My late Grandpa Jack was born and raised on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the U.P.). He grew up on the northern part of the peninsula, in a tiny town called Mohawk, bordered by the beautiful Lake Superior. As a young boy he loved fishing, and he passed down his love for the sport to his three sons. Grandpa's cousin Fred and his wife, Katie (great name!), still live there happily. Annually, my family drives nine hours north to spend time with the “Yoopers” (think: U.P.-ers).
Grandpa Jack was English and Finnish. Michigan has more Finnish-Americans than any other state and the bulk of them settled in the U.P. during the Great Finnish Immigration in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Like many, the Finns came to America in search of a better life - work, land, and freedom. The ecosystem in the U.P. was similar to that of Finland, so the cold dark winters felt like home. Additionally, the local copper mines provided uneducated and inexperienced laborers a chance to work.
Spending time in Mohawk inspired me to learn about my family history, specifically our Finnish roots. I found myself particularly intrigued by Finnish cultural customs and traditions. Snowshoes and saunas helped to battle the long winters and maintain good health. Pasties (pronounced "pass-tees”) are delicious hand-held meat and potato pies (Grandpa adored them!) that were packed as convenient lunches for the copper miners. My family gets together every year for a pasty making party (pictures above) and we still follow Katie and Fred’s family recipe.
I also learned about "sisu".
Sisu is a Finnish term. It does not have a direct English translation. Sisu is many things. It is an ethos, a state of mind. Sisu is grit, courage, mental fortitude. It is thriving in the face of adversity with quiet strength and grace. When all signs point to failure, sisu helps stay the course.
Grandpa Jack embodied all things sisu. He was an extremely focused and prideful man, and these traits permeated into all aspects of his life. He built a successful architecture business, of which he was quite proud, but never bragged. He produced vibrant and detailed watercolor paintings. He was loyal, loving, and kind. He was a meticulous note taker. He had immaculate handwriting and maintained several lists and charts that he used to organize his life. He literally had a list that kept track of all of his lists. One of my favorite lists was “iPad notes”, which he referenced regularly while learning how to use his iPad throughout his 80s!
Grandpa’s focus and determination certainly inspired me to take the leap and start my own business. I was terrified to take such a risk – most businesses fail, and I had a good job with a promising future in marketing. Leaving the security of my career to start Unfold was not a decision that I made lightly. Sometimes I catch myself slipping back into a fear-based mindset – it happens to everyone and I’m certainly no exception. And although I’m only 5% Finnish (thanks a LOT, 23andMe!), it is understood that sisu resides in everyone and can be called upon in times of need.
Part of connecting to one's own inner sisu is learning how to quiet the mind and focus attention. In yoga, this is called dharana, or the practice of concentration. Dharana works hand in hand with meditation, through which one begins to observe thoughts and practice self-reflection. The more I practice yoga and meditation, the easier it becomes to remain grounded in the face of adversity and connect to my own inner sisu.
Just like yoga, sisu is a practice. And like all practices, some days are easier than others. Sometimes life feels overwhelmingly difficult, painful, and downright unfair. In those moments, the one tool I know I always have is my breath. One deep breath can totally transform my mindset from impossible to possible. The lens through which I see and experience my suffering becomes wider, my perspective bigger.
Spending time in nature is a wonderful way for me to connect to the vastness of the world. In the U.P., I love practicing yoga on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, also fittingly called the Big Lake. It is the largest body of fresh water on EARTH. It has its own tide.
Although beautiful and serene, Lake Superior demands respect. The water is bitterly cold. Wading in up to my knees takes my breath away, even in the middle of July. The average temperature is about 36 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s a standing joke in my family that you can earn your “sisu badge” by jumping into the Big Lake, which almost everyone in my family has done! It’s a rite of passage that holds such a powerful lesson: mind over matter. Some of my happiest times have been sitting quietly alone overlooking the vast clear water. I feel calm and focused. I feel sisu pride. I feel Grandpa (below on right, Fred on left).
So, the next time you find yourself facing adversity, at home, at work, or within the tiny secret corners of your mind, when taking one more step forward seems impossible, pause, focus, take a deep breath, find your sisu... and jump in the Big Lake.
RIP Grandpa. I miss you.