I am the storm.


Ever since I self-published my first book, 100 days of solitude, I’ve been standing at a precipice, high over the world, scuffing at the edge with the toes of my shoes, and watching dust rise up and stones tumble down the slope. One, maybe two at a time. I watch them roll down, gaining momentum sometimes, sometimes dislodging a small rock on the way and taking it down with them. I watch them hit the bottom, the impact they make: another cloud of dust rising and settling again. Again, I nudge, pulling another stone from the soil; I get down on my knees, freeing one more with my hands and setting it loose down the mountainside. I watch. I wait. I start again.

I want an avalanche. I want a landslide. I want that magical, inexplicable something that brings my book crashing into the world with a great, rumbling roar. I don’t want it to be a wave, gently lapping at the shore and pulling back again, to disappear into the ocean. I want it to be a tsunami, a great sweeping mass of words and thoughts and joy, rushing into the lives of thousands. Millions. I’m done being waves and pebbles. I’m done being quiet and small. I want the magic. I want that something, that moment when my book goes from selling a thousand copies to selling a million. Because that’s all it is: a moment. A click that sets it all in motion. That’s all it takes: some magic, and a click.

Perhaps literary agents and publishers have the big, industrial machines that tear chunks out of mountainsides and cause landslides that bury the villages below. Perhaps they have massive ships that cut through the ocean, dislodging the seas, turning waves into tsunamis and drowning coastal towns in their authors’ words. Perhaps they do, and it’s not sinister; it’s just the way it is. But I have no such equipment. I am just a girl chiselling away with my hands, but my words are just as big as theirs, and there’s another way.

The world is changing, and we can make our own magic. We can make our own destiny. We always could, but perhaps we have turned a corner and we can see it, now. Perhaps the dust from their big, industrial works is beginning to settle, and we can see it. Perhaps we’re done being told what we can’t do. Perhaps we’re done waiting. Perhaps we’re done being lodged in the ground, calling out for someone to come along and kick us free. Perhaps we’re done being rolling stones in other people’s landslides. There are mountains enough for all of us, infinite oceans of possibility. We can be our own landslides. We can make our own waves.

These thoughts had been building up for a while, but it was my friend Leo who gave me the word that brought them all together. We were having coffee, and I was trying to explain the magic moment, the click. “Avalanche,” he said, and I saw it. I’d known it from before when, in another magical moment, I suddenly understood, on a level entirely separate from intellect and real-world odds, that this book would go far. I’d known it, but I had no visual, and then Leo said that word, and it all came together and I saw it: the avalanche, the landslide, the tsunami. Sweeping into the world, graceful and magnificent; a natural phenomenon, but not a disaster, because it’s words I’m sending into people’s lives, stories to make them better. Because, as pretentious as it may sound, I really do believe that books can change our lives. And this is a book that’s all about changing, and finding your own path, and finding joy. This particular book has already changed my life. And it deserves its own landslide.

In real-world terms: the landslide, for a writer, translates into lots of sales. Money. But it’s not about that. It’s about having the means to carry on doing what you love, and, for me, this book is the way. Because another thing I believe – another one of my pretensions, if you like – is that we all have a purpose in this life, a gift, a thing we are uniquely qualified to do. And this is mine: writing. It’s what I do, and I do it well. And I deserve the chance to carry on doing it; to try. We all do – whatever our thing might be. And the real-world odds can go fuck themselves. There is another world, where anything is possible. And it is just as real as we make it.

There is nothing noble in stoically accepting the odds, nothing admirable in admitting defeat before you’ve even begun. This gift, this purpose: it shouldn’t be taken for granted. It needs to be defended. Suffering for the sake of suffering is such a wasteful way to live. But if the thing that you love doing can fund doing what you love, isn’t that the perfect way for the world to go around?

I am done with odds. I am done being pebbles and waves. I am done being the tortured artist selling drinks and dreaming of words. I have written a book, and I’m standing up for it. And for anyone who’s ever done a thing that meant something to them, for anyone who wants to, for all the pebbles and the waves, the quiet and the small, slowly gathering their strength against the odds to crash into the world. We can be the avalanche; we can be the tsunami. All it takes is some magic, and a click.

Fate whispers to the warrior
“you cannot withstand the storm”
and the warrior whispers back
“I AM THE STORM”.


You can click here to view 100 days of solitude on Amazon and perhaps add another rolling stone to my avalanche, if you like.

Life is life


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

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

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

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


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


What it means to be good

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

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

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

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

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


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

Say thank you and I love you

the_first_thanksgiving_cph-3g04961Day 76 from 100 days of solitude (November 27, 2014)

I slept very well last night, on account of the fact that I forgot to switch my electric blanket off, which meant I didn’t wake up freezing in the early hours as has been the norm in the last few nights, since winter arrived. I forgot to switch the electric blanket off and it did not burst into flame overnight, and I woke up warm and uncharred this morning, for which I am thankful. And thus began my Sifnos Thanksgiving. Waking up, alive, is always a good start to the day.

We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Greece. It’s not on our calendar, but we hear rumours of it, of Americans gathering round dinner tables to fill up on turkey and pumpkin pie and be thankful for stuff. I have a very vague understanding of the origins of this holiday, other than that Pilgrims and Indians are involved, so I looked it up. In a tale that seems to be as much myth as it is history, the first Thanksgiving dinner was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, when the Pilgrims invited the Indians to join them in a feast, giving thanks for the Indians’ help and the colony’s first successful harvest. The Pilgrims had arrived in the area the previous year, entirely unprepared, and the local Indian Wampanoag tribe had taken these crazy white people, the “coat men”, under their wing, and shown them the ropes and how to grow things, so they didn’t starve to death. It’s a nice story and I hope it’s true, in part, even though it’s part of a bigger story, and sadly, unarguably true, where the colonists slaughtered the natives all over America, and stole their land and weren’t at all thankful.

I slept well last night, but I had a dream about my friend Ali, a vivid, elaborate dream that went on for what felt like hours, and whose details escape me now. I woke up missing her. I haven’t spoken to her for months. We have drifted apart in the last few years, which is stupid because whenever we get together I can’t think of a single reason why. I had sent her an email a few days ago, when I heard a song that reminded me of her, but she hadn’t replied.
    I went to my desk, still reeling from her presence in my dream, with the intention of sending her another message, urging her to get in touch. I sipped my coffee as I checked my email: all junk. And then, with a discreet ping, a new email dropped into my inbox. I clicked on it, both shocked and completely unsurprised, and read Ali’s message. My second thing to be thankful for, today.

Perhaps I’ll host a fantasy Thanksgiving dinner tonight. I’ll be the Pilgrim and the locals can be the Indians. I have no turkey, but they can share my chicken soup; I took a chicken breast out of the freezer last night, for that purpose. It won’t be much of a feast, but it’s a large chicken breast and if I chop it up really small there should be enough for everyone to get a taste. I’ll add onions and rice and potatoes, and cook it all in a big pot of broth. I’ll also make a salad with lettuce and radishes from the garden, to celebrate the harvest, and flavour the soup with lemons from my tree. The locals can bring offerings, too. Though I hope none of them will bring dead deer, like the Indians reportedly did, or little birds shot out of the trees. But I wouldn’t mind a few eggs, or a bit of cheese.
    Manolis can come, and his mother, and his wife, if she’s not at work. Antonis the plumber and Makis the carpenter. Vangelia and Yorgos and their children, Vasiliki and Simos, if they’re free. Margarita the hairdresser, and Post Office Man No.1, and Loukia from the butcher’s. The entire souvlaki family, mother, father and daughter, and the cashier from Alpha Bank. The girl from the chemist, and the guy at the kiosk who remembers what tobacco I smoke. The two sisters who run the supermarket at the top of the hill. Nikos the farmer and his wife. Polyna, of course, if she’s around. The man who advised me to plant rocket and spinach and sold me the seeds. I am thankful to all of these people, these and many others, and I would like them to come round tonight, and sit down at my table and share my chicken soup, and be the natives to my coat men, the ones who have taken me under their wing and shown me the ropes.

I am the coat men of Sifnos, even though the coat I wear, a blue rainproof jacket with fleece lining, was purchased right here a few weeks ago. I walked into a shop I’d barely even looked at before, a shop I’ve walked past hundreds of times but never deigned to consider entering, where two women were watching a cooking show on a large TV set mounted on the wall. I went fearfully from rail to rail, keeping a safe, aloof distance from the garments on display, convinced that there was nothing there for me, with my high city standards. Until, right at the back and hiding amidst an alarming amount of faux fur, I found exactly what I was looking for, and in my size. Which was, apparently, XXL, and made by the excellent brand MISS PASSION.
    ‘You’re lucky,’ said the lady behind the counter. ‘It’s the last one.’
    It fits me perfectly, my Sifnos jacket, made in China.

I got another email from Ali later this morning, all in capitals and full of exclamation marks. Sit Down by James had just come on her radio, and that’s a song that reminds her of me. Of times long ago, when we saw each other every day, and danced the nights away in shady London nightclubs. Of singing along with plastic cups of lager in our hands, of sitting down on the dirty, sticky floor whenever the chorus demanded it. Sit down next to me.

Life is up to its tricks again, and two songs and a dream bringing Ali and I together today are no coincidence, but today being Thanksgiving is. It means nothing to me. I have the same objection to Thanksgiving as I have to Valentine’s Day. Shouldn’t we be thankful and in love every day, instead of saving it all up for special calendar occasions? We get together, on these holidays, and stuff ourselves with food and exchange our gifts, and we forget what we’re there for, and we forget to be thankful for the fact that we’re there and together at all. We don’t say thank you enough. We don’t write love letters. We wake up every morning and don’t notice we’re alive.
    I am thankful and I am in love. Today, on this day that is just an ordinary Thursday on the Greek calendar, and tomorrow, and the day after, and every day that I wake up, alive. And I’ll have my fantasy dinner, tonight and every other night, and I’ll invite everyone, because it’s a fantasy and everyone will fit, everyone I’m thankful to, everyone I’m grateful for, everyone I love and have loved in the past, the friends I talk to every day and the ones I haven’t spoken to for months, and we will all sit down together and share my chicken soup, Pilgrims and Indians and natives and coat men, crazy white people all of us, regardless of what shade of skin we come in, who would do well to remember that we’re lucky to be alive. And say thank you and I love you, while there are still days.


100 days of solitude is available from Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

Sage-picking, sages and healing

sage

From 100 days of solitude, Day 96 (December 18, 2014)

The weatherman lied about today: he had predicted sunshine and clear skies but there was rain. Thursday was marked with a big yellow sun and the morning delivered. I got up and the sky was wide open and the yellow sun was climbing higher towards the peak of 17 degrees that had been promised, urging me to match it with a promise of my own, made for the next such day of yellow sun. So I got dressed, grabbed a large plastic bag and a pair of secateurs, strapped my rucksack to my back, and set off to pick sage.

Sage loves this island. It grows out of the hard, dry soil; it grows out of the rock faces, alongside oregano and spiky wild thyme. It grows on the edges of the fields and on the side of the road. The air is scented with it, a heavy, heady smell, sweet but earthy, uplifting and calming at the same time, with a hint of the medicinal and the meditative. To snap a branch off a bush and rub the leaves between your fingers is to know why this common herb is considered so powerful, why it’s been used for healing and cleansing for thousands of years, at every place in the world where it grows. Celtic druids and Native American shamans have traditionally used it to ward off evil and cleanse the spirit, and new age shops sell sage smudge sticks to hopeful Westerners, to wave about their homes. Its name, salvia officinalis, stems from the Latin salvere, which means to save, to heal, and a sage is a person of wisdom. And it’s all there, between your fingers, as it releases its scent.

Salvia officinalis, common sage. There is nothing common about it, but the fact that it grows everywhere makes me smile: according to English folklore, sage grows best where the wife is dominant. It doesn’t surprise me, its abundance on this island. There’s something feminine about it, in its subtle but consistent presence in this rough, rugged land, how it stands quiet and fragrant, always in the margins, with its soft leaves and its strong scent. How it doesn’t advertise its power and yet everybody knows. It reminds me of the women I’ve met in the last few months, ruling from the sidelines, from where they can watch everyone who goes past.

I had been meaning to pick some sage and then I promised: next sunny day I would walk down to the port, and fill a bag along the way. This is the best time for it, Margarita told me, after the first heavy rains have rinsed it clean. There’s something incredibly rewarding in picking herbs growing wild out of the rocks. Just walking along and bending down and picking. Growing your own vegetables is close, but not the same. That takes some planning and some work and it’s a good feeling when salad leaves appear in your garden and then on your plate, but you’re still the one who put them there. Wild things grow wild regardless of your intentions, and it’s almost like they were put there for you. It’s like a gift; it’s like the way the world was put together making sense, for a moment, when you walk along the road and fill your arms with sage. And you don’t even have to rinse it because it’s been washed by the rain.

It rained this afternoon, but the day delivered half its promise and the sun shone as I walked towards the port. I came back as the clouds began to gather, with a bagful of sage and my own promise kept. I laid the sage out in the spare bedroom, on towels, to dry, and then I laid myself in bed, in that eerie glow of cloud-filtered light, and listened to the patter of the rain against my window. It didn’t patter for long: it soon began to pound, and the shutters rattled as the wind picked up and threw sheets of rain, hard, against the glass. I got up to close the shutters and lay in darkness now, listening to the thunder and the wind, with the lingering smell of sage on my fingers. I lay in darkness and thought about power and wisdom and sages and sage, healing and being saved, and how I would make bundles and give them as gifts, and pass the gift on, once the sage had dried.

I lay in my bed as the unpredicted storm raged outside and washed the herbs and the plants and the roads and houses clean, as the scent of sage, subtle but powerful, drifted through the house and, for a moment, it was like I had wisdom, like I’d been washed clean by the rain. Like the way the world is put together made sense.


This is Day 96 from my book 100 days of solitude, documenting my experience of living alone on the island of Sifnos during the autumn and winter of 2014. I’m back on Sifnos now; I went sage-picking this morning, and it reminded me of this – the first time. If you’d like to read more of 100 days of solitude, you can buy it on Amazon, or email me for a free preview of the first 15 days.