Marking the Occasion

During the summer of 2002, I spent almost a month with my mom at the Farm. In the morning, after taking a walk, she would work in her sewing room while I sat at the dining room table studying French for my doctoral language exam. In the afternoon, we explored different hiking trails near the Farm. We both usually brought our cameras. She would take pictures while I shot video footage.

To commemorate that wonderful month, my mom crafted a photo book using construction paper, duct tape, card stock and many of the photographs that she had taken. She gave it to me as a thank you:


I love this book. I love how her stories about our month are written around the photos in her neat handwriting. And I love that she took the time to mark the occasion in such a creative and crafty way.


In the spring I plan to have her photo book professionally scanned and to combine it with my video footage and stories in an interactive book. For now, here’s my first effort at combining our stories:

Sisu: Some Sources

Yesterday I posted More Rocks than Potatoes on Cowbird. It’s about my dad’s classic story of learning the value of hard work and persistence on the farm by picking more rocks out of the soil than potatoes. It was difficult to write. I struggled to make sense of my feelings about it when I learned that they didn’t just clear the field of rocks once to plant the potatoes, they did it every year. Picking rocks once sounded hard, but picking rocks every year, knowing that new ones would pop up the next spring, seemed like too much. My dad understood this rock picking to be a good lesson in life about the necessity of hard work, but I wasn’t so sure. Maybe, I wondered, the better lesson would be to give up on planting potatoes altogether. I’m big into the mantra: work smarter, not harder. But then I put their activity in the context of the Finnish concept of “sisu” and it started to make a bit more sense.

According to many sources that I’ve found, sisu doesn’t translate into English easily. Most frequently, it’s understood to mean guts, inner strength, hardiness, persistence, resilience. It also means a willingness to push beyond one’s physical and mental limits, to act even in the face of insurmountable odds. For some, sisu describes the spirit of the Finns who, having fought so many wars against Russia and lost (almost?) every single one, continued to fight anyway. Maybe the picking of rocks in a field, year after year, knowing that you’ll never get all of them and that new ones will pop up again, is an example of Sisu? I’m still not sure, but it has made me curious enough to want to do a little more researching and thinking about sisu and how it does and doesn’t fit into the sprite of the Puotinen farm and its inhabitants.

Here are a few sources that I’ve found so far:

Banging on the Loom

This morning I posted a story on Cowbird about my grandmother Ines and her account (from her memoirs) of using a rag rug loom at the Farm. I entitled it “Banging on the Loom.” While she never uses the phrase in her account, it’s how I’ve always imagined her at that loom, banging on it LOUDLY and joyfully. I love this image (and her story) so much that I’m naming the interactive documentary for The Farm, “Banging on the Loom.”

In the introduction to my i-doc, I’m planning to craft my own story to put beside my grandmother’s about the significance of this phrase. My cowbird story from this morning was a first attempt at conveying that significance. I don’t think I quite succeeded.  I feel like something is missing. But, that’s okay. The process of spending time with my grandma’s account and reflecting deeply on it as I craft my own story about it is central to The Farm project.

Why do I like her account so much? I think I want to let this question persist without attempting to fully answer it now. But, I will offer one thought for today. My grandmother’s joyful (exuberant, physical, loud, playful) banging on the loom is, to me, the bold and persistent assertion of a spirited self who refuses to be silenced by the burdens of a difficult life.


This is a picture of a rag cutting bee at the Farm. Family/community women would gather together to prepare rags for the loom. My grandmother sits in front of the television. My great-grandmother Johanna is on her right.

It’s Not Just a Story

Note: I’m cleaning out the drafts in my WP dashboard and I came across this one from Oct. 1, 2013. I’ve added a few lines at the end. 

Right now I’m revisiting Trinh T. Minh-ha’s chapter, “Grandma’s Story” as I think through how to structure and shape my stories. I first encountered this chapter in my second semester of graduate school, way back in 1997. Eventually, I used it in my doctoral exams (2003) and the second chapter of my dissertation (2006). Four quotations from it were also featured in the second farm film. It’s very helpful to revisit it now; it’s enabling me to think through my own resistances to certain forms of storytelling. Here’s a passage that is particularly thought-provoking:

It’s Not just a story.

I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. Neither do I recall her asking me whether the story I was reading her was true or not. We knew we could make each other cry, laugh, or fear, but we never thought of saying to each other, “This is just a story.” A story is a story. There was no need for clarification….

Trinh T. Minh-ha

As a storyteller, my mom often embellished the truth. She liked to exaggerate experiences or make small details more significant than they might actually have been. She also liked to shape the facts to fit her current perspective.

Mostly, I love my mom’s passion for storytelling and her wondering, curious, imaginative spirit. I loved hiking through the woods and listening to her tell stories about Finnish immigrant women or Grandma Ines and how she picked raspberries with her sister Tynie. But, her storytelling did have a dark side. The meanings she created were often too exaggerated, crafted not only to make sense of our experiences, but to fit with the realities that she needed to believe existed in order to cope with difficult situations. While these stories were never just stories, they often ignored events, experiences, feelings that didn’t fit with the meaning that she wanted to create at that moment.

As I think about my mom’s storytelling, I’m reminded of something that she said during her second interview in 2002:

When you’re trying to explain how you feel about something, or what your relationship to that place or thing is or to other people, it is so often clouded by the particular events that are happening at that particular moment in your life.

Judith Puotinen

Here my mom suggests that our stories are “clouded” by our current experiences/situations in ways that we don’t always recognize.  She’s talking specifically about my dad’s first interview (shot in 2001) and how, as he tells stories about the farm, he seems to be deeply affected by his recent struggles with leaving his job. I wonder, how much of her own embellishment of experiences/histories/events in her storytelling was deliberately crafted, and how much of it was an unconscious effort to make sense or or endure her situation? Maybe this shouldn’t be an either/or question, but a both/and explanation. 

Part of my project involves reflecting on why and how we tell stories. So, in the upcoming months, I want to keep pushing at questions about storytelling and its relationship to truth/Truth. What’s the difference between embellishment and manipulation? How do I tell stories? Do I, like my mom, use them to cope and craft the worlds in which I want to live?