How to take your life’s journey
The crucial question you should ask yourself
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Where are you on your life journey and - maybe more to the point - where is your Ithaka?
As I mentioned last week, I’m on a Cavafy kick. Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet who often wrote about events from ancient history and literature. Here’s another gorgeous one that I posted recently on social, and that merits further discussion here, in the Kindred Letters. This one is based on Homer’s Odyssey -- and Ulysses’ famous journey back to his homeland, Ithaka, after the Trojan war.
The poem is a metaphor for the journey of life itself, with Ithaka symbolizing the fulfilment of that life journey.
Read it through, and then I’ll give you my interpretation.
As usual, Cavafy ends with a goosebump-inducing line: “you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”
And he’s already told us what they mean, with the OTHER goosebump-inducing line that preceded this final one: “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.”
In other words: this poem conveys the timeless idea that the journey, not the destination, is the ultimate point. And that the destination's whole point is to facilitate the journey.
But I think the poem has a spiritual element too, the same one that’s at the heart of my book Bittersweet and that I’ve been trying to share for years now. Early in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, we meet Ulysses, weeping on a beach, longing for home (Ithaka).
And the reader understands that it’s this very homesickness that sets his journey in motion; and that this longing for Ithaka represents the spiritual longing we all feel (whether we’re atheists, believers, or somewhere in between) to return to the perfect and beautiful world from whence we came.
Freud interpreted this longed-for world as the womb. The Judeo-Christian tradition calls it the Garden of Eden. The Sufis call it the Beloved of the Soul, with whom they long for union. The Wizard of Oz calls it Somewhere Over the Rainbow. But it’s all the same thing. And this longing is what J.R. Tolkien called “our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human.”
So please ask yourself: who or what do you long for, and where will your longing carry you?
Of course, there’s one big thing you have to overlook, in order to fully relish this poem: What about the people back home – Ulysses’ son, Telemachus, who longed for him, all the years of his absence, without the benefit of an exciting journey to distract and enrich him? What about Ulysses’ wife Penelope, trapped in her womanly role of weaving and unweaving all day and night, in an effort to fend off Ithaka’s would-be plunderers?
Many poets have addressed this question. One of my favorites is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “An Ancient Gesture,” which I came across in my 9th grade literature textbook, and which immediately seized me.
“Penelope, who really cried.”
I think about that line, ALL THE TIME, when I see politicians or other public figures mimicking deep emotions for the crowd’s consumption.
False tears won’t carry us home – but Penelope’s tears might.
And one other person who has addressed Penelope’s situation is actually… me. My very first (unpublished) writing project, after leaving my law career at age 33 to become a writer, was a coming-of-age memoir. I wrote (parts of) it both in prose and sonnet form; and in the sonnet version, I rewrote Penelope’s story, imagining that she’d had many private, unrecorded, but equally glorious adventures of her own, during all the years she waited for Ulysses.
Then I told my own story as a modern-day version of hers, concluding:
And this I believe: whoever you are, and wherever you are on your journey, you are heir to Homer’s Ulysses. And, you are Penelope’s descendant.
And you will come to understand, if you don’t already, what all these Ithakas mean.
Since today’s newsletter is already so long, I’m going to skip the Reader Share for this week. But this feature will be back next week!
I’d love to hear what your “marvelous journey” looks like right now, and where your Ithaka is, and who or what you long for.
You can share, just by hitting “Reply” to this e-mail. I’ll do my best to read as many of your replies as I can, and to answer some of them.
Btw: I treasure ALL your letters, and pick the ones I reply to at random. So, if you’ve written back but haven’t yet received a reply from me, please don’t take it personally!
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You may also want to check out my QUIET and BITTERSWEET books and courses (info below), all of which deal deeply with the mysteries of our journey through this life.
I’m always very glad you’re here, and do not take it lightly,
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The purpose of my work is to help you to make changes in and to better understand your life, through supportive guidance. The information I offer is for educational purposes only, and is based on my life and work experience as a writer, researcher, and speaker. By participating in my talks or consulting sessions, joining my courses and podcasts, or reading my books, newsletters or other writings, you acknowledge that I am not a licensed psychologist, medical doctor or mental health care professional, and that my services don’t constitute medical or psychological advice; they also don’t replace the advice offered by these professionals! Thank you so much for being here, and I wish you all good things.