Kalymnos: The Island Lax Loved

The photograph here is of Kalymnos, the Greek island Robert Lax loved most.  He moved there shortly before Easter in 1964 and stayed for most of the next 10 years, recording the wisdom of the fishermen and sponge divers who lived on the island.  He might have stayed the rest of his life if his hasty (and temporary) departure in 1974 to work as a writer-in-residence at a new arts venue near Buffalo, NY, hadn’t convinced many islanders that he was a spy.

Unfortunately for Lax, he left the island just as the Cyprus Crisis was making it look as if Greece and nearby Turkey would go to war.  The islanders had never quite figured out why he was living there among them, scribbling things down and taking photographs.  When he left suddenly just as war loomed, they thought they knew.

Although he had been warned that some islanders wanted to kill him, Lax returned to Kalymnos in 1976.  He stayed off and on for the next four years but he never felt entirely comfortable there again.  In 1980 he moved permanently to Patmos, where he would live for most of his last two decades.

In honor of Orthodox Easter, coming up on May 1, here are some thoughts about Easter on Lax’s favorite island:

Easter is one of the best times to visit the Greek islands.  Icons are paraded through the streets, there are lamb feasts, and everyone gathers at the church the night before Easter Sunday to celebrate the risen Christ at midnight.  When I was on Patmos at Easter one year, a basket of colored eggs and cookies appeared one day in my rented room and the town was full of joyful visitors.  On Kalymnos, the islanders take things even further, “celebrating” the holiday by throwing sticks of dynamite into the air.  According to anthropologist David Sutton, the practice goes back to the 1960s, when Lax first lived on Kalymnos (and, indeed, he mentions it in his journal).  Here’s how Sutton described his own experience with Kalymnian dynamite in a 1996 article in Anthropological Quarterly:

“I was warned about renting the house across from the churchyard.  I had arrived on the Greek island of Kalymnos in the Eastern Aegean with my wife and six-month old son and had been directed by friends to a large house overlooking the main town.  The only drawback, I was told was “the dynamite” (i dinamites), but that was only one night, at Easter, not worth worrying about.

“What I had visualized as a large fireworks display, however, turned out to be a bombing.  Amid cries of “Christ is risen” several hundred pounds of TNT formed into projectiles of two or three pounds each were hurled into the sky from the church courtyard at midnight on Easter eve, rattling our house to its foundations, cracking two window panes, and sending the window handles flying across the room.  As the explosions continued sporadically throughout the day, I felt that I had gotten a taste of life in a war zone.  I later found out that the dynamiting was considered to be light that year, and that the toll of damage was nothing compared to that of twelve years earlier, when four people were killed in what later became known as “the Accident” (to atihima).”

Let me end with a quote from a journal entry Lax made about Kalymnos on August 5, 1969:

“sometimes it seems as though the island were a school of thought; as though there were living somewhere in the mountains, an invisible zen-master who kept everyone on the beam.  if you walk along in dark thoughts (down the main street0 no one will say hello to you, or if they do, they say it timidly, knowing not only that it would be wrong to interrupt you now, but even to recognize you as a visible being when you were not (as they usually manage to be) in your full find feeling.  but if you are feeling very well, the say hello with joy.

“on such a day, someone may run over spontaneously & shake your hand.

“the joy i am talking about, the full fine feeling, in greek is called kefi.  some days you have kefi & some you don’t.  when you do, you are full of spontaneous good actions, every one of which may be expected to turn out right.”

(from Journal C by Robert Lax, Pendo Verlag, 1990, pp. 50-52)