The Woman of Apollo
© Copyright 2019 by Liz Star
What legacy will we leave behind? What metrics mark the depth and length of our lifetime footprint?
The year was 2005, and I was supposed to graduate from college.
Hotels were booked for family celebrations. Dinner reservations were made. Caps were decorated. Gowns rented.
Instead of planning for graduation, I took my newly acquired Eurail pass and planned for a summer abroad. Instead of joining the fray of celebratory dinners, frenetic job applications, and a furniture purge, I packed a borrowed bag and printed my itineraries.
There's sadness in seeing your community experience shared joy while you pursue a unique path—even if that path is lined with joy and remarkable adventure.
I flew from Minneapolis to Chicago to Amsterdam and deplaned with three short-term goals: ride a bike, get a Heineken, and get high. And then move on to the next city in lockstep with throngs of Europeans enjoying their concurrent summer holidays.
For the first time in my life, my future was unclear. For the first time in my life, my adventures were mine and mine alone. I could do anything. I could do nothing. Six weeks of solo international travel lay ahead. And beyond that, one more semester of school without the support of my community of the last four years.
I was lonely.
Holland. Germany. France. Switzerland. Italy. First-class passage on a high-speed train through plains and fields and historic villages. Hours and days and nights spent thinking about my inconsequential existence. After all, this was before smartphones distracted us from our existential discomfort.
Venice to Rome to Bari, Italy, and then a ferry east to Patras, Greece.
Getting to Greece on a half-baked summer backpacking trip requires more than just incidental planning. Separated from the rest of Europe by the Ionian Sea and half a dozen eastern bloc countries, that mythological land of gods and grape leaves hangs out at the bottom of the European Union, clinging to its membership while slinging slurs at its neighbors who are denied access to the coveted club. The euro has washed over the ancient land like a sea wave parted by a cruise ship. In its wake, visitors find a mythological land of flexible prices, striking cab drivers, unfinished construction, of languor and lemonópita and linguistics.
South of the Greek mainland, hundreds of picture-perfect islands dot the Aegean, connected by an internet of ferries and speedboats and puddle jumper planes. Globetrotters get their annual alcohol poisoning at a few quintessential tavernas, and get syphilis in the beds of a few well-traveled hostels. The sea's godly greens and blues belie the heroic and tragic histories that have transpired across its surface.
Athens to Paros to Naxos.
A stately temple greets guests at the port of the island of Naxos—Apollo finds his muse in the greens and blues of the sea surrounding him. A long causeway connects his pi-shaped shrine to the mainland, and tourists march ant-like to and from for perfectly-framed pictures.
It was here, in week four of my journey, week four of feeding on my own internal monologue for meaning and entertainment, here, facing this simple but stately temple, that I saw her: a woman so shaped by the sun and the sea and the births and deaths borne of her own body that she like Santa’s empty toy sack. A woman so burdened by her own corporeal baggage that her knees buckled. Wearing a simple, sheet-like dress, she perambulated along the timeless backdrop of the ancient temple of Apollo. She looked tired.
I wrote her story in my head.
She was Greek, I decided, on holiday to the island of Naxos for a week over the summer. Elsewhere along the causeway, her adult children and their children walked and sprinted, ecstatic with life, burdened by life, taking this opportunity to celebrate their own mythology.
She had at least six surviving children, I decided. All adults. Most with children of their own. Not all were here on holiday with her, but several were. She was old. Her knees hurt. Her breasts hung to her bellybutton, exhausted from the thousands of meals they had served.
This woman will be dead someday, I realized, but her legacy will live on through her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, the memories they're creating right here and now on Naxos, while Apollo watches their antics and arguments.
Her impact on this world felt deeply powerful in that innocuous moment. By comparison, I felt terribly impermanent. Incidental. Maybe I was a bit sun-baked on the marble causeway. But I had never felt so humbled by someone so distant. My miniscule presence on this earth was forgotten, overshadowed by her empty husk, by her uneven shamble, by her history and her greatness displayed on this stage of Aegean blues and greens.
What legacy will I leave behind?
What footprint will I make on this earth—if any?
Do we need to leave a footprint to have lived a worthwhile life?
Deep in the throes of loneliness and uncertainty, I mused. The answers came to me quietly, lapping at the foot of Apollo’s temple, there before an elderly woman I would never know but whose story I felt I knew so well.
We can be kind to each other.
We can soften the negativity of our peers and of the strangers we encounter.
We can watch, listen, love, and learn.
We can write.
I can write.
In that moment, I saw the role I hoped to play in this overwhelming, oversaturated world. A path to meaning opened up in front of me, there on the steps of the temple.
Understanding each other is our key to leaving a legacy. Whether through oral mythology, tales carved in stone, words counted in contests, or pictures painted in our hearts, we leave our lasting impression by building community. Some may pass their stories on to family and children. Others may write words with the wind as their ink—whispered in one ear and out one’s mouth.
Today, fourteen years later, we live in a world where words are cheap and community is subjective. College graduates are paid to churn out pages of meaningless words to fill space and capture a split second of someone’s attention. We doubt the words that convey difficult concepts, because this is a world in which we can deny the things we don’t understand or don’t want to understand.
Today, I nurture my community as though it's Apollo's own garden—planted with good intentions, occasionally neglected, harvested with pride and gratitude, recounted for years to come. Some of it is misshapen and sour. Some ripened quickly and wilted with effort. Some is worse for the wear, eaten by beetles and scorched by the sun. But nevertheless, our community—beaten, broken, beautiful—is the medium through which we impact and interact with our world.
For this knowledge, I have my muse—the woman of Apollo—to thank.
Liz Star is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with enough cats and bicycles to distract her from the task at hand.