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Before yesterdaySoMuchToTellYou

Together – The Connections We Crave When We Are Apart

25 February 2021 at 04:49
By: Jolene

When was the last time you felt lonely?  

What brings you joy?  

I would invite you to hold onto those thoughts for a moment.  

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our lives and livelihoods in 2020, another pandemic – infinitely more insidious and damaging – ravaged our hearts. Often referred to as the silent pandemic, loneliness as a social virus is unfortunately much harder to identify and inoculate against.   

As I sit here in the sparsely decorated room that has become my home office for the past 11 months, I reflected on my own journey with loneliness and what it means to me. The result is a strong desire to share my reflections on a topic of vital importance. This may take the form of a long form essay, partly because the mere mention of loneliness continues to attract a certain stigma, and hence those that suffer from it are, by association, social misfits. The more fundamental reason is, because I could. If I am not the author of my own fate, at least I shall be the author of my own blog.  

1. What is loneliness?  

Literary definitions aside, loneliness is a highly subjective term and suggestive of a sliding scale of unmet needs and wants. “Loneliness” is loosely associated with objective terms such as “isolation”, however, where the latter describes a physical sense of aloneness, the former goes to the core of the quality of one’s connections. The adage of “you can be lonely on your own, or lonely in a crowd” is testament to the heighted sense of disconnection that we feel in the frenzied world around us.   

On the face of it, what does a happily married, corporate professional leading a well-rounded life have to do with loneliness? In reality, I have struggled with various shades of loneliness throughout much of my childhood, and into my adult life. Low self-esteem, perpetrated by the poison of public taunts and my inherent inability at self-defence, has cast permanent dark shadows over the Great Emotional Walls I have erected. It wasn’t until Dr Vivek Murthy’s exposé on the multiple dimensions of loneliness did I realise that what I have been experiencing had validity beyond just hurt pride (Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World).  

According to Dr Murthy, there are three dimensions of loneliness to reflect the particular types of relationships that are unfulfilled. Intimate or emotional loneliness is the longing for a close confidant or intimate partner, with whom you can be your true self. Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or a community that shares your sense of purpose and pursuit. All three dimensions represent the full range of high quality social connections that we require in order to thrive.  

Simply put, these are the three concentric relationship spheres that underpin our core spiritual wellbeing. Whilst a happy marriage and an outwardly successful career go a long way (and for that I am eternally grateful), loneliness comes with knowing that there are a very few who are genuinely interested in me and to whom I could turn. Unless, of course, it benefits them to know me.  

Outside my immediate family, I could count on one hand, for instance, those that know I have recently endured my first surgery. No one as yet knows the reason for it. It is not that I wish to hide, quite the contrary, I wish for more than anything to be able to have a heart-to-heart conversation on the fragility of humankind. However, the occasion – or more to the point, the person – just never materialised. Friends who are buried deep under their own mountains of work-life imbalance, or colleagues who are only too eager to pounce on your weaknesses, hardly identified as sympathetic candidates.

For the umpteenth time, I realised I was lonely.  

2. How is loneliness manifested? 

Loneliness manifests itself in different ways, sometimes it is fleeting, at other times it feels bottomless and all-consuming. It is commonly a root contributor to superficial diagnoses of addiction and violence, or anger and withdrawal.  

For me, the notion of loneliness is simple and can be easily self-diagnosed. It manifests itself as a visceral hookworm, winding its way into my system and shutting down my mental faculties as if flicking off a light switch. By the time it is done with me, I would succumb to utter mental depletion where only a sense of stupor prevails.

The saddest truism is that loneliness begets loneliness. The moment we lose our desire to connect and search for meaning is the moment we lose our ability to contribute to the broader conversations around us, from which meaning is then derived. To those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken. Loneliness is the ultimate vicious spiral.

3. Why does loneliness matter? 

As it relates to work, studies have found that the pursuit of purpose trumps the pursuit of passion, by a fair margin. In his seminal research Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More, Morten Hansen found that people who were passionate about their jobs, who expressed high levels of excitement about their work, were still poor performers if they lacked a sense of purpose. In empirical terms, those who were high passion but low purpose came in at the 20th percentile, compared with 64th percentile for peers who demonstrated high purpose but low levels of passion. The reason for this is self-fulfilling. As we can already appreciate, it is our desire for a common purpose that binds and elevates us from our mediocre selves. If work is a recipe, the ingredient of Passion is individualistic and best served as a show-stopping garnish, while the ingredient of Purpose is a universal staple. 

As it relates to life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the longest studies on adult life. For over 80 years it has tracked the happiness index of hundreds of men and their progenies. The results are illuminating. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. The power of good relationships doesn’t discriminate against gender, race or cultural and religious beliefs. It buffers us from trauma, grief, and even some of the slings and arrows of old age. 

So what brings us joy? The pursuit of connection and relational value is what brings us joy.  

4. How do we combat loneliness?

Recognising the symptoms of loneliness as they apply to you is an important first step. Self-awareness is almost always the prerequisite for action.

The conscious act of reaching out is a close second. As we start from our innermost circle and work outwards, spending quality, uninterrupted time with those that we love provides fertile ground for the fruits of belonging and connection to grow. The desire to connect with our loved ones should come to us naturally and the positive emotional ramifications of this exchange can be lasting. It bolsters our resilience account when we eventually need to be adventurous and venture further afield.

Foster and experience friendships; noting the emphasis on experience as a verb. Most of us have friendships that are Instagrammable at best, and dormant at worst. If a friend doesn’t readily come to mind, try to rekindle old friendships, as they are often easier than cultivating new ones. Take the time to focus and be genuinely interested in each other, and give the other person the gift of your undivided attention for the duration that you are together.

Rumble with vulnerability and take incremental steps to build intimacy and trust. Whilst it is jarring to put our emotions at risk, we stand to gain nothing if we risk nothing at all. The ability to take the first step in exposing ourselves to the judgement of others is critical in deepening genuine engagement and rapport. The rush of oxytocin when someone tells us that they love us back, or when a friend confides a momentous secret, is evidence of the rich rewards of vulnerability.

Purge yourself from relationships that simply do not reciprocate. A common misunderstanding of loneliness is to surround ourselves with low quality relationships or friendships and hope that any interaction at all would be enough to energise us. Unfortunately, the opposite often rings true and such interactions can be soul destroying. Rather than pouring good energy after bad, it is important to assess whether the relationship is worth salvaging. Be specific about what you need out of the relationship moving forward and express it clearly. Don’t be afraid to ask for return. Make small demands for change, but make sure that they are enough to satisfy you.

The discourse around loneliness will no doubt reverberate beyond the sanctuaries of our own minds. As a society, we have come to define ourselves as who we are to others. The currency of relational value will hopefully teach us to invest in genuine, long-lasting connections that recharge, reinvigorate and reward us through rough seas and calmer waters.

Recommended Reading

If you identify with any of the above, I would appreciate hearing from you. If you are intrigued to pursue further reading, the below would be my recommended place to start.

  • Vivek Murthy, 2020, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
  • Dan Heath & Chip Heath, 2017, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact.
  • Morten Hansen, 2018, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More.
  • Eugene O’Kelly, 2005, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed by Life.
  • Jean-Dominique Bauby, 1997, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
  • Brene Brown, 2018, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
  • Robert Waldinger, 2015, TED Talk, What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness.

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This Is Why I Fight

16 August 2020 at 06:55
By: Jolene

This post is a personal one. Whilst it is not always a painful one, it is certainly a post that I wrote and rewrote a number of times in fear of not giving it the due attention it deserved. It is also worth bearing in mind that I have only found the courage to publish this now – eleven years into my career – and at a time when the worst is perhaps behind me. The names are irrelevant (other than a few specifically alluded to); the ruthlessness of the industry prevails.

The urge to share my story came from the blog post “Economics is a disgrace” by Claudia Sahm, a senior US female economist and former Section Chief at the Federal Reserve Board. I chanced upon her blog through Barry Ritholtz’s “Masters in Business“, a popular business podcast recommended to me by my boss (and a great mentor). Claudia’s call-out of sexism, racism and elitism in American economist circles is not a lone tale and unfortunately mirrors what I have come to recognise amongst my own corporate circles in Australia. Diversity without inclusion is cruel. Diversity where the only yardstick is the degree of one’s hair loss is laughable.

There is systemic bias in how we bring talent through the system and how we nurture it in the workplace. Talent that looks and feels the part is “talent”. And talent that doesn’t? Well, wouldn’t it be convenient if they don’t know how good they are, and what a formidable force they can be.

To this end, to understand my reasons for championing and fighting for change, one must first understand my journey. I am not your typical crusader. You would not notice me in a crowded room. I have no public profile, other than the small platform which I have established here and those that know me in person.

As a refugee’s daughter, my journey growing up was fraught with existential battles. Years of burning the midnight candle to learn English as a second language (not for fun, but for survival) have given me a decent foundation to layer with life’s thorny demands. Barely a year after picking up an English dictionary, I was thrust into the cutthroat battles for a spot in an academically gifted junior high school, where I earned a pitiful Reserve C. For the record, Reserve Cs are so far down the list of reserves that it would have taken a train-wreck of a school to dissuade the Reserve As and Bs from accepting their offers.

It turned out I was lucky. My parents were overjoyed. But being the last entrant to scrape through meant I was constantly climbing the proverbial uphill, pitted against smarter and tougher kids.

Working twice as hard to get half as far in life was a well-known sentiment to me, even back then.

None of this is to say that mine was a singular journey. The Australian migrant diaspora is littered with well-educated parents forced to hold down multiple menial jobs for the sake of their children. The expectation on those very same children to persevere against all odds makes for some interesting reciprocity.

My experiences growing up have taught me the value of tenacity and fighting for what you believe in. Now as a manager and mentor in the “pale male” dominated world of corporate finance, this is what I believe in.

1. The Shade Effect

First and foremost, I believe in making the journey easier for future generations and others like me. As the Chinese author Lu Xun famously quoted: “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.” By virtue of power comes the responsibility to grant others the benefit of your shade as you take the heat.

2. The “Biggest Loser” Effect

At the time of my promotion a number of years ago, my former skip level manager thought it necessary to impart his disappointment in me. In campaigning for the promotion, I had overturned his view of my quiet persona. He made it abundantly clear that I ought to be smart enough to know that there is always a glass ceiling. I thanked him politely for the promotion, and inflicted a sizeable hole on the glass ceiling. To this day, I am grateful to others whom have shown me the way to triumph above such crises of confidence. The feeling of “if she can, then I can too” is hugely profound and a powerful personal motivator for me.

3. The Solidarity Effect

I wish to stand in solidarity with those who have felt varying degrees of shame, guilt, derision or rejection in a world where they often don’t belong. Because that is a world in which I now find myself. I have mentored others whose first words to me were “I don’t think I’m good enough for the role”. I might have made the exact proclamation at one point in my career. I now stand corrected and I couldn’t have done it without the support of others in my journey. I hear you, and rest assured that you don’t travel alone.

4. The Reciprocity Effect

Thoughtful leaders of today have the responsibility to make people better than they found them. And if you are fortunate enough to be led by one of those leaders, you have the responsibility not only to achieve your potential, but to acknowledge and reciprocate their kindness. It gives me deep joy to know that some have credited me with their success. By the same token, it is important for my supporters to know that their faith in me has made a world of difference and that it will always be remembered.

No doubt our industry is unkind to the misfits and quiet achievers. No doubt there is much to do to ingrain progress and inclusion in the psyches of those at the helm. We all have a role to play. Together, let us never give up the good fight.

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Unspoken (Featuring Banff, Canada)

12 April 2020 at 22:15
By: Jolene

Dear You,

First words.

I dreamt about your first words. In the early days that was all I could ever think about, as days dragged into weeks and weeks into months of an agonising wait game.

“How have you been, kiddo?”

After three years of respectful silence these are hardly the first words I had imagined. But again, words between us have always been a luxury we could ill-afford. You looked at me with the same searing urgency as years past, anticipating my reply, and knowing that I would never break the code.

“I’ve been well. And you, how’s Canada?”

I’ve missed you. When are you leaving again?

There was a time when your presence had meant so much to me. You saw me at my most vulnerable and yet, you anchored me in turbulent seas, as it were. It wasn’t long before I felt myself changing – flourishing almost – under your unreserved nurture and care.

I knew you took pride in me, too. Your eyes would linger on me for just a little longer. The mention of my name across a crowded room had the power to capture you mid-conversation. You searched me for my thoughts, on some of the most meaningful and most trivial things, and we would debate them for hours on end. Perhaps for a moment in time, I had meant something to you, too.

If every moment was a paradox of now or never, however, we were unequivocal in our choice.

It didn’t mean anything when you smiled only at me.

It didn’t mean anything when you embraced me in jubilant joy.

It didn’t mean anything when you held me as I laughed and cried at the same time.

None of it meant anything because we both knew you were leaving.

It didn’t occur to me to ask you to stay, insignificant as I was to you back then, and it wouldn’t occur to me now.

I take a sip of my coffee as I sit across from you, brimming with happy and sombre nostalgia at seeing you again. For now, I would relish in the moment and that would be enough. And tomorrow, everything would be as it has always been between us. It will be a race to forget, I say, and that will be the story we tell ourselves.

A race to forget.

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Images taken at Banff National Park, Canada

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Marriage Story (2019)

29 December 2019 at 05:59
By: Jolene

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy shared his wisdom that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. 140 years later in Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach ignited the silver screen with a splendid, bittersweet rendition of the Tolstoy wisdom.

Marriage Story begins with much promise, as all marriages invariably do, with Charlie (Adam Driver) lovingly describing in the opening voice-over all that glitters about Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). With glowing praise (from “she really listens when someone is talking”, to “she is a mother who plays, really plays”), he divulges a world where Nicole is at its epicentre. In equally tender measure, Nicole’s effervescence over Charlie (“Charlie is undaunted… he loves being a dad”) will have you wondering if this is indeed the divorce saga that the trailer led us to believe. The film then flashes to the present, showing a distraught Nicole refusing to recite her letter aloud in a counselling session. Only then does it dawn that this is no ordinary manifesto of love, but a delicately calibrated tale of spiralling loss and unintended collateral damage.

Therein lies the insidiousness of marriage, and its many ugly facades when love is no longer simply… love.

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The success of Marriage Story in no small part hinges on its superb cast, with Driver (of the Paterson fame) and Johansson delivering personal best performances in a film that is so integrally woven with the likeability and relatability of both characters. Charlie is the everyday husband, an acclaimed theatre director, a seemingly model dad, and yet a somewhat aloof partner who has fallen into the all-too-common trap of taking marriage for granted. Nicole was once a rising actress in hometown Los Angeles, whose career has taken a backseat to assist her husband’s fledgling stage company in New York and to raise their eight year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). As he opens a new play on Broadway, she decides to assert her independence and relocate with her son to star in a TV pilot in LA.

Whilst the story so far treads benign territory, matrimonial tensions quickly surface during Nicole’s faultless soliloquy of a self-effacing wife. Prodded by fiery lawyer Nora (Laura Dern), she lets unravel the genesis of her unhappiness, declaring that despite the love for the man she married, time has all but erased her sense of self-love and self-worth. With gut-wrenching clarity she ultimately recognises the power imbalance that exemplifies marriages the world over, “I realised I didn’t ever really come alive for myself. I was just feeding his aliveness”. Many a feminist heart would have shattered along with hers at that very moment (particularly thereafter as Nicole infers that Charlie may have been unfaithful).

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It would have been easy to paint a clear villain in all of this. However, Baumbach showcases great restraint in refusing to draw sides in complex domestic affairs that inevitably bear no winners. Instead he chooses to bring to life the intelligent and good-natured Charlie, whose human fallibility is every bit as endearing as his desire to minimise acrimony in the fall-out. His love and care for Nicole and Henry is palpable throughout the film. He remains an unwilling participant in a deepening saga that has taken on a life of its own, exacerbated by a system that is dictated by legal wins versus emotional ones.

The film shows that two good people don’t necessarily make a good marriage; nor is divorce a death knell for long-held feelings of care and respect. And in its closing scenes, Baumbach skilfully transports us back to the Tolstoy adage, where we are treated to the heart-warming sense of family happiness as Charlie ultimately reads aloud Nicole’s praises of him as a (now former) husband, and a (loving) father to their son.

Rewatchability Index: 4.5/5.


Charlie: What I love about Nicole. She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking. Sometimes she listens too much for too long. She’s a good citizen. She always knows the right thing to do when it comes to difficult family sh*t. I get stuck in my ways, and she knows when to push me, and when to leave me alone. She cuts all our hair. She’s always inexplicably brewing a cup of tea that she doesn’t drink. And it’s not easy for her to put away a sock, or close a cabinet, or do a dish, but she tries for me. Nicole grew up in LA around actors, and directors, and movies, and TV, and is very close to her mother, Sandra, and Cassie, her sister.

Nicole gives great presents. She is a mother who plays, really plays. She never steps off playing, or says it’s too much. And it must be too much some of the time. She’s competitive. She’s amazing at opening jars because of her strong arms, which I’ve always found very sexy. She keeps the fridge over-full. No one is ever hungry in our house. She can drive a stick. After that movie, All Over The Girl, she could have stayed in LA and been a movie star, but she gave that up to do theatre with me in New York. She’s brave. She’s a great dancer. Infectious. She makes me wish I could dance. She always says when she doesn’t know something, or hasn’t read a book, or seen a film, or a play, whereas I fake it, or say something like, “I haven’t seen it in a while.” My crazy ideas are her favourite things to figure out how to execute. She’s my favourite actress.

*           *           *           *           *

Nicole: What I love about Charlie. Charlie is undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions, or any setbacks keep him from what he wants to do. Charlie eats like he’s trying to get it over with, and like there won’t be enough food for everyone. A sandwich is to be strangled while devoured. But he’s incredibly neat, and I rely on him to keep things in order. He’s energy-conscious. He doesn’t look in the mirror too often.

He cries easily in movies. He’s very self-sufficient. He can darn a sock, and cook himself dinner, and iron a shirt. He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do. Charlie takes all of my moods steadily. He doesn’t give in to them, or make me feel bad about them. He’s a great dresser. He never looks embarrassing, which is hard for a man. He’s very competitive. He loves being a dad. He loves all the things you’re supposed to hate, like the tantrums, the waking up at night. It’s almost annoying how much he likes it, but then it’s mostly nice.

He disappears into his own world. He and Henry are alike in that way. He can tell people when they have food in their teeth, or on their face in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad. Charlie is self-made. His parents, I only met them once, but he told me there was a lot of alcohol, and some violence in his childhood. He moved to New York from Indiana with no safety net, and now he’s more New Yorker than any New Yorker. He’s brilliant at creating family out of whoever is around. With the theatre company, he cast a spell that made everyone feel included. No one, not even an intern, was unimportant. He could remember all the inside jokes. He’s extremely organised and thorough. He’s very clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell.

*           *           *           *           *

Nicole: [to Nora] In the beginning, I was the actress, the star, and that felt like something, you know. People came to see me at first, but the farther away I got from that, and the more acclaim the theatre company got, I had less and less weight. I just became, “Who?” “Well, you know, the actress that was in that thing that time.” And he was the draw. And that would’ve been fine, but I got smaller. I realised I didn’t ever really come alive for myself. I was just feeding his aliveness.

*           *           *           *           *

Charlie: [Reading Nicole’s letter] He could remember all the inside jokes. He’s extremely organised and thorough. He’s very clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell. I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

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Moulin Rouge! – The Broadway Extravaganza

1 September 2019 at 07:47
By: Jolene

For wide-eyed first-timers to New York, the lure of Broadway and all its promises of razzle dazzle would have been irresistible. Such was the lure which led me to fork out a mouth-watering US$500 for two mezzanine tickets at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in midtown Manhattan.

If the stage setting was anything to go by – pure opulence bathed in a sumptuous, saucy sea of red – Alex Timbers’ adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 classic film is the full embodiment of Broadway showmanship. Just soaking up the grandeur of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre was an event in itself for those savvy enough to arrive early. In addition to the movie’s signature elephant and windmill taking pride of place on set, the red-on-red heart décor promised a larger-than-life love story.

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The place is now set for the titular Paris nightclub, and thus Moulin Rouge! begins with a bold rendition of “Lady Marmalade”, expertly performed by four women clad in sexy black lingerie befitting of the times (the year is ostensibly 1899). The stage soon yielded the famous courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo) in similarly opulent fashion, making her grand entrance by way of descending heavenly from a swing, clad in a diamond corset and belting out none other than “Diamonds Are Forever”.

In contrast, our leading man Christian (played by an enchantingly boyish Aaron Tveit of the Les Misérables fame) emerges from the city’s more humble backstreets. Don’t be fooled by his humble origins though. The aspiring songwriter from small-town Ohio boasts a voice of rich dulcet tenor which crescendoes like molten lava, fiery and velvety at the same time. And boy, that face! Shy.  Mercurial. It was the face to which the spotlights were inextricably drawn that night, darting and weaving, but always searching and finding solace in its steady beauty. It was as if he belonged there; a fixture of the Parisian bohemian setting and a bastion of unconditional love.

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Like the film, Moulin Rouge! is a jukebox bonanza, incorporating more than 75 of the most celebrated pop songs of our time in a tightly woven two-and-a-half hours. Unlike the film, the musical did what movies could not: bringing actors and their vulnerabilities to life. The musical’s centrepieces – “Your Song”, “Shut Up and Dance” and “Come What May” – showcase Satine and Christian’s fated love story just as well as their hopes.

Moulin Rouge! has also been blessed with an ultra-talented supporting cast, who delivered pyrotechnic medleys of “Bad Romance”, “Chandelier” and “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”. The show will have you glued to the edge of your seats wondering what’s next on the Who’s Who of the international pop scene. And in a moment of levity, Christian’s impressive lyrical mash-up “I Don’t Want to Wait”, “Every Breath You Take” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” produced one of the most memorable moments of the show.

Many a naysayer will condemn the musical for its uninspiring and lacklustre storytelling. However, ultimately its splendour lies not in the narrative, but in Broadway’s deep understanding that human hearts are won by popular music that helps us to relate, interpret and unpack our feelings.

By the end of the night, the atmosphere was electric and the audience spent. Timeout called Moulin Rouge! “the jukebox musical to end all jukebox musicals” and it’s not far from the mark. As makeshift heart confetti flowed from the ceilings, so did our hearts overflow with the euphoria of witnessing something truly alive and extraordinary. Broadway did more than just razzle dazzle, it set alight our collective fantasies of love, lust and the audacity of dreams. Such was Moulin Rouge!’s timeless appeal, and it delivered in spades.

Rewatchability Index: 4.5/5.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical premiered on 10 July 2018 at the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston. Moulin Rouge! opened on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and previews commenced on 28 June 2019. Official Broadway run commenced on 25 July 2019, continuing through to 5 July 2020. International premiere of the musical would take place in Melbourne, Australia, at the Regent Theatre in 2021. The writer soaked up the Broadway extravaganza on 6 August 2019.

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Making Peace with Your Insecurities – Because You Are Good Enough

19 May 2019 at 03:59
By: Jolene

There are times when I feel so thoroughly depleted that I cannot write a word, let alone string together a sentence. There are times when nothing I say or do comes out right, the way I intended it to be.

What if I told you this has been one of those times? What if I told you that I have been struggling with writing for the past 5 months, because of all the false starts and false premises of what I wanted to leave behind?

The past few months have been hard, personally and professionally. I have felt the insecurities of my youth catching up with me – sometimes subtly, but sometimes all at once – the inner critic clasping me in its cold clammy grip and taunting me with the thought that I am never good enough.

Growing up, my mum would introduce me to her acquaintances. Harmless as this may seem, I faced many a look of sympathy that accompanied every remark of “oh, that girl has a head on her shoulders; such a shame she isn’t pretty”. As a young child when being praised as “pretty” was equivalent to winning the social lotto, I felt this keenly, so much so that I never wanted to be introduced again as her daughter. My mum persevered with her introductions, once asking a colleague’s young son to pick the “pretty” one between the angelic girl next door and her tomboy daughter. No consolation prizes there as to how that vote went. Suffice to say it was one of the most cringe-worthy moments of my life.

High school opened up a whole different can of insecurities. Being pretty certainly helped those popularity contests, but popularity, it seems, was fought and won by the kind of charm and charisma that could out-rival even the best political arenas. I was glad that the hard truths I had learnt earlier in life had shielded me somewhat from the hard truths I was yet to learn in school.

Since then, the corporate jungle has possibly whipped my insecurities into a frenzy. Relentless comparisons to the alpha male ideal served as constant reminders that I’m never quite eloquent enough, smart enough, connected enough, or just… man enough. Just when I thought everything was within reach, catchphrases like “it’s not what you know, but who you know” further belittled my sense of contribution and worth.

All my life I have been told that I’m not good enough. And all my life I have carried those insecurities as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. But alas, the mind is an organ that needs nourishment just like any other. And whilst there is almost always a pharmacist formula for taking care of our eyes, skin or heart, taking care of our mind requires us to surround ourselves with the right people and experiences. Taking care of our mind requires us to expel from our lives the kind of people that rejoice in our inadequacies and failures.

As for me, I no longer harbour any quixotic notions of fighting off the pageant police, or the school-ground Miss Congenialities, or the workplace social butterflies.

I’m done with fighting.

I’m done with benchmarking myself against the yardsticks that don’t matter to anyone else except my insecure self.

Most of all, I’m done with seeking validation for every step I take; because no one else can tell you that you are good enough. Unless you are ready to hear it.

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Happiness Is… (The Photo Edit)

25 December 2018 at 16:11
By: Jolene

1. Family

Family happiness is universally considered to be one of the most influential underpinnings of spiritual happiness. During this year’s festive season, I hope you are surrounded by the people you love, and whom love you back, unconditionally.

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I chanced upon this scene in Geneva while taking an evening stroll along Lake Geneva (2018). Nearing the end of my Swiss pilgrimage and recovering from a bout of food poisoning the previous day, I was struck by an unbecoming dose of homesickness. I stood and stared at the trio for a while, lost momentarily in their family happiness and lost in equal measure in my desire to be reunited with my own.

2. Friendship

Happiness is sharing our journey with friends, whom enrich our lives in more ways than we care to admit. Let us be grateful to the friends that make our hearts sing and impart us with the knowledge that we are safe to be exactly who we are.

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I took this shot in Grasmere in the English Lake District (2016) during the height of my Lego photography craze. I rather liked the photogenic pair, don’t you?

3. Reflections

Happiness is hitting pause to reminisce those moments that meant the most to us. In a year that presented challenges aplenty, I certainly held onto my moments, and the people that have occupied a space and time that once filled me with hope.

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Reflection perfection in Interlaken (2018).

4. Reading

Happiness is delving into the world of others. I came across an enlightening read this year – Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two – which aptly highlighted the powers of creative pairs. In a world of self-idolisation, let us not forget the Paul McCartneys behind the John Lennons and the Ulays behind the Marina Abramovics. No man is an island, and the concept of lone geniuses unnecessarily diminishes the blood, sweat and tears of the unwavering other.

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I snapped this image of a yawning cat in Shanghai (2018) moments before the boy intruded into view. Whilst a photo of a yawning feline is in itself an opportune snap, it is the unsuspecting boy that completes this picture.

5. Sharing

Happiness is sharing the simple pleasures in life. A burden shared is at a times a burden halved, and a joy shared is most definitely a joy doubled.

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Of all the delicacies I have had on my travels, it is this hearty fare in Finland that I remembered the best (2018), not for its culinary pleasures per se, but sharing the flavours of home whilst standing on its diametrically opposite.

6. Solitude

Happiness is finding solace in solitude and learning to appreciate that time to oneself is just as nourishing to the soul. Whilst there is arguably nothing worse than feeling lonely in a crowd, feeling comfortable in our own skin and making peace with solitude can truly be one of the most rewarding discoveries.

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Solitude can be deafening in Iceland, being one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula, on Iceland’s west coast, captivates in its wintry sparseness (2018).

7. All in the pursuit

Too often has the pursuit of happiness been misunderstood. For far too long have we placed the emphasis on Happiness, yet all the while relegating the Pursuit to a consolatory afterthought. As a new year dawns, let us embrace the Pursuit, of everything that is important and of everything upon which our Happiness depends.

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We were treated to an amazing sunrise on our last day in the Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi (2018). It continues to serve as a reminder that the day is young, and there is no time like the present.

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A Star is Born (2018)

4 November 2018 at 05:49
By: Jolene

“I just wanted to take another look at you”.

So he did. And in his eyes she is reborn.

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The age-old tale of stardom and discovery has been told innumerable times before. And indeed, A Star is Born has been remade on three separate occasions since its original 1937 film, as a musical in 1954 and 1976 and a 2013 Bollywood romance. It is a brave call for Bradley Cooper to star in his directorial feature film debut and think he can do one better.

There is always something about meeting for the first time that transports us to the exact same moment in our own lives. Cooper’s portrayal of this is particularly resonant. Jackson Maine (Cooper), a seasoned country singer, prowls the night scene after a smash hit performance. Chancing upon a drag club, he enters the familiar world of booze and idolisation. There he meets a budding singer-songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga), rendering an electrifying performance of Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose. They make eye contact; she recognising in him the stardom that she never dares dream, and he discovering the emotional depth that has so far eluded him due to that very stardom. In that one moment as a fresh-faced Ally emerges to Jackson’s touching rendition of his own song, a tremendous amount has been said, and their lives are forever intertwined.

For those of us fortunate enough, we will meet seemingly confident men who tell us to “just trust” and dive into our deepest vulnerabilities. For Ally and Jackson, the result is nothing short of magical. Their joint debut – “Shallow” – only sought to solidify their natural affinity as artists and lovers.

Of course, this is where the initial mutual admiration takes its dramatic turn. Our natural human insecurities come to the fore, as one partner burgeons and shines just as another withers and fades. Jackson’s struggles with alcoholism, substance abuse and bouts of depression and self-debasement reflect a well-trodden path of celebrity self-destruction. Ally’s unwavering devotion (to what she considers her teacher and companion in life) is mesmerising, and her solo performances “Always Remember Us This Way” and “I’ll Never Love Again” spoke volumes of nostalgia and pain.

The debate about whether Cooper’s film is better than its previous iterations is superfluous; just as a debate about the merits of evolution of time and space. Cooper and Lady Gaga’s uncannily suited vocals and faultless chemistry onscreen combine to weave a contemporary take on the story of discovery, growth, and ultimately, sacrifice.

Rewatchability Index: 4/5.

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The Danish Hotel Icon – SAS Royal Hotel Copenhagen

1 October 2018 at 08:03
By: Jolene

In 1956, the Danish design maestro Arne Jacobsen was given the coveted opportunity to design the world’s “first designer hotel”. The result is a stunning piece of modernist architecture celebrated the world over as the SAS Royal Hotel, the first skyscraper in Copenhagen. Built for the airline Scandinavian Airlines System (“SAS”), Jacobsen’s influences permeated every detail of the twenty-two storey masterpiece, from exterior design to interiors and furnishings. It was for this building that Jacobsen designed his iconic Egg, Swan, Drop and Pot chairs, which earned him critical acclaim in the fields of building and furniture design.

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As an aficionado of Danish design, the hotel beckoned every time I visited the city. Well-located in Copenhagen’s city centre and a mere 3 minutes from Tivoli amusement park and Central Station, it was an unmissable landmark. Learning of its timely refurbishment in early 2018, we eventually decided to part with the hefty A$400 / night price tag (circa US$300 / night equivalent) and opened our eyes to the opulence of Scandinavian design.

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Today, the SAS Royal Hotel (now rebranded as Radisson Collection Hotel, Royal Copenhagen) is still testament to the style icon’s aesthetic endurance. Whilst the redesign sought to modernise the interiors, it continued to celebrate its pre-existing character and soul.

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The suspended spiral staircase, one of the most recognised features of the original design, has been artfully restored, allowing it to regain its rightful prominence as a seamless connection between the lobby and mezzanine space. Ultimately, in Jacobsen’s hotel, it will always be the furniture that takes pride of place and cements its position at the apex of Scandinavian luxury.

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The writer stayed at Radisson Collection Hotel, Royal Copenhagen on 3 April 2018 as a full fee paying patron.

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Light House (Featuring Melbourne, Australia)

21 July 2018 at 08:00
By: Jolene

Light shines bright in the sky

Illuminating our lives

In shades of vivid hues and meaning

Light shines

Through depths of sorrow and despair

Casting shadows everywhere

A beacon of hope, love and laughter

It shines selflessly

Most people call it Home…

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Hot air balloons over Melbourne CBD

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Dandenong Ranges

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Eureka Skydeck

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A cafe in Sassafras

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Flinders Station

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The Guilty (Den Skyldige) (2018)

1 July 2018 at 08:23
By: Jolene

Country: Denmark

Language: Danish

There is something about film festivals that resonates with the eclectic in me. Whilst a plethora of Asian (and other foreign) films have graced cinema screens Down Under in recent years, my quest for everything Nordic has so far left me with slim pickings. That is, until the 2018 Sydney Film Festival closed on a thrilling high.

In front of a sell-out crowd at Sydney’s State Theatre, Gustav Möller’s The Guilty had us under its spell for a riveting 85 minutes. As a directorial debut at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, the minimalist, low-budget set-up was perhaps to be expected. That is where expectations ended in signature Nordic fashion. The breakout Danish thriller – anchored by its leading man Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) – clung to my senses like an uncomfortably damp glove on a frigid winter night.

The stolid, disinterested Asger may not be what we have in mind when we call through the Copenhagen Emergency Services with our life on the line. For reasons slowly unravelled in the film, the emergency call operator deems it beneath him to handle jackass behaviour chained to his desk and phone. From sorry tales of self-induced intoxication, to knee scrapes and jaunts in the red light district gone wrong, Asger barely suppresses his disgust and dismay at the range of social stupidity. His unsympathetic remarks, such as classic one-liners “it’s your own fault, isn’t it?” and “let him sit and stew in it”, provide comic relief in an otherwise tightly wound narrative.

The light-heartedness does not last long, however, as Asger takes a cryptic call from a traumatised female known only as Iben (Jessica Dinnage). Disguising the emergency call as a conversation with her “sweetie”, the quavering Iben appeals to the operator to end her highway abduction by her violent ex-husband Michael (Johan Olsen). Instantly alert, Asger displays his investigative prowess and unleashes one of the most intense and gruesome manhunts to have ever played out within the confines of our aural senses.

For a film that trains its spotlight on the actions (or reactions) of one man, Cedergren rises to the implausible challenge and renders a faultless performance throughout. Having never watched his performances, Cedergren’s vocal and facial tenacity, upon which the success of this film is hinged, proved as masterful as it is infectious. Of course, Cedergren harbours his own secrets and The Guilty is but a perfectly loaded pretext, as we have come to expect of Nordic noir at its finest.

Ultimately, The Guilty is also a captivating character study where, perhaps, the deepest character analysis lies with ourselves and our imaginations. For a film that never leaves the call centre, it’s taken us full circle on grisly crime scenes and excruciating circumstances of lives hanging in the balance. We are duly confronted by our impetuosity as audience, where collectively we embark on a redemptive journey to face the fallible in all of us.

Rewatchability Index: 4.5/5.

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Jungfrau Region (Switzerland) – A Hiker’s Paradise (Part 2)

13 May 2018 at 08:12
By: Jolene

Most climbers aren’t in fact deranged, they’re just infected with a particularly virulent strain of the Human Condition.

– Jon Krakauer (Eiger Dreams)

Start here for Part 1 of my Hiker’s Paradise in Switzerland’s Jungfrau region. 

Grindelwald

Fresh from my discovery of Lauterbrunnen and Gimmelwald just the day before, I set out to explore Switzerland’s famed mountain resort of Grindelwald. Located at the foot of the north face of Eiger, the village appeals not only to the mountaineering elite, but remains a drawcard for tourists, whom are attracted by its emerald-green alpine pastures and lakes, as well as its proximity to a myriad of hiking trails and mountain lookouts.

Whilst lacking an element of dramatic mystique often associated with Lauterbrunnen, the village of Grindelwald offers an idyllic ambience with colourful Swiss wooden chalets adorning the landscape.

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Alpine cows of Grindelwald

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Ten minutes from Grindelwald station, the Grindelwald First cable car beckoned in the horizon. I have heard much about the dizzying heights of the Grindelwald First Cliff Walk, a suspended footbridge hugging the Grindelwald First summit. It is this I have come for. The cable car ride ascends over 1,000m in under half an hour and serves up picture-perfect vistas of Swiss alpine life set amongst rocky slopes and snow-capped peaks.

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Grindelwald First cable car, with Mt Eiger in the background

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Howling winds greeted me at the summit, doing their best to unravel my already tattered nerves. After a number of false starts and what seemed to be an interminable hour, I put one foot gingerly in front of the other on the death-defying walkway towards Eiger’s North Face.

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Grindelwald First Cliff Walk, with the infamous Mt Eiger beckoning amongst the clouds

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Thun

The placid Lake Thun offered welcoming relief after an adrenalin-infused day. The city of Thun, located at the lower end of Lake Thun and 30 minutes from Interlaken, is widely considered the gateway to the Bernese Oberland. With its distinct wooden bridges and cobbled streets, Thun’s historic Old Town is reminiscent of the Swiss city of Lucerne and boasts a 12th century castle as the city’s proud landmark.

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Mini-Lucerne – Thun’s Old Town

A cruise on Lake Thun would be one of the most tranquil ways to cap the day. For the die-hards amongst us, the hour-long walk along the shores of Lake Thun is highly memorable and culminates in the Oberhofen Castle, renowned for its medieval keep and distinctive lakeside turrets.

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Oberhofen Castle, Lake Thun

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Jungfrau Region (Switzerland) – A Hiker’s Paradise (Part 1)

28 April 2018 at 03:41
By: Jolene

Let me start by apologising for my prolonged absence from my beloved WP community. Sure, I have replied to comments and even stalked my favourite sites from time to time, but for the most part, it might have appeared that I’d slipped into premature hibernation.

Alas, I have just been travelling! Unlike my previous travels, this trip was a keenly anticipated affair involving some of the most secluded destinations and maiden experiences in Finland, Iceland, Denmark (yes, again!) and Switzerland. Travelling never ceases to have the power to amaze or bedazzle, and over the coming months, I hope to share my journeys and disseminate the travel bug near and afar.

On my final leg, I spent 9 days in Switzerland soaking up the glorious Swiss Alps and its labyrinth of lakes and villages. Switzerland’s crippling cost of living may have deterred the budget conscious (myself included, although hiking on a restricted diet is a sure-fire way to lose those stubborn kilos), the country has decidedly won me over with its jaw-dropping landscapes and vibrant urban culture.

Located in the Swiss Jungfrau region and sandwiched between Lake Brienz to the east and Lake Thun to the west, Interlaken – literally meaning between lakes – is geographically blessed and easily topped my list of “must-see” Swiss destinations. Many will also attest to Interlaken’s strategic connectivity to some of the most iconic Swiss hiking trails and undulating alpine villages. Most of the sites are accessible by car, but the Swiss trains, funiculars and mountain railway networks are meticulously planned and offer an unbeatable travel experience.

Whilst a separate blog post will be dedicated to Interlaken shortly, here are my Top 5 recommendations within a stone’s throw of the town.

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Classic Lauterbrunnen, featuring Lauterbrunnen village church and Staubbach Falls

Lauterbrunnen, the valley of “Many Fountains”, is arguably the most picturesque in the Jungfrau region. A breezy 20-minute train ride from Interlaken, its very name alludes to the proliferation of thundering waterfalls (all 72 of them). The Staubbach Falls is perhaps the most Instagrammed, creating a dramatic backdrop to showcase Lauterbrunnen’s gigantic rock faces and traditional wooden alpine houses.

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Moody Lauterbrunnen

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Gimmelwald

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Lauterbrunnen valley, base of the Gimmelwald gondola

From Lauterbrunnen station, I decided to hike the (relatively) flat terrain in the Lauterbrunnen valley along the Stechelberg bus route. My lazy tendencies set in after a while and I hopped on the next yellow Stechelberg bus that rolled along. The legitimate reason, of course, is that the supposed 1.5 hour hike would have taken until midnight with a camera clicking in overdrive. The bus leads to the Gimmelwald gondola (terminal stop), where, after 5 spellbinding minutes, the village of Gimmelwald awaits.

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View of Lauterbrunnen valley, from the gondola to Gimmelwald

Compared to its better known cousin, Grindelwald, Gimmelwald is an unpolished gem hidden in the Swiss Alps. With an elevation of ~1,367m, the traffic-free village is perched casually on the edge of a cliff. At first blush, the village seems to be overrun by mountain goats and alpine horses and cows…

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Rocking the granny grey mane…
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Ms Sultry

But with vistas like these you soon learn why they are in no hurry to give up the place they call home.

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Gimmelwald village

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Sentimental favourite

(Taken at different locations, these two combined to create an uncanny photo jigsaw!)

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Unforgettable (Featuring Eagle’s Nest)

11 February 2018 at 04:06
By: Jolene

Dear You,

We often speak of time standing still. We speak of seismic moments; moments which never fail to immobilise us in our thoughts and prayers for another exquisite encounter. We speak of our dreams, hopes and joys – near and afar – as if destined to live out our forever in the numbered days.

It’s hard to forget that we have not seen each other, nor spoken, in a while. It’s harder to forget when everything reminds me of you.

I lace up my boots and pick up my camera. The lights are fading now, their dying embers painting the sky crimson, taunting me with memories of our first sunset and our first heart-to-heart.

It’s hard to forget you when you have given me a taste for life; when you opened my eyes to the world and filled it with luscious hues of depth and meaning. It’s hard to reach that depth with anyone else, without remembering how it all felt with you.

I venture forth to the eyrie on my own, 6,000 feet above the trials and tribulations of a life left behind. In that rare moment of quietude I am surrounded by your face, your smile and your voice once again.

It’s hard to forget your calming ways, a perennially soothing presence against an oftentimes cold and unforgiving landscape.

With each step now, I find myself head over heels drawn to you. Drawn to your soft breath and warm embrace. Drawn to everything that you are, and everything that you make me feel.

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Images taken at Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), Bavarian Alps, Germany

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Walk With Me (De Standhaftige) (2016)

21 January 2018 at 00:05
By: Jolene

Country: Denmark

Language: Danish

Much has been said about companionship being the greatest form of love. As elusive as this feels sometimes, it often presents itself in the most unlikeliest of places. Little did I know that I would find it in a small budget arthouse Danish film, where a weighty subject matter finds its match in the weightlessness of companionship.

Set in the wake of the conflict in Afghanistan, Walk With Me explores the debilitating effects of war and the healing powers of nascent love. Heavily wounded from a mission in Afghanistan, Thomas (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) is re-adjusting to life in a rehabilitation ward as a double amputee. Despite his injuries he remains fixated on returning to the war-torn country and is dismayed at his glacial rate of recovery. When Sofie (Cecilie Lassen) – an ascending ballerina whose aunt is also recuperating at the same ward – offers to oversee his rehabilitation regime, Thomas grudgingly accepts.

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It is perhaps unsurprising that such an adroit and delicate portrayal of light, love and ultimately, regeneration, could only have been made possible by the feminine touch. Lisa Ohlin (as director) and Karina Dam (as screenwriter) deserve full credit for this. Ohlin herself revealed that inspiration for the film stemmed from real-life meetings between wounded soldiers in Denmark and dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet. Love was an inescapable ingredient.

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What did surprise me was the effectiveness at which such a slow-burn romance tugged at the heartstrings. They spoke little; instead relying on their deepening companionship and spiritual symbiosis to convey what words could not. Ohlin’s subtleties in delivery accentuated the protagonists’ personal charm, particularly that of Folsgaard, whose elevation from the mad king in A Royal Affair to the quintessential Scandinavian heartthrob was all but complete. Lassen’s onscreen debut as Sofie is exquisite, and as a former ballerina herself, adds an authentic, uplifting balance to Thomas’ ruggedness. And in an ending reminiscent of Hollywood’s Brooklyn, the natural serenity of Copenhagen put on the charm offensive, sealing their romance against the fading rays.

Walk With Me will no doubt stay with me for a long while. Whilst it may not have been Denmark’s answer to its submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards (the film was one of three shortlisted but the honour went to an equally deserving war tale Land of Mine), it gave me my answer to the underpinnings of an unforgettable love.

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Rewatchability Index: 4/5.

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Why I Fail at New Year’s Resolutions (& How 2018 Will Be Different)

1 January 2018 at 05:12
By: Jolene

As the hour chimed midnight and fireworks danced across the skies of Sydney Harbour, I sat on my favourite couch and eagerly Googled this term: New Year’s Resolutions. As a firm believer of “what will be will be”, I’m not one to dwell on resolutions. After a particularly tumultuous 2017, however, a confidence booster would have been most welcome. Google wasn’t there to deliver it though, in fact, it practically told me to place my NYRs where it belongs in the shredder, as only 8% of those who create them actually achieve their goals.

Granted, I’m supremely skilled (and I mean supremely) at never doing the things that I said I would, but a new year offers the perfect opportunity to gloss over past failings and look forward with fresh resolve. Here’s my top 3 insights into why NYRs fail so spectacularly, and how I’m going to be doing things differently in 2018.

1. Lack of clarity

This is what I consider to be the number one killer of NYRs. Have you ever had grand plans to kick-start the new year with a “new you” by vowing to exercise harder, eat healthier and focus on fostering better relationships, only to flounder before the ink is barely dry? Resolutions that are fluid and can be subject to multiple interpretations are doomed from the start. A more effective way of structuring such resolutions would be to have regard to the SMART way: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound. Running 5 miles per day for 3 days a week, or kicking the KFC bucket for good, would be a better bet in longevity.

2. Lack of motivation

Having the right mindset is paramount, but most of the time, motivation wanes when we view NYRs as a chore, a burden on our already laborious lives. So much of NYRs these days focus on doing what we should be doing, rather than what we inherently want to do, that ultimately drive us to despair. Forget what Kim Kardashian is flaunting on Instagram and check your envy when your best friend is basking under the Tuscan sun for what seems to be the umpteenth time. Life is not a race; at least not one where racing by someone else’s standards will serve any relevance or purpose. Focus on what fundamentally motivates and sustains us longer term will inevitably bring about a deeper sense of meaning and fulfilment.

3. Lack of support

Whilst it is somewhat easy to start a venture on our own, sustaining one when feeling lonesome is a perennial challenge. We quickly lose momentum and the motivation to track progress, celebrate success or reset the bar when goals become too easy. But we are never alone. Joining the WP community broadens our horizons and provides strength in numbers, which is why I’m counting on my WP extended family to be my witnesses in this journey. I will be holding myself accountable for my 2018 NYRs and hope to revert with an official stocktake before the year is out.

With all that’s been said and done, I doubt you would let me off the hook without sharing my NYRs for 2018. So here goes:

1. Reconnect with at least 1 old acquaintance.

2. Learn 2 new skills.

3. Try 3 new activities.

4. Explore 4 new countries: I’m hoping this will be a low hanging fruit, as I will be visiting Finland, Iceland and Switzerland in March. Any suggestions for the fourth?

5. Read 15 books.

6. Follow 20 bloggers on a regular basis.

7. Watch 30 films.

What are some of your New Year’s Resolutions? Any suggestions for travel destinations, books, films and bloggers are also welcome!

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