I’d like to share one of my favourite poems with you today. It’s something I keep tucked into the back pocket of my notebook anytime I go on the road.
First, some context…
I’m a big reader of the classics. Apart from travel literature and history I read very little current writing, and almost no current fiction. There are just so many books out there, and I know I can barely scratch the surface of them in my lifetime. I’m not interested in a flash in the pan, or vapid pop culture. I want to draw on those ideas that still resonate with us after centuries of discussion, those writers who have stood the test of time.
I think The Odyssey is one of the greatest travel stories ever told. It’s got adventure, Mediterranean landscapes, strange customs and sexual intrigue with exotic women. And it’s the sort of story you can keep coming back to over and over because it just never gets old.
This poem by Cavafy—the poet of Alexandria—is named for Ithaka, home island of Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey. I like it because it sums up the nature of travel. But it also sums up a life.
Ithaka by Constantine P. Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find the things like that on your way
as long as you keep thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony.
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
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.
The journey of Odysseus tells us that, no matter how bad it gets, this too will pass. There will be low points—watching your companions get eaten by a Cyclops, for example. And high points—seven years locked in the erotic embrace of an insatiable nymph. Oh, and worlds of knowledge and wonderful places, of course. Both types of experience are transient. We should live them each to the fullest.
And as for “Are we there yet?”, if you find yourself asking that question, then you’re probably on the wrong path.
We need those destinations to keep us going. To give us a route, to give our voyage a shape. But in the end it doesn’t matter if you never reach your Ithaca, or if your El Dorado was just a myth.
It’s the journey that mattered. Ithaca is just a state of mind.