by Cara Cannon Byington  

Two postcards came in the mail today tucked among the bills and the Dear Resident letters. One is from friends honeymooning on St. Lucia and one is from Rose who is vacationing in Greece. I hung the cards on the refrigerator with the same magnet and was surprised to find myself returning to them again and again throughout the afternoon, struck by the uncomfortable feeling that they are really, in odd ways, about the same place.

The postcard from Fran and Jim at the Halcyon Resort on St. Lucia shows people (tan, of course) lounging in the sun around a large swimming pool. The pool is fiercely bright and blue and the sky is the strange, dark blue of the tropics. The honeymooners report that almost everyone there is also on honeymoon and it's "very romantic." They've sent me the kind of marketing postcard that's supposed to make you wish you were there. And it is almost a perfect picture of paradise.

The people captured in full color on the postcard on my refrigerator are likely long since gone from Halcyon. In the picture, most of them are caught in moments of action. Some swim, some read, some seem to be talking. The postcard is obviously meant to be glanced at - not studied. The composition is nicely balanced and pleasing to the eye. Yellow sun umbrellas complement yellow pool floats and the whole scene is one of tranquility and warmth and promise. But a close look at the picture reveals a middle-aged couple sitting uncomfortably on adjacent lounge chairs. They are at the very edge of the postcard, almost out of frame and they seem to give the lie to one particular happily ever after promise of Halcyon.

Her hands are balled up around her face, covering her mouth, as if she were frightened or biting back words and the shirtless man next to her sits with head bent and hands folded in his fat lap, studying his bare feet. A bright red life preserver hangs on the palm tree behind them. They are probably not thinking of Delphi as I am, though they may be thinking of ruins.

The postcard from Rose overlaps Halcyon at one corner beneath the magnet and shows the ruined Temple of Athena at Delphi. The picture is all browns and greens and the Temple itself is a tumble of broken stones and round, cracked steps. Three pillars still stand, spotted with age, holding their weight of lichen-covered blocks above the dry, brown earth. There are no people to be seen in this postcard and it strikes me as an odd contrast to the shimmer of Sandals Halcyon Resort in St. Lucia. One is all water and light. One is so stony and dry.

Except for the dark green of the sturdy, twisted olive trees, the postcard Rose sent from Delphi shows a scene almost devoid of life. The mountains in the background fill the frame and there is no room for the sky. A shadow - oddly shaped, like a man's head and shoulders - stretches across part of the temple as if the gods of Parnassus were walking again among the ruins. But there is no movement in the picture, only a strange sense of stillness, a feeling that the worst has happened and is over. Delphi, in many ways, is very much about the past, about what is left standing. People come to admire what remains above the dust.

They should be opposites. These postcard images should clash, but somehow they blend and meet as they hang together on my refrigerator door and only long rows of time, not oceans or plains or mountain ranges, seem to separate Halcyon and Delphi. Their connections begin, not in geography, but in Greek history and myth. Delphi, of course, was the site of the Oracle and a place of pilgrimage in the ancient world. Now it is a place of ruin and legend and perhaps, something more. Halcyon, too, holds a legacy of time and loss in the syllables of its name; though it would probably surprise most honeymooners to learn their idyllic resort is named for tragedy.

Halcyon, as one version of the myth goes, was a daughter of Neptune whose husband drowned in a shipwreck. Out of grief, she threw herself into the sea and out of compassion, the gods changed her and her husband into birds. It was fabled that during the seven days before and after the shortest day of the year, while the female bird was breeding, calm seas prevailed. Brief Halcyon days.

Both postcards make me think of time and ellipses. How the long loop of history repeats itself through the years and how, even in paradise, the clock by the pool still ticks away slivers of time. If Halcyon is a sort of paradise for some, then, perhaps, Delphi is something more - something outside a narrow world of anger and happiness, disappointment and hope. Something now outside the punishment of time.

It wasn't always this way. Though it is not obvious from the postcard, Delphi was once, as the Halcyon resort with its honeymooners is now, very literally about the future. For hundreds of years, pilgrims journeyed to consult the Oracle about the momentous decisions of their lives. Her prophecies were often cryptic and double-edged and pilgrims, to their sorrow, often heard only what they wanted to hear. Croesus, King of Lydia, lost his kingdom after misinterpreting the Oracle's words. When he consulted her about his planned invasion of Persia, she advised that if he crossed a river, a great empire would fall. A great empire did fall, but it was his own, not the Persian.

Today though, Delphi is more than just a site of ruined temples with ancient legends breathing from the rocks. For the Greeks, it was a remarkable site of reconciliation, a place outside the slaughter and destruction of war where city-states could come to make peace. It was a site of hope and homecoming, unique in the ancient world for its place at the beginning of history. And Delphi, scoured by twenty-five centuries of light, still stands as a stony witness to what we have been and what we may yet become. Delphi is beyond the despair of years and is settled, peaceful, and, in its own way, majestic. In these ruins, time has done its worst and there is nothing left to fear.

In a way, the Halcyon Resort on St. Lucia is a Delphi for thousands of honeymooners like Fran and Jim, who come like pilgrims and hear only what they want to hear in the soft wind and take the measure of their futures from the promise of a mirage. In a place so saturated with expected romance, they miss the lesson and the prophecy in the name.

It is the lesson of every paradise and every life - nothing lasts, everything changes - bright beginnings run down to dusty endings. But if we are careful and perhaps, lucky and wise, something Delphic in our lives will remain. Some beauty or grace will rise and hold its weight above the dust and the ruin of time.

Cara Cannon Byington is a freelance marketing and pr writer with specialties in environmental issues, healthcare, and insurance. When she's not writing marketing copy and press releases to pay the bills, she writes poetry and essays. Her work has appeared in many diverse publications including Women in Medicine magazine, Poet Lore, Potomac Review, Mass Ave Review, and she was a contributing writer for The Nature Conservancy's A Journey for All Seasons. She lives in Maryland with her husband and son.

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August 30, 2002
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