I have spoken about my love of stories.
As a young girl my imagination was completely enthralled by the books in my household. Before I could read, I would sit captivated by picture books, peering down into the pages as my mind wrapped itself within the images and brought them to life within the power of my imagination. Even beyond books, I remember obsessing over the images of National Geographic stories and transporting myself to those far beyond regions.
The craft of storytelling holds a power over me that nothing else does. Sometimes my breath snags when I read a particularly potent sentence. My heart taps rapidly whenever I walk among the stacks of books in a library. Characters have been my closest friends, devoted family members, and greatest adversaries. They welcomed me into their worlds and saved me from a lonely childhood and erratic family circumstances.
One particular story that gets my heart rate up is Homer’s The Odyssey. I practically whimper when I think about the longevity of this story’s influence and existence.
I still remember seeing it on the syllabus of my high school freshman English class. I didn’t yet know how old Odysseus’ story is, but was daunted by its reputation and thought it would be a story beyond my reading comprehension. Yet, once I finally cracked open the cover and began to read those ancient lines in dactylic hexameter, I was at ease. It was simple, it was beautiful, and I was in awe that I could be sitting in my high school dorm reading a story passed down through millenia.
I would suggest to you, that if there is something that you think is beyond your reach or beyond your comprehension, give it a try. Even if you do find that it isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll have learned the value in learning that you could.
About the Book
I imagine there are many translations of Homer’s The Odyssey but the one I’ve chosen is Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version. As I have not read any other translations, I can not speak to or compare any other variations.
The Odyssey tracks the long and turbulent journey made by the Trojan War hero Odysseus, king of Ithaka, from the ruins of Troy, through the nearly endless troubles that plague himself and his men, and finally to the shores of his dear home. It is not just a story about voyages but also one of character and means of survival. For whenever the promise of success seems to shine upon Odysseus and his crew, turbulence – whether created by their own folly or by the wishes of the gods – sets forth and hinders the men from their destination.
Of course, when you have god’s bidding for your failure and demise you may find yourself in the precarious position of wreckage and tragic loss.
When we meet the great sea lord Odysseus, he is tired, feeble, and held captive by the nymph Kalypso. With no hope that he should ever see his beloved wife Penelope or lay his feet upon his homeland, he is weighed by the doom that seems incapable of lifting. But as it were, there remains an ally among gods who is determined to see the weary soldier home.
Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, sets forth to release Odysseus from the torment that binds him and influences passage that allows him to return home so that he may punish the suitors who have taken claim of his palace and endeavor to marry Penelope.
It is a wild, and at times frustrating, ride.
There is a reason Odysseus’ story has endured. You can only truly comprehend that reason if you climb aboard the warlords ship and allow yourself to be moved by the rhythm of this ancient tale.
Read it Out Loud
Some people say that poetry is meant to be read out loud. I think in the case of The Odyssey they may be right.
I find that when I read this epic out loud, I feel a greater sense that I am being tugged within the ebbs and flows of Odysseus’ story and journey home. The melodic and lyrical words enhances the experience and transcends a feeling more akin to listening to a song than reading lines from a book.
I feel myself jostled by the aching waves that carry and hinder Odysseus as he efforts to reach Ithaka. I feel the spray of ocean dampen my skin and am daunted by the endlessness of the ocean’s extension. I pray that the god’s temper mercy for the war hero and for the men who have remained by his side. I am filled with the sorrow when those lives are snuffed out in fulfillment of their morbid destiny.
For me, it has enhanced the story and makes me feel less of a passive bystander and more of an active participant.
There is another purpose for the auditory practice beyond the pleasure of it. For about 4 years I have experienced symptoms derived from the genetic mutation homozygous MTHFR C677T. While the aches and fatigue are challengers to my well-being, it is the brain fog, loss of memory, and difficulties with articulation that drive me crazy. At the peak of my ill-health I find that I get lost in my words and become frequently tongue-tied. For some time, my only resolution has been to keep quiet and speak only when I am certain I can make it to the end of a sentence without error.
In The Odyssey I have found a more favorable exercise to loosen the knots in my mind and allow words to flow more gently from my mouth. I find that when I spend time reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation out loud, the mechanics of my speech strengthen and maneuver with noticeable ease. With this, a confidence within my cognitive functions has drastically increased and I feel more myself than I have in at least 4 years.
A Story of Home
In the storytelling of our own lives we often draw out the map of our experiences and point to particularly exciting plot points to invoke intrigue and interest from our audience. On those maps, you can typically see the start and end points where home resides. While The Odyssey is the story of journey and the meat of this tale is of Odysseus’ adventure, the core string that ties all events together is home and the drive to return to who we are in our most natural state.
When all is said and done, after all of our ships have been anchored and our journeys settled, it is a sense of home, familiarity, and comradery that soothes the weary heart.
I think that is, in part, what I love so much about this story; that although I get swept up in the journey and in the adventure, like Odysseus, my eyes are always seeking the port of Ithaka and hoping that he can finally return to his beloved Penelope and lay eyes upon the son he never met.
In my own life, I have been fluttering about with little direction, allowing myself to be carried about by whatever doors open up to me. It has been an interesting but somewhat confusing experience. And although I do not seek permanent roots, the notion of building home has become more and more appealing. I still want to wander the world and explore endlessly, but to have a place steady in the horizon to set my eyes upon when I grow tired feels more necessary.
Within the months following a health crash back in October, I have come to appreciate my adopted home in northern Virginia. It has been 3 years since I moved from Connecticut and it has taken those 3 years for me to feel a sense of home and connection to this region. In these years I have frequently considered returning to my northern, snowy roots. I miss the way the trees mark the change of time and the way fallen leaves leave roads a mix of golden and bronzed hues. At times I look to the horizon seeking the hills and mountains that stand guardian to New England and instead find a surplus of airplanes coming and leaving Reagan National Airport.
Yet, when I experienced that health crash, I rejected the offer to return home and instead found that where I stood meant more to me than I had realized. For while Washington, DC can be a bit of a rukus and where I live on it’s skirts in Virginia are far hotter than I enjoy, I see the possibilities of a life I had only dreamed of back in my bucolic hometown.
It is interesting now, that when I visit the homeland, I feel somewhat disoriented and almost as if I’m missing an important attachment of my character. To some degree that is because my hometown and the surrounding towns have changed somewhat. New buildings have been built, traffic patterns have been altered, and I don’t recognize a single person. But it’s more than that.
Odysseus finds himself similarly afflicted when he finally finds himself in Ithaka. For a moment he is certain that he is elsewhere and feels daunted by the idea of yet another hurdle that keeps him from home. I think this speaks to less of the physical changes of a landscape and more of the internal changes within the self.
Odysseus has been gone for approximately 14 years and in that time he has altered beyond the simple act of aging. When he peers through his eyes and looks upon Ithaka, they are no longer the eyes of a king preparing to go to war, they are from the eyes of a man who has known tremendous loss and overwhelming longing for a life he was certain would never return.
We evolve and transform with every day, every person, and every experience we meet. When we try to return to our original selves, or selves of our past, we find that we are no longer the same puzzle and our pieces no longer fit where they once did.
As I’ve made my way through this reading challenge – of reading the books that have most impacted my life – I have expected to return to a more truer version of myself, but have instead found that there is no truer version than what is present. Instead, I am finding that I have forgotten lessons or traits of younger versions of myself that will enhance the life I live now.
Odysseus carries with him all the tragedy of his journey and it is that momentum that allows him to reclaim his home, not simply by the authority of his birth but by the force of his determination. He is not simply a king or a victor of war, he is now a survivor. Once you learn that you can survive, the boundaries of typical constraint yield.
For me, I have neither seen war nor been held captive in punishment by the gods of ancient Greece. Yet my experiences with a mentally ill parent, with chronic health challenges, and parental neglect and abuse have altered who I am and what I perceive as my abilities. For a long time I logged those experiences as excuses for living quietly. But now I see that my survival of those times suggest that my appetite for life is much louder than I’ve believed.
Home is inextricably important, as is a sense of self. But I think it is also vastly important that we allow both of those things to grow and evolve. Life was not meant to be lived in one place and we are not meant to be stagnant. Take your challenges as medals of victory and use those lessons to catapult you to the life you want. As The Odyssey aptly teaches, we do not know what lies ahead and we do not know where we will ultimately land. It may be a return trip home or it may be in a land unknown.
My second home pushes me and my old home soothes me. And perhaps some day when I can no longer bear to be neighbors with members of Congress, I will return to the hills, mountains, and gobs of snow. But I suspect if I do, I will not find the place I left behind, nor will I be the girl who was once determined to leave it.
My conclusion here is simple: The Odyssey has stood the test of time. Do not doubt that lineage and go read it for yourself.
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