Posts Tagged With: Greece

Grief, Writer’s Blocks, and Breakthroughs

One of the most distressing things of the last year or so has been my inability to write. The well-known “writer’s block” set in after Dad died. For several months I’d been writing two blogs, one on Dad and being a caregiver, and one on post-retirement life.

A second draft manuscript of creative non-fiction/memoir essays has been untouched for months. I hadn’t written anything on a project about growing up in an oil-field camp. My still-in-first-draft manuscript about American writers and Greece has been stalled for two years. I hadn’t written any poems in months.

But the blogs — especially the blog about Dad — came flowing out.

And then he died. I got some more written. And then everything stopped.

It felt as though I’d never get anything written again. My journal had haphazard entries. Even last summer’s travel blog didn’t get completed.

When my brain shut down from overload after months of stress, it really stopped everything. I felt dead. I could read, read for hours. But write? Not really, other than occasional journals. My head just was fuzzy.

In Greece during the summer of 2012 for six weeks, I attended a wedding in Naoussa, in the north of Greece. My friend Carolyn’s niece was getting married to a lovely young man from there. I loved being included, and thoroughly enjoyed the days leading up to the wedding, and dancing and partying at the reception. The day after, we headed back to Thessaloniki by chartered bus, and picked up two Jeeps. Eight of us drove on to Chalkidiki to join the bride and groom and his family.

That’s when my stamina — and my energy — really flagged. I slept. I stayed in. It was the week of Father’s Day and my dad’s birthday. Those days hit me — he wasn’t there. When we all left, I flew back to Athens and hibernated.

That hibernation lasted for most of the rest of the year. In late December I began to “wake up,” as I called it. Rising out of hibernation, out of my stupor of grief and exhaustion, I found myself enjoying my house in Lake Charles, and anticipating find my new routine. I also thought I’d broken the writing block barrier.

Wrong. That went on for months.

Greece has been for me a place of rejuvenation, of healing, and of discovery. When I lived there for six months in 1996, teaching at the University of Athens as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, I arrived two weeks after we’d buried my brother Phil. It was my therapy, my refuge.

For years after that, I went to Greece every summer. Those summer breaks were my respite from much stress (work-related, mostly, at least at first). For a few years, I rented an apartment from the Athens Centre and took intensive or immersion Greek classes. Then I bought an apartment, and the few weeks stretched to two and a half months.

Usually I referred to going to Greece as “running away” — temporarily, of course. I always returned ready to go back to my “real life,” to work, to handle everything.

But after Dad died, it took more than a summer. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, I didn’t really realize just how exhausted I was, on every level possible. Coming back from that state took over a year for me.

And it only broke while I was in Greece this year. I arrived in Greece on April 20; I wanted to be in Greece for Orthodox Easter. Friends visited me for differing amounts of time. I traveled to London for a 5-day/4-night break. I went to Istanbul for a few days. I visited with friends. I had friends over for dinner.

And then came a real treat: I was fortunate enough to attend the poetry workshop of my friend Alicia Stallings, at the Athens Centre, in Athens. For three wonderful weeks, I woke up, went to class, walked to a coffee shop, and read and wrote. We wrote, on average, a poem a day. Sometimes more. We worked with different forms, usually one a day.

There were only a few of us in the group, and it was wonderful to once more be part of a writing circle, to laugh and to listen and to read my own work out loud.

That’s when the dam apparently broke open. The class ended on a Friday, and on the following Thursday I returned to the U.S. By the following week, I’d combined my two blogs into one and began writing that daily.

My poems are in my laptop bag, and I have started to type them into my laptop, working on them as I go.

The schedule isn’t perfect yet. It’s still emerging. But I find myself writing daily and thinking about writing. What I haven’t begun working on yet I am thinking about, planning.

We often laugh about writer’s block. I’d had it before, but nothing quite so profound as I’ve experienced in the last year and a half or so. Of course, I’d never been quite so emotionally static, either, or so exhausted on every level possible.

Week by week, month by month, I read and slept and waited. Sometimes I felt bits of myself return. But a lot of times, I wondered if I’d ever be myself again.

Slowly, I emerged from the fog, the den of whatever hibernation I had entered. The death of my father clearly led to another death, the death of one part of me. Just as retirement had been a kind of death, so was losing Dad. And I was rudderless. My purposes in life were gone.

I spent six weeks in Greece in 2012. That fall, I enjoyed being in my own home, visiting with friends, picking up the pieces of my life there. In January 2013 I began to get renovations on my own Lake Charles home started. My house was no longer just a place I visited, but my home once more, and I wanted to have a place where friends could feel comfortable. Those renovations stopped when I went to Greece in April 2013, and are ready to begin again. On July 18, I flew back to Houston. By the next week, I was writing again.

Friends have told me that this time, when I came back and they heard my voice, they knew I was “back,” in a way that I hadn’t been for over a year. That’s true. I feel that I am myself again, though admittedly a changed self.

They noticed my physical voice, which clued them in that I was back.

I noticed my writing voice was back.

A new energy suffuses my outlook. Day after day for so long, I simply woke up, slept, read, ate, and talked to friends. That was a necessary time, a healing time, and something that healed me from the inside out.

Once I found I could write, I knew I was back. Now I’m ready to work on existing projects, to plan new ones. There are still days of “I think I’ll sleep in,” but there is always a time of day when I’m eager to sit down and write. Or revise.

Thanks, Alicia, for helping me break through. Thanks to all my fellow poets in the group, who patiently listened and critiqued and encouraged.

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On Thursday, just a couple of days ago, I stayed around the apartment all morning washing clothes and getting ready for my trip to Jordan.  In the afternoon, though, I took part in a turtle release — something new and very satisfying.

My friend Jane volunteers at the turtle rescue center in Glyfada, an upscale neighborhood of Athens, right on the water.  I’ve heard her talk about this for a year, but this was my first time there, and I suspect it won’t be my last.

Volunteerism is such a new idea in Greece.  Such organizations don’t have an easy time of it, either.  From what I could see, this one manages — with barebones equipment and donated buildings.  There are several train cars that were donated, and these have been fashioned into an office, a teaching space, a living space, a giftshop, and the like.  The “hospital” tanks are under a kind of Quonset hut structure, and the tanks where turtles go when they’re healthier are outdoors.  Then there are a couple of tanks where they go just before they are released.

I didn’t realize that Greece has 3 kinds of turtles — green, loggerhead, and leatherback.  Two of these nest in Greece — the green and loggerhead.  Most of the turtles rescued here are loggerhead turtles, though right now there is one green.

Turtles come here from all over Greece.  All have been injured in some way — many deliberately by people.  The turtle being released this time, for example, had been hit in the head probably by some kind of tool on a boat.  The injury was right between the eyes on the top of the head, a deep wound that has healed now but which still leaves a clear indentation where the damage was.  She was supposed to be released on Wednesday but this was delayed for a day because of an emergency  — a new male was brought in with a nail in his head.  I saw him with it removed, but saw the x-ray and was horrified.  Some turtles, like the smallest one there, had some other problem or illness.  The small turtle had been born with a weak flipper and wasn’t able to migrate with the rest — it was found in winter and is now almost ready for release.

Every day begins with feeding and observations. Someone records constantly for each turtle — feeding notes, notes about how often the turtle moves or swims, notes about all sorts of things.  Most of the workers are either non-paid volunteers or European Union interns from any number of countries.  There is a director.  And there is the guy who runs the center and works very hard — not a biologist at all, but someone who began as a volunteer out of his own interest and who has learned what he knows from study and reading — and hands-on work.

The release I was part of was quite moving.  We took her to the beach where she was rescued, an hour or so down the coast toward Cape Sunion.  Another turtle had been released there perhaps two weeks earlier, and in those intervening two weeks, a touristy set of umbrellas and beach lounges — and a cantina — had popped up.  Nevertheless, the release continued.  We kept curious beachgoers at a distance as the turtle was first taken out of her box and then found her own way to the water.  I must admit that I was very moved by watching her dive right in.  As she moved fairly quickly out away from the shore, though, she seems to surface more often than usual for a while.  More experienced volunteers were concerned; apparently this is not a good thing.  She finally stopped surfacing, however, and we turned away when we couldn’t see her anymore.  For a short while we were worried about the motorboat that reved up and headed toward her direction.  Motorboats cause a lot of injuries, clearly, with the blades of the motors.  This boat, to our relief, moved away from the turtle, and we felt safe.

After we left the beach, we went back to the rescue center and put together a late dinner of olives and feta, bread and wine.  Some chicken and sausages cooked on a grill but I was quite full with the mezedes.  After good conversation and laughter, we left.  I was home in my apartment by 12:3o on Friday morning.

I’ll go back.  I’m already thinking of donating some equipment — the center clearly is running on a barebones budget.  I may volunteer there some myself.

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Things Greek

In my second week here in Greece, I continue to contemplate the state of the state.  I do this while (1) dodging the heat (which has, thankfully, dropped to the low 90s), (2) listening to my neighbors (it’s not that hard, believe me), (3) observing from my favorite cafe, and/or (4) riding the trolley.

I also attended a very long poetry reading last week, one that went on.  And ON.  Longer than planned, clearly, or than appreciated.  Even that evening, though, provided interesting people-watching time.

Greece has been in the news so much — everywhere — and with reason.  Clearly, the financial and economic issues have been widely reported in newspapers and online sources for months.  When Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned, an interim PM was named , a non-politician, a technocrat.  The May elections — and the subsequent failure of any of the top three parties to form a coalition government — meant that there was another election called for June 17, and yet another interim PM named.  There were demonstrations held after those elections.  The June elections–in which conservative New Democracy placed 1st, far-left Syriza placed second, and socialist PASOK came in 3rd — were over quickly and reported quickly.  New Democracy has formed a coalition government, though neither Syriza nor PASOK is really muscling into this.  The second elections were in fact rather desultory, at least to me — no demonstrations at all afterwards.

Not that the problems are over.  Not at all.  Now people are wondering when — not really if —  crash will come.  Will Greece stay in the euro?  What happens if it doesn’t?  For a while, there was a predictable run on money in banks — lots of people took their money out, and a number moved their money to other European banks.  One report, in fact, contends that 50% of the money in Greece is not in banks at all.  People are keeping money in safe deposit boxes (if they can get them) or in safes.  Predictions about the outcomes continue to appear daily.

What I have noticed now — some of which I’ve mentioned in earlier posts — is more businesses closed.  On the trolley ride home from Syntagma the other day, I noticed that more than one block now was composed of empty shops.  Long-time shops have closed.  In my neighborhood, I noticed that my local bank branch has been closed, leaving me to believe that the employees are not employed any more.  In news reports, my bank name is mentioned; one merger has gone south, and I hear that there is a lawsuit over breach of contract.  In the meantime, another Greek bank seems to be interested in acquiring the bank I use.  Greek banks aren’t very popular these days, as you can imagine.  No one really wants to acquire them, at least no one outside of Greece.  My bank was most recently affiliated with a French bank, but it doesn’t want that tie anymore.  One large French company, Carrefour, is closing all of its stores here in Greece, I am told.  What will happen to the stores is a mystery.  Will the previous Greek company regain its ownership?  Who knows?

Beyond the huge chains like Carrefour, lots of small stores are gone.  These are for the most part family-owned businesses.  I noticed that a neighborhood meat market was gone; it was here six months ago.  Some stores have moved to smaller spaces, hoping to remain viable.

As far as store hours (set by government regulations), stores now close earlier.  Overhead costs are kept down.  Some remain open on late nights, but close at 8 instead of 10, perhaps.  The little computer store near my apartment is open, but I’ve never managed to walk by it when it is; I’ve seen it from the trolley as I pass.  Even the large department store two blocks down closes earlier now, and though I’ve seen customers there every time I’ve gone by or in, it isn’t packed as it has been in the past.

Coffeeshops and kafenions are open, though I often notice fewer customers.  I’m just selfishly glad my favorite hangout is still open, Cafe Libre.  It’s a family place, a cafe/bar, and the wait staff are always personal and friendly.  They remember me now, as they remember my friends who live near there. I have yet to see it quite as crowded as even last year.

Yet even as things visibly reflect changes, I am told that some people keep going as though nothing has changed.  In a small town near Athens, a friend told me, on a weekday night when she was there recently all the shops and pharmacies were open, everyone was out and about and carrying on as though nothing had changed.  Her theory:  they’re in denial.

I don’t know about that, but in a sense they do have to keep going.  How much are they conserving at home?  What are things like in their homes? We can’t tell that.  The cliche about life going on rings true here.

Since one change that affects me is the closing of our local post office, I found out the one we are now associated with — so far away that it’s easier for me to go to Syntagma and use the one there.  Of course, when I stopped in the other day, the lines were incredible.  I guess one day I’ll just have to go and wait in one of those lines for a chance to buy stamps.  For years you could buy stamps (grammatosima) at almost all the peripteros, the little sidewalk kiosks, self-enclosed shops offering almost everything.  Except stamps now.  I can get trolley tickets at the one nearest me, as well as buy minutes for my Greek mobile (cell phone).

There are fewer people around; Athens feels as it does in August, when people traditionally flee Athens for vacation spots in Greece and elsewhere.  There aren’t nearly as many cars around, either.  When I first arrived in Athens, I immediately noticed that in my neighborhood there were parking spots available, which has been rare indeed.  Not now, though.  In discussions, friends have told me that if a family has two cars, they’ve gotten rid of one, and that some people have dispensed with owning a car at all.  Fewer cars on the road, too, as a result.  And as more people leave Athens, either for their villages or for jobs away from Greece, those streets will be even less full than now.

It’s all a waiting game, I think.  Yet I anticipate more discussions with friends who are Greek or who are expats living here.  Lots of learning yet to come.

And in the midst of this (or the mist of it, as some students have insisted to me in their writing), I see efforts to improve life here.  Volunteerism, a relatively new idea here, is alive and well.  Struggling, perhaps, but thriving nonetheless.  I have friends involved in regular beach cleanups.  I have a good friend who is involved in turtle rescues — she volunteers at a center in Glyfada.  I went with her yesterday to a turtle release — a joyful experience, tempered by the discovery that the beach where they often release turtles has, in the past week, been invaded by permanent beach umbrellas and a cantina.  More about that later.

People go to work.  They shop as they need.  They go out, albeit less often and probably spending less.

Life continues.

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Travels with Dad

This latest journey with Dad is certainly different from any we’ve taken before.  It’s about to take a new twist on Monday, when he returns home from Southwind.

He’s made all the progress he can, and it’s time to get him home to the renovated house.  Most of the cleanup work in the living room and kitchen is done.  I’m working on the office space now, wondering where I’ll put all the boxes of books — not my books, mind you, but his.  He loves to read, and now I’ve got to box up another bookcase in the small room off the garage. I’ll haul them to Lake Charles to my storage unit there, those that are not staying, anyway.  I’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff, but every time I turn around it seems as though there’s even more that has appeared overnight.

His return on Monday — “homecoming,” as he’s referring to it — will be to a hospital bed and a wheelchair ramp and a new sit-in shower with a bench.  His dresser and chest of drawers are now in the living room, along with the two Bambi heads, three prize bass, and lots of photographs of family.  The photos are actually in two of the boxes for now.  I’ve got a scanner and a digital photo frame to load as many family photos as I can manage.  Less room, easier to manage.  His medical equipment and supplies must also fit in the living room.  For the first time in the nearly 46 years we’ve been in the house, he won’t be in the bedroom he and Mother shared.  It just wasn’t practical — too difficult to get around from there to anywhere else.  So the upheaval in his living space awaits him; he’s certainly been aware of it, having followed the changes around the house with great interest.  It will be a dramatic change, though, I know.  Most people don’t keep mounted deer heads in their bedroom, but since they have occupied wall space in the living room for years, they’ll fit in with Dad’s new bedroom.  The recliners are still there, as they have been for years.  So is the stereo unit.  The carpet is new (at last) and the wall-mounted flat-screen television is as well.  And the front door and new glass storm door also are new.  He’ll be able to lie in bed and look out the door at the road and the yard, and if he feels like it, we can sit on the front porch for a change.  I’ve recently put in lots of planted herbs, a hanging basket (with a few more to come) and a wonderful wind chime that my friend Carolyn gave me.

Our journey over the last year or so has been headed this way, but it’s certainly arrived more quickly than I thought it would.  For months, I stayed here and commuted, since all I really needed to do was drive him to dialysis and to doctors’ appointments.  He has weakened, though, and the fall in December really was the turning point.  Since then I have done full-time duty — cooking, shopping, cleaning (sort of), feeding him when necessary, and dressing him.  And shaving him — which has brought back lots of memories from childhood.  I remember “helping” Dad shave when I was 3 or so — what a treat that was.  Now I help him with shaving — I’ve cut his hair at times — and I give him pedicures to pamper his feet (he was in the Battle of the Bulge and survived, just experiencing frost-bite).

Finding that balance between daughter and caregiver hasn’t been easy at times, but that role-reversal certainly is a real one.  I keep the books, I have the power of attorney, and so on — but always consulting him.  Despite a few bouts of hallucinations and delusions, he’s absolutely sharp enough to engage in conversations, though perhaps less often than a few months ago.  He tires much more quickly.  Dignity is crucial for geriatric parents and my father deserves to live with dignity.  He and I spar at times verbally, but with love and laughter.  Still, there are times when the tasks overwhelm me, as does the sadness that deluges me as it did last Friday.  I drove to Baton Rouge and cried for the first 20 minutes or so — probably the first really good cry-fest I’ve had in a while.  Then it was over, and Canned Heat kept me up all the way to the hotel.

Dad always wanted to travel in retirement, and he and Mother managed to travel in a motorhome around various wildlife refuges in Louisiana and East Texas. But he never really got to see the Civil War battlegrounds as he’d dreamed of doing.  I hoped that once I retired, we’d be able to do that together, but that hasn’t worked out either.  I did manage to get him to my timeshare in Lake Tahoe two years ago, and he was like a curious kid, sitting at the window on the plane, fascinated by the landscapes visible below.  He was perfectly content to stay in our room, observing the snowplows at work below the building.  I’d hoped to get him back there, too, but that won’t happen either.

After my brother died in 1996 and his fiancee moved to Germany to work for a few years, Dad announced one fall that he’d like to visit Darcy and see Germany.  I blinked, got his passport application, and made reservations after talking to Darcy.  A couple of days after fall term ended, he and I headed for Frankfurt.  He joked that at least this time he wouldn’t have to sleep in snowy fields. We traveled by train from Frankfurt north to where Darcy was living, visited a Christmas fair in Bonn, and enjoyed visiting with Darcy.  While she worked, he and I would sit and look at the hills behind her house, where people walked every day.  I’d go out for snacks, bringing home yummy German goodies for tea.  His curiosity never ceased to astound me.  He could spend hours on the balcony, just looking at the landscape, taking in how people farmed and what methods they used.

One day the three of us took the train down to Weinheim, where Dad spent the last part of World War II and stayed for part of the Occupation.  With Darcy’s German and my photographs and maps, we managed to find the very street where Dad and his buds were billeted.  What a treat to watch him try to figure out where everything had been.  The town was never bombed, and the small town of about 4800 grew with refugees after the war was over.  At the time we visited, the population wasn’t quite 50,000.  On the trip back up to Darcy’s town, Dad narrated his experiences in the war as our travels took us parallel to the river.  I found myself thinking that this was a trip that Phil would have cherished, so I think I had a double responsibility — and a double reward — for our two weeks.  We slept in the attic room where one set of roommates was gone, one twin bed for Dad and a cot for me.  Houses so different from our own, narrow roads that didn’t look as though buses could navigate them — everything interested Dad.

As I was planning the trip, I figured that I’d never again have the opportunity to get Dad to Greece, so I simply told him that’s where we were spending the long Christmas weekend.  I booked a room in Plaka, near Syntagma, and managed to get Dad to Cape Sounion and up the Acropolis.  One of my most cherished photograph is of the two of us in front of the Parthenon.  We ate at Platanos Taverna in Plaka — and he loved the okra and vegetables, just as he does here.  Again, his curiosity kept him observing and asking questions.  We had coffee with my friends Jane and Nick and Nick’s mother, another wonderful memory.

And I took him to see the apartment I was considering buying.  Another adventure (peripetia) — two realtors who spoke very little English, me (with my little Greek) and Dad (who just sat there listening and wondering whether we’d arrive anywhere safely).  The apartment wasn’t very impressive — lots of dirt, nothing remodeled, one light fixture that I carried from room to room.  But it caught my eye — and my imagination.  By the time I was back in Greece that May,  the owner and I had agreed on a price and I bought an apartment.  In Greece.  In millions of drachmes.  I spent a few weeks cleaning, painting, finding a carpenter and an electrician, and buying furniture — and getting it delivered.  After I returned, Dad was fascinated by the photographs and the improvements (especially the electrical ones — Dad was an electrician, and he had been particularly attentive to the naked wires extruding from the breaker box).

He’s never been out of Texas and Louisiana since (except for the week at Lake Tahoe).  But we’ve traveled to the farm many times, to my sister’s home in North Louisiana, and to friends’ homes here in Egan.  Until a year ago, he drove to my house regularly. He felt it necessary to mow my yard for me, though he knew I could do it myself.  As he aged, he kept apologizing that he couldn’t do more.  Even in the last month, he’s made the same comments, apologizing that I have to do it all.  As I told him, I can do it because he taught me how to do these things.

Yesterday my friend Charles asked me if it had hit me yet that after Dad returned on Monday, my freedom would be gone.  I nodded and said yes, that I had realized that.  The days of lots of alone time will be gone, but they’ll be shared.  I hope we can travel in conversation and watching television shows.

He has always teased me that I came out of the womb ready to hit the road.  This time we’re hitting the road together — the next stage of the journey awaits us.

It’s Easter Week, and I think I’ll buy some lilies tomorrow when I’m in town.

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