In 2019, I traveled to a remote part of Finland to finish a novel.
I was exhausted. Three years in academia had taken its toll. To say that I was looking for solitude is an understatement; I desperately needed it.
I arrived at the residence in the fall. The last mushrooms of the season grew in clusters between tall pines and the forest smelled deliciously of mulch. The birches raged with gold against the impending winter.
I was staying in a traditional house. The owner of the place, who later became a good friend, took the time to settle in before returning to Helsinki. She showed me how to use the larger sauna (one of three on the property) and told me that it is customary to have a beer afterwards. She made me a blueberry pie, showed me where the rakes were (in case I wanted to fight the leaves in the yard) and, right before she left, she gave me instructions on what to do. I had to do if I encountered a bear. Three steps: speak in a soothing voice, step back, gently wave your arms.
And then I was all alone.
It was an immersive experience. Even when I wasn’t writing, I still thought about my characters while walking in the forest or raking leaves in the yard.
The days passed. I started to lose track of time. I might have lost my sense of the day, but I quickly became an expert on when to get out of the sauna and in the cold shower. After using the wooden ladle to throw water on the hot stove, I felt the steam slam in my face. Then, slightly out of breath, I would wait for the acceleration of the heartbeat just under my collarbone which signaled the time to get out of the sauna.
There is indeed a fine line between pleasure and pain, or, perhaps more accurately, between pleasure and certain death. I imagined someone finding me after two months, dead and shriveled like a prune, still clutching the wooden ladle.
I quickly became acquainted with the forest which surrounded the house. Ancient pines, still cold lakes and lonely tracks that plunged deeper into the wilderness. I followed my initial instructions with YouTube videos on what to do when encountering a bear. I’ve learned that a soothing voice and waving your arms only work if you’re at least 100 yards from the bear. If you are closer and the bear is charging, you should climb a tree. It has become a daily habit to look for trees with sturdy branches, just in case.
I started talking to myself. Small expressions of admiration. Whispers of appreciation. I told the old pines they were wonderful, and the black woodpecker, pounding its beak in an elm with such ferocity that I took pity on the tree, that it was “full”. And I exclaimed a “Look! Excited. when I came across the huge hoofprints of a moose.
The days have become shorter. And then winter struck, without warning. One morning I woke up and it was snowing. The dawn had turned electric with snowflakes, swirling here and there.
With the snow, the forest has changed. It got harder to walk, but it was worth it. In the afternoon, when the sun went down, the snowy forest turned into a glittering fairytale world. It was no exaggeration to imagine it inhabited by frolicking Moomins, the original characters created by Finnish author Tove Jansson. The same characters who, to my great pleasure, adorned the doona blankets in the bedroom of the residence.
Only once in my two months did I meet someone on my walk in the forest – a young boy trudging through the snow. With a solemn face and wearing a skimpy jacket, he suddenly appeared on the track ahead. It was getting dark and I was afraid I wouldn’t be home until dark. But the boy didn’t seem worried. He rushed down the dark track, passing me like I wasn’t there at all. The moment seemed from another world.
This moment, like everything I experienced during the residency, fueled my imagination and helped me write. I was productive.
The stress I had felt at home had been overtaken by a feeling of calm. Surprisingly, I realized that I love raking leaves. Before the snow, I spent hours in the garden, my hands breaking into blisters. More predictably, I reaffirmed that it was good for my soul and my imagination not to grab my phone all the time. I became acutely aware of my need for nature. I started to sleep well. Spiritually, I felt strong. Loneliness made me feel good.
But when I returned to Australia, it was not easy to keep my newfound sense of peace. The city was busy, and so was I. And then Covid struck.
Some time ago I had a therapist who said something to me that stood out for me. She said once you light up something, you can’t see it. I believe this is true for the experience of peace. When I get too lost in my efforts to do something with my life, I start dreaming about my stay in Finland. I dream of still cold lakes and majestic pines. And I wake up in the night and I hurt for the forest, as someone would hurt for a lost lover.
But I rejoice in this pain. It is a step backwards. A roadmap towards something essential. It reminds me to keep it simple, to watch something beautiful. Every day look at something beautiful. It could be the smallest thing, a beetle, a leaf, the bark of a tree. The colorful chalk drawings children make on the trails. Or the night sky, the tender constellation of stars that make up the Southern Cross.
Being present to beauty is as important now as it was then. The Covid does not change the need for simplicity. And while we experience that “bad things” don’t just happen elsewhere and to other people, there are gifts to be had. I think of the words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to wake up from our illusion of separation. We are part of a very big world, of a shared humanity, and it is also something terribly beautiful to see.