…but where is there?
Years ago, when Jackie O. died, I came across a poem that had been read at her funeral. I have never felt worthy of poetry, but that changed the day I read the poem that helped memorialize her stunning, heartbreaking and eloquent life.
In the years since, the poem has become iconic to me, one that I keep near and refer to often. This is true both when times are good, and when times are rough, or just damn confusing. It’s a constant source of reminding for me that it’s the getting there that is most important; more important really than the arrival. What we learn along the way is priceless; it’s what makes us who we are, what informs others of what we are made of, what they are getting when they get us.
As the saying goes, it’s not the mistakes we make, it’s how we handle them, what we do with them. When we stumble, because we do, how do we pick ourselves up; when we get lost, because we do, can we find our way back, or just find a way at all? When we lose, because we do, can we see that true winning can often come from the strangest places? I am here, connected with you in fact, because of that very truth.
The poem is called Ithaka and is the most popular of a famous Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy. In the poem he likens our life journey to that of the Odyssey; a long round about path to figuring out our own capacity even if, especially if, we find ourselves facing unexpected, difficult hurdles.
I was lucky enough to have a boss once who said to me,
‘it’s ok if you fail, in fact, I expect you to‘.
Early on in my position there, he and I worked on a major year end report for a pilot program I had developed and implemented for our department. I was disappointed, and kinda freaking out – because the program didn’t go the way I had hoped, expected really. The data showed it, numbers don’t lie. In my mind the program had failed, and so therefore I had failed. And that scared me. He insisted however, that instead, it was a success. Seeing the perplexed look on my face he gently ushered me towards seeing that we had learned so much about the program. It was about so much more than just getting it right. It was more important to show the true outcome and why, and then leverage that knowledge going forward. That any decisions from that point would be so much better, more informed. In that context, he showed me that the road was equally, if not more, important than the arrival.
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 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.
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.
As a creative person, I know this in my bones; the process is often more satisfying, and more important, than the result. And while reading this, it may seem easy to imagine Ithaka as a beautiful destination, the penultimate locale, the city upon the hill, somewhere that seems larger than life. For each of us, that means something different; the perfect job, the perfect partner, a partner, the wedding, a baby, another baby, a bigger house, a book, a certain income,winning a race, game or contract, being at the top in our profession. But in reality, Ithaka is a small insignificant island among many, reinforcing the idea of the road to her, rather than her.
I keep this poem near to me much like you would call a friend for help, or advice, when perspective is mandatory for well being. When I need to stop and let, and sometimes force, myself be in the mess of it all, just kind of hang out there in the unpleasant uncomfortable discomfort. Squirmy as I might get; as much as I might want to jump out of my own skin.
When a significant relationship crumbled, one that I thought – had been promised, vows had been exchanged – would last a lifetime, I reached a point in my grief where I knew that the pain would have to become, if not my friend, at the very least my closest companion. I knew enough that to avoid it would render me unrecognizable to myself, let alone anyone who would meet me – get me – from that point on. I became determined to work through it with the goal that the experience of hurt and betrayal would not define me, it would not be what others saw first when I entered their lives.
Now, years later, I often actually forget to remember that that time in my life happened. I will never forget, for it is part of me, it informed me, it’s a layer in my cake; but it does not define me. I look back, and though at the time, the road seemed long, it’s a road I am grateful to have traveled, for all that I gained along the way. That’s something I don’t forget to remember.
We each have our own road to Ithaka; and I hope that along yours…
“…May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time…”
Print a copy of the poem, if you too would like to keep it near: Ithaka