Alfonsina y El Mar

(This is a post from August 2nd, 2009. It caught me unawares when I re-read it today; moved me as much today as it did back then. If you’re new here, please take a moment, lean in, breathe – this is how you’ll get to know me. I’ve left the old comments attached so you’ll know why letting go is so hard for me. I’m not great at Twitter and I’m not sure about Facebook. I love writing, unashamedly lyrical writing. That’s who I am. Who was I kidding… Spring cleaning? Blog gardening? Clearing out this blog feels like having to board up a part of my heart with the folk still in it. ~ Janice)

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts ~ Percy Bysshe Shelley”

It’s sunny, but the lace curtains are billowing in a breeze as I write. I can hear the thudding of my son’s football in the street and the droning of planes criss-crossing the sky above the house.

My eighty-four-year-old dad has just freshened up in the family bathroom – deodorant sprayed too generously into his slippers has just reached me and lingers oppressively – and my daughter is strumming a guitar and singing at the other end of the house.

My husband’s listening to cricket on the radio in the garage, fixing or building something.

I could write about a million blessings, but right now there are gentle waves of melancholy lapping at my feet. Wondering whether to walk away or sit with it, I realise nothing I write will erase the haunting ache I have to be in a seafront café with a friend of mine, someone I studied with in Athens one August, a lifetime ago.

A poet, translator, dancer and singer, he embraced his dips into melancholy and despair when they descended, embracing the humanity of his pain and fear so that he could express them creatively and meet them with compassion in others.

Just as I never sought sadness, he never chided me when I yearned for days long gone, when ghosts shrouded my heart from the Athenian sun and let no warmth in. He simply smiled and took my hand, started singing in Spanish, knowing that my voice could never resist his.

One of our favourite songs – one that always reminded us of how we’d clung on to life when we’d loved and lost more often than young hearts should – was Alfonsina y el Mar.

It’s the haunting tale of the poet Alfonsina Storni’s walk into the sea on an Argentinian beach. Whenever I hear it, I remember the day my friend translated it for me, from Spanish into Greek. I left his ghost behind in Athens, too.

You and I read so many positive posts online, tales of triumph and epiphany, fables of hope, wisdom and family love but for me to refuse to write about death would be to renounce some of the people I’ve loved most.

AIDS followed my friend like a spectre, before his final silence. This song is one of the many that keeps his voice alive.

Before she died, Alfonsina sent her final poem Voy a dormir, (I’m going to sleep), to a newspaper. Her story inspired Ariel Ramírez and Félix Luna to write Alfonsina y el mar.  Years later, this version, my favourite, sung here by Mercedes Sosa, inspired someone to create a video for You Tube. It’s not what I envisage when I hear it, but inspiration has no borders. As writers, we can’t afford to neglect the power of the lyrics that haunt us.

Spanish isn’t one of my languages, but this is the best translation I can do without murdering the beauty of the original.

Alfonsina and the Sea…

On the soft sand lapped by the sea
her small footprint will never be seen again

and a lonely footpath of pain and silence reached the deep water
a lonely path of pure pain reached the surf

God knows what anguish accompanied you
What ancient sadness silenced your voice
So you lay down, lulled by the song
of the sea shells
The song sung by the conch on the dark sea bed

You go, Alfonsina, with your solitude
What new poems did you go searching for?

…and an ancient voice of wind and salt
shatters your soul
courts and calls out to it
and you walk there, as if in a dream,
Alfonsina, asleep, sea-clad.

Five tiny mermaids will lead you
through paths of seaweed and coral,
and sea horses, glowing in the dark, will sing
a rondo at your side.
And the creatures of the sea
will soon swim beside you.

Turn down the lamp a little bit more, nurse,
let me sleep in peace
and if he calls, don’t tell him that I’m here
tell him Alfonsina’s not coming back
and if he calls, don’t ever tell him that I’m here,
say that I’ve gone away.

You go, Alfonsina, with your solitude
What new poems did you go searching for?

…and an ancient voice of wind and salt
shatters your soul
courts and calls out to it
and so you walk there, as if in a dream,
Alfonsina, asleep, sea-clad.


  1. Hi Janice. Melancholy is a powerful feeling. It brings such a sense of connection and contrary to what some people believe, it’s not about sadness or remorse. It’s deep appreciation. And I can feel that in your words. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.
    .-= Davina´s last blog ..Come Alive with Favourite Music =-.

  2. Hi Janice .. that’s my music .. I just love those melancholy songs .. I do too like happy songs! That is so lovely .. thank you for bringing the song to my attention .. I shall look out for it.

    Your story is so haunting .. and long lasting friends, even losing them .. I lost my best friend – 6 months younger than me – to Hepatitis C when we were 55 … I would love her to be here now .. different souls, but always with similar thoughts ..

    Thanks – even though it’s Monday .. and it’s a sad post – to me it’s inspiring with its underlying haunting themes ..
    Enjoy the week with the family .. more football, guitar, tinkering in the garage, walks in the sands for you all ..
    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Glorious Goodwood – Gloomy Goodwood =-.

  3. Dani, Davina and Hilary,
    I was so stunned to find your comments here when I logged on – my feed doesn’t reach me till 4pm every day. I always wonder how folk know I’ve posted! I also wondered if folk might start thinking I’m a bit of a misery and unsubscribe, but it wasn’t that kind of day really. I hope that came across; your comments make me dare to hope it did.

    Thank you! Just looking at the titles of your comment luv and Davina’s and Hilary’s, I think there must be an end of summer wave of music, memory and reflection sweeping through! I’m almost caught up after my broadband crash, so I’m looking look forward to exploring everyone’s posts. I’m glad you liked it.

    I love music so much, I spend half my time avoiding it because it’s so powerful and winds its way around and into all of my memories. Writing this last night helped me harness something powerful and elusive and I adored doing that wee bit of translation. I miss it. Thank you for empowering me by helping me understand why I wrote it. It was another one of those posts that just ‘happened’.

    I’m so sorry about your friend but I’m glad you told us about her. The deeper we love, the more we hurt. Until we get older and see that everything’s about love; it’s all meant and we learn that there’s little we can control except how we think about and deal with what the universe hands us.

    80% of my music collection is beautiful, haunting, melancholy and evocative – yet it’s not deliberate! I used to fall in love with pieces of music and impulse buy them without stopping to think where and when I’d listen to them again – or even if I’d be able to. (I haunt easily 🙁 ) The kids have saved me. My daughter, especially, downloads fantastic music so I’ve discovered a lot of great new bands and singers that don’t send me into the depths.

    You weren’t reading my blog back when I did it, but there’s a review of a band called Fleet Foxes in one of my posts; I think from what you’ve said that you might enjoy them as much as I did.

    Thanks for your support and understanding, Hilary. I know things haven’t been easy for you either, but you know you’ll always find wise, kind people in these boxes. It never fails to inspire and humble me.

  4. Hi Janice,

    Beautiful lyrics. Like you, I love lyrics. Some lines are perfect gems that should be treasured.

    My father, who is a Virgo, likes sad songs and I have to admit, it used to drive me crazy. My life has had its share of suffering and I did find solace in sad songs in moments of profound pain. However, once I would cry myself out of tears, I would always put on an upbeat song. It was what kept me going along with faith and hope.

    That said, sad songs have their place and it goes to show that music is truly a powerful art form. 🙂
    .-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Jewel, Dreams, Faith & Me: My Progress Report =-.

    1. I know exactly what you mean about lyrics being gems. There’s something about the music that bypasses our brains, unlocks our hearts and lets us store the pure poetry of our favourite lyrics in our heart’s treasure chest.

      My dad’s a Virgo, too, but although he’s intense and smart like your dad, I think mine is probably a wee bit older. I grew up on a diet of crooners and sang harmonies with him, songs by Perry Como, Dean Martin, Jim Reeves, Frank Sinatra, Nat king Cole and Bing Crosby. My uncle, on the other hand (he lived with us and was like a second dad) had a collection of 78’s of the most haunting, sad, Scottish music you ever heard. He was a Virgo, too. If you ever get a chance, You Tube a Scottish bagpipe tune called the Dark Island. It evokes all the melancholy beauty of the Scottish islands because it’s such a mixture of lilting and lonely, uplifting and haunting.

      I learned most of my initial Greek through song lyrics. They are experts at expressing their souls in music; I felt I’d found my spiritual home the first time I asked someone to translate a song for me that had pierced my heart. The lyrics went straight to my soul, but a lot of Greek music went straight to my body and got me onto a dance floor. Still does.

      I know what you mean about going with the music, having a good cry and then moving on. Sometimes, we’re so used to moving on, keeping going, looking for the best, that the music deliberately halts us to make us remember that there’s no life without pain.

      If you ever manage to come visit us, you’ll be relieved to hear that my kids and treacherous husband have taken over the CD player. My weird foreign stuff, as they call it, is banned!

  5. What a wonderful song! Thank you for sharing it with us, Janice.
    In a strange twist of synchronicity, I’m just writing a post for GoodlifeZen about the seashore and the tide and what we can learn from them.

    1. You’re welcome. I thought you might like it because of your passion for tango! The seaside thing is spookily synchronicitous, though, given you hadn’t seen the post I just drafted for you. Here are a few comments I’ve left elsewhere this week on sites I love; the first one makes me suspect that’s where I left the door ajar for melancholy to drift in:

      You are so privileged living within walking distance of the sea. I used to and it’s left an ocean sized aching in my heart that nothing else ever seems to fill. We used to spend hours there simply enjoying being alive.

      But the sea…that’s something completely different. Two minutes there can restore and recharge me more than anything else I know. It’s where I feel like I’ve come home, like I’m part of its pull, one of its waves.

      Still on my evolving ‘bucket list’ are two ‘possibles’ that fade with financial circumstances but never disappear: visiting Canada and the States and owning a home by the sea.

    1. Glad you liked it! It was a bit self indulgent of me, but I’m not really sure where self indulgence ends and authenticity begins when it comes to blogging, especially seeing as one of the things I hope to achieve is a place where we can all relish each other’s humanity.

  6. Beautiful – thanks Janice.

    I’ve just spent the past week with melancholy myself.
    It flew in on a winter’s afternoon, and we spent the day hanging out. Listening to songs together, sharing philosophical musings, watching the afternoon light in my backyard change colours & putting pen to paper.

    And when it finally left again, I was blessed with an immense sense of gratitude for its presence.
    .-= Kim´s last blog ..On Melancholy… =-.

    1. Oh, Kim, you’ve expressed this beautifully. I know the difference betwen depression and melancholy, and as you’ve decribed so well, melancholy always seems to leave as softly and inexplicably as it arrives… So I sit with it, flow with it and ask myself what it’s told me about the appreciation Davina mentioned above.

  7. Hi Janice
    I read this post yesterday and struggled with the right words to say. I still don’t know what to say, other than I’m proud of you for being able to express your grief so honestly and eloquently. This tribute to your friend touched me deeply, in my mid-section and in my throat. Sadness is one of those four emotions we feel. We often try to deny it. I sense that your friend wasn’t into denial anymore than you are. Blessings to you, my dear friend.
    .-= Brenda´s last blog ..Simple Signs =-.

    1. This means a lot, Brenda. Thank you. Grief is strange, as you know. There’s no rhyme or reason to how or when it’ll catch us unawares. But this melancholy came gently; sometimes grief is so sudden and overwhelming it cuts the legs from under me. And there’s the loneliness, too, that comes when we lose the people who understand us.

      I think the time of year triggered this one, plus all the posts and comments about the sea recently.

  8. Hi Janice,
    What a lovely post! the words of the Song , the voice, and the majestic piano…it haunts the very soul…just so touching. This is just my kind of song. I heard it and saw it here for the first time..and repeatedly maybe 5 to 6 times….it just has that magnetism to it.
    Thanks so much for sharing.
    .-= Zeenat{Positive Provocations}´s last blog ..Expectations or Contentment??? =-.

  9. I’m so glad you liked it. I think many of us realise there’s a place for sad music and art as well as uplifting work . Songs like this expand me, if that makes sense; ultimately, it means more love and light can get in.

  10. Hi janice .. thanks for your reply. I’ll be back to look properly .. I’m just backing up at the moment. Thanks for the music nudge .. I’ll be up the A1 … for your ipod .. and then I can share your music!

    I have to say I’m not work smart yet .. so I go to blogs I want to read .. so I physically hit the address bar list .. and check them out .. so I get here earlier than some I guess ..

    perhaps the A1 would be a good road for some smart ideas too ..
    the beaches of the A30 call me .. Cornwall ..

    Thanks for the great stories, replies etc .. and hope the holidays are being fun .. and you’re able to have great times with the family ..
    all the best – Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Sneakers or Plimsolls, sea water or fresh water .. =-.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. Hope my translation didn’t make you scream, though. I only take liberties when I can justify them, usually to keep the poetic effect in the target language.

      I love that you majored in Spanish – I now have this image of you speaking it all over Arizona! Am I right in thinking there’s a large Spanish speaking community there? Don’t you just love the phrase “te requiebra el alma”?! Who can resist a verb that means ‘to break into even smaller pieces’ as well as ‘to court or woo’!

  11. Janice, this is so beautiful! And haunting – I’m playing the music as I write this comment, and can feel the melancholy physically, right there in the centre of my chest.

    It’s taken me a while to comment, I needed to sit with your words for a while first.

    I’m hearing not only grief and sadness for your friend, and for times past, but also a sense of that girl you once were – free to sit in a seaside cafe – a lifetime ago.

    She’s still there, and she brings tears to our eyes with her sharing words. Thank you.
    .-= Karen Wallace´s last blog ..How to be Happy Right Now =-.

    1. Lovely to have you over here, Karen.

      I’m glad you understand. I’m not the kind of person who dwells on the past, but I do have a healthy awareness of how it’s shaped me and what the threads are that have run through my whole life. I focus on all the blessings in my life every day, but there’s no denying that there are people and places that haunt me. Having the odd holiday or well placed break usually balances the anxiety that comes with parenting and looking after elderly parents.

      We came back from living abroad because both of us had parents with deteriorating health. I miss living in other languages. I picked up Spanish when I lived in Portugal and when i did some contract work in Spain, but most of it i learned through my Spanish friend, although we communicated in Greek.

      I’m wired differently when I live and think in Greek. We clothe our worlds in words and words shape our thoughts. Greek is a language that resonates with me and expresses me well. Someday I may post my own Greek songs with translations here, but I know they’d lose in the translation.

  12. Wow, what a beautiful post. You are such a talented writer. I almost cried. That song is absolutely gorgeous. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
    .-= Caity´s last blog ..Guest blogger! =-.

    1. What a great surprise! I enjoyed ‘meeting’ you over at Tess’s place today, and
      I’m thrilled you enjoy my writing and loved the song. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful for anyone who takes the time to tell me that something I’ve written or shared has touched them in some way. Thank you.

  13. Thank you for your passionate post and including the YouTube.

    I feel enlarged and nourished by those sounds, which vibrate my viscera and move my heart, dear Janice!

    1. You’re very welcome, Connie. What’s amazed me with this song is that so many folk have experienced it viscerally like I did the first time; I feel it like an ache in the heart. But strangely, the way it sways like a dance always uplifts and saddens me at the same time.

      I think the lyrics are not only beautiful, but cleverly done, describing the scene almost cinematographically, as well as talking to Alfonsina and then using the first person for the words she wrote to her nanny.

    1. Lovely to see you here, Maya! Your post about the sandcastle artist really got me thinking about the nature and purpose of art and the artist’s connection to what they’ve created.

  14. This post was amazing. First and foremost, for the writing. What an incredibly lyric — how appropriate — voice you’ve brought to this.

    I’m a huge fan of music — especially lyrics — as an empowering catalyst for writers. I tell my novel writing students that even though we’re not writing for film (yet, at least… everybody seems to want to go there), it is incumbant upon us to “write” the soundtrack of the story into our narrative. Sort of like you (Janice) did in this post.

    Lyrics are, in fact, a wondrous form of storytelling. They have structure, they have theme, they have character, and most of all they move us into reflection and emotion. Writers are well served to listen to the lyrics that come to us, and to take the essence of how lyrics and melody combine to become a whole in excess of their parts and apply that aesthetic to our own work.

    In my new ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters,” I mention both of these strategies. In fact, listening to music while you write is the very first tip I cover.

    Well done, Janice. Well done.
    .-= Larry´s last blog ..Story Structure Series: #7… the Part 3 Attack =-.

  15. Thank you Larry. Oh I wish I could do justice to my favourite Greek songs; I think you’d like them. They even put poems by their national poets to music and they become popular hits!! You expressed how I feel about lyrics so powerfully in this line:

    … take the essence of how lyrics and melody combine to become a whole in excess of their parts …

    As you say, it’s just like writing. All the great story architecture in the world is meaningless if the writing’s awful, just as organic meandering will eventually wear out or bore a reader if there’s no power, passion or purpose in a piece. A song is yet another mosaic. When the singer becomes the song and the music marries the words, there’s nothing quite like it. Add hints of dance like this song does and you can’t help but feel whole films and dances unfolding.

  16. Hi Janice .. just love hitting your web .. and seeing those wonderful bright tulips .. they are just so uplifting ..

    Have a good week! It’s sunny down here .. hope you can wlak the beaches in the sun!

    All the best Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Have you seen the stones of Mars? =-.

    1. Hi Hilary,
      Thanks for checking in. This is the kids’ last week off school so I’ve been busy, getting back into gear. They’re both growing so fast, I’ve learned the hard way not to buy stuff too early! That’s why I haven’t been able to blog or write much.

  17. As I said hope you can wlak! the beaches with the kids before term starts .. yes I remember shooting up .. no kids so no experience to fall back on except for seeing Pinocchio shoes sticking out from my feet and a skirt round my ankles! Saved money and they lasted a term or two .. but I stopped early .. and am now small 5′ 4″ + a microscopic bit ..

    I’m doing lots but always am .. posts will come and go .. I hope I can get one in today .. we’ll see ..

    No worries .. we seem to realise there are times when there’s too much else going on .. enjoy the last few days of this hols ..

    Cheers – Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories
    .-= Hilary´s last blog ..Have you seen the stones of Mars? =-.

  18. I have been back to this post five times since I got back from my trip.

    First, I read it through, not listening to the music yet. Then I came back to read it again. Came back again to look up the name of the poet so I could read more about her online and to really digest the poem. Came back again to listen to the music and read all the comments. Finally came back again today to read it as a whole, words and music together.

    This post had so much good content that it was hard for me to feel the full weight of its impact in just one sitting. Fabulous job, Janice. I felt like I was sitting in a college literature class as we explored together the life of a poet.

    The poem and the song are filled with melancholy, as has been aptly noted by others. For me, melancholy always is surrounded by a touch of nostalgia, a feeling so fleeting it’s always hard for me to pinpoint. It’s a feeling of having been somewhere before, even though I may not have ever really been there. It’s a feeling of living another life–one that never belonged to me, yet which I yearn for. Sometimes it’s a feeling of sadness for the swiftness with which life passes us by.

    The medium which almost always takes me to that melancholic place of nostalgia is music. It’s like waking up from a dream and “feeling” a certain way, but not being able to put a finger on why or how you got there. It disappears like mist in your hand.
    .-= Randi´s last blog ..Signs of the Times =-.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Randi. I read this and felt you’d been for a walk through my heart .

      It’s a feeling of having been somewhere before, even though I may not have ever really been there. It’s a feeling of living another life–one that never belonged to me, yet which I yearn for. Sometimes it’s a feeling of sadness for the swiftness with which life passes us by.

      …It’s like waking up from a dream and “feeling” a certain way, but not being able to put a finger on why or how you got there. It disappears like mist in your hand.

      The folk who visit here take my breath away; such a range of talent and life wisdom.

  19. I’m scrolling through the comments and recognize so many of the people. I wonder how many are still at it?

    This was a great post. I loved your opening story about your friend. It read almost like a fiction story, but of course it’s not. I was really taken by these words, “there are gentle waves of melancholy lapping at my feet.” Oh, that’s touches me…

    Melancholy has a bad reputation. Sometimes it unties memories, while sad, are also the substance making us who we are. I’m can bet your life wouldn’t be quite as full without the memory of your friend in Athens, though he’s gone or the song and the beautiful lyrics:~)

    You know you should consider putting some of these posts together into a book. They really are very inspiring and beautifully written. With permission, you could even include the comments because they are also amazing.

    Be good to yourself and I hope you are FLIRTING a lot:~)
    Sara recently posted…Write on Edge: The UndertowMy Profile

    1. Hi Sara,
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your generous and inspiring support. I’m happy that old posts can still find folk who appreciate them.

      One of the many reasons I’ve taken so long to clear out my blog is that I’ve been gradually checking out who’s still around as I go through links. “Get rid of dead links!” the pro-bloggers advise us, but to me the links in comments were like doorbells taking me to the homes of fellow bloggers. I’ve spent the past few weeks ringing those doorbells and wandering around what feels like a ghost town. A few old friends up above have thriving blogs and very successful businesses, some are more active on Facebook and Google+, some have let their blogs go dormant and some have shut down their blogs completely. One writer/coach who came here at the start of her blogging career appears on TV in the states now. It’s been fascinating, heartwarming and melancholy-inducing all at once.

      I do have more ebooks in the works – one of the reasons I’ve been clearing out and nesting – but I’m very wary of rushing in and doing too much all at once. I’m prone to a passion>on fire>burnout pattern.

  20. Hi Janice … I too had meant to say it’s wonderful to see old friends again … this is still an amazing piece of writing and music, so many wonderful songs come from inspirational evocative moments in life …

    I see we (I!) agreed we’d copy your ipod for me … so I’d have some wonderful new music to listen to – and that’s another part of my housekeeping … sort music and photos out … one thing about not having kids – no interesting music around!

    Happy Sunday .. and Mercedes rendition of this work of art is just beautiful and haunting … and thank you for transcribing the words for us … just stunning – cheers Hilary
    Hilary recently posted…Aspects of British Coasts: ZZZ final A-Z notes … Art and Design, Agatha Christie, Western Isles of Scotland, Wrasse, Waves and Xfacts …My Profile

  21. Thanks Hilary. It’s weird how this song got me right in the heart when I was supposed to be just plodding through the spring cleaning of my blog. And the comments – all of you so honest, open and generous. I was truly lucky to have found you all.

    As for my music collection, you probably wouldn’t want it – there’s a lot of heartrending stuff in it as well as the downright weird! (And you wouldn’t have wanted my son’s idea of “interesting” music a few years ago during his rap phase!) For years, the kids banned my Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and French albums, the country music, the Gaelic melancholy stuff, the anthemic but melancholy movie soundtracks, my 40 year old Bert Jansch albums…the list is endless! Things have improved now that I steal their CD’s, and there’s bits of my collection they don’t hate, like 80’s electronic, Fleet Foxes and certain country singers, and we do have ‘family’ favourites like Elbow, but when I’m in a really good mood in the car, I put country or bluegrass music on with banjos and fiddles to drive them up the wall! The taxi driver’s revenge! 😉

  22. What a beautiful trip you take your readers on, Janice. I re-read this post and it touched me again, just like it first did five years ago. I agree with Sara, above. You have such a way with words that your posts need to be in a book somewhere. It’s nice to come back here to see familiar faces and hear familiar voices.

    1. What a joy to see you back! Sorry for not replying sooner. I’ve been offline for a few weeks – family traumas and no wifi at my elderly dad’s house in the village where I grew up – and discovered, much the same as I did when I was offline for THREE YEARS, that the sky hadn’t fallen in my absence. Instead, I found friendship and support waiting for me when I logged on. Thank you, Randi. I LOVE this wee blog and plan to do what I can to support and inspire anyone who gifts me with their presence here.

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