The church bells are ringing

Christmas Eve, Sifnos, December 2014

From 100 days of solitude, Day 101 (24 December 2014)

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.

My festive attire.

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, one of four “bonus” days exclusive to the Kindle edition. 100 days of solitude is currently on a Kindle Monthly Deal and only 99p throughout December.

The nativity scene in Apollonia, Sifnos, this year.

Let the darkness have this day

December 21, 2015

Today is one of those days, and that says absolutely nothing about what kind of day it is.
    On the outside: it’s the 21st of December; a Monday. It’s cold, drizzly and dark. It’s just gone 4 pm and the sun, such as it was, is long gone. The world has turned away from it, too fast. It’s the Winter Solstice: the shortest day, the longest night of the year. The world has spun into darkness.
 such   But flip this thing around, and there are only longer, brighter days ahead. Get through this day, the darkest, because tomorrow, bang in the middle of winter, is when summer begins. Is there consolation in that? Is there comfort? Is it enough to get you through?

I wrote about the Winter Solstice last year. It was one year ago today, and it was Day 99 of 100 days that I spent living alone on a small island in Greece, that I called 100 days of solitude. 100 todays: 100 days of finding something to write about, each day; of finding something, in every day, worth writing about. Of making every day count, for today, as I counted up to a hundred. Of never wishing a day away, as we tend to, when we have one of those days.
    Like today. Today is one of those days. The darkness outside matches the inside and it’s too dense for my little sparkles of happiness to penetrate; like damp matches, they give a spark and fizzle out, almost straight away. They give out a sharp, sour smell, of hope that’s failed to ignite. It’s no consolation. It’s the shortest day of the year, and the darkness wants it for itself.

It was one year ago today, on the penultimate day of a solitude very loosely defined, that I met a new friend. We don’t meet a lot of new friends in our late thirties; it seems that, sometime in our twenties, we shed the ability to open up enough spaces in ourselves to properly let new people in. We don’t give them enough space to settle, which is what friends do: they settle inside you, and claim a corner for themselves so that they can be with you, always, no matter where you are.
    I didn’t know he was a friend at the time although, as I left the café where we met and drank coffee and chain-smoked for much longer than I’d planned, with a present from him in my bag and my pockets full of all the excuses I hadn’t needed to pull out, I did have a feeling, a sense of something good that had just begun. And today, on the Winter Solstice, he wrote to remind me that it was a year ago that we first met.
    And I cried. Partly with gratitude, for this friend who’s now far away but still close. Partly with melancholy, for that day, one year ago, when the warm, bright lights of the café cut through the darkness inside; for the fact that, today, there’s no light bright enough to do that, and I don’t even know why. Partly because the weight of this day is pressing down onto my chest, and something needs to give.
    I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the Winter Solstice; because we are not separate, and there are things that happen on the outside, and we take them in. And maybe it’s just one of those days, when damp matches are all you’ve got. And at some point you need to learn to save your matches for when they’re dry, instead of striking out, desperately, for even the smallest hint of a spark. Not all days are meant to be lit up. And good things, sometimes, begin in darkness, on the darkest day of the year.

So let the darkness have this day; let it have its little party in my soul. Let today count, for that, for itself, for being a day of darkness. Let today be one of those days. Because tomorrow, when it comes, will be today again. Let that be all the consolation we’ll ever need.
    And flip this thing around: one of those days means absolutely nothing. Every day is today, and there’s no telling what kind of day it will be. Let that be all we need to get us through.

Taken from collected: essays and stories on life, death and donkeys. Available on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

Life is life

From 100 days of solitude, Day 89 (December 2014)

Today I’m contemplating the meaning of life as exemplified by the profound lyrics of Opus’ eighties hit Life is Life. Which posits, very succinctly: life is life, nana-nanana. And that’s something worth reflecting upon.
    It’s December and that means, among other things, that it’s the month of reflection. It’s a time to reflect upon the year that’s gone by, our achievements and our failures. It’s a time to collect all our latent desires and the dreams that we put aside, once again, so that we can build our expectations high and precarious and dump them in the lap of the year that’s about to begin, as a welcome present, along with our resolutions. And then put our party shoes on and go watch the fireworks. Because that’s where December really keeps its sting: right at the end. As if Christmas and all that reflecting weren’t enough, it then hits you with New Year’s Eve. The climactic, ceremonious transition between one year and the next, the old and the new, all that you did wrong and all that you’ll do differently. The day that sets the tone for all the days to come, until December comes round again. You’ve gotta make it count.

This may well be the Dippy Hippie talking, but I’ll let her have her say: I believe that there are forces in the world, outside of ourselves but also connected, and that they’re conscious, if not exactly sentient. I believe there is such a thing as destiny and that it can be altered, and that all the answers we need exist somewhere, if we take the time to look, if we figure out the right questions to ask. The problem with this theory is that the number of places to look can be overwhelming, and we mostly tend to go no further than our own heads, ask ourselves the same questions and come up against the same walls.
    What I like to do sometimes, when I tire of running circles in my head, is ask the universe (or whatever you want to call those forces) for a hint, and I’ve decided, for the sake of convenience, that the universe can speak to me through my iPod. I don’t know why I attribute such powers to an electronic device, but, as the Greek proverb suggests, the human soul is an abyss, and if we can make anything out in that darkness, pull any strands of sense out of it, then it’s good enough. Some things you just don’t question. So my iPod is a modern day oracle, like the famed Pythia of Delphi minus the hallucinogenic drugs. I set it to shuffle, ask the question, skip three songs, and let song number four be my answer.
    It doesn’t always work. Sometimes the iPod oracle makes as much as sense as Pythia herself, and I have no priests at hand to interpret its gibberish. But there are times when it is scarily accurate, like when I was contemplating a relationship that had demonstrated no signs of life for months, and had taken to lurching around like a zombie, oozing unspeakable substances and groaning horribly every time I looked its way: the answer was a very straightforward I Know It’s Over (The Smiths), accompanied, I swear, by a very impatient roll of the eyes. The universe is honest, but it isn’t your grandma; it isn’t known for being kind. On another occasion, the universe amused itself by declaring The answer is blowing in the wind (Bob Dylan), proving, conclusively, not only that it is, in fact, sentient, but also that it has a sense of humour. I interpreted this to mean fuck off with your questions and just get on with it, which, as it turned out, was the correct course of action.
    In this case, what I was struggling with was a general sense of what’s it all about?, prompted, perhaps, by December – not the end of the year, but the end of one hundred days and the questions this raised about the days that will follow. If I was looking for certainty, some solid footing, some kind of grip, the universe was not going to play along: it gave me Life is Life. I looked at the song title on my screen. I heard the opening notes. I thought: you are fucking kidding me, you arsehole. The universe winked. I laughed. Life is life, said the song. Nana-nanana.
    It’s an interesting fact that there are people in this world – not one, but several – who have taken the time to make videos of “Life is Life, With Lyrics”. There are a few of them on youtube. It fascinates me, the motivation behind making them and, even more so, watching them. Who are these viewers? What are they looking for? I imagine them sitting in front of these videos, attentive, focused on the words, and nodding in understanding, at last, as LIFE IS LIFE NANANANANA scrolls across their screens. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to believe that this is actually what the song says; I can’t think of another explanation. These lyrics might be profound, but they are not complicated.
    It might sound stupid, looking for answers in songs. But my electronic oracle is no different to the little superstitions we live by, the if this happens, then, the stepping over the pavement cracks and the red top you always wear when your team is playing. It’s no different to believing in New Year’s Eve, and that what happens on that night and on the first day of the year has any bearing upon the 364 days that follow. I could argue against time as a construct, but our calendar is definitely a made-up thing.

I’m skipping New Year’s Eve this year, as well as Christmas. I will resist the urge to stay up until midnight to count the new year in. If I’m up, which is likely, I won’t look at the time. I’ll pay it no attention; I will reflect on nothing and make no resolutions. I will let one day drift into the next, seamlessly, as if that’s all they are: one day, and then another. And I could argue with days as well, as an arbitrary unit for measuring time, but I’m not looking to change the world. We have to make a few things up, create some shapes we recognise, to make some sense of the abyss. I’m not looking to change the world; just my own experience of it, if I can.
    And life is life might well be the answer, as stupid as it may sound. It’s no more stupid than ascribing meaning to a made-up calendar and some fireworks shot up into the sky. Those lyrics aren’t complicated, but they may just be profound. The universe can be an arsehole, but it’s rarely wrong. Life is life: simple. Fuck off with your questions. Get on with it. You’ll never make sense of the abyss, but you can learn to live with it, with all your little superstitions, and that’ll be enough. And if you spend some time in there, it’s like any darkened room, and your eyes will adjust, and you might see some shapes you recognise. And you can get some fireworks and set them off any night of the year, and light the place up. And in those flashes of light, you might get the answers you are looking for, and they might be garbled up gibberish, like Pythia’s prophesies, or they might appear like words scrolling across your screen, LIFE IS LIFE NANANANANA. And you will nod in understanding, at last. And get on with it, and make every day count.

This is Day 89 from 100 days of solitude. Click here to view the book on Amazon. It’s on a Kindle Monthly Deal and only 99p throughout December.

Not #yogaeverydamnday

This has been building up for a while, and I can contain it no longer: I really resent the #yogaeverydamnday hashtag. I don’t know why it riles me up me as much as it does, but I’ve properly taken against it. It hits a special nerve in my head, the one that sets off my neon BULLSHIT sign, and it flashes on and off and sounds a loud alert and I just can’t make out anything good about it through the din. It’s irrational, and probably very unyogic of me; every time I come across it, it gives me feelings akin to rage and rage, as all good yogis know, has no place in the #theyogaworld. If I were a good yogi, I should have the grace to namaste this thing with a respectful bow of my head and wish it well on its travels through a million facebook, twitter and instagram feeds, but I can’t. Because: why?

I confessed this resentment to my sister. Tentatively, because I know she’s used the offending hashtag more than once. She was very diplomatic.
    ‘Oh,’ she said, and cleared her throat. ‘You know it was started by Rachel Brathen?’
    I didn’t. I didn’t know who that was.
    ‘Look her up,’ she said. And I did, and she seems like a lovely person. And many others who use her hashtag in their posts, they’re lovely people too; I know, because I’ve met them. They’re my sister; they’re my friends. But still – why?

Why every damn day? What bothers me about it is everything. The intention is good, I’ve no doubt. And I can tell this is meant to be bold, empowering, motivating – but all that filters through to me is compulsion. And yoga: I don’t think it should be practised compulsively. I don’t think it can. I don’t think it’s even yoga if it’s compulsive because where is the mind in that? Where is the heart? Where is the soul? It might be exercise, this thing that you do, compulsively, every damn day, but not yoga; not as I understand it. But I may have misunderstood. There are lots of things in #theyogaworld that I don’t understand.
    I might be taking this the wrong way, but it feels wrong. It feels like an imposition and I don’t want anything – not even yoga, especially not yoga – imposed on me, on any day. It’s a statement when yoga, in my mind, is an understated practice. It’s a label, and labels divide as much as they unite. Slap that hashtag on anything, and you’re immediately creating separation between those who practice #yogaeverydamnday and those who don’t. And the good yogi scales tip on the side of the former. And now, all of a sudden, you don’t have yoga: you have competition.
    And that word, damn. It has me fizzling with frustration. What is it doing there? It has no power. It implies a defiance that’s completely unnecessary, a challenge where no resistance has been offered. It’s like putting obstacles in your own path, just so you can kick them out of the way. But nobody’s stopping you from doing yoga every day, if that’s what you want; there is absolutely no need to be defiant, and with such an impotent word. Because I suspect the intention here is to emphasise, to use the shock value of a swearword to reinforce a point, but damn just doesn’t do it. As swearwords go, it’s emphatically tame. No one but the deeply religious – for whom damnation actually means something – ever flinches at using that word. To the religious, it’s offensive; to the rest of us, it’s just one adjective too many. And if there’s an element, too, of “Hey, look, I’m a yogi and I use bad words!”, well: I’m a yogi, and I’m not fucking impressed. And if that makes you flinch, perhaps it’s time to worry less about shock value and more about the values by which you live your life. Perhaps it’s time to rethink your hashtags.

Yoga every day: it’s a wonderful thing. It would make for a better world if we all made yoga a daily practice. But it isn’t about hashtags, and it’s not even about how much time you spend on your mat. There are days when I do yoga. There are days when I don’t. There are days when I wake up longing to do yoga, aching for it, and days when it doesn’t even cross my mind. There are days when I think about doing yoga and then don’t, and days when I just throw my mat on the floor and do it. There are days when I need to be talked into it and days when standing in tree pose just makes perfect sense. I don’t do #yogaeverydamnday but it’s my daily practice, because: grace. I think grace is what it’s all about. It’s what yoga teaches us, and it’s in the way we carry ourselves through each of our days, in how we conduct ourselves in this world, not #theyogaworld but out here, outside of the hashtags. It’s about bringing that grace we’ve been taught into our lives, passing it on to those who cross our paths, without obstacles, challenges or resistance, without defiance or statements or superfluous words. Without any need to make a point, because grace has a way of making itself known, without labels or introductions, and it cannot be mistaken for anything else. Out here, where we’re all doing the best we can, if we make grace the value we live by, that’s the very best that we can do.

For similar posts, please check out This Reluctant Yogi on Amazon. It’s a bookful of yoga rants! 🙂

What it means to be good

From 100 days of solitude , Day 88 (December 2014)

There is political drama going on in Sifnos, and Christmas is being cancelled. The Christmas Village will be a refugee camp and the village square a no man’s land of empty benches and the ghosts of Christmas lights. The weary travellers will have to find a different Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men another star to follow, and another place to deposit their gifts. Santa will not be visiting, because we’ve not been good.

This Christmas tale is set in the present, but it began many years ago, in 1958, when the local Mavromatis family donated the thus far privately owned square in Apollonia to the people of Sifnos for the erection of a World War II memorial. Legal reasons meant that the space was signed over to the Sifnos Association rather than the local government, but it was the donors’ intention and everyone’s understanding that it would belong to the residents of the island. It was soon established as the village square and known to all as Heroes’ Square, in remembrance of the fallen. Like village squares everywhere, it became the hub of the community: a place to meet and a place to rest, with small children kicking pine cones and balls around, older children loitering, old men taking strolls with their arms folded behind their backs, and lovers holding hands on the benches. The Municipality of Sifnos kept it clean and lit up and everyone was happy, and for the last three years running, a makeshift barn has welcomed Jesus, Mary and Joseph and a variety of farm animals, and the stars suspended from lampposts and trees have led the faithful, the uncertain and the wise, the people of Sifnos, to the annual Christmas Village.
    Not this year. This year the square will not be visited by Three Wise Men bearing gifts, but haunted by the Three Ghosts of Christmas. This year, the Sifnos Association decided, in the spirit of Christmas and community, to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. As preparations for the Christmas Village began, the president of the Sifnos Association sent a letter to the Municipality, stating that the legal documents establishing ownership of the square had been interpreted in bad faith and that the square itself, which is the legal property of the Association, could henceforth not be used by the Municipality (and, by extension, one might surmise, the people themselves) in any way without prior written permission from the former, and threatening legal action if a violation occurred.
    The Municipality argued, reasonably, that the property in question is the island’s main square and belongs to its residents, as per the donors’ express wishes, as it always has. They would not be bullied, and the Village that hosts Christmas would be built in the Heroes’ Square, this year like all the years before it.

Picture the scene: a small village square in a small, quiet island. A mellow Thursday afternoon in December, low breeze, thin clouds, a pale and patchy sunshine. A handful of people gathered together, laughing, making jokes, as they work to put together the structures that will turn the square into a Christmas Village, where children will meet the baby Jesus and play games and sing carols, and their parents will drink wine and catch up with their friends, and a few loners, like me, will wander around and look at the lights and think that maybe Christmas is not so bad, after all. And Santa might visit, they say, if we’re good.
    But we’ve not been good, because what happens next in this Christmas fable is a lawsuit against the Municipality. The Sifnos Association now casts itself in the role of the Grinch that stole Christmas, and the local police are forced to play the villains and arrest the Mayor at the square, as he oversees the work. He is taken to the station and held for four hours, whereupon he is released by authority of the Assistant District Attorney, remotely, from the island of Syros. The court in Syros issues a temporary injunction against the Municipality of Sifnos, forbidding any use of the square pending a final decision on the matter, on December 12. But the Mayor will not be bullied; he won’t give up, he tells the court, he won’t back down. Heroically, but I don’t think he wants to be a hero. There are no heroes in this story, except the ones remembered in the square.

The Christmas stars still shine but they don’t lead to Bethlehem. The square is haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the Ghost of Christmas Present lingers in the skeletons of the structures of the would-be Christmas Village, left behind. The Heroes are lonely; none of us are allowed to visit them. We come, the faithful and the uncertain, the people of this island; we follow the stars and stand on the perimeter of the square we cannot enter. We don’t sing carols. We don’t bring gifts. We stand in silence and wait for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, if it comes, if the court in Syros decides to let it through.
    The stars still shine but there are no wise men. There are no heroes in this story, yet. And there should be no villains, either, no Grinch, no Ebenezer Scrooge, no ghosts haunting the square. There should be no Municipality and no Association, just people of this island with nothing to divide. And men would be wise to remember what this is all about: not politics, not ownership, not even Christmas, but community, and a good faith that has nothing to do with contracts or which god you believe in. They would be wise to look at the stars and see some sense. There is still time for a Christmas miracle, and if the men stop behaving like fools there might be heroes yet, and the Christmas Yet To Come will not be a ghost but a village square dressed up in lights and tinsel, where the faithful and the uncertain, the families and the loners, the heroes and the wise will all come together and sing carols and remember what this is all about, and what it means to be good.

This is Day 88 from 100 days of solitude. Click here to view the book on Amazon. It’s on a Kindle Monthly Deal and only 99p throughout December.

This cannot be the end


This cannot be the end
because people
are not just bodies,
not just limbs,
not just bones and tissue and skin,
not a collection of cells,
not just a sequence of genes.

Because the heart
is not just a drum
that beats out the tune of a life.

Because a life
is not just the body
that contains it
this time around.

And the soul
barely even notices these things
as it passes through,
as it crosses our paths,
brief lifetimes,
with a nod.

But we notice.
Those of us still contained
within these bodies,
still defined
by our genes
and our words
and our deeds,
still tethered to our paths
by hearts that beat.
We notice when you pass.

But regardless, regardless –
and no matter what box they put you in –
this cannot be the end.

Because I still have words
to describe you.

Because we are all of us magicians
and we can conjure people up
in our hearts.

Because you defined me, in part,
with your part in my life.

Because a life
is what you make of it
and I will make yours last,
with my words
and my deeds
and my heart,
with a nod
towards wherever you are,
until our paths cross again.

I wrote this a year ago today, one year and one day after my grandma died. She was born on the fourth of July and she chose to make her exit on the fourth of December; my half birthday. My grandma liked the number four.