I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1985, when I was two years old. I’ve been told the story about what happened when they drew my blood at the hospital, and I feel like I almost remember it. I became irate when the nurse started drawing blood from my veins, and I started yelling at her “Put that back! That’s mine and you put that back.” It’s a go-to anecdote to warn people that I have been stubborn (pig-headed, headstrong, inflexible, determined) since birth. It is a blessing and a curse. When I first separated from my ex, I came up with this mantra about being the captain. When I got scared, or doubted myself, I would imagine the scene from “Captain Phillips” when Abduwali Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi says “Look at me. Look at me. I am the captain now.” I came across an entry in a journal from my birthday in 2019. I wrote about wanting a divorce, how I was going to go hiking with the boys and leave my husband at home because he would only complain, and that I was not going to be able to afford living on my own, so I would never actually get a divorce. I am so glad I stopped letting fear get in the way of what I need. It took a lot of time, but eventually something deep within me gave me the courage to speak the truth. It was the combination of realizing that life is indeed short, and I didn’t want to feel lost, ignored and resented anymore. Propelled by a sense of regaining my identity and embracing change and challenges, I began to think about hiking more seriously.
My idea to hike a section of the AT began sometime in 2020, took a Covid hiatus, and then came back to life in January of 2021. Just after I began to train in earnest and start blogging about it, I fell, badly twisting my ankle in the process, and I was sidelined for a bit. I sidelined myself again today, for only a few days, thanks to a new tattoo. It is my third tattoo, and I realized that each one of them involved words. My first one I got when I was nineteen or so, and it’s the Chinese symbol for Tao on my right foot. Although I regret the symbol – it’s like having a timestamp from the early 2000s – I don’t regret the significance of it. I had lost a friend who had been studying Taoism. My second tattoo came in 2016 or so, and it’s an infinity sign with three birds and the words “Type 1 Diabetic” on there. Each bird represents someone in my family with T1D, myself included. Today’s tattoo was the word “sisu,” written in my dad’s handwriting. If you haven’t been following my blog, I have written before about the Finnish word “Sisu” in the beginning of May (link). As a foreign language teacher, and former English teacher, (and aspiring writer) words and symbolism play an important role in my life, and it only makes sense that everything permanent on my body includes both.
My hiking buddy/eco-therapist, Maria, told me about the Japanese word “komorebi” which has no direct English equivalent. It is a word that designates the light that comes through the trees. How amazing to have one word for that. Specific words unique to a language can tell us so much about their culture. Similar to komorebi, the Finnish word “sisu” has no direct English translation. In my search to get back to “find myself” (I realize that I will be looking forever) I have been thinking about my heritage. I am American, I am genetically a European mutt, but I look like my dad and his side of the family, particularly my paternal grandmother. How much of who I am comes from nature versus nurture? I decided to interview my dad, Robert Gilbert for this blog post, a self-proclaimed “block head” who looks every bit of his Finnish heritage, a novelist, and one of my favorite people on this planet.
Liz: I found this introduction while I was researching sisu, and I want to share it with you first. “‘Sisu will get you even through granite,’ my Finnish mother-in-law used to say. If you look at the enormous grey outcrops of granite scattered since the ice age through the Finnish countryside and forests, you’ll realise that getting through them is not just difficult, it is pretty well impossible.” (Smirnova, Olga “Sisu: The Finnish art of inner strength” source). So my first question to you is, when has sisu gotten you through your ‘granite?’
Robert: Sisu has helped me to adopt the habit of doing the hardest task I have first in the day, to smash through that so that the rest of the day I can be in a state of satisfaction rather than dread. It comes from newspapering where there were deadlines and you just had to deal with the fact that you had a lot of work to do in a little bit of time. Doing the things that I really worry about, and that make me uncomfortable, like making the phone call to tell people the harsh truth, getting that done first thing just helps the rest of the day glow. It’s my habitual way to be resolute.
When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, I entered into a deep, deep, clinical depression. It’s hard to describe what this is like to anyone who has never been there. I began to have thoughts of suicide. Why live if this is a progressive disease with an inevitable outcome? Do I want to turn into the people I have seen who live with the horrors of this disease – loss of memory, tremors, blank faces- all predictable ways in which I will deteriorate? Would it just be simpler to off myself to spare myself and my family that kind of pain?
I had to realize that I was living for something other than my own comfort and to be brave in the face of my fears so that I could be a good example to my wife and my children to face up and do it, you know, deal with it day-to-day. I went on medication to decrease the symptoms. I had to call upon the resources of my character, my strength and resolve to get out of that depression. Depression is a characteristic of Finns. They are a dower people, yet their attitude towards life is positive in the face of adversity. It has to be to thrive where they live, you have to be mentally tough. I began to exercise, walk, I finished writing my novel (Plausible Deniability) and through myself into activities reward was a sense of achievement. It was not so much the medication, but my attitude adjustment that got me out of the depression. At some point you either deal with it or you die and when the temptation is there to just give up, that’s when you call on sisu. Of course sisu can only take you so far, then you have to call for help. I was always the strong one in the family and suddenly I was the guy who needed help, and I had to learn how to ask for help and I believe I am better for it.
Liz: That’s interesting you mention this, because I started the first paragraph with the story of my diagnosis and how I told the nurses to put my blood back. I want to get into the idea of stubbornness/sisu having both positive and negative attributes.
Robert: The guys at Kaleva (a Finnish civic association in Littleton, MA) always said stubbornnFinn is one word. They had to be in order to not be run over by the Russians.
Liz: I read another article about how non-Finns can develop sisu from an interview with Joanna Nylund, author of Sisu: The Finnish Art of Strength. The interview goes into depth about, “embracing discomfort, getting out despite the weather, and seeking silence and solitude as a way to develop inner strength. We also talk about the Finnish practice of retreating to a rustic cabin in the summer to reacquaint oneself with simplicity, manual labor, and nature.” (Art of Manliness). I find I do a lot of these things, and in particular the tie to nature has been really important to me recently, obviously, with all the hiking. How would you recommend developing sisu if it’s not innate?
Robert: My grandfather (Evert Kahilainen) used to talk about the birch trees in Finland. Not to make a pun [Robert Gilbert loves puns] but he pined for that once he was in Chicago. I think that we all have those places in nature that are familiar to us and bring us back to a sense of home. There are wonders of the natural world all around, you don’t need to live in the wild forests surrounded with lakes like in Finland. Being in nature reminds us of the regenerative power, the awesomeness of the natural world. The New York Times had an article yesterday about rotifers (source). There are these incredible organisms with a digestive system, brains, and the ability to move yet they are almost too small to see. They can live for tens of thousands of years and survive being frozen solid. Nature is full of that stuff and gives us the constant reminder of how powerful the will to live is.
Liz: What about Grandma Gilbert? Did she ever tell you any stories about how she had to use sisu?
Robert; She had to beat shyness and fight to become an independent person despite growing up in a house under a very stern mother. She was born in 1909 and she was in high school during the 1920s, the era of the flapper with their short dresses and hair cuts. It was a movement of not only feminism, but modernity and sexual awareness. She lived in a Finnish community with the buttoned up Finns, both literally and figuratively. She had long hair that went down her back, and one day she went and got a flapper bob haircut. When she came home her mom told her to leave the house, adding ‘you are not my daughter.’ When grandpa [my great-father] came home she was out front on the porch in the cold. She knew that would be her mother’s reaction, but she did it anyway. She told her dad that story and he brought her back inside. Your great-grandmother was a very beautiful lady in her time, but by the time I knew her, she was dominant and scary and had a permanent ‘sucking lemons’ look to her. She tried to control grandma because her sister Tiame, we think, got pregnant out of wedlock. Grandma’s sister was set to marry Carl Mattson and one day Mr. Mattson came over to have pulla, a Finnish sweet bread, and coffee. He told the family that Carl was not going to get married, he had joined the army instead. The next day Tiame “fell” out of a second story window and died.
The theory is that my great-grandparents were particularly hard on my grandmother so that she would not end up like her sister. I thanked my dad for allowing me to interview him and we talked a bit more before I hung up. I have a reminder on my ribs of one piece of my heritage. To me sisu is a reminder that I am strong, stubborn and rebellious. It is a reminder to live like the Finns- retreat to find inner strength, embrace the uncomfortable and connect with nature often.
Recent feedback I have been getting about this blog from friends (and readers, you are more than welcome to comment on the posts themselves) has been that people appreciate my honesty, vulnerability and the rawness of it resonates particularly with women who have been through a divorce. I find this fascinating, the idea that words resonate, because the way people are using this word is in the context of “to produce a positive feeling, emotional response, or opinion” (source). Another possible definition of the verb is reverberation – as in resonating at a certain energy frequency. The idea that words I choose to share with an audience resonate, in both aspects, is so cool to me. I think about how trees communicate, despite not having brains nor a language, and how lucky we are to have all sorts of ways in which to express ourselves.
I’d love to hear from you. Do you have a word that is in your blood that either helps you understand who you are, or helps when times get tough?