“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)

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“We must die to one life before we can enter into another”

The whole quote by Anatole France is: “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter into another”. It is a perfect description of how I feel right now. With every change in our lives, we have to relearn to live and be ourselves.

Leaving home to go to university, moving to another country, moving in with someone, getting separated, having a child, starting a business… These are all changes that force us to question our habits and rethink how we structure our lives, our space, ourselves.

It sounds easy enough to do, especially for someone who is as used to change as I am. I have not only been used to it, but have sought it and caused it since I was fifteen years old. And yet, I find that over the last few years, my ability to adapt to change is not what it used to be. When I was younger, change was often scary, but also exciting.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Changing schools at age fifteen, going off to university and sharing an apartment with complete strangers in a foreign land at seventeen, those first big deliberate changes in my life may have been a bit hard because I was still figuring out who I was. At the time, I found that all our routines and customs are a part of how we perceive ourselves in relation to others, whether in comparison or in opposition. At first, we think these habits are our own, as they helped shape who we are. So giving some of them up to better coexist with others is not easy, especially when you are young, stubborn and rebellious as I was. But as time goes by, you realise that some of these habits are not an integral part of who you are. You are just mimicking what you observed while growing up. You learned them from your family, your social circle, your fellow countrymen, and never bothered to question them. With age, as you begin to piece together the puzzle of your very own identity, you find that there is more room for change in your habits than you thought.

The years pass and you start being comfortable with your strong adaptable – yet authentic – self. And then, unexpectedly, this trend is reversed. At least for me. The habits, schedules, structure I’ve come to live by, through experimentation and change, have been my own. But gradually, I find that when one of the foundations of the life I’ve built for myself shifts, or worse, disappears, all that beautiful adaptability I pride myself on has begun to crumble. Reinventing myself was easy enough when I was young. Past the age of thirty, it started getting trickier. And now, past the big 4-0, every substantial change feels like an earthquake. Why is that? Do we stiffen with age, like our bodies do? Do we become rigid, judgmental, uncompromising? I doubt it, even though I sometimes catch myself being far less tolerant than I was fifteen years ago. Rather, I’m coming to realise that the tipping point comes when you feel that your life should be built by now. It has to do with expectations: your own and society’s. As long as you perceive yourself as having to build your career, your family, your life, it is fine to test, change, take risks. Because you know you are moving towards a goal, namely the fulfilment of your life’s purpose. But once you have your family and you’ve found a home you love, once you’ve built a career for yourself, every structural change in your life starts to feel like destroying what you’ve built rather than building something new.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

When you’ve been on the roller-coaster of life’s trials and errors enough times, the expected smooth and straight train ride of mid-life is very appealing. Some manage to stay on that track for a very long time. I haven’t. Perhaps it’s my restless, strong-willed, intense nature that makes it impossible to compromise what I believe to be essential. Whatever the reason may be, the structure I’ve built for myself is once again shaken. And I find this very unsettling. It’s scary, but not the exciting kind of scary I used to know. It’s an unpleasant sort of scary this time around. My life experience has taught me that I will undoubtedly adapt to these changes once again, but this time around I am questioning the vast campaigns aiming to convince us that we should ‘seek change’ and ‘be our authentic selves’. Regardless of the price you have to pay for that. Perhaps there is, after all, some merit in wanting to enjoy security – with all its compromises – rather than this glorified ‘authenticity’ past mid-life. Perhaps.

Be that as it may, considering the life I’ve led and the way my experiences have shaped me, that is not my path. I have always caused or welcomed change when something wasn’t working in my life. As that is still the case, after the recent changes I’ve brought on in my life, I will have to rethink myself again… after I’m done mourning my former self.

(Title: quote by Anatole France taken from “The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard”)

“For tonight it’s the Meaning of Life”

That man is a genius. Or so I’m told. The poor kid who made it all the way to the most prestigious universities in the world. A carpenter’s son who came to be the special guest of the Queen. The unwanted child of unwed parents in wartime Sicily who is to be knighted. It makes for a beautiful fairytale and motivational speech. But what tale would the characters of fairytales divulge about our beloved heroes and heroines if they were ever asked? 

Brilliant as though he may be in his profession, the private man should not be confused with the genius. Just like no artist should ever be confused with his/her creation. And yet, few dare to doubt a genius. Tirelessly, he tells all who will hear him his newest theory, which is that, beside our instinct to survive, the only thing we as humans seek is emotion. But I question this very shaky theory. If all we sought was emotion, would we not all live on drugs, jump out of airplanes, cut ourselves? Though emotion is key to a full human existence, so is meaning. The Monty Pythons knew it and I know it.

Monty Python’s song “The Meaning of Life” (from their eponymous film)

I have felt the absence of meaning through and through. What was it that drove me crazy and killed me of a slow death while I was doing uninteresting day jobs? The salary was good, the work conditions as well, no one was mean – though sometimes condescending. What killed me was not the lack of emotion (I have always had enough to go around) but the absence of meaning. Each day blending into the next, each suggestion for a positive change having to go through the wheels of the decision-making machine and often disappearing on its way to the top.

An existence is not worth living where there is no meaning. We can all take it for a while because we sometimes have to. But deadlines are necessary. We need expiry dates for contracts that make us miserable. Seeing the finish line is what helps us go on during those meaningless phases. And after come the fireworks, the trumpets and the glory of being in charge of one’s life again. The money there is often scarce, the mistakes are only our own, but the shackles are off. The meaningless phases thus have this purpose alone: to make us see the beauty of the penniless phases that follow. And vice-versa. Oh, the joy of a salary after years of “freedom” counting your coins to buy milk!

Taken from a painting by Tijana Djapovic (c)

And so, though I respect the genius who spoke, I cannot agree with the man. He has had the great fortune of encountering his eternal passion at age eighteen and finding money and glory through it. Hence, his existence has taught him little about meaningless living – and the importance of finding meaning in your daily labour. Where his professional self knows no fear in its quest for the truth, the personal man has stopped and turned back when finding walls on his path to the immense diversity of human experience. These are the very walls I have never been able to resist climbing over or even breaking through. For the human soul, its beauty and ugliness, its extremes and all that lies in between, is what fascinates me. It frightens and attracts me equally. And in that sea of creatures and emotions, light and darkness, I believe that we all strive to find meaning.

Perhaps this means that I carry in me the “Contradictory Nature of the Germanic Soul” that Luchino Visconti saw in Romy Schneider. 

(Title taken from Monty Python’s song “The Meaning of Life”)

“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)

“Take me away from all this death”

This is what Mina asked of Dracula in the 1992 movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

These words echo in my mind as I think: “If only someone could take me away from all these lies, these projections, this meanness, 
“This darkness of the soul, this need to destroy the other, 
“These spider webs so skillfully and patiently woven over years, decades, 
“This carefully dosed poison slipped into each conversation. Just enough to go unnoticed while being harmful. Perhaps even deadly for the soul.”

Taken from a painting by Tijana Djapovic (c)

I do not understand these tactics. They are foreign to me. 

What good does it do to bite the hand that feeds you? 
What joy is there in seeing that the person in front of you will crack at any moment like a piece of rock you’ve repeatedly been hitting with a hammer… every day, every month, every year for so long? 
How can one feed on another person’s pain? 
How can one prey on the admitted weaknesses of another? 
What merit is there in hitting a person where it truly hurts them, after they’ve told you it is their weakest spot? 
How can anyone mistake stepping on someone to feel taller for actual growth?

Like Jiří Kylián said in one of his interviews: “I seek something to lift me just a few inches above the ground.” Like his ballet Bella Figura did for me in 2002, when I first saw it performed on stage, and again tonight on my computer screen – and all the years in between.

Bits and pieces of Jiří Kylián’s ballet “Bella Figura”

Music, food, an image, a voice, a choreography, a text, a film, an open heart, a benevolent look that, for an instant, give me wings. 
Not great big wings to fly up to the skies. No, just two little wings to lift me high enough that I can avoid seeing defiling looks, destructive glances, the acrid smell of complacency, the undeserved and unwarranted pride based on reaping what another has sown. What I have sown.
Oh, that I could clip those invisible claws that scratch at me, those tentacles that try to silence and drag me into the darkest depths of the sea.

Where is this justice we so often hear of? This expected success based on merit?
Of course, I am well aware that the great majority of humans living and breathing today have a much harder, more ungrateful, more unjust life than mine. 
Of course, I am well aware of my many blessings, of my great luck, of the gifts Life has placed under the tree for me.
But how, in these lasting phases of weakness, can my grateful heart find comfort in this while the life force is being drained from my veins by several foes simultaneously?
Hand in hand they walk and marvel at me while wishing my capitulation. They shoot at me like snipers comfortably posted up on a hill and then applaud when they find me still standing… and then they have another go.

As I look into my child’s wide open eyes, I pray that she never meets anyone who will wish her harm. And yet, the world is filled with such people.
And their concentration around one person seems proportional to the light that person radiates. 
Inside my child’s luminous eyes, I see questions, fears, pain, but I see oh so much light too. 
I wish I could tell her this light of hers is a marvellous and wondrous thing to have. But the truth is, right now, I believe it will be a wonderful thing for all who surround her. 
Not for her though. 
Not unless she builds herself an armour. 
Not unless she feels protected by all – not just a few, but ALL who are closest to her. 
A mother’s love, faith, trust, support are not and will not be enough.

She will need wings of her own to fly up, above the mud, the dirt and the slime of human baseness whenever she needs to. 
Perhaps she will find inspiration in the whale and the dolphin who manage to swim up to the surface of the sea whenever they need to catch their breath. 
I hope so…

In the meantime, I try not to cry when I see her big brown eyes looking at me with all the faith in the world.
That most beautiful of all beings. I wish I could keep her from ever knowing pain. But I can’t. Not if I want her to live. And that, I do. 

And so, I watch Bella Figura yet again.
Thank you, Jiří Kylián, for this invaluable gift. 
You have seen the human soul in all its complexity and have shown it to us in a most poetic form.
I guess if one can fall from grace, one can also be lifted into it. Bella Figura seems to do just that.

Now I must feed the light inside me to do the same. To show my daughter that it is possible.
Despite everything and everyone.
Lift my head, stand tall and be a bearer of light again, as I once was.

Excerpt from “Bella Figura” 
(the best version to be found online: the original NDT)

“Anger is a cruel and furious beast”

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

I do not remember having had this much anger trapped inside me during my childhood, nor my youth. Sadness, frustration, definitely. A lot of both. Especially during adolescence. Love, joy, exaltation too. But now it’s anger that I feel invading my body and soul. It prevents my legs from moving, it burns inside my chest and pierces my breasts like needles, it twists and forms knots in my throat, then continues to move up my stiff neck and my tense face. It blocks my sinuses, my ears, transforms into a veil over my eyes and finally settles under the roof of my skull. There, it grows and pushes up tirelessly. Trying to escape, to find a hole, to form a crevice in order to free itself and shoot up to the stars like fireworks. Instead it remains a prisoner of my body and thus, holds me hostage. It cannot escape. So it spreads in my thoughts, it clings to my nerves, choking me and haunting my dreams.

I have no rest, let alone peace in my soul. I only see the present through this dark and twisted filter. Even when I think I have appeased it, when I feel the coal inside dying down, any unexpected irritation can have the effect of a powder keg on just barely live coal.

Oh, how I dislike this anger! My companion, by day and night, that deforms my features, consumes my flesh, carves my wrinkles, discolours my hair. Where is my strength now? My energy, my love, my hope, my faith in happy ends?

Anger, let me go! What can I do to free you without perishing in this battle? If only you would move downwards, if only I could liberate you into the ground. But like metal to the magnet, you are welded to the inside of my skull. I can feel all your heat as I place my finger on the uppermost point of my head. You are like a glowing cork, cutting my connection to the universe, to infinity. You cut all my ties. I feel devoid of healthy emotions. Food has lost its taste, wine no longer appeases me, champagne no longer lightens my spirits, embraces no longer move me. I wear a carapace, a shield that prevents outer harm from destroying me – and goodness from reaching me.

And yet, I have everything I’ve wanted all my life. I should be happy. But the battles I’ve had to fight alone, the innumerable compromises I’ve had to make, the mistakes I cannot forgive myself for, the stupidity I’ve had to tolerate and the insults I’ve had to swallow… they have piled up over the decades and formed such a mountain of vileness that nothing viable can grow on such rotten soil.

Now it’s too late to start all over again. I am too old, too cynical, too sour, too tired. I am the shadow of the person I used to be.

(Title: quote by Pierre-Claude-Victor Boiste)

“Deep inside, at least, I know I’ve got talent”

Reaching forty hit me like a hurricane. Mid-life and mid-career suddenly felt like the end of something rather than this “new chapter” everyone keeps talking about. Having had a rich, intense, eventful, passionate life up to now, I never thought I’d feel like this.

Art by Tijana Djapovic (c)

Aznavour has died.

And the song that comes to my mind is “I could already see myself” (“Je m’voyais déjà”). Because it tells what every ambitious soul, what every dreamer has carried within himself – and will always carry inside. Despite everything. Despite life, despite the disappointments, the falls and the wounds that were so hard to heal.

“Of course, my features have aged under my makeup
But my voice is strong, my gesture is precise and I can spring back,
My heart has become a bit bitter with age
But I have ideas, I know my craft and I still believe in it
 
Just feeling the stage beneath my feet
Seeing an expectant audience in front of me, makes my heart beat faster,
No one helped me, I didn’t have much luck
But deep in my heart, at least I’m sure that I’ve got talent.”

He said it all, sang it all.

And here I am, at 40 years old. Inside me, I still carry the beautiful young woman that dazzled ardent glances, the one who danced on tables into the wee hours of the morning. The one musicians, creators and producers wanted to conquer.

She has really lived. She used to be the Queen of the Night. She drank, smoked, danced, sang, ate, loved, cried, embraced, glowed, …

And today, she is stronger than ever. More constant than ever. Though her inner light has flickered and dimmed down, the flame is still burning. It is careful now, sheltered under a windbreak. Several times, it seemed to have gone out. It seemed to have perished with the passing tempests, storms and hurricanes. But, as discreet as it may be, the flame is reappearing.

“Of course, my features have aged under my makeup”

Under the fine lines, under the wrinkles, under the dry and graying hair, the flame is coming back to life.

“But my voice is strong, my gesture is precise and I can spring back”

After a few glasses of wine, after the occasional loss of a few small pounds, alongside loved ones, the vital force comes back, the voice returns, the will springs back. And suddenly, my 40 years turn into 30 or 20. Not in naivety. Not in the belief that glory is waiting around corner. Even less in the hope that everything is possible and that I have a whole new life in front of me. But in the will to live this one life that is offered to me. In the desire to shine once again – this time with a calm glow, for a very long time and to the end. In the certainty that this soul of mine is here to create and to love and (even) to be loved.

Because “deep in my heart, at least, I’m sure that I’ve got talent.”

(Text written on 1 October 2018.
Title: taken from Charles Aznavour’s song “Je m’voyais déjà”.
Translation lyrics: Lyricstranslate)