traveled through Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Austria to finally reach Germany.  His parents remain in Turkey, unable to join him because of financial, legal, and health restrictions.

“I’m worried about my family all the time, every minute,” he says. “It’s hard without them.”

These stories are similar to narratives my son Sven has shared with me about refugee friends in Sweden—friends who fed him, studied Swedish with him, fed him, played basketball and soccer with him, fed him, teased him, and fed him. These friends had lost everything and had nothing.

Everything about Sven’s situation—from his missionary clothing to his pictures of family vacations—must have reminded them that their situations were not really comparable to his; still, they reached out to him, recognizing his need for friendship as he too struggled to forge a path for himself in a new land.

Discouragement and Hope

After spending a few hours on the TSOS website, I am having a hard time getting through my daily routines. For so many of Melissa’s friends, the future looks so bleak. Yet one story fills me with hope and gives me a vision of what could be.

Dr. Kaadan

Dr.-Abdul-Nasser-Kaadan
From the TSOS website

Physician/scholar Abdul Nasser Kaadan escaped the bombing in Aleppo, secured a job at Weber State University in my home state of Utah, and now lives in an apartment with his wife, Roua, in Ogden.Dr. Kaadan has been surprised and overwhelmed by the welcoming, helpful attitude of many Utah colleagues and neighbors. “People here … enjoy helping us,” he says.

When I talk to my friends back in Syria, they don’t believe it. They have a bad picture of America because it’s in the media. The media presents America as violent, as killing — but the people I’ve met here would never kill an ant. This is what I want to correct, this picture of how bad America is. I want to correct many misconceptions.

Misconceptions across the Globe

Unfortunately, misconceptions plague all of us, and perhaps Melissa’s most important contribution is in challenging us Westerners to evaluate the conceptions upon which we base our response (or lack of response) to her refugee friends.

Melissa is no stranger to dark factions within the countries from which her refugee friends have fled.

woman
Getty image: Dan Itwood and Win McNamee, pictured On Melissa’s Facebook page, October 17, 2017

In a brutal facebook post dated October 17, 2017, she introduces us to women who have endured serial rape and genital mutilation, women who have been denied education, and women who don’t know their own birthdays.  But everything she writes reminds us that her refugee friends are NOT the evil from which they have fled. On the contrary, they are courageous heroes trying to change their destiny and create a better world. To judge them by their abusers’ crimes is far worse and far less justifiable than judging all Americans by the violence portrayed in our media.

A Better Response

The only response that will reduce rather than escalate violence across the globe is to help.

“We are like adoptive mothers…” says Melissa. “We role model … that it is not only safe, but imperative, that we use our first world voices to help everyone—women, men, adults, children—rise above their own horrific sagas of abuse.”

The Risk

Of course, “safe” is a relative word–one that I confess I struggle with. I have refrained from sharing pictures, names, or details about any of Sven’s friends, not only because I don’t have permission, but because I know that there is always some risk in exposing them, even though they are “relatively” safe in Sweden. Sitting at home half-way across the world from them, I don’t know enough about their circumstances to determine when the benefit of speaking out justifies whatever risk remains to their safety. I have not earned the right to ask for their permission.

The Reward

But I also know in my gut that love and change both involve some risk. I’m grateful to Melissa for earning trust, and I honor her refugee friends for their courage.

I am not naïve to the challenges of suddenly assimilating millions of refugees from Eastern nations into Western cultures. I know the threat we all face from the extremists who have victimized those refugees the most. I know the road ahead will be long and difficult for those of us who want to help and connect.

friendsBut then I look at this picture and others like it of refugees who welcomed my son Sven so warmly to Sweden.

I remember that Sven is home and they are not.

For me, it is long past time to care about their journey.

 

Hannele and Sven Find Refuge

My mother, Hannele Blomqvist, was a refugee child in Sweden during World War II. From 2015-2017, her grandson (my son) Sven served a Mormon mission in Sweden. His dearest friends were refugees from Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. When I contemplate their experiences, I am reminded not only that “there but for the grace of God go I” but that God’s grace can be found in the refugee experience, both for refugees and for those who have the luxury of staying home. Of course, everything depends on how we respond to the newcomers among us.

Hannele's family (2)Finland at War

In 1944, when my mother was eight, her parents made the difficult decision to send her, along with 70,000 other Finnish refugee children to Sweden. Russia had invaded Finland, and the Finns, who had finally won their independence from Russia in 1917, were determined to fight to maintain that independence.

However, the Finns knew their chances of victory were slim against the powerful Soviet army. They wanted some of their children to escape the violence of war and the very real possibility of Soviet communist rule. My grandfather, a pilot in the Finnish air force, was especially concerned about the danger his family faced while living on an airbase, a likely target of a Soviet bomb attack.

My grandparents were part of a minority of Finns whose first language was Swedish. My mother and her older sister usually spoke Finnish, but they understood their parents’ Swedish, and my grandparents hoped this would help my mother adjust to a new life in Sweden. Still, I think it must have been almost unbearable for them to send their daughter away, not knowing who would care for her and whether they would ever see her again.

Hannele's passport (2)

Here’s a picture of my mother’s passport, though it turned out she didn’t need it. Most refugee children were allowed to enter the country with just an identification tag around their necks.

An Unexpected Outcome

Some historians today argue that separating these Finnish children from their parents was a mistake. Some of the children were treated like servants, and many developed serious attachment disorders. Of course, if the Finns had not managed to drive the Russians out of their country, the historians might feel differently now. They have the luxury of criticizing the venture because the war ended a year later and most Finnish refugee children returned home to their families in a miraculously independent Finland.

Transition to a New Life

My mother’s year in Sweden was a happier one than some children experienced, but she did suffer at first from anxiety and homesickness. She remembers an interminably long train ride and then a new temporary home at a school in Stockholm, where she cried herself to sleep every night. However, her circumstances quickly improved after a young Mr. and Mrs. Lundén and their baby visited the school in response to a plea on the Swedish radio and took her home with them.

A Second Family for Hannele

Knowing Swedish did help my mother to adjust. She soon became close, not only to the Lundén couple with whom she lived during school days, but also with Mrs. Lundén’s large, close, and loving extended family with whom she spent weekends and holidays. Mrs. Lundén’s mother especially played an important role as the grandmother my mother never had, since her biological grandparents had all passed away when she was very young. And my mother was blessed to see in the Lundéns’ marriage relationship a happiness which seemed to elude my grandparents’ marriage, though my grandparents were both good people.

young Lundens (2)I believe that my mother’s relationships with the Lundén family also were aided by her own sweet nature and desire to please. Mr. Lundén was a formal navy officer and educator who wore a suit throughout much of my visit with him in 1980, even though he was long retired by then. Yet my mother tells stories of him paying her to comb his hair while he graded papers.  In 1945 when he faced the prospect of sending my mother home, Mr. Lundén took the time to write her a poem about the light she had brought into his life and then decorated the poem with a border of flowers.

poem (2)

When I visited him 36 years later in 1980, he took me for a walk and showed me, with tears in his eyes, the building where my mother had attended school in Stockholm. Here’s a picture of me with the Lundén family in 1980. In between Mr. and Mrs. Lundén is Mrs. Lundén’s younger sister, Inga-Brita, and in front of Mr. Lundén is Mrs. Lundén’s special mother whom my mother adored.

746109-R1-19-19_020 (2)

More Refugees in Finland

The Finns my mother returned to were grateful and stunned to occupy the only remaining independent country bordering Russia. However, they were also exhausted by the heavy price they had paid for this independence and overwhelmed by the task of re-claiming their lives.  Much of their infrastructure was in shambles, almost an entire generation of their young men lay in graves, and their country was now geographically smaller.

In order to negotiate a peace treaty, they had conceded a large portion of eastern Finland to Russia. Consequently, long lines of eastern Finland’s residents were now entering independent Finland as refugees. This led to a serious housing shortage and a government mandate that Finnish citizens share any home with a greater number of rooms than occupants.

Lahti houseAt the end of the war, my grandfather had started building a home in the city of Lahti. Shortly after moving in, his family turned over their two upstairs bedrooms to a 30ish-year-old woman named Selma and her mother. A carpenter and his son lived and worked in their basement bedroom. All three families shared the kitchen and a small bathroom in the basement. The carpenter and his son soon found a better place to live and work, but Selma and her mother stayed long enough to become life-long friends with my mother’s family.

Multi-Generational Friendships

Mom also maintained close ties with the Lundén family and visited them during the two summers she worked in Sweden as a teenager. In her adult life, after she had moved to the United States, she rarely made a trip to Finland without scheduling a detour to Sweden to see the Lundéns. Mom and Dad with the Lunden familyAbout ten years ago, the Lundéns’ granddaughter Stella

 

spent a year as an exchange student with my brother’s family in Provo, Utah, and in 2015, Stella’s parents, Håkan and Ingrid, made a special trip to Utah from Sweden just to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday with her. Håkan was not born until about ten years after my mother’s year in Sweden as a refugee child, but because of deep bonds that have lasted several generations between his family and ours, he is as important to my mother as anyone else in his family. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of them at the 80th birthday party, but here they all are about ten years earlier, visiting the Mormon tabernacle together in Salt Lake City.

A Changed World View

Mom’s life was profoundly affected by her experiences both as a refugee child and as part of a host family to fellow country men and women in need. Her world became larger. She experienced people and relationships that compensated for what she sometimes lacked in her immediate family relationships. She found courage and gained confidence. She learned that the strange and unfamiliar could become valuable and beautiful to her. She desired to learn more about the world first-hand and in fact took a detour after one summer of work in Sweden to hitch-hike throughout Europe with a friend–waiting until she arrived home to inform her father of the trip.

Above all, her experience made her more open than she might have been to the teachings of the LDS church (commonly referred to as the Mormon church), to which she was introduced in her teenage years. Her eventual baptism into the LDS church changed the course of her life and resulted in her emigrating at the age of 21 to the United States.

In a future blog post, I will discuss more about her immigration experience, and in yet another post I will try to explain the many ways her experience has affected my life and my world view. However, right now I need to fast forward over seventy years to my son Sven’s recent experience with refugees in Sweden.

Hannele’s Grandson Sven Visits Sweden

You might already know that many young StellaLDS men and women serve 18 month to 2 year missions for their church throughout the world. The process begins with their sending in an application to church leaders, and then they wait for a “mission call” which tells them where they have been assigned to labor.

When Sven was “called” to Sweden, our family were of course thrilled that he would have the opportunity to learn more about Scandinavian culture, and we were especially delighted that Sven was able to visit Stella Lundén in Stockholm recently.

But Sven’s experience in Sweden was also deeply enriched by his humanitarian work with many Muslim refugees and immigrants from Middle Eastern cultures like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Many reached out to him in kindness and friendship, displaying a culture of hospitality so appealing to Sven that he is thinking about pursuing a degree in Middle Eastern studies.

Swedes Help Refugees/ Refugees Help Sven

Sven was only a few blocks away from the terrorist attack in Stockholm last April,  and he witnessed several angry demonstrations of white supremacist groups who feel threatened by the large influx of Middle Easterners in the country. But Sven also saw many Swedes successfully helping his Middle Eastern friends to assimiliate into Swedish culture, and his personal experience with the vast majority of Middle Easterners was overwhelmingly positive. Sven was especially moved by the generosity of these friends even in the aftermath of terrible trauma and even midst conditions of extreme poverty and hardship.

Unfortunately, most of these friends aren’t able to live with a Swedish host family, as my mother did. They are at first dependent on the housing and help the government gives them, and then they transition into modest apartments as they gradually learn the language and find jobs often far beneath their education and skills levels. Sven met many refugees living in large numbers in tiny apartments with little or no furniture. Yet almost always they wanted to feed him and learn his story.

Finding Common Ground

Sven found much common ground to celebrate with his Muslim friends, who value kindness, generosity, modesty, humble reliance on a higher power, and a “plan” for God’s children which includes many similarities to the one Sven espouses. Perhaps the most important commonality between Sven and his middle Eastern friends, however, is that they all know what it feels like to begin a new life in a new country with a new language.

friendsThe Language of Love

That language barrier can especially be a problem, and Sven deeply wished he knew Persian and Arabic so he wouldn’t have to rely so much on Google Translate and charades to communicate. But Sven also assures us that language barriers do not have to stop us from being friends with people of other nations. Love is a universal language understood by all God’s children. Love and friendship especially can happen between displaced peoples who recognize each other as travelers sharing a new experience and dependent upon each other’s kindness and mercy.

skyping SvenAn Invitation

Last Christmas when our family skyped with Sven, he spoke Swedish for the first time with his grandmother and I sensed deep gratitude within her for this opportunity. I wish that we could all contribute to this conversation in our native languages, and if you want to do so, I’ll try my best with Google Translate to understand you. But I’ve seen what Google Translate does to Finnish and I have to say that English might still be our best bet! If you share a desire to be part of this international community of friends, I warmly welcome you and so look forward to hearing your stories! I especially hope to hear from those who are refugees or who work with refugees. Why did you or your friends have to leave home? What was most difficult about the move? What good has come from the experience? What are your or your friends’ hopes and desires for the immediate and more distant future?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Why This Blog? I want to Know Your Story

Syrian refugees 2

It is hard these days not to despair about the state of the world and harder still to avoid the consternation I feel as a White American. For years now, I’ve sat in front of my television in my comfortable living room and watched families fleeing their own countries. I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, school teachers, engineers, artists, and computer programmers with no supplies except what they can carry on their backs trying to calm their children as they cross ocean waters in rubber boats and contemplate a bleak, unknown future.

 

 

I’ve seen the make-shift refugee camps where some people have lived now for years. I’ve seen the anxiety on the faces of national leaders who warn that their resources and ability to accommodate these refugees are stretched to their limit. And now I grapple with my country’s decision to close its borders to so many who need a home.

 

 

We’ve all seen the backlash —the nationalism and even tribalism that have resulted from rapid cultural migration, a rapidly changing global economy, and rising terrorism.  At a time when the world needs to come together to solve complex international problems, alliances are crumbling and the United States is mistrusted by many of its oldest international friends and partners. Within the United States, rural folks are pitted against city folks, and Republicans and Democrats no longer speak to each other. Throughout the world, white supremacist groups have come out of the closet into mainstream culture, and 800,000 young people who know no other home besides the United States now face the very real threat of deportation.

Hope

Yet on good days I also see much that gives me hope. I see caring, egalitarian young people becoming more politically involved than they have been in the past. I see donations increasing to humanitarian organizations. I see inter-faith activities bringing Christians and Muslims together.  It’s been a hard year, and there’s no question we are deeply divided about immigration and national security issues, which are admittedly difficult and complex. But I still believe that many of us want world travel to be accessible to as many people as possible. Many of us feel enriched by cultures and world views different from our own. And many of us still believe that all human lives matter.

What Can I Do?

I want to avoid despair, to choose love over fear, and to enjoy the rich variety of cultures throughout the world. Specifically, I want to be a part of the effort to promote not only multi-cultural understanding, good will, and peaceful co-existence, but also true cross-cultural friendships and collaboration.  And though my efforts will most likely result in some political discussions, I do not believe that political discussions are the best way to begin.

Political viewpoints are by necessity based on generalizations, and our generalizations don’t seem to be working for us these days. They are too often hasty, uninformed, and reductive. Before we can make any meaningful or useful generalizations about groups of people, we mush first recognize every group as a mix of unique, complex individuals who are so much more significant and complicated than the categories in which we place them. And paradoxically, it is when we begin to see each other’s individuality and uniqueness that we often discover our common humanity.

earth-1964822I believe a better way to begin forming relationships is to become acquainted with each other’s individual life stories—the stories behind our political views. Even people who have grown up with us or lived in the same house with us often don’t really understand us until we narrate our own perceptions of our shared lives. How important it is, then, to know the stories of people who live on the other side of the tracks—or the other side of the planet—from us.

Knowing each other’s stories might prevent us from annihilating each other. Knowing each other’s stories might help us to like each other, despite our political and cultural differences. Knowing each other’s stories might in fact turn some of us into real friends. And through the internet, knowing is easily accessible for those who desire it.

Let’s Tell Our Stories!

I have created this “blog” in hopes that it will facilitate more in-depth conversation and sharing than people are prepared to spend on social media like Facebook.  I put quotation marks around the word “blog” because I hope readers will come to think of this site as something different from most blogs. It is “my” blog in that I will introduce our discussion topics, but I hope to read others’ stories as much as to share my own. With each post I hope to start a conversation which will continue even without my involvement.

If you are already telling your stories on your own blog, I hope you will share links to your posts as they relate to the topics I introduce. If you have read articles or books or seen documentaries about my blog subjects, again I hope you will share access to this information.

We Can Make A Difference! … And We Can Make Friends

So many important benefits can come from cross-cultural friendships. I envision significant world-wide efforts to reduce global income inequality, promote universal human rights, and avoid environmental and nuclear holocaust. But at the risk of sounding too needy,  I have to disclose up front that my primary motivation is much more personal.

I am a product of parents who not only come from different cultures and countries, but who both left behind their cultures in their adulthood. Because of their cultural displacement, I have felt for most of my life like a woman without a country.  These days I feel grateful for my lack of complete cultural assimilation because it has brought me freedom, unique relationships, and new paradigms I would not trade for any amount of cultural belonging. There’s something lost but so much to be gained in feeling homeless for a while. But everyone eventually needs a home to go to. I am no exception, and I know there are other misfits like me, searching for a home.

internet friendsI strongly believe we should all be seeking opportunities to connect in person, face to face, with our neighbors, even–especially?–the ones we don’t like, but I also believe we can be buoyed up in those sometimes difficult efforts by a community of friends who share our most important goals and values. I sincerely hope that at least some of us misfits can find a virtual home with each other and that our vulnerability will not make us the target of too much discouraging animosity.

We’re Not Alone

After creating the name for this blog, I did a google search and discovered I was not the first to come up with the name Friends without Borders. Nor was I the first to think of story-telling as a means of bridging cultural divides. The website friendswithoutborders.org was established by an organization helping children in India write letters to children in Pakistan; and now a sister website, friendswithoutborders.net, is being created to spread the letter-writing effort wordwide. But so far I know of no place where adults can share their stories on-line within an international community.

Besides meeting people of many nations, I hope that together we can consider cultural variations within countries and between sub-cultures. The United States is especially a country of many cultures. The Utah I grew up in is vastly different from the North Dakota my husband calls home. Despite many obvious similarities, the community of my youth–in the foothills of Provo, Utah and in the shadow of Brigham Young University–is very different from the small town of Salem, Utah where I now live. The challenge and unique opportunity of this blog will be to communicate those cultural features in ways that are meaningful even to people who live in Arkansas or Bolivia or Iran or Norway.

House Rules (borrowed from friendswithoutborders.net)

I believe this blog will serve a purpose quite different from the other websites I have seen. However, I would like my readers to consider the wonderful “Friendship Promise” posted on the friendswithoutborders.net website. Imagine a world in which we all made these commitments:

I will seek to understand, not just to be understood.

I will treat all people equally, with equal respect, despite differences in age, gender, religion, ethnicity, place of origin, financial status, sexual orientation, or other perceived differences.

When confronted with viewpoints that may be in conflict with my own, I will work to find connections wherever they do exist and build on these.

I will speak the truth in my heart, that comes from my own life experience, and will allow others to do so without argument. [Here I would substitute the word “antagonism” for “argument.” Surely we can disagree without being disagreeable.]

I will make space for others, especially for those who may be slow to speak, new to technology, or speak a language different from mine.

I will treat others as I want to be treated.  I will approach all interactions with the very best I have to offer: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, temperance. (http://www.friendswithoutborders.net/)

An Invitation

In my next post on Sunday, October 22, I will tell you about my personal connections to the refugee and immigrant experience. I then hope to hear your thoughts and stories about the topic. So please spread the word. Share a link to this blog with your friends throughout the world who are committed to the goal of multi-cultural understanding and friendship. Check back with me after Sunday, October 22. And then post your thoughts, stories, and links.