Monday, July 6, 2015

The Best Thing That Happened This Year

Anyone who has seen me on their birthday may have noticed (perhaps grudgingly because it seems most people hate this question) that I like to ask people a birthday question: What is the best thing that happened in the last year?

Since I ask everyone, I feel like it's only fair to give you all my answer on my 26th birthday. 

July 7th, 2014 - waiting for security.
But, my god, I don't know how I could possibly relay what happened to me this year, much less choose a "best" thing that happened. If you've somehow missed this story, a year ago, on the evening of my 25th birthday I flew to Iceland, then mainland Europe with a one-way plane ticket and a dream of backpacking, farming, exploring and finishing my first book over the next six months. 

And I proceeded to do all of that, and so much more. 

Then I came back to Minnesota and have reconnected to friends and family, landed an incredible job at an organization I admire, got myself a wonderful little studio apartment, have planned camping trips and enjoyed everything amazing that my home state has to offer. 

There's just too much that's happened to possibly put my finger on a "best". But I said I would, so I'll give it another try. 

I think another way of thinking this through is to answer another question I was asked a few weeks ago: What is one seemingly small decision that changed the course of your life? 

I knew the answer to this question without a doubt: going to Lipsi. In January, as I scouted farms to WWOOF on across Europe, I decided to peruse Greek options because, well Greece. I was in bed before work when I came across Dimitris Farms. The listing was full of enticing details like island winery, 150 meters from the beach, isolated part of the Aegean - did I say winery? - it was a clear front runner for a prime farm volunteering adventure. I got an email back quickly from Kostas, and marked my calendar for August 25th with one of the few certain travel arrangements throughout those 6 months. 

Lipsi is one of the smaller islands in the Dodecanese chain, which includes the more famous Rhodes and Patmos and is just kilometers from the Turkish mainland. At just over 17 square kilometers, you hardly need a vehicle, and the 790 people living there lead mostly agricultural lives, so donkeys are the main way of getting around as it is. On the island a delicious thyme honey is produced, as well as a very sharp, hard cheese. The Lonely Planet website says about a half paragraph about the place. Trip adviser says "A quiet holiday destination." 

The harbor and village of Lipsi, early morning.
When I arrived, I was exhausted. Exhausted from packing my bags each night, from finding my way between and through so many new cities and villages, from being so anonymous but never truly alone. I remember arriving at Kostas' house and being pointed towards the guest house across the fields where we slept the first few nights. It was a hot August day, and the world finally fell still around me as I sat on the porch, looking over the hill where Calypso held Odysseus captive for 7 years, listening to the tinkle of goat's bells. 

The moon was new when I arrived in Lipsi, leaving the sky incredible that first night: a clear road across the Milky Way which stopped us short as we walked through the vines after dinner.

I couldn't have imagined all the late, hot nights out on that porch with the three other women volunteering - Catie, Jenny and Genevieve. I couldn't believe how well we connected, with no cell phones or computers present, drinking fresh wine and talking about traveling, love and dreams. I had no idea how magical traditional Greek music sounds, how haunting it is when played all night long in the ocean breezes, how easy it is to pick up the circular line dances, smiling and laughing with the locals as we spun and danced through the dusty shadows. I didn't know anything about the sharp taste of ouzo, the texture of fried octopus, the sweetness of the local wine and the crispness of Mythos beer - all of these things in the town square each evening after the sunset, when the entire island would emerge from their thick-walled homes to enjoy the cooler air. I didn't realize how beautiful it could be to pull myself up into the strong branches of a fig tree, ducking around the hot, ripe fruit to look out over the hill dotted with vineyards and white Orthodox churches, the arid land somehow still producing so much.

The porch of Dimitris Farm
I realize I'm starting to sound dreamy here. But it was one of those places for me. I arrived on Lipsi a little unhinged, but wholly full of incredible certainty in myself. I had become wrung out with the realization of life goals, the processing and unwinding of unnecessary pieces of myself. I had been carving away at myself for the last two months, reaching in and reaffirming. Lipsi, with the incredible friends I made, the sea shore, the very taste of the experiences I had every day, was cathartic. While on Lipsi, I felt like I knew exactly who I was day and who I wanted to be. Life made sense, and blossomed around me on Lipsi.

There was one day in particular, when I didn't have to work for Kostas. I slept in, made myself some excellent food, sat on the upper porch of the house while I meditated, breathed, wrote and reaffirmed everything I dreamed of and wanted in life. So many things had become clear to me, and it was time to crystallize them. I knew this.

I was solid, yet malleable. So clear in my place and desires, and at the same moment so opened and blessed and grateful with whatever was coming next. I put on my swimming suit and sunscreen and walked across the hills of the island to a beach I'd not visited yet, one of the most beautiful in all of Greece.

Which is where I happened to meet the most incredible man - the sort of person I'd certainly day dreamed about, but who I never really thought I'd be lucky enough to find, much less connect with in real life. That evening, ridding on the back of his motorized scooter to the farm, is one of the clearest memories in my life. The nearly full moon was perfectly illuminating the hills and bays and inlets below. We were the only ones in the world, as far as we could tell. I can still feel the sand and salt coating my skin and tangled into my hair. I remember the particular way in which I felt alive with the toe-curling story of it all. I knew that no matter what happened next (because at that point, there was no next beyond the end of that ride), this was a most incredible moment which I would do very well to crystallize; sight, smell, tingling belly and all. 

Of course meeting Gabri and all of the ways this encounter changed my trip and, frankly, my life, is also one of the better things that happened to me in the last year, too. 

So this is the longest shortest answer I can provide. It encompasses all that was most incredible and life-changing about the trip, and is filled with some of the memories I cherish most, as I look back working so hard to be present in this newest place and phase of the incredible live I've gathered with a healthy mix of luck and hard work.

I don't have any wine from Lipsi - I never did end up going back for a bottle of the stuff I squashed with my own two feet - but I do still have a tiny vial of incredible balsamic, aged 15 years by Kostas' parents and boiled down while I was there. So I'll raise a nicely glazed piece of meat to this island, remembering the richness of fruit from 200 year old vines. 

Cheers to the first quarter century of my life! Cheers to all the rest that is to come! 

Grape picking on Lipsi, August 2014