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Photographer | Speaker | Writer

Journal · On Ageing

A life well-lived: lessons from Kiria Maria

Recently, when I was on holiday in a remote village on the Greek island of Chios, I took a photo of my neighbour Kiria (Mrs) Maria, and posted it on my Facebook page. I was surprised and delighted that so many people not only liked it, they wanted to talk about it too. (She was pretty thrilled herself, I have to say.)

I’d written how Kiria Maria has a full and rich life and is as good an exemplar of ‘active ageing’ as anyone I know. However she’s most certainly not a sportswoman and in fact she hasn’t left the island since 1946 when she came back from what was then the Belgian Congo. She’d been living there with her family for four years during the German occupation of Greece. She only leaves the village once a year to go to the main town on the other side of the island (all of 25km away) when she goes for an annual health check in the hospital there.

Several people commented on how wonderful but also almost incredible it was that she was able to live such a full life within such a small space. I’ve been thinking a lot about how and why she is able to do this and what it is that goes to make up a ‘full and rich life.’ Obviously I can’t pretend to do more than kick off a conversation on such a Big Question, but here, a little hesitatingly perhaps, are some initial thoughts. And do feel free please to join in and share yours.

Something to do, somebody to love, something to look forward to: the components that make a life rich and meaningful.

I have a 96 year old aunt who lives in Athens, another Maria as it happens (and I must write about her too some time), and she has a piece of paper taped to the tiles on the kitchen wall. On it are the words ‘Something to do, somebody to love, something to look forward to.’ My aunt maintains that if you have these three things, then you have a good life. If you look the phrase up on the web, you’ll find it attributed to any number of people from Elvis to Rita Mae Brown to Immanuel Kant to Jesus, plus numerous assorted contemporary bloggists who seem to have appropriated it as their own. But it was my aunt who introduced these words to me. Point it, it doesn’t really matter who said them first, they really are, I think, an excellent description of the components that make a life rich and meaningful.

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I’ve come to think that when you think about these three attributes, the scale we live our lives on becomes irrelevant. You can live your entire life out in a small village, as Kiria Maria does, one with perhaps some three hundred and fifty inhabitants, and you can have someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to just as much as the person who travels to a different country every month. In fact travelling the world and living your life on a grand geographical scale is no guarantee of love or of a sense of purpose (which is how I’m interpreting the ‘something to do’ bit of the trio) or even something to look forward to.

Have you ever been in one of those business class lounges at airports? For reasons I won’t go into here, I had the good fortune, or so I thought at the time, to use one at Heathrow on a trip I was making in June. What struck me most of all about the experience was the sheer joylessness of the place. Here were all the frequent flyers – those who’d notched up the miles either with business travel or because they were simply wealthy enough to travel at the front of the plane every trip they made – gathered together before a relatively comfortable trip to somewhere far away. But was it a place of laughter and smiles? Oh boy, no it was not.

It was morning but a couple were checking out the rack of wines that were on offer and wrinkling their noses in disgust and rolling their eyes at each other with every sip. A man was pacing up and down between the armchairs, talking angrily into his mobile phone. People were helping themselves to the rather splendid buffet breakfast on offer and then sitting down wearily to eat it while checking out their phones and newspapers at the same time. Someone else was complaining angrily about the state of the washrooms. Others were sprawled, looking bored, in front of a giant TV screen. I’m not suggesting that all air travel is enjoyable and stress-free by any means, heaven forbid. But what I am suggesting is that the prospect of going somewhere is not in itself necessarily and inevitably ‘something to look forward to.’

It’s precisely because the village is so small that everyone passes by everyone else’s front door most days. So there’s always someone to say hi to and to ask hey, how are things with you…

What I know about Kiria Maria is that she has a daughter who still lives in the same village, although at the other end of it (so that’s about a 10 minute slow walk away). She has grandchildren and great grandchildren who live on Chios and who spend the holiday month of August close by. One of her grandsons has recently renovated the house next door to her and he spends the summer there with his family, as well as holidays such as Easter so she has her great-grandchildren running round her porch too. The ‘someone to love’ box is absolutely checked, in her case. And that’s not counting the various friends and neighbours, me included, to whom she extends a generous welcome and a warm heart. And actually it’s precisely because the village is so small that everyone passes by everyone else’s front door most days. So there’s always someone to say hi to and to ask hey, how are things with you…

In terms of having something to do, well, that box is certainly ticked too. Kiria Maria is never idle. She always has something on the go and it’s usually related to the seasons and the local agriculture, so this might include sieving mastic or wheat grains, sorting the good from the bad. These tasks make her part of the community – the sieved grains go to another villager who bakes bread and then brings her a fresh loaf when she needs it (and a chat at the same time – trust me on that, I’ve been there) and the mastic is very much part of the local economy. She has been embroidering – well, it’s not embroidery exactly, it’s a sort of very fine crochet – making light blankets for all her grandchildren. These are exquisite labours of love; each one takes months for her to make, but then she has something beautiful and personal to pass on to her children’s now grown up children. She has something to do, but it’s not just anything to do, it’s not just time-passing ‘busy work’; these are tasks with a purpose, tasks that enmesh her still further into her family and community.

One day when I commented on how she always seemed to be occupied and busy with something, she replied “well, I’m not going to sit on my porch staring out to space all day, am I?”, as though I’d made the daftest observation a person could possibly make.

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And in terms of looking forward to something, that something is always on the horizon for her. On one very basic level, the changing seasons bring with them changing foodstuffs to prepare and to cook for people who are dependent on the local land for their sustenance. With these changes come their own pleasures.

There is always an event just around the chronological corner that brings family, friends and the community together.

Then there is the changing church calendar and the different annual festivals to anticipate. Of these, Easter is the highlight. And with the church celebrations come opportunities for the family to meet. There is always an event just around the chronological corner that brings family, friends and the community together. And as I was saying goodbye to her a week or so ago as I left the village to return home, she was philosophical (in contrast to my own somewhat emotional state). “Never mind,” she said as she kissed me farewell. “God willing, we can both look forward now to when you come back next year.”

So my tentative conclusions so far are that the scale we live our lives on doesn’t make a jot of difference when it comes to our overall contentment. Travelling great distances or going to so-called exotic places can be wonderful but it can also be a lonely experience, depending on how we do it and with whom. Staying in the narrow confines of our room, our home or our small community can be isolating and bleak but it can also be the setting for a rich and joyful life. I’ve learned a lot from my 96 year old aunt over the years, but the three-line lesson I took from the words taped to her wall is one for which I shall be forever grateful (and it’s now up on my own kitchen wall). ‘Something to do, somebody to love and something to look forward to’: if we want a life well lived, that actually pretty much sums it up.

October 22, 2015 • #, #, #, #

2 Comments

  1. Debbie

    October 22, 2015 Reply

    I remember when life was like that...I grew up in small town USA, the fourth generation, everyone knew everybody, everyone participated in the community at some level. Those small towns are gone now. Big business builds close by and strangers move in....strangers that have no need for community, just a paycheck. All I have is the memories of what once was.

    • Alex Rotas

      October 23, 2015 Reply

      It's so sad how quickly these communities go. I suppose you could argue - I'm thinking out loud now, and I haven't thought this through - that different communities emerge in their place, for example the virtual community through which you and I are sharing our experiences right now. I suspect Kiria Maria's generation will be the last of its kind in Greek villages; we shall have to see. How wonderful to have grown up in a similar environment though. Thanks so much for writing, Debbie.

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