The Little Boy In the Sea

One should be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

My nature is to be positive. Even in the most desperate of situations, I see light and simply focus on that, mostly to the exclusion of everything else. Some might call me naïve. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Despite my disposition, I tend to write about dark subjects. In fact, I’ve been worried that my new novel, The Brink of Freedom − about the plight of refugees in cash-strapped Greece − is far too gloomy. My critique group has read drafts of the novel and told me that the novel is hopeful too. I’m not so sure.

Seeing the developments last week regarding the refugee crisis, I’ve questioned whether there can ever be a positive resolution for the refugees. Alan Kurdi, the little boy who drowned in the sea along with his mother and brother, broke my heart and apparently opened the eyes of the world to this humanitarian crisis. News sources reported that Alan’s death was a wake up call for our world leaders.

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Facebook

The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.” Epictetus 

Just last week there was a splashy headline about Facebook having one billion users on line in a single day. I’m not sure why this is worthy of news, but it certainly says something about what the company values, i.e., numbers. Any talk of quality is suspiciously missing.

As a user of Facebook, I care about the service provided. I’m not on Facebook to share my life. I have a business account. I use it to promote my business. Period. So when something went wrong with my Facebook account a few weeks ago, I went looking for answers and, silly me, a solution.

I couldn’t find anyone to call and it was nearly impossible to find someone I could write to. In my search, I discovered that every alley I followed (and there were lots) led to a dead end. It made me wonder what all the secrecy was about. I mean isn’t Facebook supposed to be about making connections?

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Changing the World

One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.” Henry David Thoreau

I used to believe that an altruistic vision coupled with focused large-scale action and single-minded persistence would make the world a better place. In fact, I used to think that was the only way to shake things up. I’ve changed my mind a bit on this.

No, I haven’t given up on making a difference.

But I see more clearly now how to be more effective in even the smallest of my efforts. Persistence is certainly important. But so is being vocal.

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False Words

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” Socrates

I don’t watch a lot of television. Basically I watch the National and the Rick Mercer Report on CBC. You probably guessed, I’m not a Conservative and have no leanings in that direction.

I had read about the Conservative Party’s advertising campaign against Justin Trudeau, but thankfully hadn’t seen any of the commercials until this past week.

In these horribly condescending ads, the Conservatives have the audacity to discuss the Greek government’s economic woes, claiming that if Canada elected Justin Trudeau we would fall into the same financial troubles as Greece. Never mind that we’re in our own economic mess courtesy of the Conservatives, but Stephen Harper’s party also blames the current left-wing Greek government for that country’s financial crisis. They want us to infer that anything, but the chokehold of the right wing (and in my opinion far right when I’m talking about Harper) equates to disaster.

Except any intelligent, well-read person knows the facts: the left wing Syriza government in Greece has only been in power for seven months. They can hardly be blamed for the economic crisis in that country.

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Reverence

Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.” Plato

Several years ago I travelled extensively for work. Monday, Rome. Wednesday, Vienna. Friday, Birmingham. It felt exotic and glamorous to be on the move. Sitting still is not one of my strengths. It’s a wonder I’m a writer now. But that’s another story. Suffice to say, running has always been my raison d’être.

My pace hasn’t slowed down since I left Europe either. Anytime I complained about my workload and how I needed a vacation, my mother would say I couldn’t run away from myself. Wherever I went I’d bring my personality with me.

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Fledgling to Flight

Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.” Victor Hugo

I have a new novel coming out this year. I say these words quietly because it seems so self-indulgent to say it any other way. In fact, I rarely say anything unless specifically asked. I have such hope for my novel, but faith alone will not be enough.

Like all artists, I’ve toiled away at this piece of work for years. The characters are as real to me as my neighbours and friends. I feel desperate when my characters make what I think are bad decisions. I hear myself shouting, please don’t do that. Yet, they persist in being their own masters. So I have no choice but to stand by them. I weep with them when they suffer the consequences of their decisions. And I cheer for them if they find their way out of their predicaments.

Long after the novel is complete and I’ve started a new project, my characters and their troubles and triumphs never leave me.

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Summer Time Reading Recommendations – Part 2

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” Hypatia

Okay, so I can see I haven’t left Greece completely behind. I continue to quote Greek philosophers. Following on last week’s blog of my recommendations for works of short and long fiction, this week, I’ll recommend a few books of poetry and non-fiction I read and enjoyed very much. This list will be a little shorter as I typically read more fiction. Still I hope it helps.

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Summer Time Reading Recommendations – Part 1

“Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” Theophrastus

It seems to me that I’ve been blogging about Greece in one way or another for months now. Perhaps it’s time to write about something else. Typically I give my book recommendations at the end of the year, however for the sake of shaking things up, including my own one-track mind, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past several months. When I’m not ranting or organizing or writing, I spend my time reading.

Here are some of my picks by category and in no particular order. Beside each title and author I’ve written some of the notes I wrote in my journal after I finished reading the book. I know I’m a bit obsessive (stop laughing), but yes, I do keep track of all the books I read. Sometimes I reread books too, but that’s another story.

I might as well warn you it will take a couple of blogs to document my recommendations. I’m nothing if not opinionated. I know you haven’t noticed. I try to be subtle. Okay, now really, stop laughing.

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Since You Asked

“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and retrace my steps.” Mahatma Gandhi

I’ve been back in Canada for over two weeks and still the questions persist: what was it like in Greece, what do you think of what is going on. I like being asked. I’m nothing if not opinionated.

Life in Greece seemed fairly calm to me. The cafes were full, the shops were open, and people seemed to be going about their lives. Greeks have lived under the fear of a complete financial collapse for so long that it seemed to me that they’d become stoic about it. Whatever will happen, will happen. I heard the words uttered several times. But for now, we have to live our lives. We can’t live in fear.

There were nightly protests in the streets. So as they went about their business during the day, people came out in throngs at night to make sure their wishes were being heard. I think there’s hopefulness at the center of any protest: people are engaged and more importantly, they believe their voices can make a difference. Peaceful protest always buoys me.

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Where Is Home?

“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’m gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.” Rumi

When I was a kid, I daydreamed about living elsewhere. I’d only ever been to Greece on vacation. But anytime we were there, I felt as though I was home. Greece was my first love and I’ve always pined for her.

I kept my dreams and schemes a secret. I thought it would hurt my parents’ feelings if I told them of my intentions. They’d made so many sacrifices when we immigrated to Canada. They chose Canada. Not Greece. Even though they’d had the opportunity to move to Greece (we were Greeks) after we left Egypt. They had their reasons. I’ve heard them a million times. Better opportunities, brighter future.

Pride (and it’s opposite, shame), not hurting your parents (or anyone really) and keeping things to yourself (secrets) are all elements weaved so tightly into my family’s fabric, nothing could possibly unravel them. You might ask, isn’t that true of most families. Maybe. I don’t know.

But ask yourself, who invented the Greek tragedy and you might have your answer.

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Family Folklore – Part 3

“Be a voice, not an echo.” Albert Einstein

So I went looking for long-lost property in Greece, and found another arm of my family instead. I haven’t made sense of what I’ve discovered yet, but I’m trying.

On the way back from Alekos’s farm, we were all very quiet in the car. The sun was setting on the horizon, the sky a palette of pink. I suppose each of us was trying to process what we’d discovered about the other and what it meant. If anything.

Alekos piped up at this point and touched my father’s shoulder. “Remember we are family now. We share a name and a history. We are related.”

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Family Folklore – Part 2

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” Democritus

Whenever we walked the seafront or streets of Kyparissia and we’d see an abandoned building or property, my husband would tease me. There’s the Leventoyannis mansion. I daydreamed of what I could do to these beyond-hope-fixer-uppers. I fantasized about returning to Greece to live. Permanently.

As I mentioned last week, I was stymied at every turn in my search for the property I was told was abandoned years ago by my paternal great-grandparents.

But on one of those walks after our visit to the land registry office, my husband noticed a large semi trailer truck making its way down the main street. It wasn’t so much the big white rig that caught his eye, but rather the bold black letters on its cab, just above the front windshield. LEVENTOYANNIS. Granted, spelled with a G, rather than a Y, but still my name.

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Family Folklore – Part 1

“It is a common saying, and on everyone’s mouth, that life is not a sojourn.” Plato

As a child, I was told my paternal grandfather’s roots were in the agriculturally rich village of Kyparissia in the Peloponnese. Family folklore has it that my great-grandfather had a lot of land there. It was left abandoned after he died and most of his children moved away. I have been back to Kyparissia many times to find some information about my great-grandfather and grandfather. This time I came back to see if there was any way to locate this discarded land.

My aunt said she found it once. Apparently there were too many back taxes owing on the land to do anything about it. My cousin, her son, told me he was here in 1984 and found an old woman who claimed to have known our family, the name Leventoyannis. This isn’t a surprise. That surname is associated with this region.

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There Are No Thieves In Greece

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Plato

My husband’s wallet was stolen a few weeks ago as we stood on a crowded subway in downtown Athens. Within the span of two stops, the wallet was gone, along with something else I didn’t notice right away.

We contacted our bank, the embassy and the local police. At the police station, we met a French woman who was waiting to report another theft. She’d been riding on a bus. She’d lost all her identification and money.

I remembered several years ago a friend of mine had reported her missing wallet to the Greek police. When she used the word, stolen, the officer corrected her, saying, “Madame, there are no thieves in Greece.” And in fact, she had left her wallet on a park bench. A citizen had returned it to the police station intact.

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Greek Voices

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Oscar Wilde

Greece is in the news again, on the brink once more. The tit-for-tat political rhetoric is never ending and fervent, but it gives no voice to those dealing with the economic crisis day in, day out – Greek citizens. In the end, they will be the ones to pay for the sins of their governments.

“I can’t tell you what I think,” a man responded when I asked him about the financial situation in Greece and the current talks between Athens and the EU. “What I have to say would not be polite.” I met him fishing on the dock in Kyparissia. I saw him again in the small village of Kalo Nero (good water in English). He’s retired. His pension reduced recently as part of the government’s austerity program. He worries he may not get whatever is left of his pension at the end of June. “Medical benefits have also been cut,” he said. “What can you do?” He sipped his coffee and shrugged.

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Bad Behaviour

“Opportunity is missed because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  Thomas A Edison

My siblings used to tease me about being the one who never got into trouble. They still pepper me with their jokes. I was the perfect one. Didn’t have a single voice raised against me. Ever.

I don’t remember it that way.

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Who Cares About The Odds

“A pessimist sees the difficult in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Winston Churchill

I wander the streets of our Athens neighbourhood with no particular goal in mind. I want to be in the moment, take in this place that feels like my long lost home. I think about what it would be like to live here full time.

I daydream about coming back, spending more time here. My husband calls it scheming.

The other day while out for a walk with my dad I met a young man standing with a number of other South Asian men lingering in front of a building that looked like an embassy. Not an uncommon sight in Athens: lots of men in uniform, flags I didn’t recognize, and people waiting.

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Philotimo

“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest thing next to honour.” Aristotle

As many of you know, I’m in Greece with my father. We’ve been visiting relatives and hanging out. Every night we watch the news at 8. In some ways it reminds me of the closeness we shared when I was a child. We watched all the Montreal Canadians games on Saturday nights on CBC. I’m heartbroken for Montreal’s loss this week, but never mind. There will always be another time.

My dad used to translate all the play-by-play action then to my wide-eyed, enthusiastic child self. In Greece, he’s translating the Greek news for me. Some things stay the same. Other things change.

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What You Find When You’re Not Looking

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

I’m in the process of editing my new novel. I typically enjoy this part. Or at least that’s what I say when it’s over. By that time, my memory of the pain I’ve endured has faded and words of bravado are easy to find.

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Impressions From A Jet Lagged Brain

“Every perfect traveler always creates the country where he travels.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Author

The plane started descending into Athens International. I noticed the shimmer of the Mediterranean. Similar to a mirror, the sea reflects the light Greeks boast about when they describe the sky and the sunshine here. I don’t think this particular blue or this brightness exists anywhere else in the world. It takes me by surprise every time I come back. It warms me from the inside out, makes me think, I’m home.

I love travel. It takes me out of my routine. It nudges me to pay attention, notice things I usually take for granted.

But, it beats me up as well. I’m suffering with a painful sore throat. My brain feels stuffed with cotton. I’m wrung out and disoriented. I’m not sure I’m in my own body. Each step I take seems to require more effort as though I’m trekking a muddy mountain trail rather than big city concrete.

As I write this, I’m wondering what is so wrong with routine anyway. It gives you something to count on, doesn’t thrash you about.

Driving in from the airport, the streets are relatively deserted. I didn’t expect quiet. Then I remember it is May 1st. Labour Day. The shops are closed and people have retreated to the countryside for a weekend away.

I’m destabilized by the stillness. It’s the mayhem of this city I love.

We eat in a small restaurant we enjoyed the last time we were here. We’re the only customers. Where are the incessant conversations, the voices−nasal and insistent—that fall one over the other to make a point?

Is this a new Athens? A place I no longer know? In my current state, I’m not sure I trust my own perceptions.

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Beginning in One Place and Finishing In Another – Part 2 

“Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.” Desmond Tutu

Last week I started to tell you about a discussion I had with my dad and the question he posed: how had I adjusted to moving to Canada when I was so young. I got off on a tangent and finished the blog without exploring his query any further.

Memory and thought got in the way, which in my book is always a good thing.

As I mentioned last week, I didn’t speak English when I started school in Canada. I remember coming home and raving about speaking this weird language.

I spelled out words I had learned. APPLE. CAT. DOG. MOTHER. FATHER. Giggled at the strangeness of the sounds in my mouth. I remember my mother smiling with pride. But that didn’t last long. Pretty quickly I saw the fear in her eyes too. She knew I would lose my native language to this new one. She would scold me when I didn’t speak in French to her.

Learning this new language was such fun. I persisted.

A few years later, I was asked by another teacher to complete an assignment for class. I was in grade 3 then. Looking back on it now, I realize it wasn’t a particularly difficult task. I had to collect fall leaves and catalogue them by name. This project stumped me though and baffled my parents. “They want you to pick up dry, dead things from the ground? And do what with them?”

Our neighbour, Mrs. O’Dell, was expecting her first child then. My parents asked her to help. And she agreed.

We went forging for leaves under, what seemed to me at the time, every tree in our neighbourhood. She got down on her hands and knees. She encouraged me to do the same. I remember thinking how I was going to get in trouble for getting my red skirt dirty, my socks and shoes coated in dust. But she was so cheerful, witty and engaged, I stopped worrying and sat down in the dirt beside her.

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Beginning in One Place and Finishing In Another – Part 1   

“We will live with racism forever. But senses of self, senses of belonging, senses of us and of others? Those are up for grabs.” Richard Powers

My father asked me recently how I dealt with our immigration to Canada. The question surprised me. We moved here years ago.

“But you were the oldest,” he said. “You didn’t speak English. How did you cope?”

I spoke French, Arabic and a bit of Greek. I don’t have much recollection of that time and how I adjusted. They are long buried memories, but as with all questions, it got me thinking.

I was assigned to two other six year olds on the first day of school, who were supposed to help me adjust. I’m not sure how I communicated with them or what I felt at the time. I know the girls, Debbie and Doris, were nice to me. They walked me home, shared their lunches, told me how to say certain words and provided sage advice such as: never wear a red skirt with pink socks.

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Books, Authors and Difficult Decisions

"You cannot open a book without learning something.” Confucius

Books surround me. I have one on the go at all times and 10 or so in wait. I read one book at a time, letting it consume me before I go on to the next one.

To say I love them would be an understatement. Books are my friends, my teachers, my entertainment, and my escape. But, at this time of the year, the pile doubles and sometimes triples. Publishers and authors alike send me their books hoping for an invitation to the festival I organize. I’m inundated. Exhausted. Worried.

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The D Word

“This wretched brain gave way and I became a wreck at random, driven without one glimpse of reason or heaven.” Thomas Moore

I’ve been head down, focused on this tiny screen for I don’t know how long. Months? Certainly. But more likely: years. When I’m not editing, I’m rewriting or researching, cutting, adding, rewriting some more. And when I’m not working on my new novel, I’m organizing the Whistler Writers Festival, now in its 15th year (read this as a flagrant promotion of one of my passions). There are other tugs on my time. I know I’m not unique. Everyone has time issues. That’s life.

But I’ve come to see how I deal with this mostly self-imposed pressure, as if anew.

And frankly, I don’t like what I see.

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What I Think

“In a time of universal deceit−telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Whether it’s expanded powers for the police to ostensibly combat the looming terrorist threat in this country or another new bill to deny parole to some offenders, our prime minister liberally throws in bullish statements such as, “I know Canadians think blah, blah, blah” or “Canadians want blah, blah, blah”?

He’s selling.

And we’d better be vigilant.

He wants us to get onboard with his program, his vision of this country. The implication of these statements being: if it’s good enough for other Canadians, it should be good enough for you. Just because thousands of others like to swim, does that mean I should throw myself in a lake and do something I don’t know how to do?

Besides, who are these other Canadians? How does he know what they think?

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Rejection

“The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.” Thomas Huxley, biologist

“It’s with deepest regret that I can’t make it.”

“So sorry, no. Can’t do it.”

“Sorry I don’t have better news.”

Just like the bruises I accumulate on my body when I hit the corner of a table or the dresser, this sampling of rejections marks my psyche. I want to argue and stamp my feet in the same way any self-respecting five year-old might, say something mature such as, “Come on! Please!”

Instead, when given the opportunity I make my case calmly, despite my growing frustration and spreading insecurity. I’m a whimpering blob of crushed humanity on the inside, but hopefully it doesn’t show.

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Little Bee By Chris Cleave

“Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.” Chris Cleave

So starts the back cover blurb of the novel, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, a columnist with The Guardian. In the UK, the book was published as The Other Hand.

And since I’ve been told not to tell you too much about the story, I won’t. I’ll just say that the book has two protagonists. Their lives intersect on a deserted beach in Nigeria and again in the London suburb of Kingston-on-Thames.

But, I will tell you how I felt about Little Bee.

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Amygdeleza – Part 2

“The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.” Aristotle

If the Amygdeleza Detention Centre closes down as has been promised by the Greek government what will happen to the staff I met last November: the commander who spoke proudly of the centre and the work his staff were doing in aid of detained refugees, the young sergeant who enthusiastically described the humanitarian living conditions, the medical facilities, and the counselling support provided to refugees.

As I’ve indicated before, I don’t support the institutionalization of any, but the most violent, but the staff I met at Amygdeleza seemed to be committed to the refugees. Having worked in a prison myself, I know that most (not all) work in places like this because first, they want to help. They think they can make a positive difference in another person’s life. That was always my motivation when I worked in a prison and I felt strongly that this was what drove the people I met at Amygdeleza.

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Amygdeleza – Part 1

“No notice is taken of a little evil, but when it increases it strikes the eye.” Aristotle

A few weeks ago, after a second death in the Amydgeleza Refugee Detention Centre in as many days, the new Greek government vowed to close all refugee detention centres in Greece. I’m not a proponent of incarceration except in situations of violent and extreme crimes, but I do wonder what will happen to the thousands of refugees who sit in Amydgeleza and similar detention centers in Greece and other places in Europe. How will their claims be dealt with? Will these people be imprisoned in Greek jails instead? Is a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy in place for these people? Neither the Ekathimerini article nor the government provided any details. This makes me wonder about next steps.

A friend of mine who has adjudicated refugee claims in Canada tells me there are detention centres in Canada too. I’m not sure I knew where refugee claimants in this country were held, but I had assumed that they were living in the community until their cases were heard and a decision about their claim was made.

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Critique

“I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy, and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.” Mohsin Hamid

This week my critique group met to discuss a draft of a novel written by one of our members. We typically meet monthly and review three submissions. But with longer pieces, such as a novel, we set aside an entire meeting. Our process is simple. The person who is having their work reviewed submits that work a few weeks ahead of the meeting. Members read it, jot down comments and come to the gathering prepared to discuss it. Discussions are lively and refreshingly frank.

The writer walks away with seven detailed reviews of her work. In the end, she chooses how to go forward. She is the author. That is her prerogative.

As I said, there’s nothing complicated about what we do. And yet, magic happens.

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