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Journeying Toward Our Ithakas

Galaxidi

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

from “Ithaka by C. P. CAVAFY

As Cavafy’s poem suggests, life is a voyage. As we leave our Ithakas and places of origin to journey into the world to enter into other ways of being and interacting with people different from ourselves, we can begin to see that our own way of being isn’t the only way to conceive of or structure the world. Other people and cultures have some very good ways of living and interacting as well. Variety and differences are attractive, and this is one of the reasons people travel. In his opinion article in the NYTimes, Adam B. Ellik writes, “…traveling offers lessons on other ways of life, and in that way challenges the norms and assumptions that govern one’s own life.” Our brains light up when experiencing something new. Have a change of scenery for an afternoon or take a holiday to an entirely different location, and return home feeling renewed, able to face the same challenge with new insight.

Olympus, Greece

We come into being slowly, changing, perhaps, while we’re not fully aware of it. Cavafy states, “hope your road is a long one.” Every year millions travel to places to view ruins of formerly thriving civilizations. The story of where we’ve been, where we want to go, and where those before us have been is important, as stories are one of the central ways we make meaning and develop understanding. In the poem’s middle portion, Cavafy mentions the many wonderful things that can happen on our journey. We may “enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; / ..stop at Phoenician trading stations…/ visit many Egyptian cities / to learn and go on learning from their scholars.” There are many benefits to venturing out from our place of origin to explore new places and worlds, and a wealth of sensory as well as intellectual experiences to savor as we travel through time. Both are valuable.

People love newness and variety, but they also love stability and routine. As the poem suggests, as we travel out, it’s good to “Keep Ithaka always in your mind.” Where we start out from and what we leave behind is as important as the new places we arrive at. Ithaka is the home Odysseus set out from on his journey. It took him twenty years to make it back home. Home is a place of wholeness, of unity. Born into a particular culture in a specific moment in history in a particular family and a specific body, like the fragments of ancient cultures, what we know of other ways of life is limited. We understand the world through identifying ourselves with what we are and are not. We may not comprehend the way of those in other cultural structures or economic levels, those with different emotional or personality make-ups from our own. We likely would find it difficult to grasp what life is like for a tuna in the Pacific, a zebra on the Serengeti, a monarch butterfly migrating to Mexico, or a bristlecone pine tree clinging to a hillside for four thousand years. But all these lives touch and influence the quality of our own; each fragment and element creating a part of the larger whole that shapes who we are.

Ancient Athens Acropolis

Eventually as we move through life, an awakening moment arrives when we realize the direction we’ve been traveling on is taking us down a curve and know our life will change. Or we recognize we must change to meet the direction our lives are taking us and see we can no longer go on the way we have been. Navigating this trajectory can take a lot of emotional, if not physical, energy. Like Odysseus, what we set out to do on our journey is finished, it’s time to come home to Ithaka. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey,” Cavafy writes, “Without her you wouldn’t have set out.” Though we leave our place of origin, home is what our spirits long for–a place where become whole.

When my parents moved from the home they’d lived in for decades to live in a small dwelling next to my sister’s house in a different city, I recall my father telling me, “This is our home now. We’ll never have to move again.” But that wasn’t true. They did move again. Like them, there are many moves we need to make in a lifetime. I lived in the desert once but now my home is in a forest. I taught school once. Once I could ski, could run. “Once I had a garden,” we might say, “once a child. Once a country…” so many once upon a time stories. These aren’t stories found only in books. Over and over again, we move, and in the moving we leave things behind. Left are the remnants of what we once knew, souvenirs of what we had or pieces of what we were. In the poem’s last lines, Cavafy provides a kind of response to what it means to return home,

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

After years of effort and work, journeying a long time through many experiences, iterations or alterations, we come to a place of internal recognition that we want to come home again. And this isn’t necessarily to go back to a place of physical origin such as a homeland, but to come home to ourselves internally. What’s especially remarkable, though, is that once we arrive home, Cavafy tells us, “She has nothing left to give you now.” Where home is, and perhaps what it is, is no longer the same as when we left. We sense a kind of poverty, an absence or emptiness, and might question what it is we’ve actually done with our lives, what it is we’ve given. We reflect on the larger meaning of our actions. How do things fit together into a larger whole, we wonder? What is this whole big thing called being alive?

We all leave home, have to leave our Edens and Ithakas to venture out beyond the walls of comfort we were born inside, and to enter into a world where we struggle to distinguish one thing from another so we can learn who we are and what we are here to do. Where we left from to become ourselves is an important part of what makes us and enables us to discover who we are. In this poem, Cavafy wants us to understand the journey is where the wonders and treasures of being alive are. The journey is the meaning, and we are always on a journey. Interestingly, the poem’s last line uses the word “Ithakas,” implying there are several homes. And yes, by the time we reach the end of our journey there have been many homes, not just one. Each of us have different Ithakas, different homes, but perhaps it’s also true that just as we hold many selves within us, we have many homes within us as well–many places we set out from and come back to in order to create our inner place of belonging. In the place of emptiness, or in the process of emptying that coming home brings after long travel, a space can be created in which the aspects of the journey can take on greater clarity and meaning.

Mystras

When I woke this morning I watched light from an upper window travel across the room’s angled ceiling, a shadow from the window sill seemingly pushing the light deftly from one side of the room to the other, the light moving with the earth’s movement. Though the earth moves around the sun at a speed of 37 kilometers (22.99 miles) per second, my body told me I was lying still. Multiple realities simultaneously coexist, and though they seem contrary to one another, both can true. Integrating the various experiences, realities and aspects of our lives is an ongoing journey, and that journey can be taken, and perhaps is best taken, in a place of stillness.

At Delphi’s ruins in Greece stands an ancient olive tree, a symbol of life, reconciliation, longevity and peace. It has been rooted in that earth, and reaching into the sun and sky, drawing sustenance for what appears to be millennia. Yet it has found a way to continue on, giving beauty and life though the world around it that was once so sturdy and sure of itself fell apart. Maybe we can learn from the olive tree.

Ancient Olive at Delphi

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