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.

Refusing to be drawn

That strange twist in my gut today: that’ll be the moon, I presume. That subtle weight that makes my breath come out in sighs: the moon. My restless sleep last night: the moon; the anxious dreams, the thoughts – unbidden – that unsettle me, the silence that I fill with fears: the moon. And if I draw my curtains aside: too bright, too eerie, too many shadows cast where there should be just night, too many details picked out in the negative space – the moon.

Ostensibly, we strive for balance, and yet we give ourselves up to the mercy of the planets and the stars and the whims of heartless constellations. What equilibrium can we hope to achieve when we are tidal creatures, controlled by the moons and the spin on the earth? All those cosmic events, all that planetary action to explain, to justify, to forbid: and we are rendered helpless by our own choosing. Shadow puppets to those cold, distant bodies, our astral hegemons, dictating when and how. Full moon: review; new moon: now start again; when Mercury’s in retrograde don’t even think of trying, but make the most of Venus in your sign. Whenever you feel slightly askew, it’s probably something cosmic.

It is now the day after the Super Blue Blood Moon Eclipse. Last night, in defiance, I refused to be drawn and to draw my curtains aside; there were enough photos of the thing on facebook, anyway. Did it affect me, regardless, sight-unseen? Probably. Would I have acted differently, chosen different words, swapped one set of feelings for another if it had been another day in the cycle of the moon? Probably not. We cannot control our waters: we are tidal creatures. We cannot control the spin of the earth or how the planets move across our solar system. We cannot let those things control us, either. It isn’t Mars that causes conflict; it isn’t indecisive Libra that makes us put things off. It’s not the heat of the sun or the cold glare of the moon; it isn’t the eclipse that brings the darkness. We are not helpless; we don’t have to be.

Perhaps our balance can be sought in remembering that we’re equally part of this earth that spins as of the cosmos that surrounds it, subject to both its gravity and the magnetic pull of those twinkling, meddling stars; that we are earth and water, fire and air as much as any other body in our skies. Acting the way we would, flighty Geminis or stalwart Capricorns regardless, and letting the moon rise and fall, letting it wax and wane without casting ourselves in its shadows. Perhaps our balance can be found in refusing, sometimes, to be drawn. Whatever the moon brings out in the negative spaces is there anyway, whether we shine a light on it or not. We’ll draw our curtains aside when we are ready to see.


Image credit: Business Insider

Fuck being strong (this once)

Do you ever feel like that? Like, just fuck it? Like you don’t want to improve, you don’t want to evolve, you don’t want to better yourself, you don’t want to learn? Like you’re done fucking learning and gaining experience and getting over things and coming out the other side, stronger and wiser? Like you don’t want to be stronger or wiser or more patient or less of a mess? Like you just want it fucking easy, this once?

I am a mess. I want it easy. I want love, easy and uncomplicated; love strong enough to be easy and uncomplicated, this once. I want a love I can trust to be easy and uncomplicated in a life full of difficult and complicated things. I don’t want a love I need to be strong for, a love that needs to be talked about and defended and understood and fucking vindicated; I want that simple understanding that I am for you and you are for me and we’re in this shit together – bring it on. I want to find myself in the same place as someone and just stay there, with his arms around me, with nothing to do. With nothing that needs to be done.

I don’t want vindication. I don’t want a love that gets written about. I don’t want to hear another person praise me for my strength, for my wisdom; I don’t want to be brave or inspirational for the things I’ve gotten through. I don’t want to get through another thing and come out the other side; just this once, I’d like to be a little weaker, a little less wise, and hear one person tell me that he loves me, that I don’t need to be brave, that I’ve been patient enough.

I am aware of the value of learning. I am aware of the lessons we’re taught through our pain. Every wrong turn, every wrong move, every disappointment; every time our hearts get broken: an opportunity to learn. To build resilience, to build our strength, to grow our wisdom. I have learned this, but fuck it: I just want a shoulder that’s mine to lean against. And yes, to turn our pain into art is consolation. It’s redemption, that I can take my pain and turn it into beautiful words. But the beauty of that shoulder to lean on, those arms to fall into: just once, can I have that instead?

And right now, do you see what I’m doing? I’m turning my pain into art, into literature, into words that might reach other people’s souls. Into words that might touch another person who needs touching, and that’s incredible, that’s a gift to me – but I need touching, too. It’s a gift that heals my soul as much as anyone else’s but I long, sometimes, to be reached rather than to be the one who’s reaching. I long for a time when my soul doesn’t need to heal. And right now, for all the value these words might have for me, for other people, I would rather be in somebody’s arms, giving nothing but the warmth of my body; I would rather be held and be loved, quietly, simply, having nothing to give but myself in this moment. And I don’t know if that’s possible for me, now, this once, or ever. I don’t know if this simple thing is out of reach. For all the lessons I’ve learned, for all the strength and all the wisdom, for all the patience and the trust, I just don’t know. Right now, for everyone I’ve ever reached, for all the pain I’ve written into love, there’s no one here to hold me. And I’m done being brave. And I’ve been fucking patient enough. And fuck.

Fuck.

Fuck.

I am my own weather

The hope is that we learn. The hope is that, each time we go a little crazy and then learn we needn’t have, we put some of the not-crazy aside for the next time. The hope is that, when the next time comes around, the things we’ve learned, the reserves we’ve built of the not-crazy will kick in and hold back the waves. So that we don’t go under. So that we learn.

I am learning how damaged I am. I am learning how blind I was to the damage being done. Instead of building reserves of strength, of calm, of the trust that would get me through the fear, I was building reserves of crazy. I was collecting instances of crazy – proof – and adding them to my reserves. Oceans full of crazy, stormy fucking waters where no ships can sail. There was a man who stirred my waters up; like Poseidon, he held a giant fork and stirred and whipped them into crazy. He was my own private storm and I loved him, but when I left for other shores, I didn’t leave the storm behind. I left the man but not the storm; the storm is mine, it’s in my waters that I keep it. And I don’t know how to cross these seas when the waves come.

You see, the problem is I’m right: that which I fear is justified. I’ve seen calm waters turn to storms from one moment to the next, and I have drowned in them on several occasions. I’ve fought the waves and come up breathless, spluttering fear and promising I’d learn, and gone into those waters once again. But that is not the crazy part. What’s crazy is letting these storms into waters where they don’t belong, what’s crazy is letting another man’s fork make waves. I took myself away and found a port; I found an island, a safe haven that the storms couldn’t breach – that’s what I thought. But just the memory of the storm is enough to cause ripples, just a spark is enough to ignite the lightning and rip the sky in two. Like Odysseus trying to find his way home, I carry with me a sack of winds, and there’s no telling which direction they will blow me in when I release them. The weather can turn in an instant: that which I fear is justified. And it has followed me home.

An island, literally, but metaphorically there is no place that’s safe, no place the fear can’t breach; not in itself. Memory travels just as well as storms. That man and his fork are miles away, thousands of miles, but I can whip up a storm all by myself. We bring them with us, all of us: our cans of worms, our reserves of crazy, our sack of winds, and we cannot help but let them out. A storm in a teacup and then we drown, as they say here in Greece, in a spoonful of water. Why don’t we learn? No place is safe, no distance is protection in itself, there is no barricade to hold back the storm. The more defences you put up, the more debris will hit you when the waves come. We ought to learn.

I do it to myself, that’s the crazy thing. I let the winds out of my sack, I let them rip my world in two, and then I drown in a spoonful of water. I come up, spluttering regret and promises, and then I do it all again. I run away from the things that hurt me, but I never get very far – not far enough. Even on my island, I can’t cut myself off. I may be hard to reach, but I am not unreachable: there are boats, not frequent, but more than none. Even here, in my fair-weather haven, the waters aren’t still. There is no place that’s safe, there is no shelter from yourself – except yourself.

I found my way home; I crossed the seas and found it. So fuck Poseidon and fuck that sack of winds: I made it this far, despite them. Not running away, but arriving, and maybe I can stay, this time, and go further. Far enough that I can see the storm coming, and choose not to sail on that day. Maybe I can go further, this time, by staying put, and watch it happen, the storm, the lightning, the stranded ships, without having my world ripped in two. Maybe I can stay indoors, like I did this morning, and let the weather happen. Let it turn, like it does. No matter what storms are brewing, I don’t have to drown in an ocean of fear. Just a spoonful, a teacup, a sackful of nothing: I don’t have to let the crazy out. I don’t have to be blown away by the winds. I don’t have to take on the waves.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m learning: I am the storm and also the haven, I am both the turmoil and the reprieve. I am the fear and I am the trust, I am all that I lost and the love that remains. I am the crazy, I am the sanity; I am the damage and the repair. I am the spark that lights up the darkness and I am the lightning that splits the sky in two. I am the stillness and the distant rumble; I am the only one who can decide what sort of weather I want to be. Each time, every time: just me. I am the one who needs to learn, and I am the lesson. Maybe I can be the hope.

Moving mountains

It’s been a rough couple of days. I found myself in crisis with a person that means a lot to me, a crisis mostly of my own making, and I couldn’t see my way out of it. It began with a misunderstanding, a small thing that we’d both brush over and laugh about later on any other day – but on this particular day, something about the situation triggered all of my fears, all of my insecurities, all of the worst, most desperate, most terrified parts of me, and I lost it. I completely fucking lost it. I lost my grip on reality, on everything I know about myself, about this person opposite me, about the way we relate to each other and live our lives. I took a load of crap from the past, whole armfuls of crap that was borne of other situations where those fears were valid and justified, and threw it all at his feet, and then pleaded with him to clean it up. And when he wouldn’t, because he couldn’t, because that crap did not belong to him, I panicked. And panicked people do not make good decisions. I made one bad move after the other, and dug myself deeper and deeper into a dark, airless hole, and I couldn’t breathe. “You’re drowning in fear,” my sister said; I was. And I was waiting for someone else to pull me out.

It wasn’t all my fault: he was abrupt when I was oversensitive. Whatever; shit happens. The trouble begins when we can’t see our shit for what it is, when we see it through a lens of all the other shit we’ve collected over the years, all the other shit we carry and insist on bringing along where it doesn’t belong. When we throw it at another person’s feet and expect him to take it away. He won’t; no one will. It’s not their job, it’s not their place. Even if their place is beside you, even if that’s where they want to be, they can’t take your shit away, and it’s unfair to ask. Imported fears don’t translate into excuses; they may explain, but they do not justify. There is no justification for the way I acted: it was unfair and it was untrusting. And I may have broken something; I may have broken a thing that’s very precious to me. I hope not; I hope it’s sturdy enough to take this beating and survive, and morph into something better as a result. But I don’t know.

I had firewood to deal with this morning. Whole mountains of firewood that we’d cut off three massive almond trees in the field adjacent to mine, and then sawed into bits small enough to fit into my stove. Whole mountains that I had to move, bit by bit, piece by piece, across the field, over two walls, and into my garden, where it will eventually be stacked. The final leg of the journey – my task this morning – involved dismantling the mountains and flinging the wood, bit by bit and piece by piece, over the dividing wall and into the back end of my garden. I started with limbs as heavy as my heart and nerves shattered to fuck, what with all the drowning and fighting for breath, and trying to convince myself of the curative properties of physical labour. Which certainly provides a reprieve from that terrible, sticky idleness of fear, but does nothing to stop the chatter in my head. So I flung and I thought, and I flung and I analysed, and I flung and I regretted, and I flung and I ran through a thousand worst-case scenarios, and it wasn’t easy work, what with all the roaring waves of fear that kept crashing into me. And still the mountains appeared undiminished.

I don’t know how I came up with the idea, but the idea that saved me from drowning was this: each piece of wood became one of my fears, one of my insecurities, one of those desperate, terrified parts of me that make me lose my shit with people I love. With each piece that I picked up I spoke of a fear, and then I threw it away, as far away as possible, over the wall and into the distance. With each fear that I threw, another one came, and another, and another, and I spoke each one and I threw and I cried, partly with relief, and partly because, fuck: I’m scared of so many things. So many. But eventually I ran out: of steam, of mountains, of fears. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and steadied myself against the wall; my back hurt and my arms ached, but the mountains had been moved to my garden, and all my fears had been spoken and tossed away, as far away as I could reach.

This piece is not intended as literature, nor as testimony for the curative properties of physical labour. Only, perhaps, as a breath of air instead of fear, a glimpse of the most reassuring, most frightening possibility: that we all have it in us to pull ourselves out, bit by bit and piece by piece, one desperate, terrified part at a time, and to survive. And that we can move mountains if we need to, if we must. And when it comes to throwing stuff: logs are better than shit. No contest.

The time has changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Love, what a bastard you are.

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

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

Those who love know nothing

Note for the non- Greek speakers: Agoni grammi (άγονη γραμμή), literally barren line, sometimes translated as “non profit line” or “unprofitable shipping line”, is a shipping route that shows little commercial interest and therefore brings in very little profit for the ferry companies. It usually serves smaller or “lesser” islands, with limited tourism; Sifnos, in the West Cyclades, is one of them.


There’s a lot being written about Sifnos recently. There’s a lot being said. I go into facebook each day and see more articles urging those who know to get to know her, to discover this hidden secret of the Cyclades, treasure buried all this time along the barrenness of the agoni grammi. Magical, they call it, unspoilt, aristocratic, as if they’ve suddenly found a vein of gold and we’re all about to get rich.

And I remember when I was in school and we spent the summers here, and the other kids said to me, early June when the holidays began, “Sifnos? What is that?” and laughed. The other kids that went to Mykonos and Santorini, Spetses and Hydra, places known and accepted, of value, and they laughed at me for spending my summers here, in exile, on this barren place, on the barren line to nowhere. What Sifnos?

That Sifnos where they come to get married now, in Chrysopigi, with catering imported from Athens and local, traditional violins. The Sifnos of magazines, shiny like their pages, glittering somewhere between Serifos and Milos, on the οnce-barren line that’s become fruitful now that we have five ferries calling at her port each day. They discovered it, with private yachts and the SeaJet that takes a mere two hours from Piraeus, those who know.

And I remember when the monastery of Fyrogia was nothing but ruins and you took a boat to Vathy because there was no road and we washed with water drawn straight from the well, ice cold, and got our drinking water from the spring at Panagia tis Vryssis. I remember the campsite in Plati Yialos and when Botzi played rock and we emerged croaky at dawn to get sandwiches from Plaza in the square and the sunrise glittered off the whitewash walls and made us blind.

All that glitters isn’t gold. There was gold in Sifnos, once, but now there are other things. Not what they write about: more secret than that. And, at the same time, not at all. A mountaintop, a walk along a trail with a friend in November, a view you hadn’t seen before but had always been there, the nights when you can hear nothing but the wind. An empty beach and the restaurants that stay open through the winter. Soaking your chickpeas on a Friday and taking them to the wood oven on Saturday, and hearing people say hello as if they know you, those people that you thought you knew. Walking down the street and no longer being asked why you are still around.

When you love, you know nothing: Sifnos taught me that. There was a time when I knew, because I spent my summers here and we had a house of our own and I played on the streets with the other kids and because I remember, because I can tell you what Sifnos was like back then and how it’s changed. But Sifnos isn’t there, after all. It’s not where we look for it, but where we find ourselves. Not in how much it’s changed but in how much it’s changed you. If you forget all that you know and start to learn. How much treasure can be found in a vein of gold that ran dry. That magic is in what you love, and to love is not knowing. You know nothing, and that’s how you get rich: when you learn.

And I remember when I knew and didn’t love her. When I used to whisper it, that I’m going to Sifnos, and I was drawn to other places, full of light, shiny. And they made me blind. Until, one day, I found myself here and two winters had gone by and no one asked when I was leaving anymore and I understood suddenly what it means to love a place for what it is, not for how you imagined it. Not for what is said and the value other people give it and for what you tell other people that you remember. And to say it, that you live here, and if anyone asks what Sifnos? My own.

They know something, those who know. They’re right to come here. For weddings and christenings, for the weekend on the SeaJet, for the whole summer in overflowing cars. For the bars and the restaurants, for aristocratic Artemonas and cosmopolitan Plati Yialos and the quaint fishing village of Herronissos. For the ceramics and the exhibitions and the photographs they post on facebook, with Chrysopigi in the background. For all that everybody knows, by now, and all that’s secret and all that’s hidden and all that’s always been there but you hadn’t noticed it before. For all that you might learn. For those who know and those are searching and those who are looking for a place to stand, and those, like me, who found themselves here and are learning everything from scratch. There is Sifnos enough for everyone, it won’t run dry. There are riches enough for everyone, if you love her. And to love her without knowing: that’s where the magic is.


Daphne Kapsali lives in Sifnos. She knows nothing.


This post was originally written in Greek. Click here to read it.

In the meantime

In the meantime, I have to live my life. Isn’t that what you always tell me? Isn’t that what you say, to live for now, in the present moment? But there’s that word: present. Where are you?

I went away, but I took you with me. I thought you wanted to come. I thought I knew about you and me and now, the insignificance of time and places, the perfect continuum of our unbreakable bond. But I didn’t know there was a meantime. I thought now was a constant thing, stretching endlessly from moment to moment, seamless. But nothing is unbreakable, and something broke. And maybe there will come a day when we’ll put it back together, with seams of gold to remind us of our history and everything we’ve overcome, like the Japanese repair their broken things, and it will be beautiful. But now is the meantime, and I’m slipping through the cracks.

How long did I think my imported love would keep? How long did I think it would translate, in this land of foreign words? It’s a different alphabet here: some of the letters do not correspond. Some of the letters are orphaned; they don’t make it across the transition, the divide. There are too many gaps where the words used to be; there is no shoulder to rest my head on. I’m falling through the cracks, and you’re letting me. You’re letting me slip away, but you won’t let me go.

You are my phantom limb and you cripple me with the ghost of your presence. I’m always there, you say, and I know you are but I can’t see you and there’s a twitch where you should, you ought to be. And when I reach out to touch you: nothing – just the echo of our untranslatable words. Love is a blessing, in all of its forms, but my fingers need skin to slide across, my head needs a shoulder to rest on. My body needs a body to click into. Is that too commonplace for our extraordinary love? Is that too physical, too tangible for our higher concepts? Higher up, our bond is unbreakable, but down here, where I place my feet, I am made of flesh and dirt and desire. There is no common place for you and me; not here, in the meantime of now. But this is where I need to be.

There are twitches of pleasure, here. There is reaching out and touching someone; there is skin against skin. There are words that are said simply, words that correspond to common places and times. There is common ground, and dirt and soil and sand: things tangible, unbroken, well kept. You cannot keep me with higher concepts alone; you cannot leave me alone to see where I fit in the cracks. But no bond is freedom, if it binds.

You are my phantom limb, and I must learn to stand without you. You are my sunrise and the colours that make postcards of the sky at the end of my day, but it is June now, and the days are long. There is a lot of meantime.

Nothing is unbreakable, and broken things can be repaired, with gold and history and time. But in the meantime I stand here, without you, flesh and feelings in a language you do not understand. I do not care to translate them; I am slipping away and I don’t want to be stopped. I don’t want to be kept with higher concepts and ghosts and the beautiful golden seams of a love repaired; I don’t want to be bound to that. I am too alive, and the days are long. I don’t want to wait for postcards; I don’t want to wait for nothing. I want to reach out and touch someone; I want the common ground and the dirt on my feet and the twist in my stomach and the words that correspond to how I feel. I want a tangible love, this time. And you, my love, my higher, extraordinary love: you’re always there, but you’re not here. Where are you? It’s only the echo of your words that reaches me, and I won’t bind you to promises imported from the past. Now, this time, it’s me that’s letting you go, as I slip through the cracks that have yet to be sealed with gold.

Actually, I do care.

Writers are a very strange species. Observe: stooped creatures, often nocturnal, that dwell in small rooms or corners of rooms, hunched over keyboards, muttering to themselves. Gnarled fingers and slit-like eyes as dark symbols appear on glowing screens. If you approach them during this process, if you violate its sanctity, this may elicit a grunt, a growl or a passive-aggressive rebuke. They may tolerate a hand on their shoulder, in passing, but rarely being spoken to. Words don’t mix with words, and they are busy creating spells to summon worlds into existence. They live in their heads, where the words are kept and sown and harvested, and as the words tumble out, as the dark symbols line up on the glowing screens, these creatures, these creators, are all-powerful. The outside world, the one that you inhabit, is merely a distraction, an inconvenience. And yet, it exists. Stubbornly, relentlessly, it exists.

In the outside world, we are as powerful or as powerless as the rest of you. In the outside world, we are exposed. Writers are, in their majority, introverts; it is no accident that we choose an occupation that demands isolation. An occupation that means, for all the support we might have, for all those gentle hands resting, briefly, on our shoulders, we are alone. And it is something to think about, it is almost schizophrenic, that the work we do, if we do it right, results in exposure. Over-exposure. That, by putting our work out there, we are practically inviting dozens of people, hundreds, thousands, into our small rooms and into our heads. To admire our neat stacks of words, to pick them up carefully and examine them, or to trample all over them, as they choose. We are inviting the outside world in, and leaving ourselves no place to hide. The outside world where we are as insecure as the rest of you, as vulnerable, powerless now to control the words that come our way.

And they come. Relentlessly, they come. It is no accident, because by putting your work out there, by saying “here, look, this is a thing I made”, you’re inviting judgement. You’re asking to be judged. Yet none of us, writers and humans, like to be judged. Unless we’re judged worthy; unless we’re judged good. It’s schizophrenic, but there is no way around it: once a thing is out there, it’s fair game. Except it’s not a game. Not to us. Once you cross over from writer into author, you’re no longer playing.

Until I published my first book, I’d never given much thought to reviews. I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond clicking “publish” and watching my book appear on Amazon, as if by magic. Beyond “look at this thing I made”. But reviews are the words that come our way; reviews are the judgement we invited. And it’s all fun and games until you get a negative one, and the world you carefully constructed in your quiet room comes crashing down, and strangers that you invited in yourself trample all over the ruins. Relentlessly and sometimes – even worse – casually, as if it means nothing. And writers, strange creatures though we may be, are just as vulnerable as the rest of you. There is a person behind the thing, and you can hurt them. And you would think, as writers, that we’d know of the power of words, how they can create or destroy, cut or heal, but no: paradoxically, we step into the outside world unprepared. To be lifted up high by praise or be casually shredded to pieces. Sticks and stones will break your bones? Words are much more lethal. And ratings, like ninja stars aimed at the soft, fleshy parts of our souls.

You’d think we’d know. But we cross over from writer into author, unprepared, and then we have to learn. That the thing we put out there is a target, not a shield; that it’s fair game and people will play by their own rules. That we cannot control the words that come our way. We have to learn not to care. But what inconsistent, schizophrenic creatures would we be, putting ourselves out there to be judged, if we didn’t care? Let me be the first to tell you, if you haven’t heard it before: actually, I do care. I may get better, with time, at picking up the pieces, I may get quicker at smiling and shrugging it off, but I will never not care. Good or bad, the judgement that I invited will always mean something. Just now, I cried at a lovely review that thanked me at the end. I care. This is not a game to me.

This is no sob story. We reap what we sow, and if we don’t like our harvest, perhaps we should choose another field. But if we insist on growing these crops, if we insist on peddling them to the world, we must do it with as much care as we can muster. As much vulnerability. We must tend to them, relentlessly. We must nurture the soil and tease out the weeds. We must stack up our words as neat as we can, so that they may withstand the judgement, even if we can’t. We must inhabit our worlds fully before we invite other people in. So that when we step out of our little rooms, stooped and slit-eyed, and say “look at this thing I made”, we can be sure that it’s the best thing we could have made. This is the best that we can do: as writers, as humans.

We can’t blame the seeds or the soil or the weather for the fact that not everyone likes tomatoes. Of course, there is something to be said for not going out of your way to trample all over someone else’s vegetable patch, but that’s judging other people by our own standards, which is exactly what reviewers are invited to do. We can’t blame them for the place where they started, or how high or how low we appear through their eyes. We must learn how to come down from the heights where praise lifts us, and how to stand up again when we’re tripped up, or fall. And we must care. Even when it hurts, we must care. Otherwise, we might as well stay in our rooms, playing at being a writer, and growling every time we are approached, and shrugging off every gentle, supportive hand that’s placed on our shoulders.


The above image was created in response to an Amazon review which compared reading my book 100 days of solitude to watching paint dry. I ran it as an advert for the book, with the headline “Cheaper than a tin of paint”. I don’t know if it sold any copies, but it kept me amused for a while. It was my way of shrugging it off.


You are invited to judge me on Amazon, or on facebook.