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.

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.

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.

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.

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.