How the Artist Beat the Soviet Villain

Elephants and Giraffes Found a Home on Facades

Elephants and Giraffes Found a Home on Facades

This is the story of a villain and a hero.

The story happened in a land on the other side of the world. A world where a dark cloud of despair loomed over the heads of each person who lived there.

People had learned how to turn off their feelings and pretend everything was alright.

Those brave or foolish enough to speak out for change were exiled to the remote corners of this land, often never to return.

A soviet villain was controlling the free will of the collective.

Since childhood, the son of a hog farmer had always felt an urge to paint cheerful pictures. He created weird and whimsical animals in a surreal world where clouds played tag in bluer than blue skies. Where transplanted giraffes and elephants gazed in awe at the huge star-studded skies of the Baltic Sea.

But the villain needed to keep the young artist depressed. The artist was ordered to paint what the government mandated: no fantasy, no bright, vibrant colours. Stick to realism rendered in the official 35 shades of muted browns and absolutely no giraffes or elephants.

Our hero smiled back. His fanciful pictures made him, his family and his friends exuberantly happy. So elated that they forgot about the dark clouds that loomed over them. This was a better alternative.

The villain created problems. He refused to let the hero attend art school. Worse yet, he denied the artist the special entry ticket to the only art supply store in the land.

Undaunted, the artist rolled up his sleeves and fabricated DIY brushes from the bristles of his father’s pigs. Because he was also denied entry to the art university, he hired a private art teacher.

Before long, everybody in the village was buying his paintings and hanging up a signed piece of happiness at home.

Things were going well for our hero. The more paintings he sold, the more he wanted to paint. His dark cloud disappeared and a smile never left his face. He wanted everyone to feel the way he did. He decided to create a picture book so that people could have a collection of his paintings.

Tongues wagged amongst the members of the Artists’ Union.

How low can you get?”

He’s doing something called marketing! Can you imagine. He has compromised himself by going commercial. A capitalist! “

The day the artist turned 19, there was a knock at his door. The government sent him birthday greetings by way of a reminder to fulfill his obligation to fulfill three years of compulsory military service.

This meant no more painting. Worse yet, he would be forced to live thousands of kilometers from home in a remote outpost that was so far away that most mothers could only do the journey once, to bring their care packages to their sons.

He would be ostracized, beaten and possibly even killed by jealous, angry recruits who carried fuddering thunderclouds over their heads all the time.

His smiling face defied the dark cloud nearby. With chin held high, he continued painting.

As the date for the interview and enlistment approached, the artist was putting the finishing touches on an oil painting featuring a pink dog-like creature in deep sleep. It lay on its side at the edge of a copse, surrounded by the soothing sighs of the Baltic silver birch.

The artist’s mother knocked at the door.

I just got a phone call.”

And who called?”

The recruiting officer you were to meet tomorrow for your interview had a terrible accident. Somehow, he drove into a tree and died.”

The artist put his brush down. The painting was finished.

Weeks went by, and no one called the artist.

He started another painting.

Then, something quite amazing transpired. That summer, in August, the villain was kicked out. The people wanted sunshine in their lives and forced the villain to release them from subservience.

A new leader stepped into the shoes of the old, and a great depression was lifted from the land.

The artist opened up an art gallery in the Big City and became a celebrity. The borders were opened to the rest of the world, and many visitors came.

The artist became so popular that people wanted to see his animals everywhere. Giraffes and elephants found new homes on building facades.

Today, penguins grace the topsides of the ferries that travel across the sea to Finland and Sweden.

They take happiness with them wherever they go.

And that is how the hero beat the villain.

Seeing the Possibilities

This gallery contains 8 photos.

 “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Thomas Merton

I was perusing through some of my  albums today and came across  photos of the early years of my art gallery business in Estonia. The pictures reminded me of seeing possibilities.

In the late 1990s I was coordinating art exhibitions together with the British ambassador. They were held at the ambassador’s residence just outside of Tallinn in Tabasalu village. We had a vernissage about once every twelve weeks where many artists in Estonia had an opportunity to display their work under one roof to the foreign as well as local community.

I recall when ambassador Tim Craddock first made the proposal to offer his spacious home as a venue. He attended an opening in my cramped gallery space in Tallinn. ( Only a year earlier it had been a garage used as a storage area for pickle jars, old skis, radiators and dirt.) Trying to sip wine while avoiding the elbow nudges of the other visitors, he smiled and said enthusiastically that he had a lot more room and wouldn’t I like to have exhibitions there as well?

He invited me to visit his house which I did.   Elated by all the wall space we suddenly had available to us, I asked a few senior artists I knew if they wouldn’t be willing to help curate the exhibitions since I didn’t know that many artists.  Seeing the possibilities for getting the recognition and hopefully the sales that our gallery and the artists were looking for. Their flat out answer was “no”  followed by a lengthy list of the  impossibilities of putting on any kind of exhibition at the residence.  There was no hanging system, the ceiling was too high, it was too far out of the city and other objections I can’t recall anymore. Additionally we would have the inconvenience of having to hang our art around a very valuable painting of  Elizabeth II’s coronation and this simply was an impossible situation since the art would clash.

The Estonians have a saying that you have to hear “no” a hundred times before you get a “yes”. Once was enough for me.

The Golden Hued Painting Behind the Dancer is that of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

The Golden Hued Painting Behind the Dancer is that of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II…and we eventually got the lighting system!

Loathe to give up this generous offer by a representative of the British diplomatic corps, I decided to proceed forward with the help of the girls who worked in our gallery and pursue our art of possibilities.

Art Exhibition at British Ambassador's Residence

Here is the Polish ambassador to Estonia Wołąsiewicz and his wife Hanna. That’s me in the pink scarf.

I met some very special people during these events including the Polish ambassador Jakub Wołąsiewicz and his wife Hanna. Hanna commuted between the two countries since she was pursuing a career as a judge in Poland.  We heard many an interesting story about the road conditions and border delays during her monthly commutes.

At that time Estonia and Poland had recently been freed from the respective oppressive regimes they had been forced to endure. These were heady times for not only the people who had been held hostage within their own national borders for half a century but also for those like me who witnessed and experienced their reintegration into the western world with all its life changing possibilities.

Still No Elbow Room

The ambassador would send a driver to my gallery with a packet of invitations embossed with the queen’s royal seal. All I had to do was have one of the girls put her gift of calligraphy to good use and write in the names of the invitees. I had more fun the guest list where our framing clients would also receive an invitation to an art exhibition where they could meet people out of their regular circle of friends and family. Needless to say, the exhibitions were a great hit but leaving us still  with limited elbow room for sipping wine!

The Foyer/Bar

The Foyer/Bar


Ambassador of the UK on the left and of the Ukraine on the right.

Ambassador of the UK on the left and of the Ukraine on the right.

A Descendant of the Pakri Island Refugees

The fellow to the right in the picture with Jakub and Hanna  found his way into my gallery one day looking for art that held a more Finno-Ugric  theme. We were indeed able to locate just the right artist’s work for him. Erik Soderberg is my friend’s name. His connection with Estonia went back many years to Pakri Island. His family was forced to flee to Sweden when the Estonian island they had inhabited for generations was declared off limits by the invading Soviets in 1940.
The  idyllic Swedish fishing villages were destroyed and the two Pakri islands were completely militarized and used for bombing practice for many years. The islands were returned to the Republic of Estonia around 1994 but decimated.  Although clearance teams have worked at cleaning up the mess,  mines continue to be found there today. Fires are not permitted on one of the islands, just in case.

They have become a tourist destination for experiential journeys and serve as a sober reminder of a difficult past that many countries like Estonia had to endure. Both Little and Big Pakri island are now nature reserves. Time is needed for them to heal but it is in the realm of possibility that given the chance, nature will regain balance.

Looking Forward to More Possibilities

Today Jakub is the Polish consul general to the Ukraine and we can be sure that he is witnessing heady times there. Erik has a shipyard in Sweden where  large commercial vessels are  being built. Tim Craddock received a special decoration from Estonia in recognition  for the wonderful work he did in opening up avenues of business between Estonia and the UK and more recently was the UK Ambassador to the UK.

Looking back serves as a needed reminder to us of the possibilities that became realities. But like any chapter that’s already been read, we already know those stories. Moving forward to the new possibilities is what makes our life’s journey rewarding to us and to those whose lives we touch.

The Estonian Song and Dance Festival Continues to Inspire

On this particular day in Tallinn, Estonia on July 1999 I decided to do a DIY renovation in one of my apartments and not attend the Estonian Song and Dance Festival. I planned to rent out the apartment in the fall and was looking forward to customizing the improvements in what had once been my maternal grandfather’s building. The day was hot and my project  was to remove old wallpaper. It peeled off easily enough as long as I kept dousing it with generous jets of water with my sprayer before digging in with the scraper.

Decades of Stories Revealed

Decades of Stories Revealed

In the distance I heard the first chant:

“Elagu. . . . . ” (Long live . . . . the name of the school, village, etc.)

The wave of words flowed towards me in a stirring crescendo as the parade of folk dancers and singers approached. Men, women, old and young, as well as kids were heading east along the avenue towards Kadriorg Park  to the Estonian Song and Dance festival grounds that faced north, towards the Baltic Sea. This four mile walk took about five hours and it seemed like all 18,000 of the participants were taking part.

Celebration of Culture is Passed Down to the Next Generation. . . with Intention

Celebration of Culture is Passed Down to the Next Generation. . . with Intention

Up until this point, I’d found my project pleasantly absorbing since I could stop to read segments of old newspaper articles sandwiched between layers of faded flowers and abstract patterns. The look and feel of the messages varied depending on what political authority was running the country at that particular time.

Estonian President's Flag

Estonian President’s Flag

There was the Estonian period (Eesti aeg) of the 1930s up until 1940 when the Red Army moved in.  Then there was the German Period (Saksa aeg) from 1941-1944 and then back to the Soviet Period (Nõukogude aeg), a very tough stretch of time that tested the resilience of the Estonian spirit for half a century until their regained independence in 1991.

The topmost newspaper layer stopped at the 1970s, indicating a probable wallpaper deficit.  This period was called the Stagnation Period (stagnaaeg) where the economy under Brezhnev took a steep nosedive.

It made my head spin. I tried to imagine living in a place where fluky political winds of change initiated three foreign occupations within five years. The names of streets and towns, shops and schools switched from Estonian, to Russian, to German and back to Russian again. These were the conditions in which my mother, aunt and grandmother lived until their escape in 1943.

I looked again at the soggy wad of exposed wallpaper designs from the past and marveled that people could occupy themselves with home décor in spite of the insanity taking place just outside their door. Perhaps keeping oneself busy with routine activities is the key to keeping one’s mind from becoming totally seized up with fear. I could only speculate.

Exposing decades of decorative art covered by propaganda newsprint was akin to opening up a time capsule and as difficult as it was to read Estonian in old Gothic font (German Period), I wanted to delve further into the mindset of the authors.

Another wave of “Elagu” brought me back to the present. My eyes needed a respite from the over-elaborate font and the idea of watching the Estonian Song and Dance festival parade drew me to the open window.

My building was situated on a corner where this apartment faced the narrow side street called Aedvilja tanav. (Garden Street) Situated on the third floor I had a diagonal bird’s eye view to Narva mantee (Narva Highway.) (This building had an interesting story connected with the soviet system.)

If Walls Could Speak!

If Walls Could Speak!

It wasn’t a highway anymore since the definition of fast travel was no longer as it had once been. This road was born in the Bronze Age where it connected important centers of trade to Narva on the Russian border. Once it began to vibrate with the clamor of trams, buses and cars it had already become one among many busy city streets.

For parade day the traffic had been rerouted for the Estonian Song and Dance Festival so that the street was eerily calm. The only other time I’d experienced this stillness was in the winter of 1991 when there was a shortage of gasoline. Moscow was not sending anything to the upstart little country that chose to secede from their neighbor.

A. Le Coq Got Tastier by the Hour

A. Le Coq Got Tastier by the Hour

I took another thirst quenching gulp from a bottle of A. Le Coq beer and marveled at the velvety smoothness and vanilla-like taste. Vanilla? (I rarely drink beer.)

 Look to the Countryside for Cultural Authenticity

This Laulupidu (song festival) parade served as an appetizer for the main course later on and the splendid display of colourful 19th century era traditional clothing represents the true folk essence of the culture. The procession was a continual passing of the colours of nature. Wool and thread dyed in plant based pigments provided soft hues from rhubarb, sunflowers, onions and parsley to name a few.

Natural Colours from Nature

Natural Colours from Nature

Striped homespun woolen dirndl skirts caught in the movement of dance became a blur of colours like the whirly pinwheels we played with as kids.

The Skirt Says It All

The Skirt Says It All

Water lilies and tulips embroidered onto white blouses shimmered in the sun.

Nature's Flowers Never Die Here

Nature’s Flowers Never Die Here

Immense round silver broaches rested on generous breasts and served to establish the importance of the wearer’s status.

Setu Status

Setu Status

Estonians have been celebrating the Estonian Song and Dance festival since 1869 and for every five years ever since. With only 1.3 million people their national identity wants to be rekindled and celebrated regularly. Worn with pride, the folk dress symbolically preserves the national values and cultural heritage while uniting the people.

This spark of awareness or wakefulness is exactly what was experienced by the forefathers who became sufficiently conscious of their unity to create a government of their own. When a community awakens to the fact that it is a nation it is called a national awakening and a power to be reckoned with.

The National Awakening

In the late 1880s the first Estonian language newspapers came into existence. The author Friedrich Kreuzwaldi also published the epic Kalevipoeg which brought together the wealth of Estonian folk tales and legends. The first song festival spotlighted the treasure trove of music that Estonians had created throughout their existence as a culture. This corpus of 133,000 folk songs is called the Monumenta Estoniae Antiquae and is the second largest in the world after Ireland.

The time had come to declare nationhood and bring an end to 700 years of slavery. Concerned, the tsar of Russia initiated a push for russification where education would be given in Russian and not Estonian.

The tsars had controlled Estonia for centuries starting with Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. In spite of the Estonians’ status of servitude, nationalistic values were preserved and transmitted within families.

Estonia’s window of opportunity for nationhood came in 1918 when the Bolsheviks took over Imperial Russia.

A Time for Celebration in Dance

Caught Up in Dance

Caught Up in Dance

It seemed as if almost everybody in Estonia was in Tallinn this weekend since about a third of the 1.3 million people of Estonia attend. They came to reconnect with that important feeling inside when one is united in song and dance. Dance is a very important element in Estonian cultural history since it provides a source of support during difficult times as well as celebrations of happiness and health.

Friends had told me that had the Soviet Union continued to exist it would not have been long before the Estonian culture would have disappeared. The russification continued during the soviet occupation.

When I arrived in 1990 much had occurred both behind and onstage. Many have heard of the Singing Revolution that “trumped rifles”. This was when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, still under soviet occupation, did the unthinkable and “illegally” organized an event in 1988 where a human chain linked the three countries. People came together to sing their national folk songs that had been forbidden for half a century.

It Was Time

It Was Time

Venues emerged where the public could gather to listen to speakers from the newly formed political parties speaking out about needed change. They openly declared that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 had never been agreed to by Estonia.This ouvert declaration had been denied to them for half a century and opened the gates to long suppressed emotions that needed to be heard.   

They also openly declared that they had never agreed to accept soviet passports. The newly created Congress invited the people to register themselves as Estonian citizens and all did.

The stage was being set for Estonia to become an independent republic again and all they had to do was wait for the right moment. It was all in the timing.

The Final Hours

On the night of August 19-20, 1991, the TV tower in Tallinn was surrounded by dozens of Red Army tanks. Inside the tower two Estonian police officers had barricaded the door to stop any forced entry. After five hours the situation grew tense. Suddenly, the tanks were instructed to turn around and leave.

Prepared to Die for Freedom

Prepared to Die for Freedom

Gorbachev had been placed under house arrest and the USSR was no longer in existence.

The window of opportunity had come again and Estonia re-established full independence.

All Voices Unite as One

All Voices Unite as One

Today’s parade was the second one since independence. What an incredible journey. On July 4-6, 2014 Estonia will celebrate its fifth song and dance festival with the motto, “Touched by Time. The Time of Touch”. It is also the year where the country will commemorate 45 years’ of independence.

The restructuring of the country has required great patience. Over the centuries the Estonians have fine tuned their staying power finding inspiration in the special qualities that nature provides.

Kids who remember that heady summer of 1991 are now parents themselves. They have continued in the same vein as their parents and passed on to their children the stories, songs and dances to keep the culture going.  The parades have become more elaborate, the spectators are better dressed and the city has grown rapidly to meet the 21st century head on.

For me though, I will never forget the Estonian Song and Dance festival parade on that hot summer day  of 1991 where “Elagu Eestimaa” – Long Live Estonia reverberated for five hours. My clean walls waited patiently for the first page of a new story and that story was one that I would never have imagined possible.



Vana Tallinn and the Era of Stagnation

Centuries ago monasteries were the main hub of scientific experimentation. Not surprisingly the industrious monks concocted potent herbal elixirs where spices and herbs soaked in alcohol created delightful infusions and distillations, such as Vana Tallinn.

Monk Distilling an Invaluable Elixir

Monk Distilling an Invaluable Elixir

Intended for medicinal purposes such as easing childbirth, indigestion or purportedly extending one’s life, the potions were sold initially to the nearby villagers.

These liqueurs were considered so tasty they eventually found their way to fine dining tables such as that of Catherine De Medici, wife of Henry II of France, who introduced the culture of liqueur drinking to the French Court.

The modern monks of today have kept these early recipes secret and only a handful of masters are entrusted to produce the distinctive liqueurs.

 An Important Trip to France

Shortly before the outbreak of WW II, Jaan Siimo, a sailor from Estonia, traveled to France and tasted a unique liqueur that intrigued him so much that he started experimenting with a recipe later in Estonia after the war. Together with two other co-workers at Liviko, the state owned distillery, they entered their special blend liqueur, Vana Tallinn – (vah-na) – (Old Tallinn) in a USSR wide-competition.

The apparatchik (agents of the apparatus) were looking for a special new liqueur to commemorate yet another award winning accomplishment by the citizenry of the Soviet Union.

Vana Tallinn won the coveted prize and became the flagship drink for Liviko.  

Vana Tallinn Liqueur

Vana Tallinn Liqueur

This spicy sweet liqueur was not very popular with the Estonians. However, the 100% proof clout of Jamaican rum proved to be a hit for those seeking a temporary escape from the bizarre and bewildering existence they were living within the stagnating Soviet Union. Going to work had become a pointless routine and this magic potion appeared just at the right time.

Tourism Launches Vana Tallinn

When Finnish tourists were permitted to come to Estonia they discovered Vana Tallinn and suddenly the experimental liqueur became an overnight hit and much sought after.  The brown bottle of spicy syrup became a money maker and even Russian tourists took as many bottles as they could home with them.

The visitors found the brand appealing and once they downed a few shots, the fact that the date on the label was not medieval was irrelevant.

The brand served to reflect humble monastic beginnings: the austere brown bottle in the form of a medieval tower, the label depicting the skyline of medieval Tallinn, the coat of arms lending a medieval “authenticity”.

The Phenomenal Journey from a Souvenir Bottle to Currency

Head waiters, hair dressers, bartenders and taxi drivers made more money than government ministers. They had contact with visitors and access to the sought after bottles. There was always an extra bottle kept in the vehicle and even truck drivers to Russia took bottles of Vana Tallinn with them. Like a witch’s wand, the appearance of this brown bottle would open doors for them.

When I arrived in soviet Estonia in 1990 one of the first drinks I was offered was a Vana Tallinn. In every home I visited, my hosts would ceremoniously retrieve a dark brown glass bottle out of the china cabinet.  Oblivious to the near legendary importance that this bottle symbolized, I graciously accepted a tiny stemmed glass full of the dark burgundy coloured beverage. I sensed there was something special about this drink other than the 40 spices and flavors and Jamaican rum that flowed across my palate.

Introduction to Vana Tallinn

Introduction to Vana Tallinn

 Vana Tallinn was not exported to Russia but rather found its way there as a “gift”. It was considered an elite drink all the way up to the topmost echelons of the soviet hierarchy of technocrats.

 “Stagna aeg” – the Period of Soviet Stagnation

Drinking certainly helped to temporarily escape the effects of economic stagnation, or in Estonian “stagna aeg”.  

Starting in the late 1960s the Plan, the backbone of soviet planning, was out of control. It was no longer realistic to meet the goals for the Plan. Inefficient factories could not keep up with all those infamous five year plans and no one at home or abroad wanted to buy the poor quality products they produced.  The factory owners brought down their goals to look like they went over the plan. They “earned”  their medals while daily life launched into further absurdity.

In 1978 the situation degenerated into an economic crisis where shortages of food and consumer goods created long lines of people holding ration coupons. The era of stagnation had arrived.

Locked into the rigid farce of the system, the technocrats and managers in charge of the economy were pillaging  it. Bottles of Vana Tallinn became harder to come by. They were still offered at the valutta (foreign exchange) stores for tourists but it was becoming more difficult for those truck drivers to take this currency on their trips.

The Inevitable End and a New Beginning

The Old World brand that worked so well during the soviet era lost its popularity in the early 1990s when the newly independent citizens wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded them of the Soviet regime they’d had to tolerate. . Whenever I saw that bottle of Vana Tallinn I felt the same repugnance. The close association the brand represented with totalitarian rule was something no one wanted to remember.

Liviko got busy giving the Vana Tallinn brand a facelift. A new generation of consumers who weren’t even born have rekindled the popularity of Vana Tallinn. New editions have been created that have taken the Vana Tallinn signature taste to a new level.

Since 2007, Vana Tallinn has received industry recognition with a Silver Medal in the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits competition, a 94 rated review in the April 2008 edition of “The Tasting Panel” magazine and a Gold designation of 90 points from the Beverage Testing Institute in their 2009 International Review of Spirits.

Vana Tallinn Humble Beginnings

Vana Tallinn Humble Beginnings

Warning, don’t let the unassuming brown bottle fool you. This 80-100 proof liqueur produced by Liviko in Estonia will have you speaking in both Russian and Estonian before the night is over, fluently.



International Spirits Competition 2010 Gold


The International Wine and Spirit Competition 2010 Gold (Best in Class)


Internationaler Spirituosenwettbewerb ISW 2008 Gold


Estonian Spirit Challenge 2007


The International Wine and Spirit Competition 2006 Silver (Best in Class)


Estonian Spirit Challenge 2006


Vana Tallinn liqueur is currently exported to 22 countries and recently the 100 millionth bottle was sold.  

Today in the 21st century we are still able to enjoy the liqueurs created by the monastic entrepreneurs from centuries ago. Vana Tallinn is one offshoot of that thanks to a sailorman and a soviet twist of fate.

Cycling in the Rain Brings Out the Inner Child

Groggy at 5:30 AM one recent morning, I didn’t bother to peer out the window to survey the weather conditions as I usually do.  Jumping on my bike, I headed out into the dark accustomed to cycling in the rain. Something was different.

Instead of the gentle on again-off again showers we’d been having, today’s dose of Pacific Northwest drizzle descended as stinging rain driving itself right into my face.

Cycling in the Rain is Challenging

Cycling in the Rain is Challenging

It was raining, raining, raining hard.

It was falling on my head.

It was falling on the stars.

It was falling on my shoes.

I got soaking wet

I got soaking wet.

But I stayed outside.

I stayed outside.

I’d donned my fleece balaclava but the visor didn’t reach out enough to protect my eyes. I chose not to go back and change headgear. Determined not to be a wimp, I would tap into the Viking in me and show the elements who was boss.

Cycling in the rain at two gears lower than usual (I only have seven) along the slick black asphalt the thought dawned on me that I could be hit by a vehicle since the rain and wind would also reduce the visibility for early morning drivers.

I quickly pedaled onto the adjacent sidewalk smug in the thought that I was putting safety first.

The rain was sweet.

The rain was warm.

The rain was soft

It reminded me of home

It was raining, raining, raining hard.

It was falling, falling, falling on the stars

It was raining, raining, raining hard.

It was falling, falling, falling on the stars.

With each push forward I felt increasing discomfort. Darn it, I wasn’t enjoying this experience in the slightest. The incessant rain was taunting me and my inspiration waned. I really wanted to be sitting in a warm café sipping on gourmet coffee while savoring an apple-cranberry muffin.

But the determined Viking in me pushed the thought aside:

“Ok, Miss Wimp. Seriously, you want to be disciplined, well, here’s your opportunity.”

I answered back with a few choice words.


“Got that out of my system,” I told myself aloud.

But the double layered raingear wasn’t working. Cold water was creeping into my underwear now. Yuck.

“Put mind over matter Miss Wimp. Think about where you’re going.”

Like a sail boat tacking to windward, I maintained my ziggety-zag course over the irregular concrete surface, dodging navigational hazards such as overhanging branches and the fire hydrant  . . .

And there it was, smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk! What the . . .

I hit the stupid thing dead on with my right knee and followed my act with a sideswipe grazing the right side of my leg as well.

I gasped and stopped to meet the pain that set in immediately.

It took hold at the bone and pushed waves of more pain outwards around the point of impact.

Soft rain

Raining, raining

Sweet rain

Raining, raining

Warm rain

Raining, raining

Sweet soft Raining, raining

Warm rain Raining, raining

Sweet soft Raining, raining

Warm rain Raining, raining

It hurt like the dickens and the inner child in me felt the pain too. That same little girl who always had scabby knees from falling down stairs slipped easily into crying mode.
I wanted my mother to kiss it and magically make it better.

The Motherly Embrace is Always Welcome (Image: Mama Bambino Arte)

The Motherly Embrace is Always Welcome (Image: Mama Bambino Arte)

I was alone atop the saddle of a bike coasting down a slick, rain drenched sidewalk.
Disgusted at myself for being such a wimp I called back my Viking Journeywoman while the inner child interrupted with indulgent tears of self pity.

Growing anger took over so I had a good talk with myself:

“Stop being a baby. Recognize that this discomfort is training you to be disciplined. You have free will and only YOU have decided to cycle through this winter rain in the cold of a BC December.”

It’s funny, but when you’re distracted from the pain with other thoughts it doesn’t hurt as much.  Big sister archetype took over and I focused on some fast pedaling.

I started thinking about what I was grateful for. . . strong legs and improved stamina from cycling for the last two years was on the list I mulled over in my mind.

As soon as I reached my destination I put an icepack on the knee.  I stopped feeling sorry for myself and focused on being responsible. I not only avoided any swelling but also any bruises as well.

We respond so much to emotions from pre-programming. We carry old habits of thinking around like talismans and are loathe to let go of them.    Navigating through life with old programming is like relying on outdated sea charts to find our way through unfamiliar waters.   We’ll waste less time on being angry when we use our free will to choose an attitude of gratitude.

That’s not to say a good cry isn’t ok. It cleanses from within as the rain cleanses from without.

My wide brimmed helmet is now by the door and Santa is bringing me new rain gear for cycling in the rain.  This Viking is going to become a wet weather professional and the inner child can play in the puddles!


(nb: The jazz chant included in this post is called Rain created by Carolyn Graham. I used it extensively when I taught ESL in Estonia. I’m still using it with students I tutor today since it helps non-native speakers to get into the rhythm and music of English more naturally.)



The Cloud Castles of my Girlhood

The cloud castles of my girlhood were NOT medieval fortresses but great sailing vessels.

The Cloud Castles of my Girlhood

The Cloud Castles of my Girlhood

When my paternal grandmother died in the early 1960s, I was about ten. My father’s father came from Toronto to stay with us in Victoria, B.C. for a few months. As a youth he had worked on the Baltic trading vessels and during his stay he built a model ship of one of these schooners that he gave to my father.
For years, I would study this roughly hewn vessel on our fireplace mantel and imagine myself on the deck of this great ship sailing to the many exotic destinations of the world.
At the time, I didn’t realize how useful his abilities to navigate at sea had been for him. In the fall of 1944 he was still living on his farm on Hiiumaa Island in Estonia. He was a farmer with a wife and two daughters. His oldest son had been mobilised by the Red Army to Siberia where he eventually died of starvation. My father had escaped from Hiiumaa with 5 other guys in May of 1944 on a little fishing-sailboat they managed to navigate to Sweden.

My grandfather happened to be in Korgessaare port one day and heard that a wealthy man and his family  had arrived in his powerboat from Tallinn  looking for someone who could navigate their way across the Bay of Finland to Sweden. The days of Nazi occupied Estonia were numbered and everyone knew that the Red Army was coming back any day. My grandfather told the wealthy man from Tallinn that he could do it but on the condition that he bring his family along. Much to the Tallinn man’s objections, he had to agree which meant leaving behind a lot of his personal belongings to make room for my two aunts, my grandfather and grandmother.
I never really knew this adventurer I am related to but I got a lot of his genes. He was tall and at almost six feet I ended up taller than my parents and siblings. 
I have a love for being on the sea and had the great fortune of sailing transatlantic in the 1980s on a 100 ft sailboat owned by the Beatle George Harrison’s business partner.
I’ve never built a ship’s model but it is on my bucket list because I know I’m good with my hands.

My grandfather Gustav was a determined man who I held at bay. I don’t know why but I suspect I saw a lot of myself in him, including the temperamental side, and like a cat, I observed from a safe distance.
Soon I’ll be 62. I see things a bit differently now than when I was ten. If he were to appear today, I would come a bit closer and ask him a million questions and still have more to ask.
Today I would feel that I earned my time to share my stories of adventure with him. And he would recognize in my eyes and in my heart that we both together, see sailing ships amongst the cloud castles in the sky.

My Special US Thanksgiving in Camden, Me.

Thirty-one year’s ago today, a young woman named Viviann and a young man named John eloped to get married on Thanksgiving Day. They were married in Beverly, Mass. at the home of the Justice of the Peace. Our perfect day for escape was filled with the radiance of the sunshine from above and reflected off the gorgeously peppered shades of amber leaves still clinging to the branches below.

Cornucopia of Colour

Cornucopia of Colour

I stopped to inhale the magic. Across the street from this House of Ceremony I could hear the nearby voices of a crowd at a local football game. There was an idyllic lull in the Indian Summer air that seemed to herald spring and a new start rather than an end to the last soothing rays of warmth.

The Ubiquitous Lobster Pots

The Ubiquitous Lobster Pots

We were doing the illicit. Getting married without telling ANYBODY!
It was my first plunge into matrimony but his second. I had faith in it working out.
I wore a wool,plaid skirt cut on the bias and soft, beige sweater. I’d bought a small pink bouquet for myself that matched the boutoniere I inserted into the lapel of my betrothed.
Time stopped when we both said “I do” in the modest living room of our female “accomplice”. I wanted to cry . . . and I did.
For our honeymoon we drove to Camden, Me. We had sailed there often and loved it for its schooners, seafood, and ‘Down East” charm.
I wore my vintage engagement ring with importance. Crafted from platinum, diamonds and an emerald, the insecure part of Viviann was grateful to be a part of the status quo.

Schooners in Camden Harbor

Schooners in Camden Harbor

Our marriage together was short lived. It was complicated. But each year when Thanksgiving comes around yet again, I give thanks to that wonderful day when a young woman called Viviann and a young man called John made the commitment to give it a go. We tried…and that’s what counts.

he Camden Harbor Inn - Our Safe Haven

he Camden Harbor Inn – Our Safe Haven

Back on Course

I recently took a six week hiatus from Crossfit.  September and October were spent ruminating over how I would like to see myself in 2014.  After participating in the CrossFit program for seven months now I was feeling discouraged that I still wasn’t able to lift the same amount of weight as the girls who were half my age. I keep forgetting about “my age” until I get a sudden reminder that the body I’ve been carrying around for 61 years has  put up with abuse and general wear and tear well before these ladies were even born!  As one of my coaches said, my hormone situation has changed and it’s to be expected that it  will take me longer to build up  strength. Dang, I keep forgetting about that little detail.  Being realistic helps a lot to get back on course.

Part of my re-calibrated plan was meant to  incorporate weekly running into my workout program. Inspiration had entered my bloodstream in a flushed rush after I listened to an interview of 77 year old weight lifting marvel Ernestine Shepherd. She gave a step by step account of how she went from walking to running so that now she  consistently runs ten km  every week  at 4AM no less.

Ernestine Shepherd

Ernestine Shepherd

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the unexpected results of the MRI on the ankle I’d broken in 2011 made it crystal clear that I would be spending several months  recovering from surgery in 2014. This hiccup was not part of the master plan. Now, I flat out cannot run unless I want to add some serious damage to an already damaged joint.  

I cringe at the thought of being cut into with a scalpel and worse yet,  “patiently” going through the  long recovery period.  

It seems I need a pin inserted to keep the ankle more stable.  When I fell, the ligaments wrenched part of that big round exterior bone away from what it was attached to.

If I ever want to climb Mt Kilimanjaro or even the local hill up to Cultus Lake I’ll have to make sure that the working parts are reattached so they can do their job properly. For now, the ligaments are suspended like limp spaghetti and not performing the stretching job they were originally designed to do.

Always Consult with Your Mentor

Navigational aids for getting back on course are often provided to you  by a mentor.  Early in life it might be our mother,  father or a grand parent. Later, we meet more mentors and so, I had a long chat with mine today who shared her experiences about the knee surgery she’d had to endure. The combination of drugs, incisions, and the actual procedure put great demands on her body so that it went into a kind of shock. 

Any residue of drugs that is still lingering in the system will also need to be flushed out. My friend told me how her vision was affected and through some basic testing it was determined that the drugs that had been administered to her had migrated to her brain. She was put on a special diet of healthy foods to be consumed in a certain order and followed with copious amounts of water to eventually feel back to normal again.

Not only are joints intricate areas to repair, the time needed to reduce the swelling and heal the incision and other areas of the damaged joint vary from person to person. If you are in excellent health your recuperation time will be speedier but that’s still a three month period of relative inactivity for the first stage of healing.  When the specialist told me that the down time for my procedure would be 3-5 months my friend said to add a few more months to that for good measure.

The pre-op preparation is just as important as post op. This means regular workouts as well as a healthy diet. I’ve already cut back a lot on those mouthwatering cranberry-apple muffins that I’ve been buying weekly from a local café. I know that the sooner I do this, the better I’ll be able to handle the withdrawal from foods I won’t be able to exercise off for awhile.

Preparing for surgery also means learning how to be calm. Apparently one is less inclined to need strong pain killers if there is less anxiety associated at the outset of the surgery.

Harvard Divinity School graduate Peggy Huddleston created a simple handbook that is used at Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital. Here are the results of their research.

Carolyn Myss, one of my favourite authors, has also endorsed this book:

“In easy and comforting language, Huddleston describes the steps a patient and his or her family can take to minimize the fears that emerge during the surgical process and the recovery period that follows.”

It is important to take responsibility for our lives and that also means that when those unexpected surgeries come along, we can prepare for them to make the downtime experience as short and painless as possible. Studies show that when we become active participants in our life’s events by focusing our minds on the best possible outcome of the surgery, stress is released. Twenty minute periods of daily meditation help to boost the immune system as well speed up the healing process.

Last week I went back to CrossFit for my first WOD in weeks. I did a lot of rowing and push presses focusing more on my form than on how many reps I could do. I was surprised that I still felt pretty strong and had no problem completing 1800 meters of rowing in 400 meter increments staggered with lifting a 35 pound bar. Now it is fine if it takes longer for me to get back to the 45 pound bar. I’m in no hurry.

It feels great to be back on course and in spite of my absence it just goes to show that if you’re kind to your body and feed it healthfully, keeping it as flexible as possible, it will still bounce back.  When we work together in tandem with our bodies instead of against them, we’re more in the flow of what our bodies and minds need to feel at their happiest. That’s putting ourselves back on course  just like the sailboat at that perfect point of sail where she is sailing effortlessly at her optimum hull speed.

Hull Speed photographed by Benjamin Mendlowitz

Hull Speed photographed by Benjamin Mendlowitz

Gratitude for my Artists

During the ten years that I owned and operated my private art gallery in Tallinn, Estonia, I had the privileged opportunity of meeting hundreds of talented artists. I visited them in their studios and got to experience firsthand the environment in which these men and women followed their inspiration. I owe them a debt of gratitude.

Each in their own way revealed to me their unique and more often than not fantastic stories that time and again challenged anything that the western mind could possibly conceptualize.

It’s true that an artist living behind the Iron Curtain enjoyed the advantage of state funded studies at the art institutions, co-ordination of art exhibitions within the Soviet Union as well as abroad, preferred living arrangements, lofty social status and guaranteed income but there was also an ominous flip side to this arrangement.

The artists often cursed a particular client I had who frequently came to the gallery for picture framing services. One day one of them made the comment after this individual had left:

“Not a single artist cares for him, you know.”

It turned out that he had been the designated art censor responsible for making certain that all art destined for public viewing was free from any suggestion of patriotism to the republic of Estonia such as the cherished tricolor flag, folk songs and Christian ideals.  Many an angel depicted in a painting was rejected by the all powerful censor until the wings were promptly removed by the grumbling artist.

Any artist who had survived deportation camps during Stalin’s reign of terror or military mobilizations by either the Nazis or the Red Army, or both, always left me hanging on to their every word with the mind-boggling descriptions of what they had to endure in the cold, dark recesses of the Soviet tundra.

I owe each and every one of these creators of visual beauty my deepest gratitude for taking the time to explain to this naïve, “väliseestlanna” (foreign Estonian) my most heartfelt thank you for opening my eyes, my heart and my mind.

Cure #3 for Postpartum Divorce – Find a Rock Star

I’ve been traveling on a boat and a plane, in a car and a bike and a bus and a train

Traveling there, traveling here,

Everywhere in every gear,

But ah, Lord you pay the price,

the spin of the wheel with the roll of the dice,

Ah, yeah, you pay your fare,

If you don’t know where you’re goin’ , any road’ll take you there.


I’ve been travelin’ almost singin’ a prayer, the skin of my teeth, the breadth of my hair,

travelin’ where the four winds blow, the sun in my face and the ice and the snow,

But, ooh, weee, it’s a game, sometimes you’re cool, sometimes, you’re lame,

Ah yeah, it’s somewhere

Ya don’t know where’ ya goin’,

Any road’ll take you there.


You may not know where you came from,

You may not know who you are,

You may not even have wondered,

How you got so far.


But I keep travelin’ around the bend,

There is no beginning, there is no end,

It wasn’t born, it never dies,

There are no edges, there is no sides,

Ohh wee, just don’t win, it’s so far out, the way out is in,

Bow to God and call him “sir”

But if you don’t know where you goin’, any road’ll take you there.