The Wisdom of the Den — Ioanna Opidee

And if there were a contest, and [this prisoner] had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady . . . would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending . . .

— Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”

Five years old, I woke, fumbling in the thick fog between dreamland and my Yiayia’s bedroom as my two sisters and I, in our pink cotton nightgowns, lay like matchsticks in her queen-sized bed.

It was a chorus of laughter, drifting in from the adjacent kitchen, that awoke us.

“What’s going on?” Tina murmured, rubbing her eyes. Eleni and I shrugged, so Tina, the oldest at ten, hopped off and scampered to the doorway to peek around the corner. A moment later, her head snapped back, her eyebrows raised, her jaw dropped in disbelief. She dove back onto the bed, sat up on her knees, and reported her dispatch in a whispered shriek: “They’re dancing! All of them! And I think Mommy is drunk! Pappou and Thia Kaiti are, too!”

Eleni leapt from the bed and raced into the kitchen as the waves of laughter rose higher. Tina followed, and I crept to the doorway to glimpse what appeared to me as pure magic: Thia Kaiti and Yiayia, my father’s sister and mother, clapped their hands and circle-danced around the wooden chairs on which my mother and Pappou stood, grasping each other’s shoulders to balance one another as they kicked their legs clumsily to the sound of nisiotka, the Greek island music crackling through a rusty brown radio—their laughter, loud and strong, like gravity trying to pull them off the chairs; heads back, eyes up, as if gazing at animal patterns in the clouds.

My mother emerged as a cartoon version of herself—crimson cheeks, eyes gleaming like stars, or pegs on a Lite-Brite toy. When she spotted my sisters, giggling and kicking their little legs to join in the dance, she called, between bits of laughter, “Girls, go back to bed!” But Thia Kaiti grabbed the girls’ hands and weaved them into and around the room.

Yiayia lined up four tiny glasses and filled them with Ouzo. Pappou took Thia Kaiti’s hand to pull her onto the chair as he climbed down, then reached for Yiayia’s hand and twirled her while Tina and Eleni clapped. Thia Kaiti and my mother held hands in the air and sang.

Was I dreaming? I’d never seen my mother laugh like this, so loud and free. Something meaningful was happening here, though what that meaning was, I wasn’t sure.

My grandparents’ house on the island seemed like a cave to me, carved into the mountainside with no beginning or end, as much a part of the landscape as the almond trees surrounding it.  The floors throughout were painted-grey concrete until the kitchen was tiled sometime in the early 1990s. One room led into the other, with no hallways connecting, an effect that enhanced the sense of it as a cavern as one moved deeper and deeper within.

Until I was about 10 years old, the house had no indoor plumbing. To bathe, we traipsed along a dusty path of broken rocks—no road ran through the village—until we reach the better-paved section near the church and the natural spring. There, we filled jugs of water and carried them back, the smallest in my hands, the largest in Pappou’s, or on his poor donkey’s, Marika’s, back.

Our toilet was in an outhouse; to flush, we poured buckets of rainwater. I’d wake my mother in the night, and she’d say, “Are you sure you have to go?”

I’d hop around and say, “Yes, I’m sure,” but was I sure? Or was it just some primal urge to be out in the darkness of night, far from the glow of streetlights, the racket of cars, and anything beyond the crickets loudly chirping in the stillness as all of humanity slept?

We’d go out to dinner, on occasion, and Pappou would choose a taverna in the mountains, where we’d remain for hours as he befriended the owners who treated us more as house guests—topping off wine for the adults and bending to smile sweetly at us kids, offering us the final dusty can of Pepsi. Together, they danced, and yes, even smashed plates; they sang and reminisced about the olden days they didn’t share but all knew.

On our way back to the car in the darkness and quiet, the laughter, music, and the bright lights of the restaurant were a memory, the mountain’s shadows blackening the otherwise silvered-by-moonlight sea hundreds of feet below, the air thick with stillness—and we, our family, were the last humans on earth, and that was all right by me.

Years later, at age 29, I return to Greece after seven years away—this time with my husband, a non-Greek, a true blood Bostonian in a Red Sox cap and Nikes.

We tour Athens and the mainland for a few days before sailing off to Andros. From there, we visit Santorini where we hike from the village of Fira to Ios in the 100-degree heat, in the searing sunlight, hundreds of feet up from the metallic blue sea on the dark black mountain, on the stark white concrete path. We pass some old men peddling donkey rides. Eric asks me, “Are those costumes they wear to look like old-time grandfathers?”

I peer at the men in fishermen caps, dirty pants cuffed at the ankles, with gray, horsehair mustaches and gruff complexions. “No,” I say, stoic. “That is exactly what my Pappou looked like.” His generation is nearly gone. “But he would never. Ever. Sell donkey rides.”

We are alone as we continue our trek until a man in a colorfully-threaded poncho, perched on a stoop making jewelry by hand, appears from nowhere.

“Pick something,” Eric says.

We’re told that they’re made from real lava stones from the island’s volcano, and I want to believe this. When I lift a pair of earrings and ask, “How much?” I am relieved when the man says, “Six Euro”—not just because we can afford them on our lean travel budget, but because he hasn’t shattered the idyllic nature of this moment by reminding us, with an overpriced tag, that we are tourists, and he is there to make a buck.

Later that evening, we scour the bars and restaurants to find the perfect place to view the famed sunset but make the right choice to climb over a stone wall and perch on the mountainside. It is the type of sunset that makes you fear the world might end as that impossibly perfect circle of fire dissolves at once into the darkness, the type of sunset that makes you feel you wouldn’t care if it did. I am overwhelmed by the beauty and thankful to be staying across the island at the less dramatically beautiful Kamara beach where I can reflect on and remember—recover and not feel—it.

In our hotel room that night, I untangle my new earrings to try them on, but one slips from my hand, into the sink, and circles down the drain. My hand grabs at the cold porcelain, but it’s too late. The drain is an infinite black hole. We use our fingers, a fork. We sacrifice a toothbrush.

Eric, straining to look serious and grim because I am crying now, quells a smile as he says, “I’m sorry, Ioanna, it’s gone.” Later—as far as months later—he’ll need to say, “Stop telling people about those six-dollar earrings. Really.”

But I am a child whose balloon has floated away.

The night before departure, we sit on Thia Kaiti’s back porch in Athens, surrounded by plants and trees, sipping strong black coffee. Our trip is almost over and my aunt—who retrieved us from the airport ten days prior in a blue floral dress, her hair styled neatly half-up—is in a bathrobe and slippers, hair tossed sloppily into a bun.

“Tell me, Eric,” she says with a half-smile. “What are your impressions of Greece?”

I translate, and he laughs nervously. He’s prepped for this moment—when he’d have to represent his take, not only as a newly-minted family member, but as a full-blown American in a country that has been portrayed in the news as coming apart. It is summer 2010: Greece is in the throes of a massive economic crisis, and images of protest marches, police in riot gear, streets aflame, have become a daily mainstay in the American media.

The question isn’t new to him. I’d asked him the same two nights prior as we lounged on beach chairs, listening to a Greek reggae band play. His reply: “Greek people seem so happy all the time.” He shook his head. “That just can’t be real.”

“I think it is,” I’d said with a laugh. “It must be the Ouzo.”

But it’s not the Ouzo, and I know that. It’s this film of mirth that coats the life here. Or is it a core that bubbles up?

I repeat this observation to Thia Kaiti, who sighs a deep sigh. “We used to be that happy,” she says. “Remember, Ioanna? When you kids were little? How much fun we had? No water in the house, no television, and we were happy.”

I do remember. But what I didn’t understand at the time is that the light from that life—the light that lit the darkness from within—was already fading. In the year 1900, the island’s population totaled 18,000. By the turn of the following century, it had fallen to near 10,000 as habitants migrated from an agrarian lifestyle toward the urban call of Athens.

“This country isn’t what it used to be,” she continues. “Look.” She nods toward the open doorway to where her kids, in their early 20s, sit facing laptops at the dining room table. “They want Apple, Macbook, iPhone. They sit there, in front of those computers, on the Facebook, the Skype, and they think they’re doing something. Ach.” She waves a hand and sighs, closing her eyes—to see what? “They’re not doing anything.”

On the way to the airport the next day, Thia Kaiti asks Eric again what he thinks of her homeland but doesn’t wait for me to translate before she answers her own question. The answer, it seems, is for me.

“Ah, what are you going to think of this little country? What are we, a doulapa.” A closet. “What do we have? The ocean. That’s all.”

In Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill writes, “There’s sadness beneath the merriment [of the Greeks]. It is as if, no matter how much these revelers sing, dance, howl, recite their jokes…a constant, authoritative note of pessimistic pain sounds beyond all of their frantic attempts not to hear it.” I read this and think about my family dancing in my grandmother’s kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, and my childhood self, watching in the shadows, from behind the doorway.

Eight years later, Eric and I return to Greece with our two young children, ages one and four. The heat in Athens is beyond all reason, the city a tinderbox. The night before we leave, we plan to visit Thia Kaiti and her family, but Eric and the girls have fevers from the hot sun beating down in hours of city traffic. Our departure—despite the moments of joy and beauty—feels like an escape. Days after we return home, a wildfire breaks out, killing more than one hundred people in a seaside village we’d stayed in ten days prior.

I add these moments up and think of loss. Not just of the old world, because the old world, as Dylan essentially sang, is always rapidly fading, but of what we didn’t keep from it. Between my two main points of reference, Greece and the U.S., the former was slower to change, but the change was coming, and for—in many ways—all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t long before my Yiayia’s death when Greece converted its currency from the drachma to the euro.

“This isn’t going to be good,” she said at the time.

She knew because she could no longer comfortably afford fruit at the farmer’s market down the road. A couple of years later, that market was gone. She was left to buy her fruit at the sprawling superstore some miles away, when she had energy enough to take the bus, or when someone with a car could bring her. It’s hard to envision her there, pushing a cart down endless aisles brimming with shiny merchandise under the abrasive neon store lights. It must have been overwhelming to her, abounding with more than she could ever have imagined needing. And it’s this misplaced sense of need that has marched us along on the relentless journey toward “progress” in the form of Macbooks and platinum credit cards and all the things that dull our senses to a level of intensity that we, in our fear of losing emotional control, can handle. We’re driven to distraction by a desire for more, for what’s physically attainable, or better yet just beyond our reach, to keep us striving, consumed by anything but the infinite uncertainty of now. The distraction itself becomes a toxic pleasure that anesthetizes us from the knowledge that we can’t live every moment in the light; that, in its purest form, it blinds, while its total absence, the dark, leaves us frightened.

So we settle for the dim. We hide behind the doorway, glimpsing joy, privileging shadows, deferring to the wisdom of the den, and neglecting our souls at our peril.

In 2010, Eric and I were visiting a land in crisis––steep economic turmoil that seemed insurmountable. On our trip, we visited the ruins of Mycenae, the legendary home of The Iliad’s King Agamemnon. The roughly 4,000-year-old site has been visible to modern society for less than 150 years. A complete excavation, conducted by German amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, began in 1876, a few decades after Greece achieved its independence after 400 years under Ottoman occupation, during which such excavations, we learned, were forbidden. Until then, the true existence of this place, written about by Homer around the eighth century BC, was lost and doubted as a myth. Now, anyone can tour the remains of the palace grounds, the king’s tomb, the ancient grave circle.

We, in our modern century, have been under a different occupation, but crisis can allow us to dig deep, to see what lost and forgotten treasures can be salvaged.

The wisdom of Plato’s den would say we’re fools for treading up into the light. What can that bring but the sadness beneath the merriment of Cahill’s Greeks? A sadness, knowing we can’t live every moment in the light, and the beauty it reveals. That we’ll forget its truth back down in the dark, and resume our naming of the shadows. Maybe that’s the note of pessimistic pain Cahill describes—a sound that drives us back down into the den, where the shadows come today in the form of more and maybe someday, over there . . .

The joy in a simple kitchen full of revelers dancing together on chairs made of straw in a tiny dark island village is not an attempt to ignore the sound of pain; it’s an attempt to sing with it, and yes, maybe above it.

A wisdom all its own.