Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Circle: The Sea Shore's Flower

Most Christmas stories begin with sleighs and carols, Santa's little helpers and children's gifts, but mine does not. Instead, as befits the soil on which I am stationed, it mingles the salt of the sea, the cold wind of its tempests, the spirits of the past lurking, the Pleiades casting their faint light over the water in the depth of its nights and the glimmer of hope upon the approaching traveller's return.

Many Christmases ago, I happened to be sent to my uncle and aunt's summer house on a tiny, remote island off the shores of the monastery community of Mount Athos, Greece. My parents needed to travel to Europe and my imagination was piqued by the countryside which I hadn't seen in its December glory; rampant and wild, moor-ish almost, the sea salt mines shinning in the fangled sun from afar like a blanket of edible snow. Days were short and evenings were spent at the glimmer of the petrol-filled lamp, electricity not yet provided to the tiny island, ears perking up at the melancholy wailing of the dolphins streaming up the seaways at night. The logs in the fire were crackling merrily, telling their own tales of harvest and honest toil: olive-tree wood, chopped up in big rough chunks, its resinous, oligeanous essence perforating my memory with the sense of being at one with the silent nature around, its aroma the very essence of Greek history.

It was customary at the time for children to read Christmas stories by Alexander Papadiamantis(1851-1911); a Greek Dostoyevsky with shades of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens thrown in, if only for his mysterious nuances, his predeliction for the less proviliged in life and his industriousness in turning out a new story for Christmas, Carnival and Easter every year. Those stories were filled with predicaments, premonitions, organically lived Orthodoxy and humble triumphs; those last often of a spiritual rather than a physical dimension. In one of them, The Sea-shore's Flower, unravelled on his native island of Skiathos, he occupied himself with the village's fool, a young innocent man who was seeing visions in the night. That kind of person is called ελαφροισκιωτος in Greek: person with a "short" shadow. In one of those repeated visions whilst on night-fishing on the boat, the youth was seeing a bright light over the sea-shore's edge in the shape of a flower. As the story progressed, we learn that the light reflects the tale of a local girl, named Flower, who was waiting for years for her beloved, a foreign seaman, to come back from his wars with the barbarians and marry her on Christmas Day; only to find out that her man had been captured in the interim and died in slavery. For ever since, every Christmas Eve the light can be seen on the night sky, its flickering the soul of the seaman withering in the heavy bondage of slavery, far away from his beloved, and only men with a clear soul could see it...

Such was the story's impact that I found my childish self seeking to find out outlines of starry designs on the pitch-black sky, the flower of the sea-shore mingling in my mind with the Star of Bethleem we had been taught about at school; the crushed love of one person versus the uniting love that was incarnated for all. And it dawned on me that perhaps one of the most precious elements which we bid farewell so soon, eager to shed its perceived obstacles, is our innocence. The innocence that had allowed us to believe in Santa Claus as children (suspension of disbelief, if you prefer); the innocence that had us all excited over holidays instead of moaning and groaning over the sheer torture that is the holiday shopping, cleaning, preparing and arranging everything into place. The innocence that allowed us to give, rather than receive, often from the very things we lacked instead of possessed, in order to make someone happy on these holy days.

Upon my parents' return I didn't see the Sea-shore's Flower, although my excitement was so palpable as I unpackaged my gifts and spent the Christmas day with all the family that I could have easily seen visions of reindeers on the sky raining packages through the smoking chimney. I haven't seen it, ever. I doubt I ever will. And every day I pine for the lost innocence of that childhood, which was the only time when one can truly feel like Christmas.

With this story I am participating in The Circle, an Advent collaboration beginning on November 29 and ending on Christmas Day on which various perfume writers and artists, led by Roxana Villa, natural perfumery artist, are writing something special for each day. Please don't forget to enjoy all the participants' writing by clicking this link.

The story The Sea Shore's Flower by Alexander Papadiamantis can be read in Greek on this link. Painting Ship under the Moonlight by Greek painter Konstantinos Volanakis via Un Petit Bateau III


  1. Helg, what a beautiful and haunting story! Indeed, childhood can be so magical when your innocence is protected and your world is a shelter in which to feel safe instead of a big, scary place. Christmas and other celebratory traditions can be a big part of that.

  2. How very beautiful and poignant E. A few years ago, I took my mother to church on Christmas Eve and the sermon was on the very subject of why we adults can't recapture the Christmases of our childhood. The answer had to do with our out of hand expectations vs. the delight of just being in the moment that children experience.

    I personally think that it is possible to capture, if not our innocence, then at least a good part of the innocent joy of childhood. But it takes a very conscious and willful slowing down to smell the flowers - or in the depths of December, to admire the beauty of a snowflake.

    Thank you for sharing.

  3. What a wonderful tale !

    I think that you must have had a secure, loving childhood...

    There is still a piece of that sweet child you carry within you.
    Many blessings, my sister- to you and yours.

  4. dissed23:11

    It's elusive, that feeling of wonder. I remember it well. Thank you.

  5. Flora,

    thank you for your kind words! It's so important for children to feel secure, protected and loved, isn't it? And to let them listen to the magic of life, to savour it as much as possible, before problems, routine and disillusion set in and shatter that fairy dust...
    I hope you have a lovely holiday season!!

  6. Donna,

    thank you darling for saying so and what a lovely simile you bring on to this: Indeed being in the moment is so very, very difficult sometimes, but it's what makes for getting the joy out of things. Now, if we didn't all trouble ourselves with the "what if" and the "I wish" and the "if only"...Like you say it takes a very conscious slowing down; don't know if I can achieve it myself, I probably lack the discipline.

    Hugs to you back and season's greetings!

  7. Ida,

    thank you honey, you are correct, I did have a loving childhood and it's been a good thing. Who knows how twisted I might have turned out without it: It usually takes very strong people to surface victorious out of a mangled childhood and I have the highest admiration for such force of character.

    Hope you're surrounded by your loved ones as we speak and that everything turns out for the best!

  8. D,

    thanks for confirming my feeling, it's so great to see people sharing something that can't be always communicated with words.
    Glad you enjoyed!

  9. Mystic Knot00:07

    Thank you for a lovely story Helg. The innocence of childhood.....

  10. What a delicate and wonder filled tale dear Helg. As a child I would travel to Argentina for Christmas. It was always a bit surreal to experience the holiday on the other side of the globe during summer. Not quite as magical as your tale and the story within the story.
    I especially liked your scent memory of "oligeanous essence" and hope to one day experience.

  11. Wonderful! I'll be sure to check what other participants wrote.

  12. Thank you for the beautiful story, and for sharing such a precious memory.

  13. how do you pronounce the word in Greek for a person with a short shadow? I'm trying to collect words from other languages I like!

    thank you for posting this- it's sad but also very interesting

  14. Mk,

    you're most welcome :-)
    Thanks for stopping by and hope your Christmas is lovely and loving!

  15. Roxana,

    thanks for inviting me!
    Glad you enjoyed and wish I could bottle the essence of smoked olive tree logs...it's indeed a unique smell.
    I recall one upside-down season in Australia, so I know the feeling of being out of synch with what most people expect you desrcibed: surreal is a very apt choice of words!

  16. Ines, please do!

  17. M,

    thank you for the kind words, it was quite a discobubulating experience, but somehow good!

  18. K,

    interesting question and lovely hobby!!
    Let's see (many syllables):

    (the skeau is pronounced a bit like the French "eau")

    It literally means someone with a "light" shadow; light as in non-heavy, ethereal, therefore not really visible, a "short" shadow. It used to denote people who were a little naive, a little foolish, seeing visions out of the innocence of their childlike hearts :-)
    I like that word too!! There are so many truly poetic words in the Greek language...


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