from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Musings. I sleep between an owl and a snake

June 25. I sleep between an owl and a snake.  

I’ve chosen to do so for years. I also always have books at my bedside. Reading, as all writers know, is doing a workout, attending a seminar, and participating in a workshop all in one. I’m not racist in my reading choices either. I read modern and classic literature of all genres and ethnicities, they each have theirs quirks and joys.

The Russians become entangled in minutiae and veer from the central theme of the story, the Indians are wordy, with a great love for the polysyllabic, the Africans use proverbs with a profound weariness, the Scandinavians insist on grinding mundanity into the reader till we feel their melancholia, the Australians work hard at appearing unassuming, all achievements must be quiet. The Brits think for a scene to be more interesting it requires sex. Who doesn’t love a good sex scene – but theirs are mostly raw, grimy, slimy.  

I read them all, studying their styles – but I am resolutely steeped in the Greek classics. The philosophers are my saints. Their works are my Bibles. Diogenes the Cynic of Sinope is my current entertainment. His writings have not survived but it’s the way he lived that has me chuckling to myself at odd times during the day. Every time I buy chicken to cook for dinner, I must suppress my laughter. It causes me to recall how Plato declared to the world man is a featherless biped. Diogenes showed up at The Academy at Plato’s next lecture with a plucked chicken, held it up for all to see and said, “Behold, I give you – man!”

The philosophers’ works don’t need to be read all at once, indeed I prefer them taken in morsels not main courses. You never finish reading them, you re-read them for all your days. Yet there are novels I can’t finish. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is one. I’ve started it five times. It might have won her the Booker Prize yet to me it’s like a trip to a monastery. The arrival is as good as it gets. The outlook is appreciated but once relics are seen and the story of martyrdom has been recited by a sullen monk all I want to do is leave. …. Except one time when I went with a group of friends to see the monastery of St Ephraim. 

St Ephraim had been tortured then hung by Turks. Saint Ephraim is a healing saint, so many of my group went into the chapel to light candles and pray for the health of themselves or their loved ones. I stayed outside to stroll around the garden. Monastery gardens are gorgeous. I was admiring their stunning roses when I saw a young man on all fours on the stony ground. He was clearly suffering, dusty, sweating and chanting an incessant prayer as he crawled his way to the chapel. To witness such humility causes humility to pour into you. His emotions bounced around the searing stone walls of the monastery courtyard and right into us.  

A pilgrim making a tama

I’ve heard many a story of a pilgrim making a tama, a vow of personal sacrifice in exchange for the improvement in health of a loved one. The most common tama is to make the journey from their home to the monastery of the saint to make offerings and prayers – on hands and knees. Who knows where this young man lived or for whom he was carrying out tama, a parent, a sibling, his child?

We parted to give him free passage and offered words of encouragement for his pilgrimage. When one of the more elderly women present called out to him, “My blessings dear boy, the saint will hear your prayers,” his face, set hard in determination, crumpled and he began to sob – but he didn’t stop crawling. We shared his relief when he reached the entryway of the chapel and the shade embraced and drew him in. 

A sacred silence enveloped us all afterwards, the type where a supressed thought can reverberate through your mind until it’s all you hear. My thought was, if a young man can endure such pain and suffering why can’t I finish reading a book in the comfort of my home? I’ve always believed if a book was too tough to read just don’t read it, but this was Margaret Atwood, the world’s favourite literary darling. I mean, I like her, I think she’s terrific, but maybe I just don’t like the way she writes? I think I shouldn’t have watched her in a few interviews. Her voice is flat, no warmth, no inflections. When I read her words I hear her flat voice reading them back to me. I’m being too harsh, I must be, everybody loves her, yet nothing changes the fact, for me, The Blind Assassin is a dull read and certainly not the first time a prestigious prize has been bestowed upon a boring book not all that well written. I’m still trying to digest how Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer. I decide to try to get to know Atwood. I read some interviews. 

She’s into astrology. I’m not, but, just for her, I read my stars for the day. 

“To increase your creative powers, try to sleep with either an owl or a snake nearby.” 

I look to my right and to my left. I have both an owl and a snake. 

I bought the owl of Athena because it’s the symbol of wisdom.  

I bought the snake for the cup of Hygeia, the pharmacist daughter of Asclepius god of healing. Snakes were considered a symbol of eternity by the ancient Greeks because they could shed their skin. It’s only since modern times Greeks began to view the snake with revulsion. 

I keep my keys in it. 

So, according to my stars, my creativity is in full force because of the owl and the snake.  

Life in Greece right now is dominated by two things, Covid-19 and Turkey. We call Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, a snake. Every single day Turkey commits some provocation, from promising to send drilling vessels into our waters to drill our gas and oil reserves to gloating in his parliament how he believes Rhodes, Chios and Crete should belong to Turkey and he is going to take them, to sending fighter jets into Greek airspace to disturb the flight paths of our own domestic carriers, to Turkish coast guards spinning their craft around the boats of Greek fishermen until they capsize. And I haven’t even mentioned the illegal immigrants. France, Italy, Egypt and Israel are telling him to back off. Russia doesn’t want to know, and the USA has Trump who holds hands with Erdogan. To think he is just to my left, across the sea. 

But the symbol of Athens is the owl. The Greek government wisely says, “We do not seek war,” to which they add, “But we do not fear battle.”

I sleep between an owl and a snake.