New moons and minotaurs and what it all means

New Moons ans Minotaurs

There’s a new moon tonight, and a partial solar eclipse in Capricorn. I don’t know what that means. I know that the moon waxes and wanes and affects our waters; I know that new moons represent new beginnings. I know that eclipses are meant to be mystical; they pull the curtains on that which is no longer needed, and show us the darker side of ourselves. I know that there are a lot of Capricorns in my life and that where there’s a lot of anything, it’s generally been invited. I know a lot of stuff, but I don’t always know what stuff means, and I can only guess at the meaning of moons and eclipses in Capricorn.

I am advised to burn sage and set intentions. Harness the energy of the eclipse and the new moon. The energy of Capricorn. But I don’t know what that means. How can I, timid Gemini, ever get a grip on those mad, wild goats? They trot past me on their Capricorn missions, while I wander in their wake, trailing questions, dreaming up the words to explain them. I get lost in the labyrinth of my emotions that they have no patience for, and all the minotaurs are Capricorns in disguise, bull-headed bastards that they are, guarding the secret of their souls. I, crafty Gemini, hold the thread, I am the one who weaves the tales, but the endings always lead me back to the minotaur. And you’d think I’d know about circles and cycles, the moons and the stars, and that karma is basically a loop, but I don’t know what any of it means.

They scare the crap out of me, these Capricorns, but it’s obvious that I need them. I, flighty Gemini, need something of their firmness so I can learn to stand my ground. But firmness is one thing when it comes to standing, and yet another when you’re throwing yourself against a wall: they can be hard; they pride themselves on being hard. And I, mercurial masochist, am drawn to them like a moth to the flame. Except the flame is a cold, hard wall, with horns sticking out, and I am the words shattered, scattered on the ground by their feet. There’s a lot of collecting yourself when you’re around them – and I, all-over-the-place Gemini, choose to be around them, time and time again. I keep inviting them in. I collect them, like butterflies in a book – but listen to this: they only stay pinned down because they want to; have you ever tried to keep a goat captive? They roll their eyes at my stories, demonstrating their impatience with the labyrinth of my thoughts, but they’re always there, at the end of the thread, and they tug on it as much as I do.

Whatever’s there once the light returns after an eclipse is what is meant to be there; eclipses, I am told, will never take away the things that belong in your life. The rest, however, under relentless Capricorn, is fair game. I’m not sure how I feel about Capricorn taking my things away, or dictating what’s worthy enough to keep. They’re always judging, these Capricorns, and I, insecure Gemini, keep submitting myself to their judgement, to their impossible, implacable rules. But listen to this: even as they dismiss me, they keep a firm hold upon the thread. And for all their eye-rolling, once the darkness clears, they’re always there; impatiently waiting for my meandering explanations, for the tales I unfold to reveal the secret of their souls. We need each other. They teach me how it feels to stand my ground, and I teach them about falling; they learn how to crack, sometimes, if not shatter, while I learn that it’s possible to stay in one piece. To stand before them is to learn I’m not so timid, not so flighty, not so insecure after all; to crumble at their feet is to teach them they don’t always have to be hard. And on it goes, in the endless loop of our karma, or whatever.

What does any of it mean? We’re all just guessing. We’re all just as lost as each other, and looking for explanations in the stars, navigating labyrinths of our own making, following threads that always lead us back to the minotaurs of our personal mythologies, our darker sides, the lessons we have still to learn. And if you’re reading this as neither Capricorn nor Gemini and you’re wondering where you might fit, don’t worry: none of us fit. We’re all just as messed up as each other, regardless of what particular configuration of planets we were born under. We’re all just going round our circles, our endless karmic loops, guided or aided or hindered by the stars, orbiting planets of our own making, whomever we’ve chosen to set up as the sun in our skies, whomever we’ve given the power to eclipse us. But when the darkness clears, each time, every time, we’ll still be there. Capricorns and Geminis, Libras and Virgos, and the full moon in Aquarius, and Venus opposing Saturn: none of it means anything. None of us fit, but we all belong. We all need each other.


P.S. This piece was five days in the writing because what’s also happening right now is that Capricorn has stolen Mercury, planet of communication, and the goats are expressing themselves all over the place while the rest of us are struggling for words. Dudes, kindly: I want my planet back.


Photograph by Paul Rysz on Unsplash

You can do things without love

Day 100 / 22 December 2014

100 days of solitude
Me and my book, celebrating our 4-year anniversary of 100 days, on this morning of December 22, 2018. Neither of us have done our hair.

Should there be a drumroll at this stage, or a quiet slipping, like I said, from one day to another? It could be either, and neither feels quite right, and day 100 is not a summary of days, and you can’t bring one hundred days together with words, so that they mean something.

Eleni told me a story that made me laugh. It was about her brother-in-law, John, who, upon tasting his first sugared kumquat, apparently commented: “It is like making love for the first time. You don’t really understand what’s happening to you.” It made me laugh, and then it made me think: about love and making love and the things we don’t really understand.

My first time wasn’t like a kumquat. It was a strange experience but, looking back, kind of tasteless. The act took place at a house party, an hour out of town, in the early summer of 1994; a bunch of us were staying overnight, unsupervised. This was a couple of weeks past my sixteenth birthday, and my boyfriend and I had just celebrated our three-month anniversary. The stars didn’t line up to bring us together in sweet, if awkward, lovemaking on a mild June evening that we would both remember fondly. It was coldly understood that this would be the night. It was about opportunity and the dispatching of a task. So much for the romantic dreams of teenage girls; so much for the endless lines of poetry this teenage girl had written for other, earlier loves. There was no poetry in this, and no romance. I liked the boy well enough and we had called it love. But the truth was a cold one: I just wanted the thing over with and I remember it, if anything, with shame.
    And so it was, a task performed, awkwardly and quickly, on one of two twin beds we had been allocated for the night. I knew what was happening to me; I knew the mechanics of the act and what to expect, and my expectations were met by a mechanical act. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t hurt, as advertised; I grieved a little for the drama that wasn’t there. A trip to the bathroom yielded a single smudge of blood, a private hanging of the wedding sheets. I flushed the tissue down the toilet, returned to the bedroom to get dressed, and went to join my friends, in other rooms, leaving my boyfriend, used up, still and silent on the bed. We both knew what had happened, what we’d done, but neither of us understood. Neither of us said a word.
    He was gone when I returned, out in town with the boys, and I was relieved. This was a private thing, and he was no longer part of it. I found my walkman and crawled into a hammock in the garden and swung, back and forth, all night, listening to a song on repeat. The song was called Thanatos: death. I had been cold on this warm summer evening; I had gotten rid of my virginity and my boyfriend by a single act, and I felt nothing. But I thought I understood that love hurts, and in the absence of love I chose the hurt, and a song called Death with beautiful, heartbreaking lyrics to fill the gaps where poetry should have been.

There has been love since, and poetry, and lovemaking that hurt in the ways that it should and didn’t need a soundtrack, and I still don’t really understand. I can’t speak for kumquats, but I don’t think lovemaking is meant to be understood. There have been times when I have stopped, midway, to say “What is this? What is happening?”, and those are the times I will remember. Wonder, bafflement, awe: that’s how you know something extraordinary is happening to you. It will be a terrible day, a day of mourning, when such a thing as love can be understood.
    I think I understand now that I was mourning something on that night in June. The passing, maybe, of the teenage girl whose poetry amounted to nothing, the girl who thought a mechanical act could be transformed into something meaningful just because you call it love. But I think I learned something, too, about the absence of love; I learned it, on that night, as I swung in a hammock with a song called Death on repeat, but it took me twenty years to understand.

You might get lucky and throw kumquats and love and poetry and death together and make some kind of sense, but you can’t bring one hundred days together with words. And day 100 is not a summary of days, and it isn’t the day that love was understood. But I think I understand, finally, about its absence: you can do things without love. But if you live your life mechanically, performing acts and dispatching tasks in cold understanding, you leave no room for poetry or bafflement or awe. You can’t transform that into something meaningful just because you call it a life. You’ve gotta put in the things you love and leave gaps that ache and need to be filled up with some sort of poetry, whatever stands for poetry in your life. You can do things without love, but they’ll amount to nothing, and you will remember them with shame, if you remember them at all. That’s what I learned in that hammock, and it took twenty years and one hundred days of doing what I love to understand.
    And day 100 is not a summary of days. Maybe it’s like a kumquat; like I’ve tasted something I cannot quite describe, but want to taste again. It’s like one of those times that I’ll remember, and I’m lying here, naked and aching and a little out of breath, and I’m thinking “What just happened?” and I don’t really understand. But there is wonder and bafflement and awe and scattered lines of poetry trying to put into words what you cannot, and I know it was something extraordinary. And it’s like that first time, too, a thing completed as I expected it would, and my sheets hung up and flapping in the wind for everyone to see, one hundred days of word-stained sheets to prove it, and nothing to show for it in private but a smudge of blood and a sense of mourning. Day 100 is both: it’s both a drumroll and a quiet slipping into something else, the day after, whatever comes next.
    Or maybe it’s a drumroll to distract you, so I can slip away, quietly, out of sight, and mourn it a little, in private, the end of a hundred days, and celebrate it, too, because I did it, for love. And then I’ll sit alone, in a solitude no longer shared, and think about love and making love and all the things that I don’t understand. All the things that I cannot put into words, and will keep trying, regardless, for all of my days, because this is what I love. This is what comes next. This is what I call a life. It baffles the hell out of me, and it has a weird soundtrack, but it’s extraordinary.


This is Day 100, the final day of 100 days of solitude, written on December 22, 2014. You can buy 100 days of solitude on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, or read it for free with Kindle Unlimited or Prime Reading (US).

Identity: the stories we tell ourselves

St. Paul's Cathedral

The first time I wore a pencil skirt, my boyfriend ran away from me. But that was after I misplaced St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Identity. The stories we tell ourselves. I am a Londoner therefore of course I know where St. Paul’s Cathedral is. Except, when I came out of the tube station, I didn’t. I stood amongst the crowds of map-happy tourists and miserable City dwellers combined, exuding an air of “I know exactly where I’m going” while squinting, as nonchalantly as squinting will allow, at my baffling surroundings which – inexplicably, impossibly – did not feature a giant dome. But I’m a Londoner and it’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of course I’m not gonna ask. I spotted a churchy-looking building in the distance and, to the tune of “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag” and flashes of pigeons and Dick Van Dyke serving as the only images my brain could supply of the landmark in question, I set off confidently in the opposite direction. After reaching the impostor (a tall, rectangular thing, the opposite, perhaps, of a dome) and establishing, firmly, that I was an idiot, I laughed at myself and surreptitiously checked Google Maps on my phone. And then, as my blue dot made its way back to where I’d come from, I used the phone to call the person I was now late meeting: Pencil Skirt Catrina, in town for a few days from Liverpool, who’d managed to find St. Paul’s Cathedral without any trouble at all.
    ‘I have to confess,’ I told her, half-hysterical, in the first conversation we’d ever had, ‘that I’ve lived in this city for 20 years and I don’t actually know where St. Paul’s is.’ To my immense relief, she laughed, this stranger who now knew me to be an idiot.
    ‘It’s a giant dome!’ she pointed out, as the thing itself finally came into view. A giant fucking dome. And I walked straight past it, because I am a Londoner. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I didn’t see it, to begin with. I was meeting with Catrina to talk about pencil skirts and writing. Specifically: I was going to write about pencil skirts. And though I was intrigued, I just couldn’t see it. I’d never worn a pencil skirt; I had no pencil skirt stories in me as yet. I didn’t see what these pencil skirts were all about. I saw Catrina, tall and imposing and elegant in hers – fittingly – but warm and funny and unconventional, the kind of person who is amused that you stood her up because you misplaced St. Paul’s Cathedral. My kind of person. In a pencil skirt. What does this say about her? What does it say about me, late and flustered in my uniform of jeans and All Stars, questioning my credentials as a Londoner and trying not to jump to conclusions?

This happens all the time. We learn things, important things, and then we forget them. And I forgot the most important lesson of all: that you can be exactly who you want to be. I learnt it bit by bit, day by day, by being all sorts of people I’d never been before. By doing things I’d never thought I’d do, simply because I hadn’t done them. But that’s where our stories come in. The preconceptions that we write ourselves into. I am a Londoner. I am never late. I always drink my coffee this way. This is who I am. And then: I’ve never worn a pencil skirt becomes I don’t. I’m not that kind of person. But which kind of person is that, exactly?

Identity. The costumes we put on. I have a ring in my nose and ink on my skin. What does that tell you about who I am? I used to wear a lot of jewellery but it began to weight me down so I took it off. Life is a lot lighter when you have less to prove.
    There was a time when a man who had been flirting with me all night insisted that I was a lesbian. We had just met at my work Christmas party, and happened to catch the same tube home.
    ‘I’m not,’ I told him, ‘but what made you think so?’
    Was it my boy-short hair, I wondered? Was it the big, chunky boots? Was it the fact that I spent most of the evening smoking with the boys in the garden? Was it that I swear a lot?
    ‘No,’ he said. It was none of that. It was my nose ring.
    My nose ring: an item I have never associated with any particular type of sexuality; a relic of teenage rebellion; a thing I barely know is there.
    Which goes to show that it really doesn’t matter what you say or do or what costumes you dress yourself in. People will draw their own conclusions anyway. Sometimes stereotypical, sometimes completely inexplicable but always theirs, not yours. You might as well do what you like. You might as well have fun with it. It’s how you see yourself that matters and even that, arguably, matters very little at all.

‘I’ve never worn a pencil skirt,’ I confessed to Catrina over coffee. ‘It isn’t me.’
    And Catrina smiled and explained why pencil skirts were everyone, and as she talked I began to see it, the thing that I’d missed: this wasn’t about an item of clothing; this was about a symbol. And symbols I understand; symbols I can get behind. And this particular symbol was one that I could wear. I could put it on and see what kind of person it made me. What stories she would tell. This is the story I’d write.

I came home and gave my boyfriend the long version of losing St. Paul’s Cathedral and finding Catrina and blah-blah, something about skirts, and he did the nodding and the making of appropriate sounds but I could see that his eyes were glazing over until I mentioned that I was going to buy a pencil skirt, as an experiment, and the light came back on.
    ‘Oh yeah?’ he said.
    ‘Yes,’ I confirmed. ‘And I will wear it!’
    ‘With heels?’
    ‘Oh. I don’t have heels. You think I need heels?’
    ‘You’ve gotta have heels.’
    So we went online and looked at pencil skirts and heels.
    ‘But I just can’t see myself in this thing,’ I argued, hesitating over the “Buy now” button.
    ‘I can,’ he said, and smiled, this man who has loved me in my jeans for many years.
    I think this counts as a pencil skirt story.

There is power in symbols, and costumes. I saw it, when I first put my pencil skirt on: I saw what Catrina was talking about. There was something about it that made this tomboy soul of mine long for things it doesn’t quite understand. Swinging hips and mysterious half-smiles. A level gaze, not arrogant, but exactly as tall as you are. Elegance. A sort of power that is exclusively, inherently female.
    And terrifying, as it turns out.
    My boyfriend walked in as I stood in the middle of the room, swaying gently as my centre of balance tried to compensate for the heels, and staring at myself in the mirror in utter bewilderment.
    There was a pause, a moment of silence.
    ‘Oh my god,’ he said.
    ‘I know!’ I took a step towards him; he took a step back.
    He made a strange sound in his throat. And: ‘You look too sexy’, he managed. Followed by: ‘I’m getting out of here.’
    He backed away carefully as I tottered uncertainly towards him, spun himself around on the spot and literally ran out the door.
    ‘Um,’ I said to his retreating back. ‘I don’t think this is the effect I was hoping for.’
    I didn’t go after him; I couldn’t, in my heels. So I stood in the doorway for a while, leaning against the frame, smoking a cigarette and channelling the femme fatales of all the ages, staring wistfully at the spot where their lover once stood, and blowing smoke rings that, when you wear a pencil skirt, look sexy and defiant. Nobody saw it, but it happened. I was that girl, for a time.

I have a friend who tells me I’m clumsy and, around her, I am. I perform that role for her. But I was a barmaid for years and never dropped a glass. And there’s no contradiction in this, after all. Do you see where I’m going now? Identity; the stories we tell. It’s just a script, a performance, a game that we play. And once you realise that, there is no greater freedom. That’s the lesson we mustn’t forget: that we have the freedom to choose who we want to be, at any given moment.

And if it takes a symbol to remind us, then so be it. If I can wear a pencil skirt, if I can be that girl and tell that story, there is no end to how many other people I can be. I can perform competent barmaid as well as I can perform hopelessly but endearingly clumsy friend; I can blend into the background in my jeans or I can stand in the middle of the room in a pencil skirt and terrify a man with my sexiness. And I don’t know if I’ll be adding more pencil skirts to my wardrobe, but as a symbol, I’ll be putting one on every day and channelling Catrina, immaculate in hers. Pencil Skirt Catrina, who is several other people, too, untouched by my preconceptions; who is a mother and a wife and a daughter and a kick-ass businesswoman and a brave entrepreneur and a former Londoner who can locate St. Paul’s Cathedral in time to meet me for coffee, and a stranger who helped me remember who I am. And maybe next time we meet she’ll be wearing a pair of jeans and I’ll stand her up again because I’m still learning to walk in my heels. And that’ll be another story.

And to draw this one to a close: if I can wear a pencil skirt, then so can you. Wear it figuratively or literally, it doesn’t matter; but wear it proudly and defiantly, and lightly, so that you can take it off anytime you like.
    A word of warning, however: if you pair it with heels and your boyfriend runs away from you because you are too sexy, you won’t be able to run after him. A lot of good men have been lost that way. Better start practising your smoke rings.


This piece was commissioned, almost three years ago, by the wonderful Catrina, for the first issue of her Perfect Pencil Skirt magazine (online). I’ve no idea if it was ever published. But I’ll never forget her, or my pencil skirt moment, though I have never worn one since. And that boyfriend ran away from me for good.


Photo by Domantas Klimas on Unsplash

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.

Babysitting fires

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

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

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

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

Christmas Eve, undecorated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Christmas without Christmas

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

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

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

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


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

That’s how long

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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