10 meditations on 2017

Christmas is spent with ghosts.
Just like the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge (or Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray in my favourite version, Scrooged), the phantoms of our past, present and future haunt us every year. I am not alone in thinking more about the big things in the days after the frivolity of Christmas while awaiting the shiny promise of a New Year.

If Christmas is for nostalgia, the Ghost of Christmas Past has been and gone by the 29th December, discarded like the turkey bones thrown into the food recycling bin. If you’re lucky to not be back in work this week it is like a no-man’s land, some call it ‘Twixt-mas’ or the in-between days before NYE’s fizz. We sit and watch repeats on the telly, internet shop and wonder what the future will hold. These days are prime hunting ground for the Ghost of Christmas Present, who asks questions about here and now, waiting the future to knock at the door as the clock strikes midnight onto 2018.

Every year I feel berated by the grace of John Lennon’s lyrics; “Its Christmas time and what have you done, another year older, a new one’s just begun”. I can’t help feeling he’s pointing accusations when I hear it. Yes, compared to a member of the Beatles, my life has been quiet from one year to the next. But I think it is fair to say 2017 has been a myriad of adventure between the UK and Greece – one which has given me a lot to be thankful for.

Here is my 10 tiny little meditations on 2017 from the Ghost of Christmas Present:

  1. Action: Things are learnt by action not by indecision. If I kept waiting for the right time – a momentary bliss when the earth aligned on its axis, the moon was cradled softly by a cloud in an open sky and there were no distractions, no moments in which my mind would wander and fill with the voices and dreams of other lifetimes. How long would I wait? Now is the time. Postponement is not a state to relish.
  2. Sunsets: by realising that sunsets are just an illusion of the end of the day as the world continues on round its path, I did not feel cheated. Instead I felt wonderfully relived, that these were not endings but merely intervals like curtains being drawn over one day to the next, they only had meaning when we see them collectively and gave power to them. 2017 was a year of many sunsets,  so many beautiful minutes of silence as the earth spun slowly round into the magic of the blue hour where the fading echo of the sun’s light turns the scene sepia gold  before turning away into darkness again. To witness this repetition is be sure of nature’s true hold of time.
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  3. Language: I am still a beginner at Greek and need way more practice with the language. If I believed in resolutions for 2018, this would be high on the list. Instead I just believe in giving it a go.
  4. Sunrises: also pretty special to witness. Nothing can beat that feeling of excitement holding cups of coffee to keep our hands warm on the deck of the Blue Star Ferry in early April, watching a dawn rising up from the horizon of port buildings in Piraeus with no idea what would happen when we arrived on Syros. Reflecting against the jumbled architecture of Athens port, orange and pink light reflecting off silvery towerscapes and crumbling warehouses, we looked outwards and held expectations against the unknown, fears and hope, not realising the possibilities those months ahead would reveal.
  5. Cats: when a little black and white long-haired furball with a mottle tail and one eye permanently dilated, turned up at the house in Greece, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It became obvious had moved into its territory and it eyed us up for a few days…slinking from one side of the terrace to the other, nose in the air and sniffing. Eventually she came closer, growing trustful when we responded with saucers of water at first, then later titbit snacks she would devour with her snaggled tooth grin. She sidled up to us and purred, played with string and sticks.  I think wherever she is now, she is still a little rebel-rebel like Bowie her namesake.
  6. Books: I have cherished the time alone this year with just a book. Some have moved me to tears, made me angry, hopeful and even disappointed – an act that felt voracious and needy, hungrily devouring their pages. It felt like a good year to a be a reader. I meandered through a range of fiction, biography, history, philosophy and poetry – losing count of numbers, but feel enriched and privileged by the worlds I have peeked into. I have already started hastily compiling a list for 2018. Please send me your recommendations!
  7. Writing: sometimes you come to the page with an intention, a fully-fledged idea and other times I come unstuck with just a few words, allow them to form and take you away. Anything can happen here. Practice, explore, mess around with structure – I am happiest doing this, easing off the pressure. Fight the will to compare or mediate or suffocate the process. Just let it flow. Anything creative with words will be a long battle.
  8. Noise: To take yourself away from the noise, not just the ever-present hum and whirr of traffic, over-crowded cities, distracted by the cacophony of digital attention and the rich/poor, left/right, good/evil, fake/true paradox that entrenches indifference. 2017 was filled with heartache, etched by news that broke at such speed and changed direction from despair to joy in seconds. Most of us prefer to keep up rather than check out – the competitiveness of being busy and misappropriation of information as wisdom. The only thing I needed in this year was to slow down and stop being afraid of what happens away from the noise. The internal noise of my own brain hasn’t yet shut up, chattering over long held beliefs and holding the stick of other people’s success up like a marker. But it is quietening down and allowing me to focus. I now like the sound of a ticking clock, the fierce meltemi wind, the sea waves crashing in a storm and the song of cicadas. This alone won’t solve much in the world but it allows me to think and process what I can do.
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  9. Fear: I held so much anxiety inside me in the UK I didn’t recognise another sensation when I wandered round grinning ear to ear, walking over hills scattered with spring flowers and being on the verge of tears of what felt like happiness. The weight of fear and worry is mostly based on imagined threats. By taking away those tiny small stresses that pile up to a mountains, I found myself standing differently, shoulders hang freely and hands that don’t fidget. I found it took me a while to ease into the blankness of living without them. I mean blankness as the only way to describe the feeling when the heaviness goes away and the catastrophe of worry subsides. I will save my worry for things I can change.
  10. Family (and friends): the time I have had with them this year has been up and down, but filled with stories and laughter. The annual Christmas journey from Kings Cross has been done countless times with my backpack, balancing presents and cake tins on my lap on an overcrowded train. The same ritual since I was 21 is still being recreated year after year, a return to a home-town that you no longer know but all is still familiar and steeped in memory. Family waiting by the door, food stock piled, the aging Advocaat bottle in the drinks cabinet, the sprout jokes and plastic After Eight chocolate (apart from that one year it went ‘missing’?). This time of fervent celebration is shaped by nostalgia, that busy time when you try to see everyone, give presents and have long talks over bottles of wine. Amidst the calm currents, loneliness and grief bubble up to surface of our lives. I am thankful for their health, happiness, support and most of all…jokes.

When the clock strikes midnight and we collectively look towards a New Year wrapped up in possibility with its promise of newness, reinvention and satisfaction. I for one will be looking outward thinking about how I can do more in 2018 and keep the Ghosts at bay.

A letter to myself

I wrote a letter to myself at the end of August on an afternoon so golden the sun melted my heart as well as my ice-cream. I scribbled it down and posted it to a friend in the UK, asking her to give it to me when we next see each other. She is one of the friends you can rely on to feed you cake and listen. She doesn’t realise her magic; her acts of kindness are not just like a buoy that stops you from sinking, she holds a lifeline out and sends the rescue boat to everyone in need she loves.

The letter might have been to remind me of things or it might have been to save myself from falling into old patterns. When we met up 6 weeks ago she handed the envelope over and I didn’t need to open it until now.  Despite being my 36th birthday I hear a voice in my head that belongs to a 16 year old girl who is afraid of everything in a way that manifests itself in not just anger, but in a cloud of uncertainty. I knew I would need these words.

Maybe you’ll open this in late September – or wait a while longer till the days normalise and form their shapes around routines, trips to the station, supermarket – Friday night pizza and that whole bottle of wine you find comfort in. Whenever it is, now is the time to remind yourself, not of the past, but of potential. Like the sun bursting over the mountains at dawn, slow at first, lighting up the horizon and then spreading with earth’s energy that contains both light and warmth, the rays come slowly, but bring big, warming earthly impact. Steady yourself. Hold still.

(Did you find her  now? or did you pretend she wasn’t there before?)

This is who you found. You found a woman who can run up a mountain. A woman who still freezes in front of a barking dog, but her pounding heart muscle knows it won’t end in death. She gets eaten alive by mosquitos and learns to stop scratching the bites, despite the weepy infections. She has happily forsaken TV and swapped them for books and contemplation. And this – the words that form worlds on a page.

A woman who against all sensible advice put her hands in the cold hard earth in Spring to grow plants from seed and worried about nothing more than watering, waste and nurture. All the while, the real Greek Garden entwined its roots deep in her soul. She looked at the wide expanse of blue in the sea and sky, feeling gracious, and small and humble and happy. That word ‘happy’  hangs on to greatness. The expectation of happiness like a leaded weight we carry.

A woman who found her steady solid love for Graeme grow new dimensions as he unseated himself from his fears and worries, strode out into the wilderness and looked forward.  We dived into that ocean together and felt reborn in cold salty waters. Nothing was easy, but nothing was impossible.

There are times now, this minute, you need to hold on and remember this all. Close your eyes. First hear the wind in the pine trees, hear the soft waves. You are sat on the terrace in the soft light of an early morning, just a low hum and flow as the village awakes. A collared dove squeaks , a goat bell in the distance, a dog barks it’s lonely sound. Today will be filled with time used wisely. Together and apart you’ll both go about your day, fetching bread and supplies, sweeping, cleaning – the complete ordinariness of domestic life. The same rituals the world over. She takes time over food, considering ingredients as a ritual not a chore. More than just the necessity to fuel and nourish, it is an act of caring. Accept this isn’t her gendered role, it is a universally human and who she is.

A wave or greeting to a neighbour – passing pleasantries in a language that sits uneasily on your tongue and only just beginning to unfurl its complexities. There will be hours of work – silence – focus – transporting yourself to another world. Later, you’ll sit down on the beach together- slowly stretching out limbs and un-furrowing your brows from the squint of a phone screen and the clouded thoughts of work – toes in sand and pass comments on the beach goers, the usual faces; the lady swimmers in cotton hats and swimwear finery, gossiping and forming circles treading water; the children at play in the waves – kicking up water and making games up. You’ll swim, hesitant at first as you step into the chill of the sea – diving under to start your mission – your strokes trace an invisible map line of the sea floor out to the third buoy in the distance; past the clump of seaweed growing in an old tyre, the rock formation and then flat emptiness of wave marked sand on the bottom. You know this route well – a ritual of now well charted territory. Although you haven’t counted your summer swims like those true Greeks, in your heart you know it is enough to get through a winter and hope it will be enough to stave off illness. That swimming woman is brave. She can travel anywhere on her own and not be afraid of being alone. This life is just an adventure.

The words don’t come easy, but she tries, taking pen to paper to start a fire. It isn’t a new spark, it’s embers have always been there. Forgotten and disregarded, like a lamp gathering dust that is now alight. The words are a beacon to find your way in the dark seas, through choppy waves to rescue lives lost.

Remember how you really feel about ‘things’ – the ever growing piles of stuff that clog up your house and lives and weighs heavy on your mind. Having 2 bags of stuff feels free – pack up and go – the weightlessness of living simply. Don’t look for sanctuary or belonging in the accumulation of possessions, you have discovered how to live. Is that more valuable than anything new?

The woman you found feels freer with less. That’s okay – accept that money and status aren’t what drives you. It might feel revolutionary to say it out loud but this realisation has made you question everything.  You are good, no, better than that, great at what you do, you can sail into any task and rescue it.  Believe in yourself,  your judgement and your abilities. Apply these rules to everything. Don’t be swayed off-course, you know you can do anything.

The woman you are knows simplicity is key: remove complicated thoughts, hesitation and time wasting from your day. Relish it. Here everything is reduced to this simple configuration of living quietly, life at low volume. Sleep, work, eat, rest, enjoy.

Compare that to your day now as you read this. How’s that daily journey? The lines on your furrowed brow etching deeper each day?

The Money / reward / life is something to worry on. Yet, life is made up of the currency of time – trade it wisely.  It is all you have.

You are fortunate and recognise this. Think about the difference you can make. Work to keep the universe in a positive balance, don’t bow to expectations, limitations and others people’s egos.

You know you can’t change how some rely on the praise of others to give their own lives meaning. Don’t fall easily into that prison of weighted expectation. Wherever you end up, to walk away from your desk, walk down to the sea, look up to the sky and realise how insignificant your worries are. See how much time in the world has already passed and folded over into history.

Step outside – it’s the same sky the world over – grant yourself space to breathe, time to change, and a plot to grow.

Yours always,

 

Now in November

I have been doing many things over the past 6 weeks, but one of them hasn’t been writing this blog. I have been distracted, open mouthed and furiously plotting. I picked up my old copy of Now in November by Josephine Johnson on Saturday as I sat down to write. Having not read it since university, I was overwhelmed as these lines really centered my thinking.

Now in November I can see our years as a whole. The autumn is both like an end and a beginning to our lives, and those days which seemed confused with a blur of all things too near and too familiar are clear and strange now. It has been a long year, longer and more full of meaning than all those ten years that went before it.”

Johnson’s first person narrative tells the struggles of a poor white tenant farmer family battling with nature, religion and social class in the Great Depression. Although only 24 when it was written, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 and fair to say coming 5 years before Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Johnson was ahead of her time.  It is an emotionally raw and illuminating read, written from the daughter’s perspective in the landscape of the dust bowl. It felt like a good opener to remind me of the power words can have. 

The 11th month of the year marks my birth month, so it also calls for beginnings as well as endings. I always think of November as a reflective brooding time, the shorter days slowly folding itself into Christmas and then a new year. There has been a lot of catching up and family time in the past few weeks, and generally aligning ourselves back into a rhythm that we had lost. I have relished being back in a fully operational kitchen, I even baked a Greek honey and almond cake. As well as trying to replicate the souzoukakia recipe from Stou Zaloni’s. They weren’t bad!

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Now in this November I found myself walking along Regent’s Park with a dear friend in the biting cold on a Sunday afternoon. We walked and talked. Catching up conversations about work and ambition, life, love and all the stuff that chatters around our brains in-between. I hadn’t felt that absorbed for a long time, as we crunched golden leaves beneath our feet and squinted in the sunlight. It was nice to be out in the fresh air, breathing it all in and bathing in daylight. After our taxing walk we found a cosy pub and shared more long conversations over pints and stodgy food. Proving that this is a time for reflection, we managed to put the world to right over kind words and ideas.  This is autumn loveliness at its finest.

I am lucky to have been able to walk through St James Park on the way to meetings. Dawdling a while to stare at the ducks around the lake, admire the tourists posing and see how the fig trees are getting on. One of which is reported to be the biggest specimen of Ficus carica (brown turkey) in Britain. I always wonder if the figs are tasty from that big old tree. One day I’ll check them out in season. 

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I didn’t really appreciate how glorious fig trees are before with their deciduous vast flat leaves. I always thought of the fruit first rather than the tree. How the overripe figs would fall and collect in sad splatted piles, smelling sickly sweet while they rotted. Often they were pillaged by giant ants marching in a line of military precision. I ate dried figs at my parent’s house a few weeks ago when they opened the box of Kini figs from Theresa. They had been sun-dried in the traditional way with sesame seeds with a bay leaf on each layer and wrapped in tissue paper.  Their sweet taste made me feel sad and happy all at once thinking of summer.

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I do miss the fig trees that leaned over our garden in Syros. By now their leaves will have also turned into shades of golden rust. I keep seeing pictures on social media of northern Greece where the forest leaves are aflame in all the radiant hues of autumn. A November walk in the Greek hills sounds about perfect right now.  In Greece the olive harvest is always traditionally done after the first rainfall. Spreading out the nets and raking through the tree branches to make the ripe olives fall, it’s back breaking work. I might sit in an office all day but that’s no comparison to the hard labour of the olive farmers.

I had got used to having a lot of freedom over how I spent my time, which manifests itself in getting frustrated over the constrained time squeezed into work.  I relish snatches of time being alone on the train and staring up at the sky whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I miss the sky , the big ol’ blue Hellenic sky – the sheer expanse of the horizon. You don’t get big horizons like that in London… even from the top of the Sky Garden it looked pretty grey. 

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I think it is the light and colour I miss the most. I leave in the dark gloom of dawn, a train ride through terraced streets with hues of brown and mud coloured buildings flashing by. If it’s cloudy all day before getting dark at 4pm, a whole day can go by in this strange wishy washy landscape without seeing anything bright and inspiring.

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Compare that London grey smudge with the palette of Ermoupoli in its candy coloured houses and pale blue domes, bright skies and sea of turquoise, dotted with terracotta, bright pops of pink and  emerald green. I have been cheering up the dark nights by sorting some of my pictures from walks around the town. These are just a few of my favourites.

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The weather certainly won’t be as nice there now as I remember it, but everyone will be starting to hibernate for winter as  the grey skies and stormy weather sets in. But I can look over these pictures to remember the light and hope it keeps me going through the dark days of November.