I first got the idea of going to Lesvos (aka Lesbos aka Mytilini, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey which was once the home of the lyric poet Sappho) a year ago. It seemed random - I received an email invitation from a yoga group to attend a retreat on the island. The description was something like "a retreat for women, a chance to reflect on women's lives, aspirations and spirituality." The pictures showed blue water, clean sandy beaches, and most compellingly, an olive grove deeply carpeted with red poppies. Wow, I thought, would I love to see that.
Unfortunately, the timing was impossible. To put it more precisely, the timing was only possible if I cancelled something I had already planned at the time, something I was deeply attached to, rearranging not only my schedule, but my life priorities. I sent a reluctant “no thanks” to the organizers of the retreat, reminded myself of how important my *real* priorities in life were, and tried to forget all about it.
This year, I'm not rearranging anything. I'm going to Lesvos.
What do I know about the place? Well, not much really. It was the home of Sappho, and lots of other interesting people. In Sappho's time it had a reputation for allowing women more freedom (to write, to study, to participate in politics) than did "civilized" Athens. Even now, women travel from around the world to visit Eressos, Sappho's birthplace. The island has been compared to a golden leaf from a plane tree, floating in the ocean. It appears to be largely unspoiled by mass tourism.
Gosh, do I need to know any more to want to see the place for myself?
So on Saturday, I'll fly from Kiev to Athens, and the next day I'll take a ferry to Mytillini, the capital city of Lesvos. I'll be on the island for two weeks. There is no retreat planned for this year, but I've rented a studio near the beach at Skala Eressos, and I'll just see what happens.
To say I am excited about this would be inadequate. It is, at the moment, what I am looking forward to most in the world. I suppose this may be because the trip seems to be entirely unexpected, something I haven't planned so much as succumbed to, a “dancing lesson from God” (as Kurt Vonnegut put it).
The other day I was sitting in my office, staring rather blindly at the calendar, calculating the best day for a meeting, and all of I sudden I realized that it was August - already - and I was leaving for Greece in August - in fact, on Saturday - in fact, next Saturday. And after a moment of shock and amazement at the total and improbable wonderfulness of this fact, I literally squeaked with happiness. Loudly. And before I could stop myself, I bounced up and down in my chair, clapping my hands, like a little kid. One of my colleagues stuck his head in the door of my office and looked at my quizzically. I didn't have any way to explain this to him, so I just smiled graciously and pretended nothing had happened.
How do you plan for a trip which seems somehow important to your life, a pilgrimage, like coming home to a place you have never been? Here's my approach. Besides the minimum essentials (clothes, a toothbrush) I'm taking my iPod, a digital camera, an empty notebook, a book of Sappho's poems, and a hot pink bikini. Anything else, I figure I can do without.
Will I be disappointed? Will I be overwhelmed? Will I fall in love? Who knows? But it feels like a rare gift to be excited about a trip this way.
This wild exhilaration reminds me of another trip, a life-changer, many years ago.
It was March of 1995, and I was getting ready for my first visit to the former Soviet Union. I was 23 years old, a sergeant in the Army, just barely out of college. I had learned Russian and studied Soviet history from a distance, with little hope of actually visiting the country. Now I was about to fly (on an Air Force One jet, with a military delegation) to Moscow.
I went out with some colleagues for dinner, and instead of going into the restaurant, I lay on my back on the grassy verge next to the sidewalk, looking at the stars, and nearly cried with happiness because I would be seeing those same stars (was it possible?) from Moscow on the very next night.
That trip was the start of something big for me. A month later I left everything I knew and accepted a job in Kiev. I've lived in this mysterious other world pretty much ever since. I'm still there.
Stay tuned for my next blog...