Scar Tissue: III. Topographies of Grief
In the middle of a summer that already feels ancient I explored the ruins of old Aptera. Located on a hill high above Crete’s Souda bay, Aptera bears witness to the island’s long and troubled history. At other sites, one finds traces of Crete’s first known inhabitants, the Minoans. Aptera, however, evidences generations of the occupiers who came after. The remains of a Doric theater lie near the parking lot. Following the trails, one comes to a Roman villa built hundreds of years later. Elsewhere, a twelfth century Christian monastery still stands, as does a nineteenth century Turkish fort. Near the summit, the underbrush rises to reclaim artillery emplacements left by the Germans who held the island during the Second World War. As in some Byronic poem, goats and sheep wander freely.
Climbing the hill, moving from one ruin to the next, I felt as if history itself were accumulating. We often speak of epochs as if they follow one another, but at Aptera each one piles atop the last in the way that days do, always gathering, always rising. There is a lesson in this topographic peculiarity: New civilizations do not grow out of the ruins of the old, but on the soil that buries those ruins. Concealed beneath the dirt, their predecessors cannot inspire; they can only make their descendants a little taller, let them see a little farther.
It is apt, then, that Aptera stands so high above the Aegean Sea, that it commands such a sweeping vantage of the inland plains. It was this height that led so many to erect homes and cities here over so many centuries. Did the hill stretch upwards from the things they left behind? Some say that there are other ruins, Minoan ruins, buried just a few meters beneath the soil, hidden these three millennia. I know there can be none beneath those, but I like to imagine they go all the way down, each strata a forgotten story. How many civilizations would have to fall to raise such a hill? How many to give us such a view?
On a hill in Crete I explored old Aptera, but I did not explore it alone. I walked with Celeste, walked with her as I often did then, as I so rarely do now. And as in a dream where events seem to follow one another with little to connect them, we made our way from one site to the next, studying what remained of each. Together, we followed dusty paths, paths that cut through fields of wildflowers. Paths are accidental excavations, and walking along them is a way of digging by habit alone. As we trace them, the ground gradually gives way. In time, stream beds form where our feet have fallen, the land itself changing beneath us. We dig faster when we dig together: To walk with another is to texture the world. Our tragedy is that we inevitably cover over the landscapes we make as we wander.
Almost two years to the day since Celeste and I ended our relationship, I can no longer walk the trails we dug with our passage. At first I thought they were gone because I was, gone because I had distanced myself from the world we made together. Remembering Aptera, I wonder now if they are really so far away. Like the unseen Minoans, they must rest beneath the terrain I explore today, lingering just below my feet. They contour the ground on which I walk, but subtly so. The past speaks to us in a language of peaks and valleys.
Each new phase of our lives is a scar that forms atop those that preceded it. And scars? Where scabs tell stories of healing, scars are the marks of a body that has long since healed. Cancerous, I finally buried the years I spent in grad school, entombing my time with Celeste beside them. My disease inters most of a decade, just as those years did to others in their own turn. This new present coheres to the curvature of the past, taking its shape from the shattered structures of abandoned homes and empty classrooms below. Ruins are the residue of dreams from which we think we have woken, the residue of dreams that are already slipping away. If we exhume them, we do so in the hope that we might get back something so dear we could only ever forget it.
Cancer buried the ruins of my past in a rich soil, replaced old dreams with newer ones. Though Aptera’s Hellenistic inhabitants built their own temples on a Minoan topography, they did not push out those who came before them. That earlier civilization fell to its environment, crumbling in the face of volcanic eruptions, famines, plagues. The end of my relationship with Celeste was, likewise, a matter of climate, of a glacial chill that froze the spaces between us as I pulled away. I cannot, then, fault my illness for the loss of the dreamscape it blankets; cancer merely grounds a new beginning, one rich with possibility and hope. Why, then, do I still grieve? I grieve because I am inescapably aware of the invisible forms that shape the uneven earth on which I build.
Our lives are burial mounds, each new layer a monument to the ways we were before. They grow, these mounds, expand slowly, but they are not tumors. Call them scars. Call them swellings of the soul.