Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice

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).

Identity: the stories we tell ourselves

St. Paul's Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Photo by Domantas Klimas on Unsplash

Bring it on

ohi day

Depression came. She came to tell me to go my bed. She came with the storm but, like the storm, I had felt her rumbling approach long before that. She likes to give warning, build up the anticipation, set you up for the plunge into her horrible anticlimax, the flatness she brings that neutralises everything into nothing.
    The day before, the Tuesday, was symbolic, and there were signs of her already. It was a national holiday, ohi day, the day of no, and it completely passed me by. On the 28th of October 1940, Benito Mussolini delivered an ultimatum to the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas: allow the Italian forces free passage into Greece, to occupy certain strategic locations, or there will be war. Metaxas refused but, contrary to popular misconception, he did not just say “no”; he responded in French, the diplomatic language of the day, and said: ‘Alors, c’est la guerre’. Then, it is war. But the Greeks love slogans and battle cries and, in contrast to their everyday conversation, they like them punchy and to the point. And they couldn’t very well take to the streets shouting stuff in French; they had their national pride to consider, especially on a day like this. So Alors, c’est la guerre became a resounding Greek No!, ohi, a short, two syllable word of pure defiance, and that’s the word they chanted, in their thousands, when they spilled out on the streets of Athens, until their throats were raw. And then, there was war.
    There are parades on ohi day, and marching bands, and bunting, and the Greek flag flies everywhere. The children gather in the village square, dressed in white shirts and navy blue skirts and trousers, and march proudly through town, and the officials make moving speeches about the courage and integrity of the noble race of the Greeks. All this took place on Tuesday, and I missed it, cooped up in my house on top of the hill, typing away on my computer. When I passed through town in the evening, all that remained was the bunting, a long row of blue and white flags flapping about in the breeze over the empty benches in the square.
    I felt her approach in the late afternoon, after the celebration that had gone ahead without me. Nothing too obvious, but there was a restlessness that often preludes her arrival. I dressed myself in several layers and stepped out into the final vestiges of the gloomy day. I would walk, I decided, down to the ring road and follow it round in a big circle, all the way to the supermarket, past the playground and back home; it would take about an hour. This was not a road I’d walked before. You wouldn’t do it in the summer: it’s too busy with cars using it to bypass the traffic at the centre of town and, like most of these island roads, it makes no provision for pedestrians.
    I should have known better than to expose myself to all that nothingness; I should have known I was making it too easy for her to find me. I had counted on quiet roads, a peaceful, contemplative walk to settle me down, but I’d forgotten about ohi day, and I got more than I bargained for. There was nobody around, only stillness and, every now and then, the parked up vehicles of everyday labour, abandoned only for this one short day of celebration that seemed to stretch, infinite, into the future and the past. This is a small island, but the emptiness made it seem vast, and it was exciting at first, like a child suddenly free to explore all the secret places that adults usually guard, but then I became acutely aware of my own smallness in comparison, and the feeling turned to awe.
    It wasn’t loneliness, but the actual, physical fact of being completely alone. I let myself think about it and it frightened me. A donkey stuck his head over the fence as I was passing by, and I jumped so far that I found myself on the opposite side of the road before I realised what had happened, felt immensely silly and crossed over again to pat his muzzle and apologise. I walked on, and I could hear my footsteps on the tarmac, a dog barking, echoey, in the distance, a birdcall, the dry rustle of creatures low in the grass. Nothing else, no other sounds: nothing mechanical, nothing human. An eagle circled overhead. The shadows grew deeper. A single motorbike drove past, and the noise it made seemed completely absurd in the ever-expanding stillness.
    It was a good walk, despite the fear; it made me feel alert and alive. But I should have known better than to walk alone, when she had warned me she was coming; I was too easy to find. And she came to me, like a bad fairy, and sprinkled me with her flattening dust. I took the emptiness home with me, and into town, later that evening, when I met Christina on one of her flying working trips, for a bite and a glass of wine. The process had been set in motion, and all the warmth and the unexpected company could do was stave off its inevitable conclusion for a time. I had exposed myself, and I was infected.
    And so the day of ohi passed me by, and then came Wednesday, and depression. She came with the storm, and I surrendered without a word. As the rain began to fall, I felt her twisting me up inside, turning me inside out, and then she was there, with her soothing, hypnotic voice. ‘Just lie down,’ she said. ‘Just give in, and lie down. There is nothing else to do.’ I surrendered and took to my bed, and she came to tuck me in, full of tenderness and gentle words, like a nurse for the terminally ill. Palliative care, with no hope for recovery. Just give in to it. There is nothing else. I closed my eyes, and went to sleep.
    When I woke up, the storm had been and gone but depression lingered, her heavy flatness making it hard for me to move, like a stiff old blanket that she’d laid over me while I slept. I kicked it off, and shook some life back into my limbs, enough to carry me listlessly around the house, pretending activity by making tea. Depression lingered, and whispered desolation.

The Greeks are always being defiant; we’re always looking for things to be defiant about. And when it comes to inventing battle cries, we are truly undefeated, the most notable of all being the immortal two words uttered by Leonidas of Sparta in response to the Persian King Xerxes’ demand that they lay down their arms and surrender: molon labe. Come and get them. The man had balls.
    I had mislaid mine for a day, the day of defiance: I’d been a bad Greek, and let it pass me by. But then I found them again, a day late. I found my defiance, but not as I expected. I found the saddest, most embarrassing, most heartbreaking Greek songs I could think of, and played them loudly, standing up in the middle of the room, and cried, for no reason whatsoever: for nothing. And I surrendered in defiance, and I said no, a day late, but just on time. It wasn’t war, it was guerrilla warfare; dirty tactics and sad Greek songs and Leonidas’ words, paraphrased for the 21st century: bring it. Bring it the fuck on.
    There were no flags and no fanfare, but it was a celebration, nonetheless, because as I cried over nothing, I realised I had nothing to cry about, and that made me laugh. Depression slunk off, taking her blanket with her, and I turned the music off and drank my tea, and painted my toenails red. Leonidas winked, and the Greek Prime Minister said some stuff in French that I didn’t understand. And the day ended, and Thursday came.


This is Day 51 from 100 days of solitude, written on October 29, 2014.

You can’t name an unfinished thing

You can't name an unfinished thing

I have the good seat on the bus, my favourite one in the back, right up against the glass partition, where I can rest my knees and lie back and watch the city go by. These bus journeys are my solace, my reprieve. My time to plug into my music and travel to wherever I want as the bus judders its way through the traffic, south to north and north to south and home again. My time to think, but I didn’t think about this. I didn’t know I was going to do it.
     The phone is in my hand. I type:
    ‘You and I are not done yet. There’s a time for us. Not now, but one day.’
    The number I haven’t used for five years comes up on the screen. I don’t remember how it got there. A new phone, a number he’s never called me on. I haven’t called him for five years. I don’t remember putting it in, but I must have done. Typed the number in from memory, saved it. Written his name. Four letters, four taps on the keyboard. His name is on my screen.
    I press send.
    I kill the screen immediately and stare ahead. I don’t want to watch it go. Wash my hands of it, but my fingers are tight around the phone. And the thing I’ve just done is travelling, unstoppable now, strange scrambled data bouncing off satellites to reconfigure itself into words on another screen. I don’t want to imagine it, how he’ll lift up his phone and read. I squeeze my eyes shut; my other hand is a fist. I can see it, how he lifts up the phone and reads the words. He doesn’t know my number. It’s only words, uncredited. He won’t reply.
    The phone shudders in my hand. My hand is shaking. I swipe and the screen lights up: ‘I know.’
    ‘Fuck.’ I say it out loud. I slam the phone into my knee, many times, repeatedly, dull thuds. ‘Fuck fuck fuck.’ A few passengers look over, roll their eyes, mutter to themselves. They do that here: they look. This isn’t London. This is as far away from London as I could get.
    Not far enough. He knows. The words have reached him, and he knows. And just like that, I’m back exactly where I started, in the palm of his hand like the words I just sent.

We’ve always liked to play with words. But betrayal is not a word you play with. Betrayal, even if you tell yourself there are reasons. Good reasons, and survival is the best. Survival means killing anything that stands in your way. Except this thing also survives: it wasn’t killed. It isn’t dead. He knows, and I’m back where I never left.

Betrayal. Not now. A long time ago. And, also, every day.


This is the opening of my much-neglected novel you can’t name an unfinished thing. It’a available, as all my books, on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

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.

Christmas Eve, undecorated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Christmas without Christmas

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

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

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

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


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