Village of Ano Petali on the island of Sifnos

Pick a Color

Liz offered to read my colors. She thinks I’m stuck and says the reading will show me what I need to address in my life. That was her word, address. Meet it straight on, call it by its name, and fix it.

Of course, we both know what I need to address. But diagnosis is not remedy, which is why I’m still stuck. She thinks having external confirmation of my unmet needs will prod me into doing something about it. Like getting out and finding a man to love.

In preparation for the reading, she sends me a link to a website with an image of a hundred or so bottles of two-toned liquids. I am to choose four that contain the colors I could not live without, the colors I would take with me to a deserted island. The colors that are most me.

This proves to be a difficult task. Of course I could live without them all, but I wouldn’t want to lose any. None, however, calls out “I am you”. For most of the year, I dress in shades of charcoal and slate. My apartment is a study in white and grey, relieved by the wheat of the hardwood floors. What most people would think of color comes from the spines of books and an Uzbek prayer rug that Matthew generously left behind when he moved out. The space borrows color from the fruit of a mandarin tree on the terrace, which looks into the apartment like a passerby on the street.

Like many others, including those who would never confess to it publicly, I have taken quizzes that purport to sketch your personality on the basis of your favorite color. I choose grey when I can (it is indicative of the low esteem in which greys are held that the color does not always appear as a choice on these tests).

I am not surprised to discover that we greys are an unattractive lot. We are pessimistic fence-sitters, composed yet detached, craving balance but never finding it. Curiously enough, this seems to fit me. But then again, so does conscientiousness (indigo), a predilection for order (yellow) and the need to loved and be loved (green). Aren’t we all green, I wonder?

I know that the colored solutions I am asked to choose have no more predictive power than the mounds and rivulets in the coffee grounds my friend Anna reads, or the entrails a haruspex would inspect to divine the future. They are occasions for story-telling more than anything else.

The most believable futures come from the best stories. Which is why whenever Anna and I get together I make my rare cup of Greek coffee so that she can read the dregs I upturn into my saucer. Her stories fascinate me and for the duration of the reading I imagine myself their protagonist. They make me feel that something extraordinary will happen in my life. In three weeks or three months, I’ll take a long trip to a place I’ve never been before, where I’ll meet a dark-haired man whose name begins with “F”. He wants something from me but it’s not clear what. She sees bells of unexpected news and the chair of an unexpected guest, but sometimes, too, the fox of an unfaithful friend and the owl of scandal.

It’s the reading that matters, not the signs per se. As in a horoscope, meaning lies in the act of interpretation and not in the selection of details. Of course, the details are important; they anchor the future and make it concrete and thus imaginable. The details can be made to fit.

I am, for example, an unlikely Gemini. I have only half the characteristics of my sign, as if my twin had disappeared to let me contend with the world on my own. I am a Gemini who is drawn to listen but not to talk, a man who prizes clarity of thought without the inclination to share very often what he is thinking (which is maybe why I write).

No one would think of me as the charming loquacious companion that is your standard Gemini. I am surprised people even talk to me, since I say so little. Still, friends claim to recognize the traits of my zodiac once they know my birthday. They do so in the way they would see in me the tactfulness and indecision of a Libra, the loyalty of an Aquarius or the skepticism and analytical bent of a Virgo, had I told them I was born on another day.

I click on the link Liz sent me and see rows of low-resolution pea-sized icons in dull, flat color. I could easily live without these. There is no juice in them, none of the humor that animates the green of spring grass and the sapphire waters of an island cove, none of the splendor of a glass of Bordeaux held up against the light of the afternoon sun. And there is no grey.

I should keep an open mind, I tell myself, if only out of affection for Liz. Returning to the color chart I notice the deep green of the Adirondack chairs at the house where I spent my childhood summers. I see strawberry milk and blue popsicles. Most intensely of all I remember the red coat my mother was wearing one morning as she sat me on a swing in a city park, the first and happiest memory I have of her, or indeed, of anything in my life. These are the colors I would take with me to the island, the colors of memory.

As I write down the numbers of the vials I suddenly think that if there is an aura to be read, it will be that of a three- or six-year old. I cross them off and start again.

Liz made her offer during a short trip we took together to the island of Sifnos. Once the rains cease at the end of May, the island turns brown, leached of color save for the modest greens of caper plants and prickly pear, of olive groves and fig trees. And of course, the shutters and doors of the island’s whitewashed houses.

One house is accented in ochre, another in cornflower blue. One sees doors of turquoise, and the rare, daring house in Campari red. Now and then, one comes across houses with grey doors and windows, too. Unassertive yet gracious, this is a grey that even Liz could like, a romantic who reads to his lover as they lie naked in bed after an afternoon of love-making.

Each house has a single color set in its shell of white, as if the owners had painted the trim in the one color they could not live without. I look at the vials again and think of the color I would paint the shutters and doors of my summer house, if I had one. Lilac perhaps, or the moody taupe of the skies of Flanders.

But there are no such colors in the vials I look at. I do find one with magenta, which is close enough to violet; it is paired with an amber gold. I find another magenta keeping company with a midnight blue. I write down the numbers of both, and those of another two that trigger a memory I can’t seem to fix but could be a summer shirt I’d wear on the island. Only later do I realize the inspiration for the latter vials: St. James Place on top of Baltic Avenue, and the Boardwalk resting on Mediterranean Avenue. Liz will be doing a reading for a Monopoly board.

It’s a long session and I get lost in the details of energy flows and blockages, of which I seem to have more than my share. I go to take out my notebook out of the knapsack Liz says I have to lose—“for God’s sake you’re supposed to be gay!” she says—but note-taking is frowned upon in these readings.

I remember the names of my vials, though. The Archangel Samael (the angel who takes away the soul of man, I later read) and the Puppeteer and two Rescuers, one of the Wisdom Spirit and the other, the Spiritual Rescue.

The two rescuers are not a good sign. In her voice I hear the same grave yet emotionally uncolored alarm a physician might use in relaying a diagnosis of hypertension, and yet the same confidence that this can be treated. The puppeteer and the archangel prompt questions about Matthew and Waclaw, the one who spoiled me for romance, and the other for sex. I tell her things I’ve never shared with her before.

She stops to fix us a platter of quail eggs, prosciutto and tomato salad, which we nibble as she resumes the reading. Some of what she says doesn’t apply—me, obsessed with power?—but she says it doesn’t all have to fit. Like the traits of Gemini, there’s enough that rings true to keep me intrigued.

The school in which Liz has studied puts out bottled scents that one dabs on the skin or sprays in the room, aerosols of botanicals that are said to facilitate the release of energy. She tells me I should use the red. For the passion that’s missing in my life. I don’t tell her I once spent weeks tracking down a supplier of hypoallergenic fragrance-free soap. When supplies run out, I use surgical hand scrub to shower with.

But I like the part about the “morning intention”. She says I need to start my day with a small goal to accomplish in the hours that follow, like the tasks I write on the small chalkboard in the kitchen–Gas bill! Theresa! Ferry tickets!—the manageable to-do list of an ordinary adult life, but this time with an imperative. There is one thing to do with a gas bill, and that is to pay it. Tickets need to be booked, and Theresa, who lives in Miami, is to be written to. But I must be more explicit with the guy on the trolley. Flirt or cruise, I need to add, since I seem to have forgotten what one does with these men.

Like returning from a trip abroad, ripe with resolutions to recapture the excitement of the new—I’ll take walks in the woods and see more art and rediscover a rarely visited neighborhood in the city—I take the trolley back home determined to put Liz’s recommendations into practice. I have no idea how long this inspiration will last, but it doesn’t matter.  As I get off my stop, I realize I  would choose the vials differently. I’d find one with the petrol of Liz’s nails against the white of the sourdough bread she slices for our supper and another with the sindoor of the Aperol spritz we sip as our conversation broadens from readings of auras to stories of lovers and plans to return to the island in September. The colors of stories and a friend who cares enough to want me to be happy.


Featured image: Sifnos, Greece. Author’s photograph.

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10 responses to ‘Pick a Color

  1. Grey is lovely; the colour of doves and winter skies, or waterfalls over granite. We introduced some red at home to combat all the brown, green, cream and white, but I’d lose the red really. Earth colours are beautiful, so calm. They allow the natural vibrancy of flowers and birds to stand out, and allow us to disappear into the shadows if required. I’m typing this in my grey t-shirt and black cargoes… very comfy. Enjoy your greys.


    • How beautifully put! I forget sometimes that grey is indeed an earth color, accustomed as I am to thinking of it in its hues of slate and aluminum and the siding of battleships, though I suppose ores and metals are earthen, too, if not in the way that moss and rye are.

      Thanks, too, for reminding me of grey’s value as an unassuming foil to the colors of flowers and birds. It made me think of a friend who had an apartment — in greys and white — even more sparsely furnished than my own rather Minimalist digs. Once when I was over his place I asked him about what it was like to live in such an empty space. “But it’s not empty, he said, “You are here.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s brilliant. I’ve never managed a minimalist apartment (too many books and plants!) but I’ve never been a collector of things, and I like to have space. The moment I had children, though, that space was filled with a plastic avalanche — well-meant gifts that filled our living space. One day I popped, lost it, threw out about half of the toys, and was surprised to see the children immediately sigh with relief. We live in an acquisitive culture where bright and bold packaging shouts for attention. Very few of us, though, thrive with so much clamour. Muted tones — earth, rock, air, foliage — that’s what we evolved to enjoy. Some days I wonder if we’d all be happier in a little green tent. The summers we spent on a boat, with all-wood interior and no toys or TV, were some of our happiest times; we had each other and the world. What your friend said was perfect.

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  2. Hello again S – I have checked my shelves and Jarman’s book is called Chroma. Published 2000 by Vintage (Jarman wrote it the summer before he died). It’s an extraordinary book – Jarman pulls together a collage of poetry, memories, quotes and meditations on colour. There is a chapter on grey 🙂 I haven’t yet had the courage to switch from my warm side of the spectrum to the cool but perhaps when I do I should re-read Jarman’s chapter on grey. I visited Dungeness a couple of years ago and saw his house; the yellow window frames are what I remember. Dungeness is one of the strangest places I have ever visited. Thanks for confirming my Chios spelling – that was my instinct. My friend used to always preface it with ‘the beautiful island of…’ Lx

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    • Thanks for the reference! I’ve ordered the book to take with me to read when I return to SIfnos later this summer. Jarman seemed to me a master colorist in his films. I remember the ochres and browns and reds of his Caravaggio, and the greys and blues of Edward II (but there, too, I recall, punctuated with the rare dramatic appearance of a blood red – one scene in particular I remember, with a string quartet of women dressed in red gowns playing as Edward and Gaveston dance).

      I envy you your visit to Dungeness; it must have been remarkable.


      • An artist friend gave me my copy – he would probably describe Jarman as a master colourist too. The colours in your photo are so clean and strong I imagine Sifnos would be a marvellous place to read Chroma. Enjoy 🙂


  3. I always love the images you include with your posts – thank you for the treat of one of your own. I love the shades and shapes in it. I smiled at your pitch for grey; I am with you. I have decorated my house in shades of grey (not 50 of course) and have recently been threatening to dress in nothing but grey, much to the alarm of girlfriends 🙂 Do you know Derek Jarman’s book, Colour? I think you might like it. I’m not sure whether or not he devotes a chapter to grey. Your mention of your friend reading your coffee cup brought back a memory of Sophia from Chios (Xios?) who I shared a house with in London in the 1980s. She used to read my grounds – thick sludgy coffee in the bottom of a tiny cup which she would upend on the saucer. Her stories were as vivid and particular as Anna’s. Your lovely writing brought it all back. Thank you… (p.s. the Adirondack chairs are enticing!).


    • Thank you Liz! How nice to discover someone else with a fondness for grey, though I must say I love the red sweater—and the hat, of course!—you’re wearing in the home page picture on your site, the one with you riding the tandem bike with your son.

      I’ll look up the Jarman book. I don’t know it, but I know the remarkable colors of the garden he tended in the shingle of Dungeness. Alas, only from his book.

      Oh, and its Chios. The word starts with the Greek “chi”. Here, followed by i – as in chiromancy 🙂 — it sounds like the ch in the German ich or a bit like the h in hew, when pronounced in Katherine Hepburn’s captivating (and completely sham) mid-Atlantic accent. Thanks again!


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