My mother Paivi was a very strong willed Finn with a lot of the famous Finnish trait, sisu. This strength, as well as the Finnish pride she instilled in me has made me who I am today. My mother embodied the core essence of sisu and like my mother I also live with this strength as my mindset. My entire existence has been shaped by sisu.
My childhood was like living in a micro-Finland in the city of Chicago! From our homes interior design to the food we ate, to the sports we played, to the art and books we had, our entire life was influenced by Finnish culture. We had very strong family values and spent a lot of time together just my Mom, Dad, my brother Mikko and then extended family. This instilled in me the need to always put family first. Every other summer we traveled to Finland for three months, saving money during the other two years in order to get there. Every time we came back we brought Finnish treats with, like Turku mustard, makkara and Fazer chocolates. As a child there were times I felt embarrassed for being different, speaking in a different language, sometimes being yelled at in Finnish in public. However, now, many years later, I can say I would not have had it any other way.
When my mother passed away suddenly in 1996 everyone including myself thought our Finnish pride and sisu also died, but the exact opposite happened. We became stronger Finns with endless sisu and grew even closer with our Finnish family. My brother and I inherited ⅓ of our family’s 200 year old summer cottage and land in Lyokki and have been able to spend a lot of time there, creating an unbreakable bond with our family and the land itself. The older you get the more you appreciate the simplicity of summer cottage life. You reset, recharge and get creatively inspired enjoying nature’s silence and peacefulness away from the chaos of NYC and NJ. I love that our children get to experience the same freedom at the summer cottage that I had growing up. They swim in the lake just like I used to all those years ago, and together we pick berries and experience the wonder of nature. My wife Danielle also loves nature, minimalist design and now even sauna. We actually have a sauna in our house in NJ, and as I went to sauna with my parents, my kids now go to sauna with my wife and I, the literal same 35 year old helo sauna that I moved from Chicago to NJ. Our children also go to Suomi-koulu in NYC where they sing and play in Finnish. I guess you could say I am as much Finnish as I am American, I am a Dual Citizen and our kids are now also.
I was in Finland many times over the last three years filming a non-profit documentary “SISU: Family, Love and Perseverance from Finland to America.” It is a profile of my family’s journey over many years through life’s ups and downs. I started the film because I wanted to show my kids what sisu was, and who my mother, their mummi was and where she came from. Soon after starting the film in 2011 her surviving brother, my Uncle Heikki was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. Over the next 3 years even with his death looming there were a lot of joyous moments in his life that I captured on film; like his wedding, the birth of his grandson and when I took my kids to Finland for the first time to meet him. The film examines the meaning of sisu for my family members and shows true Finnish culture and showcases the beauty of Finnish landscapes and city of Turku.
My sisu is the soul of my mother and loved ones no longer here living on in me. Sisu is courage, strength, grit and living in a way that it is meaningful, by truly loving everyday your life and caring for family, friends and others around you.
Interviewed by Mikaela Katro