mirror man

peegelmeesIN THE SUMMER OF 2015, I received a letter from Sigrid Kõiv at Postimees asking if I would care to contribute a monthly column for the newspaper’s weekend Arter section. I of course said yes. Not only was it a great opportunity to reach a weekly audience in Estonia, but it offered me the possibility to write in a fresh context.

Most writing assignments are would-be columns. Going back to elementary school, we are asked for our opinion and to be brief about it. I studied column writing and reviewing when I was a university student, so I had my training, but with the Arter columns, I wanted to break free of the ‘Someone with an opinion says something and defends it with a few facts,” model. I wanted to deliver something more poetic to an audience drowning in politics and business news.

One of the pieces I wrote for Arter was called “Mirror World” in English. It discussed the phenomenon of outsiders adopting the perspectives and biases of their host countries to an extreme degree. I gave the example of Dean Reed, the American rock ‘n’ roll musician who defected to East Germany and became such a good communist that he once described the Berlin Wall as being a defensive measure against the West.  This is the concept of Mirror Man. The idea of an outsider reflecting back the attitudes around him.

Mirror Man is not only a collection of Postimees Arter columns. It also contains much of the pieces I wrote while I was a health columnist for the magazine Tervis Pluss, plus some articles that appeared in Eesti PäevalehtEstonian World, ERR News, and other outlets. A favorite, “The Death of Pensioner,” was published online by ERR News in 2011. To date, I still think it’s one of the best things I have written about life in this country.

There are other new pieces included in Mirror Man, such as “Üleminekud” (“Transitions”) and “Uus Algus” (“A New Beginning”), which I penned last summer.  Some of these are really personal and crescendo into the more recent columns I have done, including “The Breaking Point,” “Rapla Witch,” and “The Last Bit of Mourning“.  In these new pieces, I have tried to improve my approach to making a point through imagery. Rather than tell you what I think, I would like to recreate in words for you what I experience, and for you to arrive — maybe — at a similar experience, or a familiar feeling.

Mirror Man reads like a good book though. It reminds me a bit of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. This was an album made for a 1967 film made up of singles and some studio cuts that didn’t fit in here or there. Yet if you listen to it all the way through, it’s a real pleasure. It was one of the first LPs I had. I would listen to it all the time. Since my record player was so primitive, I would have to flip it every time and then flip it again. It’s my hope this book will offer readers the same kind of good and satisfying experience.



EACH DAY WE LOSE FIVE MINUTES OF LIGHT. A little shaved from the morning, a smidgen trimmed from the eve. Like a small yellow fish being swallowed by a dark lake trout, I sometimes think. Or a moist face disappearing into forest shadows. This is how autumn goes. It’s an introspective time. The antics and disappointments of summer are over. The crushed hopes of spring are long lost. What remains is a quiet, cozy contentedness. A silent peace.

I like it.

Some of the days are gray and wet and I don’t mind them. On other days, the sun is brave enough to smash through. The sky turns a brilliant blue and the sun’s strong rays bake the leaves gold and red. Such yellow days can last for as long as a week. Good weather for drying your laundry outside. Perfect weather for heading to the woods in search of fungus. Metsa seenele as the Estonians say.

To the forest, mushrooming!

I understand the Estonians best when they are in the forest harvesting mushrooms because to me it’s the most intimate and sensual experience you can have in this land. There is something about being surrounded by birches, with your hands deep in the moss, that settles and cools you inside and then excites, arouses. It’s as good as a long kiss or a passionate embrace, yet slow and soft. God knows how many Estonian babies have been conceived in these woods. Not enough, I say.

What I like about it is the loving intensity. The way hands scavenge. The surprise of finding a new bloom of chanterelles, one that leads to another, and then to another, until you somehow become frustrated that you can’t take the whole forest home in a bucket, berries and all.

I’ve been there, though I have never done mushrooming well. I only know a few of the species on sight — puravik (boletus), kukeseen (chanterelle) — and when I do find a good mushroom, I spend so much time admiring my catch that I forget to look for others. Once I forgot to bring a knife with me, though I had a bucket. I wound up using a pair of scissors from my car’s first aid kit.

Päris Macgyverlik,” as the Estonians say, “Just like MacGyver.”

It feels good to be able to understand at least one aspect of Estonian life, to take it as my own. It feels good because on most of these days, many of the people here remain a mystery to me. I don’t always understand their fondness for silence, or their northern zen of “waste not, want not.” I don’t appreciate their ideal of a smoothly running world, where time hums along, where no unnecessary word is spoken, no unnecessary feeling is expressed, no precious second wasted.

You send letters to people that are never answered, not because they dislike what you said, but because they merely felt that everything had already been expressed, and there was no need to waste time or additional letters of the alphabet. Then you run into them two weeks later and say, “Did you get my letter?” and they reply, “Yes, I did.”

In Estonia, I imagine, some couples fall in love and break up without saying anything. How do they even know? Maybe they just search each other’s eyes for answers.

I  have wondered how an Estonian might understand that another Estonian is showing interest.  Will this Estonian say anything, or will she just show up one morning with a suitcase and a pet and move in? In a land where silence is golden, it’s not easy to keep it all inside. A volcano could erupt from the need to say something. Sometimes I just don’t get these people.

This is why I love to go mushrooming in the forests. It allows me to cool and calm. It’s just me, the woods, and no one else. If you do encounter a stranger with a knife and bucket, there can be no misunderstandings. Who could misunderstand another in such a mossy and nourishing place?