Honestly, those paths must be on lay-lines. There’s alchemy going on out there. Every day I go out on my run and every day if feels like life is saying to me Alex, listen up, kiddo! Here’s your lesson for today.
I don’t have a bucket list of things I want to do before I die but I do have a bucket list of things I’d like to change in me before I die. I know I should say ‘things I’d like to work on’ but actually the truth is I’d like to go to sleep as I am and wake up in the morning morphed into the better, freer person I’d like to be, please. Without the work, if that’s okay.
Today, bingo, I hit two of them in one.
So one of them is I’d like to be less judgmental. It’s like a tic. I just jump to conclusions and judge people and events. That’s my knee-jerk default position. Then I have to do a whole lot of talking to myself: whoa! There you go again. Take a step back. Maybe there’s another side. Is this the full picture? Live and let live, Alex. How come you think you’re right on this? Just take a wee step down from the moral high ground, girl. And on it goes. And on. See how attractive the overnight personality transplant idea would be?
One of the things I’ve found myself tut-tutting about here in my Greek island hideaway is dogs. The village is so quiet, at night the silence feels silky. Except for dogs barking. Oh my goodness, they can drive you nuts if you let them. Thing is, Greeks in villages tend to have a different attitude to dogs to the northern European one. They are not pooches with fancy hairstyles or your friend who sleeps on your bed with you at night. These are beasts with a purpose: they guard your land or your house, they gather birds you shoot when hunting. And when they’re not working, you tie them up in the yard, feed them, and let them get on with it. So they bark.
“Today, on my daily run, I was forced to reconsider my judgments and to think again.”
OK I’m guessing what you’re feeling is what I’m feeling so I don’t need to start talking about neglect and what dogs are for and how much they need and give love. So maybe some of you have jumped to the same conclusions as me. But today, on my daily run, I was forced to reconsider my judgments and to think again.
I hadn’t left the village more than a couple of hundred metres when I came across a guy in a red high-vis jacket standing by the roadside with two dogs at his heels. It’s the hunting season (small birds, mainly) and it was clear that’s what he’d been doing. I called out good morning as I passed him and then I noticed a third dog lying on the verge. Is your dog okay? I asked. He was crouched beside it now, stroking its head. It’s been bitten by a snake, he said. An adder. He went over there – he waved at the long grasses beneath the olive trees on the other side of the road – to pick up a bird. Must have landed on a snake. It bit him by his mouth. I saw it happen.
Oh my goodness, I said. Can I do anything? I’ve given him a shot of cortisone, he said. And now I’m waiting for my friend to come in the car and we’ll take him to the vet. I don’t know if he’ll survive or not. He smoothed his dog’s ear. And then I saw that he was crying, as he stroked its head and patted it gently. And I thought that maybe there are more ways than one to love a dog, just as there more ways than one to love a human and that I had been wrong to assume that treating your animals in a utilitarian way inevitably means that there is no possibility for tenderness or affection to pass from you to them and them to you. His other two dogs were quiet at his feet, subdued. They seemed to know.
I offered to get my car and drive them myself but he thanked me and said his friend was on his way and would be there any moment now. Be careful, he said to me. Don’t run off the tracks. Just don’t do it. There are plenty of snakes around and they’re dangerous. And please, he said. Enjoy your run. Don’t get cold standing around here now (the weather changed last night and there’s a chill to the air today).
“What if no one finds me and I die a long lingering death on the verge of a path that no one ever comes along?”
I said goodbye and left him and his three dogs behind me. As I continued my run towards the dam, my daily routine run in search of the still elusive path around the reservoir, I now confronted number two on my bucket list of things I’m not crazy about in me. That’s my tendency to say ‘what if…?’ I think its other name is fear. So now I was thinking: what if I step on an adder as I run round looking for my lost path? What if I don’t see it and before I know it, it leaps up and bites me? What if no one finds me and I die a long lingering death on the verge of a path that no one ever comes along? What if I see a snake, jump sideways to avoid it and then land and twist my ankle? How long will it take me to crawl round the reservoir on my hands and knees to get home? What if I then I am in so much pain I roll down the bank into the water and drown? What if I roll down through the undergrowth on my way to drowning and disturb another adder and it bites me so I not only drown but I’m poisoned too?
So I made the decision that I wouldn’t run round today. I’d just run up to the top of the reservoir, along the wall, turn round and come back to the village. That used to be my run before I decided it was small potatoes. It would be my run again today.
As I reached the top of the hill, just before the dam, I bumped into one of my new workman friends. I met him a couple of days ago and I’d asked him if he was going to be around for the next hour or so. He’d said he was. Phew, I said. Could you possibly just keep an eye out for me? If I haven’t returned within an hour, would you mind coming to the end of the bridge and looking down to see if I’m spread-eagled at the bottom of it? It’s just that if I don’t find a path I can run round, I have to clamber up the rocks there and maybe I’ll slip and then no one will find me for days… He said he’d watch out for me “like my eyes”. I’ll loosely translate this (bear in mind I’m blissed-out after two weeks here) as “I would rather you plucked out my eyes from their sockets than that anything happened to you.” It was reassuring.
Yesterday he’d been there again and asked “should I keep an eye out?” and I’d said yes please. And today, there he was again. So I told him today he needn’t bother because I wasn’t going to run all the way round. And I told him about the dog and the snake and all the other snakes that I now knew would be waiting for me on my circuit. I’m just going to go to the end of the wall and back again, I said. I think that would be sensible.
He gave me the ‘are you crazy?’ look I’m getting rather familiar with. Don’t worry, he said. The snakes, if there are any, will be more afraid of you than you are of them. They’ll see you coming and they’ll disappear. Just keep your eyes open. You’ll be fine. And anyway. I’ll be watching out for you on your way back. Just go. Do it (listen out, Nike).
So I chucked the what ifs? to the back of my mind, and then right out of my mind, and ran round the reservoir. It was especially beautiful today; the drop in temperature had made the air crisper and clearer and the water seemed especially sparkly and twinkly. Magical, almost. When I got to the bit where the path disappears and you have to go through some long grass and undergrowth, I grabbed a stick (to fight the snakes off) and went ahead. And I clambered up the rocks, easy-peasy, and rounded the circle.
“I must constantly remind myself not to stop doing stuff out of fear, and of how crippling fear is and how it diminishes us and our lives so incrementally, yet so inevitably.”
I passed Michalis (we’d introduced ourselves yesterday) on my way down. How many snakes did you see? he asked. Haha I said, very funny. But I was feeling pretty pleased with myself (and grateful to him for encouraging me to do so) as I’d beaten my what-if demons of today and my life had grown a little bit bigger, a little bit wider because of it. And I’ve been thinking of how I must constantly remind myself not to stop doing stuff out of fear, and of how crippling fear is and how it diminishes us and our lives so incrementally, yet so inevitably. And yet, I’m so aware how easy it is to give into that fear and to call it sensible or prudent or any other of those bland words that may make our lives freer from risk, but by the same token freer from joy too.
So I haven’t had the personality transplant I think I need but I have had another couple of great life-lessons today from the fairy-tale paths around the reservoir, above the village, behind my house. Tomorrow will be my last run this year as I leave on Friday. And I’m wondering what my final adventure up there will be, and my final lesson.