I am going to do something good for you

After attending a writing festival in Possidi, Halkidiki, I returned to Athens to say some goodbyes, then boarded a flight to London.

Two days into my Watson year, I interviewed a funeral director in Athens. He was in his sixties, soft-spoken, and kept his wireless ear buds in for the entirety of our conversation. Directing funerals was not always how he’d imagined his life, but after the stress and dissatisfaction with his job in journalism proved unbearable, an ostensibly morbid career path suddenly became an attractive one. 

We talked for about two hours, enough time for me to get the full rundown of burial rituals in Greece, to learn why bones are exhumed only a few years after they are buried (often due to lack of space in cemeteries), and to have discovered that he views his job as more consultatory than macabre. His main role, as he explained to me, was to listen to the families and their stories, to help them in the first few moments after a death. I imagined that providing this sort of guidance came naturally to him since earlier in our conversation he fondly recalled his time in college reading horoscopes for extra money.

Grateful to have had such a good first interview when I’d hardly been in the country long enough to overcome jet lag, I asked if he could teach me how to say ‘thank you’ in Greek. “Eυχαριστώ,” he said, and then said three more times as I poorly mimicked, my mouth struggling to make the sounds corresponding with the letter ‘χ’ (a sound with no direct English equivalent). Once I came even remotely close to something that sounded like thank you, he smiled and explained that the translation means “I am going to do something good for you.” 

I’m actually not entirely sure if that translation is accurate—I’ve tried to google it to no avail—but it has nonetheless set the tone for my time in Greece (Greek friends, don’t spoil this for me if it is incorrect). As I was leaving, I asked if there was a place where I could dispose of the plastic water bottle he’d given me. Though the bottle itself was to go in the trash, the cap was to be collected and later given to an organization which, for every few thousand bottle caps that are returned, donates a wheelchair to someone in need. Then and there, I resolved to collect all of my bottle caps, promising to return them to him before I left. 

That’s how I wound up carrying a plastic bag around with me for the rest of the summer, diligently collecting each of my bottle caps and incessantly bugging those with me for theirs. Even mere hours into my time in Greece, I had the feeling that by the time I left I would have the strong urge to do something good for it.  

I write this post from the United Kingdom, where I arrived only two days ago. Coincidently, my first country change coincided with the beginning of the school year in the States and the first peaks of fall in many of London’s pristine parks, two evergreen markers of a summer’s pass. For me, change always catalyzes reflection, awakening a dual desire to hold onto my most fond memories from ‘the past chapter’ and also to write its last few sentences so as to begin the next. 

While in Greece, I conducted interviews with individuals working in all sorts of jobs related to palliative care, witnessed a number of religious celebrations with elements related to health and illness, volunteered with refugees in Lesvos, learned just enough Greek to sheepishly make it through basic exchanges yet confidently express gratitude, felt the magic of the island Amorgos, and filled 1.5 journals recounting my experiences.

There was a period of time where I struggled to synthesize all that I was taking in, often feeling as if the things I was learning lacked a cohesive narrative. In those moments, I questioned if my lack of understanding was a result of not doing a ‘good enough’ job or not ‘doing enough’—two anxieties common to the Watson experience. Ironically, it only occurred to me on the day I walked aimlessness through Mytilene, having purposefully chosen to accept the fact that I had nothing to do that day, did I realize that the seeming lack of cohesion was not a result of my own doing, but rather a reflection of the current palliative care landscape. Greece is in the very preliminary stages of developing a national palliative care strategy, so those involved in the field are grappling with many of the same question that I am: What constitutes effective palliative care provisioning? How does serious illness impact the individual, the family, the state? How do laws and rules (both political and religious) affect medical care? What matters most at the end of life?

Though it was not intentional, beginning Watson in a country at the preliminary stages of implementing a palliative care strategy has taught me many vital lessons about doing a Watson. For one, it’s made me resolve to go low and slow this year—to, as my favorite author Barry Lopez once wrote, “take measure of the bend through experiences.” 

I’ve learned to take measure equally from conversations with clinicians who voluntarily work weekends and nights to provide end of life care as I have from the traditional music that lands so well on my ears accompanied by dances that so graciously forgive my two left feet. From two-hour harborside dinners that couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be hurried by anything as from overcoming the challenges of interviewing with the bounds of a language barrier. From views outside of a train window that literally make my jaw drop. From people and places that I’ve come to love. 

Greece has got my number; it has since the first moment I stepped onto the tarmac after an EasyJet flight, looked out into a sky made pink by a sun lazily disappearing behind mountains and thought, “I’m here. I am really here.” 

There are a million good things I want to do for Greece, but for now I’ll have to settle with my returned bottle caps and an incredible heartfelt ευχαριστώ.

One of the many incredible sunsets I saw in Greece.

I am ‘on vacation’ this week, enjoying time with my grandparents. It is nice, albeit a bit odd, to see people I know again. I’ll be based in the UK through mid-September, attending a conference on the social context of death, dying, and disposal and learning from a hospice organization that does a fantastic job engaging the community where it is based. I leave the UK onward to India in about three weeks. 

Collecting Moments

Since the last post, I’ve returned to Athens from Mytilene, then travelled to two islands in the Cyclades: Amorgos and Tinos.

When I arrived at the airport in Mytilene a few weeks ago for my departure, I was met with an odd question by the ticketing agent. “Athens,” she began, “why would you go there in August?” 

Athens is somewhat of a ghost town these days. Hoping to escape the unrelenting heat, individuals who can afford to take a vacation often do so for most, if not all, of the month. Many go to the islands which are much cooler than the mainland, offer a near constant sea breeze, and demand at least one swim per day. Though I’ve spent my fair share of time on these landmasses in the Aeagan, much to the ticketing agent’s dismay, Athens has been a ‘home-base’ in between stops. 

I was aware that the August holiday would make it difficult to schedule interviews with individuals from the medical community, so I filled the month mostly with cultural and social experiences. One such experience was a trip to Tinos for August 15th. August 15th marks Dekapentavgoustos, or the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, one of the most important Greek Orthodox feast days. The Virgin is believed to have ascended to heaven on that day, and pilgrims come to the island to pay homage to a Holy Icon which represents the main source of connection between individuals and the Virgin Mary. On the 15th, the Holy Icon is led down from the church in a grand procession, with individuals lining up many hours before it begins to guarantee a chance to touch the Icon.

Individuals lining up for the procession on the 15th

Pilgrims pray intensely to the Virgin Mary for compassion, good health, and healing and, in a demonstration of pure devotion, some even crawl from the port of Tinos to the Church about 1 kilometer immediately upon their arrival. I wanted to observe the day to better understand the role that faith plays in the experience of serious illness, particularly in the instances in which individuals believe to have been cured. 

I arrived on Tinos August 14th, giving myself a day to explore prior to observing all that was to come. Earlier in the week, I’d finally visited some of the museums in Athens I’d neglected previously, so it felt natural to spend the day at the Cultural Foundation of Tinos Island. While there, I was captivated by a mirror inlaid within a double-panel window frame with the words ‘Touch here’ written in white letters across the bottom of each side. 

Obliging the command, I placed my hand over the text, an action which resulted in a loud click and the illumination of the mirror in front of me. Startled by the bright blue, idyllic image that overtook the space where my body stood, it took me a second to register what had just happened. I pulled my hand back and, just as quickly as my imaged disappeared, I was met with it once more. 

An image of the mirror captured amid illumination.

The motivation behind the piece was political, though I gleaned a very different meaning. A few days prior while exploring the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture, I was taken by a painting entitled St. Nicholas and scenes from his life. As the title suggests, the painting highlights pivotal scenes from St. Nicholas’ life by positioning depictions of them around a rectangular rendition of the saint himself. I don’t know enough of Christianity nor St. Nicholas to unfurl the narrative those imagines undoubtedly wound, though I do know that when I take stock of the pivotal moments in my life, they manifest in a similar way—a series of moments, seemingly disparate yet at once connected, upon which my own likeness rests.  

My predisposition to thinking of moments was perhaps a result of the recent research I’ve been conducting into the Greek Orthodox view of death and euthanasia (“Prolonging life or hindering death? An Orthodox perspective on death, dying and euthanasia” is great reading on this subject, if interested). In brief, death is seen as the rapture of the psychosomatic unity of body and soul, though the exact moment at which this occurs is unknown. Despite the mystery of that moment, there is little interest in knowing exactly when it occurs so as to not profane its sacred character. The moments surrounding death are seen as the most important in a person’s life because they are when the soul is judged and can repent for its sins. Thus, efforts which may hasten those moments (such as euthanasia when used to ‘cut the life short’) ultimately impede a person’s ability to engage in those all-important final seconds.  

Looking at the artwork in Tinos (whose name I regretfully didn’t write down nor can remember), I couldn’t help but wonder if that was what the final moments according to the Orthodox faith are like. Do they occur in flashes or together like a dream? Is the focus retrospective or prospective? Does life ‘flash before your eyes?’ 

Once the notion of life flashing before your eyes entered my consciousness, I began to quickly tap the display, wondering if this is what it feels like to have that happen—a sequence of bursts so rapid that it’s hard to distinguish the start of one from the end of another. 

Even though I was memorized, a woman who was also viewing the exhibit was less enthused, shooting me an annoyed glance when my tapping bordered on obnoxious. Taking the hint, I removed my hand, allowing my physical life to flash back before my eyes. 

I stared at myself for a moment. 

Since departing for Watson, I’ve sometimes looked into the mirror and felt like I didn’t recognize the face staring back at me. This may be partly attributed to the drastic haircut I received approximately 24 hours prior to my departure—the first diversion from the one-length, blunt cut since I was seven years old— but I think it is more so emblematic of the struggle I’ve felt in synthesizing the moments that make up my life now into the collection of moments that make up my life as I knew it. 

Disjunctive feelings are not uncommon to the experience of illness (or, as I’ve gleaned from my newfound obsession with travel-based literature, when an individual immerses in a new culture), though I’ll omit a thorough discussion. Rather, I believe the first few lines of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor illustrate the point,

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” 

The understanding provided by our culture, traditions, or religion can help make sense of the moments that we are called to venture into previously unexplored kingdoms. Much of my work throughout the past month has been a whirlwind of witnessing first-hand how individual come to make sense of these forced ‘kingdom crossings.’ In the refugee camps on Lesvos, where so much more than an ocean separates the texture of individuals moments, something such as continuing to work barber may act as the keystone in the arch spanning two seemingly disparate places. A woman that I met in Tinos during the procession of the Holy Icon described her yearly pilgrimage as a way of honoring the good health miraculous granted to her after facing a serious illness thirty years ago—a time full of chaos and disruption in her life render sensical by the grace and compassion of her faith. 

To be entirely honest, I’m not always sure what to make of all the moments I’ve collected over these past two months. With about a week left in Greece, I feel pressured to collect my memories and experiences—to name them, organize them, wrangle them into something that even partially conveys the wonder of my time here—yet, I suspect that doing so may only profane their sacred character. 

This post hardly scratches the surface of all of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences since the last update. For example, glaringly absent is any mention of the few incredible days I spent camping in Amorgos. I depart for the United Kingdom next Tuesday, and plan on using much of the week to reflect on my time here, though I will make one small trip up to Thessaloniki to attend a writing festival where a piece of my fictional prose is being featured.