“I’ve had the time of my life”

That song has been playing in my head for days because I am actually having the time of my life. Again. At long last and at my own disbelief.

Vanessa Paradis and Romain Duris doing their own “Dirty Dancing” to the orginal movie’s soundtrack in “Heartbreaker”.

Before leaving for my summer destination, I knew this trip was going to be a decisive one for me. I didn’t know how. What I did know was that I was going to have to face several of the foes who had so weakened me over the past year. After a heavy dozen months, I truly feared this unavoidable encounter. I felt any new attack on my person might bring me to my knees. And so, I entered the lion’s den with my head held high and a smile on my face, and contrary to all my expectations, I found the lions had reverted to the state of cubs. No swords were drawn, no venom spewed. I glided between the hurdles rather than jumping over them and I made my way out safely, gracefully and unscathed. I came out liberated and relieved, yet no battles had been fought and won. There simply had been no battle. Silence and polite smiles, however insincere, rid me of a burden that had been weighing me down for so many months.

Taken from art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Out I came, and on I went to stay with dear friends who took my hand and gave me their support, encouragement and, above all, faith that I could create again. The elusive faith in myself I had had so much of in the past, was slowly coming back. Day after day, we worked on my project for a screenplay, we discussed the storyline, the characters, the music, the atmosphere of the film. Its magical story was born in my mind three years ago, but had never quite taken shape. And with each answered question, with each detail analysed, my life force was coming back to me. Inch by inch, my self-esteem was growing, my posture was changing and my light started shining again. I thus spent precious days and nights on a beautiful island, immersed in a universe I was creating with the help of my friends, encountering exceptional individuals who were adding to the experience. And then on I went again, with the energy of Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear as he shouts out: “To infinity… and beyond!”

Buzz Lightyear in “Toystory”

Since then, I have been on an amazing ride, shedding burdens and wrinkles, worries and doubts, with each step I take. Where I had come to feel invisible, hidden under layers of self-doubt, disappointment, hurt and exhaustion, I am coming back to life, and how it shows! People are opening doors for me (both literally and figuratively), men and women alike are smiling at me, friends and acquaintances are showering me with invitations. I could say it feels like I am 27 again, and yet it’s not quite that. This is just as exhilarating, but I have left naivety behind and just kept my undying idealism.

To be sure, this fabulous phase will pass, as have the heavy ones. But I am tasting each drop of this sweet nectar, which I sometimes doubted I would ever taste again. Once more in my life, I am Woman. Not A woman, not ANY woman. Woman. The one I discovered hidden inside me when I moved to Montreal. The one who had sprung from the starry-eyed exuberant little girl I once was. The one who is reconnecting with her intellect, her emotions and her body.

Illustration by Tijana Djapovic (c) of my storybook character “Leona” loosely based on my childhood self

A few months ago, I wrote of the gratitude I knew I should feel, but couldn’t. Today, I can. I am grateful for each person who has been crossing my path these last few weeks and igniting fire after fire, whether in my mind or my soul. I am even more grateful to all who have been with me, walking alongside me, during these heavy months. Today, I don’t only know that I am blessed, I can feel it too.

And so, I end this reflection on a contented note. Whatever Life has thrown my way or gifted me with lately, I have always known the sun would shine on me again. Now it has and it is. And I am oh so grateful.

(Title: Song written by J. De Nicola, D. Markowitz, F. Previte in “Dirty Dancing”)

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“There are no strings on me”

We live in an era of absolute interconnectedness. We know it and read about it everywhere. We know what each of our contacts (using the term “friend” here would belittle its true meaning) is doing every day. We constantly receive messages on our various messengers, we let everyone know where we are with our locating devices, we call each other to exchange trivial titbits that aren’t worth the effort it takes to call the person in question.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Decades ago, when people were starting to get mobile phones, I remember waiting for a bus in Paris, seeing everyone at the bus stop texting or calling whoever, and thinking: “Phones have now replaced cigarettes.” Until then, when you were stuck in a situation where you could do nothing but wait, most people would take out their packet of cigarettes and light one to pass the time. That was already what mobile phones were becoming for us 20 years ago: not a means to communicate, but one to pass the time. This tendency has, of course, become the rule since the appearance and complexification of smart phones, making us feel that using them is truly useful, if not necessary. When actually, we often just use them to pass the time and avoid boredom.

Meanwhile, the great majority of people have most likely rarely felt as alone as they do now. One of the texts that best represents this feeling for me are the lyrics of the song “One against another” (“Les uns contre les autres”) in the Franco-Québécois legendary 1970s rock opera “Starmania”. In it, the robotic waitress sings:

“We sleep one against another
We live with one another
We caress each other, we cuddle each other
We understand each other, we comfort each other
But in the end, we realise
We’re always all alone in the world

“We dance with one another
We run one after another
We hate each other, we tear each other apart
We destroy each other, we desire each other
But in the end, we realise
We’re always all alone in the world”

“One against another” in its original version for the rock opera “Starmania”

Considering this text was written by Luc Plamondon to Michel Berger’s heart wrenching minor chords decades before the 21st Century, one could argue that people have always felt – and been – alone. This is a universal truth after all: we are born alone, we die alone, and in a way, we experience everything in between alone as well. We are alone in that no one will ever walk in our shoes, nobody else will have had exactly the life that each of us has. In that sense, we are alone in life and in death, as no one can truly understand what each of us is going through.

But in view of this, we have two choices. Either we can try to share what goes on inside us and empathise with one another, or we can rejoice in the fact that we are free to be who we are, knowing that there is no copy of us anywhere. We are not tied down by other people’s needs, wishes, wants unless we choose to be. This is Pinocchio’s philosophy:

“I’ve got no strings to hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings, but now I’m free
There are no strings on me”

When you live in an interconnected society, your everyday decisions and actions are affected by others. Planning anything, doing anything, becomes a complicated and tiring affair. The simplest deed becomes a juggling act, never knowing how many balls might be added in the process. Again, like in “Pinocchio” when other marionettes join him, we get tangled in all the strings surrounding us and find ourselves unable to move.

Reflecting on all of this, I also remember a ghost village I visited in the Balkans years ago. It was probably last inhabited about a hundred years ago and the structure was fascinating to me. The village was made up of circles: one for each family. In the centre of each circle, there was a comfortably sized stone house in which the elders were living with their grandchildren. Around this house, the villagers built one-room wooden cabins for the middle generation, i.e. the parents of the children staying in the stone house. This dynamic was the smartest construction I’d come across. In it, the little kids kept the elders lively and alert, the elders shared their wisdom with the juniors of the family. Meanwhile, the adult couples were able to work in the fields all day and keep their intimacy at night, while seeing their children every day when all of them gathered for meals. That’s the kind of interconnectedness that seems balanced and healthy. And real.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

What we have now sometimes seems to lack the advantages while having all the inconveniences of being connected to each other. We have little time and space just to ourselves, away from other people’s voices and opinions, but have next to no face-to-face daily support. So the question is: who is there for you when you’re not on Facebook, when your phone’s battery dies or when you feel terrible despite the upbeat tone of your posts?

Another question I ask myself is: Who is still there, willing to forgive and support you, when you change your plans, when you don’t do what you know you should? Whatever the answer may be, those are the people you need to stick to. At the end of the day, we may each be alone to feel the way we do and to really know what we know, but there are some precious individuals who are always willing to ease our burdens and share our joys. And there are people we are willing to go out of our way for, not because we have to, but because we want to. They are not all on Facebook, but they truly are friends.

(Title taken from Pinocchio in Walt Disney’s eponymous film,
lyrics by Leigh Harline & Ned Washington)

“These are a few of my favourite things”

I remembered this song from “The Sound of Music” today, thinking of what’s been lifting my spirits lately. Though it’s not raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, I have been getting into the habit of doing small things that make me feel good. I have temporarily put my great ambitions of ongoing happiness aside and have traded them for a multitude of instants of joy. French philosopher Frédéric Lenoir has elaborated on this phenomenon in his book “The Power of Joy”. In it, he writes: “Joy is an affirmation of life. This manifestation of our vital power is our way of touching the force of existence, of tasting it.”

Taken from Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Over the last month or so, I have been listening to hilarious, smart and insightful stand-up comedians on Youtube. Laughing at situations that sometimes remind me of my own everyday struggles has turned out to be quite liberating. As is listening to comedians’ perspectives on the intolerable injustice and perversity that exists in the world today – and is on the rise again in many places. They make the unbearable bearable and show us there is another way to tackle complex issues.

This is an example of what has helped me to laugh, when in this situation in real life.

I have also been listening exclusively to music that makes me feel good and to radio shows that elevate my mind. I’ve even been listening to the sound of my own voice, singing for and by myself, just as I used to do many years ago. I watch films that help me reconnect with my dreams. I cook meals with rich flavours. I make sure I see my friends and family, so long as our interactions have meaning or gaiety. And I have systematically been distancing myself from people who do me harm or situations that are likely to bring me pain or discomfort.

All of these are currently my favourite things. Still, as the demands of life make it impossible to remove all unpleasant situations, I deal with these as best I can. But, as Julie Andrews sings: “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favourite things and then I don’t feel so bad.” I would just remove the “simply” from this sentence, as none of this is simple.

Taken from Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Though negative thoughts still pop up in my head like viruses on a computer, it does seem that, like any diet or workout, the accumulation of moments of joy or laughter has a truly uplifting, therapeutic effect if you’re consistent with this habit over a longer period of time. I don’t know whether this will continue to work, but as I’ve witnessed with my daughter’s development from the time she was a baby, the repetition of something will make it stick. Whether it’s positive or negative.

So it is safe to say that, if the negative messages and experiences I have had for some time have gotten me down, the repetition of positive experiences and messages I have been exposing myself to should continue to lift me up. Consistency and regularity being the two decisive factors. And those are tough to keep up in the long run, when doing something for our own good. As odd as it is, the fact remains that we find it easier to repeat or believe negative messages about ourselves than positive ones. Nonetheless, deep down we all know that we owe it to ourselves to try and make our daily routine one that is good for us. So, let’s take it from the top, with Fräulein Maria and the Von Trapp kids: « Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens… »

(Title taken from the song “My favourite things” by O. Hammerstein & R. Rodgers)

“The best is yet to come”

Lately, people around me have been telling me that they are convinced the best is yet to come for me. Why or how, I don’t know. Faith in a brighter future for oneself is one of those things that seems to slowly disappear with age.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Childhood was wonderland for me and, in my eyes, the world was a happy place. Adolescence was a very rude awakening to the darker side of human nature surrounding me. Then came the first chapter of adulthood and the discovery of my strengths and power. This was followed by the second chapter of adulthood, which showed me my limits and brought me to focus my attention on those I love. And now, it’s the third chapter of adulthood. I am still focused on the ones I love, but am gearing my attention back to myself as well, thinking: “Can what is to come really be as extraordinary as what I’ve lived so far?”

After having been starry-eyed, immensely ecstatic, after having created great beauty from scratch and moved mountains, after having experienced magic and had so much energy that it seemed endless… is it possible that what awaits me can compete with what was? Of course, common sense tells us that the future should not have to compete with the past. But that phrase, “the best is yet to come”, does imply that it is compared to what used to be. And this first question gives birth to another, namely: “Do you create your own happiness or does it come to you?” Some friends tell me I should stop thinking and just do: write, network, organise my time as best I can, do as much as I can during my waking hours, because action breeds reaction. Effort generates results, including positive ones. Meanwhile, other friends tell me to do less, to let go, to open up and have faith that what must be will be, that relaxing and welcoming change will bring it about effortlessly.

Taken from art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

The confusing thing is that my personal experience can confirm both affirmations. And neither. Over the course of my adult life, so far, I’ve noticed that when I set my mind to something, I usually did make it happen. The price to pay for that was always the problem: whether financial, emotional or physical, there was always a price to pay for my great ambitions. What my experience has also taught me is that every once in a while, when I would give up on pretty much everything and just accept the fact that I needed help, help would indeed come. I would have meaningful encounters and good things would be born out of them. But this time around, neither approach seems to work as it once did, because I am not the same person as I once was.

These days, I find I am juggling, wrestling, running, quitting, falling flat and getting back up on this court known as my everyday life. Where I had come to grasp the laws that governed the unidimensional universe I used to be in, I am struggling to see the logic of the multidimensional universe I am living in now. The pace of it all has increased, the layers of complexity have multiplied, I have difficulty distinguishing true faces from masks. What used to be true no longer is. And meanwhile, my motivation and stamina are out of breath. So I guess the best thing for me to do now is to just wait and see what tomorrow brings: a bull to take by the horns and ride into the sunset – or a hammock to stretch out in while waiting for the sun to shine on me.

(Title: Song written by Carolyn Leigh)

“Is Love a Fancy or a Feeling?”

The question I ask myself these days is actually the reverse of Hartley Coleridge’s poem thus entitled. I wonder: “Is a fancy a form of love or just a passing feeling?”

Art has always revolved around love in one way or another. The three major themes of all human creation have been Love, Life and Death. We know all about the quest for our “one and only”. We’ve watched countless movies about love in all its shapes and forms. We’ve all read novels and poems about the pain and longing you feel when you’re not with the one you love. We’ve seen paintings and sculptures inspired by their creators’ wives or mistresses.

But what of the people we fancy over the years? What about those individuals whose paths cross ours to bring excitement, rejuvenation, butterflies into our lives for a moment? Not the ones we marry, but the ones we dreamed about for brief periods of time. Do they not matter as well?

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Right now, what I am missing is not the big L.O.V.E. Though I do believe that romantic love should be experienced by all human beings at least one over the course of their lives, what I could use right about now is just a fancy. An infatuation, a platonic love, someone to think about with a smile and a giggle. Someone to exchange messages with, without the complications of everyday life and practicality. An ideal disembodied sort of love. Thyra Samter Winslow described platonic love as “Love from the neck up”. And that is just what I wish for these days.

Taken from an artwork by Tijana Djapovic (c)

On the one hand, there is true love. Love is all-consuming. It is intense. It is beautiful and it is ugly. It is everything. On the other hand, there is the feeling of fancying someone. The crushes we have from childhood on. As far as I can tell, they, too, remain with us forever, so why are they not worthy of epic poems? Why are they not central to human creation? Are they not instrumental in reminding us that we are alive and always young at heart?

Oh, how I would like to have a sweet someone to exchange thoughts and feelings with now. Someone to get to know in a parallel reality, to think about when I need to, to dream about when I want to, to be exhilarated by on a tedious day.

I believe we all had crushes way before we encountered true love. And now I find I miss that feeling of an innocent, immaculate love-like relationship.

But there is also a third category. Next to love and a fancy, there is another source of inspiration. Namely the attraction we can feel towards any particular person, whether it is paired with sexual attraction or not. This feeling of being drawn to a person often proved to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship or work relationship for me. More than love itself, it is this sort of attraction, crush, infatuation, that has led to most of my creations. The stories and scripts I wrote, the plays and shows I created often stemmed from an encounter with someone who stood out from the crowd. A person who shone a particular light. Whether it was a man or a woman, a being I found physically attractive or not, this feeling of two souls meeting for a purpose is a precious feeling I have had numerous times over the years. The ignition of that particular flame, the spark, can be compared to that moment when Maria and Tony first meet in the film based on Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. All of a sudden, everything around them is blurry, dark and silent and all they see is each other. Like two souls recognising each other from a previous life and being reunited.

Taken from “West Side Story” (dir. by R. Wise & J. Robbins)

That has been the source of all my inspiration. More than Love with a capital L. And it is the spark I am waiting for now. That familiar, innocent feeling that brings all those lost butterflies back. And the beauty of it is, that it never has to become anything more than what it is. Just a fancy. Just the promise of a story that will never be. Just the initial pages of a story I am yet to write. A muse and a dream.

And so I am going to bed singing Louis Armstrong’s “Give me a kiss to build a dream on” while thinking: “Give me a face to build a dream on”. Because sometimes the promise of something is so much lovelier than its realisation.

Good night, my next muse, wherever you may be.

(Title: Poem by Hartley Coleridge)

“Take it easy baby, take it as it comes”

For a while there, I was stuck. Stuck in a state where I felt like I was rowing against the current and I had to keep rowing just to remain in one place. This often happens in life, but it’s important for these phases not to last, otherwise you forget what it’s like to move ahead.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Now, through a mysterious combination of unexpected synchronicity, calculated timing and unexplainable magic, the wheels of the machine I’m feeding (or that’s feeding me?) have started spinning again. I’m no longer stuck. And I realise that all these months, while I was carefully placing my pawns on the chessboard of my life, ruminating on what I was hoping would come, looking back and thinking of all the mistakes I’d made along the way, I had the conviction but not the faith that things would truly move forward again for me. My experience had taught me that, eventually, I would feel better about my life and the world around me again. But I couldn’t feel it, hence I could not truly believe it. Instead, I felt great sadness, I had a sentiment of failure, of doubt as to what I was supposed to do next. Fortunately, my mind was telling me that sooner or later, I would feel well again – or at the very least better about myself, my choices, my luck or lack thereof throughout my life.

And now here I am, seeing everything I’ve got and most importantly myself in a different (albeit not new) light. Once again, at long last, I like what I see. It’s imperfect, it’s flawed, it’s uneven, but this picture of myself and my life looks so much better than it did a couple of months ago. So what has changed? I have faced some of the demons that were lurking in the dark corners of my mind. And I have finally reached that point when the time and effort I’ve invested into some projects, both personal and professional, has started bearing fruit. Small and unripe as that fruit may be, it’s there. But more than my concrete situation, it’s my perception of it that has changed. I now think back on all the messages I’ve received over the years saying we must “focus on what we have rather than what we lack”, that we should “practice gratitude”, that we must “always keep a positive attitude”.

Although I can agree with the idea that your perception creates your reality, the assumption that follows is that you can control this perception. This I believe to be erroneous. What we’ve lost in this new wave of ‘self-improvement, self-empowerment, defining our own reality, being in charge of our own happiness, being the master of our own destiny’… is space to just BE. Be sad or disappointed or passive or angry when we need to be. I often fail to just take life as it comes, without trying to alter it, to make it the beautiful, fulfilling, charming life I had in mind.

Taken from an artwork by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Fortunately, circumstances in life, such as the passing of time or support from our loved ones, can help us have faith in the fact that we will indeed find our way towards our goal, whatever it may be. And our dear friends and family are also wise to remind us that it’s okay to be sad sometimes, even for extended periods of time. And it’s important to experience each phase in our lives fully, in order to move on and reach the next step.

This transitional phase I write of is where I am now. Neither the ‘before’ nor the ‘after’ wille be simple, but the important thing is that I am once again convinced I am on my own path. The right path for me. And I’ll try to be more patient with myself and with Life next time I’m feeling down – without right away thinking of anyone’s expectations. Especially my own. Success and joyfull bliss can wait. I won’t get them without first taking the time to swallow the dirt and fight (or embrace) the demons around.

I’ll definitely try to “take it easy” and “take it as it comes” as the song goes.

(Title: quoted from The Doors’ “take it as it comes” by J. Morrison)

“The journey, not the arrival, matters”

From our earliest childhood, we learn that results matter. Few parents clap while their child is trying over and over to stand up and walk, they applaud when he succeeds. Later, not many inquire to find out how interesting a pupil thought a course was, they want to hear what grades he got at the test. When trying to get into the university of your choice, your hobbies and experiences may matter, but your grades matter more. And when you start your professional career, no one is interested in your ongoing quest to find the job that is right for you, they only want to know about the job you got. You hear congratulations when you get married, not every time you start dating someone. You receive cheers when your child is born, not while you are trying to get pregnant. This applies to all areas of our lives. And yet, we are told that it is the journey that matters, not the destination.

So far, I have lived what can most certainly be qualified as a rich, full, diverse life. In so many films, novels and self-help books, we are told that it is always better to dare making mistakes, rather than shying away from a challenge. Over the years, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous quote “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” has come up in so many conversations I’ve had. And yet, whether it’s in my professional or my personal life,  life has taught me that living by this rule does not necessarily make you happier, nor is it generally encouraged. It might just makes for a better story to tell at parties.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Of course, if you are one of few who follow untrodden paths leading to great financial success, you get to share your inspirational journey to fulfilment on Ted Talks. But otherwise, a varied experience is still perceived as a symptom of instability, a lack of commitment. At best, it will be seen as a sign of spontaneity, which is a quality rarely sought by employers or investors. The contradictory messages we receive lead to a general dissatisfaction, whether you follow “the safe path” or go on “the adventurous journey”. I have tried both. I have experienced the nine to five lifestyle, working in a cubicle, going for drinks during happy hour with my colleagues on Thursdays, blending into the crowd and elbowing my way through the rush hour stampede. I have also gone the other way, that of the freelancer, the artist, the entrepreneur. I know what it’s like to completely believe in what you are trying to sell, to be obsessed with it day and night, to be truly proud when it succeeds or to feel like an utter failure when it doesn’t because it is an extension of yourself.

When I talk to friends who have chosen the safe path, the job they neither love nor hate, the house, the reliable and predictable partner, the dog, the expensive holidays with their family, they do seem generally satisfied. But every so often, the subject of their unfulfilled ambitions and their evasive creativity surfaces. They tell me they wish they had dared to do what I’ve done: moving to a new country when the time seemed right, quitting their job when it lacked meaning, ending a relationship when it just wasn’t working anymore, diving into new and uncertain projects when they felt too good to pass up. Everywhere, they receive the same contradictory messages as I do. “Be daring, be creative, live life to the fullest, BUT also be stable, provide for your family, stay on your path, don’t take risks.” And so, while their lives are pleasant enough, they are made to believe that they should be extraordinary, thrilling, out of this world. Which they usually are not.

I wonder: Do we really choose which path to follow in life or does our innate character define which path chooses us? Over the years and decades, I have often started a new job thinking that since the salary was good, the colleagues nice enough and the work conditions very acceptable, this time I’d stay on course and forget about my creative endeavours. I thought dedicating my evenings and weekends to my passions would be sufficient. But it wasn’t. Even when I tried really hard to keep my initial enthusiasm for an office job going, my body would inevitably give up on me. I would end up sick and quit to literally save my skin. And I would return to theatre, film or cultural events, none of which ever allowed me to have the stability I thought I should have.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Whether we travel through life on the straight highway or the uneven winding road, I get the feeling that we neither really choose our path, nor are we ever completely satisfied with the one we’re on. Regardless of what we are being told, the destination does matter to us as individuals and as a society. How much we earn, whether or not we achieved public recognition, how long our marriage lasts, how many kids we have, whether we own a piece of land, all those things matter. We see them as a reflection of our success in life. But how much we enjoy our work matters too, and what we have seen of the world, whether we have truly good friends, how close we are with our kids, whether we still dance spontaneously past childhood. We do not wear these as badges of honour, but they fill our hearts every day and they give us a sense of pride as human beings.

I don’t think there is an ideal path. And I don’t believe people who tell me they are generally sublimely happy in life. Catching moments or even periods of joy, contentment, pride, wellbeing does exist. But I do not believe it can really last without phases of sadness, regret, bitterness, exhaustion. As a friend recently told me, “we must rejoice in the good times and use them to recharge our energy to last us through the difficult times that follow – but neither the easier nor the harder times are endless”. And trying to find a balance between enjoying the present moment and being focused on your goal is an elusive state of being that I keep trying to catch. Now you see it, now you don’t.

(Title: Book title of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography of the years 1939-69)