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.
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.)