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.)

17 thoughts on “Like a Sigh

  1. Ah, your post deepens my desire to visit Greece, which is on a bucket list I share with an old friend! My heart feels at home most in dancing and other motion where I feel Life within me stirring, expressive, authentically unfolding. Also, as I read your post I thought of the current pleasure of familiarity from being in the home of my sister and her husband (as now I’ve been visiting twice a year for nearly 5 years). I arrived on the anniversary of our mother’s death and brought a bouquet of red roses like those given to and enjoyed by her during her last three days. Yesterday I found a broken stem of purple irises to add to the bouquet in memory of my late father. Those were one of the flowers he grew in my childhood. Imagine the rich harmony of deep red with violet and indigo shades of iris together!

    • Hi Connie,
      What a beautiful colour combination you’ve painted here – it made me think of glorious coastal sunsets, that blending of night and day, darkness and light, loss and life. A lovely way to honour your mother and father. Oh, how I hope you get to Greece someday soon and dance at dawn on a beach somewhere, arms raised, praising the day!

      Thank you for checking in when you’re in the midst of enjoying family time; I appreciate your friendship and loyalty here. I’m finding blogging very difficult and lonely these days and I’m starting to feel that tug of the tide which has unbalanced me so often in the past and led to me logging off for long periods of time. On the one hand I feel that it’s enough to be me, to share photos, memories and moments of Now; it’s enough to ask – and if I’m lucky get responses to – gentle but powerful questions that unravel us and lead us home to ourselves. On the other hand, the black crow that sits on my shoulder and whispers “What’s the point?” is never far away, especially when Pinterest boasts billions of photos, Instagram has short, pithy posts and photos, Twitter presents a constant stream of news and inspiration, and Facebook offers instant crowds of connection.

      In the time it took me to resize, upload and create a gallery of photos yesterday, I could have hired a bus and driven you all to Greece!

      But every heartfelt, authentic comment keeps me going. I get inspired here in these boxes, hearing about folks’ lives, their unique and varied responses to something I’ve shared. Compassionate connection has always been a cornerstone of my life. I could write all of this in a journal, keep the photos on my laptop, the music on my MP3 player, but still, something drives me, some deep, burning belief that someone, somewhere will land here and know, for as long as they need to, that they’re not alone.

      I struggled to write the words for this post; I knew what I wanted to express but my brain was a menopausal mush, hence the unispiring rambling. Your comment unlocked the problem for me today. “Familiarity” was the word I was searching for. The right kind of familiarity is such a lovely antidote to anxiety and overwhelm, an anchor in the ebb and flow of the unknown that helps me get brave and set sail because I know it’s there if I need it. It stops me veering to the more worrying territory of obsessive ritual or an almost agoraphobic fear of change.

      • By the by, I don’t do those other versions of online life. Call me old fashioned or resistant. 😉 Thank you for respecting your call to express and share here, Janice!

  2. Oh, this looks so beautiful, Janice – a real paradise. What ‘opens me up like a sigh’ (lovely phrase) is anywhere wild and empty, and if that’s at the edge of the sea then that’s even better. I like spending time with people, have almost always done work that involves this, am very sociable in many ways, but can never truly relax unless there’s no-one around. In an empty space I’m free to be whoever I am at that moment and the clouds and the trees and the water accept me and draw me close. I feel part of the world in a way that I seldom do when I’m surrounded by others.

    I wonder if something happens at menopause that makes us become more careful, more inhibited, ‘safer’. I’d have been happy to go up your path and wouldn’t have worried about snakes, but I find myself held back by fear in other directions. When I was younger I would have a thought about something I wanted to try, or do, and then just go ahead and do it. Nowadays I weigh up the reasons, usually thinking of why it might be a bad idea, and what the associated problems are likely to be.

    We’ve wanted a dog for ages – when I was younger and wanted a dog, I went straight out and got a puppy and didn’t start worrying about how it would tie me down, or if I was buying the right breed for me, or if it would chew the table legs, and so on. It seems now like a foolish way to do things, but it all worked out somehow, even when I didn’t make the best choices.

    And when I had an idea for a class to teach or a course to write, I’d just go ahead and do it, put it out there, and make it work. Now I find myself held back by fear and life has become a matter of managing my varied and wide-ranging anxieties. I’m optimistic enough, though, to think this doesn’t have to be a permanent state and I’m working on getting my spontaneity back again. Speaking for myself, I’ve just gone through a cycle of years that have been oppressively stressful and it’s taking time for me to find my old self again now that the burden of worry has been lifted. Unfurling can’t be hurried.

    Change is always difficult, which is why the familiar feels like sinking into a hot bath – and sometimes that’s just what we need to do. I hope you enjoy staying in that glorious place – room in your suitcase for a small one?
    Gilly recently posted…52 trees – week thirty-oneMy Profile

    • Hi Gilly,
      If I could take everyone who visits my blog with me in my suitcase, I would! In fact, it’d make a great place to have a Sharing the Journey retreat some year (reading, writing, taking photos, swimming, going for walks, coaching each other, cooking, eating, doing yoga, dancing…) But you would have to get someone to look after the dog. 😉 My heart says go for it, get a puppy, enjoy the unconditional love and share all the photos with us!

      I do think it’s a menopause thing and an age thing. That bravery and spontaneity you mentioned is maybe something we have more of when we think we’ve plenty of time to abandon mistakes and start over. I know myself that I never used to worry about time or life being finite, but the more friends I’ve lost or nearly lost, the more I realise that I don’t have enough time left to do all the things I want to any more. Even if I’m lucky enough to have time left, it’s also become more pressing to do as much as I can to stay healthy enough to enjoy the time I have left. I think that’s made the perfectionist tendencies and anxieties worse, that feeling of having to make the most of things NOW!!!, of having to make better choices about how I spend my precious time. Before, it was just a natural paradigm for me, living in the now, looking for the learning, enjoying moments and details with gratitude. It’s hard to explain, but things sometimes just feel more intense and heightened these days. It’s good for mindfulness, contemplation, creativity and intuitive empathy, but on my most accute highly sensitive days, I can’t endure unpleasant smells, abrasive noises, prickly people or the cold.

      Thank you for sharing your unfurling with us and your lovely description of how communing with nature in open spaces makes you feel.

  3. Oh, I so understand your packing anxiety Janice – I’ve been noticing the same thing myself, since I/we started travelling again last Autumn. And I also understand the desire to be somewhere you know, so that you can relax – although we haven’t yet managed to organise that for ourselves!

    Greece is one place I’ve not yet been (apart from Athens and surroundings for a weekend), but I would get the same unfurling feeling in Italy or France, if we were there long enough.

    Have a wonderful time in Corfu – it looks gorgeous!
    Julia Barnickle recently posted…The Barnes TrailMy Profile

    • Hi Julia,
      Good to see you back! Thank goodness I’m not the only one who gets packingitis! I think it’s connected to what I was saying to Gilly above about wanting to make the best of limited time and not spoil the holiday by forgetting something ‘vital’. Having to take meds every day makes packing harder, too, as I split them between various bags and cases in case anything gets lost. The post 9/11 liquid restrictions nip my head a bit too if we’re travelling with just carry-on luggage, something we sometimes do to make family travel abroad less expensive.

      I think packingitis may also be a throwback to all those years of having to help the kids with their packing (for ‘packing’ read shopping, organising and planning!) Going to Greece every year always meant carrying a portable chemist’s shop with me as well as a library and the contents of a small private school – my kids were into drawing, reading, puzzle books and games in the evenings or when they had to sit in the shade.

      I think you’d adore the quieter villages of island Greece. (I prefer the mainland and green islands to the ‘bald’ ones.) But please get to Italy and France as often as you can this year – the linguist in you needs the soulfood as much as the film-maker and photographer does. 😉

  4. Hi Janice – this was an amazing post … showing the love your husband has for you and his family – the care you both have and the kids being with you … Greece is in your blood – and it needs to remain quietly there … but there … it’s in your life and cannot be excluded.

    Beautiful post – so stunning to see … and wonderful you’ll feel able to explore more as you’ll know your surroundings and your ‘home base’ more easily …

    Me – I’d do Cornwall or South Africa … love both … this is ‘like a sigh’ from me! Cheers Hilary
    Hilary recently posted…ABCs of Her Majesty the Queen at the time of her 90th Birthday (21 April 2016) …My Profile

    • Thanks Hilary! You’re right about the importance of simply enjoying Greece with my family and not letting poignant memories creep in, but it’s a tricky balance sometimes, especially when music triggers the hauntings and catches me unawares. I think that’s maybe why the complete novelty of this place charmed us last year. We love visiting friends and family normally, but it would have been hard last year as the crisis affected all of them but they’d still have insisted on full-on Greek hospitality.

      I could tell just from reading your Cornwall series and the latest post about the hanging gardens in South Africa that you were writing with a special kind of affinity. If I get the big lottery win, you’ll have to decide between a ticket to South Africa or a retreat with us all in The Greek Villa! 😉

      I’m sorry I haven’t been over for a bit – my boy’s been ill (bug picked up abroad on a trip with his pals) and I’ve been engrossed in trying to get my new theme finished and up and running. I tend to box-set binge when I’m at your site and forget my password cause I don’t use the Blogger one that often!

  5. Janice, this looks amazing. I know what you mean about the delight of revisiting the same place – I’ve not been back to the same accommodation but we’ve had three recent holidays in the same five mile radius of County Clare and I love the feeling of familiarity you get from repetition, and the ability to quickly feel ‘at home’. Of course the problem now is that we are torn between wanting to go back there again and again and wanting to explore other new places. Even then my ‘new’ places tend to be variations on a theme: the north and west of Scotland, an island if possible, the remoter the better.

    These are the places that feel like home to me, though I don’t know if it’s unfurling as such for me, more a feeling that everything is aligned, that my feet belong on the ground.

    I can’t imagine going through my life without having had those feelings of connection – though sometimes I wonder if going on holiday (and coming back again) wouldn’t be easier if you didn’t… 😉

    I hope you all have a fabulous time away.

    • Hi Joanna… lovely to see you over here again! If this was a science fiction film, I’d scoop up everyone in the ‘boxes below’ and whisk you all off on holiday with me. (You and Gilly would have to be dropped off on wild islets at different ends of the island, though, but we could all meet up before we fly home. 😉 ) What a boost and a gift all these these comments have been.

      I think, all things considered, we’re lucky knowing those places that make us feel like our souls are aligned and our feet are on the ground. If you won a gazillion on the lottery, you’d be able to buy a wee base in County Clare and a place in the Scottish isles. I know exactly where I’d buy a wee home in Greece and new home in Scotland. (Not having to be based near work would free up the choices a bit!)

      I get what you mean by feeling “torn”, though. Following the global photos on @BeautifulNowIs on Twitter makes me realise that I’ll never be able to do more than admire photos of all the stunning, glorious wonder on the planet. I dream of a Canada &USA road trip visiting everyone I’ve ever met and liked online, for example, or an extended trip round the UK and Irish coasts in a campervan, but it also makes sense to me, within the real life retraints on time and money, to go back to those places nearer home that I already know make me happy and relaxed.

      We got round the Greece versus New Location dilemma to a certain extent by having two cheaper 7 day holidays a year – one in the summer and one in the October break – instead of two or three week long stays in the summer. We also tried, when the kids were younger, to see a bit of Scotland and the north of England during long weekends. We’ve had a few family holidays where we went to other places, as much to show the kids there were other holiday destinations as to widen our horizons, but although we enjoyed the time together as a family, some of the locations left us cold because they were too ‘touristy’. I crave connection with local people and cultures, more cafés than crags and curlews, I’m afraid!

      PS Your new website is lovely – it really highlights the clarity and unfussiness of your work!

  6. I just went back to Greece two years ago as a form of Pilgrimage. Hadn’t been back for 40 years. We went to the Mani mountain region. I was literally kissed and hugged for being there when times are so hard. The people are so beautiful!!!! I was very touched by the depth of your connection but also by your self awareness. Great writing.

    • Thank you Catherine – what a lovely surprise to find you over here! I am so glad, with photographers like you, Julia, Joanna and Gilly in the boxes that I had the sense to call my photos “snapshots”.

      Where we normally go is a place where forest and mountain meets sea, so it would probably remind you very much of the mountains of the Peloponnese where your Pilgrimage took you. (I’ll have to check out the archives on your blog to see if there’s anything there from that trip.) Hard to believe that the folk from the Mani region used to have a reputation for being very fierce, insular and bellicose.

      I appreciate what you said about self awareness; as well as contemplative, creative natures, I think it’s something that everyone who visits here has in abundance and it’s one thing I can take for granted about my silent visitors, too.

  7. Hi Janice. I am feeling the warmth radiating from the thought of your upcoming holiday in Greece. A delight in our Aussie winter as I cling on to my coffee cup to warm my fingers at the computer this morning! So many things to take from this lovely post, but especially that home is where we love. I think it’s the places where we can gently breathe out and just be ourselves. I do so hope that you manage to unfurl a teeny bit more on this trip. You deserve it. xx

    • Thank you, Jane. Please forgive me for only finding your comment now. That’s the very worst part of my abrupt cyberhibernations; I leave dear friends’ comments just hanging there. I really, really hope you understand that it’s never deliberate or personal and that ordinarily, I respond to every single comment when I’m online, happy and engaged. You write such uplifting and supportive comments, as does every single commenter on my blog, I find it hard not to feel ashamed at the way I just close the door and walk away. Is summer turning to autumn where you are?

  8. I remember the Greece trip and the beautiful words and pictures. Since I’m very late to coming to this post, I have no clue if you went or are going…but that doesn’t really matter…what does if how great it is to see the people respond to your words and pictures.

    As I suffer from anxiety, I get what you talked about. Travel for me is difficult, but having a daughter who lives in England…it is necessary! The last visit we went to Cornwall and I fell in love. It is such an amazing place, but then again, I’ve never been to Greece and so, I might say the same thing:~)
    Sara recently posted…Nature’s Wisdom – CourageMy Profile

    • Thank you Sara, for visiting, for commenting, and for your support. You know what I mean… I have taken your advice to heart and smile every time I remind myself of the wisdom you passed on, that we can’t be awed and annoyed at the same time. I choose awed. Anxiety messes with the choosing process, but still, I actively, decisively and usually choose to let life awe me! I’m so, so happy you’re blogging again; with comments closed or not, you know how many of us are enjoying your words and photos. I loved the heart leaf, the detail, the noticing and the message you found there.

      I wrote the post above last year before I headed to Greece, but the photos were from the year before that, 2015, as we holidayed in the same place. The year before that, I posted photos from a trip back to where I used to live and work in Greece and wrote a post about home and all its connotations. I hope you’ll head up to Scotland with your daughter next time… a different kind of beauty from Cornwall and Greece, but beautiful nonetheless.

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