17.12.2015 Written, lost and rewritten between August and December 2015, in Greece, Spain, The Netherlands, and Australia.
An introduction on chance and change
I started to write this little story back in September in an old notebook that I had found in our little house in Greece. I wrote about the cats that came to visit me, how they reminded me of how things constantly change within and around us. How we humans try to create our little worlds of familiarity and predictability around us, no matter where we are. How we try to keep changes out of these little worlds (thinking of my grandfather who wanted to go home after being in any place for longer than an hour) or how we see the relics of abandoned little worlds around us (like the house of our late overweight neighbour, now almost invisible as the garden tries to reclaim it for nature).
Rather fittingly, I lost that notebook a month later, in Granada. The story I will write now may resemble what I would have written had I not lost my notes, but it will probably turn out completely different.
When writing, I usually start from one or two ideas. For those ideas I try to find a first sentence, and from there it’s supposed to get on rolling. Sentence to sentence I look for the next bit. But, as with everything in life, there is a huge dose of chance involved. Depending on the changes within me and around me, I will add something different, and then the next sentence changes. Before you know it, you’re heading in a completely different direction. I think it may be the same with life in general, small changes in our circumstances and our choices, can snowball us in completely different directions.
Countless changes we can’t begin to fathom, so many internal and external factors affect every instance of our lives. The butterfly effect implies that life is an endless series of butterfly effects. It is both scary and beautiful to think about. A meeting with one person can change your whole life, and how many tiny movements and coincidences can cause one simple meeting?
I wrote most of this introduction in a train in the cold and rainy Netherlands* with a sweet elderly couple is sitting next to me, holding hands throughout the entire journey. Today I’m finishing up the story in Wentworth, Australia, tired from throwing around watermelons the whole morning. But a hopeful change is coming, after four days of 44 degrees in the shade (the shade!), a storm is on its way.
Cats on an island
So lets move back to Greece. It was summer and an extended family of young cats was shyly, but surely moving into my front garden. At first we avoided giving into the cats’ cries for sympathy to avoid leaving them depending on our temporary presence, but their bold cuteness was stronger than we were. Before long, cats were dancing on our backgammon board and trying to steal the food from our hands.
The island is filled with stray cats, and the empty shed opposite our house has for ever been a shelter for at least one family of cats, thanks to our neighbours who feed them in summer, to leave them behind confused in September. In winter the cats move and look for food, up to the old village where a local NGO tries to take care of them, or they fight, or die. So each summer we would find new cats around us. Mostly young ones, scared, but curious. In a way, the changing cats form a nice bit of contrast with the regularity of island life, the same people that reopen their same shops or sail their same boats each summer, like nothing happened during the other three seasons.
So –why not– this time we let the cats take over our veranda and we even named them. Hades was the bravest and the boldest, attracted to the smell of pita gyros he visited our veranda when a very cat-loving friend was visiting. After circling and inspecting us for sometime, he decided to be a true ‘yolocat’, and he jumped onto my lap. We never seriously fed them, not wanting them to depend on us, but we gave them affection and played with them. Some days later Hades‘ sister appeared, very shy at first, but after some days she jumped onto our bellies when we were in the hammock, and tried to sneak into the house behind our backs. As we were becoming friends, the word seemed to spread like wildfire in the circles of Hades and his sister Hera. First was their mother Rhea, a bigger version of her striped grey daughter, very laid back and with an almost sarcastic look on her face. But after this small family, more and more cats came to inspect us and test our name-giving system:
A young girl-cat we called Athina (funny and crazy, climbing up electricity poles all the time), Poseidon (big, slow, and white), a very fast puma-like black cat we respectfully named Zeus; and two small, fast, and grey cats that where always seen together: Hermes and Apollo. But then, one day, as September dragged on, most tourists had left, and the food-giving neighbour was long gone, the cats suddenly disappeared. And we started to miss nodding off in the hammock, only to be scared to death by a cat suddenly deciding to jump onto your belly.
Their short lives: full of relaxation, play, fear, exploration, and joy, are not unlike our own, merelyip= shorter. They can be like friends made in distant countries, those that you don’t get to see again. You connect and share beautiful moments, and then you lose sight of each other. You can let these moments of change and loss upset you, but accept that change is the normal course of everything and you can live and love so much more freely.
The fall of monasteries
The island of Alonissos is surrounded by other, big and small, uninhabited islands. Several of those belong to the orthodox church, decorated with monasteries, built in the proud and ambitious days of the orthodox church. As everything changes, so do the times, and there don’t seem to be enough monks for the priests on Mount Athos to send to our part of Greece. Only two monks remain in one monastery, on one island, the island of Kyra Panagia. The remote island of Skantzoura has long been deserted. This cannot have been for it’s beauty though, seen from the sea the island is a striking pure white and green of natural marble and cedar trees. When you find a way to more your boat, and jump onto on of the flat marble plaques, you can find an old overgrown path. This path leads to the old monastery. No regular excursions go to this island any more, and few people come there. As a result the pathway leading up the island to the monastery is almost completely reclaimed by the island, hidden in newly born vegetation.
This island of Skantzoura holds a special place in my mind. I have wanted to visit it for a long time, as this uninhabited island is where my parents fell in love. And after all these years, I finally got to visit it.
If you follow this path, clawing and jumping your way past branches and bushes, you get to the top of the island, and a collection of slowly crumbling buildings. Without monks, an uninhabited island has trouble maintaining a monastery, but the slow collapse of it’s buildings give them a special kind of beauty. The church is worn and rugged, but still standing. The outbuildings, however (the old living quarters, the storage rooms, and the stables) are caving in on themselves. Stones fall out between the walls, windows fall inward, and the faded and waning wooden beams that haven’t fallen down are bending beneath the weight. The cracks, creaks, and holes in the building play a game of shadows and light, and that soft light which seeps through highlights the faded tones of stone and wood.
As a species, we are scared of change and ageing, but in some moments we can see it’s beauty. In those shafts of light falling into a crumbling building; at the antique (or vintage) market; or in the calm, reassuring smile of someone who is completely comfortable with his or her white hair. One of my favourite quotes is from the song ‘Anthem’, about embracing the present, by Leonard Cohen:
“So ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.
There is a crack in everything, because everything is in motion, things are eternally forming and breaking down. Because every tiny part of our world is constantly transforming and changing. Life is always full of imperfections, and nothing will last, but once we accept that, then we can truly see its beauty. Light is the language of change and existence. It is in the light of the big bang, that our universe was born. We live thanks to the light of the sun, a sun which itself is slowly dying. The light shows us life and shows us impermanence. Remember how different the same place can look in an other light. And when the sun shines through the cracks, we can grasp the beauty of our temporal world.
We build, and all that we build breaks down. We live, and then we die, but if everything would just remain static and eternal, could we still give meaning to anything? In the soft sunlight that falls between the leafs of an old tree or seeps into an abandoned building that we see the beauty of fragility, of decay, and of life’s perseverance in the face of it.
Change and connectedness (interdependence) are the essence of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhists see change as the basis of existence, but at the same time it is the root of our suffering. In a world where everything is interconnected in tiny ways, and constantly changing, we humans kid ourselves by wanting the impossible.
We want things to stay the same. We create fixed ideas of what we should have and what we should be, as if these things are real and lasting. We somehow want our body to be eternally young and suffer when this ideal image conflicts with reality. We desire things and objects we don’t need as if they were real and permanent necessities, we make these ideas, objects, and people part of our status or identity, and hurt when we lose them. For Buddha and his followers the important thing is to realise that it is not these objects, ideals, or loss that hurt us. It is our attachment to those things as if they could go on forever that hurts is — something that, with will and practice, we can control and influence. Basically, we take life too seriously.
Therefore, an important key to happiness is knowing that everything is changing,. That way, we can begin to accept death and the unpredictable as natural parts of life. Change isn’t out to hurt us, but we can always hurt ourselves. The more you are able accept that nothing can last forever, that change and decay are okay, the more you can enjoy the changes around you and the now, the moment you are living in.
What I want to highlight using this Buddhist view on life, is not that, because life is fleeting and we ourselves create both our suffering and meaning; our lives are meaningless. On the contrary, it is the optimistic conclusion that Buddha drew from this idea, namely that the human life is special and precious, just because we can reflect on it and make our own choices.We can reflect on the way we live and understand life, and use that to help both ourselves and others. It means that so much suffering can be avoided if we study the ever changing nature of life, if we realise that we create our own suffering through our attachment to the most varied things. It is through our actions (action is the literal meaning of karma) that we choose how we influence this interconnected web that makes our reality. We can stop to reflect if our decisions are made to make things better or worse.
That is why it’s such a shame what we are doing to the world. Decay and disaster are a natural part of history (and to some extent biological evolution is thought to have been stimulated by catastrophic events). But, as humans, we all have the power to make choices. We have a choice and –amongst many bad ones– we are knowingly destroying each others lives and our living environment. Precisely because our existence is a web of uncountable circumstances, causes, and effects, every choice is important. If each action is connected, then small actions can have large effects. And the more choices are made with good intentions, the bigger our hope for the future.
Things temporarily emerge, shine, and fade away.The cats explore Alonissos, they eat, they play, they discover, they make friends, make enemies, they fight, and they die. So do we. We have built societies, lived together and cooperated, and we have killed each other. Cultures have grown and withered away, others have been eradicated. Countless people have been born, have loved, and have (or have not) been mourned. In the time that all these people have lived, how much will have been wasted by hating, fearing, and regretting that which could no longer be changed.
Of course we cannot completely end all this suffering or manage to ignore all our problems. But we can alleviate our troubles by realising the power our own mind has over how we perceive the world. And one of the most important steps is being mindful of our attachments and realising how everything is constantly changing.
The danger is that we forget to appreciate and admire our one brief moment. Love, or at least accept, the imperfections and see the light come in. Interdependence and change also mean endless possibility.