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.