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.

Be a person who wears hats

Hats are like haircuts. Like getting a whole new wardrobe. Like growing a beard, or shaving off your moustache. Like swapping your Converse for high heels, or your jeans for suits.
     They’re about making a change in your physical appearance; adopting something new; being someone your ex doesn’t know. They’re a “fuck off” to who you were before, a symbolic gesture of defiance, a secret password to grant you entry into the next stage of your life.
     But more than all that, hats are cool. And kind of quirky.

My own love affair with hats was brief but powerful. I wandered into Urban Outfitters one afternoon, in that vague, half-hypnotised, post-breakup way of mine (the dominant stage at the time was depression, interspersed with “fuck you” bolts of anger and euphoric interludes of denial); I staggered from display to display of painfully cool garments and accessories, occasionally reaching out to stroke a fabric or check a price tag, performing (unconvincingly) the role of a normal girl doing some shopping. The whole exercise was entirely futile: I didn’t actually want anything.
     And then, there it was. There may have been angel song and that white light that shines down from the heavens, like a celestial spotlight, when items of importance are divinely revealed; there may well have been “thunders and lightnings”* (this being London, the likelihood is quite high). There may also have been Beyonce and the strip-lights of a store on Oxford Street, but sometimes you’ve just gotta make do with what you’ve been given. In any case, there was certainly a biblical feel to the moment, and the LORD delivered unto me A HAT. It was artfully arranged on top of a pile of books, on a display table that also featured faux-gold costume jewellery and several pairs of inexplicably high-waisted jeans. It was felt, a deep, rich fuchsia in colour, with a dark brown ribbon, and undoubtedly made by the hand of God. It spake unto me and said, in a raspy, sexy voice: You must have me. I beheld it, on its pedestal of books, and felt slightly nauseous. ‘I don’t wear hats,’ I retorted, hopefully not out loud. I walked away, and pretended to take an interest in a crocheted iPhone case. I came back. I touched it, tentatively, with the tip of a finger. Thunders and lightnings and that low, seductive voice. I am yours. My fingers tightened around the rim. For twenty five pounds, the hat hastened to add. ‘But I’m not a person who wears hats,’ I insisted helplessly. Yes you are, declared the hat. And all of a sudden, I was. It was a tiny but monumental shift in my personal paradigm, whereby not being a person who wears hats was nothing more than a story I told about myself, and I could be any damn thing I wanted, simply by deciding it was so.
     I swiped the hat off the table, and clutched it tightly to my chest, lest it realised I wasn’t worthy, after all, and chose someone far cooler than me to take it home. We made it to the till without incident and there I placed it reverently on the counter, in front of a bored-looking assistant.
    ‘I have decided I’m a person who wears hats,’ I shared with her.
    ‘Right,’ she said flatly. ‘Great,’ and pushed the card machine towards me.
     Feeling slightly dejected by her lack of enthusiasm, I typed in my pin and returned the machine with my best normal-person smile, to show I wasn’t completely deranged.
     She looked up as she handed over my receipt. ‘Put it on,’ she said.
     ‘What?’
     ‘The hat.’ She nudged it in my direction; I did as I was bid.
     ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I can see it.’ She gave a nod: a final affirmation, and a dismissal. ‘You don’t need a bag.’
     So I wore my hat out of the store and onto the streets of London, where the wind and rain tried to whip it off my head and I had to hold onto it with both hands, which ruined the effect a little bit. But it didn’t matter. I was a person who wore hats, cool and quirky, and surely not one to let a bit of rain and a failed relationship kill her vibe.

It’s been a while now since I was that person. I revisit her sometimes, on mild, windless evenings when a hat can be worn, but it’s rare. I will always think of her fondly but, the truth is, I don’t need her anymore. She served her purpose, as did her hat, which is now displayed in a prominent place in every room I make my own. As a reminder that, although I no longer wear hats, I can still be whoever the fuck I want. With an edge of cool and quirky, if the mood takes me.

On that note, if cool and quirky is what you’re after, there are several other accessories you can adopt that’ll do the trick just as well. Braces, for example, are an excellent choice, for men and women alike. And the more traditional haircut route is not to be frowned upon, either. My own recovery was significantly helped along by getting my hair cut really short – mostly because I wanted to, and also in part because Iceman (who frequently bemoaned my lack of femininity) had expressly forbidden me from it. Symbolic gestures and small victories: it’s what the path to getting the fuck over it is strewn with. There will be big, defining moments of revelation, too, but in the end, it really is the little things that count.


*Exodus 19:16 (King James Bible) – these, coupled with a thick cloud upon the mount, preceded the delivery of the Ten Commandments. Also applicable to hats.


This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Get the fuck over it (a literary self-help guide for intelligent people). I hadn’t planned to share it, but then my actual, original post about buying that hat came up on my facebook memories this morning, and it was impossible to resist.

Moving mountains

It’s been a rough couple of days. I found myself in crisis with a person that means a lot to me, a crisis mostly of my own making, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. It began with a misunderstanding, a small thing that we’d both brush over and laugh about later on any other day – but on this particular day, something about the situation triggered all of my fears, all of my insecurities, all of the worst, most desperate, most terrified parts of me, and I lost it. I completely fucking lost it. I lost my grip on reality, on everything I know about myself, about this person opposite me, about the way we relate to each other and live our lives. I took a load of crap from the past, whole armfuls of crap that was borne of other situations where those fears were valid and justified, and threw it all at his feet, and then pleaded with him to clean it up. And when he wouldn’t, because he couldn’t, because that crap did not belong to him, I panicked. And panicked people do not make good decisions. I made one bad move after the other, and dug myself deeper and deeper into a dark, airless hole, and I couldn’t breathe. “You’re drowning in fear,” my sister said; I was. And I was waiting for someone else to pull me out.

It wasn’t all my fault: he was abrupt when I was oversensitive. Whatever; shit happens. The trouble begins when we can’t see our shit for what it is, when we see it through a lens of all the other shit we’ve collected over the years, all the other shit we carry and insist on bringing along where it doesn’t belong. When we throw it at another person’s feet and expect him to take it away. He won’t; no one will. It’s not their job, it’s not their place. Even if their place is beside you, even if that’s where they want to be, they can’t take your shit away, and it’s unfair to ask. Imported fears don’t translate into excuses; they may explain, but they do not justify. There is no justification for the way I acted: it was unfair and it was untrusting. And I may have broken something; I may have broken a thing that’s very precious to me. I hope not; I hope it’s sturdy enough to take this beating and survive, and morph into something better as a result. But I don’t know.

I had firewood to deal with this morning. Whole mountains of firewood that we’d cut off three massive almond trees in the field adjacent to mine, and then sawed into bits small enough to fit into my stove. Whole mountains that I had to move, bit by bit, piece by piece, across the field, over two walls, and into my garden, where it will eventually be stacked. The final leg of the journey – my task this morning – involved dismantling the mountains and flinging the wood, bit by bit and piece by piece, over the dividing wall and into the back end of my garden. I started with limbs as heavy as my heart and nerves shattered to fuck, what with all the drowning and fighting for breath, and trying to convince myself of the curative properties of physical labour. Which certainly provides a reprieve from that terrible, sticky idleness of fear, but does nothing to stop the chatter in my head. So I flung and I thought, and I flung and I analysed, and I flung and I regretted, and I flung and I ran through a thousand worst-case scenarios, and it wasn’t easy work, what with all the roaring waves of fear that kept crashing into me. And still the mountains appeared undiminished.

I don’t know how I came up with the idea, but the idea that saved me from drowning was this: each piece of wood became one of my fears, one of my insecurities, one of those desperate, terrified parts of me that make me lose my shit with people I love. With each piece that I picked up I spoke of a fear, and then I threw it away, as far away as possible, over the wall and into the distance. With each fear that I threw, another one came, and another, and another, and I spoke each one and I threw and I cried, partly with relief, and partly because, fuck: I’m scared of so many things. So many. But eventually I ran out: of steam, of mountains, of fears. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and steadied myself against the wall; my back hurt and my arms ached, but the mountains had been moved to my garden, and all my fears had been spoken and tossed away, as far away as I could reach.

This piece is not intended as literature, nor as testimony for the curative properties of physical labour. Only, perhaps, as a breath of air instead of fear, a glimpse of the most reassuring, most frightening possibility: that we all have it in us to pull ourselves out, bit by bit and piece by piece, one desperate, terrified part at a time, and to survive. And that we can move mountains if we need to, if we must. And when it comes to throwing stuff: logs are better than shit. No contest.