Category Archives: sisu

She has her eyes on you


Over a year ago, a friend was fired from one of those jobs with low pay, where intelligent but young people work for bosses whose potential and ability faded with their enthusiasm. As we spoke that night, going over the details, mutually incredulous and increasingly angered, I reminded her that sometimes these things happen and that opportunities will open up. Going forward, I suggested, she now had time to explore her options, spend time taking care of herself and that help was always just a phone call away. We both laughed when I reminded her that her mother would no doubt be ready with all manner of comfort, now and whenever the pocket book could not offer her the certainty of home cooked meal.

It was her mother who put the whole situation into a succinct frame. That any employer would cast out a brilliantly educated, ginger-haired wit, such as her daughter, was a clear sign the company was beyond hope: corporate collapse was imminent. If only we could believe in ourselves so completely.

Our conversation reminded me of the first time I was fired. I was a retail clerk, part-time, at a small Carlton Cards shop. The store was located in a vacant suburban mall, populated by the few chains that either could afford to keep the shop open despite poor business, or those businesses that had not yet seen the downturn in demographics. After receiving the news that I was no longer needed and there would be no more shifts for me, I returned home, head down, certain that this episode was the most dismal to date.

When I told my mother, she probed for answers to the unanswerable: “How could they do this? Don’t they have to tell you a few days before? What kind of people are they?” When I shrugged my shoulders and answered with a sullen, “I don’t know”, she cut a slice of pie and served it to me warm. It wasn’t until years later that I learned what she had done after our conversation and to this day I do not have the full details.

One afternoon, she drove to the empty mall. She walked past the insurance agency, with its empty chairs and lone woman, in her tired business shirt with a name tag; past the Orange Julius kiosk, staffed by the university student trying to eek out part-time hours at minimum wage to supplement meagre student loans. She walked into that small store, with its single aisle of birthday condolences, get well soon balloons, and knick-knack curios that appeal to lonely women and those unable to find the words for what it is they meant to say.

I imagine her there: 5’4″, farm-girl seamstress whose hands and steely look tell a story, her thick Finnish accent. What did she say?

To this day whenever we find ourselves in that suburban mall, only recently turning a corner on the backs of some renovations and the new Safeway, she makes a point of looking into that little store. The episode has long since left my memory, replaced by other bosses and now staff; however, I see in her eyes the memory of wrongdoing. A look of warning; a mother’s warning to all that cross the paths of brilliant, educated children: she has her eyes on you.

Song of Love

And one day
we bend forward and reach around each other
and with a click get linked together, never again to come loose,
your ailing limbs interlocked with my gout,
my stomach ulcer beside your hear condition
and my arthritis against your sciatica,
we will never, ever part.

And, my dear, you forget your arhythmia, your shortness of breath
and the gangrene
which already resides in your heart
and I forget my catarrh, my restless legs
and the nagging pain in my left side
and may frost and troubles and sorrow come too.

Take my breasts, empty and flat
into your hands, my dear
for one day as you look at them they will hang low,
will you love me then
My bumble bee, my humble-bumble boy?

Lord, teach us to accept the love of the aged,
the love of the young, the love of the middle-aged,
the love of the ugly, the love of the poor,
the love of the ragged
and the love of the lonely.
Teach us to accept love,
for we fear it so.

-Eeva Kilpi-

Got sisu?

I turned forty this year and decided months ago that to mark the occasion I would get myself personalized license plates. Its arbitrary as a 40th year marker, I know – but buying a convertible wasn’t in the budget this year. When considering what my plate would read, I had no trouble finding the right word. SISU would be the only word to label me and my car.

Sisu is one of those finnish words that is difficult to translate but its one that unites a people. All finns have sisu, and if you are not a finn, you may aspire to have it, but no amount of sauna and vihtu will give you sisu (although we recommend you keep trying). Sisu is a strength of character, defined by stubbornness, confidence, strength of will  – someone with sisu is tough as nails and a force to be reckoned with.

Recognizing this characteristic in other finns is one of the ways we come together. In my family we are divided by hockey. There are those in my family who steadfastly back the Calgary Flames – they can’t help it, they are from Alberta and as I understand it, Albertans will kick you out of the club if you don’t back one of their own hockey teams. On the western side of the divide, we back the Canucks – we love the underdog and faithfully believe that next year will be “the year”. During hockey season, there is no shortage of jabs made across the mountains, done solely to poke fun and insult each other’s chosen teams.

The one area that will unite however is the rally cry of sisu. Whether it is Sami Salo, Antti Niemi, Pekka Rinne, or Miikka Kiprusof, a facebook status announcing the vertible status another team’s Finnish sisu is enough to produce approving nods and mutterings of “joooo” and “neen kylla”. It doesn’t matter that at a playoff game, my brother and I laughed that Antti Niemi was crying for his “Aiti” – he was still a Finn with sisu on those occasions where he offered up a great save.

But sisu is not about sports. Its about character. Its about an uncanny mix of stubbornness  force of will, and self-certainty. Of course, reading those descriptions one can’t help but see the folly of sisu. Such self certainty can be perilous and it’s this underbelly of sisu that I love the most. Sisu is both strength and weakness. To be stubborn and self-certain is ideal when one is right, however, when one is slightly less right, sisu is what digs our feet in, places hands on hips and sets the jaw. The thing about sisu is it is so unyielding that at times one can be seen steadfastly clinging to the side of a sinking ship. Someone with sisu, you see, is never wrong.