“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)

“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”

Emotion is a word that seems to be jumping up at me all over the place. So many life coaches and other enlightened beings around me seem to be saying that emotions are at the centre of everything we do. I have even heard it said that, beside our instinct to survive, “the only thing we as humans seek is emotion.” I wonder: is it, though? 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, I am convinced that so is meaning. The Monty Pythons certainly knew it.

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

And I agree. 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 ours to 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 will admit that emotion can often makes our lives worthwhile, I am convinced that finding meaning in our daily labour does too. But to come to this conclusion, one must dare to seek and face challenges, both in the personal and professional spheres. Whereas I have often met people whose professional selves knew no fear in their quest for the truth, while their personal selves repeatedly stopped and turned back when finding walls on their 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)