Like a Sigh

“One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

When I was my daughter’s age and at university, I travelled to a wedding in Paris. Alone. It was my first solo trip out of Scotland. I took the bus to Edinburgh, the train to London, another train to the south coast, the ferry to France and then a train to Paris.

The following summer, I was invited back for a month and explored Paris on my own every day, on foot and by Metro, with nothing more than my little red ‘Plan de Paris par Arondissement.’

A year later, with a suitcase and a guitar, I travelled to my first teaching post on the south coast of England.

Six months after that, I flew to Greece on a year’s teaching contract, landing in Athens then travelling the length of the country till I reached a town where they blocked off the main street every evening to have the official stroll, the ‘volta’, which some locals still referred to as the ‘bride-bazaar.’

And all in the days before mobile phones. I wrote long letters and used to phone my parents from a public kiosk whenever I could afford it, but my heart is clenching at the thought of how worried and anxious they must have felt all the years I lived abroad.

I’m not a very bold traveller these days. I realised I was pregnant on the day of my mum’s funeral and somehow, part of my bravery slipped through the cracks caused by that collision of life and death. We came to this quiet wee Scottish town to be nearer my dad and raise our kids, but slowly, imperceptibly, my life furled in on itself; menopause crept up on me and I curled up, tight as a fist in fierce defence of my family’s safety and happiness. I made our home a harbour, but my kids never realised how painful it was for me to keep my own canvas tightly lashed to the mast as I watched them grow up and set sail on their own adventures.

So here I am, both kids at university now, wondering if I’ll ever fully unfurl again. Since the menopause, I even get panicky when I’m packing, which astonishes my husband as I used to live out of a suitcase when I spent months every year as an oral examiner all over Greece.

He understands, though, that these irrational flareups of anxiety can be genuinely distressing. He also realises how tired I can get if we spend lots of time with our Greek friends and family as I have to constantly do simultaneous translation. So this year, craving some quiet, quality family time, he’s arranged for the four of us to go back to the exact spot in Corfu where we went last year and had what he described as a dream holiday.

There’s something liberating about knowing it’ll be the same place, the same rooms, same bathrooms, bedside tables, medicine cabinets, kitchen appliances… No anxieties about what the place will be like; no worries about whether the mattresses will trigger off back problems. Just knowing what we loved and why we’re going back is a relief. It’s freed us up to look forward to endless days waiting to be filled with whatever each of us needs to do.

I know what I’m longing for: hearing and speaking Greek, living outside feasting my eyes on sea views and going to bed at night knowing that our kids are close by and safe.

Any time I spend within sight and sound of the sea opens me up like a sigh, but time spent in Greece at any time of the year is an energy transfusion. The trick is not to stay too long or I lose perspective and get haunted.

Because of the financial situation in Greece, last year was the first time we’ve ever been able to afford a detached place, far less a villa with a private pool and assorted terraces and balconies. I literally cried when we arrived and I saw it for the first time. For less than we’d paid for a package trip a few years ago, we’d landed in a little bit of paradise. We’d just had a death in the family and I really needed a haven. We found it.

My daughter’s boyfriend and a friend of my son’s came with us, so my husband and I were able to truly relax, knowing the kids were happy doing their own thing. We’d toured the island before, when the kids were much younger, so this time we were happy just to relax and enjoy having such a stunning temporary home; we only left the villa to shop, eat out and go to the beach. We just had carry on baggage last year so these photos were taken with a battered old compact camera but, as usual, I spent a lot of time taking snapshots of flowers…

…and of tables, chairs, balconies and glimpses of the sea, so you could join me there in spirit for a coffee or a glass of retsina.

Before breakfast on our first morning, I was curious and opened the black metal door behind the pool sofa and found a mountain path, the shortcut up to the next village. Younger Me would have ventured up; Menopausal Me thought “Snakes… maybe not.”

This year I’m planning to take my proper camera so I can show you more of the island and maybe attempt something a bit more artistic. Or I may end up just sitting watching the sun go down and raising a glass to Oliver Wendell Holmes who was entirely right when he said, “Where we love is home.”

I’ve asked you before, but it’s worth asking again… where does your heart unfurl or blossom?

(The shell photo is by Dani Jace on Flickr.)

Sunshine and Shadows

I found the following fragment buried in a file of old drafts. I was always going to do something with it, stretch it into a short story or shrink it into a poem, but I never did. Woven from composite memories of love and loss from decades ago, it was a response to a writing prompt, an exercise in blending fact and fiction; it’s the closest I’ve ever got to explaining why I left Greece.
The sun brands your soul with memories…

Athens. Blinding white glare off the pavements and buildings as we walked in the fierce mid-day heat, up steps and through the narrow bustling alleyways of the Plaka, different tunes from every shop, bouzouki strings and soulful singing, brightly woven rugs, strands of leather goods and sandals, carousels of postcards and tourist guides.

We rose steadily, hand in hand past the beckoning waiters and blue and white checked tablecloths at crowded restaurants; everywhere the smell of oil and fish, roast meat, oregano and wine – cutlery and plates, glasses clinking over the babel of laughter and languages. Past jewellery and hand painted ceramics, blue glass and brass, icons, inlaid backgammon boxes and amber beads, we climbed steadily through alleyways of steps worn smooth towards the grubbier, darker alleys where there’s nothing for foreigners to see except scrawny kittens and closed doors with peeling paint.

Beyond the tightly closed shutters of a darkened, rented room, the throbbing pulse of cicadas singing to the death; we lay in the dark, sweat mingling for the last time.

Greece has left me haunted, hating and longing with a love so deep it runs like a drug through my veins, a love crying out with a thirst that only the light from the sea can ever quench but never does. Greece sates the senses but cries out More… love me more. Don’t leave me… ever. If I hadn’t left when I did, I would have died there too, strung out between love and grief, bliss and death, fear and a fierce, proud longing, like the sun-bleached sails of an ancient ghost ship that never reaches Ithaka.

A country of extremes, of blinding light and shadows deep enough to drown in. You pay for its poetry with your soul.

~~~~~x~~~

What memories has the sun branded your soul with?

A Glimpse of Greece

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea ~ e.e.cummings

As promised, here are a few photos from last summer’s surprise bargain holiday to Greece. It’s taken me a ridiculous amount of time to retrieve, resize and upload them – my troubled relationship with technology and social media will probably end my pathetic journey as a blogger – but even though they’re not technically that brilliant (I visit photography blogs with jaw droppingly stunning photos!) I took them so I could share a wee heart journey with you.

As I clicked away on a small, borrowed digital camera, like a child shrieking Wow! every time I saw something new, these little hymns of gratitude organised themselves into stories and journeys: my first day, discovering the stunning views from our windows and balconies; the glorious flower beds that bordered the many steps down to the restaurant and tiny, private beaches; the deserted, secluded swimming pool which we had all to ourselves for a week; the day trips to favourite hidden coves, as empty now as they were thirty years ago when I first discovered them…

We opened the shutters when we arrived and found this… a little bit of heaven on earth…

It took me five minutes to walk down to the café, pool and beach as I kept stopping to take photos on the way down…

I love organic design and glimpses of the sea!…

glimpse of the sea

Then there’s my obsession with flowers…

 

On our search for the swimming pool, I discovered a wee bit of heaven – a tiny cove, thirty seconds from the pool, two minutes from the café restaurant…

..then this gate… leading to my son‘s idea of heaven!…

We then went exploring and discovered the private beach next to the café…

…and stopped off at the restaurant itself for a beer before tackling the thirty million steps back up to our wee apartment! (There’s a reason our balconies had the best views!)

This is the view from the restaurant one lunch time…

…and at dusk…

The rest of the week, we were happy to stay close to home, occasionally visiting old friends or taking trips along the coast, showing my son old haunts he’d been to as a child but couldn’t remember…

He couldn’t believe he had his pick of deserted beaches. My daughter and I used to find amazing heart shaped stones here…

heart stone beach 2

We had iced coffees and ice creams in local cafés…

…and I was allowed to indulge my obession for photographing doors and windows…

One night, as we sat on the balcony, simply enjoying a beer till the last smudge of light disappeared over the horizon, I said a quiet prayer of gratitude for it all and for my husband, who understands me and makes it all possible. The things I’ve spent my life doing – parenting, homemaking, caring for my elderly dad since his heart attack, writing, translating, teaching, painting, singing, songwriting, photography, homelife coaching – all require intense presence, focus, engagement… an ability to love details and just enjoy being. Greece is where I refuel my soul when life has left me depleted.

I’m glad you visited today; I really did take these with you in mind.

 

Home from Home

Where we love is home. Home that our feet may leave but not our hearts. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Last June, my husband surprised us with a bargain holiday to the part of Greece where I used to live and work. We still have friends and godfamily there, and this is one of our favourite restaurants, a place that always whispers Welcome home… whenever I arrive.

I love listening to the waves lapping – sometimes crashing – against the rocks below. When my son was a wee boy, one of the waiters showed him how to scatter breadcrumbs to attract shoals of fish and catch them with a simple line.

That same evening, he carried my son’s only ‘catch’ out to us on a platter, fried, garnished and served with salad; it made a wee boy beam with pride.

From baby food to beer, crayoning books to iPhones, those rickety wooden tables have seen our lives unfold…

We ate there with close friends last summer, and our tall, handsome sons, once babies sleeping in pushchairs, were drinking beer, talking politics and swapping tales of university. As the sun set coral pink and mauve and a warm breeze stirred, I sat for a moment, smiling, just taking it all in, the memories ebbing and flowing like the waves below.

The restaurant has changed over the years, but the view stays the same, wrapping thirty two years of friendship, love and family in its eternal embrace.

Do you have a special place that always makes you feel like you’ve come home, no matter how long you’ve been away?

*I finally managed to retrieve and upload photos from the holiday, so, as promised last year, I’ll post a few this week. Better late than never!

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.

Easter Gratitude

easter bouquet 2

It’s a glorious day here. Daffodils and hyacinths, tulips and primroses and all around the sound of birdsong and the smell of freshly mown lawns and newly dug soil. This bouquet was an impulse buy, a heartwarmer to celebrate spring and the coming of Easter. I’m constantly trying to cut down on caffeine and wine, so flowers have always been my replacement drug of choice. When I can, I fill the house with them. Oh how I wish you could stick your face in these and smell the jonquils; they’re so heady it’s like drinking in  fragrance and they make you raise your shoulders with breathing them in then you sigh out pure bliss…

I love when Greek Orthodox Easter and western Easter fall on the same day, as they do this year. It means that my kids’ candles and presents, sent by godparents in Greece, arrive at the same time as their chocolate Easter eggs from grandparents here. We normally have to have two celebrations.

0904100002We have a feast on Easter day, with red  boiled eggs, traditionally dyed and decorated on the Thursday before Easter, and all kinds of salads and a roast. I miss being in Greece on the Friday before Easter as that’s when church bells toll mournfully, the whole day long, on every island and in every village, town and city. I also miss being part of Anástasi  – the Resurrection – on the Saturday night.

At midnight, the first few candles in each church are lit from the holy flame then one worshipper ignites a neighbour’s candle with love and chanted blessings – Christ is risen, truly risen – until everyone’s taper is lit. Happy crowds carrying  flickering candles walk home from church, like riversrust seaside candle of light winding through the darkness while fireworks explode into dazzling bouquets above their heads in a vast black velvet sky.  It’s good luck if you manage to keep a candle lit all the way home then mark the sign of the cross with smoke on the lintel above the front door as a blessing to last the whole year.

pink seaside Easter candleThese are photos from a few years ago; my kids’ godmothers – who live in different seaside towns and have no contact with each other – both sent them beautiful seaside themed candles that matched their rooms.

I’d like to leave you today with one of my favourite poems in the whole world, ee cummings’ i thank you God…

As I said the first time I posted this poem, “I love the way ee cummings’s mind moves. I love the way he makes me explore the possibilities of my own language, searching for meanings in what’s not there and the why and the where of what is there. I love his delight in words, letters, syntax, symbols and sound and the way he expresses life and love.”

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Janice

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Thank you for visiting, and if you’re a long time reader, for your patience; you’ll have noticed this was a Frankenstein-ed patchwork post. I’m longing to redesign the whole blog and keep only a bouquet of the best bits, but blog-gardening’s hard work; pruning, weeding and taking cuttings and seeds from old posts involves a lot of letting go. I made some wonderful memories and friends here in my wee blogging home, so it’s not been easy. Then there are all the new technical skills I’ve had to absorb. Fun, but a bit like back breaking digging in tough terrain!

My Journey to Ithaka

I nearly gave up blogging today, not for the first time these last few weeks. After writing a comment on someone else’s blog, I made a coffee and was led to this poem in a book of Greek poetry my best friend Kostas gave me, a few days after we first met. Neither of us knew then that the thoughts and wishes in this poem would be the message he would leave me as a legacy when he died a decade later. Kostas never let me  – never lets me – give up on anything without exploring it fully; this is his way of telling me I’m on track. I’m just having one of those days when I wish I could be having this conversation with him in our favourite seafront café.

Ithaka

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(From C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems: Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992. As a professional translator from Greek into English, this is one of the best translations I’ve come across. If you want to see the original Greek too, I’d recommend The Collected Poems: with parallel Greek text (Oxford World’s Classics))