Lost souls and All Hallows Eve

All Hallows Eve

100 days of solitude, Day 52: October 31, 2014

Mythology spills into life again and here, in Sifnos, the stories of Apollo and Daphne, Daphne and Orpheus and Orpheus and Eurydice all come together to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd.

I had forgotten about Apollo and Daphne, but living on Apollo’s island and thinking back, this morning, on another Sifnos romance of the past, I was reminded of my mythological namesake. Daphne was a Naiad, a freshwater nymph, and daughter of the rivergod Pineios. According to the myth, arrogant Apollo made fun of love god Eros and his trademark bow and arrow, telling him, in effect, to leave weapons to the big boys, such as himself. Eros, twisted little bastard that we all know him to be, responded to this insult by taking two arrows, one of gold to induce love, and one of lead, to incite hatred, and shooting them through the hearts of Apollo and Daphne, respectively. Apollo was seized by a helpless, passionate love for Daphne and she, in turn, couldn’t stand the sight of him.
    Apollo pursued her relentlessly but she was having none of it and kept eluding him, until Eros intervened and Daphne realised she was about to be cornered. She appealed to her rivergod father to save her and he cast an enchantment to transform her, where she stood, into a bay laurel tree. Her skin turned to bark, her legs grew into roots that burrowed deep into the ground and her arms became branches laden with fragrant bay leaves; Apollo caught up with her and tried to enfold his tree-shaped love in a desperate embrace, but those same branches shrank away from him in disgust. Undeterred and fiercely loyal, Apollo vowed to keep Daphne safe and honour her, and used his divine powers to give her eternal youth. And this is a true story, it has to be, because the laurel tree is evergreen, and its leaves are used in wreaths to crown the head of leaders.

The story of Daphne and Orpheus is also true, if a little less mythical, and it takes place in the town of Apollonia, whose streets are lined with laurel trees. Daphne, in this case, is a bored nineteen-year-old girl, back from her first year as an art student in London and trapped in the relative hell of a family holiday. Orpheus is a boy of eighteen, fresh out of school, with greasy, grungy shoulder length hair that often falls over his eyes, and a guitar.
    His mythological counterpart was a legendary musician, famed for his soulful playing of the lyre that could enchant men, women and inanimate objects alike. Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice, another nymph, and this – unlike Apollo’s doomed love – was, happily, reciprocated. They married, but on their wedding night Eurydice was bitten by a snake and sent down below, to the land of the dead. Hades, lord of the Underworld, and his wife Persephone, worn down by Orpheus’ incessant lyre playing, agreed to let him come into their realm and fetch his wife back to the land of the living. There was a condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of Eurydice and lead her out of hell without once looking back until they had both crossed the threshold. Orpheus lost faith at the last minute and turned his head, to catch one final glimpse of his love before the darkness claimed her forever.

Nothing so dramatic for Daphne and Orpheus of 1997, but he did save me from boredom, temporarily, with his guitar. I knew him, vaguely, from school: I think he was on the same school bus as me, and also had a fling with a girl in my class. I ran into him in town one evening. He was sitting on the low wall around the village square, feet dangling over the edge, strumming his guitar. I stopped and said hello.
    ‘Sit,’ he said.
    I sat.
    ‘Do you like Pink Floyd?’
    I nodded. And without further ado, Orpheus launched into the opening chords of Wish You Were Here. As the intro was nearing its end, he turned his head towards me and fixed his eyes on me from behind a curtain of dark hair.
    ‘Sing along,’ he said.
    So I sang.
    Tentatively at first, unused to the sound of my own singing voice in public, unsure of how it matched his, and I kept looking over at him for reassurance, and he kept giving these little nods of encouragement in response, and our voices came together on that song, his low and raspy and mine higher and trembling a bit, and somehow it worked.
And when the song ended, Orpheus rested his guitar flat on his lap, laid one hand on top of it to keep it steady, and placed the other on the back of my neck, drew me in and kissed me.
I kissed him back.
And thus began my most romantic of Sifnos romances that turned me, for a few summer nights, from Apollo’s Daphne to Orpheus’ Eurydice, with busking thrown in.

That first kiss: the way he just claimed it, as if there was no question that it could be denied. I didn’t remember Orpheus being that assertive at school; I didn’t remember much about him at all, except that he existed in the margins of my social life, an awkward kid who played in a band, a little too greasy for my liking. But there was something mesmerising about him now, and I knew even then that half of it was an act, but the other half was genuinely captivating. He smelt musty and manly and vaguely unwashed: skin, sweat, cigarettes and mildew, in a heady combination that made me press up against him for more. And he was a good kisser, deep and unrushed and fully committed to it – which is a bit of a deal breaker when kissing is all you are doing. But more than anything else, I think it was the music that did it; it was his golden arrow. Like the other Orpheus of myth, he could charm the pants off you with his guitar. Although I would like to point out that this observation is part conjecture and part unfulfilled desire, because my pants, though they were fumbled with, stayed firmly on that summer. Ours was a romance of serenades and slow, torturous kisses, and an achey longing that it never occurred to us to act upon. We would just pull apart, flustered and breathless, and sing another song.
    I don’t know how we graduated from that first semi-private performance of Wish You Were Here in the shadows of the square to busking, with a plastic cup by our feet, in the most prominent locations in town. I have no idea what possessed me, what emboldened me to do it. Orpheus identified as a musician, but I am not and never have been a performer of any sort. But I sat beside him, leaning back against walls and lampposts, with my knees drawn to my chest, outside bars and restaurants and shops, and sang with him, every night. I can only explain it through legend, a legend I didn’t know about at the time, and say that I had fallen under a spell.
    There was nothing original about our choice of songs. It was mostly guitar-led ballads, and Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, and Yesterday and Let it be and a few other Beatles’ favourites. The repertoire varied slightly from evening to evening, but we always did Wish You Were Here, at least once, and often a second time, as our final song before we collected ourselves and our profits, spent the latter on ice-cream and beer, and found a dark corner to kiss in.
    I never loved Orpheus but I have loved that song, deeply and unfalteringly, ever since. I no longer associate it with that boy or that summer, but it began then, when we sang it together, and meant every word. Being teenagers, I don’t know what we thought we knew about lost souls, but we put ours into every word we sang, and for those few moments that it lasted every time, we really felt it, as if we had written the lyrics ourselves.

It’s been almost twenty years since that summer, and I’ve met some lost souls in that time, and lost mine more than once, and traded beauty for convenience, and compromised for the easy things instead of fighting for the worthy and the hard, and I have sung Wish You Were Here from inside my fishbowl, looking out at a distorted view of the world through the thick, curved glass. I know now a little of what those lyrics mean.
    But it seems that I have spilled out of my bowl, and found new ground in the old, and come to a place where I can see myself on the other side of that song and choose the things that matter this time around. And I don’t know if it was myth or legend or enchantment, the lyrics of a song or something else entirely that brought me where I am, but I do know that it’s here that it all, somehow, comes together. And yes, by now, I do think I can tell.


Pink Floyd’s Wish you were here is, in my very humble opinion, probably the best song ever written. Listen to it here.


100 days of solitude, Day 53: November 1, 2014

‘It’s Halloween,’ Eleni told me on the phone last night. ‘Did you light a candle?
    ‘What? No. Why?’
    ‘You should light a candle and place it by the window. You never know what might come in, on a night like this.’
    I thought about it. ‘I have my aromatherapy oil diffuser on, which is lit up and changes colours. Does that count? It’s by my bedroom window.’
    ‘I’m not sure,’ Eleni admitted. ‘I’m making pumpkin with paprika for dinner,’ she added. ‘I’ve burnt it a bit.’
    We both agreed, without quite knowing why, that this was appropriate.

Halloween. All Hallows Eve, the night when the spirits of the dead wander the earth. Another day I missed because I was absolutely convinced, all day yesterday, that the date was the 30th of October
    ‘It’s the 31st,’ Eleni corrected. ‘It’s tonight.’
    ‘That’s funny,’ I said. ‘I’ve just been writing about lost souls.’
    ‘It’s Halloween,’ Eleni repeated, as if that explained it. But I hadn’t known.

It was a dark night, moonless and cold, and I had been sufficiently spooked on my way to the supermarket, up the deserted, windswept path, intermittently and insufficiently lit by pale street lights that somehow make the inky blackness in between seem even deeper.
    ‘There are so many weird noises,’ I told my mum, whom I’d called for company on the walk, as trees shook their branches threateningly at me from the shadows – and I think they were elms.
    ‘You sound different,’ she said, and I could tell by her tone that she was concerned.
    ‘I’m the same,’ I assured her. ‘I’m fine. But this is different. It’s kind of savage, you know? Wild.’
    ‘Even the locals say so,’ she agreed.
    And I remembered how Mrs. Souli is always telling us about the darkness, about the absence of light in the neighbourhood, and how nice it is when we turn up and put ours on. I never knew what she meant, until now.

On Halloween, they say, all journeys must be completed before sunset, but the sun sets at half past five, and I didn’t know what day it was, and I went out at 7:45. I needed to buy baking paper. My granddad was displeased. I called him on the way back and he worked out, by the way I was slightly out of breath, that I was walking. His voice rose in panic and anger.
    ‘What are you doing out at this time of night?’ he demanded.
    ‘It’s eight o’clock,’ I pointed out, with a laugh.
    ‘No it’s not!’ A pause, while he presumably checked his watch. ‘I don’t care what time it is! You shouldn’t be out, it’s dangerous!’
    I looked around, at the blackness and the ghostly lights and the shadows whipped about by the wind, but I’d had my moment of weakness, my accidental Halloween, and I was feeling brave again by now.
    ‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. ‘It might sound scary, but there is nothing bad here at all. It’s probably safer than any other place I could be.’
    He wasn’t convinced, I know; he never will be, but these are my darkened streets and I’m the one who walks them, and I can’t expect everyone to understand.

No one knows exactly how Halloween began. Some say its origins are purely Christian, the eve of the feast of All Saints, a time to remember the saints and the martyrs and the faithful departed. Others trace its roots back to pagan harvest festivals, and the Gaelic Samhain in particular, which is celebrated from sunset on the 31st of October to sunset on the 1st of November, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and marks the passage from the bright days of summer and harvest season to winter and the darker side of the year. This is a time when fairies slip through the cracks and walk among us, and the dead revisit their homes and are offered food at our tables.
    On Halloween, the veil between words is thinner and fire is important. Candles are lit in Christian graveyards to commemorate the souls of the dead, and the pagans light bonfires to ward off evil spirits. And in a house in Sifnos, an oil diffuser flashing pink and green and red and blue stands guard at the window to keep the darkness out. Accidentally, because I didn’t know about lighting candles until Eleni mentioned it, and I didn’t know it was Halloween. And I still don’t know if it counts, because it isn’t fire, it’s just brightness that you plug in, and maybe the spirits don’t recognise electric lights but only living, dancing flames.
    But I wonder if any of it is really accidental. I didn’t know about Halloween yesterday, and I spent the day writing about lost souls. And I didn’t know about Samhain either, not until this afternoon when I did some research, but this morning I was out in the garden, patting the soil into beds and planting seeds for winter.
    I think some things are woven into the fabric that we’re all made of, and a lot of what we dismiss as accident or explain as coincidence is just the natural way of everything falling into place to form a pattern that was drawn long ago. And maybe on Halloween, on certain days during the year, it’s us, on this side, that break through into other realms, and tune into something bigger than ourselves, something that is ancient and unstoppable, like the passage of seasons and the changes that it brings. This is a Christian island, but it was bonfires they were lighting yesterday, not candles for the dead; bonfires to burn the last of the summer away and prepare the fields for the cold months ahead. There were no masks and no pumpkins and no rituals, but these people celebrate what’s important in their everyday ways.
    And maybe some of their ways are rubbing off on me, or maybe it’s the water or the wind or the soil I was kneeling on this morning, but it seems I’ve fallen in line with the pattern, and it wasn’t an accident. And maybe tonight I’ll place a light in my window deliberately, a comfort for my neighbour and a beacon to invite the spirits in, and then I’ll set the table for all of us to eat together, because the darkness outside frightens me only a little, and there is nothing bad here at all. It’s the safest place I can be.


This is Day 52 and 53 from 100 days of solitude, written and first published on October 31 and November 1, 2014.


Pictured in the photo, at the top of the hill, is a gateway to nothing. I thought it was appropriate.

Bring it on

ohi day

Depression came. She came to tell me to go my bed. She came with the storm but, like the storm, I had felt her rumbling approach long before that. She likes to give warning, build up the anticipation, set you up for the plunge into her horrible anticlimax, the flatness she brings that neutralises everything into nothing.
    The day before, the Tuesday, was symbolic, and there were signs of her already. It was a national holiday, ohi day, the day of no, and it completely passed me by. On the 28th of October 1940, Benito Mussolini delivered an ultimatum to the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas: allow the Italian forces free passage into Greece, to occupy certain strategic locations, or there will be war. Metaxas refused but, contrary to popular misconception, he did not just say “no”; he responded in French, the diplomatic language of the day, and said: ‘Alors, c’est la guerre’. Then, it is war. But the Greeks love slogans and battle cries and, in contrast to their everyday conversation, they like them punchy and to the point. And they couldn’t very well take to the streets shouting stuff in French; they had their national pride to consider, especially on a day like this. So Alors, c’est la guerre became a resounding Greek No!, ohi, a short, two syllable word of pure defiance, and that’s the word they chanted, in their thousands, when they spilled out on the streets of Athens, until their throats were raw. And then, there was war.
    There are parades on ohi day, and marching bands, and bunting, and the Greek flag flies everywhere. The children gather in the village square, dressed in white shirts and navy blue skirts and trousers, and march proudly through town, and the officials make moving speeches about the courage and integrity of the noble race of the Greeks. All this took place on Tuesday, and I missed it, cooped up in my house on top of the hill, typing away on my computer. When I passed through town in the evening, all that remained was the bunting, a long row of blue and white flags flapping about in the breeze over the empty benches in the square.
    I felt her approach in the late afternoon, after the celebration that had gone ahead without me. Nothing too obvious, but there was a restlessness that often preludes her arrival. I dressed myself in several layers and stepped out into the final vestiges of the gloomy day. I would walk, I decided, down to the ring road and follow it round in a big circle, all the way to the supermarket, past the playground and back home; it would take about an hour. This was not a road I’d walked before. You wouldn’t do it in the summer: it’s too busy with cars using it to bypass the traffic at the centre of town and, like most of these island roads, it makes no provision for pedestrians.
    I should have known better than to expose myself to all that nothingness; I should have known I was making it too easy for her to find me. I had counted on quiet roads, a peaceful, contemplative walk to settle me down, but I’d forgotten about ohi day, and I got more than I bargained for. There was nobody around, only stillness and, every now and then, the parked up vehicles of everyday labour, abandoned only for this one short day of celebration that seemed to stretch, infinite, into the future and the past. This is a small island, but the emptiness made it seem vast, and it was exciting at first, like a child suddenly free to explore all the secret places that adults usually guard, but then I became acutely aware of my own smallness in comparison, and the feeling turned to awe.
    It wasn’t loneliness, but the actual, physical fact of being completely alone. I let myself think about it and it frightened me. A donkey stuck his head over the fence as I was passing by, and I jumped so far that I found myself on the opposite side of the road before I realised what had happened, felt immensely silly and crossed over again to pat his muzzle and apologise. I walked on, and I could hear my footsteps on the tarmac, a dog barking, echoey, in the distance, a birdcall, the dry rustle of creatures low in the grass. Nothing else, no other sounds: nothing mechanical, nothing human. An eagle circled overhead. The shadows grew deeper. A single motorbike drove past, and the noise it made seemed completely absurd in the ever-expanding stillness.
    It was a good walk, despite the fear; it made me feel alert and alive. But I should have known better than to walk alone, when she had warned me she was coming; I was too easy to find. And she came to me, like a bad fairy, and sprinkled me with her flattening dust. I took the emptiness home with me, and into town, later that evening, when I met Christina on one of her flying working trips, for a bite and a glass of wine. The process had been set in motion, and all the warmth and the unexpected company could do was stave off its inevitable conclusion for a time. I had exposed myself, and I was infected.
    And so the day of ohi passed me by, and then came Wednesday, and depression. She came with the storm, and I surrendered without a word. As the rain began to fall, I felt her twisting me up inside, turning me inside out, and then she was there, with her soothing, hypnotic voice. ‘Just lie down,’ she said. ‘Just give in, and lie down. There is nothing else to do.’ I surrendered and took to my bed, and she came to tuck me in, full of tenderness and gentle words, like a nurse for the terminally ill. Palliative care, with no hope for recovery. Just give in to it. There is nothing else. I closed my eyes, and went to sleep.
    When I woke up, the storm had been and gone but depression lingered, her heavy flatness making it hard for me to move, like a stiff old blanket that she’d laid over me while I slept. I kicked it off, and shook some life back into my limbs, enough to carry me listlessly around the house, pretending activity by making tea. Depression lingered, and whispered desolation.

The Greeks are always being defiant; we’re always looking for things to be defiant about. And when it comes to inventing battle cries, we are truly undefeated, the most notable of all being the immortal two words uttered by Leonidas of Sparta in response to the Persian King Xerxes’ demand that they lay down their arms and surrender: molon labe. Come and get them. The man had balls.
    I had mislaid mine for a day, the day of defiance: I’d been a bad Greek, and let it pass me by. But then I found them again, a day late. I found my defiance, but not as I expected. I found the saddest, most embarrassing, most heartbreaking Greek songs I could think of, and played them loudly, standing up in the middle of the room, and cried, for no reason whatsoever: for nothing. And I surrendered in defiance, and I said no, a day late, but just on time. It wasn’t war, it was guerrilla warfare; dirty tactics and sad Greek songs and Leonidas’ words, paraphrased for the 21st century: bring it. Bring it the fuck on.
    There were no flags and no fanfare, but it was a celebration, nonetheless, because as I cried over nothing, I realised I had nothing to cry about, and that made me laugh. Depression slunk off, taking her blanket with her, and I turned the music off and drank my tea, and painted my toenails red. Leonidas winked, and the Greek Prime Minister said some stuff in French that I didn’t understand. And the day ended, and Thursday came.


This is Day 51 from 100 days of solitude, written on October 29, 2014.

You can’t name an unfinished thing

You can't name an unfinished thing

I have the good seat on the bus, my favourite one in the back, right up against the glass partition, where I can rest my knees and lie back and watch the city go by. These bus journeys are my solace, my reprieve. My time to plug into my music and travel to wherever I want as the bus judders its way through the traffic, south to north and north to south and home again. My time to think, but I didn’t think about this. I didn’t know I was going to do it.
     The phone is in my hand. I type:
    ‘You and I are not done yet. There’s a time for us. Not now, but one day.’
    The number I haven’t used for five years comes up on the screen. I don’t remember how it got there. A new phone, a number he’s never called me on. I haven’t called him for five years. I don’t remember putting it in, but I must have done. Typed the number in from memory, saved it. Written his name. Four letters, four taps on the keyboard. His name is on my screen.
    I press send.
    I kill the screen immediately and stare ahead. I don’t want to watch it go. Wash my hands of it, but my fingers are tight around the phone. And the thing I’ve just done is travelling, unstoppable now, strange scrambled data bouncing off satellites to reconfigure itself into words on another screen. I don’t want to imagine it, how he’ll lift up his phone and read. I squeeze my eyes shut; my other hand is a fist. I can see it, how he lifts up the phone and reads the words. He doesn’t know my number. It’s only words, uncredited. He won’t reply.
    The phone shudders in my hand. My hand is shaking. I swipe and the screen lights up: ‘I know.’
    ‘Fuck.’ I say it out loud. I slam the phone into my knee, many times, repeatedly, dull thuds. ‘Fuck fuck fuck.’ A few passengers look over, roll their eyes, mutter to themselves. They do that here: they look. This isn’t London. This is as far away from London as I could get.
    Not far enough. He knows. The words have reached him, and he knows. And just like that, I’m back exactly where I started, in the palm of his hand like the words I just sent.

We’ve always liked to play with words. But betrayal is not a word you play with. Betrayal, even if you tell yourself there are reasons. Good reasons, and survival is the best. Survival means killing anything that stands in your way. Except this thing also survives: it wasn’t killed. It isn’t dead. He knows, and I’m back where I never left.

Betrayal. Not now. A long time ago. And, also, every day.


This is the opening of my much-neglected novel you can’t name an unfinished thing. It’a available, as all my books, on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

Babysitting fires

There was little light by the time we finished. The dullness of the overcast day, another day when Southern winds brought clouds of desert dust to settle over us from the Sahara, now gave way to the thickening darkness of dusk and made the bonfire glow even brighter.
    ‘I have to go,’ Yiannis told me, gathering up his chainsaw and his knife and a plastic tub of petrol, and shaking the ashes off his hat before putting it on. ‘Stay a while. Have a cigarette. Watch the fire; make sure everything burns away.’
    Babysitting the fire, I thought, but I didn’t say it. There is no word for babysitting in Greek. I nodded, instead, from a small distance away, still collecting loose twigs from among the nettles, which have grown to gigantic proportions and sting even through your clothes. Underneath, livid skin and deeper down feelings to match: irritated, raw, unprotected despite the layers. Stung. But this work we’d just done helped. It soothed. The burning of things helped. The flames.
    Before he left, Yiannis kicked a few smouldering branches that had escaped to the perimeter of the bonfire back into its centre; he had his work boots on, that allow for such actions. Mine would have melted: Pull & Bear do not make boots for stomping on fires. I was envious, once again, as I often am, of Yiannis’ gear, of his preparedness, of how he knows what he needs to navigate this life, this wilderness, the tall grasses and the rocky, treacherous hills, these fires that we set. Aware, once again, of how ill-equipped I am, in comparison. How I’m just winging it, in high-street boots and too-thin jeans, and clumsy in my eagerness to fit in.
    ‘There,’ Yiannis said.
    I picked up another twig and tossed it onto the fire.
    ‘Thank you,’ I muttered. I didn’t watch him go. Yiannis may burn bright in my world, in his own way but, by now, I was all about the flames.

We’d started pruning this almond tree months ago, before Christmas. It was old and overgrown and dead in places, draining itself to support too many branches, too many possibilities reaching up and out and coming to nothing. Uncared for, untouched for years. Yiannis had shaken his head and sighed. The state of the tree almost a personal affront.
    ‘Look,’ he’d said. ‘Just look at it.’
    I looked as instructed, while he climbed up its trunk and motioned me to pass him the chainsaw. Ruthlessly, he pushed the blade into the flesh of the tree, and sent branch after branch, whole trees in themselves, crashing down with a thud and a sprinkling of woodchip confetti. Ruthlessly, but not mindlessly: every now and again, he’d stop and contemplate another branch, tilt his head and sigh, and then shift up or down or sideways, maintaining a precarious balance that makes me hold my breath every time, and apply the chainsaw again. Reducing this giant to a collection of stumps. A desolate sight, if you don’t know.
    I’d always thought of pruning as a cosmetic procedure. But it’s surgery, it’s critical; on this scale, as devastating as it looks, it’s saving a life. It’s the toughest kind of love, love with a chainsaw, but it’s exactly the kind of love that’s needed. I never knew; I’d never had cause to think about it before. Yiannis says plants and trees direct twice as much energy to dead branches as to living ones: think about that for a moment. Think about how much energy we expend to keep dead things attached, how much of ourselves we put into sustaining them. Perhaps we all need a man with a chainsaw to come along and ruthlessly rid us of the dead weight. Perhaps, for all our romantic notions and our greenhouse-grown flowers, we are all crying out for a tougher kind of love.

My task begins when Yiannis jumps down from the tree and takes the chainsaw to the felled branches, separating the ends, the bonfire fodder, from the sturdier parts that we’ll keep for firewood. We already have the fire going at this stage, and it’s my job to feed it, pulling the gnarly branches away from the tangle and tossing them onto the flames. I’m slower than I could be, although I’ve gotten better with practice, because of my pyromania. I say that as a joke, between us, and Yiannis laughs when he’s in the mood for my jokes, but there is something in it: a compulsion, a draw, something that has me stopping and staring at the fire every time I feed it another armful of twigs. I cannot turn away, not easily.
    We couldn’t get the fire going that time, before Christmas. It happens: not all fires want to be lit. It was weird weather, uncooperative, undecided. The wind kept changing direction, then dying down completely before raising violent gusts that had us running away from flying embers, but did nothing to stoke the flames. And almond wood is notoriously hard to burn. We gave up, halfway, intending to return the next day, but we never did, until now. When we were greeted by the result of our neglect. Bits of tree everywhere, half buried in the giant nettles, and the pruning itself not quite finished.
    ‘Oh, fuck,’ said Yiannis. ‘Is this the state we left it in?’
    ‘Yep,’ I confirmed. ‘Apparently it is.’
    But the fire gods were on our side this time around. And soon, after some breath-stopping rearranging of burning wood on Yiannis’ part and scavenging of flammable materials on mine, we had a beautiful raging inferno, ready to consume all of our offerings. To reduce all of our troubles to ash.

They used to frighten me, these bonfires. The recklessness, the absolute insanity of starting a fire in a field, on a dry, windy island; the illusion of control. The infinite possibilities of losing an entire village to one false move, one gust, one flaming twig blown the wrong way. I’d never have the audacity to start one myself, even now, all these months and all these fires later. I always stand aside, respectfully, and let Yiannis do his magic. And even when it comes to stoking it, I take my cues from him, two steps back and clutching handfuls of straw, watching him and the fire for clues, waiting for a nod or a shake of the head, never approaching until he bids me forward. Respect where it is due, and knowing where your place is: neither is small or easy to learn. But my place has never been on the front line, and not all of us can be firestarters. I have a different role to play and once those flames get going, they are all mine.
    The illusion of control, coupled with the absolute knowing that it is only temporary, that it is only until the fire decides otherwise. The mesmeric proximity to a force so primal, so powerful that it can reduce your entire world to nothing on a whim. Respect that’s very close to fear, and the new-found courage to stand in front of a fire that’s almost twice your height, and throw half a tree onto it to make it grow taller. It used to frighten me, too, this process, this task that I knew I wasn’t equal to. Nothing in my former life had prepared me for this one. But I know what I’m doing now; I’ve worked out the jigsaw quality of this game, the mad game of flaming Tetris that we play. I know how to angle the branches and how much force I need to put behind my throws; I know how close I can get and when to stand back, when to wait and let the fire settle and how to watch for changes in the wind. All these months and all these fires later, and I can do it unsupervised, and Yiannis can keep his eyes on his chainsaw and only glance over occasionally to make sure I haven’t set myself alight. Because I, too, can be dangerous if left unattended, thoughts instead of flames consuming me to the point of destruction, reducing my entire world to nothing on a whim, subject to even the smallest changes in the wind. Or I can burn, bright and steady and beautiful, light and warmth for those who know how close to get and how to stoke me right.
    That’s what we all are, that’s all we are: fires. Forces of healing and of destruction, primal creatures that contain all the possibilities and all the dangers. And firestarters, too, pyromaniacs, and guardians of the flames, babysitting the fires that we set to light up our lives, not controlled and not in control despite the illusion that we live by, the tacit agreement that we will set each other alight but not be consumed. Mesmerised by the flames. Gentle in love and tougher in love and devastating, at times, when we need to be, to save our own lives. Unprepared and ill-equipped despite all of our gear, playing a game that we don’t quite understand, playing with fire, literally, and getting burned, sometimes, when we get too close, or letting the flames die down because we didn’t have the courage to approach: clumsy in our eagerness to find our place. That’s all we are, that’s all we’re doing: winging it. Babysitting fires that we set ourselves and hoping that someone, somewhere, is glancing over every now and again, to make sure we don’t go up in flames.

Refusing to be drawn

That strange twist in my gut today: that’ll be the moon, I presume. That subtle weight that makes my breath come out in sighs: the moon. My restless sleep last night: the moon; the anxious dreams, the thoughts – unbidden – that unsettle me, the silence that I fill with fears: the moon. And if I draw my curtains aside: too bright, too eerie, too many shadows cast where there should be just night, too many details picked out in the negative space – the moon.

Ostensibly, we strive for balance, and yet we give ourselves up to the mercy of the planets and the stars and the whims of heartless constellations. What equilibrium can we hope to achieve when we are tidal creatures, controlled by the moons and the spin on the earth? All those cosmic events, all that planetary action to explain, to justify, to forbid: and we are rendered helpless by our own choosing. Shadow puppets to those cold, distant bodies, our astral hegemons, dictating when and how. Full moon: review; new moon: now start again; when Mercury’s in retrograde don’t even think of trying, but make the most of Venus in your sign. Whenever you feel slightly askew, it’s probably something cosmic.

It is now the day after the Super Blue Blood Moon Eclipse. Last night, in defiance, I refused to be drawn and to draw my curtains aside; there were enough photos of the thing on facebook, anyway. Did it affect me, regardless, sight-unseen? Probably. Would I have acted differently, chosen different words, swapped one set of feelings for another if it had been another day in the cycle of the moon? Probably not. We cannot control our waters: we are tidal creatures. We cannot control the spin of the earth or how the planets move across our solar system. We cannot let those things control us, either. It isn’t Mars that causes conflict; it isn’t indecisive Libra that makes us put things off. It’s not the heat of the sun or the cold glare of the moon; it isn’t the eclipse that brings the darkness. We are not helpless; we don’t have to be.

Perhaps our balance can be sought in remembering that we’re equally part of this earth that spins as of the cosmos that surrounds it, subject to both its gravity and the magnetic pull of those twinkling, meddling stars; that we are earth and water, fire and air as much as any other body in our skies. Acting the way we would, flighty Geminis or stalwart Capricorns regardless, and letting the moon rise and fall, letting it wax and wane without casting ourselves in its shadows. Perhaps our balance can be found in refusing, sometimes, to be drawn. Whatever the moon brings out in the negative spaces is there anyway, whether we shine a light on it or not. We’ll draw our curtains aside when we are ready to see.


Image credit: Business Insider

Fuck being strong (this once)

Do you ever feel like that? Like, just fuck it? Like you don’t want to improve, you don’t want to evolve, you don’t want to better yourself, you don’t want to learn? Like you’re done fucking learning and gaining experience and getting over things and coming out the other side, stronger and wiser? Like you don’t want to be stronger or wiser or more patient or less of a mess? Like you just want it fucking easy, this once?

I am a mess. I want it easy. I want love, easy and uncomplicated; love strong enough to be easy and uncomplicated, this once. I want a love I can trust to be easy and uncomplicated in a life full of difficult and complicated things. I don’t want a love I need to be strong for, a love that needs to be talked about and defended and understood and fucking vindicated; I want that simple understanding that I am for you and you are for me and we’re in this shit together – bring it on. I want to find myself in the same place as someone and just stay there, with his arms around me, with nothing to do. With nothing that needs to be done.

I don’t want vindication. I don’t want a love that gets written about. I don’t want to hear another person praise me for my strength, for my wisdom; I don’t want to be brave or inspirational for the things I’ve gotten through. I don’t want to get through another thing and come out the other side; just this once, I’d like to be a little weaker, a little less wise, and hear one person tell me that he loves me, that I don’t need to be brave, that I’ve been patient enough.

I am aware of the value of learning. I am aware of the lessons we’re taught through our pain. Every wrong turn, every wrong move, every disappointment; every time our hearts get broken: an opportunity to learn. To build resilience, to build our strength, to grow our wisdom. I have learned this, but fuck it: I just want a shoulder that’s mine to lean against. And yes, to turn our pain into art is consolation. It’s redemption, that I can take my pain and turn it into beautiful words. But the beauty of that shoulder to lean on, those arms to fall into: just once, can I have that instead?

And right now, do you see what I’m doing? I’m turning my pain into art, into literature, into words that might reach other people’s souls. Into words that might touch another person who needs touching, and that’s incredible, that’s a gift to me – but I need touching, too. It’s a gift that heals my soul as much as anyone else’s but I long, sometimes, to be reached rather than to be the one who’s reaching. I long for a time when my soul doesn’t need to heal. And right now, for all the value these words might have for me, for other people, I would rather be in somebody’s arms, giving nothing but the warmth of my body; I would rather be held and be loved, quietly, simply, having nothing to give but myself in this moment. And I don’t know if that’s possible for me, now, this once, or ever. I don’t know if this simple thing is out of reach. For all the lessons I’ve learned, for all the strength and all the wisdom, for all the patience and the trust, I just don’t know. Right now, for everyone I’ve ever reached, for all the pain I’ve written into love, there’s no one here to hold me. And I’m done being brave. And I’ve been fucking patient enough. And fuck.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Christmas Eve, undecorated

It is the day before Christmas. And quite a few creatures are stirring, actually, though mostly outside of the house. Slow, black beetles and skittery spiders and bees buzzing around the rosemary bush and a bright green lizard disappearing between the stones in the wall. Boy Cat rolling around contentedly is his favourite deck chair, and the Black Cat That Coughs leaping through the grass, chasing a pale yellow butterfly that she will never catch. Flies zooming in through the open windows, and out again, back to the light. There is a lot of light.

Christmas Eve in Sifnos and the town is all astir, despite the warnings and the scenes of mass exodus at the port. This is not a town of ghosts. Everyone who’s still here is here, it seems, picking up last minute supplies for dinner, and their pensions, and presents from the two or three shops that are open, with stars and snowflakes drawn in glitter across their windows. A lady in the supermarket is looking for fresh mushrooms, which cannot be had; the butcher’s is busy, the meat cleaver falling loudly, crunching bones. Cars crawl down the road, blocking it frequently as they stop to exchange words with other cars, or motorbikes, or people on foot. Everyone is going somewhere, but slowly, their mellowness in contrast to the jagged, manic edges of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the decorations.

There is no Christmas Village in the square, but the village knows it’s Christmas, and tinsel twinkles everywhere as it catches the sun, sending strange reflections across the whitewashed walls. A nativity scene, lifesize, has appeared in the yard of an unoccupied building, and classical music drifts out the café up the road. Golden baubles hang in windows and over doors, dangle from pergolas and awnings, and dance in the breeze. The village knows it’s Christmas, despite the brightness that causes everyone to raise their hands up and shade their eyes, and the warmth that has them all loosening their scarves and wiping their brows. On every step and every doorway there is someone lounging in the sun, with sleeves rolled up to expose their arms to the heat. I take off layer after layer and end up sitting on a high wall in my vest, with a bundle of clothes rolled up beside me, looking over the edge of the land towards Paros, where our bigger island neighbours are getting ready for Christmas, like we are, but with bigger roads and bigger shops. I feel like waving, but I don’t. I’m getting enough curious looks as it is, sitting here in a pink vest and leopard-print leggings, and staring at the sea.

On the way back a transition, through the outskirts of town where houses and shops give way to fields and orchards, past the gas station, quiet, with long flags hanging limp from long poles, and those funny little bundles that are curled up cats, on ledges and rooftops, following me with their eyes, and several dogs, chained and free, yelping excitedly when I get too close, and then onto the ring road, private, sloping upwards just for me. I walk in the middle, along the white dividing line, trusting in the absence of cars and half-blinded by the sun, until I reach the top and the mouth of the grassy path carved by the stream that will bring me home. There I stop, and listen, and look: Christmas Eve in Sifnos. Mountaintops and sky. Bells, intermittent, as the animals shuffle from one patch of grass to the next. Little birds twittering in the bushes, an eagle flying silently overhead. A flock of doves, mostly white, cooing as they alight, in perfect synchronicity, on a telephone wire. A cock crowing insistently on a distant farm over the hill. In the valley below, the echo of a dull, rhythmic tapping, manmade. Fields of the greenest green dotted with yellow and purple flowers. A secret garden of citrus trees that I’ve never noticed before, walled in amidst the olive groves. A single tree on a hilltop outlined against the milky blue horizon. A stone dove house on the edge of a cliff, semi-derelict, triangle openings and flapping wings. And everywhere around mountaintops and sky. So much sky, for such a small piece of land.

Christmas Eve, and now the church bells are ringing, summoning the faithful inside to sing the psalms of Christmas in yellow flickering candlelight, as the day grows dark outside. Boy Cat is still in his deck chair; he stirs as I pass him, and gives me a look that is almost trust. I turn the lights on, all of them; the house seems darker, somehow, at this time, just before sunset, than it does in the blackness of night. I will do some yoga now, and cook dinner, and wait for the church bells to ring again. I will not heed their call, but I will listen. They make a lovely sound.

Christmas Eve, undecorated. Of all the good decisions I’ve made or stumbled into, this is one of the best. Christmas Eve in Sifnos, with nothing much to distinguish it from any other day, and this is the one I’ll remember. Of all the Christmas Eves I’ve spent in decorated houses, houses much brighter than this, with presents and carols and tables laden with food, wearing the spiky garland of stress that we wrap around each other for the holidays, like fairy lights tangled up in the branches of the tree – this is the one. The only time I heard the church bells ringing; the only time that sound has reached my faithless ears, free from the noise of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the silence. This is the one that means something to me.

It is the night before Christmas. And whatever it means to you, wherever you are, whether you’re where you want to be or somewhere else, make it a happy one. The church bells are ringing. You might not hear them through the noise, but they make a lovely sound. You wouldn’t know. But listen.


This is Day 101 from 100 days of solitude, written on December 24, 2014. Happy Christmas, everyone!

I am my own weather

The hope is that we learn. The hope is that, each time we go a little crazy and then learn we needn’t have, we put some of the not-crazy aside for the next time. The hope is that, when the next time comes around, the things we’ve learned, the reserves we’ve built of the not-crazy will kick in and hold back the waves. So that we don’t go under. So that we learn.

I am learning how damaged I am. I am learning how blind I was to the damage being done. Instead of building reserves of strength, of calm, of the trust that would get me through the fear, I was building reserves of crazy. I was collecting instances of crazy – proof – and adding them to my reserves. Oceans full of crazy, stormy fucking waters where no ships can sail. There was a man who stirred my waters up; like Poseidon, he held a giant fork and stirred and whipped them into crazy. He was my own private storm and I loved him, but when I left for other shores, I didn’t leave the storm behind. I left the man but not the storm; the storm is mine, it’s in my waters that I keep it. And I don’t know how to cross these seas when the waves come.

You see, the problem is I’m right: that which I fear is justified. I’ve seen calm waters turn to storms from one moment to the next, and I have drowned in them on several occasions. I’ve fought the waves and come up breathless, spluttering fear and promising I’d learn, and gone into those waters once again. But that is not the crazy part. What’s crazy is letting these storms into waters where they don’t belong, what’s crazy is letting another man’s fork make waves. I took myself away and found a port; I found an island, a safe haven that the storms couldn’t breach – that’s what I thought. But just the memory of the storm is enough to cause ripples, just a spark is enough to ignite the lightning and rip the sky in two. Like Odysseus trying to find his way home, I carry with me a sack of winds, and there’s no telling which direction they will blow me in when I release them. The weather can turn in an instant: that which I fear is justified. And it has followed me home.

An island, literally, but metaphorically there is no place that’s safe, no place the fear can’t breach; not in itself. Memory travels just as well as storms. That man and his fork are miles away, thousands of miles, but I can whip up a storm all by myself. We bring them with us, all of us: our cans of worms, our reserves of crazy, our sack of winds, and we cannot help but let them out. A storm in a teacup and then we drown, as they say here in Greece, in a spoonful of water. Why don’t we learn? No place is safe, no distance is protection in itself, there is no barricade to hold back the storm. The more defences you put up, the more debris will hit you when the waves come. We ought to learn.

I do it to myself, that’s the crazy thing. I let the winds out of my sack, I let them rip my world in two, and then I drown in a spoonful of water. I come up, spluttering regret and promises, and then I do it all again. I run away from the things that hurt me, but I never get very far – not far enough. Even on my island, I can’t cut myself off. I may be hard to reach, but I am not unreachable: there are boats, not frequent, but more than none. Even here, in my fair-weather haven, the waters aren’t still. There is no place that’s safe, there is no shelter from yourself – except yourself.

I found my way home; I crossed the seas and found it. So fuck Poseidon and fuck that sack of winds: I made it this far, despite them. Not running away, but arriving, and maybe I can stay, this time, and go further. Far enough that I can see the storm coming, and choose not to sail on that day. Maybe I can go further, this time, by staying put, and watch it happen, the storm, the lightning, the stranded ships, without having my world ripped in two. Maybe I can stay indoors, like I did this morning, and let the weather happen. Let it turn, like it does. No matter what storms are brewing, I don’t have to drown in an ocean of fear. Just a spoonful, a teacup, a sackful of nothing: I don’t have to let the crazy out. I don’t have to be blown away by the winds. I don’t have to take on the waves.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m learning: I am the storm and also the haven, I am both the turmoil and the reprieve. I am the fear and I am the trust, I am all that I lost and the love that remains. I am the crazy, I am the sanity; I am the damage and the repair. I am the spark that lights up the darkness and I am the lightning that splits the sky in two. I am the stillness and the distant rumble; I am the only one who can decide what sort of weather I want to be. Each time, every time: just me. I am the one who needs to learn, and I am the lesson. Maybe I can be the hope.

Christmas without Christmas

I have decided to defy local advice and spend Christmas here, alone. Despite being expressly warned against doing so. It was Vangelis who issued this warning when he last picked me up from the port.
    ‘I can see that you’ve got a good thing going,’ he praised me, ‘but don’t get any ideas about Christmas. That’s when it gets really hardcore. Everyone that you see here now? They’ll all be gone.’
    This is an island that relies, largely, on tourism, and the locals need to be around for Easter and the summer season. Christmas is the only holiday they can get away, and they do.
    ‘I know you,’ Vangelis added, making me smile. ‘You’re thinking about it. Don’t do it.’

But do it I will. I think all the praise has gone to my head and is making me reckless. Only last week, I was pronounced an authentic Sifniot, by a man who is a Sifnos tradition in himself: Marios, proprietor of the legendary general store “A Bit Of Everything”. The shop is closed for the winter, as the locals have little need for postcards of chisel-chested Greek lovers smirking seductively against a background of bright blue sky, but Vangelis lives in the back, and I saw him coming out of his door one morning, on my way to the square. I stopped to say hello.
    He did a double take. ‘You haven’t left?’ he said.
    I shook my head and stood before him, with my arms held out, to demonstrate my continued presence on the island.
    ‘Your family?’ he asked.
    ‘Long gone.’
    ‘But you have stayed. You’re an authentic Sifniot, you are.’
    High praise indeed. And that’s not all, because, two weeks ago, I can now reveal, I was admitted to the royal court of Sifnos by peeing on the beach. There was no ceremony, on account of the fact that there was nobody around to witness this act, which is also the reason I was able to perform it. I had walked six kilometres to the port, and had enjoyed three cups of coffee in quick succession before leaving the house. My bladder dictated the rest. I found a bush and I crouched, and I became Sifnos royalty. Not Queen: you don’t get the crown for squatting behind a bush. But a lady-in-waiting, at the very least. Despite my most unladylike behaviour.

It’s true that the island empties out over the Christmas holidays. Polyna confirmed it. She was telling me about a soup kitchen she and some friends will run for two weeks from mid-December, to provide meals for those in need. They started it last year and sixty people turned up daily; this year, they expect closer to a hundred.
    ‘But if there are that many people that need help, wouldn’t it make more sense to do it once a week throughout the year, instead of two weeks running over Christmas?’ I asked.
    ‘You’d think,’ said Polyna, ‘but the neighbours help them out during the year. The neighbourhood takes care of them. But they all go away for the holidays, and these people have nothing to eat.’
    A sad fact, but also a happy one: for fifty weeks out of the year, there is such a thing as a neighbourhood here.
    My neighbourhood is empty already, so I don’t think I’ll notice much of a difference. I’m pretty sure Mrs Souli won’t be going skiing for her holidays, and neither will Vangelia. All the shops will be closed for a couple of days, so I’ll have to get my supplies and cigarettes in advance, but I think that’s it: my Christmas, planned.

I think I like the idea of the 25th of December being just another day. ‘It might be liberating,’ Eileen said when I told her; I think it will. It’ll be like an extra day in the year, a day added to my calendar, almost brand new: Christmas without Christmas, a day I’ve never had before. I don’t like Christmas. In my experience, it’s been a day of have to, of dry turkey and presents that no one really wants. I love my family, but I can eat with them on any other day, and, besides, I have no presents to bring. I was thinking of going down to Kamares and picking sage from the side of the road: there’s a long stretch just as the sea comes into view where it grows wild and in abundance. I could hang it up to dry, and make bouquets and tie them up with ribbon; I think they’d make nice gifts. But I can give them later, it doesn’t have to be Christmas. They’ll keep.
    I think I’d like to go into town on Christmas day, when everyone, those few who haven’t left, will be at home eating dinner with their families. To see Sifnos all decked out and twinkling for Christmas, with not a soul on the streets: that’s an image I’d like to have in my head. An image to come back to when I need something rare and unusual to counteract the hectic tedium of ordinary life.
     I don’t like Christmas, but freed of the have to we might become reconciled. I might look at the decorations that are already appearing outside the houses, strange and colourful against the white, and see effort and beauty. I might look at the twinkling lights and just see twinkling lights. If I stripped it of its meaning, it might come to mean something else. Maybe I’ll come to like it, the 25th of December, reimagined. Maybe I’ll even take some sage bouquets over to Mrs Souli and Vangelia, or bake some cookies in the shape of stars. Maybe I’ll go up to Artemonas, to the annual Christmas Village, and wander around and look at ornaments and trinkets and smile, and wish people a happy Christmas.
    It doesn’t have to be Christmas. I can get together with my family and friends on any day, and eat, and give out sage instead of presents. But I think I’d like to reclaim this day, the 25th of December, just this once, stripped of its meaning so that it means something to me, at last. Even if it’s just a day when I had nothing much to do, and had to do nothing: that’s better than turkey and presents. That’s liberating. Against local advice, I’d like to give it a try.


This was Day 83 of 100 days of solitude, written in December 2014. It is now December 22, 2017, and I’m about to spend my third Christmas in Sifnos. No one is advising me to leave, and I have no plans for Christmas day, thank you very much. Happy Christmas peeps!

That’s how long

I ran into Yiannis in town this afternoon, and he said the most astonishing word to me. The word was: snow.
    Another word that has come up is loneliness. Yiannis said it, and so did my dad, and these are both people who, more than many others, understand what I’m doing here. Yiannis doesn’t know me that well, but he knows what brings someone to this life; he is a man who chose Sifnos over the city. My dad is a poet, and the words in his head need space, just like mine. If you gave him a desk in a room in a quiet place somewhere, he’d sit down and start writing. I don’t think he’d ask any questions. But both these men said loneliness and I listened, this time.

I’m not anti-social. I’m just not overly social, and there’s a big difference, which I’ve learnt in the last few months. Solitude and isolation have taught me how to enjoy other people’s company in a way I never had before. I have not become socially inept, so used to my own company that I’ve forgotten how to relate to others, nor have I gone the other way and become desperate for those rare instances of social contact. There have been days, not few, when I’ve not spoken to another person at all, and I’ve not even noticed. But when I spend my time in the company of others, I’m actually there, fully present, ready to offer what I have and open to receiving what they want to give. I am available. I’m not in my head, I’m not chasing thoughts and trying to catch up with myself. A little bit of loneliness is the space to do that in my own time, and leaves me with time to spare, to give to others, to catch up with them.
     These are my social interactions over the past week: Last Friday, I spent an hour with Margarita and her sister Evi, chatting and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, while Margarita cut my hair. They gave me advice tailored to the holiday season, and I told them tales of my solitude to make them laugh. Yesterday, when I was in Kamares, I stopped by to see Martha in her shop; I met her once before, in the summer, when I went in to buy something, but she got in touch when she read my blog. I only stayed for twenty minutes because I had a bus to catch. Next time, we agreed, I’d come for coffee; she told me she could drive me home. Today, I talked with Yiannis for a few minutes as we walked through town, and with a neighbour who was hanging up her washing on the line. I have smiled at many people, and they’ve all smiled back. I’ve said hello to everyone I’ve met.

I think what makes us become anti-social is the constant demand to engage with other people, to give something of ourselves even when we’ve nothing left to give. There have been times, in the past, when I’ve felt so depleted that I couldn’t handle even one word exchanged. When I’ve chosen a shop further away, where nobody knew me, so I wouldn’t even have to make eye contact. There have been times when I’ve walked the streets with my head bent down and a shield raised around me, a cloak of hostility, a force field to protect myself. Don’t speak to me. Don’t look at me. Don’t touch me. And people always do: they speak, they look, they touch. It’s this constant exposure that makes us shrink away. A little bit of loneliness is the space to take the shield down, take stock and replenish your reserves. There have been times, too many, when I didn’t have that space.
    Now, when I walk down the street and hear another person coming, I look up and meet their eyes and say hello as our paths cross. I have smiles and hellos to give, and I replenish them daily. I have the time to do that, now. And I walk away from these exchanges with a feeling of satisfaction and reciprocity. I walk away feeling whole, like a person interacting with another person, both giving something, both receiving, but nothing being taken away.

Yiannis said loneliness before he said snow. I ran into him by the square and we walked together for a while. He asked how I was doing, and I told him how easy it’s been.
    ‘I told you you’d make it to Christmas,’ he said. ‘No problem. It’s afterwards that it gets tough.’
    Everyone says that. Nikoletta called January and February “the bad winter”, as opposed to December, which has been good.
    ‘So what if I stay?’ I asked. ‘What’s gonna happen to me then?’
    Yiannis laughed. ‘Nothing will happen to you. It’s just the loneliness. Whether you can take it.’
    ‘I can take it. I have so far.’
    ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but how long for?’
    And I thought about it, and I told him what I tell myself, that it’s a choice. That’s it’s temporary, and I can make it stop at any time. It’s easy because I’m choosing it, and there’s solitude left in me yet, so I’ll carry on choosing it until it runs out. That’s how long. Yiannis nodded, as if he understood.
    ‘I’m not going to Athens for Christmas,’ I added, to back this up perhaps.
    ‘Good plan,’ he said. ‘The city is a shock. You have to wait to cross the road, and you keep saying hello to people on the street, and they all think you’re crazy.’
    ‘I know! I did that, last time I was there!’
    We both laughed, united in our crazy island ways.
    He stopped outside the doorway to his shop when we reached it. His wife was inside; she gave me a nod and a smile.
    ‘It’s only until mid-March,’ Yiannis said, in parting, ‘and then you’ll see a whole new kind of beauty, if you stick around. And,’ he added, ‘we might get snow in February.’ He grinned, knowing this was a carrot he was dangling.
    ‘Snow? In Sifnos?’
    ‘Snow,’ he confirmed. ‘In Sifnos. It happens sometimes.’
    Nevermind the bad winter; I want to be astonished. I choose the snow. I can take the loneliness for that long.

My dad hesitated before saying it. I was telling him about my sage picking expedition, my walk down to the port. Sitting on the beach and watching the waves roll in, before heading back home.
    ‘It’s a nice life,’ I said, conscious of how he’d spent his day, behind a large desk stacked high with papers, and phones ringing constantly, and people coming in, with more papers to look at or sign.
    ‘It’s a very nice life,’ he agreed, ‘but.’
    ‘But what?’
    ‘But lonely.’
    ‘I suppose,’ I said, resisting the instinct to be defensive. And then I listed the people I’d spent some time with in the last few days, to soothe his worry, and mine. Few people and little time, but all of it good. And I knew, as I told him, that neither of us have anything to worry about. This is a choice I’m making, and it’s making me more social, not less. Loneliness isn’t the price. It’s the space to see other people for what they are, the space to invite them in.

Hell is other people but, also, other people are the reward. But you have to be open to receive it, you have to be available, and you can’t do that when your shield is up and you’re wearing your cloak. This life of mine, this solitude, is temporary, but the space I’ve claimed can last for as long as I choose it, and I can carry on choosing it wherever I am. I don’t know how to do this in the city; I suppose I’ll have to learn. I’ll have to learn how to be solitary in a crowd, just like I learned how to be social in isolation. I’ll have to learn how to stay open when the crowd closes in around me, and keep a little loneliness aside for when I need it, for myself. And remember these crazy island ways, and the life I had here, for a while, and the astonishing things that sometimes happen, and keep choosing them for as long as I can. And maybe, sometimes, smile at people on the street, even if they don’t smile back.


This is Day 97 of 100 days of solitude, written on December 19, 2014. I’m still here, and I have seen snow in Sifnos twice.