Day 99 / 21 December 2014
It’s very quiet this morning. Slow clouds, and the sun undecided. So still that it feels like the day is encased in stillness, immobilised, rather than just not moving. I went outside and stood still, too; it feels wrong, somehow, almost absurd to move in this landscape. Only a bird cuts through momentarily, small birds in low flight, the fleeting motion emphasising the stillness, not breaking it. Still life, natura morta: dead nature, but it is very much alive. It’s just that nature knows how to stay still. It’s only humans who think they need to be in motion all the time.
Today is the Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year; the longest night. ‘It’s officially winter,’ Iro told me, but winter is just the earth tilting towards spring. From tomorrow, the days will start stretching, incrementally, a few seconds at a time, pushing against the nights, gaining upon them slowly, until the Spring Equinox, that short moment of balance when night and day are equals, before the balance shifts again towards the longer days of summer.
Perhaps what this day is doing is paying its respects to the night. Standing still, to attention, to mark its moment of supremacy, this once-a-year triumph of dark over light, before the struggle begins again. But the sun made its mind up regardless, threw off the shyness of autumn and chose the solstice to be reborn, blazing, in the winter sky, as the legends said it would. The day exploded in light.
I went outside again and stood still in the stillness, with my arms open wide and my eyes shut and my face turned towards the sun. Me and all the flowers and the plants of this still life, turned towards the sun. It was too strong to look at; it burned orange behind my eyelids, in perfect complement to the blue of the sky.
I saw the world in motion last night. This place that has become my world, my winter version of Sifnos, so quiet and still that it had me fooled: I saw how it moves on a Saturday evening. I owe it to a stranger, that I saw this. I owe him for showing me, another debt of gratitude, of many, that I’ve accrued in these past ninety-nine days.
There was nothing extraordinary about it, this evening that moved me, gently, from where I stood. I could have spent it on my sofa, as always, in the solitude I’ve learned. But I went for coffee in a café with a stranger, at 6:30 pm. This happened because he wrote to me and asked and then last night, maybe a month later, I said yes. I don’t know why it took that long. My first instinct was no, I’m not meeting strangers for coffee; my second was that I’m not here to make friends. And then suspicion, cynicism. “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met”, but strangers aren’t all good people, and staying still is easier and safer than making a move that might turn out wrong.
But then, last night, something shifted. It might have been the fact that I called it one hundred days and named them for solitude, and they are coming to an end, and I am passing into days that are not numbered and not named. It might be that I’ve learned the solitude, and now it’s time to learn new things, like meeting strangers and making friends. Time to make a move and step into this world that I inhabit.
The secret café of winter Sifnos is only secret until you stop walking past and walk in. Perhaps I didn’t feel that I had earned it, the right to enter, while I was playing a game of one hundred days. Perhaps that’s what moved me from my sofa. I pushed the door open, and a stranger looked up and raised his hand, and we had coffee, in a café, on a Saturday evening, with music low enough to have a conversation, and the air swirling with smoke, and the smell of coffee, and the hum of voices, and people coming and going and waving and saying hello, and winding and unwinding scarves and opening and closing the door. Nothing extraordinary about it, just the ordinary life that I recognise, and easy, like spending an evening with a friend. Which is what makes it extraordinary: there are no strangers here, on this island, but few of them turn out to feel like friends. And I’ve been lucky that I’ve met them, despite the game of solitude I’ve learned to play so well.
Is it significant that Day 99 coincides with the Winter Solstice and I go into Day 100 as the world tips over into winter? Is that the right verb even, coincides? Was it scheduled, like the solstice and the equinox, like the fact that, at opposite ends of the year, light conquers dark and dark conquers light? Is it coincidence that it took me this long to see through the stillness and move into ordinary life? Someone asked me if I timed it on purpose so that my hundred days would end before Christmas, but there was never any plan. But as I stand here, one day short, on the dark end of the year, I wonder.
I saw the world in motion last night, but I’m taking my cues from the solstice today and staying still, against my nature but in keeping with nature, to pay my respects to this day and this night, and all the days and nights that came before them, one short of a hundred, before the world tips over and it begins again. I will observe the stillness and stand in gratitude to all those people, the strangers and the friends, in every part of this world that’s always moving, who helped me find light in days that grew darker but never felt dark, that grew shorter but were always long enough, those people who moved me, and stilled my fears, and kept me moving when I became too still, and kept me here, one day short of one hundred. Who showed me things I hadn’t seen and have me, always, in their debt.
And as I stand here, still, on the dark end of the year, I can see all the way across it to the Summer Solstice, and between then and now only days, unnumbered and named for nothing, wide open and growing longer as the light pushes against the night; ordinary life, only secret until you stop playing a game and push the door open and walk into a place that you recognise. There are no strangers, and the secret is how easy it’s always been.
This is Day 99 of 100 days of solitude. It was written on December 21, 2014, and it is dedicated to Leo. You can buy 100 days of solitude from Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, or you can read it for free with Kindle Unlimited or Prime Reading (US).