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.

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.

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.

Tombstones and wild flowers

The garden looks as if the gardener has left and never came back, but things have continued to grow according to his plans for a while. Then everything started to fade into the unregulated beauty of natural growth.

I’m in the back garden of a small church.

Fallen fruits mingle with wild flowers. Here and there, old tombstones rise from the tall grass as if they’ve grown out of the earth.

Transylvania, the high plateau in the Western part of Romania, is where you can find many wooden churches built from the XVIIth to the XIXth century. They were built as small village churches. However, there is something about them that goes beyond their functional role. Maybe it’s their modesty, despite the disproportionately long, thin towers. Maybe it’s the way they fit into the landscape.

Some of them are still used by the locals, although it tends to be for special occasions.

I am not writing about churches as religious symbols. What I’m interested in is how things created by other people, in different ages, speak to us irrespective of our beliefs. I’m also interested in how human creation interacts with natural landscape, to the point where there’s no clear line of demarcation between the two anymore.

The construction techniques for these churches have evolved to deal with the limitations of the time and context they were built in. Metal was scarce and wood was plentiful, thus the construction was made using as little metal as possible. Sometimes, no metal at all.

If from the outside these churches look like they are about to take off, with their long thin towers pointing towards the sky, the interior looks and feels more like the inside on a villager’s house. Hand-made carpets, sheep furs and a narrow passage towards the altar, as if crossing through the family rooms towards the “good room”, reserved for guests.

But it’s the gardens that attract me the most. Part old cemetery, part orchard, part flower garden, they are full of life. The names on the tombstones are almost erased by rain, wind and the passage of time. The grass grows wild.

In spring and summer, these gardens are full of flowers, some of them cultivated but most of them wild. You cannot really tell where the cultivated part fades into wilderness. Old apple and plum trees punctuate the landscape with their weird shapes, like humpback witches. Their roots reaching deep into the ground, into the ancient tombs and further still.

Alone in the puppet theatre

I wake up suddenly in a place I don’t recognize. As I lie on my back, I look up and I see colors. Like an unfocused lens, I see blurry patterns before I can make out objects. And then it dawns on me. I am still in the puppet theatre where I’ve come last night for the performance.

I cannot remember what happened after the show or how I got to spend the night here. The colors above me are the puppets hanging on the walls of the small theatre room. These are the old puppets, retired after having served in so many plays over the decades. Now they are facing the scene just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience. They can watch the new puppets performing in exactly the same plays they used to do.

Am I dreaming? Did I black out? It’s simply not possible that I’m still there.

I’ve dreamt of this room so many times. Its old wooden beams. Its long wooden benches. Its small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood and dust. The little funny speech of the master puppeteer at the start of the play. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settling down and stopping their whispering.

And then it starts.

It’s funny, you know. You enter this room and you look around and there’s a cynical voice inside wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the play. If your adult mind will still be able to access that state of grace. To enjoy the show. I’m not talking about putting yourself in the shoes of a child. I’m talking about letting yourself be swept over. Looking at what’s happening in that spot of light in front of you with total openness and wonder.

When the play is over, as people go out, the master puppeteer is always there, thanking each of them. He is still using his puppeteer voice when he tells them, with a smile: “If you loved the play, go tell your friends about it. If you didn’t love the play, it stays between us.”

Am I locked in here? Did they simply forget about me at the end of the play?

It’s all so real. I can feel the hard wooden bench I’m lying on. I see the puppets just above. I feel the amazement of being here. It’s dark outside. And there’s that unmistakable smell of old wood and dust.

I close my eyes. I am here, whether it’s in my dream or not. What will be will be.

The story is more than the storyteller

We listen to stories and tell stories as a way of dealing with change, impermanence, fragility and trauma.

Scene from Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Stories connect us with the world by showing what brings us together. They show us that our experience, no matter how particular or bizarre it seems, is part of the broader human experience. That our suffering is not only our own.

Stories are also a way of learning, or relearning, the difference between what is essential and what is not, between what happens on the stage and what really matters, happening backstage.

There are anonymous stories, as most folk tales and fairy tales are, and stories with a known author. But, irrespective of whether the author is known or not, good stories are going beyond the storyteller. They are telling more that the narrator intended to say.

Stories are simultaneously particular and universal. They are about a particular course of events, but they can speak to many people from different circumstances and walks of life. We can relate to them personally. This is not because we recognize ourselves in the concrete elements of the story. It’s because the story tells something that goes beyond its specific plot and context.

The moral of the story may be explicit or not. The story may reward some of its characters for being virtuous or for having proven themselves worthy – or it may not. Regardless, no good story comes with a fixed frame of interpretation. No good story is reducible to a moral message. The possibility of interpreting it and making it part of your own experience, as a reader or a listener, is what makes stories meaningful for so many people.

Take “Seven Samurai”, Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 movie. You may or may not have seen the movie, but it’s very unlikely that you haven’t seen a remake or at least an allusion to it in some other piece of work. From The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Star Wars (1977) to various episodes from recent series such as The Mandalorian, there have been many ways of retelling this story or building on it.

Kurosawa’s movie is about a band of rōnin (masterless samurai) who are hired to defend a village of poor farmers from bandits. It is deceivingly simple. What is beautiful about it, apart from Kurosawa’s unique way of framing the scenes and building the plot, is the underlying story. A story of unplanned human kindness and cooperation in the face of adversity.

These samurai are not pictured as superheroes coming to the rescue. One of them is actually lying about being a samurai just to get hired. Others have their strengths, but also their flaws. They seem like a weird bunch at first.

However, they manage to do, as a group, what none of them could have achieved on his own. I don’t just mean victory against the bandits. They manage to be better together. Braver, more accepting, less selfish. They manage to somehow pool their strengths so that they are mutually reinforcing. To accept each other’s weaknesses so that they don’t undermine their collective quest.

The rōnin are successful in defending the village and getting rid of the bandits once and for all. But this succes comes with a heavy price. Four of them die in the final battle. “We have lost this battle too”, remarks one of the remaining three. “It’s the villagers who have won.”

You could draw some straightforward moral message from all this if you really wanted to. But the story is richer than any possible message or conclusion.

Is this about confronting adversity and managing to hold your ground? Yes. Is it about spontaneous generosity and kindness towards strangers? Yes. Is it about facing your own limits? Sure. It’s about all this and many other things. This is what makes it so powerful. This is what makes it speak to so many people that have never found themselves in those particular circumstances, but recognize themselves in the basic human experiences underlying all this.

A lone tree has fallen

These two photos are separated by more than two years and a half. I’ve taken the first one in the spring of 2019 because I was struck by the image of the lone tree against the moody sky.

It was a cold, humid and moody day. The tree looked like it had been dead for some time. But it stood tall, its branches reaching out for something. Reaching out with no expectation of receiving. The stone wall to the right belongs to a medieval chapel.

I came back in December 2020 and I saw the tree fallen. It hadn’t been cut. It had simply collapsed under its own weight. It fell towards the stone wall, its highest branches reaching over into the chapel courtyard. Its branches are still reaching out, like the human casts of unfortunate citizens of Pompeii, caught by the lava with their hands reaching out for an escape. Just like the first time, it was cold and cloudy.

There is a Romanian folk tale in which the hero goes through all sorts of trials in order to achieve his dream – immortality. When he finally gets back home, victorious from all the battles but jaded and without having achieved his goal, he stumbles upon his own death. The grim reaper had been there all the time, waiting for him – for him and nobody else.

I don’t know why this tree reminded me of this folk tale. Maybe because, in its dry stillness, the tree offered an impression of endurance beyond life, until it collapsed. It projected an image of immortality and it met its own death there, in the field.

“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber. The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The place beyond the forests

Imagine a place where you feel completely at ease. Where you feel alive. Where you can be yourself – including that part of yourself that you ignored for so long.

Is that place your home? Your back garden? Your secret childhood place by the river? That cozy table in your favorite coffee shop? A remote place deep in the wild?

Each of us may have more than one such place. For me, one of them is hidden somewhere in Transylvania, the place beyond the forests.

“Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water.”

This is how Jonathan, Bram Stoker’s protagonist, describes his voyage through Transylvania as he approaches Count Dracula’s castle.

Stoker’s description sounds flattering, but for me it is painfully clear it’s written by somebody who hasn’t actually been there and does not have any personal connection to the place. It is like a cheap painting of an imagined exotic landscape. Bright colors, clear waters, and snow-capped mountain peaks. Of course, for him the landscape was just a makeshift background for his vampire story.

For me it’s different. It is not a postcard. It’s a permanent mark, a solid ground, a wound, a reason for hope, a concentrated solution of life, bitter-sweet. It’s something I always carry in me.

It’s lying in the sun, listening to the distant sound of the sheep bells as the animals move slowly, eating their way through the high planes.

Taking time among free-range horses, waiting for them to trust me and get closer. Petting their neck and watching the vapour of their breath in the crisp morning air.

Taking a break after a long climb through the dense pine forest, to enjoy the view that suddenly opens in front of me. From up here, I can visually retrace my steps through the wild river valley below me.

Standing at the entrance of a cave, feeling the cold breath of the inside of the mountain. Watching the vapors of the ice-cold river as it disappears into the darkness. This river doesn’t look like much, but it has managed to slowly carve its way through hard rock.

Here at the entrance, facing the darkness of the cave, I feel my heart beating faster. Everything is raw and untamed, like this river being furiously sucked inside the mountain. All my senses are awake and I feel fully alive.

What overwhelms me is not the intensity of emotions, the excitement, the adrenaline. It’s the feeling of being completely present with everything that happens, and accepting it.

It’s like standing in front of my own darkness and finally being able to say that I accept everything as it is.