Monday, September 24, 2012

Letters from the Underworld: Ecstasy and the Century Plant

An archaeologist's favorite mysterious places...

As I think back, this is where a part of me came alive.

It happened, it seems, about a million years ago. I was naive to the hilt, eyes wide, devouring the world with an appetite of lust and fear.

That's the way we need to be when we are twenty.

I had moved to Greece to study the language and culture, and was spending the first weekend on a small island in the Saronic Gulf. As I sat with the other students, finishing our meal, we watched the sun melt into the sea, flanked by a set of century plants, their single blossoms piercing the violet sky. A spoon against a water glass was followed by silence. Our program director stood up and said just one word.

Ecstasy.

Katharine looked intently at the spellbound group around the dinner table. We let the word sink in as the sun sagged lower, fusing alchemically with the turquoise water.

The word is from the Greek, she finally continued. Ex, meaning out of and stasis, meaning standing.

This is Greece - a place imbued in history. What I want for you is to create your own life history, she encouraged us. Experience everything it has to offer. To stand outside yourself, she said - to step out of yourself - is what I expect you to do here in the coming months.  

And in the months ahead, step out I did. Listening to the silence at Delphi and letting the bees tell me its secrets. Swimming in a hidden turquoise cove, then - thanks to a local fisherman - plunging my foot in a bucket of urine to release a sea urchin thorn. Getting stranded on an island in the middle of a winter storm and sleeping in my clothes, freezing, hoping the seas will calm and the ferry will return. Dancing on rooftops till dawn, fueled on ouzo, tossing glasses over the edge. Watching the sun rise over Olympia, breaking through a fog encased valley, wondering when Athena will begin to speak. Watching the moon rise over the Parthenon, reflecting off its white fluted columns while being serenaded by friends on my twentieth birthday. Speeding down a dark mountain road with a group of friends after a village celebration, terrified to be in a car that was driven by a guy I realized too late, was drunk. Feeling so desperately lonely and distant from anything familiar in life, driven to question everything I ever believed, even my sanity, and wondering when the maenads would get off my back. And when the maenads were holding me down, realizing, years later, they were trying to whisper that the meaning of agony - a struggle and the pain that goes with it - is from the word agon - a gathering, or contest for a prize. Originally a happy celebration.

So this is what I learned - in life, as in words, the Greeks had innately understood that every experience, every meaning was bound with its opposite, and from the pain that goes with a struggle comes the knowledge to stand outside of yourself. 

On that little island we visited our first days in Greece, this is the view that greeted me every morning. Pushing open the shutters, the sea was my living room. And just around the corner, out of sight, were the century plants that I would never look at again without remembering this moment, this place, reminding me to live life to the fullest.


So this is a place where part of me was born. And in a way, a place that compels me to die to the illusions of this life until I learn why I am here.

Will I ever learn? I ask that question each time I step foot on Greece's - at times seemingly infernal, yet eternally sacred - landscape.

Shortly after my mother died, the century plant behind my parents' house did something it had never done the entire time they lived there - it bloomed. A single, elegant shoot extending so high into the sky that it was visible from down the road, towering over the property.

It reminded me of the first time I saw such a plant, and learned the meaning of a word - both of them rooted deeply in the Greek firmament - and the lesson that opposites: agony and ecstasy, darkness and light, life and death, are intrinsically and irrevocably linked.

So yes, I think it may have been she. Standing outside herself.

Stepping out.

25 comments:

  1. 'Shortly after my mother died, the century plant behind my parents' house did something it had never done the entire time they lived there - it bloomed.'

    This made me cry. I know all about century plants. From the etymology of 'ecstasy' to the memories of your young adulthood to this poignant detail, what a truly magnificent post, Amanda. I feel to fortunate to know you and to be privy of your world and mind through these travels with Persephone.

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    1. thank you for these kind words, dear suze. i feel equally fortunate to know you too♡

      p.s. i love your new cat avatar image!

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  2. Oh how beautiful! Your words spoke to me; to my inner soul.
    We have those plants here too. Their flowers stand, tall and regal, through countless winter storms and summer gales. I love these threads that bind the Mediterranean lands together. There is so much shared blood, shared heritage that it almost feels like the outlines between us become blurred.

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    1. i bet there are many century plants in your part of the world - how fortunate to be able to step out your door and see them gracing the landscape. maybe their longevity (and hence name) is due to their hardiness and ability to withstand all the wind and storms?

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  3. the plant to me is not the cental theme, i see here,,,It is more of "out of - standing" and less of the "contest for a prize"...

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    1. thank you, glenn, for that insight. and i agree ;)

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  4. This feels like a poem, but it is written in the form of prose. Interesting alignment of thought and structure.

    "Will I ever learn?" You have already, m'lady. But what, in particular, are you seeking?

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    1. thanks r-bear, for your vote of confidence. i'm not sure it is as much something i am seeking versus a way of feeling and a way of being in this world - that is an ongoing process. however i will say that greece has taught me a great deal about these kinds of lessons and for that i will always be grateful.

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  5. A lot to think about here.
    How wise you were even then.

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  6. "we watched the sun melt into the sea,"

    this image alone shows your writing skills, amanda. you create a scene using all the senses. you are a very good writer.

    and your wisdom about opposites. i know this too. it is a good thing to know. the top of the roller coaster will become the bottom, and then up again. i try to remember this when trouble comes. the sun and the moon know well this.

    your introspection is a gift to me, amanda. thank you.

    xoxo
    kj

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    1. yes, the sun and the moon know this. what a beautiful way to illustrate those dips and peaks in a roller coaster ride. thank you for this, kj. the wider, natural rhythms and cycles of our lives do hold such wise lessons, if we would only listen.

      xx

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  7. What a gorgeous place to find yourself! It's interesting how special places can affect us all the more at a formative time. That's a sweet story about your mother too.

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  8. From the joys of Dionysian dancing to yin/yang... if we can understand these then we can all fully bloom.

    Thank you so tremendously much for sharing this Amanda. You really hit home with me.

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    1. hehe good one rubye. yes, i've done my share of dionysian dancing in greece...

      "if we can understand these then we can all fully bloom" — this reminds me of something you were discussing a while back, about incorporating the shadow into the light. and i completely agree - if we can see the shadow as full of potential instead of fearing it, we would all find ourselves blooming.

      xoxo

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  9. this, i feel, your most important post and by this i mean not to say: i feel this is your most important post (while this is also true) but rather, amanda, i feel this incredibly important post. i feel it in my throat. it is uncomfortable and beautiful.

    and i don't want it to dislodge.

    all else remains unsaid but it rides up and down my arms, an energy very much alive.

    xo
    erin

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    1. uncomfortable and beautiful.......yes. this is exactly what i intended.

      thank you erin, for how you see into my words. i am honored that this found a way to lodge in your consciousness.

      with love,

      amanda

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  10. Every meaning is bound with its opposite. Yes! This is Rumi-esque. It is ancient wisdom. I think it is no mistake that you began to learn this sincerely in that place of the ancients. A beautiful piece, Amanda, I so enjoyed reflecting with you on your first days in Greece, and those experiences that can seemingly only happen in our twenties. It is a joy to see how you bind it to yourself now.

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    1. i don't think it is a mistake either, ruth. greece and i have been bound together since i first stepped foot on her soil at age 11. she has taught me many lessons, but i am not sure i will ever know if i have returned the favor. perhaps that will be my next effort, thinking of a way to repay this gift.

      thank you for giving me this to think about.

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  11. A most beautiful, well-written and affecting post, Amanda. Ah, those irreplaceable life-experiences we have in our late teens and early twenties!

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  12. I need to start spending more time here again, I think. I see you've got some articles published... what news with your book?

    Also dropping by to say THANK YOU for supporting my short film. Gave a shout-out in my last blog post.

    http://irrex2.blogspot.com/2012/09/friends-of-dog.html

    We're also restarting 10thDoM soon (revamped, of course), and would love if you joined in again.

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  13. very true-life is about contrasts - as you said at the end of this beatiful post... let's enjoy as much as we can!

    Blog about life and travelling
    Blog about cooking

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  14. oh my. i am so thankful you share of your self. and your mom, standing outside herself. yes.

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  15. I cried Amanda-- sadness and immense joy-- a beautiful post.

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  16. Yes, those Greek landscapes do propel you toward meditation.

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Thank you for visiting♡