Too far, too close? Write.

“To protect their own lives and health, people have to reduce personal contact to a minimum. Finland has been preparing for this moment throughout its entire history” tweet by Jari Tervo, Finnish author

This may be partly why I have found the last two weeks just fine at first, and then suddenly overwhelming – after eight years in this country and more than two as a citizen, am I simply too Finnish? As the social distancing intensifies, so does the social closeness. For an introvert, indeed a nation of introverts, it can all be rather too much.

One of our neighbours said that she has never seen the lakeside path by our house so busy. People are going for a walk or a run because they aren’t used to being cooped up together all day with a lot less to do. To be fair, it’s still perfectly possible to stay metres away from each other at all times – busy in this context means you can see a lot of other people, not that you’d have to, like, touch them or anything. It’s not the London park my mum described as “like Piccadilly Circus.” But in a context where the nation’s dream is a house by a lake in the woods where you can’t even see your nearest neighbour, where there are the same number of people as in Scotland in a surface area the size of Germany, it feels like a lot.

One of the comments on that tweet seemed tinged with horror: “a work skill for our times: small talk in online meetings.” (To which the author responded: “it’s called ‘very small talk’”.) And, good Lord, there have been far too many online meetings. All the teachers, from grade 1 of primary school right up to university, have switched to distance learning and classes online. My wife is having choir rehearsals online in the room next door to my office. I had my first piano lesson by video link yesterday, I’ve moved my book club online, I taught my choir board how to do a video conference call for our meeting last week… luckily I’m more used to it than most as I’ve been having yoga lessons on Skype ever since I moved here, and I meet other translators and editors like this all the time. But with more than one person doing this in earshot, you need headphones, and after using them for an hour or so you start raising your voice as if you’re going slightly deaf and it all feels so… noisy. The entire world shouting in your living room.

So I went to the forest, or, if you’re Finnish, to the happy place, the safe place, the oasis of calm. I was worried it would be busy too, but I picked my moment and it wasn’t. From friends and family in Italy and Spain I know we soon might not be able to even do that. And then being in a small flat, even with the person you love the most, will feel very close indeed.

But the closeness keeps us going.

The last state of emergency I just about remember began in 1981. My great-grandmother was in Warsaw then and we were in Wales. When she died, we didn’t know for a long time. Finland has been in a state of emergency since Monday, but a very different one, initiated by a government led by five women, four younger than I am, who I helped vote in, and I trust to do a good job. The other big difference between then and now is those video calls. Being able to see each other’s faces and talk is precious. This week, I’ve spoken to people I’ve not talked to in many months, even years. We’ve remembered what we really need, that closeness.

Finnish closeness might look different. We want to hear each other’s stories, and we will listen, we just don’t want to do it by very small talk, we want to sit by ourselves and write it down, and give it to the Finnish Literature Society to collect, and then they’ll all be stored digitally for us and we can read them later, when we’ve had the space and time to think and feel. We’re giving each other space and time to think and feel by asking for those stories in the first place.

So that’s what I’m doing. As soon as I heard about this project, I wrote and asked, do you accept stories in other languages apart from the national ones (Finnish, Swedish, Sami, Roma…)? Yes, they said, write in English if you like. By all means.

If you are in Finland and want to do it too, here’s the link to the KoronaKevät (“Corona Spring”) project. If you’d like the instructions translated into English, let me know.

And if you’re not in Finland, why not do it anyway? You can choose whether and how to share what you write.

As soon as I started to, I felt much, much better.

One thought on “Too far, too close? Write.

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