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.

Those who love know nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daphne Kapsali lives in Sifnos. She knows nothing.

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

Χωρίς να ξέρεις, να την αγαπάς.

Γράφουν πολλά τελευταία για τη Σίφνο. Λένε πολλά. Κάθε μέρα ανοίγω το facebook και βλέπω κι άλλα άρθρα, στον ξένο τύπο και τον ελληνικό, να παροτρύνουν αυτούς που ξέρουν να τη γνωρίσουν, ν’ ανακαλύψουν αυτό το κρυμμένο μυστικό των Κυκλάδων, θαμμένο τόσα χρόνια στην άγονη γραμμή. Μαγευτική τη λένε, άσπιλη, αριστοκρατική, σα να βρήκαν ξαφνικά φλέβα χρυσού και θα πλουτίσουμε όλοι.

Κι εγώ θυμάμαι τότε που πήγαινα σχολείο και περνούσαμε εδώ τα καλοκαίρια, να μου λένε τ’ άλλα παιδιά, αρχές Ιουνίου όταν ξεκίναγαν οι διακοπές: «Στη Σίφνο; Τι είναι αυτό;» και να γελάνε. Τ’ άλλα παιδιά που πήγαιναν στη Μύκονο και τη Σαντορίνη, τις Σπέτσες και την Ύδρα, μέρη γνωστά κι αναγνωρισμένα, με αξία, και γέλαγαν μαζί μου που περνούσα τα καλοκαίρια μου εξόριστη, εδώ, στην άγονη γραμμή. Ποια Σίφνο;

Τη Σίφνο εκείνη που έρχονται τώρα να παντρευτούν, στη Χρυσοπηγή, με catering απ’ την Αθήνα και βιολιά παραδοσιακά. Τη Σίφνο των περιοδικών, γυαλιστερή σαν τις σελίδες τους, ν’ αστράφτει κάπου ανάμεσα στη Σέριφο και τη Μήλο, στην πρώην άγονη γραμμή που ‘γινε γόνιμη τώρα που έχουμε πέντε πλοία τη μέρα. Την ανακάλυψαν, με σκάφη ιδιωτικά και το SeaJet που φτάνει σε δύο ώρες απ’ τον Πειραιά, αυτοί που ξέρουν.

Κι εγώ θυμάμαι τότε που τα Φυρόγια ήταν χαλάσματα και πήγαινες μόνο με καΐκι στο Βαθύ και πλενόμασταν με νερό κατευθείαν απ’ το πηγάδι, παγωμένο, και για το πόσιμο πηγαίναμε στην Παναγιά της Βρύσης, με μπιτόνια. Θυμάμαι το κάμπινγκ στον Πλατύ Γιαλό και που το Μπότζι έπαιζε ροκ και βγαίναμε βραχνοί τα ξημερώματα να πάρουμε σάντουιτς από το Πλάζα στην πλατεία κι άστραφτε η ανατολή στους άσπρους τοίχους και μας τύφλωνε.

Ότι αστράφτει δεν είναι χρυσός. Είχε παλιά η Σίφνος χρυσό, μα τώρα έχει άλλα. Όχι αυτά που γράφονται: πιο κρυφά. Και συνάμα καθόλου. Μια βουνοκορφή, ένα μονοπάτι με μια φίλη το Νοέμβριο, μια θέα που δεν είχες ξαναδεί μα ήταν πάντα εκεί, τα βράδια που ακούς μόνο τον άνεμο. Μια άδεια παραλία και οι ταβέρνες που δεν κλείνουν το χειμώνα. Να βρέχεις τα ρεβύθια την Παρασκευή και να τα πηγαίνεις στο φούρνο το Σάββατο και να σου λένε καλησπέρα σα να σε ξέρουν, αυτοί που νόμιζες πως ήξερες. Να περπατάς στο δρόμο και μη σε ρωτάνε πια τι κάνεις εδώ.

Αν αγαπάς δεν ξέρεις τίποτα: αυτό μου το ‘μαθε η Σίφνος. Κάποτε ήξερα κι εγώ γιατί ερχόμουν εδώ τα καλοκαίρια κι είχαμε σπίτι, κι έπαιζα στα σοκάκια με τ’ άλλα παιδιά και γιατί θυμάμαι, γιατί μπορώ να σου πω πως ήταν η Σίφνος παλιά και πόσο έχει αλλάξει. Αλλά δεν είναι σ’ αυτά η Σίφνος, τελικά. Δεν είναι εκεί που την ψάχνουμε, αλλά εκεί που θα βρεθούμε. Δεν είναι στο πόσο άλλαξε, αλλά στο πόσο σε αλλάζει. Άμα ξεχάσεις αυτά που ήξερες κι αρχίσεις να μαθαίνεις. Πόσος πλούτος κρύβεται σε μια φλέβα χρυσού που έχει στερέψει. Πως η μαγεία είναι σ’ ότι αγαπάς και ν’ αγαπάς δεν είναι γνώση. Δεν ξέρεις τίποτα κι έτσι πλουτίζεις, τελικά: μαθαίνοντας.

Κι εγώ θυμάμαι τότε που ήξερα και δεν την αγαπούσα. Τότε που το ‘λεγα με χαμηλή φωνή, ότι θα πάω στη Σίφνο, και με τραβούσαν άλλα μέρη, γεμάτα φώτα, γυαλιστερά. Και με τύφλωναν. Ώσπου μια μέρα βρέθηκα εδώ κι είχαν περάσει δυο χειμώνες και δε με ρωτούσε πια κανεις πότε θα φύγω και κατάλαβα ξαφνικά τι σημαίνει ν’ αγαπάς έναν τόπο έτσι όπως είναι, όχι όπως τον φαντάστηκες. Όχι γι’ αυτά που λέγονται και την αξία που του δίνουν οι άλλοι και γι’ αυτά που λες εσύ στους άλλους ότι θυμάσαι. Και να το λες, πως ζεις εδώ, κι αν σε ρωτάν ποια Σίφνο; Τη δική μου.

Κάτι ξέρουν, αυτοί που ξέρουν. Καλά κάνουν κι έρχονται εδώ. Για γάμους και για βαφτίσια, για το Σαββατοκύριακο με το SeaJet, για όλο το καλοκαίρι με αυτοκίνητα φορτωμένα. Για τα μπαρ και τα εστιατόρια, για τον αριστοκρατικό Αρτεμώνα και τον κοσμικό Πλατύ Γιαλό και τη γραφική Χερρόνησο. Για τα κεραμικά και τις εκθέσεις και για τις φωτογραφίες που ανεβάζουν στο facebook με φόντο τη Χρυσοπηγή. Για όλα αυτά που ξέρουν, τώρα, όλοι, και τα κρυφά και τα κρυμμένα και αυτά που ήταν πάντα εκεί και δεν τα είχες συναντήσει. Γι’ αυτά που ίσως μάθεις. Γι’ αυτούς που ξέρουν κι αυτούς που ψάχνονται κι αυτούς που ψάχνουν κάπου να βρεθούν κι εκείνους, σαν κι εμένα, που βρέθηκαν εδώ και τα μαθαίνουν όλα απ’ την αρχή. Έχει Σίφνο για όλους, δε στερεύει. Έχει πλούτο για όλους, αν την αγαπάς. Χωρίς να ξέρεις, να την αγαπάς.

Η Δάφνη Καψάλη ζει στη Σίφνο. Δεν ξέρει τίποτα.

Click here for the English version of this piece.

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.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting my work by buying my books on Amazon. Thank you.

Από κάπου να ξεκινήσω

Πρέπει να ξεκινήσω να γράφω ελληνικά. Έτσι μου λένε. Μου λένε πως δε γίνεται, ελληνίδα, να γράφω στ’ αγγλικά: μόνο; γιατί; Ελληνίδα, και με μπαμπά ποιητή. Μου λένε για την ομορφία της ελληνικής γλώσσας, αυτή τη μελωδία που ‘χει, τις λέξεις που δεν έχουνε οι άλλοι, μόνο εμείς. Εμείς; Τι ελληνίδα είμαι; Μπερδεμένη.

Δεν ενδίδω. Εδώ και χρόνια λέω όχι. Όχι, με τα λίγα λόγια που ξέρω, γιατί είναι στ’ αλήθεια λίγα, και σκονισμένα. Σκουριάζουν κι αυτά, αλλοιώνονται, αν δεν τα χρησιμοποιείς. Αν λες τα ίδια και τα ίδια, στους ίδιους ανθρώπους κι ανάμεσα, όταν δε θυμάσαι τη λέξη, λες την αγγλική. Με τα λίγα λόγια που ξέρω προσπαθώ να δώσω εξηγήσεις, ελληνικές, ευκατανόητες. Να εξηγήσω κάτι που δεν το καταλαβαίνω ούτε εγώ: γιατί δεν είμαι ελληνίδα όσο πρέπει, γιατί δε μου φτάνει; Γιατί δε μου κάνει αυτή η αρχαία γλώσσα των ποιητών; Ποιο είναι αυτό το αλφάβητο, το ξένο, που για χάρη του απαρνιέμαι το ελληνικό; Ποια είμαι εγώ που δε μου φτάνουν αυτές οι λέξεις, οι μητρικές, για να εκφραστώ; Μπερδεμένη. Αθηναία πρωτευουσιάνα ξενιτεμένη μετανάστρια. Ξένη εδώ, ξένη κι εκεί. Αλλά άμα ζεις τη ζωή σου στα ξένα, με ξένες λέξεις εκφράζεσαι. Και ξένες γίνονται οι μητρικές, οι πιο λίγο οικείες, όσο περνάει ο καιρός. Δε μεταφράζεται η ζωή στο Λονδίνο στα ελληνικά, δε μεταφράζονται οι σκέψεις που κάνεις. Η νοοτροπία που έμαθες εκεί, όλα αυτά τα χρόνια, δεν προσαρμόζεται στο εδώ. Κι εδώ, που θα ‘πρεπε να ταιριάζω γιατί η ταυτότητά μου λέει «ελληνίδα», δεν έχω λόγια για να εκφραστώ.

Αυτή την ταυτότητα, την ελληνική, δεν ξέρω πως να την υποδυθώ. Δεν έχω τα λόγια. Υπάρχουν πολλά, πάρα πολλά, που δεν έχω κάνει, δεν έχω πει ποτέ στα ελληνικά. Δεν ξέρω πως. Πως πληρώνεις λογαριασμούς; Πως καλείς ταξί; Πως λες ότι λυπάσαι που κάποιος πέθανε; Πως μιλάς για έρωτες; Πως μιλάς για τον πόνο; Πως ξεκινάς μια σχέση; Πως χωρίζεις; Όταν σου λεν «βοήθειά μας», πως απαντάς; Μιλάς κατά τη διάρκεια του σεξ; Το λένε σεξ; Τι λες όταν γνωρίζεις κάποιον για πρώτη φορά; Τι λες όταν δεν ξέρεις τι να πεις; Από κάπου πρέπει να ξεκινήσω, αλλά πως ξεκινάς;

Δεν ενδίδω, κι ας λένε. Δεν είναι αυτός ο λόγος που ξεκίνησα να γράφω, τώρα, στα ελληνικά. Είναι που, ξαφνικά, κάτι νιώθω: μια ανάγκη. Σαν κάτι ν’ άλλαξε, χωρίς εξήγηση, χωρίς να μου δώσει χρόνο να σκεφτώ, να ερμηνεύσω, να προσαρμοστώ. Σα να μη μπορώ πια να κοροϊδεύω τον εαυτό μου, να κρατάω το ένα πόδι σ’ άλλη όχθη, σ’ άλλη χώρα και να στέκομαι εδώ. Να ζω εδώ μα να κρατιέμαι, με μια κλωστίτσα, αλλού, να μιλάω με λέξεις μεταφρασμένες για εμπειρίες εισαγόμενες και όλοι να γνέφουν με το κεφάλι αλλά να μην καταλαβαίνουν, γιατί δεν έχει Λονδίνο εδώ, δεν έχει how do you do. Αυτά που ξέρεις ξέχασέ τα αν θέλεις, όπως όλοι, να βρεις κάπου να σταθείς. Και θέλω: αυτό νιώθω. Θέλω να σταθώ εδώ. Κι αν θέλω, πρέπει να σταθώ και με τα δύο πόδια. Πρέπει από κάπου να ξεκινήσω, από τα λίγα λόγια που ξέρω. Αυτές οι λέξεις που με ξενίζουν να γίνουν γνώριμες σιγά σιγά, για να μην είμαι πια ξένη. Να μη μεταφράζομαι πια στα ελληνικά, να μην εισάγω τον εαυτό μου από αλλού: να είμαι εδώ.

Εδώ, στη Σίφνο. Ξένη πρωτευουσιάνα Αθηναία περίεργη. Σιγά σιγά όμως: η Δάφνη. Που ζει στον Ελεήμονα. Που γράφει βιβλίο. Που περπατάει πολύ, Απολλωνία-Καμάρες, σχεδόν κάθε μέρα. Που έμεινε εδώ το χειμώνα. Που κάνει παρέα με τον τάδε και τον άλλον. Αυτή. Από την απόλυτη αδιαφορία του Λονδίνου, από την ελευθερία εκείνη την παράξενη και τους απέραντους ορίζοντες, στη Σίφνο τη μικρή που θέλει να τα ξέρει όλα. Τίνος είσαι εσύ; Τι κάνεις; Τι είσαι; Μπερδεμένη. Αλλά έχει κι εδώ ορίζοντες, έχει έρωτες, έχει τραγούδια που τα ξέρω. Έχει θάλασσες και βουνά και φίλους καινούργιους και παλιούς και άγνωστες λέξεις τους τις μαθαίνω με τον καιρό. Έχει εμπειρίες που είναι μόνο εδώ, και λέξεις που τους αντιστοιχούν. Οι φίλοι μου στην Αθήνα, στο Λονδίνο, δεν καταλαβαίνουν. Γνέφουν τώρα κι αυτοί μ’ εκείνον τον τρόπο, αλλά δεν πειράζει. Θα προσπαθήσω, με τα λίγα λόγια που ξέρω, να τους τα πω. Πως είναι να είσαι εδώ. Πως σ’ αυτό το νησί που θέλει όλα να τα ξέρει, μέσα σ’ αυτό το καλοκαίρι που δε λέει να ‘ρθει, δε λέει ν’ αποφασίσει, δεν ξέρει τι είναι – κάπως ταιριάζω. Πως βρήκα κάπου να σταθώ.

Πήγα μια βόλτα πριν λίγο, να περπατήσω, να σκεφτώ. Κοντά στο τέλος, στις Αράδες, στην παλιά παιδική χαρά, σταμάτησα να κάτσω για λίγο, να καπνίσω ένα τσιγάρο πριν πάρω το δρόμο προς Καταβατή. Έκατσα σταυροπόδι στην άκρη του τοίχου, πάνω απ’ το δρόμο. Μπροστά μου θέα το σχολείο, πιο ‘κει στα δεξιά τα Εξάμπελα και περά η θάλασσα και τα νησιά. Σχεδόν σαράντα χρονών, με τζην σορτσάκι και παπούτσια Vans, σκαρφαλωμένη σ’ ένα τοίχο να καπνίζω. Πέρασαν μερικοί. Κάποιοι δε με είδαν. Κάποιοι με χαιρέτησαν. Κάποιοι με κοίταξαν, περνώντας, και κούνησαν το κεφάλι: να η Δάφνη. Σκαρφαλωμένη σ’ ένα τοίχο. Θυμήθηκα ένα τραγούδι του Ξυδάκη, «κοντεύω τα σαράντα κι ακόμα είμαι παιδί». Το άκουγα μικρή και μου φαινόταν τρελλό, αυτός ο αριθμός, αυτή η ηλικία. Και να ‘μαι τώρα, εδώ, τριανταεννιά ετών με μαλλιά σχεδόν ξυρισμένα και ν’ ασημίζουν στα πλάγια, σκαρφαλωμένη ψηλά να κοιτάω τα νησιά, και να μου γνέφουν σα να με ξέρουν. Και να νιώθω μια παράξενη ελευθερία, εδώ, στη Σίφνο τη μικρή που θέλει όλα να τα ξέρει, και οι λέξεις να μου έρχονται στα ελληνικά. Λίγες, αλλά οικείες. Χωρίς μετάφραση. Και να νιώθω την ανάγκη να τις πω.

Ποτέ δεν ξέρεις τίποτα. Αλλά τα λόγια βρίσκονται, σιγά σιγά, με τον καιρό. Φτάνει από κάπου να ξεκινήσεις. Και μπορείς να ξεκινήσεις όσες φορές θες.

In the meantime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, I do care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does solitude mean to you?

As many of you know, the first book I published, 100 days of solitude, is an account of how I gave up my life in London to spend a few months living alone on a Greek island called Sifnos. It was initially only meant as an exercise in writing full-time, but it ended up being so much more than that, and it opened my eyes to infinite, previously unimagined possibilities for a different, more fulfilling way of life. One that has solitude – the time and space to be with yourself – at its core.

Many people equate solitude with loneliness, and it frightens them. I went to my hairdresser here on Sifnos for a haircut the other day, and she asked me again, as she always does:
    ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ (I have a reputation on the island: that girl who lives alone and walks around a lot – isn’t she writing a book or something?)
    ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sometimes.’ But don’t we all? Loneliness isn’t dependant on where you live or how many people there are around you; you can be just as lonely in a crowd as you can be on a quiet mountain trail; you can be just as lonely in London as in Sifnos. And the same, in reverse, goes for solitude: no matter what your circumstances, you can get it, the kind of solitude you need. An hour to yourself, to read, or think, or do nothing; a walk in the park or along an empty beach. You don’t have to seek it in extremes.

But there are other people who only respond to extremes, and my version of solitude offends them. They equate it with isolation and hardship, and I have far too good a social life to qualify as a proper recluse. And that’s fine; it’s a fair judgement: I am that girl who lives alone and walks around a lot, but I talk to everyone. These critics and I have a very different understanding of solitude and its purpose. To me, it’s about being more connected, not less. But to be able to forge meaningful connections with other people, you must first be connected with yourself. And that’s what we lose when we make our lives so overcrowded. That’s why I live alone. That’s why I walk. That’s why I write.

I came across an interesting article entitled The Benefits of Solitude last night. It’s an excerpt from a book called Solitude: In pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world by Michael Harris and it echoes, in a much more eloquent way, the thoughts expressed above. According to the book’s blurb: “The capacity to be alone–properly alone–is one of life’s subtlest skills. Real solitude is a contented and productive state that garners tangible rewards: it allows us to reflect and recharge, improving our relationships with ourselves and, paradoxically, with others.” Thank you, Michael.

You can read the article here.

It seems Michael Harris and I have very similar definitions of solitude, but the point is, not everyone does. We all have a different understanding of solitude and loneliness, happiness and fulfilment, and we are all free to seek the latter two in the way that makes sense to us. Not everyone will associate them with solitude but I, for one, will forever advocate the solitary walk as a means for being the person I want to be.

Before I go, I’d like to introduce you to the King of the Solitary Walk, and a man whom I’m tentatively beginning to consider a friend: writer and long-distance hiker Keith Foskett. As he describes in The Last Englishman, Keith has walked the entire length of the US, from the borders of Mexico to Canada (the Pacific Crest Trail), and though there was hardship and isolation and loneliness, he never really experienced them in a negative way. His is an extreme version of taking yourself away from everything to become more connected. His latest book, Travelled Far, is free on Kindle at the moment, and you can also get a free copy of his first book, The Journey in Between, by signing up to his mailing list. I don’t often recommend books, but I’ve read Keith’s work and I do so without any hesitation.

And if you’re curious about my own version of debatable solitude and you’ve yet to read 100 days of solitude, you can now get a free preview of the first 15 days by clicking here.

What does solitude mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below or email me.

(This went out as a newsletter to my mailing list this morning. Click here if you’d like to join.)

Faith and water and love conquers all

I wanted to start this story past The End of the one before; I wanted a happy ending to push off from. It was to be a story about how love, indeed, conquers all; I started writing it last night, in my head. I gave it shape, a happy ending shaped like love; I squeezed it into that mould, but I didn’t sleep easy because it wasn’t an easy fit, and the bits that stuck out bit into me and put bad thoughts in my head.

I’m writing this to chase away the fear; to bring about the ending that I want, to call it down here where I think, rightly, that it belongs.

My little cat, my Little One, is sick. It’s been four days now that he won’t eat, won’t drink, won’t look me in the eye. He isn’t tempted by special cat food or chopped-up steak; he isn’t tempted by toys or almonds rolled across the floor or those rustly bits of balled-up paper that he loves. I cannot tempt him off his chair, where he lies rolled up tight but awkwardly, uneasy, hiding his face from the world and from me. He doesn’t lift his head when I call him, he doesn’t respond when I tell him, softly, that he’s gonna be OK, not when I plead with him to be OK, not when I bury my face in his fur and cry and pray to anything with power to make him OK. He doesn’t purr or bump me with his head or nibble my fingers or lick my face; he doesn’t try to climb on me or follow me around or scream at me when I open the fridge. When I touch him, he pulls away, slowly but definitely; he is saying – I can almost hear it – leave me alone.

And here comes the love bit, because I won’t leave him alone. I left him alone for long enough, save when I raised him up and held his head back and trickled water into his mouth through a syringe. I left him alone; I respected his privacy, I gave him space to get better in his own cat way, but I won’t leave him alone any longer, because he isn’t getting better. And I’ve got nothing to give him except water and love. So: love.

I picked him up last night, peeled him off his chair and put him on my lap as I sat at my desk. This is what we do, normally; this is how we spend our days, my cat and I, when he isn’t curled up tight and listless, and I’m not pacing around, restless with fear. He wouldn’t settle at first; he shifted this way and that, weary and worried, and I thought he would jump off and head straight back to his chair. But he stayed, and he settled, with his head on my belly and his body on my lap. And he purred. For the first time in days, he purred, and when I stroked him, tentatively, he lifted his head up to meet my hand, and he turned to look at me and his eyes met mine.

When it was time for bed, I took him with me, lifted him up gingerly, curled up as he was, and placed him on my bed. I got under the covers next to him. “We’ll keep each other company, you and I,” I told him, and he stood up and climbed onto my chest, and brought his face close to mine and pushed his nose, his hot, dry nose, into the palm of my hand. And he purred.

And I thought, this is it, this is proof that love conquers all. That all you need, all we need to survive, is water and love – that’s all we need to get us through. And I thought about the story I’d write, triumphant, on this theme: about water and love and my little one’s miraculous recovery. But I didn’t sleep easy: the curled up cat was a weight on my chest, and my mind was restless with fear. The story didn’t quite fit the mould, and it stuck out, and it kept us both awake, my cat and I, as we tried to fit ourselves around it and each other.

In the morning, he was as listless as ever. Curled up on his chair, as if he’d never left it. He didn’t purr; he didn’t lift his head to say hello. I called a vet in Athens, a kind lady who didn’t remember having met me, once, several months ago, but listened regardless. She said “drip” and “blood tests”, and I said if not those, what? She said the names of drugs and when and how much and good luck, and the girl at the chemist said the same, but it isn’t luck we need, my cat and I: it’s faith, and water and love.

Faith, in the story that will come after the one before, after the fear, past the fear, in the happy ending shaped by love. The story of my little one’s miraculous recovery; the story of how love conquers all. Because it must, because it has to. Because I’m writing this to bring it down, right here, where it belongs, in faith, in love, in prayer to anything with power; because love has made a mould out of me and the shape that fits my lap is a purring cat.

Please send us some love.