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.



Goethe’s got it goin’ on

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”— Goethe

I’ve always liked this philosophy, and what better day than a snow day to heed his words?

Well, let’s see: it’s a snow day without snow (gotta love Houston), so the kids are home but not playing outside. No snowmen or women, no snowball fights, no sledding or tubing or ancillary snow-related activities. No giant snowbank on which Harry could leave his yellow mark, and certainly no homemade snow ice cream.

Instead, it’s 10:30 a.m. and the kids are immersed in video games and iTouch pursuits. When they become bored from those, they will likely move on to Nickelodeon.  The washing machine is humming, the dishwasher is doing its thing, there’s a long list of things to do, and none of them coincide with Goethe’s missive.

Ok, wait, I will turn on my iTunes while I type this, so I am hearing “a little song” (some Jack Johnson to drown out the hum & clank of the labor-saving devices). I will attempt to speak a few reasonable words, but suspect the result will more likely be a rambling blabbityblah instead.

With the humming & clanking sufficiently quieted, I got to thinking about Goethe and who he was and what kind of a person he must have been to utter the above suggestion, which is so simple yet deep. He’s basically giving me a recipe to daily happiness. I like that. I need that. I’m digging Goethe.

If I stretch back into the deep recesses of my grey matter, I recall that he was a German writer in the 1800s from a good family. After some trouble in school, he was home-schooled, and his mama encouraged his love of the written word, just like my mama did. He’s described as a polymath, a word that’s always intrigued me. Of course the Greeks defined it best and used it to describe someone as “having learned much. ” While Goethe is perhaps best known for his written word (he was called the supreme genius of modern German literature, after all), he also was into nature, politics, and painting. A real Renaissance Man.

Goethe’s insights on plants & animals paved the way for naturalists like Charles Darwin, and I like to think that Goethe opened the door to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Our modern-day jokes about the shallow end of the gene pool wouldn’t be nearly as funny–or true–without either of these guys. Don’t know why, but I find that interesting.

Politically, he was conservative and thought the revolutionaries in France were wasting their time because people couldn’t possibly govern themselves. He was a fan of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots. Which is all fine & good as long as the principalities want to be ruled and the despots are indeed benevolent. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Seems Goethe anticipated being remembered for as a painter, but he gained his fame as a writer. He did study colors extensively, and considered his Theory of Colors to be his most important work. He believed that colors developed from “the dynamic interplay of darkness and light.” I’d venture to suggest that this concept does not apply strictly to art. If I were a better student with more patience and time, I’d love to investigate this concept and expand on it. But alas, the laundry calls and the dog-hair tumbleweeds grow. Goethe probably didn’t do his own laundry, and I bet he wasn’t troubled by the accumulation of dog hair on a tile floor. He was busy pioneering the idea of physiological effects of color, which is intriguing because he lived in a rather black & white world. Imagine how he’d react to our technicolor lifestyle.

Since he was famous for his writing, I thought I’d break out my copy of his most well-known poem, Faust, (anything to avoid tacking the to-do list) but then I remembered that it’s really, really long. I remember it being billed in one of college courses as relevant and timely for our modern world, but I don’t have that kind of time to sit and read it.

A little Carl Sandburg, perhaps. His stuff is easy to bite off into manageable chunks. Fog is my favorite. I’m not a cat person (d0n’t flame me, cat lovers, I don’t not like them I’m just more canine-inclined). I do like the image that Sandburg paints of “little cat feet.” If you don’t know this poem or are a little rusty on its simplicity, allow me:

“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.”

Simple, beautiful and I can read it in about 10 seconds. Yet the imagery will resonate with me long after. I think Goethe would approve.