Read an Excerpt
National Archaeological Museum–Athens
Sitting on a bench in the National Archaeological Museum in Greece, I watch my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Ann, angle her camera before a marble bas- relief of Demeter and Persephone unaware of the small ballet she’s performing— her slow, precise steps forward, the tilt of her head, the way she dips to one knee as she turns her torso, leaning into the sharp afternoon light. The scene reminds me of something, a memory maybe, but I can’t recall what. I only know she looks beautiful and impossibly grown, and for reasons 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, a good portion of which I’ve spent lying awake in a room in the Hotel Grande Bretagne, waiting for blessed daylight. I tell myself the bereft feeling that washed over me means nothing— I’m jet- lagged, that’s all. But that doesn’t feel particularly convincing.
I close my eyes and even in the tumult of the museum, where there seem to be ten tourists per square inch, I know the feeling is actually everything. It is the undisclosed reason I’ve come to the other side of the world with my daughter. Because in a way which makes no sense, she seems lost to me now. Because she is grown and a stranger. And I miss her almost violently.
Our trip to Greece began as a birthday present to myself and a college graduation gift to Ann. The extravagant idea popped into my head six months earlier as the realization of turning fifty set in and I felt for the first time the overtures of an ending.
Those were the days I stood before the bathroom mirror examining new lines and sags around my eyes and mouth like a seismologist studying unstable tectonic plates. The days I dug through photo albums in search of images of my mother and grandmother at fifty, scrutinizing their faces and comparing them to my own.
Surely I’m above this sort of thing. I could not be one of those women who clings to the façades of youth. I didn’t understand why I was responding to the prospect of aging with such shallowness and dread, only that there had to be more to it than the etchings of time on my skin. Was I dabbling in the politics of vanity or did I obsess on my face to avoid my soul? Furthermore, whatever room I happened to be in seemed unnaturally overheated. During the nights I wandered in long, sleepless corridors. At forty- nine my body was engaged in vague, mutinous behaviors.
These weren’t the only hints that I was about to emigrate to a new universe. At the same time I was observing the goings- on in the mirror, I came down with an irrepressible need to leave my old geography— a small town in upstate South Carolina where we’d lived 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 boldness or recklessness, or some perfect combination thereof, my husband, Sandy, and I put our house on the market and moved to Charleston, where we subsisted in a minuscule one- bedroom apartment while searching for this magical and necessary place. I never said 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 was thinking it.
I felt like my writing had gone to seed. A strange fallowness had set in. I could not seem to write in the same way. I felt I’d come to some conclusion in my creative life and now something new wanted to break through. I had crazy intimations about writing a novel, about which I knew more or less nothing. Frankly, the whole thing terrified me.
After being crammed in the tiny apartment for so long I began to think we’d lost our minds by tossing over our comfortable old life, I was driving alone one day when I took a wrong turn that led to a salt marsh. I stopped the car by a FOR SALE sign on an empty lot, climbed out and gazed at an expanse of waving spartina grass with a tidal creek curling through it. It was low tide. The mudflats glinted with oyster shells and egrets floated down to them like plumes of smoke. My heart tumbled wildly. I belong to this place. Perhaps living here, my creative life would crack open like one of those 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 need to 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 carried it, blank and unchristened, to the lot beside the salt marsh where we now planned to build our house. Construction hadn’t started, wouldn’t start for a few months. I sat on a faded beach towel beneath a palmetto palm and began making a list of 100 Things 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 and really had no desire to travel by balloon. I turned the page.
Finally, I began to write about becoming an older woman and the trepidation it stirred. The small, telling “betrayals” of my body. The stalled, eerie stillness in my writing, accompanied by an ache for some unlived destiny. I wrote about the raw, unsettled feelings coursing through me, the need to divest and relocate, the urge to radically simplify and distill life into a new, unknown meaning. And why, I asked myself, had I begun to think for the first time about my own mortality? Some days, the thought of dying gouged into my heart to the point I filled up with tears at the sight of the small, ordinary things I would miss.
Finally, I wrote a series of questions: Is there an odyssey the female soul longs to make at the approach of fifty— one that has been blurred and lost within a culture awesomely alienated from soul? If so, what sort of journey would that be? Where would it take me?
The impulse to go to Greece emerged out of those questions. It seized me before I got back to the minuscule apartment. Greece. That would be the portal. I would make a pilgrimage in search of an initiation.
A few days later, flipping through a small anthology, I stumbled upon four lines in May Sarton’s poem “When a Woman Feels Alone”:
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— this idea that there was an encounter that needed to take place at the “rootbed” of a new fertility. Who was this Old Woman who had to be met deep inside oneself? Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night thinking about her. About her dark fertility. About the silence beneath the words.
When I made my first trip to Greece in 1993, I’d inscribed a quotation on the first page of my travel diary— words by theologian Richard 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 to create in myself a new poetry: the spiritual composition of the Old Woman, not through words, but through the wisdom of a journey.
I imagined the trip as a pilgrimage for Ann, too. She had gone to Greece almost a year and a half ago on an academic trip and fallen in love with the place. Returning would be the graduation gift of gifts for her, but I also wondered if it might become an initiation for her as well. She was officially exiting the precincts of girlhood and stepping into young womanhood— another threshold that wasn’t all that defined and acknowledged— and she did seem daunted lately. Not that we talked about it. When I inquired, she said she was fine. But on the flight over, during the hours she sat next to me, she stared out the oval window, at the SkyMall catalog, at the movie playing on the monitor over our heads, and there was an emission of sadness around her, like the faint dots and dashes 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) a crucial stage or turning point, and (2) an unstable or precarious situation. At the very least, Ann was struggling to figure out the beginning of being a woman, and I, the beginning of the ending of it.
Now, though, I sit on the museum bench and consider this new epiphany, how surprising it is that for all these months I’ve thought traveling to Greece was basically a pilgrimage about crossing borders into foreign regions of the soul. About meeting the Old Woman. I haven’t considered it has anything to do with mothers and daughters. With Ann and me. With us.
I watch Ann hone in with her telephoto lens on Persephone’s face, the nose of which is partially missing. If you asked me to describe Ann, the first thing I would say is: smart. Her intelligence was never just scholastic, though; it has always had a creative, inventive bent. When other eight- year- olds were busy with lemonade stands, Ann set up a booth for dispensing “Advice for People With 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 quality is kindness. I don’t mean politeness so much as tenderheartedness. Growing up, she railed against animal abuse and was unable to bear even the thought of a squashed bug, insisting we carry all insects from the house in dustpans. Indeed, whatever her sensitive and 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 testaments to these passions were the poems and stories she wrote throughout her childhood, filling one composition book after another.
The only thing that seemed to curb her fervency was the other predominant thing about Ann— her natural diffidence and the way 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 cluttered boneyard of sculptures and myths. I have the most absurd impulse to cry.
I’ve had intimations of this feeling of loss before, but it was a shadow passing in the peripheries, then gone. After Ann left home, I would wander into her room and catch the scent of dried prom corsages in the closet, or turn over an old photograph of our beagles and find myself staring at her handwriting— Caesar and Brutus 1990— or come upon her poem “Ode to a Teddy Bear,” or open a cookbook to her perfected horse head sketch in the margin, and I would feel it, the momentary eclipse.
I tell myself it’s natural for the feeling to surface now, with the two of us captive in each other’s presence, brought together in a way we haven’t experienced in . . . well, forever. Once, when Ann was twelve, we’d traveled— just the two of us— to San Francisco, but that was hardly comparable to this. At twelve, Ann had not been away for four years during which time she transformed into a young woman I barely know.
Her backpack is plopped open between her feet while she copies something from the sign beside the bas- relief into a blue spiral notebook. It has not escaped me that Demeter and Persephone have captured her attention.
We have by this point tromped by a few thousand antiquities at least— frescoes from Santorini, gold from Mycenae, bronzes from Attica, pottery from every nook and cranny of ancient Greece— but this is the spot where I told Ann my feet are in abject misery and I need to take a break: before Demeter and Persephone. At the intersection of mothers and daughters.
I wander over to the marble canvas and stare at the two robed women who face one another. Their myth is familiar to me. The maiden, Persephone, is picking flowers in a meadow when a 83100hole opens in the earth and up charges Hades, lord of the dead, who abducts Persephone into the underworld. Unable to find her daughter, Demeter, the great earth Goddess of grain, harvest, and fertility, lights a torch and scours the earth. After nine futile days of searching, Demeter is approached by Hecate, the quintessential old crone and Goddess of the crossroads and the dark moon, who explains that her daughter has been abducted.
In a rage and too dejected to keep up her divine duties, Demeter lets the crops wither and the earth becomes a wasteland. She disguises herself as an old woman and travels to the town of Eleusis, where she sits beside a well in despair. Zeus tries to talk some sense into her. Hades will make a nice son- in- law, he says. She needs to lighten up and let the crops grow. Demeter will not budge.
The earth becomes so desolate Zeus finally gives up and orders Persephone returned to her mother. As Persephone prepares to leave, however, she unwittingly swallows some pomegranate seeds, which ensures 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 that point on, she precedes and follows Persephone wherever she goes. (A curious piece of the story that rarely gets noticed.) When Demeter learns about the fateful pomegranate, her joy is tempered, but she stops her mourning and allows the earth to flourish again. After all, her daughter is back. Not the same innocent girl who tripped through the meadow picking flowers, but a woman transfigured by her experience.
Later, I would learn there’s a name for this mother- daughter reunion. The Greeks call it heuresis.
I dig through my travel tote for my map and unfold it across the bench. I find Eleusis, the ancient site of Demeter’s temple, located just outside of Athens in what’s described as an “industrial area.” Contemplating a visit before we leave Greece, I stuff the map back in my bag and wander off to find Ann, who has disappeared into the next wing.
I want my daughter back.
I find Ann circling a tree rack of postcards in the museum gift shop, and notice she has plucked off a card depicting a statue of the Goddess Athena.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” she says, holding it out to me and digging in her purse for the drachmas we exchanged for dollars in the airport.
A few moments later we step into the blare of sun and car horns and walk in silence, or possibly in stupefying shock at the heat, which was a hundred and five degrees when we left the hotel earlier. It’s like slogging through pudding. Athens in high summer is not for the fainthearted, but I love how it spills into the streets, with sidewalk markets bulging with apricots, loquats, nectarines, and melons; the bougainvillea 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 the corner of Voulis and Ermou. The taxi is an air- conditioned Mercedes- Benz. Ann and I fan ourselves in the backseat with museum maps. When we get out, I ask for the driver’s card.
Inside our room, we joke about making an offering on the Altar of the Air Conditioner Vent. We order room service and eat Greek salad, which is a Pisa- like tower of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta. Then we draw the curtains and go straight to bed. It is 3:30 in the afternoon.
Lying on the twin mattress, I stare at the edge of light oozing under the curtain and I think about my relationship with my daughter. Congenial, warm, nice— those are the words that come to me. We’ve never had one of those pyrotechnic relationships that end up being written about so often and famously in books.
We’ve had our moments, naturally. The period of mild rebellion when she was fourteen springs to mind, a phase when the door slammed a lot. Beyond that, we had the typical antagonisms and disagreements. I suspect like most mothers and daughters we’ve participated in the classic struggle: the mother, trying to let her daughter go while unconsciously seeing her as an appendage of herself. And the daughter, enmeshed in her mother’s power, compelled to please her and pattern herself in her mother’s image, but straining at the same time to craft an identity separate from her.
Mostly, though, our relationship has been full of goodness. I would even say, given the natural constraints of adolescent girls and their mothers, we’ve been close. And yet I feel my relationship with Ann now exists largely on the surface. There is distance in it that I have trouble characterizing. We talk, for instance, but nothing really heart to heart. It’s as if the relationship has fallen into a strange purgatory. For so long our roles were strictly defined as mother and daughter, as adult and child. But now as she leaves college, we both seem to sense some finality to this. She is changing and I am changing, too, but we don’t quite know how to shift the conversation between ourselves. How to reforge our connection.
I feel traces of guilt about the growing distance between us. I toss on the bed, remembering that while she was away at school metamorphosing into the young woman I barely know, I was too busy with a book project to notice she was gone. Her leaving was not a problem. At least not in the maternal trench where these things are usually battled out. What’s more, I was proud of this. I chirped to my friends: “I don’t know what the big deal is about the empty nest. It’s kind of wonderful, actually.”
It seems now I said this with smugness, as if I were somehow immune because I, after all, had a life of my own, creative passions, a spiritual journey, a career separate from my role of mother. Ann was rightly abducted from me by her own separate life and I was too self- absorbed to come to terms with it, to figure out what it meant, what it should mean.
I sit up. Ann is sound asleep.
I tiptoe to my suitcase, retrieve my journal, then crawl back into bed where I write down the streams of awareness that began in the museum. When I drift to sleep, I dream.
I am in my kitchen, stirring a pot on the stove. I turn around and find a large, mystifying crevice in the center of the floor. It is jagged and gaping and looks as if an earthquake has taken place. As I stare down into the darkness, I realize with horrifying certainty that Ann has 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 know what to do. Finally I search for a flashlight so I can see down into the opening.
I wake with a dry, achy throat, throw off the sheet, and go stand by 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 my dreams.
At this point in my life, I’ve been recording my dreams for twelve years. I think of them as snapshots floating up from a mysterious vat, offering metaphoric pictures of what’s going on inside. Sometimes the images suggest where my soul wants to lead me and sometimes where it does not, giving me input and guidance about choices I might make. I am not thinking of the soul in the typical sense, as an immortal essence like the spirit, but rather as the rich, inner life of the psyche, the deepest impulse of which is to create wholeness.
Unlike most of my dreams, this one is not enigmatic. Its associations to the myth are obvious, as if the dream choreographer is being lenient, trying to make sure I don’t miss the point. It intrigues me that the opening through which Ann falls is in the foundation of the kitchen— one of the more nurturing, feminine rooms in the psychic house. For me, the kitchen represents the hearth, a symbolic heart- center. I feel as if the dream is exposing a hole in my heart.
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 herself has showed up in me at the height of her raging. The dream ends with my confusion, then a hint about what to do: find a flashlight. In other words, find light, a new consciousness— a very unsubtle allusion to Demeter lighting her torch in the myth.
As we climb the path to the top of the Acropolis, my mom stops every five minutes to admire something in the distance— the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Theater of Dionysus, the Hill of the Muses. She has the guidebook out and a red leather journal tucked under her arm. A pen is wedged between her teeth, so when she asks, “Is that the Hill of the Nymphs,” it sounds like “Is that 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 heat had 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 to judge how long before we get to the top. I’m in no hurry. The thought of being up there again unnerves me.
Seventeen months ago I came to Greece as a twenty-one-year-old history major participating in a college study tour—an experience that changed me. I realize everybody says that, but I promise, something deeply altering happened to me during that trip. It was supposed to be about earning college credit but instead turned into a kind of unraveling of myself. The culmination had taken place on top of the Acropolis in what I still refer to as my moment because I 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 together to throw a spark I thought would last forever. I came down from the Acropolis with a vision for my life, destiny in hand, a big, jubilant fire 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 my feelings around it are so confused and filled with pain, I’ve been unable to face them myself. At this moment they are stuffed in a small, lightbulb-less closet in the back of my chest. Trudging up the hill with Mom, I wonder how I can be up there again without the door bursting open and everything falling out.
Near the peak, the steps leading up to the Propylea become clogged with people, a huge throng of multicolored fanny packs. We shuffle along, forced to take baby steps. Finally, squeezing through the colonnade, I catch a glimpse of the Parthenon glowing fluorescent 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 me a look, so I add, “You know, like it suggests in the guidebook.” There’s an entire paragraph in it about the “necessity” of a moment alone to let the sight of the Parthenon break over you.
“Sure,” she says. “Good idea.” She starts to walk away, then stops, 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 girl pretending to be happy. Every day is an acting class.
Hurrying toward the Parthenon’s western pediment, I glance once 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 on my desk. The marble is long and narrow and tilts slightly upward, reminding me, as it did then, of a surfboard that has just caught a wave.
I sit on it, feeling the coolness hit my bare legs.
Right before I left on that college study tour to Greece, my boyfriend of four years, the one I thought I would marry, called and broke up with me. Out of nowhere.
“One day you’ll find someone and he’ll be the luckiest guy in the world,” he told me. I think he intended for this to make me feel better, but come on, the luckiest guy in the world and he didn’t want to be that guy. So, when I should’ve been making big Xs on a countdown calendar, buying travel- size shampoo and watching Shirley Valentine and Zorba the Greek, I sat on the blue sofa in the apartment I shared with my best friend Laura in a state of shocked disbelief— what birds must feel after flying into windowpanes. That was followed by a period of pure heartache. I abandoned mascara and retreated into class lectures, cafeteria gossip, and the absurdly watchable Days of Our Lives that played in the student lounge, feeling my life rub against routine, against the lives of other people, but oddly disengaged from it. Laura gave me postbreakup pep talks, attempting to pull me back into the living world.
At the apex of this pathetic state, I called my mom and told her I didn’t think I wanted to go to Greece. “Why should I go halfway around the world and be lonely, when I can do that here?” I said with 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 other girls who were going, which felt more than a little scary. I’d made my peace with being an introvert. It only meant that my natural inclination was to draw my “energy” from within instead of seeking it outside of myself, plus my mom was an introvert, and so were a 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 combination trailed after me like the cloud of dust and grunge that perpetually follows Pigpen around in the Peanuts cartoon. The only thing harder than being around forty girls was thinking up what to say to them.
Mom was sympathetic, but told me, “I know this must be hard for you, Ann, but I have a feeling you’ll look back and regret not going. Think about it, okay?”
The minute she said this, I knew it was true—I would always regret it if I didn’t go. It was so like her to hone in on the truth where I was concerned and then leave it to me to decide. Mom had never been one to offer unsolicited opinions about what I ought to do. 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 seats to myself in the back of the plane, I watched as a few of the girls in our group started a party with nothing but a bag of jelly beans and a quiz out of Cosmopolitan magazine. From that moment, I thought of them as the Fun Girls.
I told myself if I couldn’t be a Fun Girl, I could at least be a Diligent Student.
When we boarded the chartered bus to Delphi, our first stop, I settled (again) in a seat to myself, spreading out maps and books and 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 a pilgrimage site for thousands of years.”
Apparently people had flocked here to consult the Delphic Oracle, a priestess of Apollo who answered everyone’s most pressing questions while in a trance, or, as Kristina noted, while probably intoxicated on “fumes.”
“Like sniffing glue?” one of the Fun Girls said.
Kristina actually nodded.
Despite the source of the oracle’s prescience, she was apparently good at what she did. It was she who told Oedipus he would murder his father and marry his mother, and we all know how that turned out. I decided I would’ve lined up with the rest of the world to hear what she had to say about my future: Will anyone ever love me again? Will I ever get over my withdrawn and tentative way of being in the world? What am I supposed to do with a bachelor’s degree in history? Better yet, what am I supposed to do with my life? I didn’t have a clue.
We piled out of the bus and followed the Sacred Way that snaked up to the temple of Apollo. It was March; cold, thick vapor drooped over our heads. The entire side of the mountain was strewn with white ruins. I moved among them feeling a little spellbound. Halfway up, it began to snow. The flakes floated through the cypresses out toward the watery blue line of the mountains. I turned 360 degrees trying to take it in, and I could feel something inside of me start to open like a tiny flower. I think that’s when I stopped thinking so much about my poor, cracked heart and succumbed to the magic of Greece.
I’d been studying its history, culture, art, architecture, and myths for weeks in classrooms, but now that I was here, those subjects felt alive and vividly present. They brought into sharp focus all the life I had not lived, all the places in the world I had not yet seen, how large it all was. Being here made me feel alive and vividly present, too. There were things, it seemed, that could only happen to me in Greece.
We scrunched down in our jackets as Kristina pointed out where the words KNOW THYSELF were carved prominently into Apollo’s temple, and suddenly I had a “palm- slap to the forehead” moment. The inscription must’ve been the more ulterior meaning of the oracle: to find the answers inside oneself. What if the oracle was a metaphor for a source of knowing within?
As I treaded toward the amphitheater with the group, wondering whether I possessed my own source of self- knowledge, I had a thought which seemed to have originated from just such a place: I forfeited 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 my ordinary circumstances, and more or less alone for the first time in my 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 in the girlfriend role, in the ways of accommodation, being what I thought he wanted me to be, moon to his Jupiter, quietly organizing my psychological orbits around him. But in Greece, I existed in a kind of solitude, and in this quietness I realized I’d lost myself.
In the Amalia Hotel in Delphi, I woke several times during the night, 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, circular ruin known as the Tholos. Built as a temple to Athena, its shape was mysterious to archaeologists, who were still guessing what it had been used for. All forty of us reverted to whispers as we moved among its remnants.
One of the papers I’d chosen to write to fulfill the study requirements for the tour was about Athena. I’d become fascinated with her. 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 Goddess of fertility, wisdom, and the arts. I liked both sides of her— the wise nurturer and the fierce warrior. But what I loved most was that she was a virgin Goddess. Her virginity was about much more than the fact that she never married. It symbolized her autonomy, her ability to belong to herself. I’d included a section about this in my paper, unable to see then how I had given too much of myself away.
Standing in a lump of marble fragments, I found a plaque on which the words TEMPLE OF ATHENA were engraved in both Greek and English, and lying on top of it were two yellow wildflowers. Someone had carefully knotted the stems together. An offering to Athena. I felt sure of it. Seeing the flowers, I understood that some people still loved and revered Athena. Time moved on. The whole world moved on. Athena, and her potent meaning, had not gone anywhere.
Searching the ground, I picked up one of the millions of pebbles scattered around the site. I turned it over in my hand and began to pray for the things Athena was revered for— wisdom, self- possession, bravery.
I didn’t want anyone to notice what I was doing, and thereby become known as the Weird Girl, so I placed the tiny rock by the yellow flowers as inconspicuously as I could. Don’t ever lose yourself again, I told myself.
A short time later in the Delphi Museum, I stood mesmerized before a bronze statue from the fifth century BCE known as the Charioteer of Delphi, realistic down to his wiry eyelashes. The story goes that while a French team was clearing a village for excavation, an old Greek woman, who’d previously refused to abandon her house, dreamed of a trapped boy calling to her, “Set me free! Set me free,” which finally convinced her to leave. When the archaeologists 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. The white of his eyes appeared alive and his mouth seemed about to break into a smile. Kristina explained that his expression depicted the first seconds after his chariot victory. He was on the cusp of elation and the anticipation of it— set in stone— was eternal. When I 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 us to a footrace on the ancient Olympic track in Olympia, all I heard was the racket of my own panicked self- consciousness. The stadium was 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 people always saying that to me? I lined up with the others and stared 633 feet to the end. Even with the throng around us, the world seemed to get very quiet. “You are standing exactly where the athletes in ancient times stood; you are breathing in the same space,” Kristina called 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 barefoot on the beach in South Carolina. I honestly couldn’t believe it when a girl passed me, kicking up dust with her Keds, but by then I had so surprised myself it didn’t matter. I was breathing in the same space. The first- through fourth- place winners stood on the four stone pediments where the athletes had once been crowned. I finished in second place.
Kristina placed an olive wreath on each of our heads while the rest of the group sang the American national anthem. Someone took our picture. In it, I am smiling like the Charioteer, a cluster of black olives hanging over my right eye.
Other than a couple of writing contests in my early teens, I had never 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 could do that I wasn’t aware of. I wore the Nike Air sneakers that had carried me across the finish line everywhere for a long time, and when I finally retired them, I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.
The stirring and surprising events of the trip slowly began to unravel 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 felt the intensity of being alive, as if my destiny was pooling in around my feet. The experiences I was having seemed to be refashioning me. They were returning me to myself.
“There is a name for what happened to you,” Kristina told me at the end of the trip. “It’s called the Greek Miracle.” On the last day, in a small shop in the Plaka, the oldest quarter in 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 of surfboard- shaped marble near the Parthenon. Sitting on it, I unceremoniously slid the ring onto the finger on my left hand, the one reserved for wedding rings. The ring was about Greece and staying connected to the fire this place lit in me. It was a way to be reminded of Athena’s qualities and the potential to find them in myself.
As I lingered there, an awareness that had been growing in me throughout the trip coalesced and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I decided I would go to graduate school and study ancient Greek 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 every way. When the idea presented itself, I felt a snap of brightness inside. Later it would remind me of the click inside a kaleidoscope when all the tumbling pieces merge suddenly into a pattern of radiance. That was my moment.
That same night, three Fun Girls and I walked blocks through the Plaka, searching for a restaurant, but all the tables at the outdoor cafés were occupied. Finally, huddling on the sidewalk, we discussed options. Should we go back to the hotel to eat? I was ready to buy gyro meat on a stick from a walk- up counter, but the Fun Girls insisted we find a sit- down restaurant. “Couldn’t we just ask a local?” one of them suggested. She nodded at a tall, dark- haired guy standing behind us. He looked about our age, his hands 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, it occurred to me he might not even speak English.
“Excuse me,” I said.
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and looked at me. He was— how shall I put it?— a breathing Charioteer. “Hello,” he said.
“Um, my friends and I were wondering if you could tell us where we might find a place to eat.” I pointed to the clump of girls.
He glanced over at them. “I’m Demetri,” he said to me with a thick Greek accent.
“Oh, hi. I’m Ann.” Then, for some reason, we shook hands like it was a formal occasion.
“I’m waiting on my friend,” he said, pointing to a guy on a pay phone. “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 surrounded by four American girls. Man, what did you do? his look suggested, and Demetri smiled at him and shrugged.
The restaurant was packed with locals, pulsing with syrtaki music and Greek dancing. It wasn’t long after the rest of their friends arrived that the young women in the group began to ask what American “boys” were like, which I left to the others to explain, this being a complex subject for me at the moment. Demetri slid his chair toward mine and asked what I studied at school. “History,” I told him. He asked about my family, my life, what I thought of Greece. I discovered he attended the Ikaron School, Greece’s Air Force Academy. He had a younger brother. And ever since his parents divorced, his mother worried about him more.
Plates of pastitsio, moussaka, salad, bread, and feta went around the table while we talked, just the two of us, for what seemed like hours. He was intelligent and polite with a quiet, intense way about him. He translated the lyrics of songs the band was playing, most of them about love—losing it or finding it—then held out his hand to me. An invitation to dance.
I looked at the dancers with their arms clamped on one another’s shoulders, at the complicated steps they performed, at the tables jammed with people watching and clapping. I felt myself sweating under my gray turtleneck. I’d been blending in fine at the table, a lot like the curtains hanging behind me. The girl who’d run like beach wind around the track in Olympia seemed like another person.