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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.

Cities in silence: Paris

Paris wasn’t love at first sight for me. There was something about it a bit too imperial and well-to-do for my taste. I felt it was lacking humility.

But I learned to love its silences, shadows, and hidden beauty during long walks. Without the usual tourist crowds, this subtle beauty of abandonment and ruin became even more visible.

Abandonment and decay reveal the vulnerability of things, just as they reveal the vulnerability of people. I don’t take any pleasure in seeing the pain that comes from vulnerability, but there is something honest and raw in showing your wrinkles and bruises.

The steep streets of Montmartre in late afternoon
Wedding photo shoot on the banks of the Seine
The back garden of a house in Montmartre

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.

On the path

Late morning. I walk towards the rising sun. There’s a huge concert of birds all around me. The first bluebells are here, early heralds of what will soon be a deep blue forest cover.

I stop for a drink of coffee and I watch the play of light and shadow.

Being on the move means relaxing into change and transformation. Hiking is learning to enjoy the way things come and go.

I’m a pretty anxious person. There are many things that can get me off tracks. But my anxiety dwindles to almost nothing when I’m hiking. There is something about a forest footpath opening into the unknown. A gentle, subtle energy.

I don’t know where this path is leading and, frankly, I don’t care. I don’t want to arrive anywhere in particular. In fact, I have already arrived. I keep on moving just to stay there, in this space of lightness and flow.

Failures of kindness

I was bullied in primary school by a boy who seemed to really enjoy controlling and humiliating people. I wonder now what his life might have been at home. Did he witness abuse? Was he abused? We find it difficult to believe that kids can be cruel for no particular reason.

A few years later, I turned into a bully myself. It happened one time and there was no physical abuse, just words.

“Just words” – how sadly ironic. I was deeply wounded by words so many times since then.

There was this girl in my class, very shy, always pulling down her blouse as if she needed to cover something shameful. Something invisible that could never be fully covered. She spoke with difficulty. When she did speak, she sounded like a girl much younger than her age. She was never at ease among us.

I don’t know how it came to be but I started making fun of her. Of her speech difficulties. Of her habit of pulling down her blouse. At some point, her mom came to the school and talked to me. She wasn’t aggressive. She asked me why I did it.

I don’t think I was doing very well at the time. I felt lonely, out of place, clumsy, inadequate. I felt unloved. I desperately wanted to be accepted.

I was probably scared too, because I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me.

Every time I remember that girl, there’s a wave of shame and self-contempt washing over me. It seems inconceivable. I never saw myself as a jerk preying on people’s difficulties but for her I surely was one, back then.

Was it the same for my bully from primary school? Was he, above all else, a scared boy hiding from the monsters under his bed? It’s almost impossible to think about him that way, but I simply have to admit the possibility. No matter how outrageous it feels to compare myself with him, I have to at least envisage the possibility that I once was, in somebody’s eyes, exactly what he was for me.

There is something liberating in accepting this possibility. I doubt there can be self-forgiveness or acceptance as long as we remain in the cocoon of our own suffering, disconnected from the suffering of those who were hurt by us.

Alternative stories

The same facts can be the subject of different stories. It matters what story we choose to tell.

Old puppets hanging on the wall in a puppet theatre (Brussels, 2019)

You may think that stories and storytelling are not your thing, but I am not talking about fairy tales. There are many kinds of stories. What do you tell yourself when things don’t work out the way you wanted, despite your best efforts? Is it about you being a failure? Is it about blaming others? Is it about feeling incapable and helpless? Well, this is also part a story. Maybe the most important story there is.

What is the narrative that we keep on telling ourselves (and the world)? Is it a story of helplessness or one of empowerment? One of fear and denial, or one of acceptance?

Are we even aware of the story we are telling? It may be difficult to cut through the smoke of self-deception and wishful thinking.

Self-narratives influence the way we perceive ourselves and the world. They can lift or undermine us. We can become their prisoners, despite having created them. They become so ingrained and normalized that we have a hard time recognizing them for what they are: products, artifacts. Something that was made and can be unmade.


Take Rashomon, the 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The movie focuses on telling and retelling the same event (the murder of a samurai) from different perspectives. The storytellers are a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and other accidental witnesses.

What is interesting about this is not simply the presence of different narratives, but the fact that these narratives can be wildly different. Sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradicting themselves. They highlight the personal circumstances and interests of each storyteller. The bandit does not deny killing the samurai, but claims it happened during a duel over the samurai’s wife. The wife tells everybody she has been raped by the bandit. One of the witnesses, a woodcutter, contradicts both the bandit and the samurai’s wife. However, his story has its own shadows and inconsistencies.

Everyone is a suspect. And everyone has their own story.


The presence of alternative stories does not imply relativism. It simply shows that there is more than one possible way of looking at what happens. It reminds us that stories do not offer accurate descriptions of facts, but interpretations and assumptions about those facts.

In fact, the possibility of having alternative stories is liberating. Both as individuals and as communities, we can question our received stories and we can modify or replace them.

There may be things from our childhood that crystalized themselves, long ago, into a story we kept on telling ourselves. Maybe it’s a story about not being loved. Maybe it’s about being somehow defective. Obviously, the story is rooted in things that happened back then. But there is nothing inevitable or necessary about this particular story.

As long as we keep on telling ourselves the same story, we will continue to behave as if the story were true. The possibility of change appears as soon as we start taking distance from our default narrative and recognize it as a story, not a necessary state of fact.

This is, after all, what different forms of therapy try to do. This is also how most people heal, with or without external help. It all starts with taking distance from what seems to be written in stone and recognizing that it is us doing the writing.

Blend in

Villers-la-Ville, Belgium (2019)

The path is narrowing down. It’s getting late. I lie down among the flowers and the shadows. Waiting for the dark to set in.

Just before sunset, there is this brief moment of clarity and intensity. The colors become more vivid, the sounds of the forest grow louder. Everything is alive, fresh, and crisp.

The wind picks up from time to time. The tree crowns above me are dancing a weird dance.

We’re often afraid of anything that could dissolve our sense of being a separate ego. But right here, the borders and delimitations fade away. I let myself dissolve in the scene. Everything I could possibly say is already said, much clearer, by my surroundings.

My ego cannot really add to this perfect dance. So I blend in like a nocturnal animal.

A storm is coming

The high tide has covered almost the entire beach. Strips of sand are showing up here and there, surrounded by shallow water. I walk across shades of blue.

With each minute, the shades grow a bit darker. It’s late afternoon, but it feels like evening. Only a few people are left on the beach, and they are rushing to get back to their cars. Soon it will be all deserted.

I watch the storm clouds approaching. There’s something hypnotic about the way they move. Incredibly soft, like jellyfish, insinuating themselves ever closer. One moment you have the impression they’re completely still; the next moment you realize they’ve made another leap towards the shore.

There’s silence, as if a sonic wall would stand somewhere between the land and the sea. I can see the electric build-up in the clouds. I can see the heavy curtains of rain. But no sound reaches me.

Soon this space will all be mine.

I will be the king of sandcastles broken down by the rain. Of seaweed strips covering the beach like the innards of an unknown sea animal. Of deadwood brought by the storm, across the waters, from faraway places.

There’s a storm coming, from inside and outside. And I cannot tell anymore where one finishes and the other begins.