After the first few weeks, I didn’t know what day it was.
By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Tuesday. I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Saturday. The only day I ever knew that summer was Sunday, which was marked by church bells and the voices of the psaltes (singers) in the nearby churches.
Once the churches quieted, that day unraveled like every other day, until again, on some seemingly distant and arbitrary morning, the psaltes would be heard and I would know it was Sunday again.
My wife and I were in the process of moving from Massachusetts to California. We’d rented our condo in Boston in May and planned to start looking for a place in San Diego at the beginning of September. In the meantime, we were living on Skopelos Island, swimming, eating olives, drinking hima (fresh barrel wine) and helping the last of some ancient nuns maintain a crumbling monastery.
Life on the island was relatively cheap, and the rent from our condo in Boston was kicking off enough money to more than support us. We realized towards the end of that unbroken summer that we could stay another year or decade as easily as another day.
“You could write that novel,” my wife suggested, “and I could keep volunteering at the monastery and we could just… stay.”
The predictable objections resounded. We were young, educated, and suitably ambitious. How could we consider throwing away another season, or year, or decade of our lives? The idea seemed indulgent and wasteful. There was, after all, so much to be done.
At least, that was the thinking in the part of our minds still rooted in the ever-measuring world we’d left, where the only conception of time was linear and limited.
As J.M. Coetzee put it in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians:’ “Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end.”
This ‘time of history’ is indispensable to empires, because it’s necessary for quantification, in order to measure acquisition and accumulation.
But on the island, the time was circular and charitable and expansive. The days and seasons did not deplete; they renewed. The past and future existed but were as far apart as memory and dreams. In between, there was the sea, the sun, the olives, and the wine, and they were endless.
Another Greek island, Ikaria, was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, because of the extraordinarily long and healthy lives enjoyed by its residents. The article, entitled ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die,’ cites lifestyle, community, and diet as the reasons why. While all those things certainly contribute to health and longevity, I think the real reason is something else entirely, something much simpler, if less evident.
It’s because time on Ikaria, like it was that summer on Skopelos, is circular and charitable and expansive. And where the days renew, so accordingly, does life itself.
As for us, we departed at the end of that season and returned to the tick-tocking world. It seemed to have only gotten faster in the time we’d been away — and has gotten faster since. We intend to circle back before it runs itself out.
That novel, which was inspired by that timeless summer on the island, was eventually written and is available here: The Last Island.