My first introduction to Greece happened when I was very young, and reading a rather liberal translation (more like an interpretation) of some Ancient Greek myths. It featured stuff like, “Hera was not classically beautiful, but anyone who had ever tasted the pleasures that fill the curves of a woman’s body appreciated her.” I believed that Greeks know everything there is to know about sex – and may have possibly invented it, in the same fashion that they invented democracy.
In later years, my aunt went to Greece. She came back with tales of aching beauty and introduced me to the saying, “They have everything in Greece.” I would argue that “they don’t have lions.” “You don’t need lions in Greece,” she would retort.
When I grew older, I made friends with Greeks, chief among them the artist Stavros Pavlides, who was in my year at Duke. I have loved few of my male friends with a so-called “pure” love – other things were always getting in the way – but with Stavros, it was always different. Over the years of us being separated by a huge ocean, I should have gotten more casual about it, but I don’t think I have. Some feelings you carry around with you forever, some people you always miss.
I learned that Greece was troubled, political, isolated, welcoming. I heard about the rappers and the cops and the graffiti and the farmers and the Italian mob’s war against the local olive oil. I learned about the forces of light and dark – the ones that almost always came out looking gray in the day.
I went on to marry a man obsessed with Greece for both objective and subjective reasons.
Last year, friends arranged for us to go to Crete. It was there that I really understood that there is no such thing as an “escape,” no matter what the advertisements say.
Now, on this trip to the Peloponnese, that point has been driven home once again. I suppose everyone had that one place that speaks the truth to them – for me, it’s the mountains here, and the sea, and the wind and the silence that exists in its absence. This is not the orderly vacation I was hoping her – and it serves me right, I guess.
It’s also more beautiful than I could have imagined – and I have a pretty wild imagination.
On this trip, I keep talking to the late Reynolds Price in my head. He was my professor at Duke, my introduction to the dining room drama of writers’ lives. I got closer to him when the wonderful Thomas Pfau suggested I work for the English Department at a time when my life had veered dramatically off course and I found myself feeling alone and financially insecure in a way that terrified me. I thought then that it would just be a phase (lol).
Reynolds could be prickly and ridiculous – because he was human – but he also reminded me of who I am, who I really am, I mean. The foundation beneath the rubble, etc. “I take you seriously, you know,” he randomly told me once. “I hope that one of these days, you’ll take yourself seriously too.”
Now I spend my days in conversation. “Isn’t it nice to wake up in an olive grove, Reynolds?” “Don’t you think these fried little fishes are the seafood equivalent of popcorn?” “Hey Reynolds, check out the way the sun is hitting that mountain.” “What do you think about that shadow that belongs to that tree?”
The dead are awfully convenient to talk to, especially since they can’t tell you to shut the fuck up.
It was, meanwhile, Thomas who reminded me of the fact that you have to let yourself be messy while young – travel around, get yourself into stupid situations, let the winds mess you up, that sort of thing. Maybe I’m too old for that, or maybe I’m just getting started. I can’t tell. I guess I can never say that I didn’t listen.
Different threads run through every life, and what gets strung upon them will always surprise you. Time is linear to humans, because that’s all our bodies can bear. I suspected that years ago, I think I know it now.
The Greek landscape speaks to me in Reynolds’ voice, in Auden’s words:
“The nightingales are sobbing in
The orchards of our mothers,
And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others;
Tears are round, the sea is deep:
Roll them overboard and sleep.”