National Archaeological Museum–Athens
Sitting on a bench in the National Archaeological Museum inGreece, I watch my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ann, angle hercamera before a marble bas- relief of Demeter and Persephoneunaware of the small ballet she’s performing— her slow, precisesteps forward, the tilt of her head, the way she dips to one knee asshe turns her torso, leaning into the sharp afternoon light. The scenereminds me of something, a memory maybe, but I can’t recall what.I only know she looks beautiful and impossibly grown, and forreasons not clear to me I’m possessed by an acute feeling of loss.
It’s the summer of 1998, a few days before my fiftieth birthday.Ann and I have been in Athens a whole twenty- seven hours, agood portion of which I’ve spent lying awake in a room in theHotel Grande Bretagne, waiting for blessed daylight. I tell myselfthe bereft feeling that washed over me means nothing— I’mjet- lagged, that’s all. But that doesn’t feel particularly convincing.
I close my eyes and even in the tumult of the museum, wherethere seem to be ten tourists per square inch, I know the feeling isactually everything. It is the undisclosed reason I’ve come to theother side of the world with my daughter. Because in a way whichmakes no sense, she seems lost to me now. Because she is grownand a stranger. And I miss her almost violently.
Our trip to Greece began as a birthday present to myself and a collegegraduation gift to Ann. The extravagant idea popped into myhead six months earlier as the realization of turning fifty set in andI felt for the first time the overtures of an ending.
Those were the days I stood before the bathroom mirror examiningnew lines and sags around my eyes and mouth like a seismologiststudying unstable tectonic plates. The days I dug throughphoto albums in search of images of my mother and grandmotherat fifty, scrutinizing their faces and comparing them to my own.
Surely I’m above this sort of thing. I could not be one of thosewomen who clings to the façades of youth. I didn’t understand whyI was responding to the prospect of aging with such shallownessand dread, only that there had to be more to it than the etchingsof time on my skin. Was I dabbling in the politics of vanity or didI obsess on my face to avoid my soul? Furthermore, whatever roomI happened to be in seemed unnaturally overheated. During thenights I wandered in long, sleepless corridors. At forty- nine mybody was engaged in vague, mutinous behaviors.
These weren’t the only hints that I was about to emigrate to anew universe. At the same time I was observing the goings- on inthe mirror, I came down with an irrepressible need to leave my oldgeography— a small town in upstate South Carolina where we’dlived for twenty- two years— and move to an unfamiliar landscape.I envisioned a place tucked away somewhere, quiet and untamed,near water, marsh grass, and tidal rhythms. In an act of boldnessor recklessness, or some perfect combination thereof, my husband,Sandy, and I put our house on the market and moved toCharleston, where we subsisted in a minuscule one- bedroom apartmentwhile searching for this magical and necessary place. I neversaid out loud that I thought it was mandatory for my soul and my creative life (how could I explain that?), but I assure you, I wasthinking it.
I felt like my writing had gone to seed. A strange fallowness hadset in. I could not seem to write in the same way. I felt I’d come tosome conclusion in my creative life and now something new wantedto break through. I had crazy intimations about writing a novel,about which I knew more or less nothing. Frankly, the whole thingterrified me.
After being crammed in the tiny apartment for so long I beganto think we’d lost our minds by tossing over our comfortable oldlife, I was driving alone one day when I took a wrong turn that ledto a salt marsh. I stopped the car by a FOR SALE sign on an emptylot, climbed out and gazed at an expanse of waving spartina grasswith a tidal creek curling through it. It was low tide. The mudflatsglinted with oyster shells and egrets floated down to them likeplumes of smoke. My heart tumbled wildly. I belong to this place.Perhaps living here, my creative life would crack open like one ofthose oyster shells. Or sweep in like the tides, brimming and amniotic.In those moments, the longing I felt to bring forth a new voice,some new substance in myself, almost knocked me down.
I called Sandy. “I’m standing on the spot where we need to live.”
To his everlasting credit he did not say, “Don’t you think I needto see it first?” Or, “What do you mean you don’t know the price?”He heard the conviction and hunger in my words. After a pause,a fairly long one, he said, “Well, okay, if we really need to.”
Later I went to the store and bought a red leather journal. I carriedit, blank and unchristened, to the lot beside the salt marshwhere we now planned to build our house. Construction hadn’tstarted, wouldn’t start for a few months. I sat on a faded beachtowel beneath a palmetto palm and began making a list of 100Things to Do Before I Die. It started off with a 10K race and riding a hot- air balloon over Tuscany. I didn’t like running andreally had no desire to travel by balloon. I turned the page.
Finally, I began to write about becoming an older woman andthe trepidation it stirred. The small, telling “betrayals” of my body.The stalled, eerie stillness in my writing, accompanied by an achefor some unlived destiny. I wrote about the raw, unsettled feelingscoursing through me, the need to divest and relocate, the urge toradically simplify and distill life into a new, unknown meaning.And why, I asked myself, had I begun to think for the first timeabout my own mortality? Some days, the thought of dying gougedinto my heart to the point I filled up with tears at the sight of thesmall, ordinary things I would miss.
Finally, I wrote a series of questions: Is there an odyssey the femalesoul longs to make at the approach of fifty— one that has been blurredand lost within a culture awesomely alienated from soul? If so, whatsort of journey would that be? Where would it take me?
The impulse to go to Greece emerged out of those questions. Itseized me before I got back to the minuscule apartment. Greece.That would be the portal. I would make a pilgrimage in search ofan initiation.
A few days later, flipping through a small anthology, I stumbledupon four lines in May Sarton’s poem “When a Woman FeelsAlone”:
Old Woman I meet you deep inside myself.
There in the rootbed of fertility,
World without end, as the legend tells it.
Under the words you are my silence.
I read it a half- dozen times. I became entranced with the verse,which attached itself to the side of my heart something like a limpet on a rock. The image of the Old Woman haunted me— thisidea that there was an encounter that needed to take place at the“rootbed” of a new fertility. Who was this Old Woman who hadto be met deep inside oneself? Sometimes I woke in the middle ofthe night thinking about her. About her dark fertility. About thesilence beneath the words.
When I made my first trip to Greece in 1993, I’d inscribed a quotationon the first page of my travel diary— words by theologianRichard Niebuhr: “Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys.”Recalling this, I recopied the words in the new red journal.What I wanted— at least what I was trying hard to want— was tocreate in myself a new poetry: the spiritual composition of the OldWoman, not through words, but through the wisdom of a journey.
I imagined the trip as a pilgrimage for Ann, too. She had goneto Greece almost a year and a half ago on an academic trip andfallen in love with the place. Returning would be the graduationgift of gifts for her, but I also wondered if it might become an initiationfor her as well. She was officially exiting the precincts ofgirlhood and stepping into young womanhood— another thresholdthat wasn’t all that defined and acknowledged— and she didseem daunted lately. Not that we talked about it. When I inquired,she said she was fine. But on the flight over, during the hours shesat next to me, she stared out the oval window, at the SkyMallcatalog, at the movie playing on the monitor over our heads, andthere was an emission of sadness around her, like the faint dots anddashes of Morse code blinking secret distress.
I realized it was conceivable that Ann and I both, in our own way,were experiencing a crisis, which according to its definition is: (1) acrucial stage or turning point, and (2) an unstable or precarious situation.At the very least, Ann was struggling to figure out the beginningof being a woman, and I, the beginning of the ending of it.
Now, though, I sit on the museum bench and consider this newepiphany, how surprising it is that for all these months I’ve thoughttraveling to Greece was basically a pilgrimage about crossing bordersinto foreign regions of the soul. About meeting the OldWoman. I haven’t considered it has anything to do with mothersand daughters. With Ann and me. With us.
I watch Ann hone in with her telephoto lens on Persephone’sface, the nose of which is partially missing. If you asked me todescribe Ann, the first thing I would say is: smart. Her intelligencewas never just scholastic, though; it has always had a creative,inventive bent. When other eight- year- olds were busy with lemonadestands, Ann set up a booth for dispensing “Advice for PeopleWith Problems”: minor problems cost a nickel; major ones, a dime.She made a killing.
On the other hand, it must be said that Ann’s defining qualityis kindness. I don’t mean politeness so much as tenderheartedness.Growing up, she railed against animal abuse and was unable tobear even the thought of a squashed bug, insisting we carry allinsects from the house in dustpans. Indeed, whatever her sensitiveand fiery heart attached itself to, she was passionate about it: bugs,dogs, horses, books, dolls, comic strips, Save- the- Earth, movies,Hello Kitty, Star Wars.
The list of attachments revolved continually. Her constant testamentsto these passions were the poems and stories she wrotethroughout her childhood, filling one composition book afteranother.
The only thing that seemed to curb her fervency was the otherpredominant thing about Ann— her natural diffidence and theway it often veered off into self- consciousness.
I wrap my arms across my abdomen and look away from her toward the room we just left, which like this one is a clutteredboneyard of sculptures and myths. I have the most absurd impulseto cry.
I’ve had intimations of this feeling of loss before, but it was ashadow passing in the peripheries, then gone. After Ann left home,I would wander into her room and catch the scent of dried promcorsages in the closet, or turn over an old photograph of our beaglesand find myself staring at her handwriting— Caesar and Brutus1990— or come upon her poem “Ode to a Teddy Bear,” or open acookbook to her perfected horse head sketch in the margin, and Iwould feel it, the momentary eclipse.
I tell myself it’s natural for the feeling to surface now, with thetwo of us captive in each other’s presence, brought together in away we haven’t experienced in . . . well, forever. Once, when Annwas twelve, we’d traveled— just the two of us— to San Francisco,but that was hardly comparable to this. At twelve, Ann had notbeen away for four years during which time she transformed intoa young woman I barely know.
Her backpack is plopped open between her feet while she copiessomething from the sign beside the bas- relief into a blue spiralnotebook. It has not escaped me that Demeter and Persephonehave captured her attention.
We have by this point tromped by a few thousand antiquities atleast— frescoes from Santorini, gold from Mycenae, bronzes fromAttica, pottery from every nook and cranny of ancient Greece—but this is the spot where I told Ann my feet are in abject miseryand I need to take a break: before Demeter and Persephone. At theintersection of mothers and daughters.
I wander over to the marble canvas and stare at the two robedwomen who face one another. Their myth is familiar to me.The maiden, Persephone, is picking flowers in a meadow when a83100hole opens in the earth and up charges Hades, lord of the dead, whoabducts Persephone into the underworld. Unable to find her daughter,Demeter, the great earth Goddess of grain, harvest, and fertility, lightsa torch and scours the earth. After nine futile days of searching, Demeteris approached by Hecate, the quintessential old crone and Goddessof the crossroads and the dark moon, who explains that her daughterhas been abducted.
In a rage and too dejected to keep up her divine duties, Demeter letsthe crops wither and the earth becomes a wasteland. She disguisesherself as an old woman and travels to the town of Eleusis, where shesits beside a well in despair. Zeus tries to talk some sense into her. Hadeswill make a nice son- in- law, he says. She needs to lighten up and letthe crops grow. Demeter will not budge.
The earth becomes so desolate Zeus finally gives up and ordersPersephone returned to her mother. As Persephone prepares to leave,however, she unwittingly swallows some pomegranate seeds, whichensures her return to the underworld for a third of each year.
Mother and daughter are reunited on the first day of spring. Interestingly,Hecate shows up for the occasion, and the myth says from thatpoint on, she precedes and follows Persephone wherever she goes. (Acurious piece of the story that rarely gets noticed.) When Demeter learnsabout the fateful pomegranate, her joy is tempered, but she stops hermourning and allows the earth to flourish again. After all, her daughteris back. Not the same innocent girl who tripped through the meadowpicking flowers, but a woman transfigured by her experience.
Later, I would learn there’s a name for this mother- daughterreunion. The Greeks call it heuresis.
I dig through my travel tote for my map and unfold it across thebench. I find Eleusis, the ancient site of Demeter’s temple, locatedjust outside of Athens in what’s described as an “industrial area.” Contemplating a visit before we leave Greece, I stuff the map backin my bag and wander off to find Ann, who has disappeared intothe next wing.
I want my daughter back.
I find Ann circling a tree rack of postcards in the museum giftshop, and notice she has plucked off a card depicting a statue of theGoddess Athena.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” she says, holding it out to me and diggingin her purse for the drachmas we exchanged for dollars in theairport.
A few moments later we step into the blare of sun and car hornsand walk in silence, or possibly in stupefying shock at the heat, whichwas a hundred and five degrees when we left the hotel earlier. It’slike slogging through pudding. Athens in high summer is not forthe fainthearted, but I love how it spills into the streets, with sidewalkmarkets bulging with apricots, loquats, nectarines, and melons; thebougainvillea hanging in hot- pink awnings over the outdoor cafés;the white apartment buildings etched with grapevines.
We plod several blocks in search of a cab and are rescued on thecorner of Voulis and Ermou. The taxi is an air- conditionedMercedes- Benz. Ann and I fan ourselves in the backseat withmuseum maps. When we get out, I ask for the driver’s card.
Inside our room, we joke about making an offering on the Altarof the Air Conditioner Vent. We order room service and eat Greeksalad, which is a Pisa- like tower of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, andfeta. Then we draw the curtains and go straight to bed. It is 3:30in the afternoon.
Lying on the twin mattress, I stare at the edge of light oozingunder the curtain and I think about my relationship with my daughter. Congenial, warm, nice— those are the words that cometo me. We’ve never had one of those pyrotechnic relationships thatend up being written about so often and famously in books.
We’ve had our moments, naturally. The period of mild rebellionwhen she was fourteen springs to mind, a phase when the doorslammed a lot. Beyond that, we had the typical antagonisms anddisagreements. I suspect like most mothers and daughters we’veparticipated in the classic struggle: the mother, trying to let herdaughter go while unconsciously seeing her as an appendage ofherself. And the daughter, enmeshed in her mother’s power, compelledto please her and pattern herself in her mother’s image, butstraining at the same time to craft an identity separate from her.
Mostly, though, our relationship has been full of goodness. Iwould even say, given the natural constraints of adolescent girlsand their mothers, we’ve been close. And yet I feel my relationshipwith Ann now exists largely on the surface. There is distance in itthat I have trouble characterizing. We talk, for instance, but nothingreally heart to heart. It’s as if the relationship has fallen into astrange purgatory. For so long our roles were strictly defined asmother and daughter, as adult and child. But now as she leavescollege, we both seem to sense some finality to this. She is changingand I am changing, too, but we don’t quite know how to shift theconversation between ourselves. How to reforge our connection.
I feel traces of guilt about the growing distance between us. Itoss on the bed, remembering that while she was away at schoolmetamorphosing into the young woman I barely know, I was toobusy with a book project to notice she was gone. Her leaving wasnot a problem. At least not in the maternal trench where thesethings are usually battled out. What’s more, I was proud of this. Ichirped to my friends: “I don’t know what the big deal is about theempty nest. It’s kind of wonderful, actually.”
It seems now I said this with smugness, as if I were somehowimmune because I, after all, had a life of my own, creative passions,a spiritual journey, a career separate from my role of mother. Annwas rightly abducted from me by her own separate life and I wastoo self- absorbed to come to terms with it, to figure out what itmeant, what it should mean.
I sit up. Ann is sound asleep.
I tiptoe to my suitcase, retrieve my journal, then crawl back intobed where I write down the streams of awareness that began in themuseum. When I drift to sleep, I dream.
I am in my kitchen, stirring a pot on the stove. I turn around andfind a large, mystifying crevice in the center of the floor. It is jaggedand gaping and looks as if an earthquake has taken place. As I staredown into the darkness, I realize with horrifying certainty that Annhas fallen into the hole. I drop onto my knees and call into the blackness.I scream her name until the sound clots in my throat. I don’t knowwhat to do. Finally I search for a flashlight so I can see down into theopening.
I wake with a dry, achy throat, throw off the sheet, and go standby Ann’s bed, taking in the sight of her. My heart still thuds a little.It awes me that the myth has moved into the intimate space of mydreams.
At this point in my life, I’ve been recording my dreams fortwelve years. I think of them as snapshots floating up from a mysteriousvat, offering metaphoric pictures of what’s going on inside.Sometimes the images suggest where my soul wants to lead meand sometimes where it does not, giving me input and guidanceabout choices I might make. I am not thinking of the soul in thetypical sense, as an immortal essence like the spirit, but rather asthe rich, inner life of the psyche, the deepest impulse of which isto create wholeness.
Unlike most of my dreams, this one is not enigmatic. Its associationsto the myth are obvious, as if the dream choreographer isbeing lenient, trying to make sure I don’t miss the point. It intriguesme that the opening through which Ann falls is in the foundationof the kitchen— one of the more nurturing, feminine rooms in thepsychic house. For me, the kitchen represents the hearth, a symbolicheart- center. I feel as if the dream is exposing a hole in myheart.
I wonder if dropping to my knees— helpless and grief- stricken—foreshadows the collapse of my old relationship with my daughter.Ann, Ann, Ann. In the dream, I shout her name as if Demeter herselfhas showed up in me at the height of her raging. The dreamends with my confusion, then a hint about what to do: find a flashlight.In other words, find light, a new consciousness— a veryunsubtle allusion to Demeter lighting her torch in the myth.
As we climb the path to the top of the Acropolis, my momstops every five minutes to admire something in the distance— theTemple of Olympian Zeus, the Theater of Dionysus, the Hill ofthe Muses. She has the guidebook out and a red leather journaltucked under her arm. A pen is wedged between her teeth, sowhen she asks, “Is that the Hill of the Nymphs,” it sounds like “Isthat the Will of the Wimps?”
“Yep, the Will of the Wimps,” I tell her, and we laugh.
Yesterday when we left the archaeological museum, the heathad been so awful we’d retreated to the hotel and gone to bed.Today is better, but not much. I look toward the crest, trying tojudge how long before we get to the top. I’m in no hurry. Thethought of being up there again unnerves me.
Seventeen months ago I came to Greece as a twenty-one-year-oldhistory major participating in a college study tour—an experiencethat changed me. I realize everybody says that, but I promise,something deeply altering happened to me during that trip. It wassupposed to be about earning college credit but instead turned intoa kind of unraveling of myself. The culmination had taken placeon top of the Acropolis in what I still refer to as my moment becauseI don’t know what else to call it. I do know that when it happened, it seemed like all the dangling wires of my future came togetherto throw a spark I thought would last forever. I came down fromthe Acropolis with a vision for my life, destiny in hand, a big, jubilantfire warming my insides.
Recently, though, all of that had more or less fallen apart. Now,not only have I not explained any of this to my mother, but myfeelings around it are so confused and filled with pain, I’ve beenunable to face them myself. At this moment they are stuffed in asmall, lightbulb-less closet in the back of my chest. Trudging upthe hill with Mom, I wonder how I can be up there again withoutthe door bursting open and everything falling out.
Near the peak, the steps leading up to the Propylea becomeclogged with people, a huge throng of multicolored fanny packs.We shuffle along, forced to take baby steps. Finally, squeezingthrough the colonnade, I catch a glimpse of the Parthenon glowingfluorescent in the sunlight, throwing long, symmetrical shadows,and I go a little weak in the knees.
“I think I’ll wander around for a while by myself,” I tell Mom,not wanting her to see how sad I feel all of a sudden. She gives mea look, so I add, “You know, like it suggests in the guidebook.”There’s an entire paragraph in it about the “necessity” of a momentalone to let the sight of the Parthenon break over you.
“Sure,” she says. “Good idea.” She starts to walk away, thenstops, turns around. “Are you happy to be back?”
“You must be joking!” I smile at her.
All my life I’d been the quiet, happy girl. Now I’m the quiet girlpretending to be happy. Every day is an acting class.
Hurrying toward the Parthenon’s western pediment, I glanceonce over my shoulder and see Mom headed in the opposite direction.Who am I kidding? She’s on to me.
With surprising ease I locate the same slab of marble I sat on when I was last here. Until recently I’d kept a photograph of it onmy desk. The marble is long and narrow and tilts slightly upward,reminding me, as it did then, of a surfboard that has just caught awave.
I sit on it, feeling the coolness hit my bare legs.
Right before I left on that college study tour to Greece, my boyfriendof four years, the one I thought I would marry, called andbroke up with me. Out of nowhere.
“One day you’ll find someone and he’ll be the luckiest guy inthe world,” he told me. I think he intended for this to make mefeel better, but come on, the luckiest guy in the world and he didn’twant to be that guy. So, when I should’ve been making big Xs ona countdown calendar, buying travel- size shampoo and watchingShirley Valentine and Zorba the Greek, I sat on the blue sofa in theapartment I shared with my best friend Laura in a state of shockeddisbelief— what birds must feel after flying into windowpanes.That was followed by a period of pure heartache. I abandonedmascara and retreated into class lectures, cafeteria gossip, and theabsurdly watchable Days of Our Lives that played in the studentlounge, feeling my life rub against routine, against the lives of otherpeople, but oddly disengaged from it. Laura gave me postbreakuppep talks, attempting to pull me back into the living world.
At the apex of this pathetic state, I called my mom and told herI didn’t think I wanted to go to Greece. “Why should I go halfwayaround the world and be lonely, when I can do that here?” I saidwith complete irrationality.
I couldn’t imagine tromping around Greece with my heart fractured.I didn’t mention to her that I barely knew any of the othergirls who were going, which felt more than a little scary. I’d mademy peace with being an introvert. It only meant that my natural inclination was to draw my “energy” from within instead of seekingit outside of myself, plus my mom was an introvert, and so werea lot of normal people. The problem was I was shy on top of that.And we all know how the world loves a shy introvert. The combinationtrailed after me like the cloud of dust and grunge that perpetuallyfollows Pigpen around in the Peanuts cartoon. The onlything harder than being around forty girls was thinking up whatto say to them.
Mom was sympathetic, but told me, “I know this must be hardfor you, Ann, but I have a feeling you’ll look back and regret notgoing. Think about it, okay?”
The minute she said this, I knew it was true—I would alwaysregret it if I didn’t go. It was so like her to hone in on the truthwhere I was concerned and then leave it to me to decide. Mom hadnever been one to offer unsolicited opinions about what I ought todo. Which is why when she did give advice, I tended to listen.
So I went.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, sitting with an entire row of seatsto myself in the back of the plane, I watched as a few of the girlsin our group started a party with nothing but a bag of jelly beansand a quiz out of Cosmopolitan magazine. From that moment, Ithought of them as the Fun Girls.
I told myself if I couldn’t be a Fun Girl, I could at least be aDiligent Student.
When we boarded the chartered bus to Delphi, our first stop, Isettled (again) in a seat to myself, spreading out maps and booksand making copious notes as our Greek tour guide, Kristina, lectured.“Delphi is situated on the steep, craggy slope of Mount Parnassus.It was the navel of the world for ancient Greeks, and apilgrimage site for thousands of years.”
Apparently people had flocked here to consult the Delphic Oracle, a priestess of Apollo who answered everyone’s most pressingquestions while in a trance, or, as Kristina noted, while probablyintoxicated on “fumes.”
“Like sniffing glue?” one of the Fun Girls said.
Kristina actually nodded.
Despite the source of the oracle’s prescience, she was apparentlygood at what she did. It was she who told Oedipus he would murderhis father and marry his mother, and we all know how thatturned out. I decided I would’ve lined up with the rest of the worldto hear what she had to say about my future: Will anyone ever loveme again? Will I ever get over my withdrawn and tentative way ofbeing in the world? What am I supposed to do with a bachelor’s degreein history? Better yet, what am I supposed to do with my life? I didn’thave a clue.
We piled out of the bus and followed the Sacred Way thatsnaked up to the temple of Apollo. It was March; cold, thick vapordrooped over our heads. The entire side of the mountain wasstrewn with white ruins. I moved among them feeling a little spellbound.Halfway up, it began to snow. The flakes floated throughthe cypresses out toward the watery blue line of the mountains. Iturned 360 degrees trying to take it in, and I could feel somethinginside of me start to open like a tiny flower. I think that’s when Istopped thinking so much about my poor, cracked heart and succumbedto the magic of Greece.
I’d been studying its history, culture, art, architecture, andmyths for weeks in classrooms, but now that I was here, those subjectsfelt alive and vividly present. They brought into sharp focusall the life I had not lived, all the places in the world I had not yetseen, how large it all was. Being here made me feel alive and vividlypresent, too. There were things, it seemed, that could only happento me in Greece.
We scrunched down in our jackets as Kristina pointed outwhere the words KNOW THYSELF were carved prominently intoApollo’s temple, and suddenly I had a “palm- slap to the forehead”moment. The inscription must’ve been the more ulterior meaningof the oracle: to find the answers inside oneself. What if the oraclewas a metaphor for a source of knowing within?
As I treaded toward the amphitheater with the group, wonderingwhether I possessed my own source of self- knowledge, I had athought which seemed to have originated from just such a place: Iforfeited way too much of myself as a girlfriend.
I don’t know how I knew it to be true—and in fact, to be vital—but I did. Maybe it was because I was far from home, far from myordinary circumstances, and more or less alone for the first time inmy life, feeling like I was on an awkward first date with myself.I’d known who I was with my ex-boyfriend. I’d invested years inthe girlfriend role, in the ways of accommodation, being what Ithought he wanted me to be, moon to his Jupiter, quietly organizingmy psychological orbits around him. But in Greece, I existedin a kind of solitude, and in this quietness I realized I’d lostmyself.
In the Amalia Hotel in Delphi, I woke several times during thenight, and the truth of this knowing was still there in the darkness.And there was longing there, too. For myself.
The next day, we wandered along a gravel path to a small, circularruin known as the Tholos. Built as a temple to Athena, itsshape was mysterious to archaeologists, who were still guessingwhat it had been used for. All forty of us reverted to whispers aswe moved among its remnants.
One of the papers I’d chosen to write to fulfill the study requirementsfor the tour was about Athena. I’d become fascinated withher. I’d tended to think of her only as a soldier, but long before she was given a helmet and a spear, she had been a nurturing Goddessof fertility, wisdom, and the arts. I liked both sides of her— thewise nurturer and the fierce warrior. But what I loved most wasthat she was a virgin Goddess. Her virginity was about much morethan the fact that she never married. It symbolized her autonomy,her ability to belong to herself. I’d included a section about this inmy paper, unable to see then how I had given too much of myselfaway.
Standing in a lump of marble fragments, I found a plaque onwhich the words TEMPLE OF ATHENA were engraved in both Greekand English, and lying on top of it were two yellow wildflowers.Someone had carefully knotted the stems together. An offering toAthena. I felt sure of it. Seeing the flowers, I understood that somepeople still loved and revered Athena. Time moved on. The wholeworld moved on. Athena, and her potent meaning, had not goneanywhere.
Searching the ground, I picked up one of the millions of pebblesscattered around the site. I turned it over in my hand and began topray for the things Athena was revered for— wisdom, self- possession,bravery.
I didn’t want anyone to notice what I was doing, and therebybecome known as the Weird Girl, so I placed the tiny rock by theyellow flowers as inconspicuously as I could. Don’t ever lose yourselfagain, I told myself.
A short time later in the Delphi Museum, I stood mesmerizedbefore a bronze statue from the fifth century BCE known as theCharioteer of Delphi, realistic down to his wiry eyelashes. Thestory goes that while a French team was clearing a village for excavation,an old Greek woman, who’d previously refused to abandonher house, dreamed of a trapped boy calling to her, “Set me free! Set me free,” which finally convinced her to leave. When thearchaeologists dug beneath the house, they found the Charioteer.
“Do you think he’s seeing anyone?” one of the Fun Girls joked,and I laughed, but I also got her point. He was gorgeous. Thewhite of his eyes appeared alive and his mouth seemed about tobreak into a smile. Kristina explained that his expression depictedthe first seconds after his chariot victory. He was on the cusp ofelation and the anticipation of it— set in stone— was eternal. WhenI walked away from him, from Delphi, from the navel of the earth,I felt his voice rumbling down inside me. Set me free, set me free.
A few days later, however, when Kristina summoned all of usto a footrace on the ancient Olympic track in Olympia, all I heardwas the racket of my own panicked self- consciousness. The stadiumwas packed with tourists. This is so juvenile. Turning to Dr. Gergel, my faculty advisor, I asked if the race was a requirement.“You’ll regret it if you don’t,” she said, smiling. Why were peoplealways saying that to me? I lined up with the others and stared 633feet to the end. Even with the throng around us, the world seemedto get very quiet. “You are standing exactly where the athletes inancient times stood; you are breathing in the same space,” Kristinacalled out. When she blew the whistle, I ran with my whole heart.I hadn’t run like this since my brother, Bob, and I raced barefooton the beach in South Carolina. I honestly couldn’t believe it whena girl passed me, kicking up dust with her Keds, but by then I hadso surprised myself it didn’t matter. I was breathing in the samespace. The first- through fourth- place winners stood on the fourstone pediments where the athletes had once been crowned. I finishedin second place.
Kristina placed an olive wreath on each of our heads while therest of the group sang the American national anthem. Someone took our picture. In it, I am smiling like the Charioteer, a clusterof black olives hanging over my right eye.
Other than a couple of writing contests in my early teens, I hadnever won anything. Winning second felt as good as finishing first.I didn’t know I had it in me. It made me wonder what else I coulddo that I wasn’t aware of. I wore the Nike Air sneakers that hadcarried me across the finish line everywhere for a long time, andwhen I finally retired them, I couldn’t bring myself to throw themaway.
The stirring and surprising events of the trip slowly began tounravel my old self. Strolling beneath the Lion Gate in Mycenae,teetering over a footbridge a thousand feet in the air in Meteora,eating pita and tzatziki like chips and salsa— again and again I feltthe intensity of being alive, as if my destiny was pooling in aroundmy feet. The experiences I was having seemed to be refashioningme. They were returning me to myself.
“There is a name for what happened to you,” Kristina told meat the end of the trip. “It’s called the Greek Miracle.”On the last day, in a small shop in the Plaka, the oldest quarterin Athens, I bought a silver ring with Athena’s image carved on it,then climbed the hill to the Acropolis, where I found the slab ofsurfboard- shaped marble near the Parthenon. Sitting on it, Iunceremoniously slid the ring onto the finger on my left hand, theone reserved for wedding rings. The ring was about Greece andstaying connected to the fire this place lit in me. It was a way to bereminded of Athena’s qualities and the potential to find them inmyself.
As I lingered there, an awareness that had been growing in methroughout the trip coalesced and I knew what I wanted to do withmy life. I decided I would go to graduate school and study ancientGreek history.
On some level this made practical sense—and graduate school seemed a smart choice. But it wasn’t just pragmatic.I had, by now, been swept off my feet by Greece in everyway. When the idea presented itself, I felt a snap of brightnessinside. Later it would remind me of the click inside a kaleidoscopewhen all the tumbling pieces merge suddenly into a pattern ofradiance. That was my moment.
That same night, three Fun Girls and I walked blocks throughthe Plaka, searching for a restaurant, but all the tables at the outdoorcafés were occupied. Finally, huddling on the sidewalk, wediscussed options. Should we go back to the hotel to eat? I wasready to buy gyro meat on a stick from a walk- up counter, but theFun Girls insisted we find a sit- down restaurant. “Couldn’t we justask a local?” one of them suggested. She nodded at a tall,dark- haired guy standing behind us. He looked about our age, hishands stuffed in his jacket pockets. “How about him?” she said.They looked at me. Why me?
“Just ask him,” she said, and they all piped up in agreement.
He seemed harmless enough. As I walked over to him, itoccurred to me he might not even speak English.
“Excuse me,” I said.
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and looked at me. Hewas— how shall I put it?— a breathing Charioteer. “Hello,” hesaid.
“Um, my friends and I were wondering if you could tell uswhere we might find a place to eat.” I pointed to the clump ofgirls.
He glanced over at them. “I’m Demetri,” he said to me with athick Greek accent.
“Oh, hi. I’m Ann.” Then, for some reason, we shook hands likeit was a formal occasion.
“I’m waiting on my friend,” he said, pointing to a guy on a payphone. “We’re meeting a group for dinner. All of you can join us,if you like. It’s not far.”
I motioned the girls over.
When his friend hung up the phone, he found Demetri surroundedby four American girls. Man, what did you do? his looksuggested, and Demetri smiled at him and shrugged.
The restaurant was packed with locals, pulsing with syrtakimusic and Greek dancing. It wasn’t long after the rest of theirfriends arrived that the young women in the group began to askwhat American “boys” were like, which I left to the others toexplain, this being a complex subject for me at the moment. Demetrislid his chair toward mine and asked what I studied at school.“History,” I told him. He asked about my family, my life, what Ithought of Greece. I discovered he attended the Ikaron School,Greece’s Air Force Academy. He had a younger brother. And eversince his parents divorced, his mother worried about him more.
Plates of pastitsio, moussaka, salad, bread, and feta went aroundthe table while we talked, just the two of us, for what seemed likehours. He was intelligent and polite with a quiet, intense way abouthim. He translated the lyrics of songs the band was playing, mostof them about love—losing it or finding it—then held out his handto me. An invitation to dance.
I looked at the dancers with their arms clamped on one another’sshoulders, at the complicated steps they performed, at the tablesjammed with people watching and clapping. I felt myself sweatingunder my gray turtleneck. I’d been blending in fine at the table, a lotlike the curtains hanging behind me. The girl who’d run like beachwind around the track in Olympia seemed like another person.