What's your Ithaca?
WARNING: Rather sentimental and windswept (as a post written in the middle of two months in Greece will of course be) rant ahead.
In 1911 Constantine Cavafy wrote the poem ‘Ithaca’ inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.
As I sit here the sun is just starting to touch the shore of Kefalonia. I can see the buildings of Fiskardo starting to light up. The sea between Ithaca, on which I sit, and Kefalonia is deep. They call it a ‘wine dark’ sea. Right now the surface looks like glass. The air is still and there are about a dozen flies buzzing around me really messing with the poetic and spiritual significance of this moment.
Each year for the past 10 I’ve spent a couple of months each summer with my husband and son living in a different country. We’re hopeless tourists and often miss important sites. What we do is settle into one or two houses, visit the grocery stores and markets, cook, talk to people, hike, hang out. Attempt the language. I like to pretend I live there. I may miss some of the big stuff (point in case the Vatican) but I leave with a good sense of how I mix with the place. Maybe some possibilities for the future. And enhanced skills for entertaining a somewhat unplugged only child.
I know this all sounds a bit instagrammable so please note, this exotic travel, every summer ‘off’ habit (I call it working remotely) is one of the reasons I still don’t own a house. But, It’s how I want to live for now and it’s very helpful considering what I do for work.
Professionally, the last year was a very tough one. And a great one. By the end of June I was totally burnt out and a lot of what I thought was up had turned out to be down. I didn’t give choosing the summer country and organising all the details the usual care and energy as I just didn’t have any care and energy left. We had decided on Greece though and weirdly and pretty quickly I got it in my head that it needed to be Ithaca. A little mountainous island in the Ionian Sea, population 3000. Off the tourist track. Pretty mythical heritage. I’m lucky to be married to someone who just unfailingly trusts my hunches and goes along with my schemes. He’s like the Yoda of surrender.
So, I’ve not read Homer and I hadn’t read Cavafy’s poem until a lovely person found out I was going and sent it to me.
You know how things always make sense retrospectively?
In the Odyssey, all Odysseus wanted was to get back to Ithaca. His beautiful little rocky island home. The idea of Ithaca and what awaited him there kept him going through all his hardships and impossible tasks. During my last eight months of struggle I too (literally) had the goal of reaching Ithaca and it helped me keep going. I was not focused on the symbolism of this. On Homer’s poem or with a meta-analysis of what I was doing. If you asked why Ithaca I would say it was because it was not touristy, cheaper, good for hiking. Now (that I’ve stopped and have had space to reflect) I think something in me needed to dignify my struggles of the past year and so I intuited some collective consciousness and chose to come here. To have this, Ithaca, whatever that meant, as my goal. Carl Jung would approve.
As Cavafy’s poem describes, the journey is the important bit and I spend a good amount of time working this metaphor. Actually, it’s all we have. Our values are never attained. But they guide us and dictate our choices well if we’re clear on them.
So, what’s your Ithaca? What’s the goal, the stuff that defines your journey and keeps you going when things are hard? For me it’s values that reflect how I’d really like to be and live. Brave, free of neurosis, spiritual, patient, creative, productive and contributive. Loving. Trusting. And so, helpfully, my journey becomes one filled with the facing of triggers and insecurities, of rushing and pushing, of stalling and procrastinating and of being overly harsh with loved ones. Of fear about material security. Of trying hard to control. These are my Lestrygonians, my Cyclops, my Poseidon. And the point is not to fight them. What takes me deeper and further, is embracing them. Forming relationships with them as my natural imperfections. In this way, relaxing with the inherent imperfection of a human life, I learn to not ‘carry them within my soul and my soul does not set them up before me’. Lestrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon – these are all just me being my worst enemy. We have to find ways to stop doing that if we are going to be free to live as we want and do what we want. We need to remember that they are manifestations of fear and find the self-compassion and energy to work with that.
I also try to allow my path and the challenges on it to deepen the wisdom with which I see and respond to these struggles in others. And to enjoy life, as I have a tendency to make it all about the work.
To buy as many sensual perfumes as I can.
And my Ithaca sets the course and keeps me going.