Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Have you ever heard the story of Bloody Mary? I’ll never forget it. I was in 3rd Grade at that little Catholic school my parents took me to and the older girls said “If you go into the bathroom and look into the mirror and then say ‘Bloody Mary’ while turning three times, a woman will come to you at night and scratch your face up/off.” They said that the spirit of Mary Worth, child killer, comes when summoned to perform evil deeds at night.

The story was further embellished by the teller who claimed that she knew a girl who had said it and her mirror had turned red with blood.

Of course I could not resist flirting with danger. “I don’t believe in Mary Worth!” I said and went right on to do the forbidden deed no other young child dared to do. At night I could not sleep and was indeed terrified that the avenging spirit would come to me. The next day my mother took me to school and got the older girls to confess it was a prank.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that “Bloody Mary” is one of those urban rituals that have been around since forever with various variations.

The research into Bloody Mary goes back to 1978 when folklorist Janet Langlois published her essay on the legend. Mary is said to be a witch who was executed a hundred years ago for plying the black arts or a woman of more modern times who died in a local car accident in which her face was hideously mutilated. Some confuse the mirror witch with Mary I of England, whom history remembers as “Bloody Mary” as she was a murdering British queen who killed young girls so she could bathe in their blood to preserve her youthful appearance.

So many years have passed and young ones are still initiated into the terrifying childhood ritual...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


My earliest recollection of friendship was my mother's advice - "View today's friends like tomorrow's enemies." She tended to be a bit skeptical of all my friendships and, much to my chagrin, more often than not was frustratingly right. Much like Confucian writers, she clearly viewed my every friendship as potentially dangerous. And she would point out each friend's flaws before stressing that "birds of a feather flock together".

Confucian writers coined it more poetically - "He who touches vermilion will be reddened, while he who touches ink will be blackened" or "enter a room fragrant with orchids. After some time one does not smell them but smells of orchids oneself". In contrast, to befriend a small man is to "enter a place where fish is smelt. After some time one does not smell the foul odors, but is emitting them."
In high school I was something of a loner and that is when I discovered the most fulfilling friends of all - books. In this way, I was allowed to vicariously experience a whole spectrum of emotions without suffering harmful physical consequences. Books not only took away the loneliness but also made me more multi-faceted, allowing me observe friendship for what it could be.

Aristotle opened my mind to the three forms of friendship -

1) Friends must enjoy each other’s company. (Pleasure)
2) Friends must be useful to each other. (Usefulness)
3) They must share a common commitment to the good. (Genuine)

Cicero said the same… adding that genuine friendship can only take place between good men.
“Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends', only what is good. But do not let us wait to be asked either: let there be ever an eager readiness, and an absence of hesitation. Let us have the courage to give advice with candour. In friendship, let the influence of friends who give good advice be paramount; and let this influence be used to enforce advice not only in plain-spoken terms, but sometimes, if the case demands it, with sharpness; and when so used, let it be obeyed.”

 I longed for the idealistic romanticism of friendship but was always sabotaged by Nietzche who considered that to see a friend as someone ‘who wants the best for you’ is too shallow a notion. A true friend for Nietzsche is someone who by wishing you the ‘best’ wishes you ‘the worst,’ – struggle, strife, obstacles, fear, and ‘many good enemies.’ A friend for Nietzsche is not someone who accepts your every word and blindly follows in your steps or even someone who tries to ‘offer you a helping hand’ – this only promotes laziness, acceptance of one’s status, weakness and decadence. To wish truly one best also means to be in opposition, to propose contra-arguments, to go one’s own way and even destroy and fight against a friend’s plans. In the Nietzschean sense, the friend is the one ‘who wishes you to be strong.’ In contrast to a Christian who wishes you ‘heaven,’ that is meekness and decadence in otherworldly piety.

Perhaps there is no difference between a friend and an enemy or love and hate. Both friend and enemy is someone who you consider your equal. It is someone who you think is worth fighting against. From the fight, you both learn and ultimately strengthen your resolve. In fact, it might be said that ‘your best friend is also your best enemy, and your best enemy is your best friend.’ It gives a new term to the "frenemy" label that the "Sex and the City" TV series helped popularise.

With all this philosophical fluster it really is hard to believe that I have any friends at all! Nietzche didn’t. The two friends I acquired in recent years died last year, causing me to seek the meaning of this and to wonder if perhaps it was the act of death that made them genuine friends. And there is one friend that has stood the test of time – perhaps only because distance and a 24-hour flight separate us.

My daughter's own questions enhance the confusion. The wheel has come full circle and now it is time to help my children resolve issues that I have yet to conclude upon. Thankfully I have the good sense to avoid statements like “View today’s friends like tomorrow’s enemies.” But I can’t help being Confucian and confused and all knotted up like Nietzche – worried that her every friendship may potentially harm her and make her stink of fish.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I sometimes wonder why people are so dismissing of old films as redundant. Every time I see Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1949) I get weepy. George (James Stewart) leads a picture-perfect life and yet doesn’t truly appreciate it due to unfulfilled dreams of adventure and travel away from his small-time hometown Bedford Falls. When his business goes bankrupt, he enters a life crisis and thinks of suicide. He’s saved at the last moment by the appearance of his guardian angel who shows him how the world would have been had he never existed.

The same idea is explored in another old film – Akira Kurosawa’s "Ikiru" (1952) that explores the life of Kanji Watanabi, a longtime bureaucrat in a city office that spends his days doing nothing until he finds out that he is dying of cancer. While dying, he finds the meaning of life by fighting for the construction of a playground in a poor zone of the city and thus secures the legacy of his existence regardless of the fact that his name may not live on to be linked to this creation.

Isn’t it hopeful to know how each person can make a difference and that you don’t need to be particularly famous to make a difference through your rippling influence on others? Indeed, sometimes even a failing life isn’t as inconsequential as it seems. According to these films, no life is pointless.

These days, films are so wrapped up in special effects that they lose out on moral lessons that can be life-changing to viewers. Surely our robotic lives are very much in need of such heart-warming and optimistic messages about how every action and choice we make contributes to our world. If we are constantly reminded of this, perhaps we would have a better more humane world.

What existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says about rippling and our circle of influence on other people’s lives in his book “Staring at the Sun”:

“That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level. The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finiteness and transiency.”

Monday, January 11, 2010


When I left Australia I threw a big black GOODBYE behind me and flung myself forth into my chosen homeland.

Truth is, I didn’t do so badly. Found a cushy job, got married, had kids…and yet, upon hitting forty my two best friends died. And there’s nothing like being 40 and having two friends die of terminal cancer that drives home the fact that life will stop being an upward spiral and that inevitably we will die.

So at 40 I started to look back to seek the meaning of all I had experienced. After all, some day we will die and yet life will go on as before without the possibility of knowing what will happen to ones family and loved ones.

Suddenly – at 40 – it became fundamental to see what became of people once important to me. Technology helped, and indeed on facebook I found classmates with whom I once had a common shared history with. Finally, I was able to put a conclusion to stories started decades ago. Nothing makes life more palpable than to see photos of your classmates all grown up and aged.

I spent whole sleepless nights remembering stories with them. Moments from primary school that any one in my current life would never be able to associate with the persona that I have taken on in adulthood.

Anyway, here I am, a 41-year-old woman looking at herself in the mirror and still seeing a hologram of her 11-year-old self.

I guess there’s no such thing as GOODBYE in life. Every little detail lives on within us until the end. Even moments forgotten return to us in dreams. Every experience is useful and with us until the end. The end – death - is the only goodbye.


On the day when death will knock at they door what wilt thou offer to him?

Oh, I will set before my guest the full vessel of my life - I will never let him go with empty hands.

All the sweet vintage of all my autumn days and summer nights, all the earnings and gleanings of my busy life will I place before him at teh close of my days when death will knock at my door.

O thou the last fulfilment of life, Death, my death, come and whisper to me!

Day after day I have kept watch for thee; for thee have I borne the joys and pangs of life.

All that I am, that I have, that I hope and all my love have ever flowed towards thee in depth of secrecy. One final glance from thine eyes and my life will be ever thine own.

The flowers have been woven and the garland is ready for the bridegroom. After the wedding the bride shall leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.

I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.

Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains.

When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks and I see by the light of death thy world with its careless treasures. Rare is its lowliest seat, rare is its meanest of lives.

Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got-let them pass. Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked.

Rabindranath Tagore (1913)
This picture is from Hans Holbein's masterpiece series of the macabre "Dance of Death", originally published in Lyons in 1538.


If I had a euro every time I was asked why I gave up a perfectly good life and career prospects to come to Athens I’d probably be quite rich by now. Of course, that was seventeen years ago, when Greece was still using drachmas, and I was single, young and idealistic.

The fact that I had nowhere to live, no connections, no inheritance and all my money in a travellers cheque that I couldn’t get to because of a six-month bank strike actually made the adventure more appealing. In hindsight it was all quite irrational. But here I am…still…with no thoughts of ever leaving though the occasional pang of homesickness tends to hit as I recall the exquisiteness of what might have been.

Then I remember my Greek roots and love of Cavafy and Kazantzakis and ultimate need for a life filled with daily challenges and philosophical perusals. Indeed, “A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.” So says Kazantzakis.

Seventeen years onwards I wonder if I am free…I guess, I’m still looking for Ithaca, though I know now that it is not a place but a state of being:


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing mroe to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must have already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)