10/11/2017

In Love

I went to a concert last night. I went to hear Mihkel Poll, one of our finest and most acclaimed young concert pianists, play Debussy, Lemba, and Chopin. It was a solo concert, throughout the concert he was the only person on stage – as I understood from a lengthy interview he gave last week, this is by far the most complicated and nerve-racking situation for a musician. No-one supports you, no-one backs you up or covers for your mistakes. I don’t even have to say he did brilliantly and earned standing ovations in the end of the concert. During the second half he played only Chopin. And it took my breath away – in a very literal sense. I would unconsciously keep my breath, staring at his hands (I was lucky to sit very close to the stage), so much so that when the piece ended, I had to exhale and inhale deeply and try to get my breathing back to normal. His hands were creating such magic on the piano keys I literally forgot to breathe.

Afterwards, when I walked back home through the rain, feeling elated, I thought about music. And what kind of effect it can have on me.

For several times we’ve talked with M. about the role of music in our lives. And we have both concluded that it isn’t something extra, something to be added to the basic elements of our lives, music itself is at the core of our experience as human beings. I’m sure it can be different for different people, for many people it can be a nice addition, for me it is a must, a central element of my being. I wouldn’t last long without music. It touches me so deeply, it expresses my feelings so accurately, it can transform the world and it can overwhelm me so much it either makes me keep my breath or it makes me cry. The opening of Chaikovsky’s 1st piano concert makes me cry, for example. Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum mesmerises me. And some pop or jazz song can hold me captive and express my emotions like nothing else can.

I’m one of those people who can listen to one piece or song for about 200 times in a very short time. I know where the repeat button is. And a strange thing that happens with such obsessive listening is that I save all my surroundings and all my emotions I happen to feel during that short time into this one song. For example, when I listen to Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me, I can accurately describe my room and what it felt like to be a 16 year old insecure teenager because this is when I listened to that song excessively. Actually, I can even name the book I was reading during the time I listened to that song the most. We lived in Rakvere, and sitting on the edge of my bed I was reading Viktor Pelevin’s Chapaev and Pustota. I don’t know how my brain does it – I mean, it’s a half a lifetime ago! – but it really does save my memories that clearly, and it all comes back when I listen to this song. There are more songs like that, more time capsules like that. On the other hand, there are some songs I am no longer able to listen to because when I listened to them obsessively, I was in love with this guy or thought about that person. And for different reasons I can’t listen to those songs any more, they are like capsules that hold all those feelings inside them, and I can’t open them. I can’t bring back those feelings. I know it’s strange but it’s true.

This is what music can do to me.

And of course I fall in love with all those musicians right in the middle of concerts. It usually lasts for four days (longer when I was a teenager) but seeing extraordinary talent always touches me deeply. It doesn’t matter who these musicians are in real life, there’s something irresistibly romantic about great talent.

By the way, here’s a note to my UK friends – Mihkel Poll will give a concert in Lincoln in mid November (http://mihkelpoll.com/). He will play my favourite, Chaikovsky’s 1st piano concert there, dammit! Go and cry a tear on my behalf please! :)

I have exactly 3,5 days left to be in love with him.

10/09/2017

Over the weekend I was able to spend two days at my cousin’s summer house in Southern Estonian woods. I was hoping to stay even longer but work cut my stay short and brought me back to Tallinn after two days.

This tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere has started to play an important role in my life. It’s not only a place of nature and sauna and ice-hole dipping, not even that of joyous and noisy dinners late at night after sauna or lazy pancake Sundays with my cousin's family (and often my uncle and his family). It has become a place with which I measure my life. Let me explain.

It takes so long to get there (4 hours on a bus plus a 4 km walk from the bus stop – it’s basically as far as you can go, considering how small Estonia is) and the place is so dramatically different from the rushing of the capital city that once I get there, life seems to slow down – even stop – so much so that I am able to take a more objective look at my life and doings and cares. It’s as if I enter a parallel world once I arrive there and I get to measure my victories and losses and acknowledge the seasons of life, both inward and outward. I can go there a couple of times a year, and this pausing, this space allows me to look back and draw some conclusions. The last time I was there, it was early spring. I remember walking 4 kilometers from the bus stop and picking budding branches on my way and putting them in water and enjoying first spring leaves. First green things to be seen that spring. I was on a sick leave. I was battling this and that, thinking about these and those people. Now it was late autumn. Those first fresh leaves had turned brown and yellow, many trees were already bare (or bald, as my cousin’s son says). Sitting in the sauna on Friday evening and looking out at the lake, I calculated and revised and concluded. So this is how far I’ve come since the last time I was here. My health is this and that much better or worse, these were my victories over the summer months, those were my losses. Now I’m thinking about these people, now I’m facing those challenges. (Everything, except for the mercy of the Almighty, seems to change constantly.) This cottage is the measuring stick of my life.

It’s a place where I go to catch my breath when I’ve run out of it. Like my dad said today when I told him I’ve just come from Sillaotsa (that’s the old name of the place), „Isn’t this the place you always go whe things get rough?” I hadn’t thought about it but it’s true – I’ve done a lot of mourning and crying there. But I am also determined to link my happier memories and life occasions to that tiny place. The time S. and J. came to Estonia to celebrate my 30th birthday and we spent a lovely day in Sillaotsa is one of those occasions – I still remember the crazy heat in the sauna and the boat we took out on the lake and the pancakes we ate on the porch. Should I ever get married, this – I hope – could be one of the honeymoon hideouts. Should I ever go and live abroad, this will probably become my regular pilgrimage destination. It will continue to measure my life.

I love this place.

Fifty shades of yellow
Spiders' wonderland
Tea is a must
Boys' playground
Birches
Out with the boys
Defending the hay fort
Lake mirror
Book for the weekend
Can't do without a selfie these days!


9/26/2017


Nothing happens these days. Like, nothing nothing.

A lot happens at work but that's the only thing I don't want to talk about. Other than that, it's so quiet it's getting spooky. I sort of glide from one day to the next, wondering how long this monotony will continue. In a sense I don't really mind. I'm the type who can easily put up with routine, I think 10 years in academia taught me that well enough - studying is mostly a dull monotonous work. Nothing glamorous. Even cum laude on the diploma doesn't make it more glamorous, contrary to what people might think. I should know. So unglamorous monotony is an old friend, we know each other well. Only on rare moments, late in the evening when I'm reading a book or listening to music or thinking about my people, I suddenly feel a rush of abstract fear, thinking, "Oh my, here I am, while the life is passing me by", not even knowing exactly what it is that passes me by or what I should do to grab it. Or whether this vague "life" is even something worth my running after and grabbing it.

Maybe I'm slightly autistic, go figure. I like when things are being done the way they always have. There's certain security in routine and familiarity. On my days off, I go to the same Indian restaurant and sit in the same corner by the window and read a book, and I love it. (As to the book, it was Knut Hamsun the last time - the book changes, the restaurant doesn't.) In the evenings, I like to go to gym to the same training and have the same trainer there. I like seeing the familiar face, and it makes me childishly giddy to be able to listen to familiar music and throw out all my work worries - which are numerous - for an hour. I keep listening to the same music. I keep thinking about the same people.

I almost broke out of the routine, having planned a trip to the UK in November. The recording time for the Biblios program was being negotiated, the service request for my preaching was already sent out. But then right before I was to book my tickets I remembered there's a concert in Tallinn I really need to attend in mid November, and that killed my plans. The concert, by the way, is my dad's. I need to be there for all the reasons in the world. So there is no UK for me this year, hopefully I'll make that trip after the New Year.    

On the other hand, it is so easy to see those times, those "nothing nothing happens" times as boring or even irrelevant. I'm so often living in some parallel reality in my head, either in the future or in the past. It's easy to be present when there's a lot of action and when adrenaline is running and you get to do something really exciting. But at times when nothing really happens I always have the temptation to disregard the present as worthless and go to some other time and other place in my mind. It's a good thing I happen to read a book right now where the author talks about the infinite value of the present moment. Frederick Buechner says: "Morning, afternoon, evening - the hours of the day, of any day, of your day and my day. The alphabet of grace. If there is a God who speaks anywhere, surely he speaks here: through waking up and working, through going going away and coming back again, through people you meet and books you read, through falling asleep in the dark." 

So it's a good excercise. To learn to appreciate such "nothing nothing" times. I try my best.

9/11/2017

I shook hands with Arvo Pärt on Friday.

Let me try to put it in a context for you.

Arvo Pärt is an extraordinary composer. A genius. By statistics that is being collected by classical music event database, Bachtrack, A. P. is the world's most performed living composer for the sixth year in a row. I don't know how it's possible. And I don't know how you could beat that. The world's concert halls are full of his music. No, the world is full of his music. It was not long ago when I was watching a random Hollywood movie on a bus and just in the middle of the movie I hear one of his pieces on the soundtrack. He has received a number of honorary degrees from universities around the world, just last year he received one from Oxford University. He's absolutely incredible.

For Estonians, he is a national treasure.

Every year around the time of his birthday there's a music festival in Tallinn where his pieces are being played and sung. This year's festival started last week and culminates today, on his birthday (he turns 82 today). I decided to go and attend one of these concerts. So on Friday evening I went up to the Old Town and sat on a bench in front of the church where this concert was to take place, and as I was a little early and was waiting for a friend to arrive with our tickets, I saw a taxi pulling up to the church, and who came out... It was Arvo Pärt together with his wife Nora. I sat there, staring at him, and my heart started beating as if I was a teenager who had just seen Justin Bieber (sorry, that was a cheap comparison). There was this whoooosh-sound going through the crowd that were waiting to get inside the church. It's Arvo Pärt, it's Arvo Pärt, people whispered.

Once we got in the church, we were looking for seats as close to the musicians as possible and when we had found them I realised Arvo and Nora Pärt were basically sitting in front of us. And I thought, this might be the only time I see him. I've got to go and speak to him. So I did. He stood in the aisle so I picked up all my courage and I approached him and said, "Mister Pärt, may I say something to you?"

What I said I didn't come up with on the spot. Actually, I've known for a long time what I would want to say to him, should I ever meet him. So I knew exactly. I said, "Sir, I wanted to thank you for your music. A couple of years ago when my mother died, I was unable to listen to music for some time. It was as if the world went dark and silent. And it was your music that was the first thing I could listen to again. It was your music that brought me back to the land of the living." And he just stood there, the most talented and humble man I've ever seen, and his eyes shone brightly. I could tell he was happy. And I was getting a little emotional too because it meant a world to me to be able to tell him this. So we spoke for a while - it was a rather awkward converstaion as he's not a very social person (which I already knew as I've watched several documentaries about his life) -, he asked me who I was and what I did, sounding genuinely interested, and in the end he wished me every blessing and he reached out his hand and shook mine. His hand was warm, as warm as his smile.

I sat there afterwards and listened to his Stabat Mater and Estonian Lullaby and one more of his pieces which I hadn't heard before, and I thought to myself: I could die in peace now.

Actually, no. There are two people I've desperately wanted to meet in my life. One was Arvo Pärt. That's done now. The other is my favourite writer, Frederick Buechner. But he's 91 and lives in the USA so the chances aren't good.

But even if I don't meet him, that's alright. I'll find him, once we're on the other side of Jordan. So it doesn't matter. All is well.

Happiest of birthdays, Arvo Pärt! Your music has changed lives. Mine, anyway.

9/07/2017

The autumn has arrived and this time it's here to stay.

I don't mind at all.

I've never enjoyed autumns as in this part of the world they mean endless darkness and rain. But this year it's different and I can't quite figure out why. It might have to do with the fact that this spring was so terribly bad that every season which takes me further away from the spring is a gift and a relief. I don't know. But I really enjoy watching the leaves turn yellow, the rain, and the shortening of days. There is something soothing and calming about it.

The work rhythm is back to normal now which means endless meetings and piling obligations. There are executive board meetings and administrative committee meetings and departmental leaders meetings and meetings and meetings. Seminars to organise, materials to translate, lectures to prepare, sermons to preach, videos to shoot. Everyone's back to the office and everything's moving at top speed. If I manage to come out of this madness next spring without another burnout, I deserve a gold medal. Phew.

I had a thourough chech-up at the eye clinic this morning and the news wasn't good. It's a month now since the surgery and something in my eyes is not recovering as it should. I didn't understand everything they told me but I think it has to do with the lense in my eye not wanting to change its shape. Which, apparently, it should want to do. So the process which for some people takes literally four days has taken me four weeks and I'm still not there yet. They still smile and tell me to be patient but I was quite shaken when I left the clinic today. But as I have a day off today (because I've just been to Riga again and a day that starts at 5.30 a.m. and finishes at 11 p.m. does require a day of catching one's breath afterward) I decided the best I could do was to go to my favourite Indian restaurant and drown my worry into - or rather bury it under - a mountain of Indian food. It worked. And the fact that this restaurant has the coolest and best looking waiter in town also helped. I had a little chat with him and left, feeling much more optimistic. I also finished a book, sitting in the restaurant (being single and going out means usually a company of a good book) and when I thought that I have been able to finish two books and have had four gym evenings this past 1,5 weeks, then things could be much worse. Things are getting better, not just as fast and smoothly as I expected.

As to these two books, I've come back to Europe. I've read one by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad and another by French historian Jean-Pierre Minaudier. The latter author has a strange hobby of collecting grammar books of different languages so the whole book - I'd translate the title as The Glory of Grammar - talks about how brilliant and weird different languages are. One might think it's a dusty and boring book but it actually is wonderfully witty and engaging. It reminded me again why I fell in love with linguistics in the first place. I have a feeling this one goes straight to my Top 5 list of books this year.

It looks like my neighbors have also settled into the autumn/winter life rhythm. Because I didn't see them much over the summer but now they're definitely back - the school year started last week. There's a lady and her teenage son - around 17 I would guess - living upstairs. Now, there isn't much of a sound isolation between two storeys so in the evenings, when I'm really quiet and pay attention, I can hear the music that the guy is listening to upstairs. He seems to have his room right above my bedroom. Poor isolation plus a teenager upstairs could be receipt of a disaster. But in this case it isn't and it still makes me wonder. I mean, he listens to Norah Jones and Sting, of all people! When we meet in the hallway, which barely ever happens, he always greets me most politely ("Be sure to be nice to elderly people," I'm sure that what's his mother has taught him) and when we happen to bump into each other at the front door, he always tells me he will lock the door himself and that I don't have to bother. I didn't know teenagers like this existed any more! So here's to autumn and to my lovely neighbors: Norah Jones, Carry On.

I have only one problem with this autumn. I don't have an umbrella big enough.


9/01/2017

Some days feel like a desert and taste like sand.

8/28/2017

It was a Home Cafe Day in Tallinn yesterday. The idea is very simple - people are given an opportunity to open a cafe in their garden for a couple of hours. This concept has become really popular in Estonia and many towns have their own Cafe Day. So does Tallinn. People enjoy it very much as it gives a chance to get to know their own communities better. And as we were looking for a project with our church planting group anyway, we decided we'd open a cafe. R. and V. offered their back yard for the venue.

We did some serious planning, sitting around H. and V.'s kitchen table but when the cafe really opened yesterday at noon, we were far from being ready. Or at least we were far from being ready to see such a big crowd. The first half an hour was chaos and mayhem. We didn't know exactly how the orders were meant to be dealt with and how the information was supposed to be passed from the counter to the kitchen and then to the table. So at first everyone was running around and shouting orders and there was neither law nor order. But law and order have the incredible ability to manifest themselves in situations like this so after the first shock everyone in the team found their place and purpose. Burgers were being flipped on the grill, smoothies were being blendered, everyone finally learnt what this or that cake looked like, the waiters and waitresses came and went with a lot more efficiency and a lot less shouting. And suddenly everyone was having loads of fun.

We had such a warm and sunny weather yesterday, which was a real surprise since the autumn had decided to decend on Estonia last week and we all thought it was here to stay. But the summer still had the upper hand yesterday so people were chilling all over the back yard and we needed to get some extra tables and chairs because many customers were just standing for there weren't enough seats. People who came were extremely friendly and relaxed and our initial nervousness disappeared. We were supposed to close our cafe at 4 p.m. but as people refused to leave and we still had a mountain of pies and muffins in the kitchen we kept the cafe opened. It might have been around half past five that the last customers left and we finally had a chance to grill some burgers to ourselves. There was a lot of high-fiving after that.

What I liked about yesterday the most was the cooperation. We have been meeting with this church planting group for a long time, but there is a big difference between sitting around a table, sipping tea and trying to come up with our core values, and running around customers and having to make everything run smoothly under pressure. And still stick to the values we decided upon, not killing each other. It made me happy yesterday to see how we manage to cooperate and get things done. It is something that gives me assurance and confidence as we move towards opening the new church. It's a privilege to be a part of such a great bunch of people.

I grabbed my camera as I was hurrying to our cafe prep yesterday morning. It's been a long time since I last held the camera in my hand, and it felt good.









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There aren't many news otherwise. Still no books, and I'm growing very impatient. I'm planning to hit the gym again this week as I'm starting to feel a lot like a jar of jelly. But music wise I've turned back to my old love, Bobby McFerrin. There was one day last week that I wished I could have skipped altogether but I kept listening to McFerrin's Hold On that morning and it made it all a whole lot better. And then on Saturday night, after I had come home from my preaching trip and put my feet up, I made a mistake of clicking on one of his videos. And once you do that, there's no end to it. I can watch one video after another, go on for a long time and laugh like a kid while watching. I think this one is my favourite right now. That man is made of music, I say.