Manuscript Delivered! AN ISLAND TO MYSELF To Appear in Spring 2025

Sitting in one of the monk caves near Grikou on the island of Patmos.

I just delivered the manuscript for my book An Island to Myself: The Place of Solitude in an Active Life to Monkfish Publishing.

Look for it in the spring of 2025.

Short Story Set in Greece: O Kairos

The island of Traonisi off the shore of Patmos, seen from a cave in the rock called Kalikatsou. Traonisi was the inspiration for “O Kairos.” Photo © Michael N. McGregor

O Kairos

by Michael N. McGregor

[published in the Spring 2018 issue of Inkwell]

for Sylvia

On a small island not far from Turkey at the edge of the Aegean Sea, there lived a Greek farmer and his wife.  They had no children and few possessions, and the land on their island was bare and rocky except for a fertile strip that stretched like a lush beard along the sea on one side.  This strip the farmer plowed with a team of oxen each spring when the winter winds had subsided and the fields had absorbed the rain that vanished quickly from the higher hills but pooled in the richer soil below.  He plowed diligently and tended his fields faithfully, mindful that this bit of land, a handful of goats, and the few fish he could pull from the sea were all that kept him and his wife alive.  Each spring he worried that the crops would not grow or the places he fished would be empty, but through the years, the land and the sea never failed him.  And the farmer came to think of himself as lucky.

The farmer had moved to the island when he was still young, almost a boy, with his bride of three months, a girl from the larger island across the strait where his father had owned a bakery.  His father had died and, not caring for yeast or dough or the ovens that blasted like kilns (before which he had sweated each morning at four as a child, shoveling in the pungent rounds his father kneaded in silence), the farmer had sold the business.  He had sold it against his mother’s wishes, ignoring her pleas, her appeals to God and the angels, her demands that he honor his father by carrying on the family tradition.  He had always felt trapped by the dead bakery air, had dreamed of living as Greek men should: in the open, on the land, by the sea.  Despite his mother’s laments and the guilt he felt at disobeying her, at turning his back on his father’s life, he found a buyer.  Agreed on a price.  Then spent the money on a small fishing boat and the abandoned island off shore. 

 The first year the farmer and his wife lived on the island, while the first crops were being sown and then harvested, his mother lived with them.  She wanted to stay on the larger island where she had friends and ties, but the farmer could not afford to maintain a residence for her there.  They had always lived in the back of the bakery, but now the bakery was gone.  So the farmer’s wife fixed a room for her at the back of the farmhouse.  The room was a second bedroom added a hundred years before by the island’s original owner, a farmer whose children had moved in the opposite direction, into town on the larger island, leaving the house and farm to languish.  Instead of accepting the change, the farmer’s mother grumbled about all she had lost, asking what she had gained in its stead but a daughter-in-law who let her son abuse her.

 The farmer’s wife tried reasoning with her mother-in-law, offering to buy her things when she went into town.   The farmer, too, tried to please her.  Two mornings each week he went out to sea in his small fishing boat, which he had painted over in blue and white and named Katerina after his wife.  When he had caught several fish, he would cross to the larger island to sell them, keeping back two or three to augment the milk from his goats and the greens from his garden.  He usually went straight from the sea to the town, but he offered to stop by the farm to pick up his mother.  He offered to wait for her while she visited friends, even if the fish sold quickly, to wait as long as she wanted him to, if only she would be happy.

 But the farmer’s mother refused their offers.  She could not go to town, she said, not now.  Not while she lived like this.  What would her friends think of her when they saw how the child she had nurtured chose to pay her back?  She wished she had never had a son, she declared, and she hoped that one day the farmer’s children would treat him as shamefully.  Then he would know how it felt.  Instead of crossing the water, she stayed in her room all day, insisting eventually that even her meals be brought to her and wasting rapidly away until one day in late November, while the rain battered the shutters and the wind rattled the windows, calling out in vain for her husband the baker, she died, her heart stopping just as the farmer was taking her hand, as if her last wish was that he would always feel responsible for her death.

A few strides behind the farmhouse, on a small knoll, there was a whitewashed chapel dedicated to St. Sophia.  The ravine beside it was filled with soil that had washed down over the years as if God himself was preparing a place to lay the old woman’s body.  A priest came over from town on a fishing boat.  Other boats carried the friends and neighbors she had never gone back to see.  The service was brief, the priest rushing through the liturgy as if he had a pressing appointment.  Once it was over, however, he and the others from town cast off their solemn faces and lingered merrily over a spread of breads, meats and cheeses the farmer’s wife had prepared.  None of them knew it would be the only time they would ever gather there.

Though she would never say as much, the farmer’s wife, Katerina, was glad to be free of her mother-in-law.  Secretly, the farmer was, too.  The difference was that he felt guilty for feeling this way.  His wife’s words to him on the burial day deepened his guilt even more.  “Now we can use the room for a child,” she whispered as they waved goodbye to their visitors.  They stood on the dock he had built from odd bits of wood.  It was just before dark.  Before she spoke, he was feeling happy to be alone with her at last, but as soon as the words were out of her mouth, he sank into gloom.  It was the wrong thing to say just then, so soon after his mother’s death, the kind of thing the old Greeks would call an unwise challenge to fate.

“Yes, we can,” he answered, doing his best to smile.  Putting his hand on her shoulder, he led her gently back up the hill, watching her steps so he could catch her if she tripped on the rocks.  The smile faded as soon as he lowered his head, as soon as she could no longer see his face, for they had been together a year already and there was no indication a child was on its way.

The farmer, whose name was Yiannis, spent that winter building a stable for his goats, repairing his nets, sharpening his tools.  Evenings, he sat with his wife by the fire, occasionally sorting his mother’s things—a few old clothes, some personal items, a handful of family mementos.  One night when he lingered over a photograph of his father, Katerina asked him about his childhood.  There was nothing to say, he said.  It was all work, interrupted far too infrequently by dreams.

When the mother’s possessions had all been dealt with, Katerina scrubbed the little room’s walls and applied a new coat of whitewash.  Out of wood from the mother’s old bed, she had Yiannis make a crib and a small bed the child could sleep in when it grew older.  Meanwhile, she busied herself sewing a tiny pillow and knitting blankets to keep the child warm.  One day early in March, when the worst of the winter was over—the winds and the rain and the cold—she noticed a pile of wood left over from building the stable.  Couldn’t her husband cobble a rocker together, she wondered out loud, maybe a horse of some kind for the child to amuse himself?   Yiannis almost said something then, but her eyes were so full of hope that he made an excuse instead.  He had to walk the length of the fields that day, he said, to be sure they were ready for planting.

As he walked, Yiannis wondered how he would ever talk to his wife about what was so evident now.  He wondered if guilt could keep a thing from happening and if his mother had left a curse on them.  The evil eye.  He tried praying, but he didn’t know what exactly to pray for or how to pray away from the church, without the lines of the liturgy.  At first his mind remained empty as his shoes sank and then rose, into and out of the sated soil.  Then a phrase he had heard the priest use came to mind.  The priest would repeat it over and over until it became not a phrase at all but a series of sounds, a string of syllables rising from mouth into air, from man to God.  It seemed to match his stride along the edge of the field, filling the space between footfalls.  Every third or fourth step he would say it out loud, each time a little louder—“Kyrie Eleison…Kyrie Eleison.”  By the time he had reached the far corner, the corner from which he could most easily see across the strait into town, he was shouting the words—“KYRIE ELEISON!  KYRIE ELEISON!”—and feeling strangely comforted, strangely hopeful, as if the wind and the earth itself had turned warm.

Over the next several years, Yiannis and Katerina fell into a pattern of living.  In the spring came the planting and the birthing of animals; in the summer came watering and the careful combing of soil for weeds and pests; in the autumn came harvest and a stay in town to celebrate with those few who remembered them.  The winter alone did not offer enough to do, and it was on those nights—those long winter nights before the fire—that an unwelcome melancholy seized them.  Yiannis would watch his wife lower her sewing and gaze to where the flames reflected dully from the terracotta floor.  He would know what she was imagining there: small arms making clumsy movements, bent heads with curly hair that turned into faces suddenly, white and lighted with laughter or red with unexpected tears. They never spoke of what they did not have but the farmer felt a heaviness in his chest each time he studied the cheeks that were no longer those of a girl or the curve that had already come to her spine.   Long before, he had stopped allowing himself the visions she still indulged in.  When he looked out across his fields he saw only himself and his oxen, an old man and his worn-out beasts coaxing the last from the tired soil.

As the years continued to pass—as the heaviness in his heart settled, becoming familiar and almost dear, as his muscles cramped with soreness that had not been there the previous year, as he watched first gray and then white creep into his own and his Katerina’s hair—one thing continued to bring Yiannis pleasure.  Each Monday and Friday he would still rise at four a.m., as he had as a child to work in the bakery, and push out from the shore in his little boat, no matter the weather, to spend the morning fishing.  In his first years with Katerina, he did this alone.  But as they grew older and the absence of children made them feel closer, he began to wake his wife before he left and invite her to come along.  At first she said no, telling him that fishing was something to do alone, or with a son, but in time her attitude changed.  “If that’s what you want,” she said one morning in their eighteenth or nineteenth year.  “If that’s what you really want, I’m happy to go.”

© Michael N. McGregor

From that day on, fishing was something they did together.  On Sunday and Thursday evenings before she went to bed, Katerina would pack the bread she had baked that day, a square of goat cheese, some olives and figs, and a tin flask full of retsina into a wooden box with a handle Yiannis had nailed together.  When he fished alone, he never took more than a bottle of water, saving his hunger for the sweet rolls or cheese bread he would have with a glass of tea once he had sold his fish in town.  Now he smiled each time he saw Katerina descend from the farmhouse to the dock with the box in her hands.  When the morning’s fishing was finished, he enjoyed nothing more than sitting with her on the open sea or tying up in a cove somewhere if the waters were rough.  They would set no time limits on their eating, sitting until they had had enough and sometimes longer, sitting just to be sitting, until they felt ready to go.  Often that meant arriving in town too late to sell all their fish by nighttime.  But Yiannis no longer cared how many fish he sold.  In the early days he had saved what was left from the sales—the little he didn’t need for weekly supplies—for the future, the family he would one day have.  Now, on those days when he was able to sell everything, when there was a little extra, he would spend it on something for Katerina—on cloth for a dress or a band for her hair.  On days when sales were poor, the two of them would take the unsold fish back home and indulge themselves, cooking and eating it all without holding back.  In time, they began to enjoy these meals so much that even when the selling was easy, Yiannis would put several fish aside.

Yiannis and Katerina had already grown old, had long since thought of themselves as old, when they set out one morning late in March to fish in their usual way.  For over two weeks they had not gone out because the weather had been unusually rough, even for March when the seasons were changing.  This morning, however, the sky was clear, a yellowed gray, and the seas were so calm that Yiannis felt he could walk upon them.  He stopped for a moment halfway down the path to the dock and looked around him—it has not been so bad, he thought as he surveyed the empty but fertile fields, the crumbling hillside rock with its patches of verdigris lichen, the wall he had built of stones he had carried up from the sea, extending it year by year as if marking time.  The dew from the grass streaked his pants as he passed, seeping in to his skin and making him shiver, but he was glad for the tonic chill of the dawn, the hold of the dampened earth, the scent of the lemon blossoms, seaweed and animals thick in the morning air.

From the bench in the boat, his right leg resting on the faded fabric of a cushion she had made years before, Yiannis watched his wife pause on the porch to pull the last of her skirt through the opening just as she was latching the door.  She checked the window, herself and the things in her hands—the lunch box, a scarf for the wind, a blanket in case the weather worsened—then lifted her head to gauge the distance she had to walk.  When her dimming eyes found the boat, a crescent of pale blue against the gray of the sea, she squinted into the morning, standing still.  Is he there? she seemed to be wondering, her ears searching the air for the familiar purr of the motor, the slap of the toolbox cover, the rub of the anchor rope as he raised it hand-over-hand and fastened it to the bow.  But the air was silent.

“Yiannis?” she called.  “Yiannis?”

“I’m here, Katia,” he said through the thickened air.  He had laid his head against the curve of the cabin to watch her descend, dark clothes against white wall, against sky, against morning.

“Why haven’t you started the motor?”  Her voice had the breath of apprehension.  “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”  Pushing himself to his feet, he placed a hand on the rudder handle and flipped up the wooden panel that hid the aged engine.  “Just waiting for you.”  He put his finger over the starter as he had what seemed a thousand, maybe two thousand, times, but still he waited, watching.  She was coming down the path now, guiding her skirts past the thorns on the bushes.  He preferred the quiet of the morning, the squawk of the few early birds, and the rustle of her careful steps to the satisfying putt of the motor.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice more tender now that she was near him.  She had reached the knotted boards of the dock.  She stopped, not sure perhaps if she should step up onto it before he had started the engine or raised the anchor.  She had never arrived before these had been done.

“Nothing’s wrong,” he said again, trying to sound irritated by her question, to hide the tenderness he was feeling.  His finger pressed against the starter and the engine buzzed, then roared, the sound consuming the morning.  It seemed for a moment as if they could not speak above the noise and each of them wondered in his own way how they had ever held the conversations they remembered from these trips.  Yiannis worked his way around the open cabin, leaned against the frame that held the front window, and checked the knot on the ring at the head of the bow before raising the anchor length by length, coiling the rope with the skill gained from fifty years’ repetition.  Above the cabin roof he could see Katerina’s forehead and hair, her eyes bobbing into sight now and then with the rock of the boat.  As he looked at her, he imagined that she was looking at him, too, not past him at the sea or through him with her mind on something else, and he wondered where they would have found the space—in their hearts and their lives—to squeeze in even one child.

Once the anchor was on board, habit took over.  Katerina untied the rope at the stern and Yiannis took his seat across from her, their knees separated only by the neck of the rudder handle.  With a slow pull, he steered the boat away from the dock and it hopped slightly as it met the first push of the water.  Once it had begun to cut its course, however, it settled into a smooth line.  The sound of the engine smoothed, too, as the boat gained speed, the sluggish putts becoming a blur of rising, then indistinguishable, pops.

The small boat split the channel between the island owned by the couple and the larger island where they had been born.  They hardly noticed this other island anymore, this place that for so many years had not been their own.  Both of them watched the sea ahead, their eyes narrowed by the wind off the bow, the cold sting of the air on pupils dried already by age.  They both loved this time, the journey out, when the engine and the wind were so loud they could sit without speaking at all, adjusting to the morning, to the pleasure—different from the pleasure of sleep or work or food—of being cold then comfortable in the early air, reluctant then anxious to speak.

Yiannis watched the surface for signs of what kind of fishing the day would offer, but the water was murky and he could not read it.  He decided to steer to a spot five or six kilometers off the big island’s northern shore, where he had had the most luck over the years.  In this place there were always enough fish for supper, if not always enough to sell.  Even if the spot had been less fruitful over the years, he would have returned to it often, for from it he could see the pleasing line of the Turkish hills, near enough to dream of what lay beyond them but far enough away to avoid whatever danger they held.

No more than an hour had passed when Yiannis saw the first of the hills ascend the horizon.  He touched Katerina’s knee and pointed, then watched the lines of her face realign, as if her smile were orienting them all to the distant horizon.  Cutting the engine, he let their momentum drive them forward.  He lifted the anchor with difficulty and dropped it over the side, paying the line out slowly.  The sea floor, he knew, was closer here.  There was a shoal or something close to the surface that drew the fish and made it easy to anchor.  When he felt the drag then the set of the iron blade, he let out a few more meters before tying off.  Then he went to the stern where Katerina was already pulling the net from the hold.  Taking it out of her hands, he fastened one end to a float and a weight before pushing the boat along with a paddle, letting out net as he went.  It was a small net, one never meant for large catches, and it took only moments to set in place.  Others could catch more fish in far less time, but he didn’t care—patience had always been the tool he prized.

Once the net had been set in place, there was nothing for Yiannis and Katerina to do but wait.  As usual, they fell into conversation.  Despite years of having no one else to talk to and nothing to talk about but the same things they had talked about many times before, they found plenty to say to each other.  Their conversation was not a conversation really, not as others might think of a conversation.  They rarely spoke in whole sentences.  They knew each other so well after fifty years of marriage that a word would suffice for a paragraph and reference to a single event could bring an entire year to life.  There were long pauses between their words during which they would each be remembering something, sometimes in different ways, sometimes the same.  So much of life was memory now—memory and sense and season.

© Michael N. McGregor

How long they had been there, sitting still, watching the sea, neither could say, but at almost the same instant they noticed that the wind had picked up and shifted slightly, coming now from the south.  The sea had started moving, too, throwing up tiny triangular waves.  Neither mentioned the change, but they were more alert than before.  They stopped talking entirely.  When the wind seemed to shift again, just to the east, blowing harder over the waves from the Turkish hills, Yiannis lifted a section of net, checking its weight.  It came up too easily.  It was still too early.  He sat back down and watched the eastern horizon.  Over the next half hour the hills seemed to change, growing in height until Yiannis could see clearly that the new growth was not brown but gray.  A string of thunderheads perhaps.  A coming storm.  Again Yiannis tapped his wife’s knee, but she had already seen what he was showing her.  They sat and watched until the clouds were much bigger than the hills.  Until Yiannis realized they were growing much too fast.  Approaching much too fast.  He motioned for Katerina to pull in the float nearest them and began the arduous work of lifting the net, section by section, spilling the few fish that clung to it into the boat.  He kept his head down over his task, using his progress along the line of the net to move the boat beneath him, until Katerina touched his back, directing his eyes to the sky.  The clouds were directly over them now and the sea had begun to churn, its surface as white as it was gray.  Yiannis felt the first of the rain on his arms, then his head.  He pulled harder, no longer worried about spilling the fish from the net, wanting only to get everything inside the boat so he could pull up the anchor.

But Yiannis was not as fast or strong as he had once been.  Before he reached the last section of net, the rain had become a torrent, the sea was thrashing as if alive, and the boat itself rocked violently.  He felt the anchor shift.  He could feel it dragging over the shoal, finding nothing to grab.  They were drifting dangerously, making it impossible for him to haul in the last of the net.  “Katia!” he yelled, “Take this!  Hold it!”  He thrust the free end of the net into her hands and gripped the cabin wall, pitching himself forward into the bow where he struggled to loosen the anchor rope.  He had just freed it enough to reset the anchor when he heard his wife cry out.  He turned in time to see her hand caught in the torn net, her skirt billow then disappear into the sea.

Seized with panic, Yiannis could not think what to do.  He clung to the anchor rope and at the same time tried to crawl back toward the cabin.  The boat pitched, throwing him toward the water but he managed to fall onto the floor of the bow.  He could feel a sharp pain in his thigh but he righted himself and, dropping the rope, clawed to the edge where he had last seen Katerina.  The boat had moved on and the water was churning so terribly he could not tell how far away he was from where she had gone down.  The rain fogged his eyes as he searched the surface for a float or a piece of net.  Moving back to the bow, he grasped the anchor rope again and, with his mouth forming the prayer he had said so many times on his walks through his fields, he lowered himself over the side, clasping the rope to his chest and swinging out wildly with his legs and feet, hoping to connect with something.

When his hands began to slip on the rope, his head to sink below the waves, Yiannis fought to get back into the boat, lifting his tired leg repeatedly until he was able to catch his pants on a cleat.  The metal bit into his flesh as he struggled to drag himself out.  A wave slammed him against the hull and he felt something break in his chest.  He could see the blood pause for a moment on the white, open wounds on his palms before being diluted and swept away.  Then, without knowing how, he was back in the boat, lying on the wet deck, the anchor rope taut above him, unable to move, unable to think or feel anything but overwhelming emptiness.

By the time Yiannis could move again, the storm had passed.  When he sat up, he saw that the sea was almost calm.  Two or three hundred meters away he could see the red of a float bobbing placidly.  Mechanically, he pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the pain that seemed to be everywhere.  Taking the rope in hand, he pulled up the anchor, the slight give of the hemp ripping away the layer of blood and filth that had closed the wounds on his palms.  As soon as the anchor was inside the boat, he inched past the cabin and lay down on a bench now stripped of its cushions.  With an unsteady hand, he started the motor and, propping himself on an elbow, grasped the rudder, lifting his eyes hopelessly to the sea.

Yiannis did not know nor stop to consider where the strength came from to continue the search for his wife.  It was not a question of strength to him but of living.  In fact, it was not a question at all, not one he asked, not one that even came to mind.  He had no room in his mind for anything other than studying the fine surface of the water, forcing his strained eyes to focus on every slight imperfection as he zigzagged, then circled, crossing over the shoal, looping around it, turning his boat in ovals and figure eights, never letting himself think about how much time was passing, had passed already, how impossible it was for her to be alive anymore or for him to hope.  Hope he did, in that part of him that could not imagine a life without her.  His pain became so great, he moved as little as possible—the tips of his fingers, his eyes in their sockets.  He did not notice the hunger behind the pain that added to his weariness.  When his eyes fell on the lunch box he had watched Katerina carry down the path from the farmhouse that morning, he reached toward it.  His fingers shook as they fell against the wet cheese, the sodden bread, an edge of the disjarred cover.  Grasping the handle, he pulled the box toward him, lifting it until it was just above his head, then sniffing the wood—the smell of the dock, the stable.  His mind returned to that morning: to Katerina on the path, to the quiet violet light above the fields, to the yellow of the new sun against the whitewashed wall.  His thoughts were not thoughts but images, a waking dream that took him back to nights by the fire, prayers by the fields, a morning when he was leaving to fish alone and Katerina rushed down to hand him his bottle of water.  Her hair was still brown that day, not yet pinned up off her shoulders.  He saw her face on the water now, not old or young but free of time, all ages at once, as if her face had never changed.  As if it had always been there on the water before him, serene, immutable.  As he gazed at the face that wavered before him, so real that he stretched his hand toward the sea, his mind drifted back farther still, to the day they buried his mother, the day his wife whispered to him on the dock her hope of having a child.  He saw his mother’s last days again—the dark dying, the shriveling in a room without sunlight—and he heard her plea at the end for him to do something, to kill her somehow, as her hand clutched his sleeve.  He could see her eyes filled with fear, with horror, as he shook his head no.  He could hear her call in a strained, fragile voice the name of his long-dead father.

When Yiannis looked up from his mother’s eyes, the sky was dark above him.  Dully, he reached out his hand to feel for rain, bracing himself for a second storm, determined to go on looking, until he realized that the darkness came not from clouds but from night, that already he could not see the water clearly, even the waves just below him that lapped against the motionless boat.  He had not heard the engine quit, had not felt the boat slow, then stop.  His hand slapped at the starter but he knew—knew without knowing—that it would not start again.  That the gas was used up.  His hand traveled from the starter to the cabin wall and he pulled himself upright.  The boat rocked gently as he steadied himself, as he placed a foot on the gunwale and made his way hand-by-hand, step-by-step, toward the bow.  He could no longer see even the outlines of things, could make his way only by feeling.  Somewhere far away he saw a light, maybe on the big island, but it had barely registered in his mind before he forgot it.

When he reached the bow, Yiannis bent down as well as he could and ran his hands over the deck until he touched a coil, then a single furred line, then the cold metal ring at the head of the anchor.  He had little strength left, but he managed to turn the anchor on end and edge it toward the sea, leaning it against the boat’s side.  Taking the rope in hand, he stretched out his arms as far as they would go, measuring one, then two lengths before letting the rope go slack and sitting down on the gunwale. With careful, precise moves—moves learned in fifty years of wrestling the sea—he wrapped the thick rope around his waist, then his chest, hitching a loop to the anchor arm and cinching it tight.  Before shifting his hands to the anchor shaft, he pulled at the rope to make sure it was snug, make sure it wouldn’t give at the last moment.  Then, hefting the anchor from habit, with the last of his strength he lifted it onto the gunwale.

With the anchor beside him, Yiannis paused.  Taking a shallow breath, he closed his eyes, trying to focus his mind.  His thoughts were jumbled.  His feelings, too.  He tried to concentrate, to empty his body of pain, his mind of everything but the only two things he had ever loved, the woman and the land.  For a moment he saw them clearly, as clearly as if he were looking at them in the morning light, but then they were gone.  It was enough.  Wrapping his arms around the anchor, he let a final Kyrie float from his mouth.  Then, weighted by iron and the last of his will, he let himself fall.  Back from the bow of his boat.  Back toward his island home.  Back toward the woman he had loved as long as he could remember.  As soon as he passed through the waves, they closed above him, leaving nothing to mark his passing but the gentle rock of a fishing boat on an otherwise empty sea.

# # #

Another Contract–This One For a Book about Solitude

When it rains, it pours. I’ve signed another contract, this one for a book on solitude to be published by Monkfish Publishing in the spring of 2025. The title is still TBD but the subtitle will be: The Place of Solitude in an Active Life.

The book is centered on my experiences during a month of total solitude on Patmos when I was 27 years old. It was after that month, while I was still on the island, that I met Robert Lax. The rest of the book will feature my later experiences of solitude, some on Patmos, some elsewhere.

The book’s last section will be about a return to Patmos I have planned for next month, during the same time period I was there the first time. I’m going to see how an older man’s experience of solitude today differs from that of a younger man at a time when absolute solitude was less difficult to achieve.

Alone on Patmos: My First Self-Isolation Experience, 35 Years Ago

View of the Patmos harbor in Skala from the ferry (© Michael N. McGregor)

Thirty-five years ago, in a simpler and less-connected time, I had my first experience with self-isolating. After traveling through Europe with a friend, I caught the nine-hour ferry to the Greek island of Patmos by myself. I didn’t know anyone there. In fact, after my friend flew home, I didn’t know anyone within thousands of miles of where I was. There was no internet in those days, of course, and I was too poor to afford what was then the high cost of international calls. For the two months I planned to be on Patmos, I would have no contact, even by mail, with anyone I knew.

I didn’t remember at the time that Patmos was where an earlier man, now a saint, had spent time in isolation. I chose it only because I had vowed to take the first ferry out whenever I was ready to go and it was the first stop. A Greek man told me it was beautiful—which it turned out to be, although it was January, when Patmos is swept by fierce wind and the temperature hovers near freezing.

Broke and needing the cheapest possible place to stay, I managed to secure what was usually a summer-only apartment for just three dollars a day. It had two beds in a modest main room, a small kitchen, a tiny bathroom, and a balcony big enough for one person, with a view out over the fields to the distant sea. I couldn’t believe my luck—until a few hours later when I realized why it was a summer-only place: It was made entirely of concrete and had no heat.

My main reason for secluding myself on an island in a country I’d never been to before was to set down the first draft of a novel. I was only 27 but I’d been a writer for over a decade and veered into journalism to support myself despite wanting to write fiction. Now I had my chance. I set strict rules for my island time. I had to type for at least eight hours a day before doing anything else. (I later amended that to six hours.) Thinking didn’t count; only the time my fingers were actually pecking away. I could go for walks but only after the day’s writing was done. The same was true of reading. The one exception was Sunday, which I took off as a day of rest.

The only person I spoke to that first month, other than a brief word or two with my landlord, was an Australian woman who ran the closest grocery store, and my conversations with her never lasted more than a few minutes. When I walked, I walked alone, except for three stray dogs that seemed to take turns accompanying me along the shore road. I thought of them as angels sent to keep me company. No matter when I walked, even near midnight, one would appear and amble beside me. Never more than one and never in a way that disrupted my thinking. They never begged for my attention and I never petted them. When our walk ended, they simply peeled off and headed home.

The Monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos (© Michael N. McGregor)

When I went to bed at night, warmed only by several thin blankets—or, later, when the sneezing and shivering made me to beg my landlord for some kind of heat, a cheap aluminum heater—I usually lay awake for a while. Because my nighttime thoughts were uninterrupted, I often woke up the next morning not knowing whether something I remembered had been a conscious thought or a dream.

Sometimes during these nighttime reveries, I’d return to some place in my past. Free of present concerns, I was astonished at how well I remembered things, including, one night, my grandparents’ house, where I had lived for a summer as a small child and visited regularly until my grandfather died when I was ten. I found I could walk through the house and remember everything, even photographs hidden from view behind doors. I remembered the smell of the rusted screen on the open window in the attic room where I slept on the floor—the Dr. Seuss books stacked beside me and my grandparents’ winter clothes zipped into bags beyond the half-wall. I remembered that the bathroom wallpaper was black but full of colorful dots. I remembered my grandfather’s tools above the worktable at the bottom of the basement stairs, the perennial five-gallon tub of vanilla ice cream kept in the freezer there, and the back room I liked to play in alone, where they stored their extra furniture: a room-sized collection of various forts.

When I wasn’t thinking about my novel or remembering earlier times, I was praying for people I knew, imagining what they were doing. I missed them, of course, but in a strange way I felt closer to them through my thoughts and prayers than I do now when I can email anyone anywhere anytime.

I’m sure I felt lonely at times, but I don’t remember feeling that way, other than on those nightly walks when I passed a small restaurant or bar where men (always men) watched movies at night, most of them Kung Fu movies. It wasn’t that I wanted to watch the movies or even be with those men, but the interior was softly lit and looked like a warm, pleasant space to sit with a beer in hand. Alcohol was one of the things I gave up during my self-imposed isolation.

I had a Walkman with me and in the evening I’d often play one of the half-dozen cassette tapes I’d brought along. I had maybe a dozen books too, and I spent part of every evening reading. One book was Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, which I had bought in an Athens bookstore for little more than a dollar.  It was there, during that month of self-isolation that I read about and felt a strong attraction to the Merton friend I would eventually come to know and write a biography of: Robert Lax.

In addition to my cassettes and books, I had small packages of modeling clay and, though I’d never studied sculpting, I managed to form what looked like the face of an ancient Greek man and a bum sitting with his dog on a curb, reflective of a character in the novel I was writing. (I almost destroyed this last one by trying to “fire” it on the gas stove, rescuing it just in time, with only some singeing on the bottom.)

On my Sunday walks, if it wasn’t raining, I roamed farther and farther over the island, eventually choosing the wilder places where there was only a thin trail. At first I looked for the snakes I’d read warmed themselves on Greek island trails, but since it was never warm and I never saw wildlife of any kind except birds, I stopped looking.

One of my favorite places to go, rain or shine, was a huge rock connected by a narrow causeway to one of the beaches far from town. A small guidebook a man in a shop gave me said the caves carved into it had been used by monks living in stricter isolation centuries ago. By the time I started exploring the caves, the only signs of previous habitation were the smells and droppings of goats, but I did find a crude catchment tank for rain water at the top. What I liked most about the cave I usually sat in was that all I could see from it was the sea. Sitting there, although I had never had any instruction in playing it, I would sound out tunes on my harmonica: childhood songs, spirituals, and simple hymns.

When my mother’s birthday neared, I went around to all of my favorite places and recorded the sounds for her: the ocean rolling the beach pebbles, the goat-herder’s cry, the tinkle of goat bells, the thunder that shook my apartment when a big storm passed, and my halting, inept playing of “Happy Birthday” in that cave. Then I sent it off, hoping it would arrive in time.

When I had been on the island a month, it wasn’t the isolation but rather the cold that got to me. Somewhat miraculously, I’d finished a full draft of my novel by then. I decided to take the ferry back to Athens, check into a hotel with heat for a while, and send a copy of the novel home for safekeeping. I planned to visit some of the ancient sites as well: Corinth, Olympia, Delphi.

In those moments before I left the island, I felt as centered and open and peaceful as I ever had. It was then, as I waited for a ferry delayed by winter weather—as I thought about going back to my room and trying again the next night—that I heard a voice for the only time in my life. “If you will endure,” it said, sounding inside me, “God will bless you.”

Moments later, the delayed ferry appeared, and as I boarded it, I fell into conversation with an older man. It was during our brief interaction that I found out Robert Lax was living on the same island I was. This news seemed miraculous, of course. A revelation. A blessing. Born of the isolation I had dared to endure and the peace that had come to me through it.

(To read what happened when I met Robert Lax a few days later, see my book: Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, which includes the story of our friendship.)

What It Means to Make Art

A man in Germany (Jörg Kowalski) who reads my bimonthly Robert Lax Newsletter (you can sign up at robertlax.com) sent me a note and a book recently. The note told of his trip to Patmos to follow in Lax’s footsteps, and the book contained his poetry, some influenced by Lax’s work.

The back of the poetry book had only the words pictured here on it. I can’t think of a better (or more succinct) definition of being an artist; of why one makes art.

For those who don’t know German, here’s a translation:

now I see
what you don’t see
and that is me

In Memoriam: C. K. Williams (1936-2015), Robert Lax’s Good Friend

I’m writing this on Monday, September 21, the official publication date for Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.  I was going to write a celebratory post and remind everyone that we’ll be honoring Lax the Poet at 7 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books in SoHo this evening.  But C. K. Williams, the wonderful poet and friend of Lax, was supposed to be part of tonight’s event and he died yesterday.  The show will go on, as they say, but it will be a bit less joyous.

I didn’t know C. K. Williams–or Charlie, as he was known to Lax and his other friends–but I’m proud to say he blurbed my book.  To honor him, I thought I’d tell the story of how that blurb came about.

I knew from my research that Lax had met Williams and his wife Catherine Mauger on the island of Patmos in the summer of 1973 and visited them in Paris in later years.  When I shifted from research to writing on my book in 2007, I wrote to Williams and asked if he’d be willing to blurb it. He wrote back: “I don’t usually write blurbs anymore, but I will for a book about Lax.”  I know those were his exact words because I wrote them down on a Post-It note I kept in my desk drawer for seven years.

When I finally had a publisher for the book, I wrote to Williams again, afraid he might have changed his mind. This time his return message said: “Good to hear you’ve finished the book. I’d like very much to write a comment for it.”

Although he received my book late and had to deliver his blurb sooner than he had been told, Williams was generous and accommodating.  More than anything else, I was looking forward to meeting him tonight and thanking him in person.  I will have to meet him in his poetry now and thank him by telling others about it.

Let me close by showing you what he wrote for my book, which you’ll find on the front inside flap of the dust jacket.  Although it’s ostensibly a blurb, it’s really a loving commentary on the life and spirit of his dear friend and a testament to their friendship:

“Robert Lax was a poet who devised his own poetic forms, much admired by some readers, unfortunately unknown to most. He was an intellectual and was often called a mystic, but he was neither, just as he was called a hermit but really wasn’t. When he was younger, he lived in New York, where he worked for a period at The New Yorker and knew many figures in the arts, from Jack Kerouac, to Ad Reinhardt, E. B. White, William Maxwell . . . the list goes on. Most crucially he was a close friend of Thomas Merton’s and was made known, a little, by Merton’s autobiography, in which he appears. He also for a time traveled with a circus and wrote a lovely little book about it, The Circus of the Sun”–hard to find, but worth the search. For the larger parts of his life he lived alone, on islands in Greece, and spent much, perhaps most, of his time in solitude and meditation, trying to find some kind of ultimate peace (though he never put it that way). Even then he knew and was admired by many; and many others who’d only heard of him sought him out. He was invariably hospitable and welcoming, his presence gentle, humorous, and utterly patient. In short, there’s never been anyone like him, and Pure Act, in its offering of a detailed recounting of his life and an acute presentation and analysis of his too-neglected poetry, gives him to us: the gift of a human being unlike any other.”  

–C. K. Williams

 

Fragile, Ephemeral and Precious

The publication of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, on September 1 this year, marks the culmination of 14 years of research and writing about the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known.  I met Lax on the Greek island of Patmos in 1985, when I was 27 and he was 69, and exactly how we met was extraordinary too.  (You’ll find that story in my book. )  We became friends immediately and he impressed me from the first, but I didn’t consider writing about him until ten years later.

Even then, I wrote only a single article.  It ended up in Poets & Writers, though, as my first national publication, and the response made me think his story might interest others too.  I wrote only two other pieces on him before he died in 2000, but in 2001, having become a professor of nonfiction writing, I thought I should probably write a nonfiction book.  (I’d pinned my publication hopes on a novel before that.)  Pure Act was the result.

Never having written a biography, I gave myself three years.  But Lax was not a man who moved swiftly and it seemed a book about him was destined to develop slowly too.  My first research trip to his hometown of Olean, NY, where one of his archives is located, was interrupted by 9/11.  The next time I went there, the TV was filled with news of Abu Ghraib.  My first visit to his other archives, at Columbia University in New York City, was tragedy-free, but when I returned the following year, having secured a friend’s apartment for a full month, I ruptured my Achilles playing basketball my first day there.  I had to return home and wait the long months for it to heal.

During the years I worked on Pure Act, the U.S. entered and ended two wars and I suffered not only an Achilles rupture but a torn meniscus, a shattered kneecap and more cuts and aches requiring stitches or physical therapy than I want to admit.  I took comfort only in hearing other biographers say their projects had taken as long or longer.

I want to warn anyone thinking of starting a biography to do something–anything–else.  Something you can finish in a year…or five.  But then I think of the exciting discoveries I made in letters and journals no one but Lax had read.  And the ways being steeped in his ideas and decisions influenced my own thinking, even the course of my life.  And the people I met who told me intimate and heartfelt things they’d never said to anyone.

Writing about a person’s life means lifting and holding things fragile, ephemeral and precious.  You probably shouldn’t hurry with actions like that.  You shouldn’t be anxious to have them end either.  Even if your reward is a book, solid and heavy in your hands.