Out of color

The photos are slowly turning to black and white before my eyes. It’s a cold and windy January. I’ve made it so far.

It’s not until we isolate that we realize how much we depend on the others, and how much we are connected to the rest of life.

Some activities are obviously social simply because we cannot do them on our own. But even apparently individual activities, such as taking a coffee in the neighborhood coffeeshop, or taking a solo daytrip to get away from it all, depend on many others. They depend on employees, public services, infrastructure and, often, on the kindness of strangers.

As there are so many things we used to do and cannot do anymore, I guess it’s a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without.

And what are the things we really need, the ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.

Reflected (Belgian Ardennes, December 2020)
Frozen dead leaves (Forêt de Soignes, early January 2021)
The ghost of the pine forest (Hautes Fagnes, Belgium, December 2020)

Tombstones and wild flowers

The garden looks as if the gardener has left and never came back, but things have continued to grow according to his plans for a while. Then everything started to fade into the unregulated beauty of natural growth.

I’m in the back garden of a small church.

Fallen fruits mingle with wild flowers. Here and there, old tombstones rise from the tall grass as if they’ve grown out of the earth.

Transylvania, the high plateau in the Western part of Romania, is where you can find many wooden churches built from the XVIIth to the XIXth century. They were built as small village churches. However, there is something about them that goes beyond their functional role. Maybe it’s their modesty, despite the disproportionately long, thin towers. Maybe it’s the way they fit into the landscape.

Some of them are still used by the locals, although it tends to be for special occasions.

I am not writing about churches as religious symbols. What I’m interested in is how things created by other people, in different ages, speak to us irrespective of our beliefs. I’m also interested in how human creation interacts with natural landscape, to the point where there’s no clear line of demarcation between the two anymore.

The construction techniques for these churches have evolved to deal with the limitations of the time and context they were built in. Metal was scarce and wood was plentiful, thus the construction was made using as little metal as possible. Sometimes, no metal at all.

If from the outside these churches look like they are about to take off, with their long thin towers pointing towards the sky, the interior looks and feels more like the inside on a villager’s house. Hand-made carpets, sheep furs and a narrow passage towards the altar, as if crossing through the family rooms towards the “good room”, reserved for guests.

But it’s the gardens that attract me the most. Part old cemetery, part orchard, part flower garden, they are full of life. The names on the tombstones are almost erased by rain, wind and the passage of time. The grass grows wild.

In spring and summer, these gardens are full of flowers, some of them cultivated but most of them wild. You cannot really tell where the cultivated part fades into wilderness. Old apple and plum trees punctuate the landscape with their weird shapes, like humpback witches. Their roots reaching deep into the ground, into the ancient tombs and further still.

The story is more than the storyteller

We listen to stories and tell stories as a way of dealing with change, impermanence, fragility and trauma.

Scene from Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Stories connect us with the world by showing what brings us together. They show us that our experience, no matter how particular or bizarre it seems, is part of the broader human experience. That our suffering is not only our own.

Stories are also a way of learning, or relearning, the difference between what is essential and what is not, between what happens on the stage and what really matters, happening backstage.

There are anonymous stories, as most folk tales and fairy tales are, and stories with a known author. But, irrespective of whether the author is known or not, good stories are going beyond the storyteller. They are telling more that the narrator intended to say.

Stories are simultaneously particular and universal. They are about a particular course of events, but they can speak to many people from different circumstances and walks of life. We can relate to them personally. This is not because we recognize ourselves in the concrete elements of the story. It’s because the story tells something that goes beyond its specific plot and context.

The moral of the story may be explicit or not. The story may reward some of its characters for being virtuous or for having proven themselves worthy – or it may not. Regardless, no good story comes with a fixed frame of interpretation. No good story is reducible to a moral message. The possibility of interpreting it and making it part of your own experience, as a reader or a listener, is what makes stories meaningful for so many people.

Take “Seven Samurai”, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 movie. You may or may not have seen the movie, but it’s very unlikely that you haven’t seen a remake or at least an allusion to it in some other piece of work. From The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Star Wars (1977) to various episodes from recent series such as The Mandalorian, there have been many ways of retelling this story or building on it.

Kurosawa’s movie is about a band of rōnin (masterless samurai) who are hired to defend a village of poor farmers from bandits. It is deceivingly simple. What is beautiful about it, apart from Kurosawa’s unique way of framing the scenes and building the plot, is the underlying story. A story of unplanned human kindness and cooperation in the face of adversity.

These samurai are not pictured as superheroes coming to the rescue. One of them is actually lying about being a samurai just to get hired. Others have their strengths, but also their flaws. They seem like a weird bunch at first.

However, they manage to do, as a group, what none of them could have achieved on his own. I don’t just mean victory against the bandits. They manage to be better together. Braver, more accepting, less selfish. They manage to somehow pool their strengths so that they are mutually reinforcing. To accept each other’s weaknesses so that they don’t undermine their collective quest.

The rōnin are successful in defending the village and getting rid of the bandits once and for all. But this succes comes with a heavy price. Four of them die in the final battle. “We have lost this battle too”, remarks one of the remaining three. “It’s the villagers who have won.”

You could draw some straightforward moral message from all this if you really wanted to. But the story is richer than any possible message or conclusion.

Is this about confronting adversity and managing to hold your ground? Yes. Is it about spontaneous generosity and kindness towards strangers? Yes. Is it about facing your own limits? Sure. It’s about all this and many other things. This is what makes it so powerful. This is what makes it speak to so many people that have never found themselves in those particular circumstances, but recognize themselves in the basic human experiences underlying all this.

A lone tree has fallen

These two photos are separated by more than two years and a half. I’ve taken the first one in the spring of 2019 because I was struck by the image of the lone tree against the moody sky.

It was a cold, humid and moody day. The tree looked like it had been dead for some time. But it stood tall, its branches reaching out for something. Reaching out with no expectation of receiving. The stone wall to the right belongs to a medieval chapel.

I came back in December 2020 and I saw the tree fallen. It hadn’t been cut. It had simply collapsed under its own weight. It fell towards the stone wall, its highest branches reaching over into the chapel courtyard. Its branches are still reaching out, like the human casts of unfortunate citizens of Pompeii, caught by the lava with their hands reaching out for an escape. Just like the first time, it was cold and cloudy.

There is a Romanian folk tale in which the hero goes through all sorts of trials in order to achieve his dream – immortality. When he finally gets back home, victorious from all the battles but jaded and without having achieved his goal, he stumbles upon his own death. The grim reaper had been there all the time, waiting for him – for him and nobody else.

I don’t know why this tree reminded me of this folk tale. Maybe because, in its dry stillness, the tree offered an impression of endurance beyond life, until it collapsed. It projected an image of immortality and it met its own death there, in the field.

“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The place beyond the forests

Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.

Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?

Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.

“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”

This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.

Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.

For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.

It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.

Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.

Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.

Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.

Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.

What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.

It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.

Dreaming of summer

Late November. The weather seems to have sucked the color out of everything. I’m living among shades of grey. But I dream in color.

I wander across Miradouro de Santa Lucia, the terrace overlooking Alfama and the Tagus river. Where street players and singers gathered every evening. Where I’ve waited for sunrise. Where I’ve stood silently at night, listening to a song together with other passers-by. A moment of connection created by a human voice and a guitar.

Then I continue on to Portas do Sol, the larger square from which numerous streets branch out downwards, to the river, or upwards, to Castle Sao Jorge.

There’s a small coffee shop, right here on the corner. They open really early and they serve coffee and pastel de nata. They only speak Portuguese but we understand each other in the universal language of people in need of caffeine.

The few other clients are locals taking a few minutes on their way to work. I am the only outsider here, sipping my coffee outside while the owner is still cleaning up and arranging the tables. But I feel like being where I should be.

The sun has risen right in front of me. I have this whole morning ahead, like drinking spring water with your bare hands, like virgin snow on the mountain. Everything can still happen. I’ve lost so much and I’ve lost myself so much, but here at this small table with its cheap tablecloth I feel like everything is still possible.

“Obrigado”, I say to the coffee shop owner. I continue in English, telling him how much I loved the pastel. He’s nodding and smiling. He doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying but understands it’s a compliment.

I go off the main road into narrow back streets that zigzag uphill. Beco de Maldonado, Rua dos Cegos, Calçada do Menino Deus… It’s like going back in time. I could imagine myself walking these streets 30 or 50 years ago. Nothing would need to change to account for the passage of time.

There’s nobody outside but the houses are alive. There are voices inside, there are noises of people cooking, cleaning, just going about their normal lives. The first fallen leaves of late summer are blown away by the breeze. 

There’s something in me that would like to cling to this moment, that would like to stay frozen in this snapshot like a fly caught in amber. I’ve always had a hard time letting go of things that I love. Accepting that they come and go. 

But right here, surrounded by pigeons flapping their wings in the sun, I just leave things be and I let go.

Tracks to nowhere

The train won’t be on time. It won’t arrive ever again.

Its ghost is chasing through the woods. The vegetation is slowly taken over.

I’m standing here as the sun goes down and this incredibly warm light washes over me. In the background, everything lits up like a giant bonfire.

I discovered these abandoned train tracks somewhere on the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. Most probably, they were used to transport coal from Limburg towards the nearby industrial cities. This former mining area is now a national park.

Stories that leave you cheated

Three elements that set good writing apart — and how they are all rooted in honesty.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Neil Gaiman says in his Masterclass course that a story is anything fictional that keeps you turning the pages and doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end. It’s a brief but surprisingly comprehensive definition.

The first part — writing that makes you turn the pages — is about what happens. About characters, conflict, resolution — all the things that bring life into the story and make it move forward. Everything that makes the reader ask what every storyteller wants to hear:

And then what happened?

But it is the second part that I’d like to focus on. What does it mean for a story not to leave you feeling cheated at the end?

As a reader and writer, my answer is this:

First, it is a story that does not promise things that it doesn’t deliver. It doesn’t promise fireworks only to leave you with burnt matchsticks. 

It does not start with engaging dialogues that do not go anywhere. It does not develop complex characters that, for the rest of the text, feel like puppets manipulated by a skillful puppeteer. It does not promise a fascinating adventure only to end up lecturing the reader and moralizing.

As a reader, I would expect a story that lives up to what it (implicitly) promised it would do, no matter how modest that promise. I would prefer an understated start that slowly builds up in strange, unexpected ways, rather than a spectacular intro that gradually grows out of breath and lifeless.

Second, it is a story that does not pray on your readers’ psychological needs just to keep them going through the text. It does not play with the characters in order to create artificial drama and conflict. It does not twist the plot unnaturally, just to satisfy the reader’s need for closure. 

Obviously, stories often develop in unexpected ways, just as life does. But they can do so convincingly, in ways that are consistent with the internal flow and logic of the story. Or they can do so in ways that are transparently doctored to elicit certain reactions and emotions. It’s not the story that leads naturally to this or that course of events. It’s the author messing with the flow of the story.

Referring to how he develops characters and dialogue, Neil Gaiman speaks about the importance of listening to your own characters and paying attention to what they would say or do. Do they sound genuine? Are they believable? Or are you constantly trying to impose yourself on them?

Isn’t this what sets great stories apart — the feeling that they take on a life of their own and carry you along with them? This is the flow of the story. Once you’ve set it in motion, it becomes larger than you.

Third, it is a story that you, the author, care about. You are personally invested in telling the story — and telling it honestly.

If you’re going to write… you have to be willing to do the equivalent of walking down a street naked. You have to be able to show too much of yourself. You have to be just a little bit more honest than you’re comfortable with…”

Neil Gaiman

If the story does not talk about something that is important for you, as a writer and as a human being, no amount of technical skill will turn in into an interesting piece.

If the story is not written truthfully, it will show up sooner or later. Writing in honesty may be or may not be a moral principle for you as an author, but it is also a pragmatic principle. Before we can cast a spell on others and invite them into the story, we need to make that story credible and engaging for ourselves. Writing truthfully is the simplest, most direct way of doing that. It not only provides an intrinsic motivation to keep writing, but it also ensures consistency of approach.

Don’t promise what you cannot deliver, don’t twist the story to score cheap points, write truthfully about what matters to you.

At the end of the day, all three points are about honesty. Honesty towards yourself, your own writing, and the reader.

The toxic stories we tell ourselves

We live within stories. It matters what those stories are. They can make or break us. And they can be changed.

Take a moment and remember a time when you’ve been living as if under a spell. When you were hooked on thinking or feeling things that, in hindsight, were clearly out of touch with reality. Maybe you were obsessed with your own failures. Maybe you couldn’t stop caring about a manipulative or abusive person. Or maybe you were stuck in depression without knowing why you got there and what to do. 

What were you telling yourself at that time? How were you trying to justify it, normalize it, explain it away? What was the story you were telling yourself?

Photo by Florin (2020)

Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, plays, 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.

Through stories, we try to make sense of what is going on, find meaning, cope with problems. Through stories we find the power to push through. 

But there are also stories that reinforce fragility and weakness. Stories that keep us captive into various fictions about that we desperately need, what we fear, what would make us happy or unhappy. Stories that keep us stuck in fear and dependence.

“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. 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 genocide.

Learning to tell a different story

Self-narratives are part of our sense of 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.

Toxic stories are persistent and powerful. 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 but frames them differently. 

One powerful way of telling a better story about yourself is to tell it as if you were speaking to a dear friend. Somebody you care about. You are not blind to their faults and weaknesses, but you see through them. You see the suffering, the struggle, and the humanity of it all. “I failed again” becomes “You did your best. It didn’t work out this time. It happens to all of us.”

Self-reinforcement works. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less difficult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

Another way of reframing the story is to identify the hidden assumptions of your self-narrative and question them. It may be that you’re feeling responsible and guilty for everything that didn’t work out. It may be that you’re unable to accept and forgive yourself. It may be that you have a deep-seated fear of loneliness or failure. Once you start seeing behind the curtain of the drama playing continuously in your head, the drama starts losing its edge.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, we are encouraged to identify our 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 us and the story we tell ourselves.

Once there is enough detachment, we recognize the story as a story. An artifact. Something that was made and can be unmade.

Toxic stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Gaining perspective. Getting out of our little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy, and a sense of shared experience. 

Focusing on others shifts the attention away from our suffering, which changes our perception of how intense or pervasive this suffering is. More importantly, however, it also offers perspective and insight into our situation. We recognize ourselves in the struggle of others. 

Through them, we can look at ourselves from the outside. We see ourselves as human beings going through grief — but we are not identifying anymore with the grief. 

Through them, we sense that all this hurt is not only ours — it’s a common human experience. And there are so many who had it way worse than us. There’s a certain humility that comes from detaching ourselves from our own suffering. Even in our suffering, we’re not that special. The world has not conspired to hurt us. It’s just the ebb and flow of life.