Ithaka

How appropriate after yesterday’s post that the first thing I read today is an excerpt from the poem “Ithaka” by Constatin Cavafy. Remember that yesterday’s post contained a photo depicting my personal vision of paradise? Guess what Ithaka looks like?

Also appropriate is that Amy Hoover showed up on my doorstep last night with a real-life superhero cape, which I clearly need to continue this “journey.” She doesn’t need a cape, because she really is a superhero, but her youngest son, Carter, has one and was sweet enough to loan it to me. We’re changing the C for Carter to C for Cancer-killer. I love the cape.

I’ve been struggling with the “journey” part of my recovery from major reconstruction surgery. I’m not a journey kind of girl; I’m all about the destination. Don’t care how we get there, it’s the getting there that matters to me.

Well, guess what? On a “cancer journey” you’re never “there” and the idea of being “done” is laughable because there really is no end point. There are transitions and transformations, and at some point one does graduate from cancer patient to cancer survivor, but there aren’t any signposts or mile markers along the way, so hell if I know where I am in this whole journey. I can say that so far, to quote the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Enter Constantin Cavafy. Fellow Greek, also a wordsmith (although he was way, way better at the craft than I). He was born and died on the same day, April 29 (1863-1933). I must say, that’s a terrible way to celebrate a birthday; I hope he got a piece of cake before he croaked. I also think it’s terrible, although understandable, that his family chose to Americanize their surname, Kavafis. My dad’s dad came over from “the Old Country,” as the Greeks refer to the homeland, speaking no English with very little money, like millions of other immigrants. Once he settled and raised his family, he wanted them to be Americanized, to shake off the immigrant stink that was considered unsavory, even though the USA is purported to be a melting pot. Thankfully, my Papou did not Americanize our surname, although my dad did change the spelling slightly in 8th grade, from Katopodis to Katapodis, to make it easier for the sports announcers to pronounce it properly; Kat-uh-po-dus instead of Ka-top-uh-dus. True story.

So Kavafis becomes Cavafy, and Constantin writes some poetry. He published more than 150 poems, the most well-known, “Ithaka,” after he turned 40. Some might say he’s a late bloomer, but those of us in the over-40 crowd say, Giddyup.

“Ithaka” was written in 1894, revised in 1910, published in 1911 then published in English in 1924. Talk about a journey: 16 years to complete, then another 13 years to reach a wide audience. I hope Constantin was more patient than I am. I’m sure glad he had a few good years between the poem’s success and his death, and I hope he savored it.

Some believe that the subject of “Ithaka” is Odysseus, from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. I think, however, it applies to anyone who is on a journey, and although Ithaka was the finish line or end point for Odysseus, the location is superceded by the ideal.

“Ithaka” begins with some advice for the traveler, which I think applies to lots of journeys (although on my particular journey I don’t have to “hope the voyage is a long one” because it is, boy howdy it is).

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Well, I certainly have encountered my share of Laistrygonians, Cyclops and angry Poseidons in this “cancer journey.” While Cavafy referenced these giants (cannibals, one-eyed monsters, and the God of the Sea, respectively), I believe such bad-boys take numerous forms and can also be representative of disease, infection, and hardship.

Ok, so far my voyage has indeed been long, with what some would consider adventure and discovery, and full of bad guys, and I honestly haven’t been afraid of them. Frustrated by and utterly sick of them, yes, but not afraid. So far so good.

I’ve tried to keep my thoughts raised high, and thanks to my mom’s “walk on the sunny side of the street” schooling, I think I’ve done that. Sure there have been some bad days, but I’m not going to sit around asking, Why me? when it really doesn’t matter, and it certainly doesn’t change anything.

I can’t say that I have a “rare excitement” stirring my spirit and body, although maybe I did while on morphine. More likely it was while on Versed. That’s one of my favorites; such a happy place.

“Ithaka” goes on to extol the pleasure of steaming into unseen harbors on a summer morning to “buy fine things” and “gather knowledge from their scholars.” Hmmm, exploring, shopping, and learning: now that sounds like my kind of trip. Cavafy implores us to keep Ithaka always in our mind and to remember that “arriving there is what you are destined for.”

Now here’s the part that really speaks to me today, as I continue to struggle with the down-time of recovery, as I want to be “back to normal” and wait impatiently for the passage of time and the reaching of milestones that will prove that it is so.

But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way.

I have a problem with the idea of the journey lasting for years, even though I know that it’s reality. I can accept it, but I don’t have to like it. I do hope that I am indeed old by the time I reach the island, and I already feel wealthy with all I have gained on the way.



4 Comments on “Ithaka”

  1. Ed says:

    Sounds like life. I think it’s a mistake to think in terms of destinations. Looking for the end point of your journey invites impatience and frustration. Instead, think of the journey as the destination. That is to say, ithika is the end, i.e. the grave, and the journey is the actual place, the where, the here and now. I think that makes sense but perhaps I’m too frazzled by middle school kids.

  2. Barb Fernald says:

    Cool poem. Cool cape.

  3. Amy H. says:

    The first thing that popped into my head when I started reading this post was the song, “Don’t Stop Believing” by none other than Journey. Thanks, Nancy. I’ll probably be singing it in my head all day!

    Love the poem, too!

  4. Michelle says:

    I have come to hate the word ‘journey’ … what a load of crap. Don’t even get me started, ugh. LOL.

    I think it’s a lot like being stuck in the ocean without a compass, how do you know you’re going the right way? I guess if you make it to the other side…you know. 🙂


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