An Aha! Moment about Place-Conscious Writing While Swimming in Austin (Heather)

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“Write about what makes you different.” ~Sandra Cisneros

Amy and I lounged in a bath-warm infinity edge pool under a full moon, overlooking Lake Travis at a recent retreat at The Crossings in Austin. About 15 of us teachers were swimming that night, following a long day of developing resources to take back to our Writing Project sites around the country. For some of us, this felt like the first time to truly unwind after teaching summer school, taking classes, conducting research, or traveling for conferences and presentations. What do you get when you put a group of over-worked teachers together in a pool? Synchronized cannonballs, doggie paddle races, chicken fights on each others’ shoulders, and even underwater handstand races. We tried to avoid “talking shop,” but inevitably the conversations led back to writing.

Earlier that evening, Amy and I had shared our digital stories at an open mic session. Now we were by the edge of the pool, talking to a new Writing Project friend. Paul mentioned that the story about my Finnish grandma was a strong piece of place-conscious writing. I hadn’t thought about this before, but it was true that most of the audience we had that night — from Arkansas to California, from Alaska to Colorado — hadn’t experienced the Finnish ways that seem so ordinary to me. They hadn’t heard someone call a scarf a “huivi,” or a closet a “koppi.” They were enamored with my grandparents’ small log cabin home, which looks like a gingerbread house, and the little sauna built in the back.

As we talked about this, I thought about other Finnish traditions that we have in our family. We eat foods like vilia, a cultured yogurt; pannukakku, oven pancake; and korpu maito, a twice-baked cinnamon toast soaked in hot milk. Over the years, we have taken the girls to Finnish-American family reunions, to Finn Fest (participating in the World’s Largest Sauna) and to an annual Christmas party called Pikkujoulu. Just a few weeks earlier, I had taken my daughters to the Juhannes potluck, where my parents’ Finnish Club celebrates the mid-summer festival. I noticed that my girls were the only children there, and even the adults were mostly elderly. This traditional Finnish celebration will soon go to the wayside in the Upper Peninsula.

Amy, Paul and I discussed these traditions that I so often take for granted, and then I started laughing. I had forgotten about the most unusual Finnish tradition in our family: St. Urho’s Day. Each year, Finns celebrate St. Urho’s Day on March 16. We wear purple and green in honor of the saint who drove the grasshoppers out of ancient Finland to save the grape crops. The funny part is that my husband Kevin sometimes plays the role of St. Urho. He dresses in a green wig, purple robe and wears a Viking helmet. The ladies line up and parade with Kevin around the dance floor.

“You never told me about this!” Amy said. I had never thought about it. Didn’t everyone have a St. Urho’s Day Parade? It seemed so funny at the moment. I started thinking about what evidence I have of this celebration: somewhere, there’s a picture of Kevin dressed up as St. Urho. Also, I remember in second grade, Mikayla had written a journal and drew a picture about her memories of the celebration.

After returning home, I dug out Mikayla’s journal, and here is an excerpt:

“On Saturday morning I had to pack my suitcase to go to my grandmas house for St. Orho’s Day. We stopt at my cousin Iris’s house and brat her to a hour later we got to my grandmas house when we got ther we had to get in are elfits on then we had to go to the partty. My dad was St. Orho my sister whas Mis. Orho and we danced all night long then we whent back to my grandmas house and whent to bed.”

Funny that it took going to Austin to realize what makes my family different back at home.

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5 Responses to An Aha! Moment about Place-Conscious Writing While Swimming in Austin (Heather)

  1. Sally Karttunen says:

    As I read your “Write about what makes you different” blog, I laughed. And then I cried. And then I passed it on to others I know will understand exactly what you are saying, and even to some who might not. Kudos!

  2. Dad says:

    Neat blog, and a couple of great pieces of writing (as always)!

    . . . But, I just don’t get one thing, what’s so different about viiliä and korppu maitoa? Now, kalakukko, that might be a different thing 🙂

  3. Dad says:

    How do you remember what year it was? Was it that traumatic? And, anyway, the dog wasn’t Finnish.

  4. hamy10 says:

    Almost as traumatic as when Mom tried to pass liver for roast beef that same year. By the way, when I was looking through grandma’s recipe box for a Slippery Jim pickle recipe, I found one for kalakkuko instead…fish pie anyone?

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