I fear the day I find myself bending under everything about which I am writing.
Under the weight of depression. Under the yoke of poverty. Under hopelessness.
I have on occasion—when I’ve been called up and asked, but not often enough to earn a decent side income—worked as a helper on a truck. I don’t have a driver’s license so I can’t work as a driver, a better paying job. This has been night work. We’ve driven around the greater Helsinki area carrying frozen goods for large stores and shopping centers.
Helsinki at night is a calm and quiet place. I know that now. I know this because on many nights I have seen that it is so. Cities have their own life at night. They are places of shadowy buildings and deserted streets waiting to be put to use. It’s peaceful driving around, delivering goods. My older brother did it almost every night for several years. My father did it until he was fired; now he drives a bus instead.
My little brother did it until he was fired, too. Now he’s just trying to survive his bipolar disorder, a depression that caused him, when in a whisky stupor, to slice his wrist deep along the artery. The ambulance brought him to the Aurora hospital, where they mended his wrist and sent him home, still wasted and wearing bloodied clothes. Nowadays when I don’t hear from my brother for a few weeks, when I can’t reach him by phone or email, I picture him in that small apartment in Helsinki, bloody, dead.
I’m the only one who doesn’t drive. I’m the only one who reads and writes. I have to weather jokes about my lack of masculinity. About my girly interests in poems and books. I get angry. I can’t bear to listen anymore. Maybe because I know I should change tack. That my passion for books and poetry will never be economically advantageous, and will remain a pastime.
But it’s all I know how to do. This, and transporting goods and caring for children. Literature is all I have an education in and all I have a competency for, and my life with books is what defines me.
Literature is my only longing, and day after day I feel it dying inside me. To write. To learn, to read, to slowly achieve something that resembles education, but to see the uselessness in it.
I was once offered a job at a bookbindery. I accepted. On the first day, I took the bus to the specified address where I found a dark little basement under a tile-clad single-family home. I rang the doorbell and announced myself as the new worker. I walked in and was told that my job was to laminate books. Thousands of books that libraries around the capital paid to have laminated in plastic. This was the first time I was on the clock working with books. Shakespeare, Hemingway, Lagerlöf, Lindgren. The pay was bad. If I remember correctly, it was seven euro an hour minus tax, but a few months’ work was enough to support my family for a short while, so I’m not complaining. In fact, I was grateful for the work. It was calm and pleasant, and it had to do with books. I sat in a small dark cellar in a house in the Sockenbacka area of Helsinki. I listened to the radio. When I picked up a fresh book to laminate, I leafed through it. Seven euros an hour to sit in a cellar and pick up a book and some plastic. Put the plastic on the book, and then repeat the same monotonous movements for five hours straight.
To be gainfully employed. To work to be able to afford your upkeep. Gainful employment: to earn, to make a living.
What living have I made after all those years studying at university? After all those years of poorly paid temp work and income support?
“Does poverty exist in the Nordics?” a good friend, an Argentine author, once asked. He was very surprised to hear that it did. That there are people who don’t have enough food for the day. That there are those who work a lot and work hard but still can’t afford their own rent. That there are those who choose to stay at home on the sofa, because the support they get from Social Services gives them more money than their salary would be as a truck- or bus-driver, nursery school assistant, cleaner, or teacher’s aide. This is what it’s like—being poor in the Nordics today is to realize that labor is required of you but sometimes it isn’t worth it.
During our most recent parliamentary elections, one of the party leaders kept saying, “all work pays off.” I almost reached out a few times to correct him. To say: my work mostly does not pay off. My work as a critic and reviewer, as far as income goes, is something to sniff at. My temp work has been a waste of time. My remuneration for various kinds of cultural work has been a joke. To suggest he update his attitude toward work and find out if in practice it really is true that all work pays off.
I used to think you could do what you like with your money. I thought money always meant freedom. Now I know you can do what you like with your money only if you have enough of it in the first place. I also know what it’s like never to have enough money, not even to cover your basic needs. This is my poverty: having grown up in a home where the income has never been as great as the outgoing expenses.
My friend was very surprised to hear that I, too, counted myself among the poor in the North. I explained myself, telling him about how my wife and I had managed all this time. I told him about the temp work I’d had over the years. That I’d worked as a nursery carer and a youth leader, a book laminator, as a helper on a truck, as a recruiter for various citizens’ organizations, as a clerk at a parish, as a freelance writer, as a failed translator of books, and as a substitute teacher. I told him that none of this has made it possible for me to live without economic lack. Not once.
People have asked me: why don’t you get a little side job while you study? I’ve never known how to answer that question. It sounds so simple. You get a little side job. And then you get paid. And then you have more money than before. That’s incorrect. In our system, it only works like that when you have a high enough income to start out with. If you live below the minimum income level, as set by the authorities, a whole other set of rules applies.
When you’re studying and you seek income support, the student loan you qualify for counts as income. It doesn’t matter if you take out a student loan or not, it’s included in the calculations nonetheless. Then you can either choose between trying to get along with €300 less each month or take out a student loan and take on debt. So far I have chosen to take on debt, because we wouldn’t have been able to manage without that €300 each month. I have dutifully gone into debt, while feeling like a failure, because no matter what I do, I’ve so often had to stand at that glass cubicle inside Social Services and submit my application for income support.
When you’ve always worked for a low wage, getting a higher wage is a challenge. You can try to find a job that will last for many years and maybe, eventually, get a raise based on your experience. You can try to continue your education alongside your daily toil, but in truth there are few who have the energy or who want to. My mother did. She had the energy, and she wanted to. She took her local nursing exam shortly after she turned fifty. I wish I could say that things got better for her after the exam. But it’s not true. She’s still struggling, and earning a salary that, only with scrimping and scrounging, will stretch to the next paycheck. Her income is still too low for her to have any savings.
“Kopparberg Road 20” © Mathias Rosenlund. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.