Tuesday, January 31, 2017

15 Lines

"My innermost dream is to become a published author. I hope that I am on the way to achieve that".

First time I met Vesna, we were both taking part in a Mother Tongue workshop lead by the very talented Jacqui Malins and Lauren Klinger. I was instantly taken by her, as she modestly told us her story and taught us the 3 most meaningful words in her language. 
I was also drawn to Vesna because at a very real moment in time, we had been leading parallel existences in neighbouring countries. We had a giggle about how we were neighbours without even knowing it.
I reminisced on my student years in a town where we did everything we could to protect our Serbian colleagues from going back to war. Vesna graciously accepted my invitation to talk and I believe that in the process I have gained a new friend.
The photoshoot itself was quite an adventure; the weather didn’t cooperate and we had to change the location suddenly, to an unfamiliar ground. I am very grateful for having a chance to explore the amazing Hotel Hotel Canberra during our photo shoot. It was an early evening, just before the sunset and I had to resort to a bit of a kamikaze act: manually focusing a lens on very low light. It might have been the magic of the moment, the story of a remarkable woman or the magic of the place. Or everything combined. By the book of rules, it should have been a mediocre shot yet everything worked out so beautifully. It was one of the most rewarding sessions I have done this year. And I got to know better a lady that I admire very much.

- When I was 4, I wanted to be an astronomer. I remember lying on the grass in our backyard and I would watch the clouds pass for hours. Sometimes, I would see the first star appearing: Venus (Danica, in Serbian). Then I would see other stars coming out and then it would be time for dinner. I loved doing that – I think what I liked about it most was feeling grounded. I felt both free and safe. After that, I thought I’d love finding more about the stars – this wasn’t when I was 4, but later on; years passed, but I still kept watching the night sky. My favourites have always been the shooting stars. 
I remember when Halley’s Comet came around in 1986; I was pregnant with my son. I went out under the stars and remember thinking that when he grows up, he will be able – in a way - to say “Mama took me under the open sky, we stood under the Comet’s tail”. 


- My favourite story when I was a child was “Hansel and Gretel”. I liked chocolate, sweets and all that. Then, through this story, I realised that one can go to a house made out of sweets, it looks nice and appealing, but you can end up with a bad witch inside. That was a big, big lesson for me – maybe it wasn’t in these exact words, but it was that gut feeling that children have, that in life you can come across something really nice-looking but very bad inside. So I learned that you can get in trouble by loving ‘sweets’ too much. Through life, I learnt that such thinking can be applied to many different things – people, society and work places; to everything, really. 


- Coming out of high school, I wanted to be a psychologist. I was at that very tender stage where I really wasn’t sure where I was going to go in my life. I was starting to understand that there are many opportunities in front of me, but that I could not do everything. Around that time I also wrote a diary and by doing such ongoing self-exploration I became attracted to the idea to become a psychologist. I didn’t end up becoming one in the end, but interest in psychology as a science of human mind has never really left me; I read a lot of self-help books. I visit a lot of websites that talk about simple techniques – for example just the other day I read about how ‘3 seconds a day’ could help you find joy by recognising and focusing on those nice things in everyday life.
I am aware that there is a lot of suspicion around regarding some of the ‘self-help’ techniques. I am aware that some of the prominent psychologists wouldn’t recognise these techniques from their ‘evidence-based’ pedestals. But I think one should be able to choose how to spend their time, how you want to be; you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be miserable. I was in my 30s when I started to recognise that looking at some people around me - -the lucky ones who live into an old age - they either become really lovely, graceful people or unhappy, angry and bitter people. I thought: I didn’t want to become the latter. It is, I believe, a matter of choice about what kind of people we end up being in our old age. 

 - My dream, back then in my late teens, was to find true, romantic love. And I did. It was really like in a movie; it was love at first sight when I met my husband. I consider myself extremely lucky to have met him; it still puzzles me today how we grew up in the same city - it’s not a big city - but we never met before. He knew lots of my friends; I knew some of his – yet the two of us had never met before. We met in a disco, of course – It was the 80s. We fell in love immediately, that evening. It was the 31st of January 1981. I was 19, he was 24. 
- Who are you now? It is a question I ask my sitters, to place them contextually into our collective Canberra here and now moment. 

 - I am a mother, thinker, poet and knitter.

I was very surprised that Vesna didn’t employ the use of the word “artist” and I expressed my surprise.

- I don’t consider myself entirely an artist. Artists, in my view, are people who live to create. My attachment to art is that I see it as a beautiful addition to my ‘material’ life. Not in a negative way, but in that sort of reasonable, objective approach; I am a bit more pragmatic about it all.
It’s about having the opportunities and then having to choose. For many years, it was about raising a family in a new country; about work, about survival to some extent. Now it’s the first time I can say that I feel free to actually ‘practise’ art. And I love that.
I am pretty happy with my life path. My public service job allows me to pay for my dreams. Thus I believe I am a fairly 'practical dreamer'.


For me, music is the cherry on the cake of life. I play piano very rudimentary and I took up flute recently. Initially, I just wanted to keep my mind fresh and occupied. It requires great finger-mind coordination; I had never touched a flute before but now I find so much joy in playing it. I am preparing for my third AMEB exam at the moment. 

My innermost dream is to become a published author. I hope that I am on the way to achieve that. Recently, I finally opened my poetry to others and that was quite a brave and big thing for me. For some years, I was sitting quietly and didn’t dare to share my poems even with my family. Now, I am slowly opening my little red book to others. I am starting to get critique; I find it encouraging when people tell me how my poems make them feel. I would love to have a book where I will have my original poems in Serbian and their translation on the mirroring page. I think I would like to do the translation in English myself, because I can play with words and their meanings, making them sound the right way in my own way, without them losing their essential meaning. I have seen some pretty average translations and I feel it would be a pity if that happened to my poems. 

The little red book. I was genuinely interested to find out how it came to life.

- It started in February 2014. That’s when I decided to stop writing on pieces of papers that I kept losing. I got this little red book that is of the perfect size. Something compact, not heavy, that I can take it in my little shoulder bag or my travel bag, I don’t go anywhere without it. Even for a quick lunch. I take it with me anywhere I go; it’s with me on a bus, it’s next to my bed when I wake up, then I move it into my bag…It has become my little life companion. Initially, I chose the size because it is practical and easy to fit in my purse. Soon I realised that I can actually capture a moment in 15 lines – that is all that a page in the book has: only 15 lines on each page. That somehow almost forced me to be particular about what words I use; it allowed me to just focus on the moment, on what I had to say. And keep it concise. Then the thoughts just started pouring out. I think only 1 or 2 of my poems go over the page; but you can fiddle and re-format easily. My involvement with poetry at the moment is that this format gave me the freedom to write, finally. Before, every time I was thinking about writing, I was afraid I was going to get lost in that verbose way of expressing oneself. My writing is far from the Japanese haiku, but it gives me a level of freedom to create poems in the way I feel is right, right for me. I start writing and then I feel like I am almost there…once I’ve reached the 4th line, the 6th line, the 10th line, I know what I still have to say and know exactly how many lines I have to say it in - there’s only 5 to go… it’s a challenge I pose on myself. This enabled me to really be precise with an idea. I still write my original thoughts in Serbian only. 
I always ask my sitters what is the one thing that keeps them going and what motivates them. Sometimes the answers are connected. Sometimes, they are surprisingly different and refreshing.

- The one thing that keeps me going is my family.

 I am motivated by a power of beauty. And success. What is that power of beauty? For instance, just sitting here, looking at that fire – isn’t it beautiful? And the sun flickering behind – it draws my eye. I am talking to you at the same time but I still notice the beauty of the fire and the sunset coming on to us. It’s what gives that extra zest to one’s life – taking the time to notice and appreciate everything, just like this golden flickering on the wall. It’s not about ‘defining’ beautiful; it’s just something extra. Interpretation of beauty is varies from one moment in life to another; everything can be very open to interpretation but at the end of the day, it’s about what captivates my mind, my heart, my feeling at that very moment. It can be people as well. Right now, this sun-setting light is beautiful. It’s all in the moment and it’s about finding and appreciating the little things that can and do make a difference. 

One pivotal question to my project is where my sitters see themselves in 5 years’ time. I do not ask it in the cold-mannered way of a recruiting round; I am interested in finding out about their dreams projections and their own self-reflections.

- Going back for a second to that “pragmatic dreamer” concept, in 5 years’ time that’s where I want to be; realising and living those dreams. I would love to think that I would keep publishing, playing my flute, painting… that I would keep practising all these things that bring me joy. I hope I would be retired and in good health, free to be busy with many other things, including being a baka (grandma). I will be creating and definitely busier than today.

- If I was to get those 15 minute of fame, I think I would like to sit quietly and smile. Because it would be a reflection of how far I got along. I assume being ‘at the top’ would be very busy, working hard and heading up there to the top… and if I did get there, then I could take a moment and enjoy it.

- My first role models were my parents and my maternal grandmother. Being a child, one learns by observing. I learned some strong principles from them and I believe it helped me growing into the person I am now. Looking back, I think it was a good balance, having my parents and my grandmother. The parents love you but they also chastise you. My Grandmother let me be me. She was the only person who never got upset with me. It’s extremely important to have at least one person to be yourself with, you can scream as loud as you can and you won’t be judged harshly. Someone able to say “it’s ok, I understand’; someone able to let you behave however you wanted to behave and still love you. 
My role models are in constant change nowadays. I adore watching and learning from people who grow and develop throughout their various life experiences and still remain decent, ethical, fair, strong and loving individuals.

What does Vesna like reading?
- I love anything biographical, I like true inspirational stories. Sometimes I read a few at a time. At the moment I am reading Amy Schumer’s autobiography “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo” and Ian Hancock’s biography “Tom Hughes QC – A Cab on the Rank”. I have also started a book about Margaret Thatcher and I really enjoyed the book “Hillary”.

- My biggest regret was not to become a famous jurist of some kind, such as a barrister or a judge, or a legal academic. I deeply love the pure, magical essence of law and justice.
The missed opportunity doesn’t really affect me anymore; there is a lot of glitz around it and as a young lawyer I wanted a bit of that, I suppose. I realise now just how many famous lawyers aren’t that great – this is not sour grapes – I just don’t want to be in some of their company. 

 Where does Vesna feel at peace, free to be herself? 

 - At home, alone; but not for too long, as I can become a difficult companion to myself after a while.
 I  asked Vesna to use one word to describe herself. 

 - One word? Awesome. (Smiles and then apologises.) I don’t want to sound full of myself. I am pretty ok with who I am, with what I have. I’ve always worked hard. I haven’t stolen or deprived anyone of anything; I haven’t hurt any people around me. I got where I am through my own , often grave efforts. I still have dreams and I am still working towards them. I never expected anything to fall to me ‘from the sky’.
 Coming to Australia was not a long term plan for Vesna, initially.

 - It was an accident called ‘the Balkan War 1991-95’. Just before the war broke out in Yugoslavia we came here to visit my maternal grandmother. My daughter was only 1yo; my son was 3 ½yo. We were going to stay for a couple of years; save some money and then the plan was to go back and I would open my private legal practice.

Then in November 1990 the war started and everyone back home was worried about our safety; we were getting messages from our parents: “don’t even think about coming back”. So we stayed. A few years after the war, the country was in such a bad state that it was risky and unreasonable taking the children back there. I went (again!) to a law school here. Then I graduated, I found work. My husband had finished political sciences in Yugoslavia – he didn’t have a problem at all finding a job here; he was employed within 2 months after we arrived here.

What motivates Vesna better: success or failure?

- Both. I love being successful, like everyone else. But if I fail, that really gets me going.

We parted that evening with the promise of a friendship in making. And as we stepped out, Vesna surprised me once more with a most amazing desert and sweets for my little family. It is a delicate gesture that for us, Eastern Europeans, has a big significance. It is extended hospitality and friendship at its best.