“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
-Ranier Maria Rilke
If you wanted to take the direct route to where I am, you’d hop a plane to Helsinki followed by a train, then a bus, then a mail truck, then a boat, then a long hike into the wilderness. If you were going the right way (which no one does the first time – or if they get “gold miner directions,” the second time either) you might come to a pond with three salmon and an armchair floating in it.
Almost two months ago, my friend Tuukka and I stood on a bridge in Malmi, Helsinki. I hugged him. “Here we go,” I said, and took the first step. And then the second. And third. And fourth. It wasn’t until I had gone 100 meters or so until I thought “I’m free! I’M FREE!” and then began to cry. I had felt this feeling once before, yet I couldn’t quite place it: elation mixed with the realization that for the first time in a long time, I was utterly alone. My second thought, about 100 meters further, was “why the fuck am I walking across Finland?” And then I laughed at the ridiculousness of that question, and the even more ridiculous fact that I had spent almost a year in preparation for this journey and I had no idea why.
In the Lemmenjoki wilderness one day after a sauna I sat in the floating armchair, dangling my feet in the freezing cold water and considering the great mounds of golden-brown dirt and the hills behind them. “How did I get here?” I thought, and for a second time wondered if I was asking the right questions.
In a physical sense, the answer was easy. I walked. Pihlajamäki (pEEh-la-ya-mah-kee) was the name of my tiny, moss-covered home for a week, and I had just learned how to pronounce it – a good thing, because I got hopelessly lost on my way there. Two gold miners had offered me a ride on their ATVs, but I told them both “Kiitos ei, rakastan kavella.” (“No thanks, I love to walk.”) A couple of hours and wrong turns later, I’d found myself at my friends Mullis and Anne-Mari’s cabin.
“I turned down two rides,” I said, wishing I hadn’t.
“I know,” said Mullis.
When I finally reached Pihlajamäki under the super moon, I let out a whoop and collapsed into bed. The next morning I met Pekka Itkonen, who was waiting for me.
“I got lost and ended up at Mullis’,” I told him.
“I know,” said Pekka.
It was almost as if the Lemmenjoki gold prospectors had called each other up and said “look out boys, we’ve got a wanderer!” They all seemed to know where I was before I did. The independent streak in me hated it; the rest of me felt reluctantly happy that they cared, and relieved to know that if something did happen, they would have my back. I came to Pihlajamäki with the intention of sitting still and soaking in Solange’s visit, Petronella’s return to Lapland, and all of the unspoken things that happened during the ensuing whirlwind. That lasted for about a day.
The plaque above the door to Pihlajamäki reads: Office of the Governor of Miessi – Honor and Humor. I was sharing my space with this guy:
Heikki Pihlajamäki stayed there year round until the year before his death in 1989. Known as “the Governor of Miessi,” Heikki lived in harmony with nature, issued “passports” to his friends, welcomed travelers to his cabin, and ruled over his “government” – an area as large as he could walk around in one day. His successor at Pihlajamäki was a man named Pekka, who passed away in 2012 from cancer.
I put on a pair of reindeer slippers and set about familiarizing myself with the cabin. Forcing myself to go slowly, I picked up one item at a time: lead bullets, yellowed dice, a reindeer molar, beer cans from around the world, a vial of tar (or was it blood?), 1,000,000 Turkish liras. If I held each item in my hands, if I smelled the strange liquids in the glass bottles, if I looked through the old eyeglasses on the shelf, maybe I could see what the old inhabitants saw, maybe I could understand them. I fell asleep there, surrounded by dusty books, cassette tapes and cans of food, and awoke feeling uneasy, like I had stirred up something I shouldn’t have. It didn’t help that the only book in English was an Agatha Christie novel called “The Pale Horse,” which had a picture of a human head and a bat skeleton on the cover. I am a little ashamed to admit that I considered sleeping in the food storehouse that night, and it took me over 24 hours to bring myself to pick up the Agatha Christie book again.
When I wasn’t spooking myself, I helped my friend Aki at his gold claim or walked the barren hills, learning. Aki and Piipa, Pekka’s wife, taught me which wild berries and mushrooms were good to eat and I cooked myself extravagant dinners of sautéed mushrooms, berry pie and heather tea. I filled my little cabin with all the warmth, friends, and baking smells I could. I wrote. I learned how to identify the rounded hills (which, to someone who grew up looking at mountains, all look the same), that if you turn left at this pile of sticks and rocks it leads to Aki’s house, and if you turn right at that broken part of the reindeer fence it leads to home. My favorite place to sit was on the roof, and I would climb up there with my ukulele and sing to the sinking light, which came earlier every night.
And, as the gold miners predicted, I wandered. Sometimes I had a destination, but mostly I just followed my feet. One man found me out on the fjelds, barefoot in a sarong, wind whipping my curls, walking straight into a gathering storm. At a loss for what else to do, he picked up my foot and examined the bottom, making me feel quite like a horse. “Where are your shoes?” he asked me. I pointed back toward where I had left them on the trail outside Pihlajamäki. “They were getting in the way,” I said. (I was living in the tense, primal space between words and life and I cannot claim full sanity.)
The day before I left, Pekka and I drove out to the place where Petronella now rests and placed a white stone there. “So the people who need to know, know…” he said. On my hike out the next morning, I stopped and sat by her stone for a long time. “Why am I here?” I asked again.
I am here for the same reason there is an armchair floating in a pond in the middle of the wilderness. I got here by putting one foot in front of the other. The truth is, I still don’t know why I quit my life to do this, but I feel closer now to the reason than I ever have been. Perhaps I am not yet ready to live it.
In the meantime, I will concentrate on asking better questions.