You can do things without love

Day 100 / 22 December 2014

100 days of solitude
Me and my book, celebrating our 4-year anniversary of 100 days, on this morning of December 22, 2018. Neither of us have done our hair.

Should there be a drumroll at this stage, or a quiet slipping, like I said, from one day to another? It could be either, and neither feels quite right, and day 100 is not a summary of days, and you can’t bring one hundred days together with words, so that they mean something.

Eleni told me a story that made me laugh. It was about her brother-in-law, John, who, upon tasting his first sugared kumquat, apparently commented: “It is like making love for the first time. You don’t really understand what’s happening to you.” It made me laugh, and then it made me think: about love and making love and the things we don’t really understand.

My first time wasn’t like a kumquat. It was a strange experience but, looking back, kind of tasteless. The act took place at a house party, an hour out of town, in the early summer of 1994; a bunch of us were staying overnight, unsupervised. This was a couple of weeks past my sixteenth birthday, and my boyfriend and I had just celebrated our three-month anniversary. The stars didn’t line up to bring us together in sweet, if awkward, lovemaking on a mild June evening that we would both remember fondly. It was coldly understood that this would be the night. It was about opportunity and the dispatching of a task. So much for the romantic dreams of teenage girls; so much for the endless lines of poetry this teenage girl had written for other, earlier loves. There was no poetry in this, and no romance. I liked the boy well enough and we had called it love. But the truth was a cold one: I just wanted the thing over with and I remember it, if anything, with shame.
    And so it was, a task performed, awkwardly and quickly, on one of two twin beds we had been allocated for the night. I knew what was happening to me; I knew the mechanics of the act and what to expect, and my expectations were met by a mechanical act. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t hurt, as advertised; I grieved a little for the drama that wasn’t there. A trip to the bathroom yielded a single smudge of blood, a private hanging of the wedding sheets. I flushed the tissue down the toilet, returned to the bedroom to get dressed, and went to join my friends, in other rooms, leaving my boyfriend, used up, still and silent on the bed. We both knew what had happened, what we’d done, but neither of us understood. Neither of us said a word.
    He was gone when I returned, out in town with the boys, and I was relieved. This was a private thing, and he was no longer part of it. I found my walkman and crawled into a hammock in the garden and swung, back and forth, all night, listening to a song on repeat. The song was called Thanatos: death. I had been cold on this warm summer evening; I had gotten rid of my virginity and my boyfriend by a single act, and I felt nothing. But I thought I understood that love hurts, and in the absence of love I chose the hurt, and a song called Death with beautiful, heartbreaking lyrics to fill the gaps where poetry should have been.

There has been love since, and poetry, and lovemaking that hurt in the ways that it should and didn’t need a soundtrack, and I still don’t really understand. I can’t speak for kumquats, but I don’t think lovemaking is meant to be understood. There have been times when I have stopped, midway, to say “What is this? What is happening?”, and those are the times I will remember. Wonder, bafflement, awe: that’s how you know something extraordinary is happening to you. It will be a terrible day, a day of mourning, when such a thing as love can be understood.
    I think I understand now that I was mourning something on that night in June. The passing, maybe, of the teenage girl whose poetry amounted to nothing, the girl who thought a mechanical act could be transformed into something meaningful just because you call it love. But I think I learned something, too, about the absence of love; I learned it, on that night, as I swung in a hammock with a song called Death on repeat, but it took me twenty years to understand.

You might get lucky and throw kumquats and love and poetry and death together and make some kind of sense, but you can’t bring one hundred days together with words. And day 100 is not a summary of days, and it isn’t the day that love was understood. But I think I understand, finally, about its absence: you can do things without love. But if you live your life mechanically, performing acts and dispatching tasks in cold understanding, you leave no room for poetry or bafflement or awe. You can’t transform that into something meaningful just because you call it a life. You’ve gotta put in the things you love and leave gaps that ache and need to be filled up with some sort of poetry, whatever stands for poetry in your life. You can do things without love, but they’ll amount to nothing, and you will remember them with shame, if you remember them at all. That’s what I learned in that hammock, and it took twenty years and one hundred days of doing what I love to understand.
    And day 100 is not a summary of days. Maybe it’s like a kumquat; like I’ve tasted something I cannot quite describe, but want to taste again. It’s like one of those times that I’ll remember, and I’m lying here, naked and aching and a little out of breath, and I’m thinking “What just happened?” and I don’t really understand. But there is wonder and bafflement and awe and scattered lines of poetry trying to put into words what you cannot, and I know it was something extraordinary. And it’s like that first time, too, a thing completed as I expected it would, and my sheets hung up and flapping in the wind for everyone to see, one hundred days of word-stained sheets to prove it, and nothing to show for it in private but a smudge of blood and a sense of mourning. Day 100 is both: it’s both a drumroll and a quiet slipping into something else, the day after, whatever comes next.
    Or maybe it’s a drumroll to distract you, so I can slip away, quietly, out of sight, and mourn it a little, in private, the end of a hundred days, and celebrate it, too, because I did it, for love. And then I’ll sit alone, in a solitude no longer shared, and think about love and making love and all the things that I don’t understand. All the things that I cannot put into words, and will keep trying, regardless, for all of my days, because this is what I love. This is what comes next. This is what I call a life. It baffles the hell out of me, and it has a weird soundtrack, but it’s extraordinary.

This is Day 100, the final day of 100 days of solitude, written on December 22, 2014. You can buy 100 days of solitude on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, or read it for free with Kindle Unlimited or Prime Reading (US).

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).