Everything is in flow

The small stream is at almost perfect standstill.

There is an imperceptible movement somewhere, the water molecules are rolling downstream in slow motion. But to the naked eye everything seems frozen.

It’s early autumn and the first colorful leaves are slowly gathering on the water. The Great Falling of Leaves has not started yet.

I’ve stopped for a minute to have a drink of water and watch the sun playing its hide-and-seek through the branches.

It’s cool down here. It’s a good place to rest and stay silent.

Panta rhei said a Greek named Heraclitus about 2500 years ago. Everything is in flow.

There are hundreds of books, articles, movies, plays and paintings building on these two words. Panta rhei. You cannot step in the same river twice. Everything changes constantly.

Right here, although there is a small waterfall upstream, the silence and stillness are overwhelming. The water rushes down the waterfall and all of a sudden calms down as it zigzags between the rocks.

I’m sitting there and the stream is still on the outside but is moving through me. And it carries with it all the sorrow, clarity, regret, realisation, depression and hope of the recent past, like leaves on the water.

*

If some of the stuff on this site speaks to you, I’d love to keep in touch. You can subscribe to my email list below.

Processing…
Success! You’re on the list.

The seventh sky

So many memories of looking at the sky.

Up on the mountain, lying on my back and catching my breath after hours of hiking. There’s nothing else but that moment of heavy breathing and the clouds passing by. Then the breathing slows down and there’s just light. I lie there between the rocks and I become a rock, a part of the mountain.

Or at nightfall, close to the tent, staring at the Milky Way. The heat from the fire nearby distorts the image, as if playing an old roll of film that’s partially damaged. Fire sparks mingling with the stars. And that feeling of getting swept away into the sky. Falling off the face of the earth.

The seventh sky is where the sun is always shining while down here, on the ground, is miserable.

Silent streets

The streets are full of absence. I am walking alone. Stopping from time to time to catch the smell of an old building. That smell carrying all their past lives and all the love and suffering and death they have seen inside.

The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drunk and the lovers will cross each other again along these old streets.

These places have known plague, war, famine and dispair. They have known joy, endless evenings on the terraces, couples making out, groups of friends celebrating something, doesn’t matter what, people walking alone with the wind in their hair.

For now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Barely moving but alive. Like a hibernating animal, bringing its vital signs down to a minimum in order to save energy.

Street highlights and shadows, with the tower of the Brussels City Hall in the background
Old books on display close to Manneken Pis, the symbol of Brussels.

The stories we tell ourselves: guilt

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator describes a crime he has commited, while attempting to convince the reader of his sanity. After the killing, he dismembers the body and hides it under the floorboards. The description is meticulous and emotionally detached. There seem to be no feelings involved. No regret. No guilt.

But then, the narrator start hearing a thumping sound that grows louder and louder. Unsure at first, he realizes it is coming from beneath the floor. It can only be the dead man’s heart, beating as a sort of premonitory bell. The beating becomes unbearably loud. Banished from conscient thought, guilt infiltrates itself to the surface.

Guilt is part of life. We all screw up from time to time and, if we have some sort of moral compass, we will feel guilty. Sometimes we are forgiven by those who we have harmed and sometimes not. Sometimes we manage to forgive ourselves and sometimes not.

But guilt can also turn into an obsession that undermines us. An obsession that does not depend so much on proof of having done something wrong, but rather on feeling of bad or dysfunctional. A feeling of deep inadequacy.

This may start in childhood, when we develop our self-image. A kid who is treated badly by his parents will usually not blame them, because parents are wise adults who surely have good reasons for doing what they do. He will blame himself for their behavior: “I must have done something wrong”.

Guilt may also be linked to a trauma that developed later on, such as the death of loved one or a toxic, abusive relationship. Guilt may have been cultivated as part of such a relationship, resulting in dependence and low self-esteem. Some of us are more susceptible than others to this kind of emotional blackmail.

In these cases, guilt can really take on a life of its own, especially if it grows on childhood traumas. It embeds itself into your self-story, like a renegade voice interfering with your inner voice, constantly whispering that it’s your fault. It sucks the life out of you.

Guilt built into the self-story may not be conscious and may not be about something, about particular wrongs. It is more like a fog – covering everything, blurring everything and preventing you from seeing at a distance, from seeing the true shapes of things and gaining detachment. Like an imaginary thumping sound coming from beneath the floor, it accompanies you from dawn to dusk.

Getting beyond guilt depends on more than willpower or the intellectual ability of cutting through the fog and seeing clearly. It depends on self-forgiveness – the most difficult forgiveness there is. It depends on the capacity to forgive yourself over and over again, like you would do with a person you love.

It’s precisely this capacity that is undermined by abuse and trauma. Rebuilding it is a bit like re-learning to walk after an serious accident. Because you are not simpy dealing with guilt, but rather with a mental script, a story that has embedded itself into your sense of identity and self-worth.

The stories we tell ourselves: fear

I’ve never experienced war. I was not targeted by political repression or terror, although I’ve seen it happening around me. I did sufficiently well not to worry about my livelihood. I had a job continuously since I finished university. In fact, for most of this time I’ve had two jobs at the same time. Still, I feel like I’ve been living large parts of my life in fear.

Fear of what? What could have possibly been so scary?

Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa (1954). Mastery of fear was part of the Bushidō code.

I guess you could call it fear of myself. Of not performing well enough, not being sufficiently successful or sufficiently liked, not being up to the expectations. Fear of being rejected. Fear of losing someone’s affection. Fear of writing a text like this and putting it out. Fear of exposing oneself.

I remember myself in school. The teacher was asking questions on the current or the previous lessons. And I was pretty sure I had the right answer but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise my hand and talk. What if I screw up in front of my colleagues? In fact, even when I was completely sure my answer was right I still had a hard time speaking up. I’d rather keep silent than expose myself.

In those situations there was a fear of speaking up. But fear does not need to have a definite object. After a while, fear becomes its own object. You don’t say exactly what you mean, you don’t do exactly what feels right to you, you don’t react when something unacceptable happens, you don’t say no when you feel like saying no. It’s like being caught in a web of fear and you don’t even know anymore what you are fearful of. Fear and avoidance becomes part of how you see the world.

The problem with this is that it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more you live in fear, the more likely you are to continue living the same way. Not saying what you mean becomes second nature. Not being able to say no becomes an invitation to be taken advantage of.

Fear also changes the kind of stories you tell yourself. Living in fear means giving up agency, seeing yourself as a passive spectator, a patient or a victim. It means seeing yourself as being controlled by circumstances, the actions of others or your own emotions. And once the story you tell yourself becomes the story of a victim, you will be more and more likely to think and behave like a victim.

Because self-narratives are part of what makes up our identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it was true to begin with. Ideas of self-worth, competence and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means dealing with the story it is part of.

As pretty much anything else, fear can be tackled one step at a time. There are ways to re-learn to say what you mean and to do what you feel is right. The good news here is that self-reinforcement works both ways. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less dificult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, you are encouraged to identify your cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and question them, put them to the test, play with them and find alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between yourself and the story you tell yourself. Once there is enough detachment, you recognize the story as a story. Something powerful but man-made. Something that was made – not a necessity of nature – and that can be unmade.

Fear is only as strong as the attachment to our own stories about ourselves.

You may also want to read the first part of the “stories we tell ourselves” series, which talks about shame.

If some of the stuff on this site speaks to you, I’d love to keep in touch. You can subscribe to my email list below.

Processing…
Success! You’re on the list.

The reality of stories

In my native language, one standard formulation to start a folk tale is “There was, once upon a time, because if it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it”. There are different versions of this formulation, some of them going on and on about a miraculous past and place where the events took place.

“If it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it” is about the substance and reality of stories. Obviously, stories are not real in the sense in which a news report is real. So what could this mean? Are we invited to delude ourselves into believing something that is clearly false?

For me, the short answer is the following: stories are not historical events (although they may echo events from the past), but they are “real” in the sense of condensing the living experience of our ancestors. They carry a meaning and they speak about things we all care about. They wouldn’t have survived from one generation to another otherwise.

Travelling to the other side

Let’s imagine how stories were told. A child sits close to the fireplace while grandpa tends to the fire. It’s dark outside and the room is a small island of light, safety and warmth in an ocean of darkness. There are no distractions, just the crakling of fire and the shadows on the walls. Grandpa starts to speak slowly, as if somebody else is trying to speak through him.

“Once upon a time, in a far, faraway land, there was a good king living in his castle by the sea…”.

“How far away, grandpa? Where we went to the seaside last year?”

The child needs to establish a foothold of the story in reality. This doesn’t need to be here, in the midst of our lives. It can be faraway, underground, through the rabbit hole, on a different planet. Children understand that folk tales and fairy tales take place in a misterious place that can be governed by different laws. But they are curious and want to know how this place functions.

As a storyteller, you may be able to get away with “far, far away” when you start off. But you have to reveal more about the world of your story as you go along. No matter how far away that place is, there must be a way of getting from here to there. It may be a magic mirror or a long travel through places that get weirder and more dangerous as you go along. There has to be a point of contact with the here and now.

Discussing in what sense stories are real may seem like a play of words but it’s not. If stories are somehow real, they are meaningful. They have a logic and a structure that we may be able to decipher, even if they are very far from our usual logic and structure.

Therefore asking where is “far, far away” is a way of establishing a point of contact with the world of the story. Many elaborate formulations to start a folk tale are exactly about this – creating a link with our reality. Then the story can go on and the horses may fly and the dragons may speak.

The stories we tell ourselves: shame

We live within stories. 

Often we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, movies, video games. But there are also national myths, collective stories of greatness, and mental scripts we keep telling ourselves. And they can greatly influence how we behave, think and feel.

“I am not worthy of love”, “I am defective”, “we need to defend the purity of our race”, “our civilisation is under threat”, “my political opponents are brainwashed idiots” – all these are not isolated statements. They are part of a wider web of beliefs, values and practices that define who we are. They are part of a narrative that has real life consequences. Believing in your essential defectiveness can lead to personal tragedy. Believing in a looming threat to the purity of the race can lead to war and gonocide.

When I was 8 or 9, I was caught with a semi-nude photo of an actress in my pocket. Judging by the standards of today, and in fact by any standards, the photo was mildly provocative. A black and white photo of a woman exposing her legs up to the thighs and smiling at the camera. But being exposed like that made me feel incredibly ashamed. It felt as if a dirty secret had been revealed to the whole world and now I have to live with it. And I never really shook off that shame. I am not talking about that episode – it was just a funny little moment of my childhood – but about the shame itself. By the time that moment arrived, the shame was already there. Fed by known and unknown traumas of childhood. It was already part of the story I was telling myself about who I am and what I am capable of. I’ve struggled for a long time to undermine and reframe this story.

Because that’s what some stories do. They become part of us.

In Steve Mc Queen’s movie “Shame”, the main character lives and struggles through his sex dependence, spiraling out of control. The sudden appearance of his sister, who has fallen on tough times and asks to live in his apartment for a while, disturbs his habits and enrages him. At the same time, this new situation strikes a cord of fragility and affection that were hardly visible before. Just as myself in a different context, he struggles with shame. And it’s not just the shame of his sex dependence, it’s the shame of what he has become, of the type of person he is.

Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)

Toxic stories are persistent. Part of the reason is that it takes time and effort to realize their toxicity when you’ve been living with them long enough. It takes a shift of perspective, a degree of critical detachment, to start seeing them for what they are. But even then, realizing their toxicity will not be enough to get rid of them. No matter how harmful, we may choose to hang on to the story because giving it up feels like giving up part of ourselves. It feels as if we don’t have anything else to hang on to.

Toxic stories are powerful but they are not invincible. They can be undermined by learning to tell a better story. A kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts or experiences but frames them differently. Bad stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Getting out of your little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy and a sense of shared experience.

Dia de muertos

The day of the living is everyday, although the living don’t seem to realize it. The dead have their day too, when the living are invoking them, talking to them, talking about them without being regarded as morbid or mad. Social conventions are dropped for a while, as in all traditional celebrations. Then we put the mask back on.

All Saints Day is celebrated on the 1st of November. Dia de Muertos was originally celebrated in Mexico at the beginning of the summer, but gradually shifted towards November, to coincide with the Catholic holiday.

At the end of last year, I accompanied this procession through Brussels.

Painted faces, skeleton costumes, skull masks, bright colors, excited kids running around, scary characters popping up out of nowhere, smell of incense, singing and chanting.

There is something special about a mass of people moving slowly together purposefully. There’s an energy that slowly gets you and carries you with it. You can feel it in gatherings, demonstrations and processions.

Having a camera means that you can let yourself be part of it and at the same time keep some distance, in order to see things in their context and assess what is meaningful and worth capturing.

Mariachis singing and playing in the St. Gilles district.
Violin player in the procession.
The Master of Ceremonies dancing and leading the crowd.
A giant skeleton passes by the Church Notre-Dame de la Chapelle. The painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder was buried here.

Keep on moving

I miss travelling.

I fall in love with places and I tend to come back often. I care about them. I feel hurt when I read about illegal logging in a forest where I used to walk as a teenager. My heart beats faster when I see a photo of a city street where I’ve lived something that stayed with me. An old square where I took a coffee early in the morning, watching the sunrise. A place where I’ve left part of me.

There are different ways of travelling.

There’s travelling to see and travelling to be seen. There’s travelling to live and travelling to show.

The first is about discovering and losing yourself in what you’re discovering. It is about trying to become part of the scene without altering it. Staying low key, watching, letting things happen.

The second is about affirming yourself wherever you go. Making your mark, letting people know where you are and what you think about that. It’s about imposing yourself on whatever is happening.

These ways of travelling (and of being) are also reflected in photography.

The first one would correspond to the type of photography in which the photographer remains a discreet presence behind the camera. The focus is on what is going on, on the situation, on the story. The story says something about me as photographer, because it’s MY way of telling the story. But the focus stays on the story, not on myself.

The second one emphasizes the photographer at the expense of what is going on. The photographer can either be physically present in the pictures (the selfie maniac) or compose the photos so that they bring the attention back to him/her.

There is a difference between doing photography as a continuous ego-affirming exercise and doing it for the sake of showing / documenting / honoring what is out there. We lose sight of this difference too easily.

Looking vs seeing

How often do you look at the sky?

Me, not so often when I’m living my normal city life. But when I’m out hiking and exploring, quite a lot. I look all around me.

We spend a big part of our life looking in front of us. We experience what happens to be happening in front of us. It’s like looking through a keyhole.

Even so, looking is not necessarily seeing. We look through things, we don’t pay attention, we don’t care that much. We see shapes and details but often what we’re really looking at is our problems, desires or expectations.

In some ways, taking photos helps you see more, because it forces you to focus on the essential. In order to do that, you have to identify the essential and render it visible. Neither of these comes by itself.

Identifying the essential is not easy because the essential is not out there. It has to do with the way we interpret the scene and what we want to make out of it. You may be in the most beautiful or interesting places on earth and not come up with anything more than random snapshots. The scene does not speak by itself. It needs purpose. It needs the right framing and idea to guide it.

There’s a world of difference between the scene as we see it and the photo taken. Compositions that make a lot of sense when we’re absorbed in the scene can result in flat, uninteresting or chaotic photos. The camera does not capture emotion, smell, mood, the whole experience of being there. It does not capture our field of vision. It captures photons from whatever direction you point it towards.

Turning this visual mess into something intesting has to do with things such as composition, subject and use of light. Deciding what to include in the frame and, maybe more importantly, what to leave out.