I’m guilty of this. I often think that by vocalizing and moving my head I am actively listening, responding in the moment, and affirming what the speaker is saying — but I'm not sure this is the case. When in Finland, I am always struck by the focus and attention I receive from the person with whom I am speaking. I suddenly become more aware of my words and the space my sentences are occupying. Finns are not afraid of the silence, and wait to make sure the other person is done with their thought before barreling ahead with a response. They leave space for what is next, taking one thing at a time.
As I hoped, the project has always functioned as a conversation between two places, two cultures, two generations, and two families. Almost ten years ago this month, my mother, father and I arrived to exchange pleasantries with strangers, our "long-lost" Finnish relatives. We greeted one another, shook hands, and mostly likely talked over them in the excitement that came from finding the little red houses my mother had heard about since her childhood. When we left, a week later, it was clear to me that my conversation with Finland was far from over – but I had no idea my response would take many years to complete.
When I returned six years later, I attended a family meeting to represent my mother who was unable to travel. I was written in as part of the agenda (I was official family business!) and given space to talk about the American side of the Ojala family. The room was very quiet as I talked about all of the genealogy connections that I had made in the six years since the initial visit. My Finnish relatives listened – without interruption – to my idea for a theatrical performance inspired by their stories and the very buildings that made up their homeland (or perhaps just looked at me whirling my arms about and gesticulating wildly).
In the moment, they responded in the most Finnish way possible — a soup dinner, donuts, and coffee, but the extended exchange included months of answering questions, connecting the dots, and assisting as I plotted, planned, and moved forward towards my goal. The gap between each email always seemed longer than I wanted, but each response was filled with encouragement and warm welcomes. The replies were not slow, or delayed — but considered, polite, and affirming without “maybes” or “we’ll sees” or “write again when you know for sure”. They had agreed to move forward with me on this journey and welcomed the idea of a play.
It was not long before I returned to Finland to advance the conversation – this time collaborating directly with Antti Ojala in the studio, side by side as two artists. We worked mostly in silence, and sometimes choppy Finnish or English (his English is much better than my Finnish!) about the design of four pauper statue figures in the likeness of our mutual relatives, his grandfather and my great-grandfather. Even there, in the studio, the spaces between my questions and his answers resonated and echoed until the correct response was possible – sometimes as a helpful brush stroke, other times as a laugh, or a subtle acknowledgement that we were doing something quite special: bringing new life to our relatives. I spent the rest of the trip in Lapua listening and talking with others who were searching for family and to teenagers with big dreams for their small village.
Two plays, two places, two homelands. The play in Fairport this past fall serves as an offering to Finland — a call to respond. The actions, the words, the themes are not too different. The challenges, the struggles, the worries, quite the same. The play we will create over the next few months will belong to the people of Lapua. It is a chance to echo the stories, uplift the lives of those who were lost to America, and to deeply and earnestly respond to what it means to hold “sisu” in your heart. It is Lapua's turn to speak.