In a Room Beside the Sea
Outside there's a radiant Greek sun, but inside there's work to do. What happens when BONNIE FRIEDMAN opens the shutters?
“Hurry up!” shouted the cicadas.
The whole island rang with their celestial clamor, the endless choirs of them sounding like a million stopwatches being wound in front of a million microphones.
“You’re alive! You’re alive!” they clattered at me. This island was famous for these chorusing insects, as it was for its honey, which Herodotus himself had acclaimed. But I knew of neither when I’d agreed to come. I had work—work that had nothing to do with this place—that I desperately needed to complete. It was my tenure year. If I didn’t publish a book, I would lose my job.
Still, who could turn down a month in Greece? So every morning I sat with the blue shutters latched closed, hunched in a darkened room beside the unseen sea. There I tried to summon the Bronx, where my book was set.
Discipline had always been my strong suit. Yet I couldn’t help hearing, through the air conditioning, the serenade of the cicadas. It grew louder and louder—at their peak they could rival a blowtorch—and then, in an instant, fell to a stage whisper. Always, though, they maintained that distinctly upsetting urgency, which also possessed the rooster one town over who screamed his guts out as if we were asleep while our houses were on fire. “Cock-a-doodle-do!” he screeched all day long. “It’s day!” Didn’t we hear?
But I did hear! Yet I couldn’t tell what it meant I should do.
Did it mean I ought to devote myself all day long to my manuscript, which was all that stood between me and being fired from a truly excellent job the likes of which I would almost certainly never be offered again? Or did it mean I should get out and live, at least for a month, as if there were no tomorrow?
“You’re alive!” came the maddening scream as I sat at my desk, and I shook my head, flummoxed. Every day, I felt like I was living the day wrong.
At three I stepped out. The Greek sun flooded the white walls and floors and carried the scent of the sea. I immediately felt like an idiot. All this was going on, and I was in my cave, playing with shadows. This is reality, the sunlight seemed to say. Look! It was a radiance purer than any light I’d seen—purer than the sheen of Florida, the stark, caliper-precise air of Maine. I could have been out in that light, enjoying it, enjoying Greece!
One afternoon at three, I saw that the apples on the spindly tree opposite my door had grown. Could it be? We’d been here just two weeks! Still, they were the size of golf balls when we first came, and now they were as big as flashlight lenses. Also, the black kitten, who had been the size of a suitcase handle, was visibly bigger. Only the honeysuckle blossoms were unaltered, and the bulky grandmother in her long dress who sat outside on a chair, smiling, saying, “Kalimera!” as if she thought I spoke Greek.
In the Bronx, where I grew up, I’d never seen things grow. The tree leaves would be big. At another time they would be tiny, or gone. Now I stared at the apples when I opened the door each afternoon, and my eyes searched out the black kitten, which the bulky grandmother fed as if he were a chicken—a scattering of kibble on the flagstones. If we came back next year (we should be so lucky), would he remember us? (I secretly fed him tidbits each night, and he came running now whenever he saw me.) In a year, would the kitten we loved have vanished, subsumed into a bland black cat of ordinary size and girth? An odd sentiment possessed me as I walked across the courtyard; I felt that it would be entirely reasonable to devote the next two weeks to simply staring at this cat while he grew.
Even the sea had changed during the course of those two weeks, growing warmer, easier to slip into, ever more beckoning. My husband and I found a different beach almost every day and plunged into the ever-moving sea. At night we ate tomato salad and drank the white wine sold everywhere on the island, and dark fell as fast as a yanked curtain. “Beware the quick fall of night,” advised a local walk book. The gigantic sunlit hours were beguiling, dangerous, promising to last much longer than they in fact did. Hiking in the countryside, one could easily be stranded in the wilds, in the dark. We eyed the sun warily whenever we set out on foot during the shimmering afternoons.
By the time I lay in bed at night, exhausted, I had the feeling I’d accomplished a very great deal simply from having swum and smelled and seen, despite the fact that the Bronx book wasn’t going particularly well. It was about my parents, and somehow I couldn’t figure out the right ratio of scene to introspection. The proportions were always off. By bedtime, though, a feeling of well-being pervaded. The moon one night was the precise saffron color of the sheen inside the honeydew melons that grew on the island. It was enormous, swollen in the sky, and then a few nights later it was a wisp. One night I became a girl strapped to a plank headed quickly toward the tenure buzz saw. How it whined in my ears! When I woke up, I realized I was hearing the cicadas singing.
At the start of the third week, I realized that if I didn’t write down what had happened the day before, I would begin to lose it. In a few days, its details would be gone.
And so I began my workday noting the day before: the tiny white church of Agia Sophia erected inside a cave high in the mountainside; a single bat winging overhead and the icons staring with enormous, commanding, compassionate eyes that seemed to see into your depths. The mountain pool we swam in, where spiders hung in the vacant air. The Athenian man with the curlicue beard who showed us his garden, encouraging us to inhale the aroma of the tomatoes. “Even though they are green! You see?” he demanded, as if the goodness of life were implicit in that scent.
All this I wrote, and other things. Every day there was more Greece, less Bronx. Some days there was no Bronx at all. “You are ruining your life!” some part of me screamed, desperate as those cicadas. “You need to be working on your Bronx book!” “I refuse to lose this life experience. I accept the consequences,” the rest of me replied, a trifle glibly, for I was afraid even though I’d made my choice.
Some lines from Kazantzakis came to me: “I should fill my soul with flesh. I should fill my flesh with soul.” Yes, I felt, now I understood what he meant. Quarantined from the experiences of the body, the mind becomes arid—and prone to self-deception and bewildering self-doubt.
I’d always lived as if temporal things were of secondary importance: the haziness or glitter of the stars, the precise taste of cherries on my tongue, or my 91-yearold mother’s voice on the phone (for I called her just twice, for a few minutes, in all that month), exclaiming, “Oh, I love you! I love you!” over and over. What a fool I was. My Bronx book could be no more eloquent than that! Why had I made it so complicated?
The final week I quit the writing desk at noon, leaping up, eager to get going. Toward dusk that last week, after a blazing day, I came upon a bulky figure rinsing herself off with a hose toward the back of the property. It was the old grandmother! There she stood in her one-piece, her hair streaming. She’d gone swimming in the sea! She gave me a radiant smile that I could hardly return, I was so moved. She’d gone swimming! She’d gone swimming! It was as if my own sister, immobilized by MS for many years, had actually gotten up and enjoyed! It was as if all those we think are lost to happiness still have a chance—and they will snatch it!
This was more beautiful than the kitten scarfing up the scraps of silvery fish I’d brought him, more beautiful even than the brimming moon itself completing its stately procession across the sky.
I was happy for the first time in years, I realized. All the tenure-track writing, with its endless second-guessing, had filled me with misery. But now a sense of peace and happiness welled up. Greece was giving me what I hadn’t known I lacked. Every day there was more Greece, less Bronx. Some days there was no Bronx at all. “You are ruining your life!” some part of me screamed.
I simply wrote what had happened the day before, and its significance seemed to stream through without my having to go searching. A certain loneliness that had haunted me for years, I noticed, had vanished.
I was aware that the lotus-eaters were natives of Greece, their story conveying the lure of these exquisite islands. Still, all that last week I fed myself on the native honey. Who cared if I developed a craving for it and couldn’t obtain it once home? “Today, today,” sang the cicadas, and I sang it too. Here was the very honey praised by Herodotus, its flavor due to the wild thyme that grows on the mountaintops. I was tasting what he’d tasted! It had a sequence of flavors: first rum, then blazing sweetness, then an herbal note. And the jar glowed like a lantern as I wrote, for I’d opened the shutters at last.
“All exotic places are alike,” said the man who ran the local gym. Perhaps they convey to the visitor the secret message that he or she most wants to hear. Mine had to do with discovering that I was part of life itself. I’d shut the door against that knowledge years earlier. No wonder I was writing a book about my parents. I wanted to have them forever. But now I saw with my own eyes that things really grew, and so, it followed, they must perish. This too was okay, although I’d shut my door years earlier precisely so I would never discover this.
The value of life is life, I suddenly felt. Darkness falls fast, after all. I recalled the enormous eyes of the icons in the cave, gazing outward, waiting to rendezvous with the traveler who set foot from the glare of day into the shadowy dark. I see those eyes even now, gazing and gazing at the beauty before them: the growing leaves at the mouth of the cave, the little bat, wheeling, the solitary traveler who, tired, worrying about the failing light, finally steps into the sacred darkness and finds himself or herself met by a compassionate, intimate gaze, as if nature itself were saying at every point, Don’t worry, you are not alone, I am one with you, you are part of the infinite, there is hope for you yet.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of The Thief of Happiness and Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life.