It is not easy to live inside your head. Maybe I’m the only one who feels that way. How else can others so easily decide what to wear, where to go, what to say and to whom, how to act, or how to feel? Every decision must be analyzed, or so my mind thinks. Every day, every possible consequence for every possible decision must be weighed. If I make the wrong choice, something dreadful will happen. So I mustn’t make that choice. Though the second choice might result in something equally dreadful. Even the third…This is how the days go, how the clock jumps from morning to noon to evening to midnight when I can finally drift to sleep, providing that my mind allows me to sleep.
Every day is the same as the rest. It is winter now. My coworkers today were talking about their weekend plans, so it must be Friday. I quickly pull into my driveway and lock my car behind me. The wind is blowing so hard I can feel it in my bones. I am grateful for my small abode to shelter me from the wind, and I think back to times when people didn’t have the luxuries we have now.
I read somewhere that there are some people who have “a fierce desire for survival.”¹ These people have grit. When I reflect on the poverty of my predecessors, living on little money, surviving wars, counting every penny, I know they must have had some of that “fierce desire.” A classic American tale of rags to—not riches, perhaps, but comfort. Stability. As Grandmother would say, they did “what they had to do.”
Uncle Aino would call that sisu. He used to tell stories about sisu and how it is in our blood. His wife, though not Finnish, made fresh pulla or korvapuusti when my sisters and I visited. She would bring out a basket of the warm treats and set them at the living room table as we gathered around Uncle. He always joked about his first language, making us giggle with the long names and rhymes. Auntie rolled her eyes but always smiled when he called her his tanskalainen nainen.
His favorite stories to tell us were about his aunt, Karoliina, a short woman with small grey eyes who was happy with life in Finland but moved at her husband’s insistence. “The rest of the family was going to America,” he said. They did not realize that they would be hated. They did not know Karoliina would lose her right to vote.
Karoliina wanted to join the suffragette movement in the city they settled in. A woman spit on her and told her to keep her uneducated husband away from the polls. “You Mongols hurt the movement,” she said, snarling. “All you immigrants do. We don’t need your kind.”
Wiping the spit off her face, Karoliina couldn’t help but laugh bitterly. What kind of land had she traveled to, she wondered, that people could lack knowledge? It would be several months before she understood why they called the Finns Mongols or what people had against either of them anyhow. She was hurt, angry at this new land, but used that anger to create her own suffrage club for poor and immigrant women, the first in the city, that became an influential group.
Uncle grinned when he talked about how she learned so much about American politics that she became a Professor Emeritus of Political Science.
“You all have sisu. It’s been passed down. And you, Caroline, are just like my aunt. Same hair, same eyes, same love for arguing. Yes, you will do great things. You all will.”
I am supposed to have sisu from one side and grit from another. I should be unstoppable based on my genes alone. My sisters are. The youngest is probably going to be valedictorian. No telling what full-ride scholarships will come from that. The middle one is studying to become a vet. And then there’s me.
My family never pressured me to do something fancy with my life, just as long as I was doing something and trying to be happy. I’m not sure I know what happy is. Is it contentment or something deeper?
When Karoliina was my age, she had two children and attended school full-time with a limited salary. I know Uncle told us these stories to motivate us, to entertain us, to inspire us even. They did inspire me, once, when I was younger. Now they fill me with a sense of inadequacy—and Uncle would be so sad if he knew my mind twisted these stories into a sort of personal attack.
Yet I can’t help how my mind works. I am petrified that any decision I make will alienate me from these people I love. Some people would advise me to do as I please, regardless of who I hurt. “Let the chips fall where they may,” as the saying goes. But the only thing that would please me is to be a source of pride for my family and not a disappointment.
I realize that I am solely responsible for every ounce of heartbreak I have experienced. Nobody has spat on me and publicly degraded me. No one has disowned me for choosing my own path. Everyone has loved me and supported me, and I’ve turned these gestures away. And why? Why do I feel like a disappointment when nobody has done anything to make me feel this away?
And I know in this moment that what I want is simple: to be a good, selfless person. I know also that this is not possible right now, not when I can’t get out of my head long enough to listen to what others have to say. Not when there are mornings I can’t get out of bed because my mind paralyzes me.
Maybe someday I will feel the sisu in my heartbeat, wake up and calmly know what needs to be done to survive. Until then, I’m going to lay in bed, listening to the wind, apologizing in my mind to Karoliina for not being a worthy namesake.
(1. Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, p. 97.)