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Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

A trip to infinity

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Sacred mountains

I’ve come to the mountains to escape the idea of the last day. In the ancient mountains there are no last days, as the mountains go on forever. As we drive up, the giant spruce tower over us on either side of the road like attendants at the portal to this land of infinity. Their size should make them initimidating in the rapidly darkening skies, but it doesn’t. Their white coats of snow make them look like sad angels, overgrown children tasked with standing together and greeting newcomers at this entrance to the land that never ends.

From my cottage window I can see the sacred mountain. It gets in the way of progress, they say, because no one is allowed to build on it, over it or around it. One becomes quite ill climbing up this mountain, and one wonders why since, like most of the Swedish mountains, its altitude is not remarkable. Perhaps that is because its very being clashes with our need for speed; our inclination to divide life into the old and the new. On the mountain, old and new dwell together; they are a part of the same whole and change is constant.

In the nearby village it’s the time of peak business; time for excitement, hustle and bustle. Yet, the manner of speaking of our local hosts, the townspeople, remains constant. While happy to see us, the shop attendants find our ecstatic lowland approach to New Year’s puzzling. They’ve put out the fireworks for sale for our petty amusement, but the mountains will continue at the midnight chiming of the clocks and time will go on.

Out on the cross-country tracks, which are themselves an endless white, it occurs to me why it is that I long to escape finality and the ideas of old and new this year. It isn’t as simple as ageing. The challenges that we face today seem so final that opposites don’t matter any more. Young, old, this, that matter decreasingly as we begin to wake up to the fact that we’ve used up the earth. In this dark thought I come to an even space, as even as the land that stretches between the low, undulating Swedish mountains: when finality becomes great enough, contradictions and opposites seem to collapse. Old and new become time, time and infinity become the universe and, most importantly, you and me become we. My skis keep moving me forward in space and time through the white, but I hold onto this thought which seems so deeply entrenched in the spirit of the mountains.

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Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s books and other projects at www.julielindahl.com and www.storiesforsociety.com.

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Meeting the new season

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

A little splotch of autumn

It all felt so sorrowful. The temperature had gone to neutral. The air was emptied of the carefree warmth of summer, at the same time as it was still free of the bite of autumn. The forest floor smelled musty and the mushrooms had already begun their work of breaking down the fallen debris from the trees. The bees at the coops under the berry-laden branches of the mountain ash tree buzzed at a lower frequency than during the previous week, when summer had seemed as though it had come to stay forever. The water birds knew that we were at the threshold of the new season, as they sought eagerly for the fish that had begun to rise from the depths to the cooling surface. Somewhere in the background were the early voices of departure, with Canada geese squawking like disorganized travellers.

I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want change. I didn’t want autumn. These thoughts repeated themselves like a mantra that made next steps seem quite impossible. Just to make things doubly as challenging, the skies poured buckets of cool early autumn rain on our first day back in town. The weather woman had said that we were in for some “considerable change,” and, looking out the window on the first early school morning when there was no avoiding feeling tired, it seemed that she may have been right. It bothered me that under their umbrellas people were rushing down the hill past our house to the bus stop in the browns, greys and blacks of the latest autumn fashions. We hadn’t even seen out August.

Ellie the dog stood at the door wondering whether we were walking or swimming this early morning. In defiance of the pre-autumn mood, I swung on my bath robe and swimming gear, and we walked over the hill to the beach as the rain let up a little. In Stockholm one is never far from the water. As we walked down the length of the dock, the wind hit us and the sight of the choppy waves indicated that on this side of the hill we were in a storm. Since I wasn’t ready to give up on summer yet and reasoned that there was nothing wrong with swimming in the rain, I lowered myself into the water and swam along the length of the shore. The water felt warm compared to the outside temperature, and the waves massaged my shoulders as I backstroked to avoid the water hitting my face. As the sail boat moored at the next dock rocked back and forth like a cradle in the waves, it struck me how surprisingly calming all this was. Prejudice simply comes from the avoidance of experience.

This morning the sun shone on the dock at 7 am. The water was tame, but the dock had gone clammy and green, as it does each early autumn. Everything felt a degree or two colder, but it was alright. I had met the new season on my own terms. It is, after all, one of those distinguishing features of human nature that we feel better when we think we are in charge.

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Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s books about living in Sweden at www.julielindahl.com. Visiting the Gothenburg Book Fair? Like Julie’s Island at Facebook to keep up with news of where you can find Julie there.

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Timeless in summer

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

Timelessness on Lake Mälar

Ellie the dog and I trundled down the path with the contributions to the evening “knytis” at the beautiful mansion on the hill overlooking Lake Mälar. For those of you who do not know it, a “knytis” is a lovely Swedish term for a potluck dinner which translates more directly as “a little knot.” It was tricky balancing the basil and orange salad with Ellie’s need to explore the high grass, but after some time I managed to convince her that the dirt path leading through our magical settlement originating in the 18th century could be OK.

The soft summer breeze caught my wide, sailor-style white cotton trousers and called my attention to the fact that I was dressed like Lauren Bacall on a casual summer evening with her artist friends in the 1940s. It is funny the way that a piece of clothing can transport one’s thoughts through time and personalities. The small gatherings of friends in their magical gardens here and there upped the feeling of living in another time.  I was beginning to think that people’s schedules didn’t allow for this sort of thing any more, but here they were, and my faith in the transformational powers of humanity was restored, once again.

As we arrived at my artist friends’ beautiful home on the hill, we noticed the party was gathered in the clearing to the right of the house. Here, we entered into a mood that was distinctly 1970s. People reminisced about revolutionary urges and the rejection of convention. I had been a young child in those days and admitted that my memory of that time was my third grade teacher, who sported a gigantic afro and beard (one saw very little of his face) and started our classroom days with Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” having smoked a joint or two.  I find that the spirit of that time is coming back to us again, as young people awaken to the mess that the older generation has left behind on this planet. One young man told me he was going to spend a month in the forest this summer, living close to the earth, with thousands of others who are choosing to do the same thing.

The “knytis” was a wonderful success. A long table was heavily laden with all of the dishes and delicacies one could possibly desire. No one had co-ordinated their contributions. The buffet seemed a perfect example of the strange and unique order that can emerge spontaneously out of total chaos. Since most appeared to be vegetarians, Ellie enjoyed the meatballs.

As the sun moved westward, the group shifted towards the gazebo overlooking Lake Mälar. Ellie and I wandered down to the waterfront  and found a woman meditating naked on the dock. A few minutes later, when we had hurried back up the hill, so as not to interrupt pure thoughts, we heard the most beautiful, seeking cry come from this very same woman. She hurled out her arresting voice across the surface of the lake and sang to the sun. No one moved. My thoughts were cast back into a primal time, when man’s needs had been basic and song was uncluttered. Perhaps we were in the Stone Age or further back somewhere on the timeline of all life.

I wandered home, the sensuous feeling of no time all over me. The garden parties had gone inside and all that was left was the sounds of the night. As we approached Midsummer, the birds seemed never to stop singing, as true darkness never came.  I stood in the garden and listened one more time before closing the door for the night. The world was full of the most extraordinary things.

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Living in Sweden? Take advantage of the special offer available on Julie’s books just now by visiting www.julielindahl.com. If you live elsewhere, visit the site to learn about where you can purchase her newest award-winning book, “Rose in the Sand” about a decade lived on a Swedish island.

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After the rain

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

early summer after the rain

Click! Click! Click! Once again, Ellie the dog and I have been immortalized in a Chinese photo album. The Eastern visitors in the park find us to be an object of fascination. I am uncertain as to why. Perhaps it is the sight of a defenseless woman having the guts (or the stupidity) to walk a fearsome black canine. While the Chinese tourists photograph Ellie, they indicate clearly that they’d prefer not to greet her.

Cultural attitudes towards animals run strong. A friend of mine from Paraguay reminds me of why I’ve never warmed up to cats. Growing up in developing countries with a lot of rabid strays around – deserted scavengers that hiss and scratch to survive – hasn’t cultivated a warm and loving instinct towards our feline friends.

“Whä di Chinaaa Palace?” asks one of the Chinese tourists while taking a snap of us. Bewildered as to why someone from China might have come all this way to see a Swedish King’s imitation Chinese leisure house, I point to the hill behind the long row of fountains. The tourist and his fellow travellers turn immediately and shuffle rapidly in that direction. I think of shouting out that it will be open for a few more hours (it’s only 9 in the morning), but sense that this piece of information may be in vain. The gaggle of tourists is already snapping its cameras half way up the hill to the China Palace.

It’s been a week of worries in the rain. Precipitation and cold as we pass into June is enough to send most of us in Sweden to the psychiatrist. The Euro crisis, the neo-Nazis in Hamburg, bisphenols in our packaged food and even global warming (although it hasn’t seemed evident during the past week) begin to seem like walls closing in on us.

Then the sky begins to break up and this morning the sun shoots through the linden alleys at the Palace. The lilac, which has been drenched in rain and now the goodness of the sun, lives up in its own sensuous perfume. The rhododendrons strike me as the underside of a ballerina’s tutu. In fact, it is not hard to understand why flowers are associated with women: their various shapes mirror the shape of clothing we have worn over time. Everywhere there are blossoms spilling over the fences and into places that are supposedly out-of-bounds. The early summer pushes out limitations and breaks them down. Everything is possible, solvable, doable.

The transformation of my week by the drying up of the rain and the return of the sun’s rays on the early summer blossoms is a reminder of how little we need to change our perception of things. Whole realities can be transformed by small adjustments. Sometimes our inbuilt volatility can be frightening: on one day the world can be black, and on the next it can be white. On the whole, though, I take our capacity to rapidly change the way we see things as hopeful. The greatest of all dangers lies, after all, in stagnancy and intransigence.

The Chinese tourists are done exploring King Adolf Frederik’s Chinese Pavilion, a small “birthday gift” to his wife Ulrika Lovisa. Each of them has got at least a hundred snaps of it. While I am quite sure that Ellie and I will quickly be deleted from the collection that gets shared with relatives back home in China, perhaps just one more look at the image of the friendly black dog will be enough to shift some attitudes. It only takes the memory of a little wag of the tail to move mountains.

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Living in Sweden? Take advantage of the special offer available on Julie’s books just now by visiting www.julielindahl.com. If you live elsewhere, visit the site to learn about where you can purchase her newest award-winning book, “Rose in the Sand” about a decade lived on a Swedish island.

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The answer is in the seed bag

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Everyone should have to make one grow

“The birch leaves are bigger than mouse ears,” I commented as we drove out into the countryside. This fact distressed me a little: I hadn’t yet got the potatoes into the ground. The size and color of the birch leaves has always been a measure of time for farmers in these parts, but mostly just as a marker, a sign that one had completed the needed tasks on time. For all of the part-time farmers of Sweden, and that is a very large number of us, the transformation of the birch leaf has become something of a stresser. Farming in the North is the art of precision. A week or two’s delay here or there may land you with crops that aren’t ready before the first frost. Everything in nature gets to work quickly, is terribly industrious throughout the light season, and then closes down promptly, albeit somewhat unwillingly.

The seed bags lie unopened on the counter of my island kitchen. They are a reflection of modern life. So much will to creativity, but such a small portion gets done. Or perhaps it is that a very great deal gets done and that our lists have just got too long. No one can be satisfied with just three tasks or five tasks. The list has to be long. Or perhaps it is that so much of life, and increasing portions of it, takes place in digital worlds. In other words, we are no longer living in one world, rather in several at the same time, keeping our heads constantly turning from one world to the other, wondering which world is most important to prioritize just now.

Yet the seed bags are still on the counter, closed, and that bothers me. My garden is a school of learning unsurpassed in content and quality by any educational institution I have attended. I’ve learned more there about the intricate connections between everything – the reason that answering the question of “why” is never simple – than in any other setting I can think of. Following the directions on the pack won’t do in a garden. One must observe, switch on all of the senses and come to a deeper understanding of all of the forces that will affect the sprouting of the seed and the growth of the plant. It is a true lesson in “sustainable growth,” a riddle that seems otherwise still unsolved. If we wanted to address the world’s most pressing problems, everyone, particularly the world’s leaders, should be asked to make a seed grow where they live. The learning and discussion that would follow this great global act would be of greater value than anything we have heard so far. The thought may seem idealistic, but having myself been involved in the construction of complex strategies to solve global problems, I think the results could catalyze considerable shifts.

I inspect the grounds of my summer island. The impossible rose garden which we created on an island of sand is well. The emptying of the septic tank on Good Friday certainly has worked wonders. I give myself credit for at least observing this important date in the calendar. Appropriately, the awful task of Good Friday leads to a stunning rebirth. As Christ ascends to heaven this weekend, the work of cutting back and removing those admirable fighters we call weeds, begins. A cold May wind steals through the sunlit air to ensure that no one rests in the hammock just yet. No time for resting. The seed bags have been opened.

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Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Order it now from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk , Author House, authorhouse.co.uk and many other online bookstores, including major Swedish online bookstores such as bokia.se and adlibris.se. If you live in Sweden visit www.julielindahl.com to take advantage of a special offer currently available for Lindahl’s books. Learn more about her other books and activities at www.julielindahl.com.

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Spring at the water

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Everything in its highest form

Early Sunday morning and the lake was all fog. One struggled to see a solid object, but the lake was a white haze. The facing island had vanished, and out on the water it seemed that there was nothing. Many people found this nothingness to be haunting, disorienting, something one hoped would lift and go away. During all of the years in this place, I had learned that this blankness was a friend, because it gave the possibility for the mind to rest and become fertile for own new thoughts.

An hour later, a motor boat headed out for the islands broke the silence and the evenness. Nothing had become something and had started to lift here and there. A pair of Canada geese flew low over the water, the tips of their wings skimming the surface to awaken the sleeping giant. The weeping birch branches swayed over the water as the dance of the day proper began.

Now the lake was patterns in the mid-morning sun. The birds in the trees chirped with excitement in a thousand voices. One heard the motor boats in the distance, darting between the islands, transporting and preparing for the life of summer. The garden furniture at the dock was still inhabited by the ghost of winter – empty, unarranged and quiet. Yet, soon, it too would join the carnival at the water.

It is wonderful to see a receptive mind discover the water for the first time. Ellie the dog cocked her floppy ears as the waves reached out to her at the shore. “Here we are, come and meet us, little pup,” they whispered. Ellie barked, since dogs don’t whisper, then crouched down and lapped mischievously at the incoming tide with her tongue, inviting the water to play. There was something about the water that was magical, frightening, alluring and original to us, all at the same time. We’d come from it, consisted mostly of it, and could never get enough of its shimmering surface.

I sat on a tree stump and shut my eyes. Ellie crept into my lap, exhausted from playing with the waves, which never seemed to give up. Her small pup’s body was soft and warm in the sun, which had consumed the fog and revealed the lake. Then I wished I could sit here forever, in the company of evenness and truth. Here there was no need to be strategic, make progress or achieve. Everything by its very nature, was already in its highest form. Yet, it took silence, fog and nothing to know and appreciate the essence of things. I wished more of it for more of us.

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Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Order it now from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk , Author House, authorhouse.co.uk and many other online bookstores, including major Swedish online bookstores such as bokia.se and adlibris.se. Learn more about Julie’s other books and activities at www.julielindahl.com.

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Ecological Easter

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Colt's foot emerges from the cold April ground

The waves push out the last of the thin morning ice that accumulates like a thin wafer during the April nights. The sun melts down the morning chill and wills the greenness to rise from the flowerbeds. The shapes of the tender leaves rising from the soil remind me of the plants that will be there, tall, mature and colorful with flowers, during the summer. The birds take off and land, delighting in the new fluidity of nature. There is motion and color after stillness and white.  The balance of aesthetics between the seasons is perfect. There is nothing we can create that likens it. All we can do to experience it is to be a part of it. This thought is so obvious that we easily forget it as we observe nature, conserve nature and try to ensure its sustainability.

Returning to my summer island in the spring brings me back to being a part of it. There is something about living in or near the city that makes one an observer of nature rather than a participant. Nature is in museums and zoos. Out on the pavement there are only cement and cigarette butts. Just the other evening, while visiting friends in the center of town, I struggled to find a tuft of grass for Ellie the dog to pee on. We wandered block after block in the supposedly green city of Stockholm, but failed to find anything but a small patch of brown. This happened to be the new neighborhood plantings (although this was not obvious to the naked eye), and neighborhood watch soon screamed out her window that we were tramping on the neighborhood farm. Sometimes I find that the city makes people get angry about green. It is an unfortunate fact that humankind becomes militant when resources are lacking. Ellie and I walked away from the patch of brown quietly. We hadn’t noticed a single shoot. Only cigarette butts. More power to the people who want to green our cities.

Out here in the boondocks, we’ve been very ecological this Easter. Septic tanks need taking care of and roses need fertilizing. Roses are beautiful things with a vile appetite for stuff that smells bad and has a consistency that doesn’t make most people feel well. In fact, most things that grow have this sort of vile appetite and preference for the mushy. Our modern visions of ecological lifestyles – brown paper labels in clean ‘green’ shops – put a smooth veneer on what ecological living actually is. Ellie runs into the kitchen from the garden, snout and paws covered in dirt, and jumps up on my trousers to catch my attention. Now I have brown paw marks on my trousers. Nothing to bother about. This is the very essence of ecological living.

Today it is Easter Sunday. I wasn’t raised in any particular religion, although with many of them around me. Despite this, Easter Sunday on this island is special to me. It is the day when I find the time to notice the power of the shoots and the sap rising in the birch trees. The green Buddha on my window sill strikes me as the perfect symbol of what I experience here: the perfect balance of everything that simply is.

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Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Order it now from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk , Author House, authorhouse.co.uk and many other online bookstores. Learn more about Julie’s other books and activities at www.julielindahl.com.

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Language not words

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

Language without words

Words without language, language without words. It is the main thought that has stayed with me from the annual Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm yesterday. Watching a man, debilitated by disease and the passing of time, sweeping the stakes and making the most important statement of the night was an experience that went amiss on no one.  Tomas Tranströmer embodied the meaning of his poem, even without reading it himself. His wife of a half a century read it for the gathered dignitaries, but all of the time, Tranströmer, there in his wheel chair, barely able to conjure a facial expression as a result of stroke, was the living expression of his meaning. He had become language without words.

For anyone who is a writer or artist, the recognition of this moment happening for another writer or artist is a moment of unbridled joy and bottomless tragedy.  It is like watching someone pass into air and become a part of an ethereal light of all voices that have found language and risen above words. One longs to journey with them, to escape barriers and constraining forms, and simply to be in a state in which thought is unimpeded by grammar, spelling and punctuation.

This writer’s dilemma is, in some ways, the very same challenge that everyone faces in life. Each of us longs for a seamlessness and a flow, where nothing is forced and a meaning that speaks to each of us is ever-present. When meaning, that is, language leaves and there is only form, or words, we become dissatisfied and wander in circles asking why we are here.  Many of us do that these days, if not every day then certainly from time to time. Living in the flow of language and experience is where we want to be, need to be, but that requires a great deal of courage in our society, where our ears are filled with words that can become stifling in their number and impede free and productive thought that means something.

The truth is, my heart ached when I listened to Tranströmer last night, mainly because he confirmed my thoughts and I knew that I wasn’t mad. His poem summarized the feelings that came to me when I moved from a small, isolated island where I had lived for almost a decade back closer to the city. The beautiful silence in which I had found so much richness and harmony suddenly was filled with words in quantity, rather than language in quality.

One shouldn’t be too critical. Meetings between people are important and can give rise to forces that can energize and change the world.  Where Tranströmer can help us, however, is to improve the quality of those meetings by expressing what we actually mean and seeking to set free the personal language of those we encounter. It may well be in language, not words, that we find the peace that we seek.

Tranströmer’s poem from March ‘79 in translation:

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
l went to the snow-covered island.
The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread out on all sides!
I come upon the tracks of roe deer in the snow.
Language but no words.

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Wondering what to give a friend or loved one for Christmas? Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Order it now from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk , Author House, authorhouse.co.uk and many other online bookstores. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.

Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.

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A peculiar execution

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

What thoughts are being born amidst the trees?

Golden layers fall from the trunk like a ball gown. Their pattern brings tears to the eyes of any artist or designer who has observed, been inspired and tried to replicate. Some come close, like insects dancing toward the light. Yet, the sweet tragedy of all great art, and indeed the quality that draws us to it, is the longing to portray a vision or a feeling that we’ve internalized and, at best, always just coming close.

Autumn in the North, with its overbearing beauty and dramatic happenings, is full of this sweet tragedy for me. During sunny, crisp mornings in the park with Lucy the dog the desire to describe what I see flows forth in words that I just cannot keep up with. They pass through my thoughts and seem to fly right back out into the golden waterfalls of leaves, and wash away into the gutters next to the sunlit paths. At the same time, being able to retain just a small portion of this inspiration, which I believe I do, makes all of the difference to me. Just a tiny droplet of it can shape my day, my thoughts, my attitude, and the way that I relate to other people. This is no small matter.

Autumn’s sweet tragedy began to turn sour when I noticed in the Sunday paper that there is a planned execution in Stockholm on Monday morning. At some time tomorrow, which is likely being kept a secret for fear of the Robin Hoods of nature conservation hijacking the event, an oak that is several hundred years old, and that preceded all of the modern structures that stand around it, will be felled. Symbolically, the base of the oak is now entombed under the cement of the pavement in front of the Swedish public television station’s building.

Apparently it’s got a fungal disease and is a risk to passersby. We have to be realistic – it’s just a tree, some say. Yet, if one thinks about how many artists, thinkers and others this tree has inspired to new heights – how many thoughts this tree has impacted over time -  one begins to appreciate the magnitude of what is about to happen.  This sort of tree has not only been our witness, it has been a creator of history and culture over many hundreds of years.

It seems ironic that in this International Year of Forests in which Sweden is celebrating trees as both a part of our outer and inner worlds, the old oak which has seen us through so much has to go. If this was an elderly person, we’d do everything to learn whatever we could from it before he or she passed away. If it was a famous artist, a movie star or other celebrity, we’d be honoring it at galas. A tree is not a person, but there is a good reason why trees occupy a special place in the cultural life of this part of the world. They’ve shaped the way that we think. Observing a very old tree is more than just nostalgia or nature appreciation, it’s living history.

As I pass down the linden alley, I smile upon the youngsters. I’m older than many of these trees. It’s cheerful to be able to enjoy their soft and slender youth. Yet, in the gnarled forms and deep grooves of an old tree is the inspirational and intellectual heritage of a people. Perhaps, for these very special trees we’ve felt forced to fell, a ceremony of remembrance should be organized. Undoubtedly, this would be the sign of a society with greater self-insight than the one that we live in today.

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Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.

Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.

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A most interesting tree

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Why are you here?

Sometimes the week can begin to seem rather gnarled.  Time passes and one wonders: Where did I get to this week – what did I actually achieve? I look at my to-do list and see that about half of it is checked off.  There are some to-dos that are beginning to look like old knots in trees and then there are those new shoots that have suddenly sprung up in the most unexpected places and mischievously redirected the energy needed to grow.

That question, “Have you achieved what you wanted to – have you succeeded?” is puzzling at week’s end. For whom? At what level? At the level of my to-do list, my bank account, my family, my community, or the country I live in? How about the planet and humanity? Thinking about these questions can either bring great clarity and perspective, or it can bring up that difficult question of “why am I here?”

This biggest and most difficult of questions was one surrounding us at a conference I attended yesterday run by the government of Sweden concerning how to bring about greater integration in this country. The only problem is that no one who ran the conference saw this question, which felt something like a very colorful and remarkable bird chirping up in the branches with no one noticing it because they all had their eyes on the ground. After this summer’s tragedy in Norway, which highlighted the need for more innovative thinking about this challenge in the Nordics in general, it seemed that this conference had a more urgent mission than it might otherwise have had. Unfortunately, it collapsed into the specific research interests of a handful of academics who, although working with the best of intentions, led us all straight for the minutiae, which had been studied a thousand times, and in this way completely lost track of the big question.

As an immigrant trying to become a part of this society, there is one big question that has hovered over me through the 15 years I’ve been here: How can I contribute in a way that suits my interests as well as the needs of people who live here (thus in some way addressing the big question of why I am here)? Finding that intersection can be extremely difficult if other people are not acclimatized to the question. Of course, everyone wants to find that intersection – it is the very thing that fulfils our human need to belong, a need which is critical to our psychological and physical health.

In order to fulfil this need, some years ago I marched into my children’s school and offered my services in reading English language stories to a few of their classes. It seemed to me that an English Literature graduate who was a published author could actually do something useful in a community where English language was required in schools but where it wasn’t a strength of the teachers. At first, there was puzzlement at my readiness to do this and I felt as though I was having to force my way through the classroom door. Eventually, however, I had calls and comments from delighted parents. In this way, eventually I got to know the vast majority of parents and teachers in the school, and thereby most people in my surrounding community. Although my past experiences were a world away from those living in this community, I felt that we had found a meeting point in our interests and that at some level I belonged.

One can, of course, argue that I am an immigrant who is educated, who was able to work as a volunteer and who looks Swedish. All of these things help. However, I don’t believe that any of these factors actually assures that one will feel a sense of belonging. That is a combination of personal will and people in the established community who are open to new ideas of how we can move forward together. Encouraging and facilitating both of these is the way to create a new and valuable sense of belonging. It requires a great deal of creativity – something which Sweden is apparently now number one in the world at, according to Canadian researcher Richard Florida’s new study.

This morning when I walked out into the park with Lucy the dog, I took a good hard look at some of my favorite trees there. I’d seen my week as a bit of a gnarled tree and it seemed a little unfair to all of these great beauties in the park. They were complex with the grooves in their trunks winding in unexpected directions; they had parts that seemed to have grown into them and evidence of the way they had interacted with their environment, creating greater uniqueness and adding special value to the park; some had hideouts in their trunks where animals could find shelter. It seemed to me that these most beautiful and unique of all trees were the way that we wanted our lives and our communities to be. Perhaps ten minutes’ meditation on the image of a most interesting tree would be a good way to start the next conference on integration.

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Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.

Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.

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