The Real Greece

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They say it’s impossible to get bored in Mykonos, one of the world’s great crossroads, but I did. The constant hubbub of cafes and discos had finally worn me out. I wanted to see the real Greece. I wanted to look behind the stage prepared for tourists like me. I didn’t want to be just another sunburned fun-seeker collecting hangovers and notches on a bedpost. I wanted to slow down and feel my short existence in an ancient place. I didn’t know if I would ever return. I wanted a real moment or two to stand out above the typical version of Greece most travelers experience.

So one night I picked a direction and started walking, away from the noise, into the interior. The streets of Mykonos, like many Greek villages, have no pattern. They were built this way intentionally to confuse invading pirates and enemy armies. The village of Thira on the island of Santorini is probably the best example of this.

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The villagers would hide in doorways and windows with clubs and knives and slaughter the disoriented attackers as they passed. Now the labyrinthine streets confuse only tourists. After a half hour of wandering, I was lost but didn’t care. I was nervous but at least I felt alive again, out of the tepid bath of familiarity.

It was quiet for a long time as I passed apartments and the occasional shuttered cafe, then I started to hear music. I walked toward it. The sound of bouzouki’s and mandolins became clearer but not the source, until I came to a sunken doorway. Nobody was outside. I touched the handle. I wasn’t sure if it was a private house or a public bar. “I didn’t travel thousands of miles to be timid,” I thought. “What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll get thrown out.”

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I opened the door and saw a very small room, but it was a bar and cafe. I walked in and sat at the nearest table.

The room was filled with the mingled aromas of cigarette smoke, retsina wine, lamb and duck. Five men played vigorously and twenty or so others sang and clapped. A few took notice of me but most were too enraptured by the music to care about the outsider in their midst. A man I would later come to know as the owner walked to my table, looked at me very seriously, and waited for me to order. Wanting to earn the space I was using, I ordered a glass of retsina. He walked away, came back with a glass and, in a somber tone, said, “Welcome. Enjoy.” I had not yet earned his trust.

I watched and listened for an hour as the men did what they had clearly done for decades. They were masters of their instruments but most probably had never signed a recording contract.

Separated by language, the key that unlocks everything, I was unable to communicate with them, but the great gift and joy of that night, aside from the music, were the subtle looks and smiles the musicians and locals occasionally gave me. The bar owner refilled my glass without keeping track and became more friendly as time passed and he saw how much I was enjoying hearing his friends play.

 

I wish now that I would have snuck a photo or two but I didn’t take a single photo of the musicians for the same reason I started walking away from the crowd earlier – I was tired of feeling like a gawking tourist. I wanted something personal, sacred, real.

I stayed until they all went home, and shook hands with many of them as I was leaving. A few even hugged me, perhaps because they knew I didn’t find their secret hideaway to take photos of them and brag to friends back home. They knew I didn’t want to make an exhibit of them on some apartment wall. I’ve never even written about that night until now, twenty years later. They accepted me because they knew I was there to find the heart of Greece, and I did. And as usual, it was delivered to me by the two greatest forces that ever brought people of different cultures together – music and kindness.

 

More Kindness Than Danger (travel story)

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Here’s my story from Chicken Soup for the Soul’s latest book, Step Outside Your Comfort Zone. There are 100 more stories in the book about living life fearlessly and accomplishing your dreams. You can buy one online, in your favorite bookstore, or order a signed copy from me here through Paypal. (Message me for payment info, etc.) I hope my story inspires your next great adventure.

More Kindness than Danger

Another spring had arrived and, with it, my familiar and frustrated wanderlust. I had waited years for my friends to go to Europe with me, but there was always some reason they couldn’t. I proposed the trip once again to the same friends and received the same excuses. I wasn’t going to let another year go by without making this dream come true, so I decided to take the trip alone. I bought a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and told my friends I would send them a postcard.

On the day of my departure, I was excited but also surprised at how worried I felt—not just about being lonely, but also about the dangers I might encounter. My parents also questioned the wisdom of walking around Europe alone for months. They warned me not to be too trusting, to stay out of bad neighborhoods, and to avoid going out by myself at night. In retrospect, it was cruel to subject them to such torment, but they eventually understood that I just wanted to see the beauty of the world while I was still young.

My own worry was more difficult to assuage. Maybe I had watched too many movies that showed the darker side of man’s nature. Conflict is the essence of drama, after all. All those movies about naïve vacationers being attacked, kidnapped or thrown into abusive prisons had taken their toll on my trust in people. Watching the six o’clock bad news didn’t help, either. But there was no turning back, so I hugged my parents goodbye, got a ride to the airport from a friend, and flew into the big, blue sky and complete uncertainty.

It was early April, but snow was still on the ground in Copenhagen when I landed. Determined to be frugal, I chose the cheapest youth hostel in my travel guide. As I slept that first night on an ancient, unpleasant-smelling mattress beside a cracked, graffiti-covered wall, homesickness began to overwhelm me. I thought, What am I doing? I could be home in my clean, comfortable bed. But even that wasn’t there anymore because I had vacated my apartment and sold most of my belongings to finance this trip. I sat up, took out a miniature flashlight and found a note in my pocket that a friend back home had given me. He had written down the name and number of someone he knew in Copenhagen named Lisbeth. He said she would be happy to take me in for a few days. I decided to call her the next morning, and then fell asleep from exhaustion.

When I arrived at her door, she welcomed me like family and showed me the sights of Copenhagen for several days. I felt so accepted by her and her friends and had so much fun that I forgot to feel homesick.

One night, they took me to a karaoke bar. Word got around that I was from California, so someone asked me to sing a Beach Boys song. I chose “California Girls” but changed “California” to “Copenhagen.” The syllable count was a perfect match. The first time I sang “I wish they all could be Copenhagen girls,” everyone cheered, and I made a hundred friends instantly.

That’s another thing about movies. Nobody can sit in a bar in a movie without some group of drunken nincompoops harassing them. But this bar was filled with the nicest people imaginable. It was just another example of the skewed reality of cinema. Travel was working its magic. My faith in human beings was being restored.

I stayed in Copenhagen for a week before moving on. I was alone again, but invigorated by a great first week away from home. My solitude didn’t last long, however. I found travel companions everywhere I went, especially on the trains. My backpack was a silent invitation to other wayfarers to join forces and see something new together.

With only four thousand dollars, I didn’t know how long I would be able to travel. I ended up stretching it out for six months. When I wasn’t sleeping at youth hostels or the homes of new friends, I saved money by sleeping in train stations or on moving trains between one destination and another, roughing it for the sake of extending the adventure. Besides, with so many new people to get to know and so much world to see, sleep wasn’t much of a priority. It wasn’t just that, though. I wasn’t tired anymore. The continuous excitement of exploration freed me from the weariness that often plagued me at home.

While my friends back home repeated another typical summer, I awoke to the view of cotton clouds drifting through a pastel blue sky above Venice, Italy, as opera students practiced arias in the square below my hotel window. I dipped my feet in the cool water of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and imagined I had discovered the fountain of youth. I watched the sun rise over the red tile roofs of Florence. I held hands with a Parisian beauty at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I sat silently in the cool air of a mountainside prairie in Switzerland as spring exploded around me. I parasailed over Swiss Alps so fertile that the lake below them was bright yellow with floating pollen.

I watched a rainbow form over the Irish Sea. I held my hand against the cold monoliths of Stonehenge and felt their mystery flood through me. I read poetry by candlelight in a cave at the base of the mountain the Acropolis stands upon while colorful hot-air balloons filled the night sky in the distance. I recited a monologue under a full moon at the Theatre of Dionysus. I walked the ancient cobblestone streets of Athens. I danced all night in a Greek disco pulsating with life. I watched a golden sunfish sail past my rowboat in the Aegean Sea and imagined it was Zeus taking the shape of a fish to observe me more closely. I walked through ancient ruins and felt with an ache how brief my existence is, but how sacred and powerful it is for that same reason.

And through it all, I had time—that most precious commodity—to read, write, watch and really see, to listen and really hear, and to savor my life while gazing through the moving church of a train window. I discovered what Joseph Campbell meant when he said people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as they are in the experience of being alive.

I arrived home with less than a dollar in my pocket, but with a heart and soul overflowing with riches and dozens of new stories to tell. Traveling alone can seem intimidating at first, but the world is full of kindness and generosity, and they are both showered upon us for prices anyone can afford—respect, friendliness, and an open heart.

I’m twenty-five years older now, and those same friends who didn’t come with me on that adventure can’t recall what was important enough to make them stay home back then. My problem these days is not fear of travel or distrust of humanity; it’s being content at home. The desire for adventure only grows stronger with age. How can one have enough fun? Romance? Awe? A world full of wonders, ever-pulsating outside my window, still calls me to new adventures, but now I accept the invitations fearlessly, knowing the rewards far outweigh the risks, and there is much more kindness in this world than danger.

 

“This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone © 2016 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.”

New Chicken Soup for the Soul Book Twitter Launch Party!

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If you’re like most people in the world, you own at least one of the over 250 Chicken Soup for the Soul books. This is my 18th story published with the franchise, and I’m particularly proud of it because it tells a story I always wanted to tell – about a six-month backpacking trip I took through Europe, Greece and Great Britain.

The book is called Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, and my story title is More Kindness Than Danger. It encourages people to not let fear prevent them from living an adventurous life. There are 100 similar stories by other authors in this book, stories that will inspire you to reach beyond your comfort zone and live the life you are supposed to be living.

Tune in to Twitter tomorrow, November 1st, between 2 and 3 EASTERN time (11-1 Pacific) for a Q&A session with the contributors and the publisher, Amy Newmark. Tell them Mark Rickerby sent you. I hope to see you there!

 

 

On Becoming a Father and Husband, and Redefining “Adventure.”

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I was talking with a friend recently about how much I miss traveling. I did a lot of it in my twenties when I was single. Nothing excited me more than waking up with a Euro-Rail ticket burning a hole in my pocket, pulling out a map, picking which ancient city I would see next, watching the European countryside whip by from the train window, arriving in the bustling train station, the launching pad for another day of adventure, and just walking, open to anything that might come along. Pure serendipity.

In response to my reveries about my free-wheeling, globe-hopping days, my friend, probably concerned that I was unhappy in my new roles of husband and father, said, “Mark, you’ve done the world traveler thing already. It’s time to do the daddy thing.” 

I married much later in life than most, and recently became the father of two girls. One of the reasons I waited so long was that I had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of loveless marriages and poor examples of parenting when I was growing up. So few were the positive examples of both, they had become the equivalent of prison in my mind. But walking around in foreign cities became less romantic and more lonely as the years passed. It became increasingly clear to me that God did not intend for us to spend our lives in solitary confinement, or as foundation-less gypsies. As Pearl S. Buck wrote, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”

So I got married and became a dad, and I’m loving every minute of it, but that old version of me still makes an appearance now and then, like that gag they did in the TV show Get Smart where the face of Maxwell’s fellow agent kept popping up in unexpected and impossible places – glove compartments, mailboxes, etc. Likewise, my old self shows up now and then as if to say, “I’m still heeeere! Thought you got rid of me, didn’t ya?” And when he does, the wind that used to turn me into a gypsy for months at a time blows through me again. To scratch the itch, I sometimes watch travel videos on the Internet, which make me even more frustrated.

While watching a movie set in the Greek islands one night, my eldest daughter, then two and a half years-old, climbed onto my lap, touched my face with her tiny hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “I ruv you, daddy.” Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her close and inhaled her honey-scented hair, and suddenly all those “far-away places with strange-sounding names” stopped calling so loudly. Even the old version of me, the one who keeps wanting to run from responsibility and be a carefree wanderer (also known as a “bum”) took a few steps back and bowed his head in reverent silence. Little girls can do that. The greatest strength is no match for their softness. Taoism in action.

And in that moment, I realized that my memory of all those travels was making diamonds of coals a bit. I remembered the emptiness and lack of real direction that drove me to those far-flung corners of the earth. Even when I lived on a Greek island, I knew I was on an island in more ways than one. I was hiding from the emptiness I felt at home. I needed God, true purpose, and family. Faith, not just the scattered remnants of religion murdered by logic. A real direction fueled by vision. Blood, not just friendship. My own people, who would stick with me, and I with them, through thick and thin.

The road will always call, and I’ll eventually answer again, but this time I won’t be alone. Marriage and fatherhood is not the end of adventure, it’s the beginning of the greatest one. I’m going to do this right. And how much grander traveling will be when I can show my daughters, with their unbridled sense of wonder and amazement, all the things I saw in my own turbulent youth. How much more amazing they will be to me to see them all again through their eyes, without all that emptiness traveling with me. How terribly heavy it was to carry. Now I will carry them instead, my beautiful bundles of love and light, as a transformed man with a new reason for living – perhaps the highest – to make my heart as pure, happy and loving as theirs are.

A response to this post from a friend who did it all differently. (Had three sons right out of high school.) 

“The truest and greatest adventure of my life was, and still is, being the father to three amazing men. Fatherhood is the fruition of all that I am. Seeing you with your daughters warms my ever-present memory and ever-present reality of what it means to be a father. I smile inside for you my friend, because I know what’s before you and the true wealth of life that is yours as you hold on to it with both hands and all your heart. Your feet are walking the road of adventures that in your mind you never knew were there. Truly the most rewarding, meaningful, and personal fulfillment of one’s life is being a parent and father! As I travel the world, breathing in the diversity of life’s experiences, I go as a fulfilled man, not lost or wondering, but knowing exactly who I am. In the light of that fulfilled maturity will be the soul of three young men, traveling with me, who have given to me the honor of being their father. I feel blessed the opportunity is before me; blessed that its richness and diversity come to me as a complete, mature man; blessed to see it in my completeness. Yes, “I did my time” as they say, but it is time I would gladly do over and over again.

We only get one pass at the seasons of life. Making each season count is the challenge before us. We embraced life differently, at different times, yet with the same zest my friend… Not better or worse, just differently. No journey is wrong or bad. Every quest brings to the traveler what they need to be full and complete. You are, as am I, on the quest that was made specifically for ourselves. Life holds no guarantee of safe travels or of fulfilled relationships that end in perfect bliss. Risk is always a part of every quest. To not venture out with both feet and all heart on any quest regardless is to cheat oneself of all there is to be realized.

I have a favorite quote that comes from the movie 180′ South – ‘The word adventure has gotten overused. To me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.’ If it’s being trapped in a third world airport and realizing the eventual escape, or being the man your daughter needs, holding her broken heart at the loss of her first love. Things go wrong, my friend, and when they do, you find the truth of who you are. That is when the quest has done its work in you. I believe that you will find you are a greater man that you ever knew yourself to be. “Honey-scented hair” is but the tip of the greatest iceberg.

And yet one more before I head out for a hike (lol) from 180′ South – ‘When I put myself out there, I always return with something new. A friend once told me the best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.’ You’re out there, my friend. Embrace!”

Greek Island (travel poem)

Since there’s still some time left to travel this summer, here’s something that will hopefully inspire you to (as Jimmy Stewart said in It’s A Wonderful Life) “shake the dust of this sleepy, little town off your boots and see the world!”

I lived on the Greek island of Santorini one summer many years ago and have dreamed of returning ever since. Here’s a poem about my happy memories of that time, and an homage to Greece and the Greek people. I hope you enjoy it. Opa!

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Greek Island

Raven hair falling across the pillow.
Denim hanging over a wooden chair.
Half-written poems litter the table.
The village is dancing, everywhere.

This frenetic crossroads of the world,
bursting with life, is heaven to me.
So many people I haven’t met yet!
So many places I’ve yet to see!

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The wind is cool but the sun is rising.
Bikes are waiting, tickets to anywhere.
We’ll ride this morning through the hills
then relax in the sand without a care.

Tropical oils are carried by ancient winds
as life-loving hedonists deepen their tans.
A girl weaves bright threads into your hair.
A radio plays melodies from faraway lands.

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I dive from a cliff into the bright blue Aegean
and return to you, fresh as a newborn child.
We lie together on rocks ’til we’re golden brown,
then rush back home to heed the call of the wild.

On the way, a smiling man sells us homemade red wine
as a spectacular sunset ends one more perfect day.
The yellow lights of the village flicker and twinkle
inviting everyone to come and eat, dance and play.

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What else could we need in life? What else but this?
Reveling in all that it is to be human and young.
How many live lifetimes never knowing this feeling?
How many die with their sweetest songs unsung?

So come with me, now – not tomorrow or “someday”.
Right now! Pack your bags. We’re leaving tonight.
The wide world is throbbing outside our windows.
It’s time to do EVERYTHING we said that we might!

Mark Rickerby
(c) 1999

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How We Survive (poem on grieving)

I once visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

It’s a strange place, full of odd, gothic sculptures, many of which didn’t make me feel any better about death. For instance, I could have done without the skulls with bat wings and couldn’t figure out why anyone would want them on a relative’s grave. Unless Herman Munster was buried there. It might work then.

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When I was younger and hadn’t lost anybody close to me yet, death was a fascinating abstraction to me. I was as obsessed with it as your average Egyptian pharaoh. I read all the Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unexplained” books. I attempted out-of-body experiences, astral travel and lucid dreaming. I even climbed over a cemetery wall on a Friday the 13th during a full, blue moon and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles. ALONE. Nothing happened, aside from the heebie-jeebie’s of my own imagination.

I stood in that grave and cursed the devil, daring him to appear to me. I was that crazy. For some reason, I desperately needed to know if there was something beyond this life. I had what little faith had been gathered from my mother saying The Lord’s Prayer to me at night as a child. (They didn’t go to church regularly.) But I needed proof.

Looking back, I think my obsession with death mirrored my love of youth. I was acutely aware even then of how transitory youth is, and how many doors opened because of it – professionally, romantically, and otherwise. But as time passed and death actually came to meet me, most notably in the sudden death of my brother and only sibling, I stopped investigating and making a pageantry of it and instead became more obsessed with living completely, with celebrating life, knowing I would grow old and die someday, too. I still feel that way. As Joseph Campbell once said, people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as much as they are in living passionately and purposefully, and experiencing their lives completely. The human heart can endure anything except endless monotony; years and years of dull, identical days. The worst enemy of sadness isn’t happiness. It’s fun. Good, old-fashioned, seat-of-your-pants, exhilarating fun. Newness. Exploration. 

So, because I honor life now instead of death, I don’t remember those flying skulls at Pere Lachaise as much as I remember graves like this one. 

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What a message. A lifeless body breaking out of a stone tomb to hold up a rose. Now that is honoring the spirit of a loved one. 

Shortly after my brother died, I wrote a poem called How We Survive. Of everything I’ve ever written, it has traveled the furthest. I’ve received dozens of very touching emails from gracious people taking the time to let me know it helped them through the worst part of their grief. If you’ve lost someone you love, I hope it does the same for you. Grief is a terrible burden to bear. I lost my father last December, so I’m walking that road again, and doing my best to live up to my own poem.

Peace.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.