September: a time of new beginnings

When people ask what I have been up to in Greece, I will refuse to be embarrassed. Despite busying myself with real work, writing and gardening, figuring out hiking trails and petting sweet, but sad cats, I’m happy to admit I spent a lot of time staring into the middle distance, relishing wonder and musing over ideas in a state of under-employment. I take nothing for granted and appreciated how it all worked out, after all time is one of the luxury items in modern life.

One of the things I have used this time for is to consider how life in London worked, and didn’t work.  Last week while we were packing up I went through some notebooks I kept last year and earlier this year – I can’t work out if they are the musings of a mad person (likely) or just someone very stuck in a depressive way of thinking (highly likely). It broke my heart to read it and wonder, just how I didn’t address a lot of those things earlier and let them slide?  Some of this stuff is just my own ‘over-thinking’. I know I am lucky to have created this breathing space, I have a shit ton of friends who just get on with it and have a far more complex life, juggling illness, complicated families and tiny tots. I also have friends they have so much outside of work that fulfill them on a deeper level that renders the 9-5 into pale insignificance. I am proud to say every woman I call a friend just lives by the GSD motto (gets shit done) without fuss or humble-brag.  We are constantly told that being still is an idleness, that you must be in perpetual motion, ‘busyness’ is an aspiration status of being in-demand and working all the hours makes you an ‘important person’. It will make you, not break you.  

Yet, a small simple truth I discovered in the act of making life very small and very simple, that time can allow you to refocus and remind yourself what matters – how you want to live.  

Our last 10 days on Syros were spent in a way that blurred the lines between a holiday and just enjoying the simple way of life we have relished there for months. Admittedly we went out a bit more and ate out a little more lavishly than before – but still the nagging idea about how we would feel back in the UK sat heavy on the horizon.

There were hikes to Gramatta and Lia beaches, Kambos and Sa Michalis  – despite the keenness that Autumn was calling, the temperatures stayed hot and the sun fierce.

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There was a calmness to those days, as the traffic reduced and children went back to school, things being put back into places and the fun of summer, not being finished, but certainly winding down. As Syros is mostly visited by Greeks, mid-September is quieter but sees another trickle of tourists arrive from Northern Europe to enjoying the less crowded beaches and off-peak prices. But in the main it was all back to work and school for most people.

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We packed up our little Greek house and I tidied the garden – plenty still in flower and the aubergine is still producing fruit. I did a final audit of ‘stuff’, carefully keeping the important things and recycling a lot we didn’t need. I spent a little time coaching the cat about fending for herself, the hypocritically feeding her tuna and other treats the needed using up from the store cupboard…bad kitty parent.

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The day we left was abysmally hot – 33c and humid, like the kind that makes your face sweat, even indoors! We swam early that day – I went out on my favourite bay loop to the two buoys tied together in such a way that they bob together in the waves. I call them the ‘kissing buoys’. In such times there is this horrible adjudicative of naming things ‘the last swim’, ‘the last espresso freddo at KiniTro’, ‘the last sunset’ behind the mermaid statue. It annoyed me by its bell-ringing finality everytime one of us mentioned it as an off-hand comment! By the time we had hugs and well wishes of ‘Kalo himonia’ (good winter), we were in the taxi, the road climbing uphill, the last glance down to the bay, the taxi radio playing ‘Dust in the wind‘ by Kansas (listen to it!) – it was all, just..so, you know…

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The reality is no one knows what will be our last anything, that’s why everything should be cherished. If there’s one lesson the past 6 months, or even year, has taught me, and often is so obviously overlooked as a cliché. But cherish and be present in everything. As I write this I’m sitting here in my garden in the UK – the sun is shining, an almost impossibly perfect late September day which marks the Autumn Equinox. The sun feels warm, hot even, there is dampness and freshness in the air from last night’s rain – I walked barefoot on the lawn this morning, enjoying its bouncy dampness and bright green freshness, colours that are so scarce on the dry and rocky Greek islands, that I forgot how beautiful they were. The colours of leaves are just starting to turn on the cherry tree – they hold fast – the sunlight bounces off the kitchen windows and reflects from the white patio walls. Days like these are to be cherished and luxuriated in every moment.

Like most of us, I find that questions that weigh one’s mind mostly are the ones that reflect an ideal state rather than the present we inhabit. Women (and men) my age spend an awful lot of time considering; is this the right job for me? Am I challenged enough? What will my next career move be? Where will I be in 10 years time? Am I happy with the next promotion/payrise? Would I like to be a parent? Can I ever afford a house? Will i ever be able to retire? These sorts of internal questions and ways of thinking betray a sense of ‘becoming’ all the time – like you are constantly on your way somewhere and waiting to arrive. Steps to a new role or state of being hangs in the distance like a destination to arrive at, rather than just occupying the space you inhabit right now. This journey-mentality might be the one that causes stasis rather than frees you. I can dig out a load of labels I have arrived at, that I am both happy and unhappy with – my job title, my rank in the pecking order of power and decision making, my income, my education, my marital status, my child-free status, my weight, my height, my class, my accent. It makes me wonder, is this who I am? It is, and yet, in so many ways it isn’t. Life is just made up of small grounded moments that take you out to sea, to the shore, to the path, to get lost and feel small because the world is vast. Life should not be lived using time up waiting for something to happen.  

With this in mind, we used two days in Athens to break the journey up and relax.  It meant we weren’t bothered at all by the late arriving SuperFerry, which although a more comfortable and newer boat than the usual Blue Star that does the daily Syros-Pireaus slog, it takes 45 minutes longer and had difficulties docking in the port which added to the delay. Avoiding any unnecessary baggage pain or stress, G had pre-booked a taxi which greeted us and we then had two nights to ease back into city life. Athens was a small shock to the system and not just because of the heat. The first morning there I awoke and sat with a coffee on the apartment’s small balcony overlooking a cross-street; it was like being immersed in noise and chaos, cars honked and mopeds sped by – police sirens blared and the whole neighbourhood stopped to observe the scene after 2 cars collided in the slow bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. It was certainly an event; builders stopped to shout down what they’d seen, traffic police turned up to cordon off the road and every person stopping at the bakery rubber-necked to see what was going on.  I shuddered at the noise of it all. Only 24 hours later I had been listening to nothing more than the rustle in the pine trees and the cicadas’ chirping – cities are a sensory overload.

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We arrived back yesterday under clouded grey skies of late afternoon. Watching the houses fall into focus as the plane descended into Gatwick; England looks mostly grey and green from the air, but has a bizarre imposition of order over chaos – everything here has a place and role, streets that are designed in symmetrical forms, even villages look like miniature worlds. Not at all like the ad-hoc buildings across rural Greece that look like they were built without plans, dotting the hills like wild seeds laying root wherever they landed.

Arriving at our house was strange. It was intact but felt empty, it seems (and smells) different, but it is the same. Like waking up and the past six-months were a dream. G just finished unpacking the kitchen stuff and declared, “it’s the same but different”. I suggested it’s the same space but maybe now he inhabits it differently – maybe nothing stands still. Unpacking the bags and getting out our things will take time. But the act of it all makes me feel un-grounded and all out at sea; going from basics and simplicity, back to luxury items like washing machines and toasters and TV’s and everything we have plenty of. Yet living without has proved to me that we don’t really need them. 

I have just pegged the washing out to dry in this sunny weather, it won’t be instantly dry like in Greece, but I can be thankful we can dry them outside still without having to put the central heating on. I feel once that starts, its such a big use of energy and really marks out the seasonal transition. 

On the whole, G and I have both found different benefits to being in Greece. For him, and I hope he won’t mind me saying this; it has been an affirmation of his focus and drive. But more importantly it has been the time he needed to climb out from under the shadow of grief after his father’s death. In many ways we learnt to love and respect each other’s space more – when you live in close quarters without the immediate support network that family and friends take up, you learn to talk more and share more with each other. Don’t worry I certainly won’t be dishing out relationship advice anytime soon.

Somehow in this time away I realised I need to give myself more credit… Yes, you heard that right, the eternal pessimist, always second guessing herself, and listening to the nay-sayers, and if there isn’t any actual nay-sayers, I’ll create them like shadows under the bed. Yep, like some self-aggrandizing t*t, I actually am starting arrive at a place where I get it; be nice to yourself. The whole jumbling tumble mystery of life, is just that. A massive mystery – no silver bullet, just evolving and ever changing, challenges to confront, acceptance of the good and being thankful the positive things that comes your way, hiding away good and kind things in your soul for when things won’t be as rosy – but most of all slowing down and being appreciative of everything you have; My family, my husband, my friends, fighting injustice and caring for the natural environment matter to me, as do words that make sense of this chaos. Perhaps one day I will leave the earth a more beautiful place with something I can create.  

This isn’t some bold epiphany, I am just ready to make it real – there isn’t any ‘nothing is impossible’ rallying cry or positive affirmation. It’s gentler than that. It marks out a way to live.

In the next few weeks I am making a promise to myself to keep the summer alive by writing out more Syros adventures and editing my 1000s of photos.  A small act to stave off the dark days of winter.

Watch this space.

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