Maybe it was a bad piece of goat, in fact I’m pretty sure it was some bad goat… but who the hell eats goat in the first place? Especially from some sketchy food cart on a filthy Athens side street. But we were young and hungry and the tour-bus was about to depart on a three-hour ride to the mysterious Oracle at Delphi; and whatever was roasting there on the cart smelled, more or less, good… and looked, more or less, like Gyros… which was something we were used to from Greek joints in Chicago.
This was thirty-one years ago as I write, a twentieth birthday had in a cheap pensionne in Rome and a summer solstice sunset dropped softly into the Aegean in Corfu… and now a trip to the center of the ancient Greek world—of which I knew absolutely nothing—a couple of Jewish college boys blithely slouching toward pagan central. Yet I never think of the summer solstice without thinking of the bittersweet birth of darkness—the longest day a birth (six months later) of darkest night; just as the darkest day in December births the light.
And so, in June of 1980, we watched the scenery shift from urban Athens to mountains as the bus wended its way toward Delphi amidst clouds of diesel soot… rising right along were little rumblings in my tummy. As majestic hillsides gave way to rock and crag, gurglings grew ominous and gut instinct tightened; furtive glances confirmed that there was indeed no bathroom on this bus.
Sweat beaded on my forehead and dread gripped me hard. Women in black dresses and babushkas rocked stoically as we climbed and climbed this stairway to heaven, or was it hell? My college roommate started to laugh and make fun of me when I admitted that I was in a bad way; guys can be such a comfort in troubled times sometimes.
I painfully, cautiously, walked (perhaps crouched) up to driver to ask if there would be any stops along the way, but it was all English to him and all he could muster for me was a Gallic shrug. Then, like an oasis in the desert, a tiny village appeared ahead. The bus lumbered to a stop as an ancient woman gathered up her things to exit. The driver opened the door for her and I bolted off the bus as the sweating man found enough English to shout that he wasn’t going to wait for me.
I burst into the only café in the one-block town like Clyde Barrow into a depression era bank, shouting, “Where’s the bathroom.” Long faces looked up slowly from sludge-thick coffees as a laconic man with a forest of eyebrows showed me the way with a flick of the chin, never stopping his wiping down of the counter.
I’d seen some nasty bathrooms along my Eurail trail, but this was the pinnacle of everything one dreads in a poopatorium: an open hole and two bricks.
This was years before malasana (for those yogis who know the value of a good squat) and thus tremmoring with sudden-onset goat-induced knee weakness; I visited the oracle of where-the-hell-am-I-and-what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-ate-that-goat.
Back on the bus, and colossally relieved of all mutton, I felt a great upsurge of gratitude for the god of whatever comes your way when you need it most. Oh the small pleasures of an unexpected town, and the horror of a toilet to remember. The solstice season is the blending and bleeding of the gold and the shit.
I now watched the landscape give rise to ancient groves and columns, enchanted as pain gave way to aesthetic pleasure… and just as my friend’s smirk gave way to his own blanched reckoning with that old devil of a lunch with a goat.
I can’t honestly say I remember much about Delphi, as I spent most of the time waiting for my friend to emerge from the porta-potties. We had gone on this tour because he’d studied Greek history while I’d skipped it. He was enthralled with the meaning of the oracle and tried to explain it to me, but it fell on deaf ears—what ancient people had done there had little meaning to me, while that beach I’d had to be pried away from in Corfu lingered in my mind as living magic: Retsina crisp and cool on a terrace, Vespas rumbling along little roads through hot summer fields, feta and calamari… that was beyond history, it was eternity. The sort of feeling that, over years, has given way from longing and nostalgia, from looking forward and counting down, to simple pleasure in the present whatever.
In another day we’d get on a plane and fly to London where my friend’s parents would host us at a good London hotel. I’d rarely enjoyed a nice bathroom so keenly, the contrast of Greece when you’re out of money stark against a hot shower and pristine tiles.
And how this relates to parenting? Firstly, I was reminded of it by a recent post from The Kitchen Witch about her travels and her tummy (and I admired her intestinal verisimilitude) and thus felt freed to tell this embarrassing tale. But also, maybe that the ever waxing and waning solstice season, the birth of darkness out of the longest day of the year, echoes the bittersweet truth about raising children, and about life on the whole. We attach, and even if that goes well, we lose all we grasp in the end; but the vast cycle of it all invites us to take the dark with the light, and to find a love so soft and accepting, so painful and embarrassing, so vulnerable and raw, so beautiful and compassionate that maybe, just maybe, we transcend a little bit, precisely by becoming our true and unashamed and unapologetic selves so that we can more fully and deeply connect… accepting the oracle’s ever-present response, writ vivid across the pulsing woven tableau of what just is.