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.

Your soul is always where it needs to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

What they mean by home

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

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

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


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

Passing the time

Ι’m writing this at a café on the beach in Kamares. I’m writing this to pass the time until the boat arrives. My friend Malik is on a sun lounger ten metres away, reading, and we’re both suspended in that strange place-time between being here and going away. When leaving has become inevitable, the thing that happens next, and everything that happens in between is just passing the time.

I’m thinking: the excuses we use. That there’s nothing left to do, with so little time still left. That we cannot even start when it’s inevitable that we’ll have to stop. That any words we say will only be the words we say as our time runs out. And so we sit in silence, in stillness, passing the time in between as we wait for the end to come.

Everything ends, inevitably. Everything is ending as soon as it’s begun. The most infinite thing we have is time, but we are finite within it. We have our time, but no idea how to occupy it. We have excuses for every silence and every stillness and every word left unsaid, and everyone who’s left because we didn’t stop them, and everything we stopped before it began because we were afraid of the end that would, inevitably, come.

I’m thinking: how I stay silent when there are things to say. How I say things just to fill the space that silence makes, when silence scares me. How I don’t say the things that scare me and make up, instead, a courage that nobody expects. How I stay still instead of running after everything and everyone I’ve lost because of silence, or courage, or the time I thought I had. How it’s an act of cowardice to train yourself not to need.

This isn’t about boats. It isn’t always boats that come and take people away; it isn’t always as easy as an end that’s scheduled. Malik will get on the boat and he will leave and that is right because he lives elsewhere, and we have had our time. But there are others who drift away without warning, out of schedule, and there was no particular moment when you could have stopped them, no one moment when you could have said I need you, but all of them, every single moment of that time in between. When you brought about the end that you feared, with your courage. When you thought you were just passing the time.

And I’m thinking: the excuses we live by. When we could be living by our hearts and our souls and letting nothing pass us by. Not passing the time but occupying it, for fuck’s sake. Not thinking that there’s time, still, yet, another time, but grasping how finite we are and putting everything we’ve got into the time we have been given. And giving of the one infinite thing we have, which isn’t time, after all, but love. Love, not silence. Not stillness, but love. Love, which is the only thing that can turn our endings into beginnings and everything that happens in between into a life that we have lived. Love, not courage, to fill that strange space-time that we occupy in this life, even when the next thing that happens is the end.


There is no excuse.

Chickpea Sundays (100 days of solitude, Day 34)

It’s Saturday afternoon, and Manolis has just lit his wood oven. The smell of smoke and the heat from the fire drift into my house, and the wood crackles and pops in a rhythmic, soothing way, breaking the silence of the still, windless day. Soon, the wood will turn into coal and it will crackle no more; there will be no more smoke, only heat. That’s when the pots will go in. The neighbours are bringing them already, mostly men, tasked with the carrying once their wives have done their bit.
    The locals have chickpea soup on Sunday. Only on Sunday, because you can’t make this in your kitchen at home. The soup, which is thick, like a stew, and tastes like all the homely comforts you can imagine, is cooked slowly, overnight, in clay pots with clay lids, in a woodfire oven. The women start preparing the chickpeas on Friday: they need to be soaked in water and bicarbonate of soda for twenty-four hours, to soften. On Saturday, they rinse them out and put them in the clay pot with some fresh water, onions and the seasoning of their choice. They add the lid and summon their husbands to carry the heavy pots to the oven. There’s one in most villages, in someone’s back yard, and they get the word out when they light them so the neighbours can bring their pots. Manolis has collected three so far, and he’s lined then up next to the oven, to go in as soon as the fire has burnt itself down. In the summer, when my mum is here, he lets her know on Fridays so she can prepare her pot in time. He’s said nothing to me since she’s been gone.
    I smell the smoke and come outside with my afternoon coffee. I sit on a ledge in the sunshine. It’s cold in the house but out here the sun is still strong enough to warm your skin. I sip my coffee and watch some lazy clouds drifting across the sky. There are church bells and goat bells. A donkey brays. Somewhere, intermittently, there’s a mechanical sound, but it’s far enough to ignore. The wood crackles in the oven, and the men chatter with Manolis as, one by one, they come bearing their pots.
    Tomorrow, our little edge of the village will come to life as, after church, the neighbours will arrive en masse to collect their chickpeas and bring them home, for Sunday lunch. I will watch them from my side of the wall, as I busy myself with some task or other; a few, the ones I know, might notice me and say hello.
I finish my coffee and go down the road to scavenge some lemons from the garden of an empty house; I want to make lemon cake. On my way back I run into Yorgos, Vangelia’s husband, bound for Manolis’ oven with his burden of chickpeas and a serene smile on his face.
    ‘You must be enjoying yourself,’ he remarks, after we’ve said our good afternoons. ‘If you’re still here.’
    ‘I love it,’ I blurt out. ‘I’ve never been happier.’ I drop a lemon in my excitement, and leave Yorgos behind as I chase it down the path.
    In a break between pot bearers, I call out to Manolis over our dividing wall.
    ‘Can I come and take some photos of the oven and the pots?’ I ask.
    ‘As many as you like,’ he says. ‘Why do you need to ask?’
    ‘Well, I can’t just walk into your house!’
    He shrugs; he doesn’t seem to think that would be a problem. The side door to the back yard is open, inviting the neighbours in.
    I take my photos and then stand by the fire for a bit, until my face starts to sting from the heat. I stop to pet the cat, who’s rolling around in a patch of sunshine.
    ‘Next time you light the oven,’ I say, ‘will you let me know?’
    ‘Oh,’ he stammers. ‘Of course. I just thought, with you being on your own…’
    ‘I cook more than my mum, you know.’
    ‘I didn’t mean that,’ he says quickly. ‘Just that you’d have too many chickpeas.’           
    ‘Yes,’ I agree. ‘I’ll just have to eat chickpeas all week!’
    ‘You could put some in the freezer,’ he suggests, obviously pleased that he’s stumbled upon this idea. He smiles. ‘I’ll let you know.’
    The pots go into the oven and the smell of smoke is replaced by the sweet, heavy scent of roasting onions. It wafts into the house and mingles with the smell of my baking cake. I fantasise about the chickpea soup I’ll make. I might go rogue and add a few sprigs of rosemary, a dash of cumin, a pinch of chilli powder. I’ll definitely have to freeze a few portions. I like chickpeas, but I don’t particularly want to eat them every day for a week.
    But I’ll make a huge pot, regardless, enough to feed a large Greek family their Sunday lunch, because, more than chickpea soup, it’s the ritual I like. Being let in on the secret on the Friday; the slow, careful process of lighting the fire on the Saturday, the camaraderie by the oven, the open door; the impromptu Sunday gathering of well-dressed churchgoers, as they crowd around the oven to collect their lunch.
    I don’t want to be the one watching them from the other side of the wall. I want to play, too. I want to be a part of this. I want to be one of them, in this small way, to stand in line with my neighbours and talk about the weather as I wait to receive my pot.


This is Day 34 from 100 days of solitude. Continue reading for free on Kindle Unlimited. And for more Sifnos adventures, check out the sequel, For Now, also available from Amazon.

What’s right in front of you

I want to write about love, but I don’t know if love wants to be written about. I don’t know what love wants, or if it wants anything at all; maybe it just is, without want, without need. Maybe we need it more than we know, but we’re wrong in the way we want it, the way we go about getting it. And when it feels like love resists us: the truth is, I think, that sometimes it’s us who resist love. We stay blind to it while ostensibly looking, and we look in the wrong places, when love can be found wherever we look.

I’m beginning to understand that love is bigger that all that: all of our lovesongs and our romantic notions, the clothes we dress it in and the definitions we write up, the stick we measure it against, ceremonies and rituals, our ends and our beginnings, the petty arguments and all of our broken hearts. Bigger than our plays and our poetry, our games and the strategies we use to capture the incapturable, too big to fit into our little box of a human mind, because it’s not in the mind that love is felt, and love is felt, not thought about. But smaller, too, tiny, the most subtle of things, like when something clicks inside you in response to a hand on your back, like the relief you feel when you sit in a room with a man, doing nothing of any importance. Like the scent of the sea or the gentle sigh of a breeze on a summer afternoon, or a smile that smashes everything and then puts it back together before you’ve had the chance to notice. So small that you could miss it if you don’t pay attention, if you insist on looking for things that seem appropriately big; if you keep focusing your gaze elsewhere and thinking with your mind and finding only spaces empty of love, while the sea scents your skin and the breeze is in your hair and a smile is in motion that could smash everything, if only you’d lift your gaze and see. If only you’d notice what’s right in front of you.

I spent fifteen years in love. It was a love so big that it contained me, that it contained everything I was. It was big enough to give me freedom within its margins, but it had margins, still, like everything has. I saw nothing of the world outside. I had no interest in what was out there. But there’s a reason why they say you fall in love, and there’s a reason why they talk of falling out of it. I stumbled, and I fell: out of love, outside of the margins, and I lifted my gaze and I saw. The love was still there, but I was out of it. My love, my big love will always be there, but it no longer contains me. I am too big, as it turns out; I have outgrown the margins it imposed. Or perhaps I’m the wrong shape for it, with parts of who I am sticking out at awkward angles. But the world outside has no fixed shape; just like love itself, it resists definition. And that’s freedom outside the margins: when you begin to notice what’s in front of you. When you allow yourself to feel.

I don’t want to write about love. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to feel the breeze on my skin and notice the click that means something’s shifting, and to allow a smile to smash me to pieces, and then watch those pieces drift and swirl and make a new shape. And that’s who I’ll be. And I won’t look for love, but I will let it find me. And when it finds me, I won’t resist. I won’t look back to make comparisons or hold up a stick against it to measure how long it might last; I won’t try to tame it with rituals or stifle it with romantic notions or think it into something that makes sense. I will sit in a room with a man, doing nothing of any importance, and I will lift up my gaze and I will see. What’s right in front of me.


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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.

For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life

For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life

What does it mean, to live a deliberate life?

I use that term, but I’m still trying to figure it out. And I think that’s the point, essentially: that we’re always trying to figure it out. All of it. Who we are and where we belong, and whether those things are fixed or fluid, and whether we’re allowed to change. What it means to be alive.

Torn between the two extremes of her personality, City Girl, the streetwise arsehole Londoner who subsists on traffic fumes and black takeaway coffee, and the mellow, nature-loving Sifnos Chick, who has found peace on a small island where there are barely any streets to be wise on, Daphne explores the contradictions that are inherent in all of us, as we strive to find our balance in a seesaw world; to find a life that makes sense to us and a place where we belong.

Written in Daphne’s signature confusion of memoir, reflective essay and travel writing, and as much a sequel to 100 days of solitude as a standalone collection, For Now contains 27 stories of an ordinary life lived deliberately. Stories that could have been told differently or not at all, stories with a deliberate twist to allow for the extraordinary moments to break through the mundane and be noticed, and add up to a meaningful life.


For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited.