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God in a pressure cooker

I don’t remember what age I was. It must have been somewhere in the fluid and shapeless time of adolescence. I had this dream of a pressure cooker on fire. The cooker was boiling, its lid looking like it’s going to burst open any moment.

Reaching out (Forêt de Soignes, Belgium, 2019)

I had no interest in pressure cookers. Or in cooking, for that matter. What surprised me is how I felt.

I was watching the lid trembling under the enormous pressure gathering beneath it. I was watching the heavy vapor and the foam gathering on the sides of the cooker. Instead of feeling scared, I felt as if inside the cooker there’s a kernel of pure love radiating in all directions. I felt its power as I was standing there, hypnotized.

I’ve never dreamt like this before. I’ve never felt like this before or since.

It was a very detailed and vivid dream, and it was in color. I very rarely dreamt in color, even back then. While most details have disappeared with time, I still remember how it felt to be overwhelmed by this black hole of love, attracting everything in its proximity. Love compressed at incredible density in the metal pot, oozing out under enormous pressure. Unconditional, unlimited, unbound.

Since then, I’ve had my share of powerful moments. Instances of connection, when everything seemed to open and light up.

Sometimes, it happened when hiking in the wild. Sitting in silence close to a river, in a forest opening. Becoming part of the scene, to the point where the borders between me and the surroundings became blurry.

Sometimes, it happened when opening the window in the morning and taking the first breath of fresh air. That moment of absolute silence and clarity.

Sometimes, it happened with a lover. Watching the light reflecting off her skin in the dark. Getting drunk on her taste and smell. Hear her whispering in my ear, out of control.

Sometimes, it happened when dancing. That feeling of lightness and flow. That weird, intimate connection with a dance partner you’ve never met before – and maybe you’ll never meet again.

Since I had that dream, I’ve been in love and I’ve been loved. But that feeling of being overpowered by pure love never came back. Not even in dreams.

Break of dawn

It’s still dark. As soon as I get out of the car, my breath turns to vapors in the freezing air. I leave the car behind as if I would leave the safety of a boat and launch myself into the open ocean. But this is why I’m here.

The narrow path takes me across the high rocks overlooking the river. The first sun rays hit the rocks but the river remains in the dark.

I imagine all the life down there, the silver fish flashing by in the cold water, the beavers slowly moving about and adding branches to their dam, the deer coming out of the forest to have a drink of water. The beating heart of the forest, still undisturbed by human presence.

Most of the trees have lost all leaves during the winter, but a few of them have miraculously kept their leaves. In the golden sunlight, they light up red-orange. It’s the afterlife of leaves shining bright for one moment. A string of fires punctuating the river valley.

Everything is clear in my head, but the clarity is so intense that it almost burns. There’s a howl somewhere in the distance and I feel a sudden pang of pain, as if it’s me howling through that animal. As if it’s the howling of all creatures under the sun.

But there’s no time for feeling low. Not here and now. I have this whole day in front of me, I have the sun in my eyes and the birds are singing their sunrise song all around.

Revealing and hiding ourselves

Writing and photography are ways of revealing ourselves. We’re longing to make ourselves known, but we’re also frightened to reveal too much. As if this would make any difference in the world.

Sunrise in Foret de Soignes (Belgium, 2020). Photo by the author.

Some things cannot be said directly because they would expose us too much. Some others cannot be said because we don’t know how to express them, although we know there’s something worth saying. So we play in the foggy marshes of fiction, metaphor and allegory. We use words and images that uncover a bit and hide a lot.

I would like to be able to take off all the masks and, for once, just say who I am. You know, like handing a business card to somebody: this is who I am. But it’s not that easy. No matter how open I’d try to be, I would probably end up telling a story about myself. I would still remain hidden beneath it.

But I’ll give it a try anyway.

I am a man in his 40s. An introvert. The father of a 10yo boy. A dancer. A photographer. An expat.

(You see, even some of these short sentences sound strange to me. Man in his 40s? I never think about me like this. I am a young adult frozen in time. Expat? It’s not how I label myself at all.)

I started taking photos about three years ago, as a way of recording (and then sharing) what was happening in my long walks in the wild.

I have written for a long time, but it was for an audience of one: myself. Journaling my life. I also wrote professionally, mostly academic papers. There, there was an international audience, but the writing was impersonal. The papers had some impact, but they could have been written by so many others with similar interests.

When I get tired of it all, I spend some time in the wild. It brings me back to life.

I try to be a good dad, but I often feel like a kid myself. A kid with insecurities and with a huge need of affection and reassurance.

I tend to judge myself harshly and put a lot of pressure on myself. I am often anxious.

I get more and more aware of time. Of its passing. I try to make it count. I mostly fail at this but I keep trying.

Darkness my friend

It got dark in the forest. I left the river behind and I’m climbing. I can hear my heart beating fast. I can hear the forest living its night life.

Down by the river (Belgium, 2021). Photo by the author.

In the dark, my senses become hyper-acute. We’re so dependent on light that we instinctively cling to it and gravitate towards it. We use any remaining shred of light to reassure ourselves.

But we can also let go of light and relax in the dark for a while. What a thing – to let go of certainty and control.

What’s the worst that can happen? Seeing that everything still works despite us not being there to control it?

Being deep in the forest at night is like letting all defenses down and facing myself. There’s no protection but still I feel strangely protected. I cannot tell what will happen but I am fine with it. Be as it may.

I am climbing my way up in the dark and bumping into bushes and rocks. I hear sounds all around me. There’s no need to look back. I know I’m safe here.

The forest has the eyes of a mother.

Snowed in

Alone on the mountain. I’ve been hiking for a few hours. I can only hear my breathing and the sound of my steps in the snow.

It started around lunch. At first hesitant, a few snowflakes here and there. Then settling in, with a constant but calm snow fall all through the afternoon. Then fully unbound, with ridiculously big snowflakes. Like a thick white curtain blowing in the wind.

Winter up high. Sinaia (Romania), January 2018.

My mountain trail should have taken 5-6 hours to complete, but it became more and more difficult to advance through the fresh snow. I’ve lost, then found, then lost again the trail markers. It was late afternoon and I just stopped, with no plan and no hope to get back down before nightfall.

Half-frozen, I took refuge in a shack used by shepherds during the summer, as they travel slowly across the mountain range with their flock. The shack smelled of old wood and sheep skin. It smelled of loneliness.

I always have problems sleeping in a place I don’t know, but here I’ve dozed off almost instantly. It may have been my mind refusing to confront the situation. I say sleep but it felt more like falling into a bottomless pit. As if my mind completely shut off. There was dark, with only distant echoes of what would normally have been dreams.

And then there was light.

The light was coming from a small, dirty window pane.

It took me a minute to gather myself and realize where I am. The fright and confusion of last night seemed like distant memories. I was fully clothed and wrapped in a sheep-smelling blanket.

I stepped outside. Blinded by the light, I took in the cold air. Everything felt fresh, as if just created. I was ready to take my first step in the virgin snow.

Just as when I was little, I silently said “me” to remind myself that I am actually existing here and now. And, just as when I was little, I got dizzy from actually realizing this.

Out of the frame

Photography is as much about what we include in the frame as about what we leave out of it.

I think the point applies to much more than photography.

Protection. Eifel National Park, Germany, 2018.

What we call focus is not only about the thing we focus on. Monomaniacs are very focused persons but they’re dysfunctional. What they lack is the capacity to change focus and decide what they need to leave out of their mental frame.

It’s not so much the ability to keep our attention on a subject that differentiates us. It’s the capacity to choose our focus, shift our focus and choose what to ignore. This involves self questioning, self restraint, and the ability to differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s not.

There’s a whole world out there and we are looking at it through a tiny mental viewfinder. This is our in-built limitation, but it’s also a gift.

At the end of the day, for anything we set out to do, the clarity of our focus will largely depend on what we decide to keep out of the frame.

What are stories good for?

Apart from the personal enjoyment we derive from telling or listening to stories, there may be other benefits for both the storytellers and their public.

Puppeteers appearing on the stage together with their puppets at the end of a show (Brussels, 2019). Puppets make great storytelling devices, despite their deceptive simplicity.

I’ve written before about the purpose stories may serve, and their capacity to speak to us as if they were written for us.

Stories are shared fictions. In contrast with other shared fictions, such as political ideologies, we accept them as fictions. We don’t take them at face value.

What speaks to us is not their literal truth or resemblance to reality, but their capacity to transmit things we consider valuable. Such things can include an intuitive understanding of complex life situations or an appreciation of social values such as cooperation and fairness.

“The story — from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace — is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (Ursula Le Guin)

While the individual benefits of storytelling seem obvious, we don’t think too often about its possible collective benefits.

In an experiment conducted in 18 villages of the Agta community in the Philippines, investigators asked people to vote for the best storytellers in their group. Then they were asked to play a resource allocation game, in which they were given tokens that could be exchanged for rice. They could keep these tokens for themselves or offer them to other members of their camp.

The experiment showed that “camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers, were associated with increased levels of cooperation” – meaning more tokens offered to the community.

A second experiment, carried out shortly after, showed that storytellers were more likely to be chosen by community members as people with whom they would be happy to live. Out of the 857 people designated as preferred life partners by their community, those who had been identified as good storytellers in the previous experiment were nearly twice as likely to be chosen as those who were not. Interestingly, storytellers were often selected as potential life partners over people who were known as good hunters or foragers.

This resonates with our intuitive understanding of the power of stories to change mindsets and behaviors.

As a species, we know only too well how toxic stories can be mobilized to gather people under the same flag and make them do things that would otherwise seem unacceptable to them. It’s high time we focused on the positive potential of storytelling.

How to be completely miserable in five easy steps

Unless you’re living in a cave, it is impossible to avoid the assault of online self-improvement advice. It’s all over and it covers everything from stress management to changing habits. Pearls of wisdom are overflowing from all corners of the internet.

Couple on holiday (Lisbon, 2019)

I don’t know about you, but for me this continuous flow of (mostly) unrequested advice makes me want to break something. I mean, I can live with the fact that so many people feel entitled to give advice. But often the advice is just generic stuff regurgitated from other sources. You can immediately tell when you stumble upon pompous bullshit.

Instead of breaking stuff, I will offer my own advice on how to be utterly and completely miserable.

I am well aware that many of us manage extremely well to be miserable without any external help. However, I feel that additional structure and reasoning can only improve the quality of one’s misery.

I. Follow all the possible advice on how you can improve yourself. This will offer a unique opportunity to feel inadequate, as it’s simply impossible to assemble it in a coherent whole that actually benefits you. To add insult to injury, you will also feel like a total loser for not staying the course. For not mastering self-control in five weeks, like this random guy that offers you a discount on his course on self-control.

II. Get into arguments on social media. Everybody knows that this is how people change their opinions – by being lectured or insulted online by strangers.

III. Publish everything you create (be it writing, photography, drawing, music, anything really). Then agonize over the lack of sufficient validation in the form of likes, comments, shares, or anything else you tend to consider a sign of interest or appreciation.

IV. Be harsh on yourself over every little perceived failure. Tell yourself that you are simply unable to get it right. Don’t let it slide. Squeeze all possible self-loathing out of it.

V. Don’t be satisfied with current failures. Dwell on the past and replay mentally your moments of low and embarrassment. This will ensure that, rather than going through the normal process of gaining perspective and healing, you have the chance of keeping these wounds open.

There it goes. Actionable advice for both amateur and professional self-saboteurs. My modest contribution, based on personal experience, to the underrepresented field of self-undermining therapy.

Crossing lines and dead leaves

A morning walk in the forest. The fresh snow fallen during the night simplifies and clarifies what would otherwise be a busy, grey landscape.

I stopped in this small clearing. Everything is silent. The rusty leaves of last summer are still hanging on, like a nostalgic tune. The background retains some of the mist and snow dust of early morning.

This door was open only for you

There are visible doors that remain closed forever. And there are invisible doors that become visible only when they close.

Once upon a time, a man from the countryside wanted to get access, through a guarded door, to law (or justice). However, every time he tried to get in, the doorkeeper told him he cannot let him in just yet. The man was being told that getting access to law was possible. Months passed, then years, but the door remained closed.

The man started bribing the doorkeeper and he spent everything he had just to be able to return to the gate with an ever higher bribe. The man got old. Just before dying, he asked the doorkeeper why he never saw anybody else trying to enter through that door, since all people seem to be seeking the law. The doorkeeper replied:

“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

There’s something haunting about this story, first published by Franz Kafka in 1915 and then included in his novel “The Trial”. And even if you can’t quite put your finger on it, you recognize and react instinctively to its strangeness.

It’s as if looking inside a deep, endless well. As if looking inside yourself.

It reminded me of a Romanian folk tale I’ve mentioned a few weeks ago. The tale starts like many other tales, with a hero embarking on a personal quest. In this case, the hero sets out to find immortality. But as the story advances, things turn dark and unpredictable. Although the hero emerges victorious from all the fights and traps he finds along the way, he does not find what he’s looking for. When he returns home, he finds Death itself waiting for him. But it’s not the Grim Reaper of everybody and nobody in particular. It is his own Death, waiting just for him.

Like any good story, Kafka’s parable is open to interpretations. Is it about justice, state authority, the crushing power of impersonal rules? Yes, but not only. Is it about alienation? Yes, but not only. The story is richer than any particular interpretation or moral message you could draw from it.

Maybe that’s what stories do. They speak about doors – about change, transformation, passage to something different. But they are not necessarily meant to help you open that door, only to make you realize it’s your door.