How curious and wonderful it is to be back on my Greek island, for so many reasons--even for the mailing of parcels and letters. To write a letter is to begin a conversation, and the olive trees and bees and ants on the table with the breakfast crumbs are all part of it. Sad that email has gobbled up all the delectable letters of the world, those conversations complete with long pauses between two minds, two lives. In rebellion against that loss, here is a letter for you.
I have kept the icon for a few days, looking at it there on the stone wall of my little house: the shining Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Being pregnant, I suddenly find a new resonance in that old image, and understand better why it has compelled people for centuries. But today I’m sending it away, to Canada, to the poet Nancy Holmes, whose latest book, Mandorla, is full of Greek and Ukrainian icon imagery. In my letter to her, I explain how and where I found this sombre, glimmering icon of the devout mother and her extraordinary offspring.
Upon my arrival in Greece, I spent a couple days at a monastery in Thebes, visiting my old friend Amelia. It was very strange to see Amelia wearing black and brown skirts, and a brown shawl, mimicking, at least in colour, the clothes of the nuns. Not so many years ago, she made a very (ahem) interesting lesbian porn film and was famous among the sexy Italian lesbian tourists of Lesvos. But she is now baptized Orthodox and living at the monastery! Essentially--shockingly--as a novice nun. She first came to Greece a decade ago, to live in my little stone house while I was away. When I returned, she stayed on for months in the campground, famous, as I said, among the lesbians. Dear Amelia!--voluptuous breasts and hips, big lips, a sense of humour to drown in, breathless with laughter; all topped by a long wild mop of red-chestnut-blonde curly hair
Amelia Maria (Maria being her monastic name, given to her upon baptism) had been very keen that I visited. She wants to write a book about the nuns, and make a documentary. One night over a delicious meal on a second storey balcony at Skolarcho in Plaka (my favourite restaurant in the old town of Athens), she wove such a wonderful vision of monastic life, and told me the truly miraculous healing story of a nun she loves. (And when I say love, I mean Platonic. Contrary to popular fantasies, Amelia Maria--who certainly would know--has found no evidence of nuns hanky-pankying with each other in their cells . . .)
Anyway, she is a wonderfully persuasive story-teller, and off I went with a carload of nuns on cell phones to Thebes. But her stories and the days I spent there were two very different experiences. I couldn’t see anything beyond the wonderful rose gardens and the glorious plain of Thebes, which is stunning. (one can easily imagine the great battles that took place there, in ancient times . . .) The nuns were nice, but monotone readings through every meal is just too . . . monastic for me. Very unsociable, especially when the material is liturgical! It was like one bad poetry reading after another w/out alcohol to take the edge off . . .
I don’t really believe she’ll become a nun, dear Amelia Maria. Nonetheless, it is quite a transformation. She did a very expensive divinity degree at Harvard . . . just to live among nuns. I should not say "just"--she is in a quietly and obviously deeply spiritual state, and I am happy for her. By her own account, being baptized Orthodox was the first really profound commitment of her life; the gravity of this has made her much more steady and thoughtful than I’ve ever seen her before. Well--she’s in her thirties now--it had to happen! I’ve known her since she was a teenager--she was like a faery then, a big, busty faery, whose usually bare feet flitted six inches above the ground. Amelia Maria actually lives in the monastery at Karditsa, further away than Thebes, but as I was very tired after days in London, I didn’t want to go all the way to Karditsa (four hours from Athens) so we went to Karditsa’s sister monastery in Thebes. (In Greek, nuns live at monasteries--there is no word for "nunnery". Which I’m glad of.)
I hated it. No, that’s too strong. But I did not like it. I was always hungry--hard to be pregnant among celibates, who have relinquished so much, including protein. The atmosphere, while peaceful, had a grimness about it: the drawn white faces of the women, their black garb, the sad lovely bells waking us and sending us to meals. I was keenly aware that though the weather was unseasonably cold, soon enough it would be swelteringly hot, and the nuns--the poor nuns--cannot go swimming.
I can see that the rituals of monastic life are compelling, to a certain sensibility, but that downcast look of the eyes and the lack of colour--and to surrender the sea FOREVER! I could not do it. Greece for me, has always meant water; this island returns me to some earlier salty marine self, and every day I swim in the sea, wondering if the baby I’m carrying feels the difference between water and air. He or she has already been baptized, in utero, in the Aegean!
But back to Thebes: one has to be quiet in a monastery, in the presence of God, yet I could feel the nuns bursting with a desire to talk, to have contact. And we did have some interesting conversations, theological and otherwise. But I have lived too widely to be exclusive about much, when it comes to the life of the spirit (and mind and body). I will never, ever again believe that one way is the right way, that there is only One True God (what poverty is that? my god is the sea, I think), that only one story is the true story. If one story is the true story (as purported by fundamentalists of every creed) we are all quite doomed.
Still, it is amazing in this day and age to even consider monasticism as a way of LIFE--not a little retreat, but years and years and years--a lifetime. To truly give up the world. It requires great courage. For that alone, I admire the nuns--who apparently endure all sorts of censure not only from the villagers--what’s a beautiful young woman DOING in a monastery, what is wrong with her?--but even more intensely from their families, who are often horrified/outraged/grief-stricken to lose their daughters to God (which is not surprising for Greeks, who like to possess their children for life: family is all, to most Greek minds.) I was sad to hear how the nuns suffer for the decision they’ve made. To be a nun is an extreme choice, but still. It is a choice--I respect the fact that they’ve made it.
In a way, the writing life is quite monastic, requiring courage, discipline, faith. But the writer--especially the woman writer, still--is constantly trying to balance the needs of her work (which are HER needs, of course) with the needs of the people and the community she is connected to. Male writers have had an easier time of it, I believe, and probably still do. Traditionally their wives (or other useful women) looked after the kids, the paperwork, often even dealt with the publishers while the men were left free to create. Perfect! No wonder a wife/muse was such an important accessory to have. Yes, things have changed, somewhat, but most women artists still struggle more with the world encroaching on their precious time and energy--causes, money-making work, children, community, friends, aging parents, not to mention the vaccuuming . . .
So--there you go. My hat off to the nuns! Who give up the world in order to have an intensely personal relationship with God and each other, a community of women--and with their Yeronda--the presiding patriarch of the monastic family. (Yeronda essentially means "old man" or "elder"--he is viewed as the spiritual father of individuals in several monasteries, and of the lay people attached to those monasteries.) Of course the nuns don’t get to be selfish focused artists--all their work is for the glory of God.
But having been raised fundamentalist Christian, I just cannot be too enthusiastic about glorifying God the Father. I still love and read the Bible--it was the first book I studied in a serious way, and I know the lyricism of the Psalms and Proverbs and the stories of the New Testament influenced my writing. But there’s so much misogyny and narrowness in every form of traditional Christianity--there is no way my adult mind can get around the things that made me suspicious while I was still a child, then suffocated me by the time I was twelve years old: all those things suffocate me still . . .
IF I were inclined to ascetism (said the rich, fatly pregnant sensualist!) I would much rather be an ascetic in Burma, where at least some of the nuns wear PINK. It’s not my favourite colour, but it’s much better than black. And the weather in SE Asia is better. The nuns in Greek monasteries don’t get hot water. Even in winter. And it was bloody cold on that monastic windswept hillside every evening and morning, let me tell you. I did not bathe for three days. When I kept telling my companions that I was hungry (as I was all the time--did I mention that?) they would bring me a glass of milk and a cookie, or a piece of bread and feta. What I really wanted was a huge meal of greasy chicken and dolmades w/ meat and horta smothered in oil . ..
Anyway, I bought the pretty little icon there, at the monastery in Thebes.
A. Maria tried to show me what she loved there --the palpable presence of god, I think, and the remarkable, devout women who serve him. But I feel god more intensely in this overgrown, half-wild grove of olives with its enormity of sky and sea above and below--and I couldn’t help thinking how much the world would benefit (as opposed to God the Father) from the active participation of the women . . ..
Still, it made me think. The trick, as I enter motherhood, will be that of the conflicted monastic: how to find peace and quiet and time to worship (to work) while also being utterly absorbed in the world. Of course, for a while--how fascinating to think of it--the world will become a small baby and work will disappear completely . . . This is most likely the last summer I will spend "alone" in Greece for many, many years--I must enjoy it as much as possible . . . I’ll send this package off to Canada and then go down to swim in the sea . . .