“I should have been a great many things, Mr. Mayer”

I guess turning forty is that point in your life when you look back and think of all the other ways your life could have turned out, all the “yous” there could have been.

The first time that thought crossed my mind, I was thirty-six years old and pregnant. My husband and I were spending time on the same island as every summer. We were discussing life, emotions, possible futures with a group of girlfriends, all in their late thirties and early forties, all of them artists. We talked a lot about the choices we had made, the paths we had followed  – and the ones we hadn’t.

Two of these friends are sisters: one a former pianist who had given up this difficult career in search of a new identity, the other a choreographer and dancer who had never made it past the level of production assistant in the hierarchy of a royal ballet company. They inspired me to write the plot for a short film in which they would act as alter egos. In it, the first would be quietly reading at home, reflecting upon her life, reminiscing, questioning her choices, including that of having given up dancing in her youth. The other would then appear and dance around the house, enticing and flamboyant. One character having chosen the path of stability, peace. The other that of an unpredictable roller-coaster-like existence. At the end of the film, these two sides of the same woman would have to face each other, accept each other without judgement. Since life is not black or white, made of good or bad choices, there could not be a moral to the story. They had both simply had lives that were the result of their choices and of chance.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Gradually, as our little group of artists shared views on this theme, my idea for a film evolved into a photography project we called “Feminae et insula” (“The women and the island”). We started imagining a parallel universe in which all our potential alter egos coexisted on this island. I could picture all the women we could have been, had we chosen different paths, living side by side all over this piece of eight square kilometres. My husband was going to take pictures of us in the various roles we had envisaged for ourselves throughout our four decades on Earth. I, for instance, was going to be photographed as an opera singer and a film director, a flamenco dancer and a pastry chef, a stay-at-home mom and a writer. All these paths I could have followed or stayed on. Finally, our project evolved into an exploration of feminine identities, roles, interactions and innermost feelings.

When I came up with the initial project, it was a way for me to deal with my budding regrets. With age, I find it harder to focus only on the present, despite all the talks I’ve listened to about mindfulness. My mind strays and takes me on journeys into my past where I encounter all the hopes and plans I had for myself with each new milestone. And there have been many milestones along the way: I was off to university at seventeen, working on a musical for the first time at nineteen, working in film production at twenty-one, returning to the world of theatre at twenty-four, writing, directing and producing a musical play at twenty-six, founding, building and running an international festival and a non-profit organisation at twenty-seven, being invited as a public speaker and activist in several countries at thirty, writing and directing a short documentary at thirty-three, writing my first fiction screenplay at thirty-five, a children’s book at thirty-seven, my first magazine article at thirty-eight, founding an events company at thirty-nine and starting a blog at forty-one.

And still, like Jo March, every so often I catch myself thinking: “I should have been a great many things.” But I only have one life. I know exactly why I chose the paths that have led me here today. My decisions made perfect sense at the time. However, in the grand scheme of things, unlike fictional characters, I cannot say that I would do it all again. I would do some things differently. Not all of them, but some most definitely.

Thinking back on “Feminae et insula” I think: Who knows? Perhaps there really is an island where my alter egos exist, somewhere in the universe. If so, I would dearly love to meet them someday and see what they have to say…

(Title: Quote by Jo March in “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott)

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