Me and Michel Chapter Seventeen

‘The only journey is the one within.’

Rainer Maria Rilke

On my last day here among the Lotus Eaters at La Jenny, I’ve taken myself to the beach. I have a makeshift picnic with me, leftovers and some bread, and a bottle of wine. It’s good to breath the sea air and today the weather is exhilarating. There are waves maybe a metre high crashing onto the foreshore.

Nature in all its glory gives human worries and woes some scale. When my concerns are pitched against the elemental, when the weather has some fierce quality, as it does today, I often feel that I am calmer inside. Why that should be, I don’t know.

As I pull my knees up and stare out at the ocean, I’m thinking about home. There’s a few good reasons why. I spoke to my sister yesterday, and though she did her best to hide her fears, she said mum is obviously deteriorating. There was a choking incident, brought on by masked banana and custard, which has never caused a problem before now. And our mother is sleeping more and more, up to sixteen hours a day.

When I probed, it was clear there had been a marked deterioration in the weeks I’ve been away, and my sister, in trying to be brave, was feeling the strain and had to hold back tears. And I’m not there, and that’s not right.

And I’m thinking about my video chat with Lilly as I sit on my sarong in the middle of miles of sand stretching to left and right, and thousands of miles of ocean are just beyond the long, straight horizon.

‘There’s something I want to say to you, I said to her, something I should have made clear a long time ago.’

‘You remember back in the day when we seemed to be forever heading up to London at dawn for yet another appointment with the professor, or a scan, or an X-ray? God knows how often we made that trip, all through lockdowns too, with masks on, hand sanitizer?’

‘I do, though it seems like it happened to someone else now, not me,’ she said, ‘or not the me I am today.’

‘And do you remember how I used to joke with you in the car that it was all mum’s fault? She gave you the dodgy knees and the hips, willed them to you in her genes.’

‘Yeah, well, I may be innocent on joints, but on the demons, the self-doubt, the stuff that keeps you awake at night my love? It seems they’re exclusively my gift to you. Because I get those feeling too. I got the demons from my dad, and you got them from me. I would wish it different, but I can’t change who we are. What I can do is tell you not that I’m just sorry, but that I think I get it. I have a glimmer of understanding about what you’ve been through these last months, and how brave you’ve been, how hard you’ve tried to overcome fear. You’re not alone, that’s what I want you to know. None of this living business is easy, for anyone, and we all need a break. This is mine, and Greece will be yours. We’ll make it happen, I promise love.’

And it’s not only my sister, my mother and Lilly. I miss Megs hugely, Lilly’s elder sister. She’ll be head down and working hard, no doubt, but I’m sure she could use a walk and a talk together, just the two of us, as much as I could. When I don’t get to see her,  I feel bereft, like a part of me is missing. And then there’s Phil. He texted soon after I spoke to Lilly and I tried to call him, but there was no reply. It seems he has a date for the operation. His sisters are flying in from the UK and his brother-in-law is standing by to do what he can to support him. But a time will come soon enough when the surgery is over and the family have gone home, and the long process of recovery begins to drag. That’s where I come in, maybe only a month or two from now.

The draw of home, be it real or my vision of the future, is powerful. It’s time to go home. No need to panic, but the vague ambition of cycling the whole thousand kilometres is looking like a beach path too far, at least on this trip. I can always come back, and I make a promise to myself that I will.

I’ve been detached from family and friends, even if we’ve been regularly in touch, and quite frankly, I needed the break. It’s done me good, though whether it’s been enough to recharge and restore, I can’t say. I was suffering and I’m suffering less, that’s true. I can allow myself to feel the draw of going back getting stronger when I talk to those I love or hear from friends, even if a part of me rebels at the prospect. Home is where the heart is, that’s what they say. Home is also where, ‘everything you see employs and concerns you’, as Michel put it. I’m not ready to pick it all up again, and yet I have to wonder if I will ever be ready.

I have been searching for someone I thought I’d lost, and asking questions that cannot be answered by him, he who in a sense no longer exits, nor by me as I am now because this person too will one day give way to another me, or another version of me. Why did I ever imagine there was a self I had forgotten, or lost, when as he says, there is so little that is fixed about who we are, and so much that contradicts and changes in us, it is nigh on impossible to talk intelligently about a ‘me’ or an ‘I’? I clearly have not paid as much attention to Michel’s wise words as I should have done. This is what he says in his essai, On the Inconstancy of Our Actions:

‘I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously.’

In On Repentance, he goes further in suggesting all self-portraits are at best, a snapshot in time:

‘I cannot fix my object; ’tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness; I take it as it is at the instant I consider it; I do not paint its being, I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seventy years, but from day to day, from minute to minute…’

I think Michel is also making a bigger point. Perhaps he’s saying that not knowing who you are or what you want might very well be the only sane way to live well in a contingent universe, where change is the only constant.

For some reason, I’ve got a peculiar earworm sitting with me today. The earworm is not a tune, but two words, atrophy and entropy. I thought knew what the words meant, but when I look up definitions, I found out how much I didn’t know. Atrophy comes from the Greek atrophía, meaning ‘to waste away’, comprised of ‘a’, meaning ‘not or without,’ and ‘trophe’, which in turn means ‘food or nourishment.’ It’s journey to us as a medical term was via middle French,  right around the time Montaigne was experiencing the wasting effects of kidney disease and facing death. My calf and thigh muscles had certainly begun to atrophy before I took to my bicycle, and if I feel my strength increasing with each passing day, that only serves to demonstrate the principle that ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.’ I may have just caught myself in time. I hope so, and I make myself a promise to do more exercise on my return.

Atrophy, I got pretty much right, but entropy not so much.

Entropy has a very similar formula, with ‘en’ meaning something like ‘within’ and ‘tropos’ referring to a ‘turn’ or a change, but was only concocted in the 1860s by a German physicist, Rudolph Clausius. Entropy, I’d always thought, is the tendency of all things to states of disorder over time. Not so it turns out, or not precisely so. Instead, my reading suggests entropy is the spreading out of energy – from hot to cold for example, from the  heat in our homes, and eventually, its dissipation in the atmosphere, along with CO2 and a host of other bad things. On a grand scale, entropy dictates that one day the heat of the sun will also dissipate and when the whole universe reaches a state where temperatures are much the same everywhere, nothing will ever happen again.

The thought is arresting. Not the end of everything, but a state where everything is there, just as it was, but doing absolutely nothing. Just sitting there, until the end of time, which itself is a concept in dispute, both its existence and its end, and in a world racked by uncertainties and the anxiety that attends, I suppose I could say I feel a little better there is at least one certainty, big picture-wise.


‘I’m scared shitless to be perfectly honest.’

I’ve been pretending the decision to engage or withdraw from the world is a free choice. Phil is telling the truth. I can hear the fear in his voice and I would feel the same way in the same situation, except I’m not at all sure I’d have the strength to give it a name and talk about it. I can hear dogged determination too. Whether it’s enough to face what’s to come and retain some vestige of grace or dignity, remains to be seen, but I’d put my money on him doing a hell of a lot better than I could.

Not for the first time, I wonder at my self-indulgence, examining my own navel for as long as I have, and Phil’s courage. I talk to him about the place and try to make naturism sound amusing. I tell him I’m thinking of going home soon, and I tell him that when this is done, I’ll be there. And I promise the road trip we’ve been meaning to take since we were in our twenties. He wants to go across America by car, visiting New Orleans and Chicago on a musical odyssey inspired by his jazz heroes. I want to sail the Mediterranean and explore the Greek islands to find whatever remains of the ancients.

And we will. One or other, and sooner rather than later. No time like the present, eh?