The long black shadow

A trip in the dark in a cold December morning, to revisit a place of love and leave it behind.

“You cannot get rid of your shadow”, she thought while driving. It was 5:30 am. A chilly December morning. Definitely not the kind of morning when you’d jump out of bed at 5 and take a ride in the dark. And still, there she was.

What was she looking for? Behind the wheel, she was asking herself exactly this – and it was hard to find a good answer. It was more of a compulsion. When she woke up that morning, after few hours of sleep, she just couldn’t resist it anymore. She felt that she had to return to that place.

As if you’d been running for a long time, trying to leave your shadow behind, and now you finally give in and turn back. Your shadow is there all right, glued to your feet.

She had not been to that place in a while but she knew it well. In fact, it’s where most of her dreaming took place. It’s where he brought her for her birthday, in what now seemed like a different life. It’s where they laid down in the tall grass, watching the hypnotic shapes of the clouds backlit by the setting sun.

What was he saying back then? She could not quite remember. But his words were like flashes into the night, illuminating the sky for a split second. Burning her on the inside, one flash after another. She remembers feeling as if she was there, completely present with that moment, and at the same time watching the whole scene from outside. Watching his lips move in slow-motion and the tall grass dancing in the night wind. Telling herself “this moment will pass and never come back”.

That cold December morning, she felt compelled to return and look for that fleeting moment and the echo of his words. Look for him, knowing full well he won’t be there. Look for her, as she used to be back then.

Like being stuck in a dark room and searching for the door, where you know the door has always been. But the door is not there any longer. Everything you feel is uninterrupted wall on all sides. There’s no exit.

The wind picked up and brought her back to the present. She had been staring at the spot where, in a different geological time, they’ve set up the tent and listened to the sounds of the night. Owls, foxes, dogs and many others, impossible to identify.

Behind her, the long black shadow cast by the streetlight is pointing towards the place where the sun should have already appeared. It’s dark with just a hint of light on the horizon. An aborted sunrise. The thought that all this may well be a dream, one of the many dreams that took her back to that place, is strangely comforting.

As she is standing there, an invisible camera moves away from her and goes up for the final shot. She looks around as if she wants to take it all in. Then she slowly walks away, her shadow getting incredibly large, like a giant finger pointing towards something far away, across the fields.

She gets smaller and smaller into the picture. Just a spec, a pixel in a noise of pixels. And everything else – the places they shared, the forest, the muddy fields, the farm at the end of the road, the village nearby – is getting smaller and smaller. The world wakes up and all the colors, sounds and smells of life get into the picture as the camera moves away.

The girl dragging her feet glued to a long black shadow has disappeared completely.

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A night in Alfama

The noisy tourists have finally disappeared. They must be having a late dinner in one of the newer, fancier restaurants of the neighborhood. Or having cocktails in a bar overlooking the city. The streets are deserted, apart from the occasional couple walking slowly and holding hands, or an old lady walking a dog.

At night, city streets live a different life. Like a nocturnal animal, they wake up to different sounds, smells and movements. Freed from the layer of agitation and noise brought by humans, they are breathing again.

The locals are living their quiet home life. There are voices and smells of home cooking, but everything is slowly dissolving in the breeze.

From time to time, the breeze picks up. It carries smells of ocean and seaweed, of deadwood floating away to nowhere. Boat lights are flickering on the Tagus river, each of them carrying its own story.

This ancient hilly quarter of Lisbon, where people have left on the ocean never to come back, where lives and loves were lost to famine, plague, fire and war, is not my home. But I feel so much at home here. So much in touch with the thousands of stories slowly unravelling around me.

A cat comes to caress himself against my hand. He looks at me and then he goes away into the dark. Am I accepted into this hidden, almost invisible street life? I am not felt as an intruder? I stay silent and let things be. It’s almost as if I’ve become part of the landscape.

I hear the sound of a cruiseship horn far away. I’ve never been on a cruiseship but it hits me violently. It brings back memories of travelling to unknown places, leaving behind what I love, being left behind by a loved one.

Are these my memories or have I become part of this place and now I am dreaming its dreams? I cannot tell anymore.

Narrow streets are leading down towards the river like torrents on a mountain after a heavy rain. The wind has stopped and everything is still and silent, as if frozen in a picture frame.

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.

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 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.