I was born in a tension between two opposites. At least that’s how it feels, sometimes, to be born into two different countries and two different citizenships.
Not that the countries I am a citizen of are that different - they are both nordic countries located in Europe, and neighboring countries at that. Only a sea lies between them, and in the north, not even a sea, but a river.
Divided by waters. There is something poetic about that.
Sweden was the country that I was born into, and when I was one years old, my family moved to Finland where I then spent my childhood and teenage years. My parents had read in a book on bilingualism that it would be smart to split the languages between the parents so that the child can more easily distinguish between the two languages. So I spoke Swedish with my father and Finnish with my mother. And due to this, my parents came to inhabit the roles of being the main representatives for those two nationalities, at least in the beginning.
I have been contemplating the effects of choosing to write in English, and by carrying out most of my online networking in English. Is it causing me to fall out of touch with my mother and father tongues? Is it a loss? Am I just another person taking part in the process of anglicisationthat is happening in many areas of the world? Maybe.
But writing in English also feels like stepping into neutral territory. It gives me a certain distance, that helps me to look even deeper into my own life. But the drawback is of course the loss of closeness, and the sense of intimacy that using any of those other languages could bring. And lately I have started to suspect that choosing English serves a further function: it allows me to override the issue of the tension between the two “opposites” of Finland versus Sweden.
By choosing English, I do not need to choose between Finnish or Swedish. I am choosing The Third Way.
As I write this, a little voice inside of me is whispering traitor. There is a side of me that is feeling guilty about the way that the role of the English language has grown in my life, while my Finnish and Swedish contexts are becoming more limited in scope. But another side of me has come to accept that my life has developed into a more internationally focused one, and this is the place I also have to write from. Starting a family with an Estonian person didn’t exactly simplify matters either: we are now trying to juggle teaching three languages to our child, while it is still easiest to communicate amongst ourselves in the fourth language - you guessed it - English.
So, in the matter of languages I have to say that I am experiencing lots of tensions, and feel like I am being torn in different directions. I love all these languages, for different reasons. I love the poetic heritage I have from my Finnish side. And I love the play with words that I have grown up with from the Swedish side. And what I most appreciate about the English language is how it has opened up my world into interacting with people from completely different cultures, made possible through sharing this additional language.
There were times when I felt out of place amongst classmates who seemed to have a more clear-cut sense of identity. I speculated on the notion of growing up as either “fully finnish” or “fully swedish”, whatever that actually means. At times, I thought that might be easier. Maybe I would feel more rooted or at home, having just one country to focus on. But regardless of all the tensions I grew up with when it comes to the “battle” between Finland and Sweden, I see the richness that it has brought my life. And I actually believe that tensions are exactly where the deepest richness can be found. Challenges should be celebrated, since they add further, interesting dimensions to life. (Yes I know, this is much easier said than done, and I know that striving for a comfortable and tension-free life comes quite naturally. I guess I am also trying to convince myself by writing this... to teach myself to appreciate the tensions I was born with.)
Even though it brings its own challenges, it is also its own kind of a blessing to grow up with a dual perspective and a dual identity. Since I grew up with the experience of being split between two (and actually more) countries, all the discussions that center on nationalistic trains of thought seem like madness to me, and I find it bizarre that a person would choose to limit their world in such a way. These “clear-cut identities” are often built on stereotypes, anyway. If you look deeper, all people carry some kind of tension in them, even though they might not carry different nationalities on the surface. Regardless of the number of nationalities or the cultural heritage a person connects to, I believe they are also carrying multitides within them, and so many further dimensions in their soul. And I wish we could recognize that this similarity exists between all of us, regardless of our outer characteristics.
Apart from languages and nationalities, The Third Way is a concept that is interesting to contemplate in other areas as well. For example, as a child I did not connect to the concept of being either a girl or a boy. I did not see what gender would do for me that I didn’t contain in myself already. But this analysis I have pasted on after the fact. As a child I did not speculate the matter - I just was. I was just being me, or playing at being different versions of me, and the versions that I played with could be any gender, or completely genderless.
Some days I danced to the Backstreet Boys wearing a button-down shirt and pants, and I was one of them, completely. Some days I put on my faerie princess dress and a faerie princess was what I was. And other days I was a hardened detective, smoking a cigarette made of a piece of a branch while inspecting the crime scene that me and my friends had made out of leaves and stones behind our schoolyard. I can’t even remember thinking that I was playing any specific gender, I was just so fully inhabiting the energy of whatever/whoever I was playing. Correction: not playing, being.
As a teenager, I was androgynous. On my first visit at a night club I snuck in using my brother’s passport. With my short purple hair and slim frame with small breasts that were easy to hide under a t-shirt I didn’t have any difficulties in getting in. But the night club in question was also a gay bar called Don’t Tell Mama, so it might also be that they were more open to a broader range of identity expressions. I remember that as a teenager I used to feel much calmer and more confident when I was presenting a more masculine version of me, but this may be due to the fact that the masculine way of presenting was culturally more accepted and thus carried a different kind of power (at least back then, in the early 2000’s, but maybe this has started to change?). I also think that being in a same-sex relationship enabled a different type of openness for playing with my identity expression than what I have later experienced in most of my man-woman relationships. But there are also exceptions.
Still, it is interesting to note how my gender expression has coincided with certain life events and with the changes in how I have approached my life. In my twenties I definitely went into a more feminine path, as I was curious about what heterosexual relationships were all about after the break-up with my girlfriend. Somehow this pulled me into a more feminine way of expressing, both due to expectations that I felt from the outside, but also as I was curious to explore that side more. I expressed myself in a more feminine way right until the moment when I was abused. That dialed my femininity all the way down, until my 30’s. I did not use skirts or dresses for many years. And I bought my t-shirts from the male department, since the square shape felt more comfortable to me. I think I connected the abuse with femininity itself - the femininity in me was what had drawn that abuse to me so of course it had to be distinguished, or at least diminished. My sense of femininity did not recover completely until I was 30, when during pregnancy and motherhood I felt a strong connection to the mother goddess achetype. She was with me during the pregnancy, and the childbirth, and witnessing the transformative and creative power residing in my body made it abundantly clear that femininity has its own inherent power. This revelation reignited my enjoyment for expressing myself in a more feminine way as well.
And what now? I have arrived in a place where I can accept my self as being such a multidimensional entity that for my soul, gender descriptions are kind of beside the point. For me, The Third Way out of the battle between the opposites of gender does not lie in battling with pronounsor creating new labels (though I can understand the need to do so in this world that is built upon habits of compartmentalizing things into clear categories) but in fully attuning to the reality of my soul: I am everything, and nothing, in my soul. I can accept the designations that others need to make on me. I can live with the gender prescribed to me based on the body I am inhabiting during this lifetime. Because, in my soul I am dancing with the joy of just...being. In a similar way that my child-self was just being (or playing) whatever they chose to be. And there is nothing that can limit the soul once you are attuned his.
Reading paragraphs above, I feel slightly pompous and as though I am starting to float out into the air quite a bit. And... I don’t mind that. So I will not reign it in, this time. There are several disclaimers I want to write: I know that the soul resides in a physical body and that these bodies do have limitations imposed on them based on how they express themselves. But for this once, I want to stay in this feeling of expansion that is flowing through me instead of walling it in. My Substack publication seems to want to move into a more flowing dimension than the purely physical one, so I am choosing to embrace that quality and let it be. There is room for this approach, and I am taking my place there.
Looking back upon what I have written, I notice that in this piece of writing I have seemed to go on for quite a while about the matter of gender. It seems that there were some things that I needed to let out. I was thinking of going through some more pairs of opposites, but I actually think that this is sufficient for now. Maybe you can share your contemplations on other opposites with me in the comments below? Or share your own thoughts and experiences around identity? It would be interesting to hear about both different and similar experiences to my own.
So in the end, what do I mean when I say The Third Way? In my mind I see the visual of a third path added in between of the two paths that were already there. And maybe that is kind of what is happening when I am choosing English instead of writing in Finnish or Swedish. But another way to look at the matter is that this third way comes into existence when we can recognize that we contain aspects of both sides, embrace the opposites and accept them in ourselves. In that moment, they cease to be opposites, and give birth to a kind of synthesis. With this, I am not intending that the opposites have to be fully distinguished. It is not an act of forced assimilation. It is placing emphasis upon the relational character, the relationship existing between the opposites, instead of simply pitting them against each other.
I feel like there is a lot more to say about this matter, and more connections to be made, but this is as far as I can go with these thoughts at this time. Maybe I will revisit this at a later time and add further thoughts, or maybe you can bring in more prespectives in the comments. But for now, I will end this post with an excerpt from Tao te Chingthat I feel resonates with the essence of what I have tried to convey.
If we understand what makes Beauty beautiful,
then we can recognize Ugliness
If we understand what makes Goodness good,
then we can recognize the Bad
Void and Amplitude have the same origin
Difficulty and Ease beget each other
Long and Short define each other
Music and Voice harmonize with each other
Before and After follow each other
This is the Constant.
To complicate matters further, I have a German grandmother and am thus not really only Finnish and Swedish either. But since my grandmother spoke swedish with me and lived most of her life in Sweden I have somehow come to connect her with Sweden, the country she was accepted into after the horrors of the second world war. Maybe someday I will write a longer text on analysing these further dimensons, but for now I want to keep the focus on this tension and sense of dualism that I feel has played the most prevalent role in my language and identity development.
Anglicisation on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglicisation
I want to emphasize that I am here describing my own individual experience when it comes to gender identity. Your journey might look very different and be made up of very different aspects, and I am not attempting to give descriptions on femininity or masculinity that are universally applicable to all. This is just a description of the way that I have experienced it, on my own journey.
In the discussion on pronouns, growing up with the Finnish language is its own blessing, since there only exists one pronoun: hän, similar to the English they. I am sure this has affected my way of thinking from early on, since the characteristics of language is tied to the ways we can think about things. I grew up with the habit of taking for granted that a person is first and foremost just that, a person, and that the way to describe a person does not have to come with gender designations.
This excerpt from Tao te Ching is from chapter 2 in the translation by James Trapp (2015, Amber books). For finnish speaking readers, I highly recommend the wonderful finnish translation written by TaoLin (2022, Arktinen banaani).
* The first image, Identity Dance, is a digital collage consisting of photographs taken by me when I was 18, combined together and edited by this 31-year-old version of me.
** The second image, Cathedral of Constructions, is a digital collage consisting of photographs taken by me when I was 18, combined together and edited by this 31-year-old version of me.
*** The third image, Chrysalising/Crystallizing, is a digital collage consisting of photographs taken by me when I was 18, combined together and edited by this 31-year-old version of me.
Beautiful text! Language is truly interesting!
One duality that I think might relate to gender for me (although not completely) is my slightly toxic view of sensitivity as being the opposite of strength. This does not apply when I consider others, however it still plays a part in how I view and judge myself. I think this "sensitive=weak, stoic=strong" lense stems from post-war Finnish generations where repression of emotions was a tool to survive. It still lingers inside me like a ghost, cloaked in internalised toxic masculinity. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, as I am going back to therapy after yet another inflammatory flare-up in my body.
Maybe that's another duality that I am still working to understand and accept: able vs unable (or abled-disabled). And of course we have the (in western society established) mind-body duality, although I am not sure that that one actually exists...