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.

The time has changed

The clocks went back this morning. The autumn equinox has been and gone, and Halloween marks our advent into darkness. In Sifnos, the ban on bonfires will be lifted from November first, and soon the fields will come alive with flame as we all burn away the remnants of the season just gone, dry grasses and cuttings and the husks of summer plants, to make space for winter. Smoke signals and scorch marks calling a new season forth. We are ready; we have been ready for a while.

Last night, finally, it rained. The wind died down and there’s a stillness in the earth-scented air. The plants look greener already, the soil darker. It’s quiet, too quiet, except for the church bells announcing that it’s Sunday. The once-a-week faithful are inside, where the candles burn bright; they will emerge, later, half-drunk on incense and the repetitive chanting of the priest. They will linger in the churchyards, where the rain has formed small puddles on the uneven flagstones, and they will talk about the rain, how it finally came and how it’s not enough, not nearly enough for the thirsty olives. There will be headshaking and then, in time, goodbyes, as they all make their way back home.

In Greek they don’t talk about clocks going back, they say the time has changed. As if the shift is real, a slip into another time, rather than just a collective decision to call four o’clock three, and a few taps on a keyboard to inform the digital clocks of the world of this event. Those who still have mechanical clocks and watches will have to perform this action manually, of sending the hour hand back to the previous number, of consciously giving themselves an extra hour in this day. Except not, not really, not consciously: the action is as mechanical as the device. They will not think of what they’ve gained as they wind that hand back, just like none of us think of what we’re given, every day, when there are twenty-four hours ahead and every chance to make them count.

We have lost our sense of time; we have lost the sense of why it matters. We use it to make appointments, to erect the boundaries of our freedom, the can and cannots that make up the structure of our days. We invented it, and built it into the wrong kind of god to worship and obey. We created a relentless god, and we worship resentfully within the hallowed margins that we set to make sense of our lives, but we have forgotten why it matters. We have forgotten that it isn’t cogs turning and digital numbers changing that make this world tick, just like we’ve forgotten that our other gods don’t live in the churches we built for them or in the chanting of their priests. But the world has no need for clocks; it keeps its own time. The kind of time that makes an hour last forever when you’re waiting, the kind of time that causes three months to hurtle past in a flash. When you hear a song on the radio, and all of a sudden you’re in a basement nightclub with your friend in 1998, sweating beer and squinting at boys through the smoke, and you say “But it feels like yesterday” just as it hits you it was a lifetime ago. When you realise that there is no such promise as tomorrow.

We created an indifferent, unforgiving god, and there is no redemption. We serve it joylessly, with contradictions. We lament its passage while wishing it away; we mourn for lost time when we’re the ones who waste it. We say life is short and live as if we have all the time in the world. But the world keeps its own time: the clock of the world is light, I think, and the seasons. Two more things we have forsaken, along with our sense, in the ever-lit cities we have built to contain us, where we live to serve our man-made gods, for rewards that never amount to redemption. But there are places, still, where light asserts itself over our schedules, where the seasons impose unequivocal can and cannots that blow through our structures. There are places, still, where the old gods rule, unfazed by our clocks and our wires and the plans we like to make. Where promises are renewed with every dawn and redeemed at sunset, every night. Where time is still a loop, the rotation of our world around the sun. No matter if we call it Tuesday or five o’clock or June, it is the light and the season and our position in the sky that have the final say.

A week has passed and it’s November fifth. Bonfire night in England and fireworks going off, uselessly, in the sky, while in Sifnos we toss the summer into the flames to call the winter forth. Fires burn all over the island, thick smoke signalling the end of one thing and the transition into the next, the changing of seasons, the passage of time. Old time, timeless time, the time of the old gods, that still rule here: Sifnos is one of those places. We check our phones for the time and the date, but it’s the weather and the light that dictate when we set things on fire. When we spread our nets to collect the olives and press them into oil. When we prune the trees. When we turn the soil over to give it room to breathe. When we sow and when we reap. What promises we can make, and keep.

I am guilty, too, of wishing time away. I spent the summer longing for winter, for shorter, darker days, for deeper nights, for the quiet and the emptiness. Summer disrupts our time on the island; in places like this, visitors bring along their own schedules, their own agendas, packed tight in their suitcases next to bikinis and sarongs and inappropriate shoes. They drag along their city gods and set them up to rule, and we all pander to their whims as they tap their watches impatiently and demand relaxation, right now. But this seasonal imposition is just another thing the seasons impose, in places like this. The old gods aren’t flustered, like we are: they know about time, and the ways that it matters. And all of a sudden three months have gone by, and my plan of walking down to Kamares for coffee is answered with an unequivocal cannot by the light.
     ‘I was gonna come down and see you,’ I said to Katerina, ‘but the sun sets at 5:24 and I have run out of time. What happened?’
     ‘It’s winter,’ she responded. ‘Isn’t that what you wanted?’
     And I had to concede that yes, it was, but I’d forgotten, perhaps, what it means. All of what it means. That as our world turns towards the deeper nights that I asked for, those spectacular sunsets that set our sky on fire come earlier each day, and between my lit-up home and Katerina’s steaming coffee machine lies an hour of darkness that I cannot cross. That the quiet and the emptiness come at a price, and the old gods always collect. But I was wrong when I said I’d run out of time. The time has changed, that’s all. And as my eyes adjust to the light, as my mind adjusts to the darkness and what it actually means, I am grateful: for change and transition and the passing of seasons and the turning of the world; for the chance to experience them, here. For real necessity and real rewards; for reaping exactly what you sow. Packed tight, as we are, in our ever-lit cities that give us twenty-four hour days and never enough time for our schedules to be fulfilled, we miss out on that: the changing of time, the changing of seasons, and of all what it means. The indifferent gods we serve wipe out the sunsets and the dawns and the space for living in between; they reduce the difference between one season and the next to nothing more than wardrobe choices. There is nowhere we can’t go and nothing we can’t have, and there is no redemption. The time changes but we do not; we simply put our clocks back, or forward, and rush off to our next appointment.

I have been guilty, but I’m changing. I say to Yiannis: ‘Do you remember when it was August and we were counting days until winter? Doesn’t it feel like yesterday?’ But it’s November, and we are finally allowed to burn things, and those endless days of summer are cast into the flames, along with weeds and gnarly branches and rotten bits of wood and mouldy mattresses and any old junk that’s been taking up space in our fields and our homes and our minds. I feed the fire and watch it grow and rage, roaring and crackling and spitting out sparkles in all directions; I take a step back every time and watch it, before picking up the next branch, the next armful of weeds. Yiannis tells me off when I stand too close, but then he often stops and joins me in staring. There is a primitive joy in this that I’ve never experienced before; there is a peace that you wouldn’t ascribe to the violence of fire, these relentless, all-consuming flames.
     ‘It’s cathartic,’ I say, and at first he shrugs, a question, because he’s done this a thousand times before, and I am speaking from a City Girl perspective, fascinated by the things he takes for granted. But then he nods.
     ‘Cleansing,’ he adds, and we both lose ourselves in the flames for a while, and imagine how neat this field will look when we’re finished, how much space there will be for everything that’s new.
     I don’t mention the gods, how this is our offering to them, our sacrifice, perhaps, to redeem ourselves for having stolen fire from them all those years ago, as Greek mythology has it. Our way to acknowledge that, despite our technologies and our progress, the new gods we’ve created to make sense of our lives, it is still the old gods that rule. A practical ritual made all the more meaningful for being practical as well as symbolic. Not like the useless fireworks in the sky, not like when we cross ourselves, unconsciously, in response to another hallelujah. There is more divinity in this smoke that stings our eyes when the wind changes direction than the sweet-smelling incense of our priests; there is more communion here, as we work side by side, wordlessly, than in the hallowed structures we’ve built to contain our faith. Fires burn all over the island, and we call to each other through the smoke; we will all go home with ash in our hair and soot on our clothes and in that, today, we are united.

There is no such promise as tomorrow, but it comes; most of the time, it comes. And you notice it, here, how that promise is renewed with every dawn, how our toil, our faith is redeemed with every heart-breaking sunset. And in between, not hours ticking on the clock, but hours of light and hours of dark, and what you do with them, with all that space for living. For sowing and for reaping. For remembering what matters, and why. For changing, with time. Because all of a sudden it will be years from now and today will feel like yesterday, but it’ll be a lifetime ago, and you’ll have had your last tomorrow.


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Love, what a bastard you are.

Love, what a bastard you are. When you come and when you go. What a bastard, when you linger. When you turn up uninvited, fucking gatecrasher, and make yourself at home with your feet up on the sofa and it’s like you were always there, but you’re just as likely to leave as you are to stay and there’s no telling which. When you loiter, fucking hooligan: kicking us over like rubbish bins so all our things spill out, when you set us on fire and watch us burn. When you scrape us from the inside, when you scrape us raw, when you scrape us clean of reason; not new but worse than new, not naïve but worse because we have known better, because we’ve known this before, but then you scrape us clean of knowing and there is only love. Fucking bomber planes in the sky, fucking minefields: explosions. Running wildly, in all directions, but not away – towards. Easy targets, lonely, frightened people, with our hopes despite, with our dreams regardless, with our romantic notions intact and our defences shattered. Scattered, all of our never agains and our better off alones, every I don’t need you and I’m not looking for anything, actually we’ve ever uttered; BOOM, lonely, frightened fools, fooling ourselves we can live without love. Running away as if there’s anywhere else to go. Fucking twister hurricane, spinning us round so we don’t know where or what or why but only who, this one person all of a sudden, and how the tides might turn, oh how they turn, when you think you’re standing on dry land and now you’re drowning. Fucking earthquake, and that deep rumble that means that the world is rearranging itself, that terrible screech as metal snaps and stone crumbles and everything collapses, defenceless, the wafer-thin structures that we cower within: I can live without you. Fucking asteroid, granting no wishes except your own, crashing into our lives and gouging holes into the nice, neat path that we’ve chiselled for ourselves so we can walk in a straight line and not stumble. The ancients were right: the sky does fall down on you sometimes, and the earth is flat, without love.

Fucking wonderful, fucking terrifying, to meet a soul that’s made like yours. When you hear them click, those two separate souls, above the noise, above the rumble. What a bastard you are, for granting us this without guarantees, what a bastard for putting us through this ordeal without promises. Fucking gypsy, preying on our hopes despite, our dreams regardless, tracing the lines in our palms and hinting at destiny, pulling the stars down from the sky and putting them in our hands and asking nothing in return except faith, all of our faith in impossible, wonderful, terrifying things like meeting a soul that’s made like yours. What a bastard.

Αν τ’ ακουμπήσεις λίγο κάτω, όλα αυτά που κουβαλάς

Μου ‘πε ο Γιάννης να γράψω μια ιστορία για τα ξύλα, κι εγώ είπα ίσως, ποτέ δεν ξέρεις, και γελούσα – μα ίσως να μπορώ, τελικά. Για τα ξύλα που τ’ ανεβάζω απ’ το ποτάμι, ανηφόρα και χώμα και δυο φορές σκαλιά – μία ώσπου να βγω απ’ το ποτάμι στον περιφερειακό κι άλλη μία από κει και πάνω ως το σπίτι – και τα ντανιάζω, όμορφα, πλάι στην αμυγδαλιά. Που πριν απ΄αυτό τα ψάχνω και τα ξεδιαλέγω, εδώ τα μικρά, εδώ τα πιο μεγάλα, εκεί κάτι κούτσουρα που με δυσκολία τα σηκώνω, αυτά για προσάναμμα κι εκείνα για ζέστη, και τα μαζεύω σε διάφορα σημεία, στρατηγικά, για να τα ξαναβρώ μετά, στην επόμενη βόλτα. Τα ξύλα που τα παίρνω τα μικρά στην τσάντα και τα μεγάλα αγκαλιά κι ανηφορίζω πάλι για το σπίτι, ιδρώνοντας και με κομμένη αναπνοή, κι ας μη φαίνεται τόσο μακριά. Έχει ύψος και κλίση και τα σκαλιά, ανομοιόμορφα, δε βοηθάνε κι εγώ πάντα κουβαλάω παραπάνω απ’ ότι μπορώ. Πάντα λίγο παραπάνω απ’ ότι μπορώ.

Μπορώ να γράψω για τα ξύλα πως με κουράζουν, αλλά μ’ αρέσει να τα μαζεύω. Μ’ αρέσει να πηγαίνω και να ‘ρχομαι, φορτωμένη. Να κουβαλάω πράγματα χρήσιμα, που θα με ζεστάνουν το χειμώνα. Μ’ αρέσει να κουβαλάω τα ξύλα, αντί για τις σκέψεις που κουβαλάω συνήθως, που δεν τους φαίνεται αλλά είναι πιο βαριές. Μ’ αρέσει, παρ’ ότι πονάει το σώμα μου παντού κι είμαι γεμάτη γρατζουνιές στα μπράτσα. Μ’ αρέσει που το σώμα μου μαθαίνει σιγά-σιγά στο κουβάλημα και τα πόδια μου πού να πατάνε στο μονοπάτι για να μην πέσω. Μ’ αρέσει να ψάχνω μες τα χόρτα για ξύλα, ν’ ανακαλύπτω κρυμμένους θησαυρούς που ‘χουν κυλήσει μέσα σε θάμνους ή σε γωνίες ή κάτω από σύρματα. Μ’ αρέσει που έχω αρχίσει να ξεχωρίζω ποια είναι ελαφριά και ποια είναι βαριά και ποια είναι κούφια, και πως όλα κάνουνε, όλα έχουν τη χρήση τους. Μ’ αρέσει η διαδικασία, και η ανάγκη της, πως πρέπει να την κάνω γιατί αλλιώς δε θα ‘χω ξύλα να κάψω για να ζεσταθώ. Μ’ αρέσει που πρέπει, γιατί το πρέπει αυτό είναι απλό και πρακτικό, όχι σαν τ’ άλλα που ‘ξερα παλιά. Στην άλλη μου ζωή.

Ήμουν τουρίστας στη ζωή μου εδώ μέχρι πριν λίγο. Ήμουν εδώ αλλά δεν ήμουν γιατί κρατιόμουν από αλλού. Γιατί έλεγα πως είμαι εδώ μα ζούσα, λέει, στο Λονδίνο. Εκεί που όλα μπορείς να τ’αγοράσεις μα δε σου μένει τίποτα. Εκεί που όταν αρχίζουν τα κρύα, την πρώτη στιγμή που κρυώνουν τα πόδια σου στο σπίτι, πατάς ένα κουμπί κι ανάβει η θέρμανση κι έρχεται μετά ο λογαριασμός. Και μετά πληρώνεις. Κι εδώ δεν είχα καν θέρμανση. Είχα κάτι καλοριφέρ του κώλου και τα ‘βαζα στην πρίζα και κρύωνα όλο το χειμώνα, αλλά δεν πείραζε γιατί ήμουνα τουρίστας. Ήμουν τουρίστας μέχρι πρόσφατα κι ίσως την περσινή χρονιά να μάζευα θάρρος αντί για ξύλα. Να μάζευα λόγους να ‘μαι εδώ, να μάζευα τρόπους για να μείνω. Μαθήματα. Κουράγιο. Το πλήρωσα, πάντως, κι αυτό μετά. Μετά πάντα πληρώνεις. Αλλά εγώ ότι είχα να δώσω το ‘δωσα, δεν έχω πια. Δυο-τρία πράγματα που έμαθα και λίγο θάρρος: αυτά. Κι όλους τους λόγους για να μείνω. Και να μαζεύω ξύλα, γιατί δεν είμαι πια τουρίστας και θέλω τα πόδια μου να ‘ναι ζεστά μέσα στο σπίτι.

Στην άλλη μου ζωή έπρεπε πολλά και κουβαλούσα άλλα τόσα. Και τα πλήρωνα. Κι αν μου λεγαν τότε πως θα μάζευα ξύλα για να ζεσταθώ και πως θα μ’ άρεσε, θα γελούσα. Αλλά ποτέ δεν ξέρεις. Κι αν τ’ ακουμπήσεις λίγο κάτω, όλα αυτά που κουβαλάς, κι αφήσεις χώρο για τα άλλα, ίσως ν’ αρχίσεις να μαθαίνεις. Πόσα μπορείς και δε μπορείς. Πόσα δεν ξέρεις. Πόσα αντέχεις.

Μ’ αρέσει, που εδώ προετοιμαζόμαστε για τα επόμενα. Μ’ αρέσει που δεν είναι όλα εύκολα, που πρέπει λίγο να τα σκεφτείς. Που δεν πατάς απλά ένα κουμπί κι όλα λύνονται. Όλα λύνονται, αλλά κάπως αλλιώς. Μ’ αρέσει που δεν ξέρω τίποτα και τα μαθαίνω, που έχω ανθρώπους δίπλα μου που θέλουν να μου τα μάθουν. Μ’ αρέσει που μαθαίνω πως δε γίνεται πάντα μόνη μου, δε χρειάζεται, κι ας κουβαλάω ακόμα πιο πολλά απ’ ότι αντέχω. Κάποια στιγμή θα μάθω ή ν’ αντέχω πιο πολλά ή να αφήνω κάτω αυτά που δε μπορώ να κουβαλήσω. Ίσως ακόμα και ν’ αφήνω κάποιον άλλον να σηκώνει αυτά που δε μπορώ. Και μ’ αρέσει που όταν πάω για ξύλα ακουμπώ τις σκέψεις μου στο σπίτι, για να ‘μαι λίγο πιο ελαφριά στο δρόμο μου, για να ‘χω χώρο στην αγκαλιά μου για όλα αυτά που θέλω να μπουν.

Δεν έχει άλλη ζωή: αυτή είναι. Κι είναι μικρή, κι ας φαίνεται μεγάλη. Δεν είναι για να κουβαλάς βαριά και άχρηστα και να ξοδεύεσαι, να σπαταλάς την αγκαλιά σου. Γι’ αυτό, απ’ όλα αυτά που κουβαλούσα κάποτε, κρατάω εκείνο το ποτέ δεν ξέρεις, και πάω για ξύλα. Να ανεβαίνω απ’ το ποτάμι φορτωμένη και να τ’ αφήνω όμορφα πλάι στην αμυγδαλιά. Να χτίζω βουνά από ξύλα. Αυτά, από τα πρέπει. Κι έπειτα: λίγο θάρρος, κι ανθρώπους δίπλα μου που θέλουν να με μάθουν, και να ‘χω ζέστη μες το σπίτι το χειμώνα. Αυτά που δεν τα πληρώνεις γιατί δε μπορείς να τ’ αγοράσεις – δε χρειάζομαι άλλους λόγους.


Apologies, once again, to the non Greek speakers among you. This piece is sort of about no longer being a tourist in my own life, and in this life they speak Greek; I need to adapt. But I will try to write an English version in the next few days.

Your soul is always where it needs to be

I’ve said it before, that you can’t be depressed in a place like this. I’ve said it many times, but it’s a lie. It’s a line I feed myself when I feel it coming on and I’m hungry for nothing; deplete of everything and wanting nothing. It’s a line for when I sense it circling and I’m frozen on the spot because there’s nowhere to run. It’s a line that I throw at other people when they ask about my life, when I show them the set I live it on: the fields of thirsty silver and gold, the perfect line between mountain and sky, toy churches glowing in the sunshine and smudges of pink bougainvillea, the horizons made up of Cycladic blue sea. It’s an exorcism, for when my soul is in the right place. How can you be depressed in a place like this?

With the sunshine picking out highlights in your hair and warming up your skin, how? How, when you have to lift your hand to shade against so much beauty, when there is more and more to love everywhere you look? When everything is so light, so weightless that you can imagine it just floating away on a jasmine-scented breeze, how can you possibly conceive of any kind of weight? But depression is the chill inside, where the sun cannot reach. Depression is the filter that turns everything flat and grey. It’s a desolate landscape. It’s the mathematical formula that multiplies everything by zero. Depression only understands love as lost, as unrequited; as regret. And it always tips the scales in its favour; there is no counterweight when your soul is in the wrong place.

At times like this, that sunshine, those endless, generous skies are like a personal affront. They hurt. Beauty hurts, lightness hurts when you feel ugly and weighed down by things you cannot see. Things you cannot hold or handle, cannot pick up and examine and toss aside, cannot show anyone and say look, see? Here is the thing that hurts me, so you can take it apart together and scare it away. Depression cannot be shared and when you’re standing in the sunshine against a sky of endless blue, that’s all anyone can see. A girl framed by light, and how can you be depressed in a place like this?

I’ve said it before, to guilt-trip myself into recovery, when depression has already taken hold. How self-indulgent, how ungrateful. How shameful, when other people would give anything to have a little of what you’ve got; how wasteful. But that’s depression talking, when it tells you you have the best of everything and yet you’re empty and poor. When it shows you all the love in the world, tantalisingly out of reach. When it says your soul is in the wrong place. Pinned down by grief, an inarticulated sadness, too heavy to flutter in the breeze.

It helps, to be in a place like this. It can help. You can take yourself for a walk to the top of a hill and gaze out to sea and place the magnitude of everything in context. You can force yourself to look at the spaces of sky between trees, all the entry points for light to filter through and heal you. It can help, to see depression contrasted with beauty, but it isn’t beauty that we forget about when depression takes hold; it isn’t beauty that we need reminding of. What we forget is that our soul is always in the right place. No matter how uncomfortable it feels, our soul is exactly where it needs to be.

I’d forgotten this yesterday, when depression took hold. It was with me when I woke in the morning and by late afternoon I could barely move for its syrupy embrace. I tried to summon gratitude as the antidote, but it is hard to be grateful for anything when there is nothing that you want. I tried to not be wasteful of the beauty all around me, but I sat in the sunshine and it just wore me down. I took my coffee outside and smoked a cigarette and gazed at mountains and sky, and there was only pain. Emptiness. A mockery of everything I could feel; everything I should, by rights, be feeling if my soul was in the right place. Pinned down by grief for all the love that was out of reach – but some instinct told me to reach. Only a little, only as much as I could. Only as far as sending my friend a message. Everything is shit, I said. I’m tired of everything. I don’t want anything at all. Will you come round?

And he came. And we sat on my terrace, on the sun-warmed stones as the sun began to set upon the fields of silver and gold. He didn’t ask to see the sadness, the intangible weight I was asking him to lift; he didn’t ask how, in a place like this, with the sunshine in my hair. We didn’t look at the sky changing colours in the west or the mountains turning to shadows behind us. Steeped in this beauty, we looked at each other, because all of it is background, the set we live our lives on, but the place is where our souls are at, and the people are what make it a living. Looking at the sea stretching out beyond your horizon can help you remember how small you are, how inconsequential your sorrows, but inconsequential talk between two people on a Wednesday afternoon is what will put you back in your place, right where your soul is at. A friend turning up to sit with you when you have nothing to offer, a friend bringing nothing but the fact that he came: that’s where it’s at. No matter what’s happening around you, in the background, on the set, this is the only place that matters. No matter how uncomfortable it feels, this is the place where you can never be depressed. How, when your soul is exactly where it needs to be, and love is never out of reach?


I am not making light of depression here; there is nothing light about it. But reaching out can help. It won’t be shared and it won’t be halved, but it might loosen its grip on you, to remember that you are loved.

Coincidentally, my friend Keith wrote about his own struggle with depression a few days ago. Read his post here.

What they mean by home

I’m at the port, watching the ships sail in and out. I watch them tear the sea open, like splitting a seam, sending waves crashing against the rocks and rippling out to the shore, making children scream before they reach the beach, with a whoosh, and froth, and draw back, shimmering, as they mix with the silvery sand.

They blow their whistles, sometimes briefly, sometimes prolonged. Sometimes not at all. Hello, goodbye. I’m here! I’m leaving. I’m gone. In and out. Bringing people, taking people away. Taking them back. For me, once a summertime guest, the direction of travel has been reversed: when the boat glides into the port, now, it’s always bringing me back. When the jagged edges of the island first appear, when its dark shape looms at night, gaining in substance as we get closer and dots of light start to grow and spell out villages, shops still open, homes still occupied by those, like me, who stay, I understand what they mean by homecoming. There’s nothing epic about it; it’s not like that. It’s just a gliding in, a slotting into place. A small click that only you can hear, the click that means that, after years of pushing yourself into the jagged edges of other shores, you found the part that fits. Like a ship that doesn’t need to blow its whistle as it drifts into the port: you just slip back into place.

When I step onto the jetty, it’s the same: a moment for shoe to connect with soil, for girl to connect with island, a breathing out of other places, and then nothing. Almost nothing. No fanfare and no one to greet me, no one to say welcome as if my presence here is remarkable. I drift past the wives and husbands, children if it’s not too late, taxi drivers and maybe one or two hotel owners holding up signs. I wind my way through, sure on my feet because my feet know the way. I slip past, almost unnoticed, and it’s in that that I understand what I have found: it’s in the nods of those, like me, who stay. A tuck of the chin, a tilt of the head, a hand half-raised, a smile. A quiet welcome back, acknowledging my unremarkable presence. It’s in the fact that, when the ships sail out again, the seam closes after them before long. Whether they blow their whistle in goodbye, whether they drift out quietly: before long, it’s like they were never there. And I stay. It’s in the pleasure that gives me, it’s in the comfort I draw from the sight of that unbroken sea, that empty horizon, that I understand what they mean by home.


This is work in progress. An excerpt from what might become my next book – tentatively titled We’ll still be here when you are gone. Or maybe not… I’ll be posting bits and pieces as they get written; sign up below if you’d like to get them by email.

Να έχεις κάπου να γυρίσεις

Και να κάθομαι τώρα σ’ ένα πλοίο, απόγευμα, τέλη Σεπτέμβρη, και να βλέπω έξω τη θάλασσα και ν’ ακούω καψουροτράγουδα στο κινητό που δεν ξέρω τι να τα κάνω και που να τα τοποθετήσω μέσα μου, και που να τοποθετηθώ κι εγώ μέσα σ΄όλα αυτά, αφού βγω απ΄αυτό το πλοίο που μου ‘χουν δώσει θέση ξεκάθαρη, με αριθμό. Και να πηγαίνω στην Αθήνα, αλλαγμένη, ούτε Αθηναία πια ούτε Σιφνιά, για να μου πούνε όλοι εκεί πως έχω αλλάξει, και πως μου πάει το νησί, πως δεν ανήκω πια στην πολή – αλλά δε σκέφτομαι καθόλου να γυρίσω; Δεν πα να σκέφτομαι ότι θέλω, μα να γυρίσω που; Σε τι; Μόνο στη Σίφνο θέλω να γυρίζω, πάντα στη Σίφνο να γυρίζω, τύπου Ιθάκη ένα πράγμα, ταξίδι και προορισμός. Το είπα πρόσφατα, να με δέσουν σ’ ένα κατάρτι σαν τον Οδυσσέα, γιατί ακούω τις Σειρήνες και δε μπορώ – όχι – δε θέλω να μην πάω εκεί που με φωνάζουν. Κλείνω τ’ αφτιά μου με ακουστικά κι ακούω καψουροτράγουδα κι όπου με βγάλει, και δε φταίνε οι Σειρήνες που με φωνάζουν, αυτή είν’ η δουλειά τους. Φταίω εγώ, που δεν μπαίνω καν στον κόπο να δεθώ.

Και να ‘μαι τώρα σ’ ένα πλοίο για Αθήνα, θέση 31Τ, παράθυρο, επίσημα και τυπωμένο σε χαρτί. Πενήντα ευρώ για να ξέρω ακριβώς που βρίσκομαι για λίγο, για να βρεθώ εν τέλει στην Αθήνα, ούτε Αθηναία πια ούτε ακριβώς Σιφνιά, παρ΄ότι μέσα μου πάντα στη Σίφνο επιστρέφω. Να με ξερνάει το πλοίο στον Πειραιά, κι εγώ να κάνω τις κινήσεις μου μηχανικά γιατί ξέρω πως, γιατί θυμάμαι το δρόμο προς το σπίτι, μα οι Σειρήνες με φωνάζουνε αλλού. Να περιφέρομαι στους δρόμους της Αθήνας, άδετη, σα χαμένη, κι όλοι να ξέρουν απ’ τον τρόπο που κινούμαι πως δεν ανήκω πια εδώ. Και να μου λεν έχεις αλλάξει, βλέπω τη Σίφνο στο κορμί σου, στον τρόπο που χαμογελάς, μα κάτσε λίγο παραπάνω, δε θα κάτσεις; Κι εγώ δεν ξέρω πως να πω δεν έχω θέση. Ήμουνα κάποτε Αθηναία, το θυμάμαι, αλλά δεν ξέρω πια που να σταθώ, πως να περάσω απ’ το φανάρι, και μέσα στο θόρυβο της πόλης ακούω μόνο τις Σειρήνες τις δικές μου, να μου φωνάζουν γύρνα πίσω.

Πόση σημασία έχει η τοποθεσία εν τέλει, το που τοποθετείς τον εαυτό σου; Είναι καλύτερο ν’ αφήνεσαι, ελαφρύς, και να πηγαίνεις όπου σε πάει, ή μήπως να στέκεσαι κάπου σταθερά και να λες εγώ εδώ είμαι, ελάτε αν θέλετε εσείς για να με βρείτε; Μα άμα το κανες αυτό, σκέφτομαι τώρα, δε θα βρισκόσουνα ποτέ και πουθενά, ούτε θα έμπαινες σε πλοία για να φύγεις και να γυρίσεις πάλι στην Ιθάκη, όποια Ιθάκη διάλεξες να σε καλεί. Άμα δεν πας όπου σε πάει, δεν έχει Ιθάκες πουθενά: μόνο λιμάνια και ταξίδια, χωρίς επιστροφή. Όπου και να τοποθετείσαι, μέσα σ’ όλα, όποια κι αν είναι η θέση που θα πάρεις, σταθερή, θα περιφέρεσαι άσκοπα, δεμένος σε κατάρτια, γιατί είχες άλλο στο μυαλό σου προορισμό κι αλλού ακούς να σε φωνάζουν. Και θα φεύγεις χωρίς να ‘χεις να γυρίσεις, αντί να δένεσαι μ’ αυτά που σε καλούν, κι όπου σε βγάλει.

Μα να ‘χεις κάπου να γυρίσεις: δεν είναι λίγο. Χωρίς να δένεσαι δεν έχει να λυθείς, κι άμα φοβάσαι ν’ αφεθείς δε θα ‘χεις θέση πουθενά. Κι αν είναι ο τόπος σου εκεί που επιστρέφεις, αν έχεις βρει τη θέση σου, ανεπίσημα, εκεί, πόσο άδικο να ξοδεύεσαι αλλού, σε άλλα, και να σου λεν πως άλλαξες κι εσύ να ακούς μόνο το θόρυβο της πόλης και τις σειρήνες της τροχαίας να περνάνε. Όπου κι αν πας, να έχεις κάπου να γυρίσεις, κι εσύ να ψάχνεις για κατάρτια να δεθείς. Πόσο άδικο, αν είσαι τόσο τυχερός.

Γιατί δε φταίνε οι Σειρήνες που νιώθουμε άδετοι, που κρατιόμαστε από κατάρτια χωρίς λόγο, που περιφερόμαστε στους δρόμους της ζωής μας σα χαμένοι, στο δρόμο προς το σπίτι, ψάχνοντας κάτι μου μας έχει ήδη βρει. Φταίμε εμείς, που δεν ακούμε. Αν δεν ακούμε, φταίμε εμείς.

Αυτά που είναι να κρατήσουν θα σταθούν

Τα ‘χω ανοίξει όλα, πόρτες και παράθυρα, ορθάνοιχτα, και φυσάει ο άνεμος και τα παίρνει όλα, όλα όσα έχω. Φυσάει ο άνεμος απ’ όλες τις κατευθύνσεις, βορράς, νότος, ανατολή, και με τη δύση δεν πέφτει όπως πέφτουν τα μελτέμια, δε γλυκαίνει λίγο όπως έκανε παλιά. Φυσάει αέρας, ρεύματα, και χτυπάνε τα τζάμια και μέσα μου όλα γέρνουνε και πέφτουνε και σπάνε, πέφτουν κάτω και θρυμματίζονται και τα παράθυρα χτυπούν και οι πόρτες τρίζουν. Κι όλα δονούνται κι όλα γέρνουν κι όλα τα παίρνει ο άνεμος και τα ρίχνει κάτω και τα σπάει κι εγώ στέκομαι εκεί, ακίνητη, στη μέση, και σκέφτομαι: πάρτα όλα, σπάστα, να πάνε στο διάολο, να πάνε στο καλό. Δεν τα θέλω άλλο αυτά τα εύθραυστα, αυτά που γέρνουν τόσο εύκολα και σπάνε, με τον κάθε άνεμο, αυτά που δεν έχουν αντοχή για να σταθούν. Πάρτα να παν στο διάολο, τι να τα κάνω; Μισά κι ολόκληρα, σπασμένα και ακέραια, αλλά ανοίγεις τα παράθυρα και τρέμουν και πως να τα κρατήσεις; Φυσάνε έρωτες, φυσάνε λύπες, φυσάνε χαρές που δε φαντάστηκα, φυσάνε αυτά που ήθελα κι αυτά που έχασα κι αυτά που θέλω να κρατήσω, αλλά δε μπορώ να στέκομαι στη μέση και να τα κρατάω, μήπως φυσήξει ανέμος και γείρουνε και πέσουν, δε μπορώ. Ας πέσουνε κι ας σπάσουν κι ας πάνε στο καλό, αυτά που δεν αντέχουν να σταθούν. Τα ‘χω ανοίξει όλα, ορθάνοιχτα, και στέκομαι στη μέση και σκέφτομαι: ας σπάσει ότι σπάσει, κι ότι μπορεί ν’ αντέξει ας σταθεί γιατί αν κλείσω τα παράθυρα και τις πόρτες και γίνουν όλα στεγανά, δε θα ‘χει ούτε έρωτες, ούτε χαρές, ούτε αυτά που θα ‘θελα να τα κρατήσω – δε θα ‘χουν από που να μπουν. Άμα τα κλείσω όλα, όπως πριν, θα ‘χει μόνο ακινησία, θα ‘χει μόνο στασιμότητα κι ασφάλεια κι εγώ θα στέκομαι στη μέση, απαθής, να τα κοιτάω, όλα αυτά τα εύθραυστα, μισά κι ολόκληρα, σπασμένα ήδη κι ας μοιάζουν ακέραια, αυτά που χρειάζονται τόσο προστασία για να σταθούν. Δεν τα θέλω πια, όχι έτσι. Κι ας τρέμουν όλα μέσα μου, κι ας γέρνουν. Αυτά που είναι να κρατήσουν κρατιούνται από μόνα τους, όποιος άνεμος κι αν τα φυσά. Αυτά που είναι να κρατήσουν θα σταθούν.