National Poetry Month, Day 7 // Paul Loiseau, a friend from high school, wrote in my yearbook that he learned more from the quotations I wrote on the blackboard in the room where the school newspaper staff met than he did from any class. It was a kind exaggeration, but it pointed out my aspirational nature in those days: not the social and financial kind but the per aspera ad astra – through hardships to the stars – kind. My particular hardship was living with an abusive father, and it left me with a huge self-confidence deficit. One of the ways in which I overcompensated was by reaching for the stars, hitching myself to impossibly high ideals, which distilled in high-minded quotations that I would leave chalked on that blackboard.
That was in the 1960s, when there was lots of reaching for the stars: the Kennedys, the Peace Corps, the civil rights movement, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Up with People, you know what I’m talking about. Along the way, the high-minded quotations stopped insulating me from the hard work of recovery, the hard reality of the history that unfolded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the dream frayed. But the reaching for the stars sustained me until I could look at hard reality and see the treasure hidden within it, in small, ordinary experiences of life, even the hardest ones. I’ve not yet returned home to Ithaca, but the reaching for it has enriched my journey. And if that’s all I will have gained in the end, my life will have been richly blessed.
“Ithaca,” by Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)
When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.
Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.
Always keep Ithaca fixed 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 long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that 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 never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.