On Being Invisible

I recently read a lovely post on Instagram, the words of a brave young woman who had CF (cystic fibrosis), it moved me deeply to hear how this she described the challenges of her short life, as it felt so similar to my own challenges. I hesitated in commenting as I felt my health situation could not compare, but perhaps someone out there needs to read how my life is for me, and perhaps not feel so alone.

Like most children, I used to pretend I was able to make myself invisible. It seemed I was quite good at it, I could enter and leave rooms without anyone noticing, I could ensure a teacher would not choose me to answer a question.

But the kind of invisibility I am writing about now is quite different. I am seen, but not seen.

For the past 24 years have a chronic illness (variously diagnosed as M.E./CFS or CFIDs or possibly chronic Rickettsia, a lyme-type pathogen), which to the “chronically well” goes largely unnoticed. Much has been written about ‘invisible’ illnesses and the challenges of having one, and I’ll put some links below this post, but I suspect it is mostly people who either have an invisible illness, or those caring for them, who read these things. So I’m writing this in the hopes that someone stumbles here, who is unaware of how an invisible illness is experienced by someone who has it.

To most people I look fine, I sound fine. I seem to be doing things healthy people do. I don’t have a feeding tube up my nose, I don’t have to walk around with an oxygen tank, I don’t even have an inhaler. I don’t have a terrible skin affliction. I have all my hair. In fact I am lucky to have a lot of hair. I am rarely pale. I walk at a normal pace, for the most part, although this is generally because I’m trying to keep up with a chronically well person, I hate to be a drag. My illness is so invisible, that even when I tell someone, I feel really dreadful, they carry on treating me as if I am feeling perfectly fine.

Actually, this is often my preference: to be treated as if I am as healthy as I seem. My illness is a boring subject for me, having had it now for so long.

In spite of finding my health issues tedious to dwell upon, just sometimes, I’d like someone to know, to really know what it is like to live in my body. There are a few people who have a good idea – usually those with a similar illness or the loved ones of those with a similar illness. I also do not want to be pitied, or to have people give me that Oh you poor thing look.

Generally I try to keep my health situation to myself. Illness is like death and grief. For the most part, people don’t want to have anything to do with it, and if I do talk about it, instead of simply asking, Tell me how are you affected by this, I’d like to know, most pull their eyebrows together and frown sadly, which is meant to look sympathetic but really is a kind of defence. I know, because I’m guilty of doing this myself. I also had one friend who would do everything she could to hear me say, Things are good before she would continue her conversation with me, or she would somehow find something in what I said to prove to her that I was doing better, that all was fine, and tell me so.

Or, people carry on as if the illness (or the grief) simply doesn’t exist. Being on the receiving end of these approaches is challenging. I may be chronically ill, but I am also so very many other things, and, I am often feeling really awful, in spite of appearances, and it helps me to have all of my ‘selves’ included in a friendship.

If you lived with me, my illness would not be invisible. You would see that just two hours after getting up in the morning, I am forced to go back to bed for an hour or so (on a good day). You would see me do some work for perhaps three or four hours at most, and then you would see me spend the rest of my day mostly lying prone. You might see me out and about, doing reasonably well, and then suddenly crashing, and then you’d see me desperate that I cannot be at home, in bed, instantaneously. You would see me leave the house in the evening for my weekly ukulele class, and you would know what an enormous undertaking it is for me. I haven’t taken a class in anything for years because I just felt too awful. I still feel too awful (in fact I’ve gotten progressively sicker over the years) but now I’d rather be taking the class than not.

If you lived with me, you would see that my symptoms usually increase over the course of the day, so that by the time I go to bed, I’m entirely overwhelmed by them and can barely think or speak. If you lived with me, you would know that a mumble means Night night, I love you.

The disease has changed for me over the years, there was a time when I would in fact a few weeks of relative health, and then severe viral or bacterial infections of some kind. But now, it is a daily experience of navigating relative levels of discomfort.

I am chronically ill and yet I attend to my writing, I attend to my animal rescue work, my friendships, my family, and I attend to my teaching commitments – all done in those few daily ‘useable’ hours. I can’t say I attend very well to these things, but I try.

I even manage to travel, and to participate in some events that demand a great deal of me, and I’ll seem just fine. I might even be just fine. Until I get home, and then, usually, I will get so ill I have no useable hours at all for a few days, or even a few weeks.

This is how it has been for years. You might suggest that I don’t do anything in those few hours, I should experiment with resting the entire day, or that I don’t go on trips. The thing is, I have spent so very many entire days in bed and I want a ‘normal’ life, and so those useable hours, those trips, are precious to me, they make me feel as if I too am a chronically well person, if only for a little while.

There are other interesting challenges associated with this ‘invisible’ illness ( although for some people it is not so invisible, many with M.E. / CFS are bed-ridden or have to use a wheel-chair). One is the name ‘Chronic Fatigue’. Most people will imagine how it is when they are tired. But Chronic Fatigue is not ‘fatigue’, it is not tiredness, it isn’t even exhaustion. It is frequently the severe, all-encompassing, crushing weakness and aching one might have with a serious flu or tropical illness. And then there is the multitude of other symptoms that would fill an entire blog post.

And then there is the unasked for advice. I understand this impulse, I have it myself – to try and ‘fix’ whatever it is that is wrong in someone else’s life. I’d much rather be listened to than given advice, I am a font of advice for myself, I don’t need anyone else to give it to me, unless you have a similar heath issue as myself, and have genuinely found something that has helped you or something you truly think worth trying. However, one of the main ‘problems’ with M.E. /CFS is that no two people have the same set of symptoms, and what ‘works’ for one person may not work for another.

M.E./ CFS is not a considered a terminal diagnosis, yet ME/CFS patients are at increased risk of all causes of mortality, especially suicide. Few people know this. In fact, no-one really knows what M.E. is. My own GP admitted: “It’s a name for something we don’t know what it is, and we don’t know what to do about it.” Personally I think these chronic illnesses are often the result of a kind of ‘cocktail’ – a pathogen and trauma. I’ve tried everything from Mexican Shamans to immunologists, but to no avail. So I try to carry on with my life.

Recently I had brief brush with a frightening, and often terminal disease: cancer. After a few terrible hours writhing in pain in A&E on a Saturday night, a mass was found in my pelvic area, and thought to be a suspicious ovarian cyst. I was fast-tracked for further investigations and then scheduled for an operation to remove both ovaries and fallopian tubes, the cyst to be sent for analysis. For 6 weeks I lived in a new dimension: a dimension where what I had was not chronic, but acute, possibly life-threatening. I cannot say it felt good to be able to tell people of my ‘new’ health situation, but it certainly felt different: everyone was well-informed about cancer and the potential ramifications. I had little explaining to do, and a lot of wonderful support. I no longer felt I was moving through the sludgy, invisible world of my chronic illness, instead everything became pin-sharp and bright – interwoven with a great deal of fear. I was afraid about the cyst, and about the operation. It was my first.

M.E. / CFS does not make me afraid, but it does make me feel extremely limited. I feel the illness has taken away much of my adult life. I realise this is a negative view, and that perhaps I have also learned much because of the illness. I have learned compassion, at least, for those who are in a similar situation.

The operation was not only a success, but miraculously they found no cyst, and only one fallopian tube was removed as it was severely twisted. On hearing this I felt so grateful, so very alive. I try to remember these feelings as I return to my ‘normal’, invisible illness. And that in spite of all, I am here, I am alive, and I am well enough to be writing this, for this I am truly thankful.

Some more information on this subject:

Six Common Misconceptions about the Chronically Ill

What is Invisible Illness? (+ How to Explain it to Others)

17 Things Healthy People Need to Hear During Invisible Illness Awareness Week

Invisible Disabilities Association
But You LOOK Good 
One of many informative pamphlets produced by the above association

The Challenges of Living with Invisible Pain or Illness

Also well worth reading: New York Times article by Lidija Haas on “Memoirs of Disease and Disbelief

 

15th International Conference on the Short Story in English

Thanks to a Canada Council for the Arts Grant I am a participant at the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in English, taking place from June 27-30, 2018 at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. The theme is: “Beyond History: The Radiance of the Short Story.

In an age when private lives appear to be ruled by the force of historical events, we are contradictorily challenged by creative achievements that, even if originating in History, develop a self-sustainable energy, a radiance, so to say, that supersedes material circumstances and/or envisages alternatives for them.

The 15th International Conference on the Short Story in English brings writers of many nationalities to Lisbon, a city where the cultures of the world meet and stories of history unravel around every corner. In this scenario, fiction writers in English, or authors who have been translated into English, together with scholars of the short story, will join in reading sessions, roundtable discussions and panels, as well as in the more traditional paper presentation sessions.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Society for the Study of the Short Story, the Conference looks forward to the opportunity of highlighting the variety of ways in which the Short Story becomes a specific form, blurs the boundaries with other literary forms, goes beyond the written medium and borrows from other artistic processes/languages, shaping itself anew in an endless process. Indeed, proving to be an extremely resilient medium, the Short Story has been changing throughout the times and aesthetic tendencies, without losing the kernel that makes it a distinctive mode of the human expressive genius.

On Thursday, June 28th, I’ll be on a panel discussing Flash Fiction in Method and Meaning with Nuala O’Connor and Tracey Slaughter, and on Friday, June 29th I’m reading one of my short stories as well as participating in the round-table discussion on Politics and Short Fiction, with Garry Craig Powell, Rebekah Clarkson, David James, and Robin McLean:

An age-old question for many writers and artists has been to what extent should politics intrude on art: should we write above politics or face it head on? Can fiction affect or even transform the political climate? Should it even try? Then again, is it even possible to avoid a political stance of some kind?

You can download the program of events from the website – there are a number of exciting authors reading their work, and a packed program of panels. See you there!

Diving into Story

I’m offering an afternoon writing workshop on Sunday 3rd June 2-4:30pm in Hove at the Tree of Life Integrated Health Centre. (Note: these workshops are now held monthly. Please see the Workshops and Teaching page).

We all have a story to tell, and our stories matter. Stories give us the chance to be heard, stories help us find out who we really are; stories connect us to others and perhaps stories help the world become whole.

We don’t always consciously know what stories we have within us to write, and even if we do, we often avoid actually putting pen to paper. Sitting down to a blank page is a dive into the unknown, a dive that takes great courage. We seek safety by putting on our ‘editor’s cap’ too soon, or by waiting for inspiration before we start writing. If we focus on what our story is going to be about, whether the writing will be good enough, or whether anyone will want (or not want) to read it, we stymie the creative process.

This workshop will support you to discover the exhilaration and power of writing without preconceived ideas about what you should be writing or how you should be writing it, a thrilling and sometimes life-changing experience.

Your stories may be inspired from personal life, your intuition or your imagination, it does not matter: you will be encouraged to step out of your own way and open up your ‘child eyes’ to whatever wants to be expressed on the page. The focus of the workshop will be how to stop thinking about writing and to actually write.

By the end of the workshop, you will have begun at least one story, and you will leave knowing how to continue. No formal writing experience necessary.

For bookings and enquiries please sent me a message or make contact via the Centre on +44 (0) 1273 220159 / info@tolcentre.com.

Though none of us will live forever, our stories can. As long as one soul remains who can tell the story, the greater forces of love, mercy, generosity, and strength are continuously called into the world.“~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Writing on the Edge of the Sea

To live — Do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble….” the words of Zorba, of course.

I’m very excited to announce that Robin McLean and I are leading a writing workshop in Crete this October, the first in a series called ‘Writing on the Edge‘.

Writing on the Edge of the Sea‘ will be a generative and boundary-busting workshop limited to 10 participants, held in the truly gorgeous harbour town of Chania (which has two beaches, the Mediterranean still warm enough for swimming…).

Look for trouble. Come. Details on our website.

 

What Has Been Given To You To Say?

As some of you know I was lucky enough to teach three creative workshops for the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, as well as a workshop for the British Council in Colombo.

One of the workshops, ‘How To Face The Blank Page’,  was part of the Festival’s outreach North-South programme, hosting students from 8 different national university English Language departments. About 45 students participated. Given the island’s only too-recent civil war, it was inspiring to be working with a classroom of students from different ethnicities of the country. They did indeed face the blank page and some wrote powerful pieces about the war and its aftermath, and they also wrote about the tsunami which took the lives of 35,000 Sri Lankans in 2004.

The two other workshops for the Festival were on Flash Fiction and ‘Diving into Story’, for younger people. For the British Council, my workshop was also on Flash Fiction and was also for younger people. Originally the numbers for this workshop were limited to 20, but at the last minute the number of participants bloomed to 65 when a teacher from one of the schools found out about the workshop and asked if her whole class could join. I have not taught those numbers before, so was a little anxious but the children were not only amazing, so was their writing, as you’ll read below. I took heart in our future, to know there were so many young people with a deeply adult understanding of themselves and the world we live in.

One of the prompts I gave for a short piece was called “Your Gift.”

I asked participants to put aside for a moment any fear of pride, lack of confidence or disbelief in themselves and to imagine the planet is in dire danger (not hard to imagine). I told them the gods had given them two gifts, the first being great skill in expressing themselves, the second something important to be said. I asked them to sit silently for a moment and then to write down the answer the question, ”What has been given to you to say?”

The answers were deeply moving. I read many of these out to the participants and in one case they all stood up and applauded. I read them out myself not just because the children were shy, but to encourage them to hear the beauty and strength of their words. Sometimes it’s easier to hear that in another person’s voice.

I have been collecting some of the pieces, and wanted to share them here:

Look around you. Look at everything and everyone around you. Who are they? What do they mean to you? If you left now and never saw them again, how would it affect you? Would you feel guilty for doing something, or for not doing something? Would you feel guilty for saying something, or for not saying something? If so, then do it. If so, then tell them.

~ Nora Deemer, age 14, Elizabeth Moir School

***

I Live in my mind a brave fearless charming and charismatic young girl with power to change the world. I Live in my life a snivelling scared stupid bitch without even the power to speak up for herself . I Die in my mind noble and valiant thousands of others weeping for me. I Die in my life wishing the girl I fantasised was actually me.

~ Rusandi Rosini Ranasinghe, age 14, Visakha Vidyalaya

***

When someone tells you that they want to make a change in the world, don’t let your narrow mind tell you that it’s not possible. Think about it, in the big picture, it may seem like all the issues in the world have already been addressed and solved, but break the picture to look at the gaps, the missed brushstrokes and the half shaded colours, has every single issue in the world reached a solution?

Ranuli Palipane, age 17, Musaeus College

***

Polluting is something we as humans do and it’s harming our planet. What should we do? We all should be recycling, it’s a good habit and it will save our world and animals. We should also teach our kids, if we have any, to up-cycle. Did you know that every one minute a garbage truck full of plastic is dumped in our ocean? It has to be stopped. Plastic survives for a long time. Did you know that 25 years ago a cargo ship carried 50 containers over the pacific ocean and one of the containers full of toy rubber ducks fell into the water? Still today 200 of those ducks are floating around in our big blue sea.

~ Neve Grace Coleman, age 9, homeschooled

***

And, there’s this one which made me smile: In response to the prompt: “The worst teacher you’ve ever had” (hopefully I won’t be on that list!):

For a challenging subject, he was the last teacher we wanted. We actually needed someone to show us how to strategically find x and solve y, not one who failed while trying to disprove age old theorems and claimed to have seen ghosts in the school hallways in broad daylight and tried to pull off a Matilda to move a marker with his mind. clearly, he was deprived of attention as a child, at least that’s what we thought.

~ Ranuli Palipane, age 17, Musaeus College

***


Note: if you attended one of the workshops and would like to send me some pieces you wrote there for publication on my blog, do let me know! You can email them via the Contact form.

Links:

British Council in Colombo
British Council Literature website in the UK
British Council Literature on Twitter

The Galle Literary Festival on Facebook
The Galle Literary Festival on Twitter

Flash fiction workshop at the British Council, Colombo

I’ll be teaching a workshop on flash fiction for teens at the British Council in Colombo at the end of this month, following the Galle Literary Festival
Flash (also known as micro fiction, postcard fiction, short stories, sudden fiction, and prose poems) is the art of brevity take to an extreme, where not only every word counts but every comma and every line break: a complete story under 1000 words and preferably less.

This workshop will inspire participants to write at least 2 flash stories to submit to numerous publications and contests that are looking for flash fiction.

Date:   Monday 29 January 2018
TIme:  03.00 p.m. – 05.00 p.m. (followed by refreshments)
Venue: British Council library Colombo 03

For more information and to register go here – hope to see you!

The British Council has been in Sri Lanka since 1949, offering a wide range of services and activities across the island.  For more information visit the British Council’s Sri Lankan website, and the British Council Literature website – they are involved in some extraordinary projects across the world.

Creative Writing at the Galle Literary Festival, 2018


I’m delighted to share that I have once again been invited to teach creative writing workshops at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January (24th-28th), including a workshop for teenagers and another for the North-South Programme.

This year speakers at the Festival include Amit Chaudhuri, Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, Kimaya de Silva, Pankaj Mishra, Maylis de Kerangal, Louis de Bernières, Richard Flanagan, Ashok Ferrey, Alexander McCall Smith, and Dame Maggie Smith. My author page on the Festival website is here.

I will also be teaching a writing workshop at the British Council in Colombo on the 29th of January.

Come and join me!

The Festival on Facebook
The Festival on Twitter

A new career in Greek Reality TV?

In my last blog, A Cretan Story, I mentioned the Greek TV show “Pame Paketo” (Πάμε Πακέτο), who I’d contacted as they help connect one with ‘lost’ people from the past. I’d emailed them in early September about wanting to find Manolis Anitsakis or someone in his family. Manolis was the man who took care of me and my brother while my mother was in hospital after the car accident, the man who’d found us an apartment to live in, the man who’d bought me a puppy and a hedgehog and who fed me kadaifi and baklava in his family’s café. Within a few days Annita, one of the Pame Paketo team, replied to me via Facebook and said they would like to do a story, which meant they found someone. I did not know who. Over the next days I chatted at length to Annita. She wanted to know everything I remembered, asked me if I’d be willing to go to Athens in a couple of weeks to record the show. The thought overwhelmed me, as this would be just a few days before my planned-for trip to Chania. David was away, I couldn’t find a cat sitter, my health was particularly low. And a reality TV show? It just didn’t seem the kind of experience I was destined for. But I said yes, of course, thinking what HAD I got myself into.

Well, this for starters…


My hotel was by the sea, with a spa and a pool and a great breakfast buffet. I slept and swam and let the sauna get me into some kind of presentable shape for filming the following evening.

At the Pame Paketo studios, my first hours were spent sequestered away in a small room with my translator George Fassoulakis. The other ‘story’ on the show was being filmed. I wasn’t to leave the room, as whoever they’d found was also in the building, and we were not to cross paths until the show.  I was brought a substantial salad and coffee and endless sweet cakes. George and I chatted. I learned he spoke 5 languages and translated for the UN in Brussels. At some point I was ushered into hair and make up looking like one person, and then ushered back to the small room looking like another. Finally we were ‘on’…

Everything is in Greek (other than when I speak) but if you listen closely you can hear George doing simultaneous translation – I now have a profound appreciation of this skill.

As is revealed to me on the show, Manolis died from cancer in the 70’s, only ten years after my father died (more about this here). Manolis did not marry, but he had two sisters, who’d also died. But the sisters each had one child, Stella and Mihalis. This is surprise ‘meet’ on the show, Manolis’ niece and nephew. In the “Paketo” (packet – the enormous white box) that Stella opens is the obituary of my father written by Manolis, and a gift I’d chosen for Manolis or whoever Pame Paketo would find: a pair of silver cufflinks my mother made some years ago. Neither Stella nor Mihalis knew who they would meet, only that it was someone asking about their uncle Manolis.

As they read the obituary, they began to remember. Stella remembered a dinner with my parents; she remembered that Manolis was distressed he had to leave Chania for a few days, and so she took his place at my mother’s bedside in the hospital. I did not get to meet Manolis, but to meet Stella and Mihalis, who’d been there then, who were a part of my ‘lost’ history – well, it felt like a another strand woven in the net beneath me that has been forming ever since my visits to Chania, a net that will catch me if I ever fell. I have realised that most of my life I have been floating in space without a way to get back to the mother-ship, without anything to catch me if I fell to earth, but now there is a way back  –  tentative and delicate, but definitely there.

And then it was a wrap and everyone was pressed into the night. Stella and Mihalis and I promised to meet again in Chania, which did, a week later.

Manolis Anitsakis

The show had a section of me being shown photographs of Manolis that I’d never seen, it was very moving for me.

Manolis Anitsakis (the woman second from left was Manolis’s first cousin, Marika Vlassopoulou, who was a writer and general director of broadcasting)

I was flown back home the next day, but not before I managed to have lunch with my ex step-aunt for the first time in over forty years, and then coffee with my ex step-father, also for the first time in over forty years. He came to Athens airport to meet me, and we sat perched on uncomfortable chairs, while around us travellers dragged their hand luggage to departure gates or stared glassy-eyed at flight information displays. My step-father and I caught up as best we could given the circumstances. I almost missed my flight.

The whole experience felt like I’d slipped briefly into another dimension, one which still exists out there,  just waiting for me to return. And I can feel those strands, connecting me to the mother-ship. Thank you Pame Paketo for your part in this.

I’m still looking for three of the people who were in the car accident: an American couple, and a Greek man, whose first name I believe was Costas. I’d also like to meet Mihalis, who played with my brother. A son of a fisherman. Mihalis was about eighteen then (1968/9), so in his mid sixties now. Perhaps another show…

A Cretan Story

Did you have a good holiday? a friend asked after I returned from a 16-day trip to Chania in Crete. I paused, unsure how to answer. Yes, I spent a couple of hours on a beach, soaking up the sun. Yes I drank wine watching the sun turn the sea into colours I couldn’t name. Yes, I ate lingering meals in bustling tavernas, but ‘holiday’ didn’t feel like the right word.

The trip was, in fact, part funded by an Arts Council travel grant to work on a new project, but I can’t say I did much of that either. I did talk all things writing with my travelling partner, author Robin McLean. I kept a diary. But actually sit down and work on a project? No. My days were so intense and full at times I felt if I had one more emotionally affecting experience or interaction I might simply explode onto the Venetian cobblestones of Chania’s old town.

You were on a pilgrimage, my friend said after listening to my attempts to answer her question. A good word. I had in fact returned to the scene of events that changed the course of my family’s life.

I was born in South Africa in the early 60s. My mother, Berrell Jensen, was a famous artist and sculptor, and my father, Tony Jensen, was studying for his PhD and embarking on his own career as an artist. Apartheid was at its height. When I was seven, my parents decided to immigrate to Europe.

In the autumn of 1968, while my father was finishing up selling our house in Johannesburg, my mother and I took my brother to boarding school in Scotland and then travelled through Europe to Chania, in western Crete. My mother was interested in Classical sculpture, and Chania was known for its community of artists and bohemians.

Photo from 1968/9

Thanks to Manolis Anitsakis, a Cretan man who befriended us, we settled in quickly. Our small apartment was on the harbour, an apartment Alan Bates apparently lived in during the filming of Zorba the Greek. I remember burly men on the port, cleaning spiny black sea urchins and holding them out to me to wrinkle my nose at. I remember seeing an elderly woman dressed in black, scars ripped across her face (Cretans were brutally treated during the Nazi occupation).

By mid December my father had completed what he needed to do in South Africa. He picked up my brother at the end of the school term and they arrived in Chania to join me and my mother. On the 5th of January 1969, to celebrate my brother’s 10th birthday, we drove to a taverna just outside of Chania. With us in our car was a local Greek man and an American couple my parents had met. Manolis drove separately to meet us at the taverna. I remember bouzouki music and dancing and plate smashing and laughter. I danced with Manolis: he was not tall, I felt like a grown up. The night seemed endless and wild and wonderful.

Chania in 1968/9

During the drive home, in the early hours of January 6th, my father lost control of the car, swerved off the road and crashed into a tree. My brother and the American man pulled me out of the car, telling me not to look back. I saw blood on the American man’s arm as he held me. The full moon shone down. I heard the sound of crickets, the hiss of the car’s engine.

In my ears I could still hear the song everyone had been singing before we crashed: Σιγά σιγά. Slowly, slowly.

What I remember next was Manolis with me at the hospital, asking me if I was hurting as he walked me down some stairs.

My father died in the accident from head trauma, although I only found this out later. My brother and I were uninjured apart from bruises. The American man’s girlfriend had a broken leg and collarbone. My mother had chipped vertebrae. I don’t know what happened to the Greek man who was in the car with us.

Photo from 1969

My brother and I lived with Manolis and his family. When my mother was released from the hospital, she told me my father had died. Everyone in the house was wailing. I was not even sure I was sad. I did not know what I was feeling. I felt nothing. I rubbed my eyes and made noises as if I too were weeping, but I was not. I wanted everyone else’s weeping to stop.

I am sure as I stood there that terrible night trying to look back at the car smashed into the tree, something in me closed down, and I became disconnected from a deep part of myself.

Well, the story is a long one. But we ended up living in Chania for nearly a year, with trips back and forth to South Africa. My memories from that time are confused. We went on to live in Athens for a few years, before moving to England when I was twelve.

Although I went on to study Ancient Greek and Classical history and culture at university, and although I made two ‘holiday’ trips to mainland Greece, I did not return to Crete, I did not contact anyone from my past (including my Athenian ex-step father). I did not have their phone numbers or addresses.  I never knew what happened to the American couple. My mother never wanted to talk about what happened in Chania or her second marriage. She blamed herself for the car accident, saying she should have been the one driving as my father had bad “hand-eye coordination” (my mother was in fact a skilled driver, having learned from a man who raced cars).

Last year I returned to Chania for the first time since 1969. I’d booked just two and a half days, primarily to spread my mother’s ashes in the sea. I knew she loved the Mediterranean. I did not think I would need to spend longer. I might try to find out where my father was buried, perhaps. What else was there to do? I’d spend a week ‘holidaying’ in the Peleponnese instead.

The moment I stepped onto the streets of Chania it became clear I needed to find out everything, explore everything. In the short time I had I did what I could to re-trace steps I’d taken as a child. I wanted to find out what happened to Manolis, I wanted to find people who might remember us. I wanted to stand in the exact spot the car crashed. I wanted to know the names of the American couple and the Greek man who’d been in the car.

I did manage to find my father’s grave: he is in Agios Loukas cemetery, his bones in a pillowcase in another man’s grave.

Sandra JensenFinding the grave changed me. As I stood there, white marble shimmering everywhere, the smell of beeswax candles and the red Bougainvillea growing near, my father came into focus. For the first time in my life I felt he actually existed. Before this moment he’d been a person in story, not even my own story.

Also, for the first time I felt how tragic it was for him to have lost his life so young. He was only 33.

I have virtually no memories of him.

I tried to find Manolis, or at least his family, to thank him for taking such good care of us. Two and a half days was not enough time. Several people said I should contact the Greek TV show “Pame Paketo” (Πάμε Πακέτο), as they help connect one with ‘lost’ people from the past. I did contact them on return home, and in mid-September this year was flown to Athens to record a section for their show to discover who they’d found. The show will be aired on November 1st at 22:00 EEST (also archived on YouTube, I’ll post a link in a new blog when its up! – Edit, 5th November: here it is – the YouTube is edited, full version of the show is here).

In Chania, when I showed people – anyone, random shop owners, policemen, waiters – photographs taken by mother, their eyes would well up, seeing how their town used to look. And when I told them story of my childhood, their eyes would well up again. I was so moved by this response, their concern, their questions. It was as if what I told them had happened to someone in their own family.

So, of course, I had to return to Chania. I’d been considering writing a linked story cycle called ‘Labyrinth’, involving myth, prose poetry, fictionalised memoir – a literary attempt to “story,” or make sense of the often dreadful and meaningless events of existence, reconfiguring them as something more real and transformative. I applied for a travel grant, received one, and so I arrived in late October.

Obituary of my father from 1969, translation below

Again, I walked the streets with the old photographs in my bag (and cat food for the strays), and I’d talk to anyone willing to talk back. No one refused, in fact quite the opposite. My experience of last year was only a dip in the water compared to what happened this time. People pored over the obituary Manolis had written in a local newspaper which I’d recently found. They looked at the photographs, they wanted the photographs. We met for coffee, for wine, for more talking.

I continued my ‘research’. I did not find the names of the others in the car accident – hospital records are lost. A lawyer is looking into court records, but I have not heard back. I managed to walk up the stairs of the apartment where we used to live, but got no further. It’s been turned into small hotel and there was no one there to show me the rooms. I did not find the spot where the accident happened. I did not find Mihalis, the son of a fisherman who used to play with my brother.

Sandra JensenBut as a Greek man I met said to me: You may not find everything from your past story, but you will find new things. You will make new beginnings. You will start a new story.

So. Holiday. Pilgrimage. A step into the labyrinth of my past, reconnecting with the self that I lost on that Cretan road in January of 1969. The beginning of a new story.

And although I will continue to develop the writing project mentioned above, I think I’ll begin a novel. The Greek novel, is how I’m referring to it.

Robin McLean and I are considering running a writing workshop in Chania next October, so I am returning there again. How can I not? Chania can be your home town, someone said to me when I’d told her I never felt I had a home. I do now.

~~~

English translation of the obituary of my father, written by Manolis Anitsakis (translation and notes by Nicolas Sampson):

 It’s been one month since the tragic moment a ‘foreigner’ passed away in this land.

We know a few things about this foreigner. He was a psychology professor and an amazing artist from Johannesburg, South Africa.

And this ‘foreigner,’ he made us love him so much in the short time we knew him. It doesn’t take long to evaluate the worth of a person, and Tony Jensen was an outstanding one. [Here the author uses the term ‘anthropos,’ playing with the double meaning of ‘person’ and an ‘outstanding human individual’.]

Earnest, dignified, modest, leventis [a ‘fine man’ — this is one of the best compliments a Cretan can offer] and in control. He never bragged, even though he had every reason to boast on account of his superb education and his brilliant career.

He loved life and he loved perhaps even more to learn things. He loved the world and its people. He loved Crete, too, turning it into his chosen spot for his vacation, but Crete seems to have loved him in turn, perhaps more so, keeping the 37-year-old forever with her.

We will be denied from now on his noble figure and his leventi-style poise as he made his way down the Chania streets alongside his wife and his two children, whom he adored.

Yet we still see him in our minds and will never forget the beauty of his soul, and wish him with all our heart that the soil that covers him, the Cretan soil that now keeps him, to be light and gentle on him.

We offer his venerable mother and his beloved wife and children our warmest [deepest] condolences.
Anton Jensen with Sandra Jensen