I owe some friends of mine a book.
In the summer of 2016 I spent three months in Greece, 82 days of which were spent on the island of Thassos. It was my intention to move to Greece that summer, but I assumed I could just “show up and figure it out,” which proved to be a challenge; namely, to extend my tourist visa for another three months, something listed online as a possibility—as long as I could verify a host family, have proof of insurance, pay a small fee, and validate my stay with a good reason—it meant I needed to be hospitalized. Pregnant, wounded, near death, that sort of thing.
No one on Thassos could believe it.
“Who told you this? The visa office?”
“I went there, but they told me to talk to the police.”
“Why the police? What did they say?”
“They sent me there because I’m an American and not a European. The police told me I needed to be sick. Like, really sick. Or that I should get married.”
“They told you to get married?”
“I do not believe it—they tell you to get married. I know a police officer; he is a good friend. I will talk to him.”
I had a lot of Greek friends vying for me. In fact, when I told my neighbor, the daughter of an elderly couple who rented me a room for $15/night, she said, “Do you just need to be sick? We know doctors. I’m sure we can get you a note. What about Tassos—does he know anyone?”
“He knows a police officer in Xanthi. He’s going to ask him.”
“Okay, good. I’m sure there are ways around this. We will get to you to stay.”
A week later, the police officer returned to us with bad news. Having asked everyone in his division, they told him it was impossible. Only once had someone been allowed to remain on Thassos on a tourist visa, and in that instance, she was in labor on the day she was supposed to leave. And they still made her pay 1,000€ to extend her visa for one month, a fee larger than the website’s claim of 30€ and for a time frame less than the promised three months.
“Oh really. Is that all?”
“He said it will be very difficult and expensive. I say to him you don’t have this kind of money.”
“That’s true, I don’t. Especially not to stay for one extra month.”
“I told him you are writing a book.”
“I said that to the police, but they told me it doesn’t count as a ‘good reason’ to stay.”
“These are bullshit things. I don’t understand.”
“Wouldn’t it be worse for Greece if I were in labor? Bringing more children here? I’m trying to bring them visitors. I’m feeding money into the economy!”
“Tasso, will you break my legs?”
“Please? So I can stay.”
“You are crazy.”
“Maybe I could be admitted for insanity? You know, ‘Committed in Kavala.’”
“You don’t want that. That is not a solution.”
“What about depression? I won’t even have to pretend. They’ll just ask me how I feel about leaving Greece, and I’ll cry for days.”
At this, Tassos laughed. “That might work,” he said.
* * *
In the end, I could not stay. I mean, I could have, at the risk of being deported and banned from ever returning. Several of my friends—Greeks—said this would never happen. But I’m the type of person who would, unintentionally, break a leg and end up in the hospital, where they’d ask to see my passport, and on that day in rare history, law enforcement would be patrolling the hospital, find me there months beyond my 90-day limit, and throw me limping into jail where I would have to pay an exorbitant fee and never be allowed back.
The consequences seemed too dire.
But for three months I lived on Thassos and spent my days on the patio of Archodissa restaurant and pension, scribbling away. Little did they know, I was primarily journaling for myself and making notes on things I overheard, writing nothing of consequence. But to every guest who came into the restaurant inquiring of the American girl who sat at the stone table, alone, filling out journals and writing on her laptop—Why is she here? What is she doing? Why is she alone? (ah, the joys of being a single female traveler)—the response was always the same: “She’s writing a book about Thassos.”
“Oh, really?” At this point, sometimes they’d address me directly. “What kind of book?”
I had no book, not even an inkling of a book. All I had was an all-encompassing swirl of experiences I was floating in, trying not to drown, and sure, a desire to write a book. Certainly not enough discipline to write one while there. I was lucky if I published a blog post once a week. I justified this by saying my time on Thassos was spent living the memories I would someday write about.
As in…a day far, far away.
But then Tassos said this thing. He told these people, “You come back next year and you will see. You can read it.”
The look of utter disbelief on my own face probably gave me away, but I nodded along anyway, smiling and saying, “Yes, that’s right. Next year,” while inside my mind was saying, Well, this is good—and then all succeeding thoughts dropped off into the dark abyss of nothingness that appears the moment there’s pressure to create something.
It was quite spectacular, actually, my inability to write. In the year that followed, the only attempt I made at writing about Greece was an essay about food—or rather, being invited to join the Greek table, which was published by an online travel journal called Vagabond. I published a few other essays that year, but nothing about Greece. For some reason, thinking about Thassos and where to begin, and how I could possibly do justice to the people and the place, seemed insurmountable. In the words of Joey Tribiani (from my all-time favorite show Friends) as he faced a giant turkey he’d agreed to eat all by himself: “You are my Everest.”
Thassos was my Everest.
And, well, here’s the other thing that happened.
I became painfully aware of my “unknown” status as a writer. Sure, I am a columnist for a local magazine, and sure, I have a blog that sometimes my mother reads. But how could I ever write, or imagine to sell, a book about Greece unless I’ve been published by The New Yorker, or the Iowa Review, or any other journal of literary merit where people with actual talent are published? Where they gain exposure. Build their CVs.
Make a name for themselves.
This led to a downward spiral of despair and learned helplessness that ended in the resolution: “I will just lay here in the sewage of my own wasted efforts and lament about not ever becoming a writer.” The winning mindset of every artist. So, I spent several months in the dark place, aided by other discouraging thoughts related to issues happening in my personal life, and I stopped writing.
There were three things that pulled me out of the muck.
- Big Magic. This is an Elizabeth Gilbert book, and without waxing too poetically on the effects of her books on my life, let’s just say her memoir Eat, Pray, Love made a profound impact. After I read it (at age 25), I started a blog, committed myself to traveling solo, and even went around the world to Ubud where I met Ketut Liyer, the Balinese medicine man who appeared in her book. He read my palms and told me I’d live a long life.
In Big Magic, a completely different book from Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert once again caught me in the midst of my confusion, at a time when I was seeking transformation, and she spoke the words I needed to hear. Basically, she said, “If you like to write—if writing is something you want/need/desire to do—then just fucking do it.” She may have phrased it differently, but that was the gist. Write what you want to write because you want to write it. All other worries can wait.
- The Joyfulness Project. This was my New Year’s resolution, sparked by the concept of a Happiness Jar. A happiness jar is one that you fill every day with a strip of paper recording that day’s happiest moment. There was also a project called 365 Grateful, in which a woman who was suffering from depression decided to take a photo every day for one year of something for which she was grateful. By the end of this experiment, she had not only recovered fully from her depression, but she had a stronger relationship with her husband and was living a more joy-filled life.
Joy and gratitude go together, so I decided to combine them.
Beginning January 1st of 2017, I decided to record my joyful moments—something I was grateful for—in words or pictures every day for the entire year, and instead of doing this privately in a journal or a jar, I decided to post it online. I’ve kept a blog for years, but never have I written daily (or even weekly), and never had I paid for a hosting website or bought a domain name or signed up for Mail Chimp account. As a testament to how serious I was about “living life more joyfully,” I invested money into it, and anyone who knows me will attest that that’s as good as signing in blood.
The reason I chose a blog was not because I wanted to make a name for myself, but because I wanted to remain accountable. I never look at the statistics—I don’t want to know how many visitors I have or how many people open my weekly newsletters or how many times people have followed my links (as a side note: Mail Chimp gives highly detailed and slightly invasive reports to its users); I don’t want to know anything that will make me think, “Wow. That’s pitiful.” Instead, I want to be faithful to the handful of people who do read it, who have written to say they are inspired by my writing and look forward to seeing my posts. If I can make a difference to even one other person, then my effort is worth it.
And—in case you’re wondering—the project has so far been a success. I’ve written every day, with rare exceptions (one of which being the time I was in a remote village in Sri Lanka and had to leave for a hike at 2:30am). As early as February, I’d become one of those annoyingly happy people I used to despise, walking on sunshine in the middle of snow and rain. I started to notice things, beautiful things, all around me: flowers shaped like hearts, smiles from strangers, finding New Mexican chile at the supermarket. When my focus every morning became “find something joyful,” I found joy everywhere.
Nevertheless, I would have quit after January 31st had I not made a blog of it.
The point is that I trained myself to write every day and not care if I was made famous because of it (certainly not the case). And, as a byproduct, I became more aware of what matters most to me. In the dawn of 2017 I began reaffirming my beliefs and falling in love with God all over again, desiring to walk the way of Jesus more faithfully, and this, too, made a difference in my life. It gave me a purpose, with or without writing.
- I returned to Thassos.
I will save the details of the trip for later, but I can summarize this bullet point with an illustration.
Last year when I lived on Thassos, I helped Archodissa restaurant by making social media posts, creating new menus, designing logos, T-shirts, signs, and posters.
But there was one poster I did not create. On it was the image of four books, each written by one of the leaders of the Writing Workshops in Greece, and it was meant to show off those who’ve been inspired by this place. The Writers of Archodissa.
I threw a fit, a mild one, the first time Tassos showed me this poster.
“You can’t put this up until I’ve published a book!” I told him.
“It’s okay. You write, and I will make a new poster.”
“Please don’t put it up.”
“I have to put it up.”
He put it up anyway. But, unfortunately, the title of it read: “The Writters of Archodissa.”
I pointed this out to him.
“No! It doesn’t say ‘writers’?”
“It says, ‘writters.’”
And he took the poster down.
This year, the poster was up, covering the door to the kitchen, typo and all.
And that’s when I determined that when the typo is corrected and a new poster has been made, the cover of my book will join the others. I want to be considered among the Writers of Archodissa.
More than that, though, this book is meant to share with you a place that changed my life, not because my story is important, but because their story is important. Tassos of Thassos and his family, the waiters and the cooks, the woman at the gyro stand, the sea police, the chief-of-police-turned-bee keeper. This story is for all of them, so that others can see and understand the magnitude of life that remains hidden in the Aegean. This book is for those of us who’ve been there, who’ve been changed by this place, to put into words the thoughts and expressions of all of our hearts in a collective message of gratitude.
And finally, it is for those who have not yet been, that you might catch a glimpse of the thinnest place on earth, where the human and the divine reside. My wish for you is that someday your journey will take you there, to the land of abundant life and joy, to the place we now all call home.