Follow the river

It’s 6:15 and I start my trail in the forest, along the river. Morning mist hovers over the water. The air is crisp and fresh.

I woke up before 5. Having prepared almost everything the evening before, I only needed a few minutes to prepare lots of coffee, wash and brush my teeth. Not yet fully awake, I took off for a one-hour drive to the south of Belgium. I wanted to be there at sunrise.

I try to keep my balance on the narrow trail, on the steep forested river valley. I can hear countless birds singing at the same time. I can hear my breathing. As it starts to get warmer, the smells of the forest wake up. My olfactive memory recognize some of the smells and instantly connects emotionally to them. Some others are intriguing and feel almost alien.

I stop to have a drink of coffee. Despite the little sleep I’ve had, I am aware of every little thing I do. What sometimes seems so damn difficult – to stay anchored in the present and just be with whatever arises – now happens effortlessly. The vapors of the hot coffee dance in front of my eyes. They mingle with the river mist.

From time to time, the trail disappears in the thick vegetation and reappears a few meters ahead. There are no trail signs and markers, and the GPS does not identify anything and cannot guide me. I just follow the meanders of the river. I go with the flow.

It’s not the first time I wake up very early so I can start my trip in the wild before sunrise. I never regretted it. There is something strange and beautiful happening at this time of the day. Something replenishing. Even the quality of our solitude and of our dialogue with ourselves is different. Everything is more in focus, more salient, and clearer.

The first sunrays find their way through the trees. A new day is here. I’m fully awake.

The disconnected hand

As a kid, my handwriting was quite pleasant to the eye. Childish, with big rounded letters, but easy to read and fluent.

At some point during puberty or pre-adolescence, this changed. My writing became uneven and nervous, I had problems connecting some of the letters, and the lines were never really parallel. It was the handwriting of somebody going through an emotional storm.

When I was agitated or nervous, it was almost impossible to write anything legibly. I usually had to restart several times. Even so, the end result looked like crap.

Although I was worried about what I perceived as an acquired inability to use and control my hand properly, I didn’t speak to anyone about it. My way of dealing with it was to avoid handwriting as much as I could. By then, avoidance and self-blame were already deeply-rooted mechanisms that intervened almost everywhere in my life.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the transformation of my handwriting had nothing to do with my hand, my writing skills, or the lack of any particular ability. It was a symptom of problems of attachment and self-esteem that went way back into early childhood. Writing was just one of the ways in which the problem manifested itself, demanding my attention, telling me not to look away.

But I did look away. I was not prepared to look beyond my trembling, nervous hand. In front of others, I made fun of my “doctor’s handwriting” as a way of explaining myself.

Sometimes, the frustration with my inability to write legibly was so big that I was caught in a compulsive loop of writing a few words, getting annoyed at the slightest slip of my hand in drawing a letter and restarting with a new sheet of paper. Over and over again. As my frustration grew, the chances of actually getting those words on paper were diminishing. My hand felt like an enemy, simply refusing to cooperate or turning against me when I expected it the least.

I was blocked in my own perceived failure. That perception worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the probability of error and reinforcing the idea that I’m unable to do it. I could not accept failure. I could not accept the situation. I could not accept myself.

Not being able to perceive or accept things as they are here and now is the core of dysfunctional self-narratives – the stories we keep on tell ourselves, although they paint a distorted picture of our current situation and thus undermine our attempts to build healthy coping mechanisms.

For me, the problem was not that my handwriting was ugly or hardly legible. The problem was that I felt unable to just let it be and keep on writing. I was unable to accept that part of me that manifested itself through this tortured writing. I resented it and wanted to keep on suppressing it. My handwriting was a symptom of disconnection from my own body and emotions.

I never managed to “solve” the problem in the sense of having nice handwriting. But some things changed over time. These things reframed and transformed the problem to the point where I am hardly bothered by it anymore.

As I grew older, handwriting was less and less required in situations such as exams or writing formal letters. This diminished the probability of getting caught in that obsessive-compulsive loop of rewriting. It took away the stress. With no pressure to perform, my handwriting became more relaxed, fluent, and legible.

But the most important thing that changed was acceptance. My writing was not meant to conform to my idea of what nice handwriting is. It was what it was – a manifestation of my whole being. I needed to take it as such.

Acceptance is not a purely intellectual act. It is an integration of reason and emotions. You may be well aware of how you should feel or act but still feel differently. My inability to accept my “ugly” writing had little to do with handwriting. What I resented was that part of myself that cried for attention and expressed itself through my writing. It was a part of me I had constantly suppressed.

Only when there was enough acceptance and detachment, my handwriting slowly started to manifest this change. Only when I started owning my writing, along with that part of me that I resented, the problem began to transform. I felt more able to act upon it. It felt more manageable and, somehow, less important.

Some problems are unsolvable if we get stuck in them. Sometimes, solving a problem means reframing it. Becoming aware of what is behind it and how it is connected to other things that matter to us. Then acting upon them.

Sanctuary

We have always needed places of refuge and protection from others and from ourselves. Without them, our individual and social wellbeing is threatened.

The Abbey of Villers-la-Ville is a 40-minutes drive from Brussels, Belgium. Built in the 12th century, the abbey was abandoned in 1796 and fell into ruin. At the height of its power, it was said to host 100 monks and another 300 men who were not formally bound by the vows of the Cistercian order. Like many other places of its kind, the abbey functioned not only as a place of worship but also as a sanctuary.

Terminologically, sanctuary refers to a sacred place or a container of a sacred object. Its meaning has evolved to refer to places that offer protection to those who need it: heretics, political opponents, all sorts of persons persecuted for their beliefs or practices.

Sanctuaries were usually designated areas within or around churches and abbeys. Under certain conditions, people could take refuge within their walls. They were hosted and fed until the danger passed. They were protected until they could return home or continue on their way.

For most of our history, the idea that persons have individual rights that need to be publicly protected was a weird notion. Rights were a result of status or function, and compliance with rights was subject to the whims of local or central power. In fact, long after individual rights have been recognized by law, we’re still a long way from ensuring that they are actually respected.

The idea of sanctuary derives from a basic need for understanding and empathy. Its premise is that we can all be subject to persecution or oppression. We may not fully understand the others’ ordeal, but we realize that they need protection. We also realize that we could be in their place. That is why we need places of refuge that can accommodate different individual circumstances.

Sanctuaries are complex institutions. They may have moral authority, but they often do not have the legal and political power to enforce compliance. Even when they have some degree of political power, as in the case of US cities that disregarded Trump’s sociopathic immigration policy, they need to confront a higher political power.

Nevertheless, sanctuaries work. They rely on acts of courage and kindness that build upon one another and become examples for others.

But oppression is not always external. We also need to take a break from ourselves – from our relentless self-criticism and blaming. We need shelter and protection from our demons. We need a space of acceptance and non-judgment where we can rest and recharge.

Inner sanctuaries are difficult to create and maintain. For some of us, childhood offers good premises for emotional self-regulation and a solid sense of self-worth and agency. For others, these premises are shaky. They struggle with trauma, depression, and low self-esteem. Reinforcing these premises is the work of a lifetime.

Most forms of therapy and self-care rely on the creation or restoration of this inner sanctuary. Before we can do something about our problems, we need to stop identifying with them. Before we can act, we need to restore a sense of autonomy and agency.

As our circumstances change, our sanctuaries may need to change too. They may need to be reinvented. But our need for spaces of refuge and protection – whether from outside persecution or the ghosts of our mind – is here to stay.

Disconnected

When I started this blog, I was in a bad place. I was deeply depressive and couldn’t see a way out of it. I had a hard time staying in the present. I felt uneasy with myself and in my own body. I had a compulsive drive to go back to what triggered this depression and relive everything over and over again.

I felt extremely vulnerable, as if my skin had been peeled off and I was exposed to the elements. I often felt helpless about what was happening to me. Emotions, bodily reactions, moods – they were all out of sync and seemingly beyond my control. The feelings of guilt and loss were overwhelming. I felt there must be something seriously wrong with me for being so vulnerable and unable to get myself together.

Although my posts sometimes refer to this period, I haven’t started the blog as a sort of self-therapy (although I guess it serves that purpose too). The details of my experience, no matter how twisted, are not important beyond my particular case.

What is important, beyond myself, is to understand how we lose ourselves. How we get disconnected from our body and our emotions. How trauma works. How we build self-stories that are supposed to help but end up reinforcing our dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors. How we react to the present through the lens of the past. How we delude ourselves and become prisoners of our delusion. And how incredibly difficult it is to take distance from our toxic story and replace it with something that is anchored in the present and helpful.

So when I say, as written on my blog homepage, that I am interested in how stories work, it’s not an academic interest in the technicalities of storytelling. For me, what counts is the concrete human experience of living in our own story. And transforming that story – sometimes.

We live in our story in the sense that there are beliefs and assumptions that become so deeply ingrained in our mind that they drive our emotions and behaviors without us realizing it. They take hold of us and drive us. They make us disconnect from the here and now. They make us react to what is happening now according to a script that was created in the past, as a way of coping. This way of coping has stopped being useful a long time ago, but we return to it as if under a spell.

We return because these scripts become our behavioral defaults, the go-to response when something triggers a strong emotional reaction and reactivates our story.

Understanding cannot do miracles. It’s one thing to understand your self-narrative, it’s quite a different thing to transform it. But there can be no transformation without insight.

And, who knows, this may also help others look at their own story with a different eye.

Cities in silence: Brussels

I’ve done this short series that I called “Cities in silence”. It’s the silence of cities devoid of people, withdrawn, turned towards themselves. There is a certain nostalgic beauty to it. The last in this series is Brussels.

This is the place where it can rain for a whole week and winter winds chill you to the bone. It’s the place where – depending on your mood – local administration and politics can either make you laugh hysterically or drive you crazy with its absurdity.

But it is also the place where you can meet people from all over the world. Where you sit on ancient oak benches and savor a Trappist beer, produced by the monks themselves. Where you can watch the night sky laying down on the pavement of Grand Place, the central city square, around which the whole city developed through centuries. Where you can discover little bits of the old city in unexpected places.

These places have known plague, war, famine and despair. 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.

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.

For now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Barely moving but alive. I can hear its breathing beneath medieval pavement stones and rundown building fronts.

You can also read the other two posts in this series, about Paris and Lisbon.

Chosen paths and dead ends

We usually talk of dead ends metaphorically. What we mean is that something didn’t work out. We feel we cannot continue along a certain path. But sometimes dead ends are real endpoints – there is nothing beyond them and we cannot turn back either. And while there may be warnings along the way, there’s no gradual build-up to this moment, no preparation and no obvious red flag.

A few years ago, during a visit to my home country, I took a day trip in the mountains. It was a sunny and cold January morning. I caught a very early train, then the first cable car going up. Around 9:30 I was already on the high plateau, enjoying the view all around me. Snowy valleys to the left and the right. Silence. Hardly anybody else around, for as far as I could see.

View of the valleys and distant mountain ranges from the high plateau

I wandered around for a while with no plan, freezing but happy. When I realized that it’s getting late and I have a train to catch, I chose one trail that was supposed to take me to the train station in about 4 hours.

As I discovered soon enough, this trail was closed during the winter. I passed by several warning signs, thinking whether to go up all the way back and take another path. Each time, I decided to go on. It was less a matter of careful reasoning as much as a combination of overconfidence, unwillingness to go all the way back up, and sheer inertia.

At first, the hike was pleasant. The snow was frozen, which helped me advance faster. On the steeper areas, I could follow the trail created by previous climbers and step on the shoe marks dug in the snow. I took out my camera. I was at ease. From time to time, the trail opened up to reveal the whole valley and the huge drop separating me from the villages below.

Frozen snow

But then the shoe marks disappeared. I could only follow the trail by the trail signs and posts, and they were few and far in between. I was descending in zigzag on a steep slope that was almost never exposed to the sun, and thus the snow was frozen solid.

For a while, I could still advance slowly, making sure each foot is firmly in place before I move the other. Then it all grinded to a halt. I could not go forward because the slope was too steep, and I couldn’t go back because the simple gesture of turning around could have broken my unstable balance.

The first part of the descent. Looking back at where I’ve started from.

Ahead of me lied a portion of 30 meters or so with no trees, no bushes, no rocks, nothing to hold on to. All of a sudden, I looked around me and I felt like walking on a tight rope above the abyss. Clinging to a slope that got steeper without me realizing it. The slope was opening, to my right, into a straight drop into the valley.

Seen from the outside, there are several possible exits from such a situation. I could have walked backwards, retracing my steps in the snow. I could have searched in my backpack for something I could use to dig in the snow. But our brain works differently under stress. It’s not that I could not envisage all these possibilities. It’s that they seemed irrelevant to me. There was only one thing I felt I needed to do: to cross the 30 meters of ice in front of me and reach the tree on the other side.

And so I did – otherwise I won’t be here writing this. But they were the most labour-intensive 30 meters that I ever walked. I dug and clawed my way forward, not knowing if I’ll be able to keep my balance on the next step. Before placing each step, I had to hit a dozen times in the frozen snow in order to dig a small indentation that could support my weight. It wasn’t the digging that took most of my energy; it was trying to control the trembling of my legs, so I don’t lose my grip.

Although I was fully immersed in digging my way forward, somewhere at the back of my mind I kept on watching myself as if from the outside. I thought about the stupidity of dying on the mountain, after having bypassed so many warnings. One more metal cross on these lonely slopes. I was not sad. There was something slightly amused and ironic in how I regarded myself: “So that’s how it happens.”

The whole thing did not take more than 20-25 minutes, but it felt like forever. I got to the tree on the other side and I held on to it as you would with somebody who pulled you out of the water when you were about to drown. The rest of the descent was uneventful. I got to the train station in time. In a few hours, I was back in my hotel room, seemingly far away from the cold and the drama.

The crossing. The photo was taken just after having reached the other side. Obviously, photo focus was not my priority.

Up there, I was close to facing a real dead end. And this made me think, later on, about how the world would have looked like without me. The simple answer is that it would have looked exactly the same. The sun would have risen just the same, the people would have gone on about their lives just the same. Everything I was doing or planning to do – the earth would have kept on spinning without it.

Back then, this realization used to fill me with sadness and discouragement, as if it showed my own insignificance. I saw what happened as being about me, my life, my impact on the world. We all have a hungry and demanding ego.

Now I tend to see it as a liberation. Like lifting a burden from my shoulders. What a relief that the world does not depend on any of us. We can simply continue doing what we are doing for the sake of it, for the pleasure of it. The change it may bring is for us to try but, ultimately, not for us to decide.

Cities in silence: Lisbon

Home is a state of mind. I’ve never lived in Lisbon but everytime I go there I feel like I belong.

Maybe it’s the light. There’s a special quality to the light of this city. The way it gently embraces everything. The lightness and openness it creates. I miss waiting for sunrise somewhere in Alfama, as the locals slowly start going about their day around me.

Maybe it’s the people. From my first visit, I felt this easiness of relating to people on the street. Like going back to the place where I was born and wandering around. Nobody would know me after all this time, but I would still feel at home. Strangely enough, I feel the same here.

Or maybe it’s the narrow back streets of old Lisbon. The calm joy of a summer afternoon, when everything seems deserted but, if you stop and listen, you will hear the humming of life all around.

Being at home away from home.

Taking photos with the body

Taking photos depends on moving, exploring, changing the perspective. Approaching possible photo compositions and subjects from different angles. Dancing around them to find a good composition. Waiting for the good moment. It’s physical.

Foggy morning in the Belgian countryside / April 2021

I used to favor zoom lenses. It was convenient to be able to zoom in and frame from a distance. But my way of approaching scenes and subjects has changed. I’m more interested in what can be captured using my feet, my hands and my whole body. I rarely feel like changing the focal length.

This has little to do with the technical advantages of prime lenses. It’s more about the physical experience of taking a photograph and the way I position myself in relation to the subject.

Novice archers used to learn that the bow and arrow were an extension of their body. Great archers were perfecting the art of being one with their bow. Likewise, the camera is an extension of the body. The body is the one having the experience worth capturing. It is also the one positioning itself in time and space to take that shot.

When I say body, I mean the whole living, feeling, and thinking organism.

Using the camera as an extension of a living body changes the experience of taking photos. It’s a subtle change. It has to do with taking responsibility, being present, putting in the effort.

It has to do with accepting ourselves in our own body and accepting the results of our effort as they are.

The ghosts sleep tonight

I woke up suddenly in the dark. Somebody had just called my name. Was I dreaming?

A long time ago, when I was living at my grandma’s and I couldn’t sleep, I used to listen to the noises coming from the attic. Mice looking for food. I knew that, but I couldn’t help imagining other things going on at night. Things that materialized when the conditions were right and began manifesting themselves in the world. Things that were not exactly alive but could make themselves felt among the living.

All those stepping noises, all that creaking, all those corn cobs rolling on the floor like heavy cylinders. I was lying back and staring at the ceiling, trying to convince myself that it’s all coming from mice. Under the thick blanket, I didn’t move, I didn’t make a sound. I just waited for it to stop.

Sometimes I felt brave enough to climb the stairs leading into the attic during the day. Even then, the strangeness and fear didn’t leave me. The attic was full of things from the past, from newspapers and books to wooden household items. The way light traveled through the attic was also strange. Some parts were heavily lighted, but most of it remained in the dark. There seemed to be no in-between.

I never knew when these ghosts would decide to manifest themselves. Several nights could pass in relative silence. Then, all of a sudden, the whole attic would come alive in the dark.

I am lying awake, staring at the ceiling. I haven’t seen that attic in a long, long time, but somehow I didn’t really leave it behind. I carry it around, above my head. Those undead things making weird noises may have changed, and new ones may have appeared. Lost love, rejection, isolation, sadness, vulnerability, shame, guilt. They still live upstairs. Sometimes they decide to throw a party. And I still feel like clutching under the blanket and not moving until it all goes away.

Over time, I’ve grown to know these ghosts. To recognize their presence, even when I cannot look directly at them. To call them by their name. Sometimes, to challenge them and invite them in. To climb the stairs to the attic and stay there, in the narrow spotlight under the windowpane, surrounded by darkness.

I listen to the monotonous sound of the rain. Straight above me, a single, narrow line of blueish light extends across the ceiling. It points out towards darkness, like a sword drawn out to protect against an invisible enemy.

Tonight, the ghosts are sleeping. I can hear their heavy breathing underneath the rain.