It all started with this photograph of graffiti on a wall in Ireland:
I didn’t even take the photo, my college roommate Steph did. I haven’t even been to Ireland. Steph brought that photo home and framed it on the wall, and it became a part of my subconscious, scrolling through my brain like movie credits on repeat. I scribbled it in textbook margins, I wrote it on napkins in the dining hall and hid them deep down in the dispenser for someone lucky. I didn’t really know why I cared about that photo so much, but I couldn’t think of six words strung together that made me happier.
A few weeks ago, my cousin Liz sent an email titled “I Need A Thousand Cranes.” Shit, I thought when I read the subject line, that means cancer. In 2009, my family found out that my dad’s brother, Uncle Nick, had terminal lung cancer that had spread to the rest of his body. We lived a couple of months in hope, and then slowly, as his condition worsened, the despair set in. I’d heard of an ancient Japanese legend promising that if you make 1,000 origami paper cranes you are granted a wish, or recovery from illness or injury. Fed up with feeling disempowered and hopeless in the face of Nick’s disease, we rallied everyone we knew and started folding. Just before Christmas, Uncle Nick took a turn for the worse. We strung up all of the cranes we had (1,038, with more pouring in through the mail every day) and sent them express to his house in Oregon. While the package was en route, Uncle Nick died. The next day, his family opened a box full of this:
And though nothing could really ease their loss, they had the love of over 100 friends and strangers to hold them.
I took a deep breath, and opened Liz’s email. A dear friend of hers has been diagnosed with a butterfly brain tumor. I didn’t know what that was, but the juxtaposition of the word “butterfly” on something so insidious made it sound delicate and lethal. I shivered. She is only 41, and has 3 girls, all under 6 years old.
I only had a pad of waterproof outdoor paper, but it would have to do. Putting all of the love I could into each fold, I made three cranes. On the largest one, I wrote a message. “Hello dear friend, I love today,” it said.
On Monday, I began walking north from Jyväskylä toward Oulu. I have been trying to learn the Finnish language, without much success. Inspired by Liz’s friend, I thought I would keep the love going: each day of my walking journey, using the Finnish dictionary I had on hand, I wrote a letter to a stranger and left it in a mailbox along the road. Given that a lot of Finnish words have multiple meanings and my grasp of the language is terrible at best, my letters probably didn’t mean what I thought they meant. But maybe, hopefully, someone smiled because of it.
Monday, July 14th 2014
Hello Dear Friend, I love today. I love today because of the wind. There is the artificial wind from the cars on the road to Oulu, and there is the wind off the lake that whistles: Be patient. Pay attention. Keep walking.
Those words feel so good to hear, I wanted you to hear them too:
Monday was long and hard. The highlight of the day came in the form of a woolly mammoth on a tractor trailer barreling down the highway. Yellow eyes wide, tusks bared, skin flapping rather realistically in the breeze, it looked manic, as if on stampede. I stopped and swore and laughed until my sides hurt. What the hell, Finland?
Tuesday, July 15th 2014
Hello Dear Friend, I love today. I love today because it is the 15th of July. Do you know what happens on the 15th of July?!?
Neither do I, but we are going to find out soon. I am excited!
There could be pudding!
Or adhesive tape!
I’m sorry, I’m practicing my Finnish. I hope you have the best 15th of July you’ve had in a long time.
Averaging 21km/day, I took a much needed break for some long, hard reflection at the first rest stop I’d seen since leaving Jyväskylä. Two messages from Lucy and Annahott reminded me of what can be accomplished simply by showing up each day to live this journey. Even if I miss the moon when all is said and done, something brave and beautiful is happening. It was enough to keep me going.
Wednesday, July 16th 2014
Hello Dear Friend, I love today. I love today because I found my smile. It went missing for a while, but it came back with the rain and the sun and the wild strawberries and the lake.
You have to leave to come back.
I smile when I am in motion, and when I sing, and when I see things I don’t understand, and when I meet people who surprise me with kindness.
Where is your smile?
I hope this letter helps you find it.
At about 2pm, I wandered into a forest for a quick break. It was a beautiful forest with light streaming down through the trees, but there was something more to it, something I couldn’t define. This forest had something to teach me. I stopped and made camp early. As an outdoorswoman, I am slightly ashamed to admit what I did next. If you know me, however, you won’t be surprised.
I wandered. I wandered far. With only the clothes on my body: adventure pants and a rain jacket, I followed my intuition past woodland toads and lizards, spiders and blueberries, through a grove of trees so thick with moose musk I could almost taste it, to the edge of a lake. The forest was alive, pulsating, and with every step my feet sunk into a living carpet so full of magic that I half expected to see a gnome. It wasn’t until I reached the lake and realized that the sound of the highway was reflecting off the water that I knew I was utterly lost.
I have been in similar situations many times – this was a textbook Jenny adventure. Just last November, Eric Richardson and I got hopelessly lost in a jungle in Hawaii, culminating in the two of us scaling down the side of a waterfall and swimming across with a backpack over my head. After I cheerfully told him to calm down and take a rest while I scouted a possible route, Eric said, “J Tall, in these situations there’s the person who freaks out and the person who keeps their cool. I’ve never been the one who freaks out before, and that’s saying something.” (In Eric’s defense, I am freaked out by plenty of things: commitment, the menu at Taco Bell, babies, pincer bugs…just different things than most people.) Deep in the forest, separated from my belongings with no food or water and the possibility of a moose behind any rock, this might have been a good time to freak out. I tried to use reason. If I could just find the road… I followed the sound of the cars, which led me through an open meadow I hadn’t seen before, and then in a giant loop back to the lake. I sighed. Reason sure as hell didn’t get me into this mess, and it probably wasn’t going to get me out, either. I closed my eyes and tried to listen, and then started to walk, blindly trusting without any thought as to why. Fifteen minutes later, I was back at my tent.
Thursday, July 17th 2014
Hello Dear Friend, I love today. I love today because everything hurts. My back hurts, my head hurts, my legs hurt, my shoulders hurt, even my heart hurts. It rained this morning while I was camping and everything is wet.
HOORAY! I AM ALIVE!!!
I can shout it to the cows on the road to Oulu.
I am alive!
I am alive!
I am alive!
What makes you feel alive?
Let’s celebrate together!
I fell asleep at 7:15pm on Wednesday, and woke up 12 hours later, still tired. Everything ached, but not in the good way that comes from exercising. My body was failing me. Twisting to stretch, I caught sight of a red circle on my back and remembered pulling a tick off of myself a week ago in Jyväskylä. NO! I thought, but that was all. I had to keep moving. Slowly, I packed up in the rain and dragged myself out of the forest. A few kilometers down the road, I saw a sign for Konginkangas. It was 2km out of the way, but I was slowing down. I needed a town.
Within minutes of finding the only cafe in Konginkangas, I had a little girl in my lap (must have been the shiny pants, because I’m sure I didn’t smell good) and two golden retrievers licking my face. Mervi, the owner of the dogs, offered me a ride to Viitasaari which I accepted gratefully. She left me at a place called Miekkaniemi bed and breakfast – a huge old wooden house on the way into town owned by a lovely couple named Ilpo and Tiina. My room at Miekkaniemi was perfect in its simplicity – wooden and creaky and clean, with a high ceiling and a rocking chair. The best room in the house, however, was the old storefront.
When you walk into the old storefront, it is impossible not to imagine the merriment and coffee, the music and spirits and warmth that have passed between people in this room. You can feel it in the copper teakettles and old glass bottles that line the shelves, in the chaotic display of books, in the semi-tuned piano. Art covers the walls – watercolors, sculptures, posters and pictures of musicians who have played here: Dana Fuchs, Jon Diamond, The Ford Blues Band, Kat Baloun, Jim Campilongo. I sat in a wooden chair and watched the late afternoon light streaming in through the windows, illuminating falling dust motes like snowflakes, exquisite in slow-motion. The minutes dripped by, long and unrushed. I tuned each string of my ukulele, and with time at a standstill and the musicians on the wall as my audience, I sang.
Friday, July 18th 2014
Hetastiina’s family lake house was messy and lived-in and smelled like freshly baked bread. Eight blonde kids ages 1½ to 14 ran noisily this way and that in various states of undress. Hetastiina had answered a last-minute plea I’d posted on Facebook for a ride to Oulu, and invited me to lunch with her family in Viitasaari – a lunch which quickly turned into a full afternoon of flat-out frolicking. Something about the commotion in the house and the smells emanating from the kitchen, their love of music and the way I gained an entourage of small children, the blonde girls diving gracefully off the boat and the laughter and horseplay coming from the water – the way we shared a space, really – reminded me so strongly of my own family that for an afternoon, I was home.
We played hard and laughed hard, so much so that when it was time to leave, I forgot that I wasn’t home at the Sacandaga Lake with my own family. In direct violation of the unwritten Finnish code of conduct, I did about the worst thing I could do. To their intense discomfort, I hugged them all.
And at last, I made it to Oulu – the last stop on Part 1 of my journey! I am staying with a professional costume designer named Laura, who found my blog and offered up her house to me. When I arrived on her doorstep I was feverish, achy, exhausted, and determined not to make a big deal of it. She took me to my first Burlesque show (which I kept calling “Baroque show” – slightly different costumes), and the next day her partner, Marko, took me to the doctor to get treated for Lyme disease, or Borreliosis. This disease, if that’s really what it is, has been a strange experience. It feels like something has found and is attacking all of my weak spots: my lower back, my right knuckles, any joint or muscle I’ve hurt before. With the help of antibiotics and Laura and Marko’s inspired cooking I have been regaining my strength and energy, which I hope continues. In two weeks I get blood drawn at a lab to see if we nailed it. In the meantime, Laura and Marko have been showing me a good time geocaching around town, visiting their friends’ 17th century Finnish house, and swimming in a sea that tastes like a lake.
My final letter is not yet written, but there is a Dear Friend somewhere in Oulu who will receive it before I leave for Rovaniemi tomorrow. As Part 1 of my journey comes to a close, it feels important to give some more thought to why I truly love today. I will post it soon, with my plans for Part 2: The Arctic Circle!
If you feel inspired, why not use those six words to continue the cycle and make someone else’s day? Write a stranger a “Hello Dear Friend I Love Today” letter, hide it in their mailbox, and send me a picture via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the Finding Petronella facebook page. I will post it. Pass it on, spread the word. Let’s create some joy together.