I didn’t have to search for it. My word for the year just came to me, and with it, a host of lovely synonyms in its wake. Devotion. Well, devotion––minus the religious connotations––holding hands with dedication, fealty, loyalty, commitment, fortitude and constancy.
In the past I have labored over what it might be for me, that word that embodies all I want to do with my intentions in the year ahead. But this year, it came floating to me like an errant leaf, late falling on a winter’s breeze. It resonated deep within and because it came with an entourage I felt like a farmer with acres and acres of fertile, unblemished land spread before me all waiting for me to plant an endless bounty.
So I start my new cycle, this new year, with the sowing of seeds of intention, digging deeply into this dark, rich soil. It begins with a renewed Devotion and dedication to loving. To magic. And to beauty.
And writing – something I failed so miserably at conjuring last year. A block is no joke, it is a deep, dark hole that any creative soul can fall into and in my case is called ‘writer’s block’, and it is real. And it sucks. I banish it now with a loyalty to work, those further and continual efforts to paint with words from a palette-full of color.
And then there is Fealty. A deep and resonant fealty to my love/partner/mate, to family and those dear ones who love me as I am whether broken or whole; to those who love the animals and celebrate empathy, truth and compassion; to those who will be happy for me when I succeed, and cry with me in my sadness, who try to pick me up when I fall, and push me hard to continue to explore the vast continents of my interior and to walk onward along the path to becoming the best I can possibly be.
Those beloveds who allow me, in all of that vulnerability, to do the same for them.
Loyalty. Loyalty to my path. And to the greater good. To honesty, integrity, goodness, caring, loving––to kindness and empathy, to staying awake with eyes and ears and heart attentive to the big world around us, to laughter, to weeping buckets when I’m overflowing, to connection, to speaking up and speaking out (loudly!), to celebrating beauty and color, and to a nurturance of the evolution of soul and spirit, my own and that of others.
Commitment. To continuing to wield light, through music.
Commitment to seeing the glass half full.
And to the voiceless ones, who really are my reason for being. The animals. Commitment to doing what I can to ease the burden of suffering for those in need of compassion and caring, of rescue and respite.
Commitment to honoring those others who continue to do the hard and mostly thankless work attending to the emergent needs of those barely surviving untenable lives in the shadows; those caring for the pets of the homeless, animals who act as angels for the people of the streets whose only tether left to any comfort in this life is a beloved dog or cat companion; those pulling the newborn kits and pups from garbage bins, or flimsy boxes set in the cold rain along busy streets, those rescuing dogs from a brutal existence of abuse, abandonment, fighting, life at the end of a cold chain; those earthly angels whose hearts have been broken over and over again yet they continue on, continue giving, helping, trying to make a better life and a better world for those left behind. (I have always held that, were humans to collectively realize that the other beings we share this glowing, gorgeous orb with––the animals, the trees, the waters, the land––all require and deserve our recognition, our action, our honor and caring, then the world’s ills would resolve. And so it goes…)
Fortitude. The fortitude to walk my path ahead in constancy, through dark and light with no time or inclination to curl into a ball and sink to the bottom of the well. Life now is too short for that.
Dedication, fealty, loyalty, commitment, fortitude… in action, together they reduce down and distill to a fine and pure constancy of devotion.
I am good with that! Right?
Do you have a ‘word for the year’? If so, do try to hold it close, in honor of its gift. When 2016 comes to pass, I would love to hear what your word was and how it served you. Or, how you served it.
Spreading my wings now… With love and light, and hopes that your year ahead is graced by all that is good,
all photos ©EleanoreMacDonald except for those taken by Paul Kamm.
For those of us who love the animals, there almost is nothing more heartbreaking than the plight of the forgotten ones; horses left standing in a field with no forage and no water to be found; A dog living at the end of a chain, ignored, underfed, given no comfort or attention. Shut down. Not much ‘living’ there, more like existing; Any animal whose most common interaction with Human is a violent act, newborn kits and pups thrown into the bins like trash, or left in a box on the side of a road…
Of course, while the trials of our world are roiling around us there is great sadness in my heart for those who are being subjugated to the whims of the warmongering few. I get criticized for focusing so much on the problems the animals face, but I will leave the problems of the (adult) humans to others, now. Caring for the furred and hoofed, these voiceless ones, is where I find my sense of purpose.
My Paul once wrote, in our song ‘To Let The Light In’…
“Everything you can beg, steal or borrow
you leave out on the steps for free
‘Cause all the wild things, the lost and abandoned ones
are really more your family tree.”
That says it all, in my case. They are more my family tree.
I’ve written a lot about the dogs here on the blog. Djuna, Lovie, Artie. Margarita, of course was the dog who kindled my awakening to the strays of the island of Skiathos and the streets of Greece and whose story I shadowed in All The Little Graces. I’ve mentioned the Skiathos Dog Shelter, the wondrous place that has done and still does remarkable work caring for, doctoring and re-homing the cast off dogs of the island.
But then, there are the cats.
One of the things I do, when I am taking my month off to steep in creative juices in Greece, is tend to all of the street cats I find along my path. I’ve done this for years and have made several long-standing friendships with many of those who have been able to survive from year to year. Eventually they disappear, but what keeps me on point is knowing that the meds I can dispense for tapeworm, fleas and flea eggs, internal parasites and ear mites––and the food and love I offer them––will make their time on earth that much better. I can only hope the strength they can grow in that month helps them better make it through the winter.
Some people love to tell me it is cruel to feed them, that I just make them dependent upon me. My first response to that is this – How In The World Can You Turn A Blind Eye To a Living Being In Trouble In Front Of Your Eyes????
They have survived the streets of the island and will continue to, however they must, until they just can’t. But if I can help them survive with better health and a better quality of life, if I can help them be free of disease, if I can help them know a kind touch, how could I NOT reach out to care for them?
Why would one not want to help another living being at least find some caring and nurturance in the moment?
I’ve known some of these cats for years. They recognize me the moment I step foot on-island, usually signaled by a jangle of my bracelets or my voice, though this year, Manaki, a harbor cat would come running from 5 cafes down the harbor, yelling all the way when she simply caught a glimpse of me! I’d learned to put my bracelets away while having my morning coffee so as to not bother my café with the clowder of cats that would otherwise come to me, but that didn’t deter Manaki. For 3 years, Ourania has met me in our secret place each morning for her breakfast, and escorts me home along the back alleys at the end of my night. They all come purring, rubbing, some letting me hold and cry over them … there are always newcomers, a few I will recognize when I am next there, and at some point in my month (and sometimes a few weeks in winter) I am able to medicate them all, tend to wounds and fatten them a bit.
Minou, Ghataki mou and Meow Meow were my first Greekies. They showed me how forgiving and loving the strays could be despite the uncharitable behaviors humankind had thrown at them. Over a few years’ time, they withered up and disappeared. I was heartbroken. Then came Psipsina, Ouranos (an amazing cat we found on one empty beach one day, and on another more remote beach, some ways away, the next!), Mana, Stretch, Oneira, Rothakino, Portokali, Mavro, Squeak, Matia mou, Psari, Manaki mou and so many others I never knew well enough to name. All individuals, all huge personalities. All sentient beings. And these are just the cats I’ve grown to know on my short walk to and from the village. I do what I can for them and obviously there are others who step in to help through the long season or they wouldn’t fare so well. There are other neighborhoods filled with cats who have kindly folks caring for them the best they can. And there are the fortunate ones who are looked after by some kind soul through long and sometimes brutal winters; some are fed by old widows on the back streets, some by George, a complicated man with a gruff exterior who owns a harbor grill taverna who has a heart with much room for caring for the cats; and some are cared for in the harbor by the fishermen…
Sterilization and medical care is now much more readily available to all––thanks to two lovely young vets working on the island, and to the angels of the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association who, with the help of volunteers, gather up what unsterilized street cats they can and gets them neutered and vaccinated, and their injuries and illnesses treated so they can go on to live less miserable lives––sadly, many locals, ex-pats and Greek alike, have yet to embrace their grave importance.
Beyond that goodness, there is the rest of the island with its many places filled with the cats that Greece would be very embarrassed to feature on those gorgeous, misleading calendars, ‘The Cats Of Greece’.
But I have to tell you about Koukla.
I first met Koukla when she followed a tiny, 5 week old kitten out of the thick bushes next to my pension. Some despicable idiot had tossed the wee kitten into the thicket, right under my window, and it mewed constantly, mournfully, day and night for 2 days, stuck so deep in the bushes that I couldn’t reach it. I actually had to sleep with earplugs to quiet its calls and hope to quiet my own heart’s fury. I am sure that if I ever catch people doing the horrible things they do to the animals, I will end up in jail.
On the 3rd evening, the tiny thing finally emerged, followed by a beautiful, young calico cat. Stepping carefully through unfinished rooms and the debris of the construction site next door, and finally over rickety scaffolding, the only passage from the building to the grounds below, I was able to capture the hungry kitten, and as I held it to my chest, its little calico guardian wove through my legs, purring madly. Even after I’d taken the kitten down to the fish market to be looked after, and where she was taken in immediately by a nursing mother that may have even been her own, the calico girl lingered at our pension. She was very polite, let me pick her up, and when she snuck through the front door and marched into my room she seemed to know exactly what to do – jump onto the bed and make herself quite at home. Someone had cared for her. This was not a typical street cat. She had a past, one filled with kindness. But what had happened? I don’t know where she came from … all I can think is that she was just watching over the wee abandoned one.
And then she watched over me.
Koukla could be seen down in the harbor in the early mornings, waiting there with a crew of 5 other cats for a kind fisherman who would give them all fish when he came in from work. I began to feed her with the rest of my little clan and she soon decided that I was hers. I named her Koukla , which means ‘doll’ in Greek, because she was so small and so precious …
When I returned the following May, both Koukla and Psipsina showed up on the stoop of my pensione. “Eleonora!!!” my landlady cried, “HOW do they know you are here? You JUST arrived!”
Koukla began to visit me early in the mornings.
Cheeky ginger Psipsina would sneak into the house if she felt I was late feeding ‘my’ cats their breakfast… she is quite the impatient and pushy one. She would knock on my door. Not just any or all of the 5 doors, only mine. Really. (I always ushered them away from the house to a quiet spot to feed them where I would not offend neighbors who didn’t harbor my same fondness for the creatures of their streets.) But little Koukla waited for me, only singing a polite little hello when I arose at dawn to write on the veranda.
Alter writing the sun up with the little waif either curled on my lap or sunning herself on the veranda sofa, I waited for the sounds of our landlord leaving for work. I knew I had about 10 minutes between his leaving and the housekeeper’s coming to get Koukla downstairs and out the front door before we were ‘busted’. My landlady would not have appreciated my harboring a cat in her house!
Soon I began to find Koukla waiting at my bedroom window when I returned from town at night. I was then still quite sad over the sudden loss of our beloved dog Djuna, and as though helping to fill in that empty place, she slept curled upon my heart, working extra hard to keep me loaded up with joy.
And of course, it broke my heart to leave her behind.
The next year, same deal. “Eleonora, HOW to they know you are here…?”. Koukla and Psipsina and the rest of my current clan were all present and accounted for. Of course, Koukla secretly spent every night of that 5 weeks with me. I worked to try to figure out how to get her back to the states, but without a fatter bank account and more time I just couldn’t make it happen. It is not an easy journey.
Really, I am not a crazy cat lady, but I was very attached to this very special cat and the thought of her having to survive uncertainty there tortured me. There was nothing I could do but enjoy her company, and care for her and the rest of my feline clan as best I could so they would face the season ahead in the best of health. I always managed to fatten them all up a bit, and between that and the lack of stress of having to survive on garbage bins and handouts, and being medicated for worms and fleas, they all seemed to be a bit fitter going into the summer. Someone surely would take over from there and barring any unforeseen tragedy, or the Plakes poisonings, they all would make it through another winter.
Again, leaving her behind felt like such betrayal and just broke my heart. Truly. There are no words.
This year, in May…no Koukla. Of course, I thought it likely that she was dead … yet something in me told me she was safe, somewhere. I searched for her. Every morning I walked a different way into the harbor, calling for her all the way. Many nights, around midnight I walked other parts of Plakes and to various feeding stations where kind visitors and locals and the folks from the Skiathos Cat Welfare Assn. stealthily cared for the street urchins.
But no Koukla.
At the end of my 5 week stay, just a few nights before I left for home, I went out to dinner with all of the folks from the Cat Welfare Association. It was the first time I had met Sharon, the force of nature who oversees all of the heartbreak and joy around the cats they care for. Of course, I have been aware of the Dog Shelter and its angels since its inception in ’95, but really this was the first year I was fully aware of the good work the Cat Assn. did for the stray cats. At the end of the dinner I found a few photos of Koukla on my phone, and asked Sharon if she’d seen ‘this cat’. I didn’t say ‘Koukla’. I said ‘this cat’.
“Oh”, Sharon said, “That looks like Koukla, a cat we sent to UK last October! I’m sure it’s Koukla!” Koukla? Was it really her? And how in the world could they possibly have known that her name was Koukla?
I received photographs the next day, and indeed, it was ‘my’ Koukla. A woman from UK, who also stayed in my pension, but always after I had left, had also been smitten by the sweet little calico. For two years she left the island worrying, like me, about what would come of the darling cat and finally she asked Sharon for help finding and catching her, and then sending her on to her home in the UK. The photos I received reflected Koukla’s obvious contentment with her new situation. A bit smug, very content and even a bit fat, she was off the streets and loved.
The night before I left for home I was sitting with my dear landlady in her cafe. The dear landlady who doesn’t like cats.
“So … Eleonora … I must tell you now about… Koukla.”
Koukla? What, now?? Why are you just now telling me this? I have been here for 5 weeks! I have looked for that cat EVERY day and night for F.I.V.E. weeks!” Really, I was amazed that she even knew Koukla’s name.
One afternoon when I was having a lazy day and rather than off exploring the island I’d opted to have a quiet day at home to read and write. Dear landlady came upstairs with a Greek coffee, some wine and a lovely plate of food for me, which she is oft known to do. (ah, beautiful Greek hospitality!) Curled next to me on the settee, on my landlady’s settee on my landlady’s veranda, in my landlady’s house, was Koukla––gazing calmly through slit eyes, one paw on my thigh, smug and sure as though she owned the joint. I remember feeling a bit like a kid who was caught smoking a cig behind the barn…there was no hiding that cat. I am 60, but I sputtered like a 13 year old, explaining that the cat REALLY was a good, clean cat, very polite, and, and … and that her name was Koukla.
So, apparently my dear landlady had remembered.
She went on to recount the whole story, about how she was the one who told her guest from the UK the cat’s name J, and how she had found Koukla begging at one of the few tavernas open in early winter, and had helped the Cat Welfare folks rescue her. (and here I’d been, hiding cats from her for years.) I gave her a big hug and kiss. There is hope.
I told her the name of the brazen little ginger girl who always hangs around her house…Psipsina…and asked her to please see if someone would take HER home with them, next!
Koukla is one of the only real Skiathos success stories I’ve personally been able to affect in the 30 years I’ve been visiting the island. Koukla, and last September, the tiny 5 week old abandoned kitten, Mighty Mouse, who I was able to wrangle from teenage boys attempting to use her as a football. It was 1:00 AM when I heard the pathetic cries, and boys’ laughter, outside my widow. I FLEW down the stairs and out into the square like a furious squall. I am sure I shocked the boys, a granny-type in her nightie, long red hair blazing about my head, burning as brightly as my angry eyes as I snatched the wee thing from their hands and gave them a good tongue lashing. My little Mouse thrives to this day, thanks to the Skiathos Cat Welfare Assn.
I’d been able to help little Margarita–and Beau, another little Skiathos street dog who happily went on to a good and very long life of happiness. Feeding the cats, medicating, and rescuing kitties is the best I am able to do now, and there is never really any knowing what becomes of them all in the end.
But now there is Koukla’s story to ease my heart.
A lot of good work is being done for the animals on the island now, thanks to the longstanding dog’s home – Skiathos Dog Shelter – and its Angels, some big-hearted locals who do what they can to help in their own neighborhoods, and the work Sharon and her volunteers at Skiathos Cat Welfare Assn. do for the cats, bottle feeding bin babies, sterilizing and doctoring strays and finding homes for many of them outside of Greece.
But they still are overwhelmed. The island overfloweth. It never ends.
HOW YOU CAN HELP – The situation for the animals on the island, especially for the cats, is dire. Many are sickly, many are wounded from their street battles fueled by unchecked hormones. Mamas have trouble keeping up enough weight to feed their kits. Most of the cats need to be spayed and neutered to help keep the populations in better check. Newborn kittens get dumped in garbage bins or by the sides of busy streets. It is heartbreaking for those of us who see the animals as sentient beings who deserve our kindness.
If you are at all moved to help any the animals there, you can do so by going to the Dogs’ and Cats’ respective websites (Skiathos Dog Shelter, Skiathos Cat Welfare Association) and make PayPal donations to them there for immediate care. You will also find them on Facebook. Both places look after and sterilize the animals that find their way to them.
OR, you can help me help them –
I buy ‘ADVANTIX’ here and take it with me to Skiathos – Advantix is the only thing that protects the dogs from an awful disease, as devastating to them as Parvovirus is to our dogs here, called Leishmania. Advantix is very expensive here, but even more expensive for them to buy there.
I also purchase ‘Revolution’ and tape worm medication, both of which I dispense to what street cats I can while I am there on the island.
You can help me help them by–– purchasing Advantix (for small and/or medium dogs) yourself, via a respectable online pet pharmacy, and have it sent on to me.
Or you can send money to my PayPal account. I use your donations to purchase Advantix for the dogs, a prescription eye ointment for the street cats who often have irritated eyes, prescription Tapeworm pills and prescription Revolution for the street cats. (Revolution rids the cats of ear mites, internal parasites, fleas and flea eggs) I carry it all with me when I go.
I also use your donations to supplement my purchase of dry and canned food for the street cats I tend. Anything of your donations that is left over at the end of my stay is then given to the Dog and Cat folks, respectively.
If you have any questions, or wish for more information regarding how you can help, you can send an email to me at eleanoremacdonald at gmail.com
In gratitude – for the animals. Always.
Many people find their ‘place’ much closer to home than I do; A mountain lake, the local river, a small village in Mexico, the shores of the Pacific, woods close to home or their own backyard … but mine continues to be that small and elegant place nestled in the Greek archipelago, the island of Skiathos, from which I’ve just returned.
As I’ve said before, it is where I easily – and sometimes not so easily – find my way most deeply into my self, into presence and into a clearer creativity, all which linger as long as I remember to put them into practice. This place is the manifestation of the bounty I reap for tending to my inner garden, and where the stresses of daily life get cleared away by the winds, washed by the sea, and importantly for me, where the words just seem to grow on trees.
By the end of my month there I am rendered almost speechless, not in a bad way but by being stripped down to my essentials, the spoken word almost make no sense to me anymore. A smile or a gesture can say it all. Gently coaxed to feed on what is left to me, I am embraced by grace; the sun coloring the day with its rising, the gulls and falcons that circle above me, the ethereal light that can only be found in Greece, and of course, the sometimes sapphire, sometimes turquoise, sometimes cerulean sea.
As I age, it seems that just getting to Skiathos is like reliving labor. Only I am the one being birthed. The preparation is monumental in itself––being certain that all is in order with the animals here on the farmlet so that Paul, or whoever may be tending to all of the living things won’t have to deal with any surprises, is something I don’t take lightly. Quite picky about the care of the dogs, cats and horses I am adamant that their lives do not shift or change while I am away. This is their sanctuary. However, packing, after lessons from traveling abroad for almost 30 years, is like breathing. No problem, toss stuff in the bag and go! I do need to be careful of weight though as I also cart along many medicines for the animals of the island, the street cats and the dogs at the shelter, as well as heavy copies of my book, ‘All The Little Graces’ I take for the dog and cat shelters sell it to benefit the animals.
Then, there begins that epic journey that used to be so much more straight forward, but now can take up to 29 hours, flying from here to there and then there and there and on to timbuctoo before actually setting foot on Greek soil––all while crammed into an seat fit more for the Inquisition than for long haul flights.
If I have planned well, it can be yet another 1 to 5 hour wait in Athens for the once daily ‘hopper’ up to the island, the 26 seater prop jet that can offer a harrowing experience if the weather is not in one’s favor! (in Greece, ‘the weather’ usually means ‘the winds’) But then, I am there! Otherwise, it’s a night spent in the city of Athens before rising with the sun to catch the local bus that winds up through farmlands to the port of Volos––a 4 hour journey ––and then, the 3 hour ferry from Volos to Skiathos, the first of the islands in the chain of the islands known as the Sporades.
Ah, the Sporades. The gates of the wind. The catchers of dreamers’ souls and the poet’s’ dance. Being one that has long been captured by the serenity that flows through and around this group of islands, I will now attempt a (writer, musician, seeker of all things quiet) layman’s very biased and not very knowledgable guide to these beautiful Aegean gems…
The Sporades are a group of lushly wooded islands scattered in the NW Aegean Sea. They all have have played an important role in the lives of mariners through the ages, as they sit at the crossroads of ancient trade routes that flowed from the Black to the Mediterranean Seas. Not only did this make them an important migration route from prehistoric times onward, but also left them wide open for invasion by the Venetians and Turks, and to pillaging by roaming bands of pirates, most notable of all the wild pirate Barbarossa, or ‘Red Beard’. True to Greek spirit these islands and their people have again and again arisen from the dust and ash and now, though the sea trade is still an important part of the islands’ existence, the only migration and invasion occurring in the Sporades, as is in all of the Greek islands, is that of tourism.
Skiathos is known to mean ‘Shade of Athos’, though it is in no means close enough to Mt. Athos to be in its shade, and I must say that only once in almost 30 years have I chanced upon sighting that great mountain in the distance from the island’s’ shores! It is her sisters, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros that are more readily seen – the 4 siblings embody the inhabited islands in the 24 island Sporades chain, each sister having her own decidedly different aura and personality.
Skiathos is the most social sister of the 4, both elegantly earthy and painted-ladyish. She gets up early and walks barefoot along the beach in a rosy sunrise, and stays up late drinking mojitos and gin and dances all night, her witching hour not even arriving until midnight. The island has a year-round sea-culture, her fishermen plying the sea from dawn to sometimes late at night, depending on the cycles of Selene, goddess of the moon. It has a lively old harbor and a village with quiet neighborhoods, real and lived in year-round by many generations of Skiathitis that can delight a walker for hours treading its narrow, cobbled alleys.
The harbor does suffer a bit from multiple personality disorder – on one end is the old harbor where the small, colorful fishing boats are moored to the quay, fishermen mend their nets and the fish market does a lively morning business…around the corner, the new harbor hosts the visiting ferries and is filled with sailing yachts and motor yachts ten times bigger than my own house. In between the two the seasonal tour boats, small traditional caiques and some larger craft, tout their business to the migratory visitors. At night, it all comes alive, the locals and visitors alike taking their restorative ‘volta’, walking waterside along the harbor promenade until the sun goes dark, teens flirting, lovers hand in hand, the old captains keeping up appearances and tourists mingling in with the flow. I love the dichotomy, the ‘circus’, the color and craziness and can easily escape it all in the snap of a finger with a short walk ‘home’, or a boat or scooter ride away.
Skiathos town is earthy, tatty and elegant all at once, with shops ranging from the useful and local, the traditional ouzeries and tavernas and those that offer astronomically delightful contemporary Greek fare. From shops that serve the local communities needs and are open year ’round, to beautiful local art shops and also the requisite ‘tat’ shops that are laden with the ‘stuff’ found “anywhere-Greece” for the tourists to take home, and that close down with the first peep of season’s end. Lush and wooded and surrounded by a pristine sea, Skiathos is filled with wildflowers in spring and the invasion of humans in the throes of summer, host to quiet early season travelers as well as summer’s package tourists, artists and writers, the many wives of the Sheikh of Qatar, film celebrities––and ex-pats who either have fallen in love with the island and its culture and honor it greatly, making efforts to learn the language and a living to support their families…or those who are running from something, anything, themselves, the law or a rotten past, and spend the days and nights drinking life away.
The island offers at least 60 beautiful beaches; some done up with sun-beds and shade umbrellas and beach bars with unnecessarily loud music, some quiet and remote with a true Greek beach taverna lovingly fashioned of stone and wood where one can eat wonderful, fresh food while staring at the sea with feet on the sand, and some with nothing at all but the sand, sun and a tree or two, and sounds that only the Gods and Goddesses themselves intended.
Most beaches are a fine golden sand backed by shading pines, some are pebbled, and one is a stretch of smooth, rounded white marble and granite stone that gives the sea the most magnificent background upon which show herself at her most otherworldly. The light is extraordinary. While Skiathos boasts the fine beaches accessible along the one main road, one can also walk for hours through groves of fine olives and herds of free ranging goats, past farms rich with with beautiful produce, and visit a beautifully ruined Kastro, the island’s old fortress city built on a rock in the 14th century, better to protect the population from pirates and invaders than the harbor city proved to be …
… on to tiny old churches and the Monasteries of Evangelistria and Panagia Kounistria, to empty coves and beaches and the other beauties that can be found in its the north and inland, all out of reach reach other than by foot, small boat, scooter or jeep. The island also boasts the inexpensive package tours from the UK and Scandinavia that bring a rush of bodies in for the summer months, (including large men who have breasts 10 times bigger than my own who parade about in the cafes and on the quay with no shirt on in a stupor. I always wonder–– do they do this at home? Do they not realize this is someone’s home?) and loud, pulsating nightlife for the folk that come to drink all night and sleep away most of the day, and most of what is ‘Greek’ about the island. That all said, Skiathos cleans up well and is an enjoyable mix of all worlds with something for almost everybody to love.
Since prehistoric times the island has been a magnetizing agent for migrations and wars, but some of her most notable modern history includes a very important shipbuilding center in the 19th century––its fleet dominated the Mediterranean at that time––and the fact that the first flag of Greece was created and flown there in 1807. Skiathos’ myth and mystery has been well documented by her own Alexandros Papadiamantis, one of Greece’s most celebrated writers, a Skiathiti himself, whose house stands as a museum for any visitor to see how the people lived in the 19th century.
And then there is the story about my friends’ aunt, the mighty Kalyarina, who harbored allied soldiers waiting transport to Turkey during WWII, who eventually was caught and imprisoned by the Italians. My friend, Captain Yiorgo says that she was a great captain herself, and could easily navigate the seas around the Sporades at night in heavy weather. He feels, as do I, that she deserves a statue in the town, but she is rarely spoken of anymore. She eventually was honored for her bravery by Queen Elizabeth, but ended her years on Skiathos envied by most and therefore ignored.
Skopelos is Skiathos’ proper, well-dressed, more statuesque sister. Fit and trim, well coiffed and bejeweled, she hopes to be the most sophisticated of the sibling clan. The island is fairly untouched, not yet overrun (yet is the operative word) by mass tourism, its main town and harbor filled with elegant yachts and quaint tour boats, European fashion and art galleries, some of which feature the gorgeous and renowned Skopelos pottery––and waterfront cafes that feature the equally renowned Skopelitian tiropita, cheese pie…Above the harbor, its countless old churches and village houses fill the labyrinthine, whitewashed neighborhood––home to generations of Skopelitis as well as more modern transplants––built on alleys set on steep hills that are quietly pedestrian-only, beautifully cleaned and done up for the season.
You’ll often see the jovial old ladies in the open squares embroidering and gossiping their mornings away…you can hear their laughter ringing through the narrow alleys and I can only imagine that they’re chortling about the tourists that are constantly getting lost in the maze. Skopelos, also despoiled by invaders throughout her considerable history, has its ruins of sorts, old roman baths, remains of what once was a temple to Athena, and a citadel of the Dorian Greeks of Selinous, all proof that antiquity indeed existed here. Like Skiathos, it is also a lushly wooded island, but with an air more suited to those who like civilized exclusivity. Skopelos has beautiful, mostly pebbled beaches, accessible only by infrequent bus or if you have a boat to explore with, or vehicle to comb the long main road––great for those of us who love the quiet. There are a few other villages on the island, most notably the more remote Glossa on its SW shore which sits on a hill looking towards sunset, and Skiathos and Evia, with its own lovely port, Loutraki, hugging the coastline below. Skopelos’ is a beautiful island, but I have found her to be cool and aloof with a bit of an impenetrable soul.
Alonissos is the most free-spirited, the dreadlocked, barefooted sister with sprigs of oregano in her hair and dirt between her toes. Organic and remote, Alonissos is beloved of European and American backpackers, and home of the International Academy of Classical Homeopathy, the only institution in the world dedicated exclusively to the teaching of Homeopathic Medicine…and where the mythical Cyclops were thought to have lived! The island is home of the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, where the endangered Mediterranean monk seal is protected and nurtured and pods of dolphins almost always accompany the boats that move gently through the areas they are allowed. The island must have been a beloved of Dionysus, for it once was well known for its wines, but tragically, the old vines were devastated in the late ‘60s by disease. Alonissos’ port town, Patitiri, brims with waterfront tavernas that line the small, picturesque harbor, and boasts some fine shops, though none that are decidedly Greek. It bustles at night, cars and trucks rushing along its small main road through the harbor, which to me is unsettling. Half of the vast island is marked only by wealthy Europeans’ 2nd homes, goats, farmers who harvest wheat and olives, and the wild herbs that proliferate on its sunny hillsides. There are some beautiful pebbled beaches embracing the sea on this stretch of the island.
But Alonissos also has a beautiful chora, the old, original village built on a hill just above Patitiri––destroyed in the ‘60s by earthquake and then deserted, the old town has since been restored by ex-pats and a few Greeks who not only see good income from seasonal rentals but who loved re-creating the old traditional stone buildings and did so with much care. Beautiful, no cars allowed on its streets, the chora doesn’t really awaken until June when the town begins to overflow with its particular brand of quiet tourist. I enjoyed my quiet perch there, far above the sea with a view as if from the heavens themselves, but given it was still May, I also felt that I was staying on an unfinished, empty Hollywood film set, the predominate inhabitants, exquisitely tiny hedgehogs that came out at night and wobbled about and along the cobbled roads. I need a bit more bustle, and I need the sea and the culture of the sea, an accessible sea…Skiathos has that for me. (But Skiathos with hedgehogs would be even more perfect!)
Skyros I know very little about, as I’ve never visited. The largest sister, she sits southernmost of the Sporades, almost in the middle of the Aegean and is impossible to reach from any of its siblings unless one has a boat in which to set sail. Rocky and more barren, she looks nothing like the others in her gene pool …she is the adopted one, or the runaway that wanted to be different from her family, the one that wears Free People Clothing––or nothing at all––and probably spends her holidays in Thailand and Bali while her sisters slave their winters away at home…she is more interested in protecting the natural beauty around her than enticing holidaymakers (something I wish Skiathos would focus more attention on), but shares agriculture equally with well organized tourism. Skyros is the New Age capital of the archipelago, host to yoga, wellness, dance and writing retreats. Her Cycladian architecture with whitewashed sugar cube buildings is more reminiscent of the islands of Santorini or Mykonos than of a northern island and also sets her apart from her sisters. A few important archaeological sites have been discovered here, as it is home to one of the most important Neolithic settlements in the Aegean. Its chora sits atop the hill that the mythological Theseus is said to have been hurled to his death from. And for the poets in search of some etheric connection to the island, the English poet Rupert Brooke is buried here, having died on a ship just off the Skyrian coast. While the Hellenic Air Force has a base on the rock, it is also home to the Skyros pony––a small, hardy pony that more resembles a horse in looks that has survived from ancient times, and still roams the open spaces on the island while being looked after by a horse welfare society, ensuring the rare breed remains protected. I would love the opportunity to take a week and set sail to visit Skyros, to find what she secrets behind her mysterious veil.
After that bit of a tour of the Sporades, I’ll be getting back to my visit to Skiathos in my next post. But before that, to sum up my preference, I love ‘my’ island just for what I’ve written of time and time again. I find it easy to pursue my elegantly earthy muse there, her preternatural beauty and the culture and all of the elements coming together just perfectly so give me an extraordinary experience that I’ve not found in any other ‘place’, whether in my youth or in my more recent years.
And––when I am there in the quieter seasons I rarely hear American English! Ah, I love it.
Part II, soon.
all photographs on this page and in this blog are ©Eleanore MacDonald – unless otherwise noted . All Rights Reserved.
the great love – η μεγάλη αγάπη
We’re almost there – winter. We’ve been visited a few times, the rains and winds touched in and the woodlands’ colorful halo is fading. Oak trees have shed their brightly burnished crown and though the tenacious few still cling, the now browned leaves waiting for the next big blow to strip them away and thrust the trees into their dormant state. I have felt as though I am caught between the heavens and the underworld–my words have been, too. Like those pine seeds that need to go through fire in order to germinate, I have a need to pass through my own fire, the holy ‘within’, the clutch of winter driving me there and in that place the words incubate, emerging to spring to life.
I need the winter.
I’ve been asked by several people to write about my grand love affair with Greece. No better time for me to call that up than now, when nightly freezes betray the warm days and the light shortens, promising not only winter but also my yearning for the great peace that place provides! However, I am not known to be brief, so if it is a quick read you need, well, you will want to leave this page now!
The affair started tentatively, as many great loves do. In 1986 Paul and I embarked upon our first trip to Europe together, and with 6 weeks to travel we explored England and then headed down through the continent where finally, in Brindisi at Italy’s heel, we met the ferry that carried us to Greece. I thought that I would recognize England as my magic place because of my deep connection to the people who worshiped the earth, and the grand mysteries found there–but it didn’t dig in deep enough, it didn’t call loudly to me though it was engaging and beautiful and very familiar, and we had great fun exploring Berkshire, where Paul had lived as a young teen. London was a grand adventure down historic halls and streets, through museums and art galleries and was my first experience touching the walls of buildings many hundreds of years old, walls I’d wished could speak to me. In the countryside we hiked heathered hill and dale and in the West Country, in Dartmoor, bundled against the bitter winds we sprawled in the center of prehistoric stone circles, and ran with the dartmoor ponies. I was drawn to all of the Goddess sites and stone circles that called me to a time beyond memory, and where the Tor and Chalice Well in Glastonbury drove me mysteriously to gentle tears, I fell ill in all of the magnificent Cathedrals and Churches we visited (I am allergic to Organized Religion.). All the while, my Peaceful Paul ran like an excitable child over battle sites with ground steeped in blood of the ancestors and through museums that housed and honored the tools of war! Though gorgeous and generous, I found England haunting, with a reserve both dark and fragile.
Of course, France was beautiful as well–haughty, well turned out, and though waiting for spring to arrive with its gift of greens and colorful blossoms, it was fresh and romantic. In Paris we lodged in the Latin Quarter, on the left Bank, and walked the parks and the maze of Parisian streets, viewed paintings of the Masters at the Jeu de Paume and the Louvre and sat in the street-side literary cafes sipping café crème and listening for the cries and whispers of Sartre, Anais Nin and other wordy ghosts. We also, as fairly ignorant and untouched Americans, were a bit unnerved by the sight of an armed soldier at almost every corner–nothing new for Europeans, but new to us. There had been threats to Embassies there, and just earlier in the month a bomb had exploded aboard a TWA flight en route from Rome to Athens, and Libyans bombed a disco frequented by American service folk in Berlin. In retaliation, the US bombed Tripoli and Benghazi. Things were a little hot. Welcome to the real world. “Don’t go!” friends and family pleaded. This was only the first of many journeys we’ve undertaken that found that part of the world disrupted by terrors and wars and sometimes-violent protest. We’ve found them all to be experiences that only served to further educate and enrich us.
In the countryside we slowed down for a moment. People were generous and friendly, delightful after our experiences of the brusque Parisians. Tired, we easily hitchhiked from the train to Giverny where we sat in Monet’s garden, by the pond in front of his home, an experience not unlike my first trip to Disneyland as a child in the ‘50s–or that extra dollop of fresh crème atop a cranberry apple crumb pie. Unsurpassable. (even though I sat just imagining a vivid wash of color, as the water lilies and garden flowers were still yet to erupt with the coming spring.)
Italy only got a quick pass-through via the super-fast TGV to Torino, and from there via the ‘mail train’ that rattled and hummed and stopped in EVERY small village along its way through the long night to Rome. Outside Roma Termini, with only time enough for coffee and picnic supplies, we were met by big, red block letters written on an old wall in the piazza that read, in English, ‘Americans You Die Here’. Yet another important reminder that the world is much bigger than our sheltered lives had led us to know. The Colosseum, viewed briefly from the window of our train, was all else of Rome we were able to glimpse as we headed towards Brindisi to meet our ferry.
The ferry, via Corfu on to Patras, afforded us our first real rest in 3 weeks. Sailing the Ionian blue, creeping silently past small islands and the mainland hooded in morning mist, we began to strip off layers of tension and were able to sense that we were soon coming to the experience we had set upon this journey to find. We made it to Athens just as the sun was crowning and, dumped from a bus in Omonia Square, we were surrounded by nothing at all that was familiar; unfamiliar language, unfamiliar street culture, men on burros traversing busy streets, at dawn already teeming with cars spewing unmetered pollution, but somehow we found our way to a small hotel on the edge of Plaka, the pedestrianized tourist quarter of old Athens, where that night from our humble balcony we would watch the full moon rise over the majestic, ancient Parthenon perched atop the Acropolis. For several days we feasted upon offerings of modern and ancient Athens … walking the smooth stone paths that Socrates and Plato had tread, finding the ancient civilization palpable, staring at us from every corner in the museums and statuary and in the monuments made of marble that had stood strong in their various guises through the millennia, but now, with the advent of cars and the touch of modern man were just beginning to crumble. We sat in open tavernas, eating, drinking, watching the tides of tourists, feeding the street dogs and eventually feeling the world fall away, leaving us, only us. And we fell in love. Again and again.
After several days in the city we were ready for some softer island culture. What we hadn’t yet realized is that we’d arrived in Greece at the advent of the Greek Orthodox Easter week, and people were filling ferries to head home to their families on the islands of their birth for the big celebrations. Like most American 1st time visitors to Greece, we’d wanted to visit Santorini, or Mykonos – or anywhere within the sugar cube whitewashed archipelago of the Cyclades. But all of those ferries were full! Being near the end of April it was still too cold to travel overnight in deck class for 9 or more hours on the then very slow boat. (in other words, I wouldn’t do it.) What was available to us was passage via bus and ferry to the small island of Skiathos, in the NW Aegean chain known as the Sporades. We’d read of the islands, and while not the Cyclades, the call of a verdant beauty and sun-bleached beaches drew us on.
A 4 hour bus trip, up the mainland from Athens and through agricultural lands growing wheat, grapes and olives, took us to the port town of Agios Konstantinos where we caught an old ferry out to the Sporades–Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and the more distant Skyros. Sitting in warm spring sun we were gently ushered from city chaos and by the time the island of Skiathos came to view we’d been transported to another world. With first sight of the cozy fishing harbor, tranquil and filled with local fishermen’s colorful caiques … and the white, bougainvillea-draped houses spilling from the hills to the sea … Skiathos caught us up and reeled us in. Met immediately by a crowd of folks touting rooms to rent, rather than smartly sitting over retsina or ouzo in a waterfront Ouzerie to contemplate our next move, we went for the easy bait and dragged our exhausted selves behind our new host, walking the town’s narrow and very busy main street, dodging ponies trotting by with full loads of brick or wine on old carts, and un-muffled scooters competing with the rush of delivery trucks, on to an even busier road, dusty and flanked by gas stations and hulks of unfinished buildings, walking on and on ‘til we came to our room–sweet, with a view of the sea, but sterile and isolated. We were sequestered away from village life.
And then … the rain began to fall. In buckets, pushed by a very cold wind that reminded us it was still only April, the rains came and came and came.
WTF? This was Greece, not Iceland! I hated it! I was pre-menstrual. I missed my daughter Breelyn and hadn’t been able to call home to talk with her for many days, as all Greek Telephone operators (OTE) were on strike. (Various strikes, we came to find and experience many more times, were a common occurrence.) The rain was cold and driving and any clothing fit for colder climes we’d left back in our hotel in Athens. I was miserable. I became a whiny bitch. My lovely Paul–either wanting to save us from where my PMS misery was leading, or just because he loved me–found a room closer to the pulse, a dark, damp cubby with only one thin blanket on the bed, but at least we were in the village. I hunkered down through that first bitter night wallowing in self-pity. I curled up fetal, fell into fitful sleep and dreamed that the white wall behind me was all aglow (a fantastical orange halo emanated from my miserable, damp head, reflecting the neon unease symbolic of terrible news we’d heard on the ferry from Italy of the nuclear tragedy in Chernobyl) while Paul went out after midnight to observe the local spectacle of the Easter procession, winding through the town, the flower draped effigy of Christ born by pallbearers from the town’s main church, the rest of the village following in a trail of candle light.
I missed it.
I just wanted to go home, or at the least, head back to Athens and down to Crete where the weather ––and less radiated atmosphere––held more promise.
And then the sun came. Imagine drum rolls and heralds of trumpets, an angelic choir…
As it dried the spring damp, the sun lit us on fire. We found yet another room, one in an empty pension in the old neighborhood, Plakes, with a small balcony hovering above a shallow cliff to the sea. (cost then … 1,700 drachmae or $11.00.) From Matoula’s pensione we explored the quiet harbor–in 1986 still only dotted here and there by a few tavernas, an ouzerie and one kafenion populated by old guys singing and drinking coffee (or ouzo?) and playing backgammon; and shops, not tatty tourist traps, but places that locals could visit for real goods. We watched fishermen patiently mend their nets and then set out for another day of work; we walked and walked and then sat, for hours, over a bottle of retsina watching the town come alive at dusk, the people spilling out to socialize and embark upon the traditional evening ‘volta’, the walk along the quay with family and friends. Renting funky scooters–one with no brakes, the other unable to carry both of us together up many of the hills–we explored dirt tracks in the far reaches of the green and stunningly beautiful island, scooting through farmland past newly planted gardens and herds of goats to the old monasteries and then back to town though pine and cypress forests along the edge of the sea. Raised alongside the Pacific, I knew the sea to be angry, dark, cold and dangerous. Here, it was welcoming, soft and sensual, hosting the colors of some otherworld’s palette. Beaches, history, olive groves filled with wildflowers, people with the gift of an amazing candor and warm hospitality, warm sun, it all touched us with a marvelous fever.
Skiathos had infected us.
We have returned almost every year since, each visit giving us more insight into, and an ongoing education in Greek history and culture. We began to learn to speak and write Greek–something I likely won’t master to any real degree until I’m about 90. And the music–oh, the music! Such passion and poetry echoing the peoples’ many struggles, and their many triumphs, with notes and sounds and voices one can’t help but be moved by. Then there’s that Mediterranean diet, and the constant hiking here and there, steps to climb, moving one’s body from sunup to the wee hours, all contributing to wellness within and without. These visits offered us lasting friendships, and over time unveiled not only more of the beauties but also some if the island’s darker secrets–the plight of the dogs and cats of the streets. But were it not for the darkness, we would not know the light, so we embraced it all and fell hopelessly in love with the island and its people.
I venture there now for a month each year in springtime to call upon inspiration and tend to my own secret garden. It is the place where I easily access my most authentic self, and can fill up on calm enough to last me the rest of the year. Magic gets conjured in the perfect meeting of all of the elements there; the sun, the warm waters, balmy breezes and solid earth and under their spell I can sit for hours on a secluded beach, taking shade from a favorite tree while I read and write and doze and dream, and can float for hours on healing waters, and eventually become that water, the earth beneath me, the gulls and falcon soaring above me and the wind dancing through the trees. Priceless.
Paul and I have visited several times in the winter as well, opportunity to explore a more authentic Athens and delve into the mysteries of Delphi and Meteora, to visit friends living on the mainland in Karditsa and then moving on to Skiathos, where the island shows us its natural beauty stripped of tourists and busy-ness, in a season when the hard working locals have time to sit and chat. The small, wooden boats are ‘resting’ for the winter, out of the water and awaiting repairs or new paint. Empty beaches, empty alleyways, the local cultural events and Holy Day celebrations, wood smoke curling through quiet streets, bundled up against the chill north wind watching snow start to scatter through the clouds … it all brings us to a different intimacy with the island.
Now, I feel like Skiathos and I are old lovers. She welcomes me with open arms, we bicker and become dissatisfied with one another on occasion but she knows that I take nothing from her but inspiration (and a few rocks and shells) and give my undying loyalty–and feed and medicate her street kitties–in return. It is a bright light and peace in the midst of the cacophony of a world at war with itself. She gifts me with words in the first rays of sunrise as I sit on the veranda with my coffee and pen, gazing over the morning sea disturbed only by the rhythm of feeding dolphins or the wake of a small caique heading out for an early catch.
I do begin to long for this place when the dry summer starts it’s collision with the coming winter–there’s the knowing that I have a long journey ahead through the underworld before surfacing in the spring with its promise of respite. I catch my breath sometimes as I find the need to push her away so that I can stay present here, to be productive, and carry on with my work.
I am at work on my second novel–another set on a Greek island, but of a different tenor. It is a journey through change, the telling of a very successful but dispirited middle aged woman’s coming to terms with aging, her move away from sadness and fear, and into knowing and loving herself. Her companion–a gentle dog, a pit bull she’d pulled from US streets and the brutal life of a ‘bait dog’–not only helps her find her way, but also touches and changes the lives of islanders with an extraordinary exuberance in his ability to forgive, and to give.
While welcoming and relishing the next foray into the rich dark of winter … the words that come in the dark of the morn, dear friends and family, nights by the wood-fire, the rhythms of life here on the farm with Paul and Lovie, the cats and horses … I will just have to wait to see what the next series of Skiathos sunrises holds for me!
Maybe you have the desire to see if Greece holds ‘it’ for you? I am hoping to take a small group of independent travelers on a ’non-tour Tour’ to Athens and Skiathos in September 2014. If you would like to find out more about this ‘Journey To The Muse’ email me at eleanoremacdonald at gmail.com and I will send initial info on to you. You can also find ‘Journey To The Muse’ on Facebook.
A friend of ours, a happily transplanted Brit who now lives on Skiathos, took the photo below … he has a great blog, ‘The Skiathian – Life on a green island in the Aegean’, where one will find almost daily posts that will give you an insiders view.
all photos ©Eleanore MacDonald except the photo above by Skiathian.
Sometimes I am criticized for a tendency to ‘anthropomorphize’ – giving non-human forms human characteristics or human behaviors.
I don’t, really. What I do is recognize that the animals are sentient beings. They are conscious beings, they have complex social structure within their family groups and they respond to various stimuli or situations with what I wholly consider to be feelings. Not only with their instincts. As one who speaks “Animal” better than “Human”, and feels that they are better people than we human people are, I have no trouble with that. I believe that they must be treated with due respect, be listened to, have all of their needs met, and if quiet ourselves enough to able to really hear and feel them, we become acutely aware of their own vast array of what I can only consider to be emotions. Not emotions just like ours but perhaps emotions much more developed than ours, given that they still retain senses that we humans neglected in ourselves and therefore lost the use of in our evolution over the course of our life on this earth.
I’ve watched a mare mourn her dead foal. One cannot tell me that mare was not grieving, or at least feeling some semblance of what we recognize as grief as she stood with her head almost to the ground, moaning over the foals body for hours. I watched it all and, shaken to the depths of my own heart, touched into that reservoir of grief I’ve dipped in and out of throughout my own life. The mare grieved – and then moved on. The animals do feel, and feel deeply and then, because they live in the moment rather than the past or future, quickly let go – unlike like us humanoids who tend to dwell on our emotions/problems forever!
Most horses are very social beings, but my own mare could care less about whether or not she has an equine companion or even if there are others in her vicinity. She is a loner, happy with her human/canine/feline herd, and just tolerates Molly the pony who now shares her domain. However, years ago I witnessed an extraordinary scenario when Tempest began reacting to the calls of 2 horses being shod – out of her sight – at the farm across our lane. She called to them with a voice charged with something new to my understanding of her vocabulary – a high pitched scream that made every hair on my body stand on end – and then began to race the perimeter of her one acre pasture. Head and tail held high, ears pricked, she ran … calling to them with what I felt was recognition, and even a joy. As exuberant calls reverberated back and forth across our valley I walked up our drive to see who was causing the commotion and saw my friend’s horse trailer parked across the way with the two loud culprits tied to it.
Joe and Gray Thing were the herd/family that Tempest spent several of her youngest years with – but had not seen for 10 years.
For at least half an hour the 3 old friends conversed. There are always new horses in and out of that facility and often one hears the brief calls of horses greeting one another, but at that moment there were at least 10 other horses in the vicinity, none of them joining this conversation between Tempest, Joe and Gray Thing. They remained absolutely silent.
In short time the shared conversation turned from one of recognition to one of frustration and with the plaintive cries, Tempest’s ‘happiness’ deteriorated. Stressed and frantic, she ran back and forth along her fence-line acting as though she wanted to go OVER the 6 ft. fence to get to the source of those unseen but familiar voices. I put her in a smaller enclosure where she wouldn’t hurt herself in her frenzy. Eventually her two old companions were loaded up into their trailer and driven down the road – the 3 continued to vocalize until they could no longer hear one another. With Joe and Gray Thing gone, Tempest quit her storming about, settling in the far corner of her paddock closest to where their voices had come to her from. She stood motionless – and whined – yes, she whined, not whinnied – for what seemed an eternity. She gazed into the now quiet distance and moaned, and wouldn’t come to me for a carrot or sugar cube and simply was not her usual persnickety, demanding, funny self for several hours more. Then – she seemed to let it all go and was all business as usual, bossing her pony and begging for treats.
Was that nothing? Feeling? Instinct? Those horses responded to one another with a profundity that most humans sadly refuse, or fail, to recognize. Horses, dogs, cats, goats and cows are among the lovely beings that have graced my life with their loving presence, and their undeniable, otherworldly sensibilities with such great range of feeling. I find that they should ‘feel’ to be undeniable, and worthy of deep study.
So now we come to the Curious Case of Lovie Snugglebum.
Lovie is an insecure dog. I think she is a naturally submissive, fearful dog whose sad and terrible past deconstructed whatever courage she harbored naturally in her little being. That said, in the 8 months that she has been with us she has gone from a shaking bundle of sadness and fear to a part of the dog park pack, unafraid of other dogs and most humans. Especially those humans who are attached to ‘happy’ dogs. She radiates happiness herself, and has an undeniable sense of humor. Well tucked into our lives here at Dancing Dog Farm, she bounds about in an abundance of mirth, wrestling kitties and chatting up the horses, snuggling with us in bed in the early hours, providing us with an abundant supply of that precious currency we’d been stripped of for awhile – a dog’s joy.
Recently, I was away for an extended period. Physically, psychically and spiritually away, cradled in the arms of the Aegean. I journey to the North Sporades island of Skiathos yearly to revive and rejuvenate and consort with the spirits that tickle the words for me and encourage them to surface for air, the respite prompting the emptying of the old and stale. Then I fill up, with everything good that will help me continue whatever I endeavor to create here at home. The new book, my novel ‘The Turning’ got a good bit of energizing while I was there.
Paul, my dear and darling husband/partner/best friend stayed home so that I could go off to work with unbridled time to write – no business or gigs or life or hungry dogs, or impatient horses demanding my time. While I was there I received several frantic texts, usually in the middle of the night (10 hours difference in time between here and Greece) … “Tempest’s eye is F#####D UP again, what do I do?” and “Old Lily-cat can’t POOP! What do I do?” and … “I picked up the flyswatter and now Lovie won’t talk to me! She hides and cowers and thinks I am a monster! S.O.S! WHAT DO I DO?”
Poor Paul. Tempest, my 25-year-old quarter horse mare, has an eye that gives her – and us – unending grief. It gets irritated or ulcerates regularly, for no reason yet known to us or to our Vet. Paul has learned well how to be nursemaid to an 1100 lb. hooved being and after I reminded him of that, he powered up and doctored that eye like a pro, and all was well by the time I returned. Lily, our 20 year old cat, was fed a bit of butter – and all slid out just fine in the end. J But Lovie, dear little Lovie Snugglebum, remains a bit of a conundrum – for both Paul and I.
As we know, Lovie has a past – one that still sticks to her a bit and is cause for the preservation of a small reservoir of fear deep within herself. It was a terrible past, and being a submissive girl to begin with she hasn’t yet the courage to let the last of its scary shadows slip away, no matter she has been with us in our loving, calm home for 9 months. I believe in all seriousness that she lives with the canine version of PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Canine PTSD has been well studied, thankfully, and does indeed exist, not only in military dogs who have been involved in conflict and combat, but also in household pets who have suffered trauma.)
Why wouldn’t a sentient non-human who has been made to suffer terrible violence be afflicted with a condition like PTSD? (Lovie was shot with a pellet gun and beaten by worthless humans in her ‘past life’.)
The mammals, many species of which are our constant companions, have blood coursing through their veins. They suckle and mother and nurture their young just as we do. They feel physical pain and honor intricate social structures with their own kind – and others. They form lasting bonds with their own kind and all other forms of living beings. They have awareness of their bodies and the space around them, and are responsive and reactive to a wide variety of stimuli. How could they NOT also have a range of emotion, or perhaps (well, most likely) even something far more developed than what the humans limited perspective of feelings are? I think that they do.
Like humans I’ve known who suffer from PTSD, Lovie also generally appears to be happy, well settled and trusting. She gives the impression of being a normal, balanced dog – and is, most of the time, but PTSD causes one to feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger – so even when safe with me, in the safety of the car, she will leap into the foot well of the back seat and shake violently in undeniable fear just the sight of men in big trucks with shaved heads and tattoos (really) in a parking lot or at the gas station. (She was beaten and essentially terrorized by such people.) In the safety of home with nothing to fear, a distant shotgun blast or the sound of a motorcycle on the highway, a chainsaw, loud voices and sometimes just anything NEW in her environs can send her into a fearful panic that shuts her down for the good part of a day.
Just instinct? Self preservation is an instinct, yes … but fear is an emotion.
While Paul was being the brave, lone caretaker of Dancing Dog Farm he decided that the new crop of houseflies had overstayed their welcome, and reached for the flyswatter. At this point Lovie had been with us for 8 months; she dotes on Paul, and he has never raised a hand nor his voice to her and never will. He hasn’t an unkind bit of DNA hiding anywhere in him – except for that one wee strand that allows him to eradicate evil bugs. With the first THWACK of the swatter Lovie panicked. Shaking violently, cringing, tail tucked, ears held back, panting heavily, all signs of distress, her PTSD kicked in. For the next few days Lovie wouldn’t come to him when he asked her to. She wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t even come for her favorite and usually irresistible treats. Paul had a hard time getting her to come into the house, her known sanctuary, and she would run off and hide from him in the bushes. But at night, finally back in the house, she would snuggle next to him on the bed. I suppose he was “OK” when he was asleep. Of course this certainly hurt his feelings but he carried on with patience and finally Lovie came back to her courage, and to him – but she wasn’t fully herself until I returned home from Greece and her ‘security system’ and all that is normal and known to her was once again intact and in place.
However, the evening after my return home, as he has a hundred times since Lovie came to live with us, Paul picked up a spatula while he was cooking dinner and Lovebug reeled in panic again.
We presume that the sight of what she perceives as something hurtful in our hands trumps her trust and sends her to the memory of something bad, and into fear. Panic. Why now, and not months ago, we may never know. I’ve never had a canine companion beset with the conundrums Lovie faces, so my frustration with this latest episode sent me searching for help. The next day I found myself hovering over a shelf-full of boxes of ‘ThunderShirts™’ at the pet store. I’d heard of these things … snug, stretchy, thin fabric jackets that, when fitted properly, will hug a dog’s body in a way that is said to make them feel more secure. I’ve seen a body-wrapping technique similar to this at work on fearful horses, helping them to connect brain to body and legs in stressful situations and in turn, be less anxious. So – why wouldn’t this ThunderShirt™ idea work for Lovie? I was a bit skeptical -and embarrassed, for here I was considering buying what some consider to be a ‘gimmick’, but in desperation I bought one. (Though I was sure I’d be sending it back for my ‘money back guarantee’ because it just wouldn’t live up to its promise!).
It works – to a degree, but that is enough for me! Not unlike Temple Grandin’s ‘hug box’, it has a calming effect and we have found that he T’shirt and various homeopathic remedies, and even melatonin in the most difficult of situations (4th of July) all help ease the suffering that usually sends her out into her ‘place of no return’. We watch for signs of stress, and the new things or sounds that might set her PTSD into motion, and when she begins to flounder, on goes the ThunderShirt™ and the darling little dear relaxes. She loves that darned thing, and even in this heat we’ve been having, over 105 for days on end, she wiggles in happiness at sight of it and stands quietly while it goes on. I testify!
We are also attending “school” with Beverly Mercier Ward … Beverley is a canine behaviorist who works with people and their ‘difficult’ dogs, as well as with dogs housed at Sammie’s Friends, many of whom are previously mistreated, misunderstood pit bulls in need of help in becoming balanced and therefore adoptable dogs. Beverley’s work is very successful, non-violent and reward (YUMMY treat) driven and Lovie relaxed quite easily into her class, with its tendency to provide something ‘NEW!’ with the addition of a new dog and its person each week! Mz. Snugglebum is pretty great at basic ‘obedience’, but that is not our reason for going to dog-school. We are there because Paul and I want to better learn how to maintain her focus when her panic sets in, and rather than retreating into her known habit of dealing with fear by disengaging from the world, to trust us to keep her safe and ultimately, to feel secure in herself. We now have hope that the new things, like me being gone for a month or her beloved Paul picking up an evil flyswatter, eventually won’t cause her well of courage to run dry and fry her security system. She may always have moments in which she catches glimpses of those ghostly fears, but we want to help her the best we can to go from being an 80% balanced and happy pup to 90% – always hoping, for her sake, for 100%!
And then Paul won’t have to worry about using the spatula.
Lovie has come a long way. As have Paul and I. Sometimes we long for the comfort of an uncomplicated dog-companion, but I’m thinking now that with patience, knowledge and understanding we really will have one in Lovie one day. Lovie Snugglebum, a sentient being capable of a range of emotion and more, fills our lives with goodness, and goodness knows we will continue to fill hers with the same.
(If anyone here has a ‘fearful dog’ companion, you might be interested in No Dog About It, a blog that has helped me understand a great deal more about fearful dogs – therefore empowering me to be of better help to Lovie.)
Rose colored mornings, magenta sunsets … all so typical of a northern California winter sky – but really, not day after day after day.
I find myself yearning a bit for the ravages of winter. Winter, with its bone damp and cheerless skies, furious winds and pelting rains driving every living thing to shelter … the nights by the fire, cats curled and snoring dog by my side, and raging fire in the stove complementing a glass of wine and a good book. It all turns me inward, happily seeking those deep and dark discoveries that nurture feelings that may have been folded up and laid off in a far corner, all stirring up the words that act as bridge from my secret shadows to the light. I write a lot in the winter. But this winter? What winter?
It seems so long go now that the mighty oaks that surround us here still wore their orange robes and dared winter to come and strip them bare, and drive the last of their life deep into the ground, deep into their roots, that quiet place that harbors the bit of life-force left over. There the flame grows and builds until spring sucks it all back up into the green glory of rebirth. I was so excited for the winter to come, then … I felt so like those trees, daring but ready to welcome the time I’d be sent to the underworld for the winter.
When the first great storm of our season was predicted and well on its way, I watched carefully as the wind began to whip and churn and then hit with a roar, the air suddenly alive with oak-leaf like panicked butterflies, and within an hour the orange robe was reduced to carpet under my feet and trees stood naked and shivering. The winds tore trees from the ground, felled them onto houses and roads, the rains backed up the seasonal streams and caused ponds to over fill and overflow turning pastures to lakes and our Yuba River into a torrent that shook me to the bone.
A few of these storms primed our winter and covered the neighboring hills and mountains with a white shawl – and then stopped coming.
A sun seeker such as myself cannot be driven indoors, let alone deep within when the skies are clear. There’s too much to do! With a little farm and its resident horses and goat to care for, the extra time allowed in any day was consumed by the sunny day routines normally left to the drier months. When clouds would cloak the sun, and the mists would rise from the valley to bathe us with that bone-cold chill, I rejoiced. Despite more than a month of mornings in the mid 20’s that I hacked – with a hammer – at 1 inch thick ice in the horse’s troughs, even those clear mid-January days that usually offer no warmth at all no matter how long you bathe in the sun’s light, were an illusion. I sat outside one day all dressed in my winter warmies actually hoping that the darkened skies, rays of sun biting through like shards of crystal, might somehow connect me to winter but started to peel the layers of fleece off as the sun warmed me too much. Warm sun in January.
Its interesting to me that, for me, this no-winter, rather than filled with words sprouting from fertile thought was time set instead deep in the doldrums. No current, no wind for my sails. Echoing the upturned season, perhaps, it has been filled with what I consider to be ‘spiritless writing’, hours spent pouring over old words as I continue to stuff them into the various and very different tight harness’ that are required of agents and publishers I pursue for ‘Graces’. 380 words distilled into synopsis of 1 page, 2 pages, 5 pages, or a chapter-by-chapter outline. A 2 paragraph summary, or how about a 2 page summary? Drives me nuts. It’s the part of being an author that I hold no fondness for. There has seemed to be little left over energy to put into this blog, or into my new novel that wants to burst out and thrive in the light.
But I’m starting to see that the gift of this no-winter’ is just that. Time to ride out the doldrums with the hard stuff – leave the flowers to the spring.
Now I am tired of mourning winter’s missing and am driven to get on with welcoming spring. (Watch, we’ll get another monumental storm next week, now that I’ve said that!)
There has been one lovely plus offered up by the non-winter – the lack of mud! Not only because of the horses, but because we now have lovely Lovie in our lives, who loves nothing more than diving head first into a puddle, digging frantically until it is a roiling mass of muck, coming up for breath now and again until she is finished with what I only surmise she considers to be her masterpiece – a broad dog smile shining out from the black sticky mud that covers her head to her shoulders, and her paws to her belly. So … that lack of muddy earth has been a blessing in one sense!
Lovie has gained 12 pounds since she came to us, a frightened ball of bones, in September. She’s such a joyful sprite who in the kind weather has been able to spend hours each day discovering what it is like to be the puppy she never got to be! She turned 1 in January (our guess) and upon reaching that milestone, began doing the devilish things pups are known to do… shoes or tools, or anything within reach actually, waggling from her mouth as she runs and leaps her way to the barn and back, happily bringing them when called only to grin and leap away to the far ends of the acres where we only can find her prizes after a major hunt … inserts gnawed, cats chased, hiding prized gopher heads in her mouth to deposit onto the hearth rug, jumping up to stand on the car hood, (“but the cats do it…”) joyfully dismembering and disemboweling her stuffies one by one and spreading their insides to the four directions. Really, all we see is a dog allowed to ‘become’ herself; a spirit once so encased in a fear that she could see goodness in nothing, allowed to emerge in safety, she’s burst from her chrysalis, and with her new joy has come a personality so enormous no darkness could ever again contain. Her once-deep well of fears is now very shallow, with only a few shadows left clinging to its crumbling walls. She still trembles at the sound of loud motorcycles and gunshot, and has distrust really of only one last person who I just think doesn’t understands dogs or what it was that she had to live through in her past, but we’re doing our best to help her move past these last remnants. She loves the dog park, her pack and their happy people, and at about 1:30 each day begins to pester and implore, as it surely is time to go… to run and wrestle with Buddy and Karma and Fred and other dogs who like her, came from devastated lives to emerge joyful bringers of happiness. We can’t say ‘Karma’, or ‘dog park’ out loud unless we can stand the time that follows that she wines and frets as she insists “get thee there”. (She is learning Greek now – like Djuna did before her – and soon ‘tha pa’me to parko?’ is something we’ll be spelling rather than saying.)
We love our Lovie, a bright blessing
that sprang from a different sort of
the one that enshrouded us
for a long time after Djuna died, a winter of the soul.
So now, in February as the daffies and narcissus persist in their usual trajectory from earth to sun and on to their big show, exploding into blossom at the end of the month, I brush away the annoyance I’ve felt by being snubbed by winter and start tending to the juicy shoots starting to emerge in ideas and words … my own ‘big show’, I presume, whatever it may be. It’s good that this life keeps us guessing…
One flower that emerged from the non-winter and the decomposing remains of my life in modern folk music – I am organizing an early September ‘non tour’ to Greece for 8 to 12 independent travelers … I will be the ‘midwife’ rather than a ‘tour guide’ for those who choose to come along – there to ensure a safe and comfortable birth into experience of the culture and this place I love so well. I will arrange transportation, accommodation and furnish ways to experience the Greece and island beauty that lives behind the veil that many regular travelers never get past. We will start with 2 full days exploring history and antiquity in Athens and then travel to a group of islands in the western Aegean, the Sporades … the gates of the wind … namely, to the island Skiathos, a gorgeous, verdant place to which Paul and I have traveled to for 27 years, where one can explore delight, swim, just sit and stare, eat, drink, hike, visit other neighboring islands … paint with my dear friend Yvonne Ayoub, learn about myth and magic and history of the islands with my friend, historian and author and resident of Skiathos, Victoria Sandels … or spend quiet time somewhere that is purely magical, with me, working on writing prompts … Something for everyone. If any of you are interested, please let me know how best to contact you.
Breathing in, breathing out. Welcoming Spring, now … In Gratitude.
Always… the dogs saved me.
It’s hard for me to remember times in my life that found me deep in a state of doglessness. I’ve always had gentle beings in dog bodies guiding me. My first memories are of a dog. When I was three or four, there was Queenie – a Weimeraner, with me through the unsettling times that my adoptive parents spent screaming at one another. A big, gray pillow of love I would rest upon, curl up with to snuggle away the scaries. After watching Virginia, my mother, ride on horses I think I must have gotten the idea that perhaps I could do the same on Queenie. She immediately told me no, by piercing my ear. And then she was gone.
Cherie, a small black mass of poodle curls, got me through my Mother’s death. He slept with me, was always by my side and kept that monumental loneliness that only a motherless child feels just hovering in the shadows. He taught me to stand up for myself and bite the ankles of those who were not nice people (in my case, not literally) and even to share, as he shared his milk bones with me! He taught me the language of Dog and took me for long conversational walks, and slept curled in my bed where we whispered to one another until the good dreams took over. He pooped in the swimming pool one day; I think to spite my evil stepmother. And then he was gone.
Their being taken from me left a gaping chasm in my already inflamed soul. They had helped me survive a sadness that too many of us suffer as children, that some never recover from… They let me know that no matter what, I was OK and would be OK, that I was loved, that I was safe. I mourned them even more than I mourned my missing mother. And those two were just the beginning – I’ve always felt the need to pay them back in kind and so it seems a dog or three have always been by my side.
Until March, when Djuna had to leave…
I’ve written so much about him here on these pages, I need say no more other than that his leaving us was a devastating blow – and through our grief, our missing him at every turn, with a dreadful, dog-shaped hole in our hearts we were left doomed to a spate of doglessness. Being quite busy helped. Music, the farm, writing … being in Greece, filling our cups with the light and inspiration that always nourishes us to our bones, it all helped. Paul and I engaged in many a conversation that helped to ease our missing of Djuna and nudge aside a bit of heart, enough to begin to think of bringing in a new companion to fill the holes, should he or she find us.
It was a ‘Yes’ day, something I wake up to on occasion. I would say ‘yes’ to anything that came my way, leaving all doors open to let the light in.
On my list of things to do that day was to go to our local animal shelter, Sammie’s Friends, to deliver copies of ‘All The Little Graces’ which they sell as they wish and keep the proceeds to benefit the animals there. It’s the least I can do. I also was going to apply to possibly adopt one of a litter of Border Collie pups that had been dumped on the angels there as newborns. I had to be ‘approved’ in order to see them when they were ready for the world, and approved I was. As it is now a no-kill shelter, it doesn’t break my heart to walk through and give love to (and get love from) each of the dogs and cats there as I know that they will all eventually find the home they deserve. The ulterior motive here is to see if ‘The One’ happens to be there waiting for me – but though the shelter is filled with lovely dogs, none of them told me that I was ‘The One’ for them.
Upon returning home, as I walked through the door the phone rang. “Eleanore, a dog just came in that I think you need to see” Maureen said. Oh geez, I’d just driven the 20 minutes from town – but it was a ‘yes’ day, so off I went, back to the shelter.
And in came the light.
The dog kennels are in a cement block building, vibrating that afternoon with the loud joy of dogs that knew it was time for their afternoon walkies. It was if hungry lions were roaring, the sound overwhelming and terrifying, and I almost had to cover my ears.
She lay there in a heap of fear, plastered to the cold cement floor as though trying to become one with it, trying to disappear from a terrible, loud world filled with pain and sadness. She shivered uncontrollably, teeth chattering, terror radiating from her emaciated body like shards of lightning. I sat, trying to sooth her with a voice that usually works to bring the scared ones to safety, but she was absolutely shut down. Eyes vacant, there was no response other than even more violent trembling. I scanned her for signs of her past and saw that besides being skeletal, her little body was scattered with open wounds. My heart shattered right there.
“She can’t stay here.” I said. ‘She’ll die of fright’. I was told that she had been carried in by a harried woman with toddlers her side. She was 8 months old and good with dogs, children – and cats. With 19-year-old Queen Lily at home, those were words that clinched the deal and I heard myself say (while another self was yelling ‘No NO NOOOOOOO Eleanore!”) – “I’ll foster her.”
It took me four hours to coax her out of the car. I sat, reading by the open car door, trying to let her know that she was safe. Darkness fell and I needed to get Posy goat put to bed for the night. Frustrated, I walked Posy to the goat villa and en route whispered to Djuna, wherever he may be. “Help her, please.” When I turned back to the house, there she was – standing in the open, tail tight between her legs, but out of the car. It seemed to be her safety zone, and she dipped in and out of it, trying her legs on new ground, looking for trouble and when her well of courage emptied, she’d hop back in to fill back up.
She slept in the car that night.
The next day, she came in after much coaxing – and immediately found Djuna’s sofa. Her power-spot. I examined her, doctored open wounds, and when she’d summoned enough of that special courage she had, she began to explore a bit. She returned from our bedroom with Djuna’s favorite (disemboweled, destuffed) stuffie, the hedgehog hanging from her mouth. A bit of a twinkle in her eye. Tail wagging. I have no idea where she found it. Maybe Djuna showed her.
Paul and I awoke at dawn the next morning, just at the time that Djuna would always come to snuggle with us, to this thin little being jumping on the bed – and taking Djuna’s place. “I’m afraid I like her.” Paul said.
Lovie is her name. She’s had her ups and downs here but once the dark shroud of trauma began to wear away, Lovie began to come alive. She started her second life like a tight rosebud, and shedding her fears one by one slowly opened to the light of love, as a flower opens to the sun. Each fresh petal told us more of her story. The sound of motorcycles in the distance sent her into a panic. She’d been terribly mistreated and had swellings on her body, signs of abuse. Large men with no hair and gruff voices brought on the shivers, her coat pilo-erect. The sounds of children in the distance perked her up, and while she eschewed kibble for days, she LOVED the rustle of a bag of chips, and dove into the butterscotch wormer the vet offered her. Chips and Candy! She’d had children of her own, and likely was their angel, that buffer between them and violence in the home. Dogs terrified her. She was covered with open bite wounds and old scars. We discovered that he’d been shot, as there were pellets under her skin, showing in small and hard, round wounds that she chewed at furiously for her first few days here … and purged herself of the pellets as though purging herself of her past life.
A bit of bird-dog betrays her lineage as we watch her sneak up on the birds and then hold a perfect ‘point’. She follows their flight path with envy and sometimes tries to take off after them. She loves water and mud puddles and has her own little pool now that she leaps into from six feet away with great, triumphant splashes, rolling and wallowing and grunting like a little pig. (We’ve found it to be difficult to keep her out of the horses’ water troughs.)
Lovie is just a pup, probably for the first time, really, in her short life. She’s learning how to ‘be’ in love and in safety, but really has come so far, so quickly. She’s studied the book that Djuna left behind for her in all of his scents that still linger. Food is good. Burying bones is good. Zoomies, leaping and flying and dancing, tongue waggling – good. Stuffies and sticks and water and pinecones – and socks and shoes are all good. (But Djuna forgot to tell her the part about bringing all of the things she asks us to throw for her, or those things she steals, back to us, running right past in mischievous squigglyness instead.) People are good. She has a job keeping us in line and making us laugh. She has horses to watch over and cats to cuddle – and is learning to speak the dignified language of ‘goat’. Greek will be next. With the great compassion kind dogs have, her boyfriend ‘Rudy’ has melted her icy fears and she now plays and leaps and runs with indomitable joy. She now loves the dog park and her pack of ‘littles’ there, and the larger dogs who can only try to keep up with her deer-like agility.
The car is REALLY good, and with the window open she leans her head on the sill, eyes closed, blissfully studying the notes that come to her in the wind. She’s been through ‘cat school’, being tutored, severely at times, by Madame Lily who, at 19 still has it in her to show her how to become an Honorary Cat. She has been to the beach. The pictures here tell us what she feels about that.
Lovie has been with us for two months now, is sleek and soft – we can’t see her ribs any more.
And she smiles.
With an incredible capacity for forgiveness, Lovie blossoms, filling our once dog-joyless home with the essence of great contentment- and a lot of laughter – echoing and magnifying all of the happiness (that filled dog shaped holes) that was graced us by all those who came before her – and when she comes up on the bed and nestles into our warmth … we smile.
People tell me how lucky she is that we rescued her.
But we’re the ones who’ve been rescued. Lovie Cupcake saved us, from a life of doglessness.