22.12.10

jul (tre)

Last night we had a most surreal experience. Late in the evening (after the practical things taken care of -- supper leftovers put away, fire stoked, baby changed and fed and put to bed in a neighbors care) Martin and I headed a few kilometers to a friend's farm, who lives high on a bluff surrounded by forest, in a former summer home built by a wealthy and long-dead Swedish noble. Our purpose: Christmas tree hunting.

All over Sweden right now (northern Europe, really) it's cold. Last night about -20 and a full moon. The sky was a deep silver-blue and with thigh-deep snow on the ground it was so bright we could walk on our Christmas tree hunt without the aid of flashlight. In places where the moon shone through the open spaces it was as bright and huge as a celestial street lamp. In the moonlight the deciduous trees (covered in thick hoar frost) were a million tiny glittering crystals. (I promise I am not poetically exaggerating.) The fir and pine trees, covered with so much snow their limbs were bent parallel with their trunks, were wreathed in great tubes and gobs and mounds of snow. They ended up appearing to be giant soft-serve ice cream cones rather than trees.

It was so beautiful and other-worldly I couldn't concentrate on where we were going and kept walking off our trail into the deep snow, filling the tops of my boots and jeans and laughing like a kid. If there was something to restore the magical wonder of Christmas it was that tree hunt.

We found our small pine not too far off the trail, dug it out of the snow, cut it and stuffed it the back of our Toyota. We brought it home and Martin left it standing in the washroom to warm up and drop the ice and snow.

The magic of the night returned instantly this morning when I walked into the bathroom to find it filled with the scent of pine and our little tree standing awkwardly in the bathtub.

22.11.10

sweet goodness

I just wrote a new post this morning, then was so tempted and revived by some photos from the "wine district" of south-central British Columbia, Canada and therefore couldn't resist posting again. It helps that they are photos from a wonderfully good friend whom I miss dearly.
Go look for yourself.

things of yesterday and now

Little squeaking patting noises as Max pursues this morning entertainment of hitting his small chubby hands on the door of the dishwasher.
A Polish man in pitch-dark of the moonless November evening, selling his sketches door-to-door in confused and broken Swedish. His sketching case patched with tape. His dripping umbrella folded haphazardly. The sight of it touched me. I bought a portrait of a small sleeping boy he said was his nephew, curled up with a cat.

Sitting at our kitchen table (the clock edging towards "the indecent hours") eating spicy fries baked with cheddar cheese, black pepper, and green onions, dipped in sour cream or homemade honey mustard, and talking about love.

The comforting feeling of achievement when I walk in our bedroom to see the rather large cupboard-desk that I yesterday disassembled in the wet and cold, hauled inside, and reassembled before Martin returned home.

Indulging in (basking, really) the absolutely overstated "superwoman" compliment from my kind husband.

A conversation with my mom, loving and wise, who willing got out of bed to talk when I called too late. How blessed am I to enjoy a friendship (and receive advice from) with someone who has known me since birth, loves me unconditionally, has lived a life of experience and grace, and freely shares her thoughts without expectations, demands or condescension. Awfully sad how often people waste their years not hearing the wisdom of experience from people around them; taking their proximity or relationship for granted, only realizing what they've missed when it's out of reach. (This is a reminder to self not to do so!)

Expectations of my pursuits of the day: things that give absurd pleasure like reorganizing, painting, designing and writing, and drinking that first cup of hot black tea swirling with cream (or condensed milk, even better) and honey. I love tea absurdly much.

Planning a tea. I bake scones, provide the butter and the cream and the tea, and each guest brings at least one jar of jam or compote or marmalade. Oh, delicious!

15.11.10

nutter

Starting to feel crazy. Yes. Actually crazy. Wondering about "cabin fever". Exhibiting symptoms.

Cabin fever

An idiomatic term for extreme irritability, emotional instability, and restlessness from living in isolation or a confined indoor area for long periods of time.

Symptoms include restlessness, irritability, irrational frustration with everyday objects, forgetfulness, laughter, excessive sleeping, distrust of anyone they are with, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow or dark.

8.11.10

of elves and men


Several recent conversations fused together, provoking thought and prose on forests and plains.

Forest is fantasy: red-topped mushrooms crouching under fir and fern, footpaths leading away up piney slopes and thick beds of moss coating stone and fallen branch. Her scents are powerful. Subtle, too. Smells of green and clean. Smells still and wet. Forest is mystery. Secrecy. Creatures and things hidden behind trunk and beneath knoll. Faraway rustlings and mutterings, snappings and scrapings. Wood nymphs, trolls and dwarves. Dim, black: under fir and towering pine, even the hilltops sheltered, surrounded. Secure, ensconced. Forest is she: her deep, dark moods pulling you to some unforeseeable destination. She is wild imagination and a hundred years of quiet, predictable growth.

Grassland is eternal heavens and unending horizon, straight and unbroken, the way bearing neither too far left nor too far right. Prairie is always he: solid, stark, open, strong-tempered and generous. He has no subtleties. He gives up everything in a wide, sweeping panorama: all his blue, blue sky, his rich, black earth, his bent and stubbled trees, his grasses, the hunting hawk and prowling fox and creeping critters. It's heart-land: honest in unpredictability, in harshness. The killing snowstorm, the drowning thundershower, the long dry spells. The ferocious wind that tears down from the north and lances the skin. He loves tough: reddens the neck of the soil-toiler. He heartens the appetite and puts you to work. And never deprives of a sunrise and a sunset, an ocean of land edged in light.

To say one is more beautiful -- he or she -- is folly. Just plain silliness. It's the taste of salt or sugar. The feel of wood or of air. Both good and created.

27.10.10

chuckle

I picked up a book recently that said:

Children laugh an average of about 150 times per day, while adults laugh about 10 times.

I have no idea where they dug up this information and at the moment I am too lazy to check for myself, however, I tend to think it's fairly true. Max laughs quite often, often at "nothing". I am somewhat of a "laughing individual", and yet still I feel pressed to find joy and abandon in everyday life. Having a little laugher around will be good for me. Hopefully he will rub off.

18.10.10

i have tears in my ears

Butter tart squares cooling on the counter and birch logs glowing in the fireplace. Baby asleep -- for now. I begin my vigil, waiting and wondering when -- hoping "if" -- he will wake up. His poor little internal clock is way off. After three nights of wee-hours playtime with Max, I decide to stay up, dressed, armed with snacks, TV shows, computer, and book, instead of dragging my poor bones repeatedly from bed.

Last night in these wee hours Max and I went for a walk, him bundled in his sleeping bag against the chilly air. It was "true" dark, forest dark, with little light pollution, stars standing crisp and cold on gently curved night sky. I pushed Max over our frosted driveway and felt overwhelmed by the greatness above me. Seeing the curve of the earth and 70-foot pines bending towards the rich blue-black -- as if a photo taken with a fish eye for NG. Except that no lens could replicate it, with the crunch of stones, and the smell of damp leaves and wood smoke.

The return here from Calgary left me emotionally and physically drained. Getting on the airplane to come to Sweden, my feet and stomach felt leaden. I haven't felt so torn before, so half in one place and half in another. I have been entirely naive about what it means to live half a world away from people you love, and yet, I could not change it even if I could go back. Before living here I didn't even really know Martin. And knowing him better --understanding his background and family life and what helped to shape his way of thinking -- that's only one of many good things of being here. But making your mother cry is awful.

During our visit my mom and I found ourselves at the worn kitchen table, eating bits of leftover Thanksgiving dinner and talking about the heaviness of our hearts. I feel particularly close to my family. We are good friends and enjoy hanging out. And yet there were times when it felt like the emotions were pulling me under, choking out my ability to live in the moment. I talked about this, and my mom talked about her struggles with understanding God's intentions for us all. Her words, "life is a series of gains and losses," reminded me of the way the write of Ecclesiastes sounded. We sat there, with the midmorning sun pouring in, and wept. In the midst of my tears I started laughing. I was helpless to stop it when I realized we were crying with bowls of what we call "sunshine salad" in front of us. Two big softies cryin' in our sunshine salad.

Dealing with this emotional rollercoaster brought me around to thinking of the "problem of pain" disproving the existence of a loving God. But I like the way one writer put it, calling the greater question the "problem of pleasure". Without the pain, the lack, the abstinence that results in great anticipation instead of instant gratification, would these anticipated things be as joyful, as lovely?

It's a thorny question at two a.m. when I am physically and emotionally spent. Baby is finally asleep, I hope, and I am wishing for a dreamless sleep myself.

4.9.10

something real

This morning we awoke to find the windows wetted and frosted half-way up. The sun is bravely attempting to burn through both cloud and pine -- a hopeful start for the day.
Max awoke at 6:30 am, and lying almost comatose beside him on the couch I thought about:
meaningfulness

Thought about how much energy I expend on the
meaningless

When energy and thought, emotion and ability could be summoned/mustered/corralled into something intentional, concrete.

So for the next time I sit to write, it will be about people and places I love; ways of being that inspire me, people that plow through the everyday normalcy of life in small western Canadian cities, or pockmarked and shell-riddled Bosnian villages, or the south Sudanese wilderness. People like Gudeta, Michal, Angelika, Dr. Daniel Madit Thon Duop, Rob Jones. Oh the list is wonderfully long. How have I been so blessed in my short life to meet so many wonderful people? Where shall I begin?




25.8.10

fool proof?

One of the gifts we received when Max was born is a hand/foot print frame thingy, in which you are supposed to be able to make 3-D prints of your baby's feet and hands. It looked complicated and messy and I haven't mustered the energy to open it until today.

It was raining this afternoon (all day, in fact) and I finally pulled the gift down and opened it up. In the midst of sachets of clay and jell and instructions in twenty different languages, my eyes fell to the front cover of one of the booklets. I laughed in disbelief. A hand giving a thumbs up, with the phrase "100% failure proof."

Absolutely. One hundred percent. They can guarantee it. Even an idiot cannot fail! There is something disturbing and refreshing about it. I can't put my finger on it, but it appealed to me and at the same time disgusted me. How many things in life are 100 percent failure proof? Can't think of many. Or any?

We'll see how the footprints turn out.

20.8.10

Restless nights full of dark, violent dreams. Easily shaken off in the morning, but they come scraping and hobbling back. They catch me in the shadowed places between the streetlights, where the trees grow so tightly together they form a wall of branches and trunks. I can't help but look backwards over my shoulder as I walk, thinking of how I would protect my child from harm. Shake my head. Stop. Stupid overactive imagination.

9.8.10

sugar

Sweet (and good) things of summer:
Blueberry icecream.
Watching Max pull hair.
Wonderful friends visiting.
Belly laughs.
Honest conversation.
Painting doors and windows red.
Summer cuddles with Max.
My first medium-rare burger.
Visiting two of Sweden's archipelagos.
Strawberries, milk, and coffee.
Beach sand like icing sugar between toes.
Takeaway Thai on a balcony overlooking the Baltic sea at sunset.
"Homemade" strawberry rhubarb icecream.
Road trips with Martin and Max. East coast, west coast, three different islands.
Babies in their diapers.
Sweltering hot summer days.
Two non-swimmers (one Canadian and one Swedish) taking an evening dip in the lake.
Spending time with family.
Suntanning on the rocky shores of the west coast.
Continued learnings on the charcoal grill.
Completing projects around the house.
Martin, the "waspbuster", protecting his wife and son.
Spending time with Martin's parents.
Discovered places: old coffee houses, historical farms, tiny B&Bs and a beautiful gardens tucked away in a small island village.
Friend's handmade gifts: beautiful, sweet things for Max.
The (sometimes surprising) thoughtfulness of people on my birthday.
Strawberry torte on my 28th birthday -- layered shortcake with whipped cream, vanilla custard, and loaded with locally grown strawberries.

23.7.10

little one

Each day holds a thousand profound moments, all of them cheapened by description.
(I once thought that parents talked about children because their world had so imperceptibly narrowed that it was the only thing they could talk about. In a sense that still holds. My world has narrowed. Beautifully. Perfectly.)

I am moved to tears when I turn from some distraction and find his dark blue eyes looking intently at my face. As if he's waiting for me to see him. When he sees me see him, his own face lights in the purest, gummiest grin. I sit, overcome, thinking -- I am wasting my time on the pathetic and temporal when before me is eternity.

3.7.10

midsommar igen

Another Midsummer passed. The lupin and oak leaves drying brown on the maypoles. A hazy heat has overtaken early July, and I find myself wanting to retreat into the coolness of the forest more than finding a patch of beachsand at the lake. Poor little Max doesn't take to the heat so well, sweating in his little diaper while trying to sleep under the trees.
Tonight was a perfect summer night; grilling with Martin's parents on the cool grass -- steak, potato salad, greens picked from our garden with dill and lemon. Rhubarb lemonade and watermelon slices. Then perfectly ripened local strawberries, cream and coffee. We decided to take the "long" route home from Myresjö -- following small roads through old growth forests with mossed, gnarly oaks (my favourites), past small farms carved out of rocky, forested hills, small lakes, and numerous old homes and summer cottages.

It was the kind of drive that got us "lost" after two or three turns. Windows down, summer air smelling of farm, wildflowers and deep woods untouched by sunshine. Winding dirt roads branching off here and there. Just picking whichever "feels" best. We passed an old man on his putt-putt moped, dressed in tourist shorts and puffing on a cigar. Enjoying an evening drive through the oaks. Later, after innumerable turns and random choices, we passed him again on a different road. He had finished his cigar.

It's the kind of evening that makes me feel unburdened. Refreshed, purified somehow. The wind in my hair and the baby asleep in the backseat as we pass the spot Martin proposed to me five years ago. Life. Is good.

3.6.10

little king

June is upon us and it's as if I time-warped through May. Suddenly I have a baby gulping and giggling behind me -- in some way, I wonder how he came to be there, making his baby noises. But I was there for all of it, so I do know. I didn't have the dreaded drama that has been built up in my mind for years, the awful 20-something hours of labour that my poor mother experienced. I feel rather "lucky" in that sense. Just under five hours and then the real work began, so to speak.

Little Max Thure Michael Aspegren now rules our house. His two middle names are from his father's grandfather (Thure) and mother's great-grandfather (Michael). He is putting us through trials that we never imagined, and this unspeakable, intense joy that comes with those trials as a blessing and encouragement. It's a total trip.

Even now he demands that his mamma cease her silly typing and attend to his needs. And with a few cries promising a full-blown episode, I submit. Sweet little 54 centimeter dictator is he.

26.4.10

the secret garden

On the weekend Martin and I spent a sunny Saturday morning at a "loppis", which is the Swedish word for a secondhand sale that can vary from a shop setting to closing down the town centre and everyone bringing out their goods to sell. In this case it was at a neighbor's home, which is a bit unusual, but as they are moving there was lots of goodies to be had.
We scored some fun things and good deals, and best of all was the stack of English children's books we brought home. Definitely not the usual finds. Amoungst the books were quite a few children's classics, including Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte's Web, The Wizard of Oz, Stuart Little, and best of all, The Secret Garden.

I devoured The Secret Garden on Sunday and early Monday morning, finished the last two chapters over fresh bread, butter, honey, and coffee loaded with cream and sugar. What a treat of a morning! What a wonderful book and I will be reading it several times a year for the rest of my life. It is mostly set in the English spring, and to be able to go outside afterwards and work in my own garden with only the birds and bumblebees and sunshine for company was such pleasure! The daffodils are poking their heads up and crocus' and snowdrops and "vitsippor" are blooming in colors that just tease the winter blues right out of you. (If it's even possible to have them with the coming of spring!)

I have never enjoyed spring so much as I have since moving to this little place, watching and tending and labouring in the dirt and grass, and seeing God's "Magic" stir and bloom. I want to build my own stone wall and secret garden, but that may have to wait. For now, I can content myself with delight and imagination, and reread that wonderful book when my own inspiration runs dry.


19.4.10

rocking chairs and stone hedges

Monday, 7:31 a.m. The spring sunshine is already warming the front rooms of the house and I awoke to the singing of birds again. I have a million plans of how to spend the morning, but what is feasible? Digging up soil for transplanted raspberries maybe unfitting labour for a woman who is now two days overdue. (Wouldn't be a major except for Småland's incredibly rocky soil -- digging usually means building a stone cairn beside your flower or vegetable garden.) The bathroom also needs to be cleaned, but that would be a terrible waste of a beautiful spring morning.

Had a really relaxed and enjoyable weekend filled with things that I love. We had Martin's parents for dinner Friday -- the coziness of spending relaxed time with family over the dinner table and my mom's recipe for lasagna. Martin and I managed to squeeze in some secondhand shopping on Saturday, finding a beautiful, well-constructed, unique rocking chair that has a certain character, even amongst beautiful Swedish rocking chairs. Baby Asparagus will hopefully enjoy being rocked to sleep in it.

Sunday we took a drive to the neighboring village of Skirö, enjoying the hilltop fields and fantastic display of human effort, the classic Småland stone wall. I have said it before but these walls, although picturesque and amazing to behold, are symbols of a nation's sufferings. The sheer magnitude of clearing fields of these massive stones, hauling them, and constructing them into kilometer-long, meter-wide and high walls seems unbelievable. There is no doubt that Swedish farmers were/are amongst the hardiest and most determined in the world.

Our ultimate destination was a cafe and boutique, set off in the "boonies" and run by a bosomy, warm woman who I want to be hugged by. She bakes in her kitchen set off the little shop, and brought us tea and raspberry soda, with soft nut torte and lemon cake. A really lovely way to spend the afternoon.

Sunday night we watched a moving and sobering film set in Rwanda in the 1990's, Shooting Dogs. This is one worth watching, not exploiting the brutality and violence people suffered, but still depicting it's horror. It tells the story of a faithful priest, and reflects the profound and inexplicable love of God in an unimaginable situation. It was filmed in Rwanda in the places it portrays and involved of many survivors of the genocide. Wikipedia: Shooting Dogs

Now, 8:01, and my breakfast-hunger is becoming urgent. What will be brought about this week? I was saying to Martin the other night that each day feels as though we are on the cusp of historical change -- our lives will be unimaginably altered with the birth of our child. And yet, every day is like that. The significance usually escapes me -- how each action and word is driving us on a course of change and the inability to go backwards.

6.4.10

long way from the heart

An unusual last five days in our house. Easter weekend consisted of Martin taking ill on Friday and staying ill until Monday. It's pretty rare that he gets sick and although we squeezed some enjoyment out of the Easter holiday it was generally very crappy for him. We did make it out to (finally) see Avatar in 3D one night, although it was probably unwise as he was worse for wear afterwards.

I got to thinking over the time of his sickness, observing my general abilities as chief nurse and bottle washer. I honestly hope that my sense of compassion and tenderness increase, because I really have to work at it! Of course, when I am sick, I want my mommy and I want to be cared for with the most tenderest affection, waited on hand-and-foot. When someone else is sick my inner voice gets going, I veer towards irritation and frustration, and just want to wave a magic get-better wand. I have the greatest respect for a good nurse.

There are times where someone will hurt themselves and all I can think is, "oh, suck it up!" My dad had a classic line when we had relatively minor injuries: "It's a long ways from your heart." It's actually a pretty good line when you break it down. I will definitely be using it when appropriate. I can't stand mollycoddling or babying. It's good to be able to hurt yourself and get up and try again. But I certainly hope that, as with many things that develop in a person with parenthood, that my tenderness and kindness as a nurse increases.

24.3.10

crocodile tears

I've tried to avoid regaling people with constant references to pregnancy and parenthood. I think it's a bit boring. And I don't want to be one of those folks who have a child and suddenly are completely absorbed into that child -- personality and all. I told Martin this week that I really, truly, honestly don't want to be a mother who talks about her child in such rapturous detail that everyone's eyes glaze over. (If I do that in the future, please, someone correct me in love!)

However, it is rather a big deal. No stomach-pun intended. "Nine months" is a short period of time, with all sorts of things that I've never experienced -- never even imagined -- and then comes baby Asparagus.

Overall, things have been pretty easy and "normal" for me. But there are things unavoidable and a whole new range of emotions is one of them. Now Martin would insist that I am a "softie" -- and sure, I have my sentimental sides -- but recently I have caught myself in tears at the most unbelievable things. So for the sake of confession and possibly a laugh, here is an incomplete list of things that can make a pregnant chick cry.
  • Para Olympic sledge hockey
  • Olympic mogul skiing
  • News footage of a deadly avalanche
  • Sound of Music
  • A reno project
  • An emergency baby delivery show
  • Super Nanny
  • Swedish "parenting" class
  • Church
  • Daytime television (including Ghost Whisperer. Gack.)
  • Thwarted plans
I guess that's embarrassing enough. In some ways it's rather freeing, too. Perhaps my tears were before trapped in some deep, repressed place and now I am just free to be a "sensitive woman". I should also write as a caveat that Martin is not miserable -- really -- he swears it hasn't "been that bad." More amusing than anything.

17.3.10

park it

video
A cutely amusing commercial Martin found on our desktop, with neither of us knowing how it got there. It pushed the humour button regardless. Martin and I have had some funny instances with parallel parking, especially since living in the countryside. When we get into the "big city" (actually a rather smallish city of around 100,000) the parallel parking fun begins. Funny how marriages are proven on the most unlikely of battlefields.

14.3.10

the land of nod

This morning finished rereading East of Eden. I put it down with a sigh of relief and contentment, and went to blow my nose. I couldn't help but cry a little at the end. (Okay, I also cried a little throughout the book, too -- I am blaming it on my "emotions" these days. That and what wonderful characters John Steinbeck creates.)

This is a book I will come back to again as it only gets better each time, one of the yearly indulgent re-reads I do, like the Chronicles of Narnia (which incidentally, I hope to try reading in Swedish this year.)

This time I marked little thoughts and parts of the book's dialogue. Although the snippets rarely have the same impact taken out of their context and emotion at the time of reading, they are worth sharing:

"You are one of those rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what it is, where most people see what they expect."
(I really want to be one of these rarities. But how do I know what I expect to see and how it colours my observation? In reference to race and nationality it's a little clearer to me, but it's worth thinking over in depth.)

"You can't make a race horse out of a pig."
"No, but you can make a very fast pig."
(What more is there to say? I love the earthiness: a complex truth broken down to simple language.)

"An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There is a punishment for it, and usually it's crucifixion. I haven't the courage for that."

(I wish for the courage on a daily basis. I suppose the way we choose to live our lives is a fraction of backing truth unacceptable to our times. But too often I find myself hedging with carefully worded sentences or slimy political correctness when possibly the most refreshing and freeing thing would be that unacceptable truth.)


6.3.10

to love

Lovely things that delight me:
  • Letter writing at the kitchen window, with fresh bread, real butter, winter sunshine and a perfectly hot cup of tea.
  • A new shag carpet under bare toes.
  • A well-designed, well-constructed laundry rack.
  • The early morning pale just as the sun rises: a white-blue morning sky with a hint of gray at the edges. The same as my husband's winter-morning eyes.
  • A letter in the mailbox, and a surprise package from a generous friend.
  • A tidy house, neatly made beds, the smell of clean, warmed by a good fire and sunshine.
  • A walk that truly felt as though Father Christmas had come to break the spell of the White Witch: the earth spitting up melting snow, the trees shedding their great snowy weight with mighty showers and thuds and plops, narrowly missing faces and heads, the birds singing madly.
  • Long friendship reconstructed over tea cups and table.
  • A firm handshake and conversations in a second language.
  • Gentle assurance from the one I love.
  • Thoughtfulness and generousity at unexpected moments.
  • Things lent, things borrowed.
  • Food cooked, food shared.
  • Gift-giving and prayer-praying.
  • A neighbour who looks out his window and cares what transpires there.
  • The softness of a two-week old baby.
  • A willing, attentive ear.
  • Spontaneity, a warm welcome, "fredags mös", good conversation.
  • Unexpected invitations.
  • Sweet sincerity.
  • The wonder, humor, and intimacy of a first pregnancy.
  • "Face-to-face" conversations on Skype.
  • A friend with whom I can be honest and vulnerable.
  • Waking up from a horror-dream.
  • Things that are lime-green.

24.2.10

culture mash

My train of thought is often down the rail of culture and character. Most often my Swedish class is the trigger for these contemplations.

My Swedish course is filled with people from all over the world, with the majority of students being refugees from Somalia and Iraq. (In 2009 Somalians comprised the largest group of refugees to Sweden, outnumbering Iraqis.) My current class is a mix of students from China, Thailand, Slovenia, Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Ghana, Germany and Egypt (and possibly more that I haven't yet identified). We range from those who never learned to read or write in our mother tongues to those that attended university in a second language, usually English. All of us slogging our way through the difficult grammar and seemingly-impossible intonation of Swedish.

The reasons why we are in this government-run Swedish course varies. Most, like me, are recent immigrants and need to learn Swedish in order to integrate. Others have been working for some time, and having lost their jobs in the recent downturn, enroll themselves in Swedish courses to receive social assistance as a student. Others still seem to be not doing much of anything, rather driving nice cars and using flashy mobiles, arrogantly popping in and out of class as they will, snotting at the teacher and sniffing at homework.

Each day is a new lesson in the relationship of culture and character. (I know there is a deep philosophical thought that I am skating over here -- whether human morality can exist without the reality of a just God. But for the moment I am simply interested in how our cultures can define our rights and our wrongs.)
"Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place without any communication with his own species. He could no more think of his character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty and deformity of his own mind, than the beauty of his own face... Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided the mirror which he wanted before". (Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments)
It's especially fun when you've been looking in a Canadian mirror and suddenly you find yourself peering awkwardly into, say, an Iraqi mirror. In that mirror I believe I must look rather cold, distant, especially quiet and a little bit strange. I think they might find me selfish and possessive of my classwork, as I rarely "share" answers or work together with other students unless told to do so, believing that the best way to learn is to do the work. (This isn't particularly "moral" but still my reflection in their mirror.)

Cheating and lying -- black, white or gray? Depends who you ask. Professed religious beliefs seem to play no part in this area. For at least one culture in my class, cheating (or "helping") is perfectly acceptable and very common. I asked a friend if this is common in universities in her home country and yes, absolutely, of course. During a recent exam, another male student called me over and demanded that I sit next to him and "help" him with his answers. I refused and found another seat. He said later to me that he knew I might not help him because I was "American" and we don't "help" other students. Another exam found me desperately trying to shield my answers on all sides from at least three students who were avidly, and without shame, trying to read my papers.

Lying? It's rather a normal day in class to have students baldly and calmly lying to the instructor, whether regarding homework, missed class time, or absences. Somehow this would seem normal in a high school setting (although I am not sure why) but in a classroom of adults it's rather sickening. But, regardless of even the most devout of students, it's no big deal, even just another kind of humor.

We do have fun in our class. For example, if you disagree with someone, feel free to raise your voice. Perfectly acceptable (and commonly used) method of disagreement among my female classmates is a yelling match. (Always hard to tell who wins those ones.) Deadly gossip is another: literally. (One woman telling others that a fellow female student was involved in a murder in her home country and had paid a human smuggler to bring her to Sweden.)

But I also receive handshakes, kisses and hugs (the likes of which are rare in Swedish culture) and the women take an avid interest in my pregnancy, in children, and family. They talk about the female anatomy with humor and without self-conscious hang-ups, and a little body fat is nothing to sniff at. The laughter is without language barriers as we all meet on the limited plane of Swedish. There is a mutual understanding in the natural ignorance and frustration of being an immigrant and "intruder" in a small and tightly defined culture.

Just for the fun of it, totally random, cheeky humor with a "Swedish"- German-English twist: "Swedish" German English

13.2.10

cabbage baby

For whatever reason, I am not good at keeping track of where I am at in my pregnancy. Knowing I have an appointment with my midwife this week, I just used my "favorite" online due-date calculator. This particular calculator, while accurate, really cracks me up. This week, for example, I am 30 weeks pregnant and "my baby is the size of a head of cabbage". Other times it was "the size of a large bell pepper," or the worst, "the size of a large chicken breast." As Swedes say -- "va?" Could we not find something a little more human to connect it to? A chicken breast is the best we can do?

Now we are raising my own little cabbage head, so we have begun the rather daunting search for "things we need", such as baby car seat, stroller, and a larger laundry rack. It's a whole new, confusing world -- a new kind of Western excess that I haven't been exposed to before. A million contraptions, do-dads, gizmos and luxuries. We have come across a jetted baby spa, (in Canada) and a red pleather children's armchair (Sweden.) You can shop at "Retro Baby" or "Hip Baby" or even "cool baby".

There is every temptation to trap parents into dolling themselves up into eco-friendly (except the diapers, of course) yuppy parents. We bought a baby car seat last weekend, and I jokingly asked Martin if we were going to turn into "those people" (quite of few of them milling around in the store.) No, no, we are not. Phew.

Thankfully we live in the "countryside", where things are a just a little simpler. Not too many yuppies zipping around our neighborhood. I can't recall even seeing a Baby Bjorn. (I only learned what these things were about five months ago.) There's no noticeable social culture of having a new $1,500 CDN stroller, or the brand-name baby clothes. People are a little more practical, a little more earthy.

But maybe we'll buy into some of these crazy products. Why not buy a helmet for your child, so you can send them off to play without fearing they may konk their head? They even make them with little Mickey Mouse ears. At least, I think that is what they are. (Check out the website.) Or what about a prenatal education system? Electronics that you strap on your belly and expose your child to noises mimicking, for example, a mother's heartbeat. Or a fur changing pad?

Personally, I think a faux fur changing pad sounds very practical. An animal-friendly twist on Viking baby care.

30.1.10

the "greater good"?

We had a friend over for dinner last night -- a hearty meal and interesting conversation on a cold, wintry evening. (The snow is well past my knees now and local stores are having difficulty keeping ski equipment stocked.)

Our guest brought up recent reports and Swedish journalist investigations into aspects of the United Nations conduct in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are numerous horrible reports coming out of that area, this one focussed on the remarkably high percentage of U.N. soldiers stationed there admitting to having been with a prostitute. The stories of these women are quite tragic. Our friend told us of one 14-year-old girl who had, sadly, a not-uncommon tale. She was attacked and raped by three men, who also "damaged" her with a knife. Her "recovery" has now left her with the option of prostitution to provide for herself and her young child.

These awful things -- along with mass murders and tortures of civilians by U.N.-sanctioned Congolese soldiers, misappropriation of arms and supplies, and more -- are taking place under the "watchful" eye of the U.N., and by responsibility, the world. Now, it seems, opinions are against the U.N. continuing what is currently their largest peacekeeping operation, but have recently extended their stay by another five months.

I read an editorial this morning from the Los Angeles Times which posed the question:

"Can the U.N. help the government overcome rebels who torture and kill civilians without assisting, even inadvertently, Congolese soldiers who are allegedly engaged in similar human rights abuses?"

This is only one question of a thousand. It's hard to not take a cynical stance towards the U.N. and their role in countries like the Congo. And yet, when inaction results in terrible tragedy, as in the case of the Congo's neighbor Rwanda, the U.N. is blamed with howls of protest.

It's difficult to even form an opinion, much less "do something". Looking at an individual issue it's simple to determine right or wrong but the further you back up things become gray: complicated, with expressions tossed about like "necessary evil" or "greater good".


As I am writing, lyrics of a song from Waterdeep come to mind. There is hope for the hopeless. There is justice. There is clarity in confusion. Assurance of things unseen.

"He will comfort all that's hardened / change the deserts into gardens / and we all will see His face. He will come. He will come. He will soften all the starkness / break the chambers of our darkness / and we'll all be overwhelmed."


16.1.10

why was i complaining?

Spend five to ten minutes reading news coming out of Haiti. The scale of the disaster is overwhelming. Left without government, without hospitals, medical care, enough doctors, food, shelter, bodies rotting in the streets, the president sleeping at the airport.

Anyone interested in giving financially here are links to two reputable organizations working in Haiti at the moment: Samaritan's Purse and Compassion Canada. Both are reputable, experienced organizations with solid financial accountability. The Canadian government has committed to matching donations up to $100,000.

For an idea of the scale, a BBC report: Haiti: No medical care, no doctors, no government


8.1.10

winter vanilla strawberry pie

An exquisite winter day. The sun is shining, telling us (without looking at the temperature) that it is cold today. In fact (because I did look) it's around -20, which is unusual here. The trees I see from where I am sitting -- birch, spruce, pine, cherry, oak, jasmine -- all laden with as much snow as the branches can balance. Snow drifts off in clumps and showers as it becomes too much to bear. With the low-hanging winter sun behind, the blue sky is filled with sparkling confetti. Our rather long driveway is shoveled, and a fire smoking and popping in the living room -- although the charm of the open fireplace has rather worn off and become more of a necessity than a convenience.

I am contemplating making some kind of comfort food. Cheesecake? Lemon loaf or raisin bread? Something spicy and meaty? My devious side prompts me towards raisin bread, knowing Martin hates cooked raisins (poison) and I could have it all to myself. What a nice little wife I am. But I am eating for two, people insist. (Why is it that so many people say that? I can't recall ever saying such a thing to someone, but I am hearing quite often, despite the fact that I am eating rather normal portion sizes and have no real cravings.)

Speaking of food, Martin has introduced me to something so yummy, so fragrant, crunchy, and gooey it's almost tragic to say "McDonald's" after. A piping-hot vanilla strawberry pie from McDonald's, fresh from the deepfryer and smelling like donut heaven. (Why am I feeling like I sound like Homer?) And, since I am pregnant and can supposedly use it to excuse all kinds of excess and eccentricities, I will go further. I admit with only a tiny cringe of shame -- I like McDonald's. I like salty french fries, cheeseburgers, Big Macs, and hot fudge sundaes. I love Egg McMuffins and deepfried hashbrowns. And because it all tastes virtually the same as it ever did, familiarity is the most divine flavour of all. This isn't because I am pregnant, either. Martin can attest to it. It mostly happened after moving to Sweden. If there is a sure way to cheer me up it's the suggestion, "Want to go to McDonald's?"

Now I have spilled a deep-fried, dark 'secret' on the most pure and sunny winter day. Delicious.