On the Road to Ithaka

Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas

Any woman who calls the weeks before Christmas the Interminable Season of Holy Obligation either is joking, or has a surfeit of sugarplums dancing in her head. When one of my friends coined the phrase, she wasn’t joking.

Her head begins filling with Christmas visions around mid-September. Knowing she has only three months to achieve holiday perfection, she throws herself into a veritable orgy of planning, listing, and scheduling. Buying gifts, sending cards, selecting menus, and baking cookies fill the days and weeks. If she dares moan that she has too much to do, her husband always offers his same, mild suggestion: that she not do so much.

That, of course, is impossible. Christmas is coming — in three months, two months, five weeks, three weeks — and when it arrives, there will be no fallen soufflé, no forgotten batteries, no unfortunately-colored sweater: not if she has anything to do with it. And, it must be noted, there will be very few surprises.

Consumed by preparations, my friend neither knows nor cares that one of the 20th century’s most highly-esteemed theologians, Jürgen Moltmann, would consider her holiday frenzy a nearly-perfect example of what he terms futurum: a fancy Latin word for a future grounded in, and shaped by, realities of the present and past.

In Moltmann’s writings, futurum points to the unfolding of events through the unending, unbroken flow of time. Because this future is an extension of the present, we’re able to exercise a certain degree of control over its development, and determine the shape it will take — much as my friend shapes her Christmas celebrations.

But Moltmann describes a second, quite different future, with another recognizable Latin word: adventus. A translation of the Greek word parousia, or “presence,” adventus refers to events that break into history, interrupting it from the future. Wholly unplanned, unexpected, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable, these events confound human expectation, and shimmer with mystery.

Advent, of course, is the season liturgical churches dedicate to this surprising future. Far more than a mad dash to the finish line we call Christmas, Advent is meant to serve as a season of anticipation; an occasion for waiting and watching; an opportunity to open ourselves to unbidden gifts from the future.

To put it differently, if Christmas is the destination, Advent is the surprise-filled journey. For years, my favorite Advent poem has been one that recalls perhaps the greatest journey of all: the return of Odysseus to the island of Ithaca, after the Trojan War.

Written by Constantine P. Cavafy, a Greek poet living in Alexandria, Egypt, “Ithaka” was published in 1911. One of his most popular poems, it avoids banality or sentimentality in its depiction of Odysseus’s journey, even as it joins us to those epic travels.

Despite assertions that Cavafy is impossible to translate from the Greek, translations of “Ithaka” abound. One of most widely-known, that of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, reads easily, making even Cavafy’s Homeric references — to Laistrygonians, to the Cyclops, to a variously angry or wild Poseidon — seem as familiar as his allusions to Phoenician trading stations and Egyptian cities.

Ironically, my favorite version of the poem is no translation at all. I came by it more than a quarter-century ago, but neglected to copy the source. The only online reference I’ve found was in the Ocala [Florida] Star-Banner, on December 19, 1987. The text published there differs slightly from my version, and the columnist who quotes it calls it a “Christmas poem.” He attributes it to Cavafy, but no translator is listed. Personally, I suspect Lawrence Durrell.

Durrell included a reworking of John Mavrogordato’s translation of Cavafy’s poem, “The City,” in the end notes of Justine: the opening novel of his Alexandria Quartet. In a Words Without Borders article on translating Cavafy, both the limitations and the strength of Durrell’s approach is noted:

This is, by far, the least faithful rendition of the poem, and one no one should even attempt to pass off as Cavafy’s. But it does capture something of Cavafy’s spirit, which the others do not. There is, in the end, something at once dry and maudlin in each translation I’ve consulted, as though none of the translators can quite find the right pitch or calibrate the right tone.
Durrell, on the other hand, conveys in a cadence that is uniquely English the rich tonalities of sorrow and regret as they have existed in the language of Shakespeare, Browning and Yeats. And this, perhaps, is the secret of translation: to capture in the “target” version (English) not just the spirit and the letter of the “source” version (Greek), but to do so in an idiom that the English reader would instantly recognize as bearing all the luster of an immortal poem.

That same cadence, those same tonalities, the same comfortable, idiomatic language suffuse this version of “Ithaka,” maintaining Cavafy’s vision of Ithaca as both destination and journey. In time, the poem seems to suggest, we will reach her. And yet, even as we travel, she comes to us: a future reality illuminating the present.

As you set out for Ithaca,
wish for a long journey
filled with adventures, knowledge.
Don’t be afraid that bad things will happen.
If you keep your mind and feelings full
no evil will fit into your heart,
nor come to alarm you.
Wish for a long journey,
for many summer mornings;
imagine the joy and pleasure
of entering new harbors for the first time.
Stop at exotic markets, finding good things —
pearls, coral, amber, ebony,
sensuous frangrances.
You can take your fill at these far-off cities,
and learn from wise ones, too.
And keep Ithaca always in mind.
It’s your destination.
But don’t rush the journey in the least.
Better for it to take a long time
so that, finally, in spite of the accrued years,
you will cast anchor fresh
with all of the journey’s riches,
requiring nothing of Ithaca herself.
For Ithaca gave you the journey.
Without Ithaca you would not have set out.
Ithaca has nothing else to give.
If you find her empty,
think not that you have been tricked.
You have becomes wise with experience,
and you are filled
with the treasure of Ithacas.

Comments always are welcome.   For a lovely reading of the Keeley and Sherrard translation by Sean Connery, combined with the music of Vangelis, please click HERE.

96 thoughts on “On the Road to Ithaka

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I came to Cavafy — the “old poet of the city” — through Durrell, and have enjoyed his work immensely. I’ve intended to post about “The God Abandons Antony” as well. Perhaps now I’ll get to it.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

  1. This is a great poem of Cavafy and great musician Vangelis (they are both my favorite names)… So beautiful, dear Linda, and how nice you connected with your story. Especially in these days, more meaningful and very significant, Thank you dear Linda, love, nia

    1. I’m not surprised to know you enjoy Vangelis. I’m especially not surprised that you know Cavafy, since he was a citizen of your part of the world.

      It’s true that the importance of poems changes for us as events and circumstances change. I’m glad we have this one. it gives me great pleasure, and comfort, too. I hope it offers the same to you. ~ Linda

  2. Love that phrase, Interminable Season of Holy Obligation. It perfectly describes the frenzy of activity it takes to pull off the holiday season.

    Beautiful poem.

    1. Isn’t that phrase a hoot? In the first place, “interminable” has a vaguely negative tinge to it, and you know as well as I do that a little negativity can pop up from time to time in the midst of the jollity.

      I’m glad you like the poem. I’ve wanted to post it several times, but I couldn’t find it. In fact, I was afraid I’d lost it, since it was handwritten on a piece of paper. A quarter-century’s a long time for me to hang on to any scrap of paper, so I’m glad it turned up.

    1. I suppose part of the trick is distinguishing between obligations that are a result of our lives’ circumstances (especially family obligtions), and those which are self-imposed. I was in my thirties before it occurred to me that a true celebration of Christmas didn’t require replicating the Christmas of my childhood. For example: my mother’s tide of cookies couldn’t be stopped. I finally decided three or four varieties would do.

      On the other hand, I still have the cutters for the Santa cookies she made, complete with painted cheeks, raisin eyes, and a coconut beard. They were a day-long project, but Santa liked them. I believe this year I’ll make some, and find some kids to give them to.

    1. That’s interesting, Martha. My first impulse is to say, “But an empty Christmas is an oxymoron. No matter our circumstances, Christmas never is empty.” From time to time, I think back to a year when my life changed radically at Christmas. There’s no question that there was a certain teeth-gritting edge to what passed for celebration that year. But it was my life that had changed, not Christmas.

      On the other hand, if by emptiness you mean simplicity, I’m with you. And there’s nothing I love more than the relative emptiness of Christmas eve in the country. In the darkness, a light atop a windmill can seem to light the whole of the countryside.

    1. After reading your Advent I and II entries, Janet, it seems we’re on the same wavelength. I suspect that, even with the changes that have come to your community, you’ll find some surprises in this season, and some peace.

  3. I think if I had to rush madly around for months at a time, preparing for Christmas, I might just pull my hair out! Sure, there are things to do — decorate inside and out, buy gifts, bake, etc. — but none of that HAS to be done. Really! To simplify is divine. That’s the beauty of Advent — a hushed quiet season of preparation, of calming mind and body — and oddly enough, if we don’t do it ourselves, it occasionally will be thrust upon us (how often do folks get sick in December??)

    Lovely poem here, Linda. I don’t think I’d ever read that version before. It’s a treat coming here and learning something!

    1. You put your finger right on the heart of the matter, Debbie. Most of what we do doesn’t have to be done. In the end, it’s the events that make Advent and Christmas for me more than the things: a local symphony concert, a candlelight service, the town parade with Santa.

      Even after experiencing Advent and Christmas on the equator, I still prefer to celebrate in winter. The increasing darkness, the fields lying fallow, seem perfect analogues for the rest our hearts require from time to time.

      That’s one of the things I like about the version of the poem I’ve offered here. A restful journey might be considered a contradiction in terms, but Cavafy seems to suggest it’s possible:

      “If you keep your mind and feelings full
      no evil will fit into your heart,
      nor come to alarm you.”

      Here’s to more peace, and less frenzy.

  4. In our family we had the saying “I’m off to Ithaca”– when I was small, I thought it meant Ithaca, MI (a very tiny town we pass by en route to the lake) or later Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell. But I learned more of its symbolic meaning much later in life.

    It’s funny. In our gang, I am the one who loves to get lost. Don’t like to be late, but I always leave enough time to discover something new. I like to get off the highway and if I see something interesting, go for it. Rick is a get-there guy. Wrong turns are not pleasant. My friend Kate is a “hey, so we’re lost? We’ll figure it out” kind of person. I’ve always worked with deadlines in my professional life — and personal too, I suppose. But for many, if it doesn’t happen, c’ést la vie. It keeps me sane. But I know the ones to break and it has been a blessing. I haven’t seen the poem itself for decades and I’m copying it to share and to remind me of the joys of spontaneity!

    Thanks for a splendid and timely post!

    1. That’s so interesting, Jeanie. I’ve never heard the expression (“I’m off to Ithaca”) used that way — so familiarly. I remember some in my family saying, “I’m off to see the wizard,” but that’s a different story line. Or maybe not, now that I think about it.

      My mom was the point-A-to-point-B person in our family. My dad was more like you, and clearly influenced my approach to travel. And “lost” is quite the relative term, I’d say. I know you know the famous line from “The Lord of the Rings.” Here it is, in context:

      “All that is gold does not glitter,
      Not all those who wander are lost;
      The old that is strong does not wither,
      Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

      From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
      A light from the shadows shall spring;
      Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
      The crownless again shall be king.”

      1. We said “Off to see the wizard,” too! We were always off!

        I didn’t know that “Not all those who wander are lost” was from “The Lord of the Rings.” Well, it’s true. We who don’t worry about getting lost often find so many things along the way! When I’m not certain where I’m going (and time matters), I always leave enough time for “just in case.” My other thing is taking the road less traveled. Oh, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you just want to get there. But when you take a back road you often see such interesting things you’d miss on the highway.

        I think I need to copy that whole quote!

        1. I’ve never read the whole of “Lord of the Rings,” but there are a few passages I’ve come across that appeal, and this is one.

          I suspect your approach to travel may occasionally affect other areas of life, too. I have a friend who constantly is setting out to declutter, organize, sort — but she keeps getting distracted by the interesting things she finds, and hours can pass with essentially no decluttering taking place. See also: internet browsing!

            1. No, Jeanie — you’re not the one. But there are hundreds of thousands of us around. And I just figured out why Marie Kondo’s name always has produced giggles. That photo of Dixie Rose behind bars in her carrier? I’ve always called it the “kitty kondo.”
              I’ll say this — it’s decluttered to the nth degree.

  5. Years ago, I spotted a hitchhiker standing alongside the southbound lane on I35 at the junction of I80. Depending on which direction you take at that point, you can go east to New York, West to California and south to Texas.

    As I passed him, I caught a glimpse of the cardboard sign he was holding. It read: THE OCEAN.

    It could have read ITHAKA.

    1. I know that junction well. The last time I made that drive and curved around onto I-80 east, I saw pheasants ranging the fenceline alongside harvested corn. It could have been Ithaka.

  6. I love this poem! I came across it for the first time recently~it served as a prologue for a novel. I hated the novel but the poem really captured my imagination. Thank you for this illuminating post that points us to wonder.

    1. Even an unappealing novel is a good novel, if it introduced you to Cavafy and “Ithaka.” I’m glad to have given you a second version of a poem that appealed to you. Perhaps in poetry, as in nature, diversity is a good thing!

      We do tend to use the word “wonderful” casually and without much meaning. But things that are wonder-full, or that fill us with wonder, are to be cherished. I’m glad you found a road to wonder, here.

      1. I agree, and it is interesting to come across different versions of a piece of poetry. This is something my Dad and I used to enjoy, as he was fluent in a number of languages and loved nothing better than to savor their respective writings.

        1. Friday night, I went to a Christmas concert. One of the selections was an orchestral version of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” which is based on a Swedish poem written by Carl Gustav Boberg in 1885. It was my Swedish grandmother’s favorite hymn, and she sang it often, in Swedish. It’s amazing how deeply poetry and music can touch us. Hearing “O Store Gud” again takes me back about 65 years. I’m sure you’ll have the same experience with some of your dad’s favorites.

  7. I used to enjoy the Christmas season, especially when my children were little. Now, with all of the hype and soulless commercial activity, my fondness hope is that it will be over quickly and with a minimum of people getting hurt.

    1. The commercial hype is a pain, isn’t it? I try to avoid it. Window-shopping, decorated downtown areas. and the wonderful window displays at department stores used to be great fun, but even those were taken in as a family, and at a more leisurely pace. (I could watch those train displays for hours.)

      What’s amusing is how out of sync the church and society are — at least, calendar-wise. When Christmas day arrives, the twelve days of Christmas — the traditional season — is only beginning: Getting through December with a foot in both worlds can be a bit of a trick.

  8. For Ithaca gave you the journey.
    Without Ithaca you would not have set out.
    Ithaca has nothing else to give.

    Sounds a lot like the journey of life to me, and the question many a traveler has pondered . . . whether it is empty at the end or are have treasures been stored along the way. Happy Advent, Linda.

    1. One of the most interesting twists to the poem is a single change at the end. In this version, and in the various more literal translations, “Ithaca” suddenly become “Ithacas.” The change from singular to plural suggests that we’re engaged in a life-long process of moving toward and reaching Ithaca: and then, beginning again.

      It might even be fair to say that something keeps “propelling” us forward — whether choice or circumstance. Thank goodness we can keep starting again. A happy Advent journey to you, too.

  9. A beautiful rendition of it’s the ‘journey not the destination’ that counts, Linda. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. I can stop and enjoy a destination, but it is never long before I am eager to be on my way again, either physically or mentally. –Curt

    1. As soon as I read your comment, Curt, I thought how appropriate the little detail I mentioned to Bayou Woman is for you. While the poem is titled “Ithaca,” and while it’s Ithaca that’s the focus throughout, the last line refers to “Ithacas” — plural. I think that’s exactly right. It could be interpreted in various ways, but there’s little doubt all those Ithacas would seem as enticing as the Sirens to a wanderer like you.

  10. We had a poetry evening very recently when the subject was journeys.
    I chose Ithaka. Unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the translator.

    Ithaka is really not the arrival but the journey we undertake to get to our final destination, the destination being the end of life. We discussed the poem at length, Christmas didn’t come into it at all.

    You’d be the perfect addition to our group. How would you like to be a member in absentia? The next subjects are : Saturnalia, Fire and Love, in that order. Any ideas?We meet once a month.

    1. I remember you mentioning that the poetry evening was coming up, Friko. It sounds interesting, and enjoyable. I’d love to be a member in absentia. I’ll ponder those next two topics, and let you know if inspiration strikes.

      I associate the poem with Advent in good part because of the sense of journey that clings to the season. I’m not so inclined to connect Ithaca with the end of life: although I could make arguments for it.

      A successful resolution of basic conflicts in life seems more fitting to me. Cavafy certainly had his conflicts, and it seems to me the Homeric epic was a perfect lens through which to view them.

  11. My son and I were talking yesterday about the “pursuit of happiness” resulting in more happiness than attaining the goal. Happiness is in the joy of the journey. Even though the goal is achieved, the happiness generally wears off until a person pursues a new goal.

    For instance one might want a baby.There is much joy in getting the baby and in the baby itself, but new goals are made that involve the baby. What parent doesn’t pursue with joy the goal of seeing the baby talk, walk, etc. Martha (above) says the “best Christmas is the empty Christmas.” I don’t know that I would say an “empty” Christmas, but I wouldn’t like to reach Christmas and be there for the rest of my days! I’m watching for your interaction with Martha.

    1. The older I get, the more I find myself pondering happiness, contentment, and joy. They’re related, but certainly not the same.I do think that feelings of happiness wax and wane. Contentment seems more constant. I can be putting up with every sort of unhappy-making event, and still be content. And of course C.S. Lewis was right. There’s no telling when we’re going to be surprised by joy.

      I had to laugh at your “Christmas every day” comment. Around 1890, William Dean Howells published a story called “Christmas Every Day.” It involved a little girl who liked Christmas so much that she wanted a continual Christmas. After a fairy granted her wish, Christmas started showing up: on December 26th, 27th, 28th, and so on.

      As Howells tells it, “after it had gone on about three or four months, the little girl, whenever she came into the room in the morning and saw those great ugly, lumpy stockings dangling at the fireplace, and the disgusting presents around everywhere, used to sit down and burst out crying. In six months she was perfectly exhausted; she couldn’t even cry anymore.”

      By October, “people didn’t carry presents around nicely anymore. They flung them over the fence or through the window, and, instead of taking great pains to write ‘For dear Papa,’ or ‘Mama’ or ‘Brother,’ or ‘Sister,’ they used to write, ‘Take it, you horrid old thing!’ and then go and bang it against the front door.”

      That’s funny, and sad, and oh, so true. Like ice cream for breakfast every day, continual Christmas seems like a good idea, until it’s actually tried.

    1. I’m glad to have made the introduction, Sheryl. One of the things I like best about it is the way the story has been both preserved and transformed through time: from Homer, to Cavafy, to Durrell (?). Like a good recipe, ingredients have been added and subtracted, but the final dish is just as tasty.

  12. Your photograph makes it seem as if I could open those portals in Goliad and find myself journeying to Ithaca.

    When it comes to other interpretations of the Kavafy poem, I’ll trade you a Catalan one by Lluís Llach that I learned in 1985 during my summer in Catalunya. It’s a musical version with lyrics inspired by the Kavafy poem but not literally translated. Unfortunately the subtitles are in Spanish, but at least you can listen along for a little to get the feel of it. I say “for a little” because the whole song is a whopping nine minutes long, and there’s a second part that adds another six minutes.

    1. I had hoped to evoke a sense of anticipation and possibility with that choice of photo, so I’m glad you found it inviting. Every journey begins with a pushed-open door and a step over the threshold, metaphorically or otherwise.

      I enjoyed the music of the Lluís Llach piece, although it took me a few minutes to snap to and figure out why the music and subtitles weren’t matching up: one Spanish, the other Catalan, of course. I presume you knew Spanish by the time you landed in Catalunya. Were you there specifically to learn Catalan?

      What I couldn’t put my finger on was a sense of familiarity with the Llach piece, which I didn’t know and probably never have heard. Finally, it came to me. The inclusion of the various bird, whale, and water sounds recalled Judy Collins’s “Farewell to Tarwathie.”

      When I found this version, I was struck by the images, and the photographer’s words in the description. They certainly fit the tone of Cavafy’s poem: “My last photo shoot in Nova Scotia, set to Judy Collins’ immortal humpback whale accompanied version of ‘Farewell to Tarwathie.’ Her haunting voice and the whales’ plaintive song perfectly expressing the longing I now feel deep in my soul for my adopted home away from home.”

      Given New Zealand’s whaling history, I can imagine a video with Collins’s song and your photos: especially those from the beach in that last day or two. All those abstracts of rocks, and that glorious sunrise, would fit perfectly.

      1. Yes, I was there specifically to study Catalan in the summer of 1985. I’d intended to enroll in a Catalan course for foreigners in Girona, but I stumbled on an announcement for a similar course on the island of Mallorca and abruptly changed my plans. I ended up with three weeks in Barcelona, three weeks on Mallorca, and three more weeks back in Barcelona. One highlight of staying on Mallorca was a visit to the house in Valldemossa where Chopin and George Sand spent the winter of 1838–1839.

        Just about all Catalans are fluent in Spanish (though they don’t like to speak it), while few non-Catalans in Spain can speak Catalan. That’s why there are Spanish subtitles on Lluís Llach’s Catalan song.

        I know Judy Collins’s version of the traditional song “Farewell to Tarwathie” but didn’t think to connect the nature sounds in the two songs. It occurs to me that the song title “Farewell to New Zealand” would have the same rhythm as “Farewell to Tarwathie.”

        I don’t know about Houston, but Judy Collins usually comes to Austin once a year.

        1. I read a couple of articles about the language laws in Catalunya, and the history of the area. They reminded me of the English/Spanish conflicts in this country, and it was interesting to see how some of those issues have been addressed in Spain.

          Rosemary Washington, the artist who painted the bur oak acorns I brought home from Kansas, recently was in Barcelona. You might enjoy skimming her blog posts about the visit. They’re photo-heavy, and made me want to book a flight.

  13. Had not heard of this poem before, and only recently stumbled across the wisdom it touches on. In 2008 I retraced the first road in iowa (Old Military Road) from Iowa City to Dubuque on foot.The year previous was spent doing a lot of research on the route, visiting old book stores, reading old journals, etc. trying to immerse myself into the world of 1839- 1900. So the week I took the literal walk, was just a piece of the whole rich experience. I’m still living off the whole adventure 7 years later.

    Well, just recently another “Ithaka like adventure” has begun to formulate in my head. This one is another retracing of a route,10 times longer, again on foot. Some of the first settlers to our area came from the Red River area of Canada on foot again in about 1839 or so, a 900 plus mile walk on foot from the Canadian border to Scotch Grove Iowa.I want to do it! And not just walk it, but again immerse myself in local history along the route, and this poem captures what I like about this project perfectly.

    1. I have some fond memories of the Old Capitol in Iowa City, but must say I didn’t know a thing about the Old Military Road. I found this interesting piece by a couple of fellows who did the same as you, and walked the road. I learned a good bit with even a quick read — now I know how Anamosa got its name — but even if you know most of this, it may raise up some nice memories for you.

      There were a few Iowans who went north along that Red River route, before coming back again. Some of my ancestors were among them. They went into Manitoba, south of Winnipeg, then over to Saskatchewan. I have perhaps five photos of them. One shows two of the boys playing marbles in a dirt street. And one shows a cousin named Tom (probably two generations back from my mother) with his dog, his gun, and a brace of birds around his neck. Good stuff.

      If you do walk it, I hope you’ll plan to share some notes. It would be a wonderful experience. Besides, they say the Appalachian Trail is getting crowded, anyway.

      1. the article about the two guys who did it earlier was actually the trigger for my walk. I’d googled the name of my home town and local history and that article came up. It mentioned them walking into our town and their initial reaction. I told my wife at that point, it was about time someone retraced it again. Anyway, thanks for your reply! I will definitely blog about it. Here’s a link to the blog I set up to record that particular adventure: https://onthetrailoflymandillon.wordpress.com/

        1. Tha’s great! And thanks for the link. Isn’t it interesting how we get set upon these journeys? Little coincidences can be the keys to wonderful adventures. I’m glad you’ve set out on this one.

  14. I think what I’ve always loved about the Keeley / Sherrard translation is the strong allusions to mythological beasts and such … but I love mythology … and Sean Connery’s reading may have influenced me a bit … :)

    1. Since Cavafy’s poem recounts the tale of Odysseus, his references to those mythic challengers made sense, and really need to be included in any accurate translation. Still, there is something about references to Laistrygonians and Cyclops that could induce eye-rolling in people who were traumatized by Homer in their youth. That’s why I decided to use the more accessible version, with links to Keeley/Sherrard and the Connery reading for those who wanted to explore further.

      I found a nice online text of the “Odyssey” itself, and might even give it a go in the new year.

  15. I’m glad you kept this poem for 25 years. It is often about the journey and I loved how you wove the strands here and then pulled them altogether. Advent, yes, a light in the darkness, to show the way.
    Oh….your friend does put the fear of God into me!!! Struth!xxx

    1. She’s a force of nature, that’s for sure. She’s more disciplined than your pups, but her energy level far exceeds theirs — if you can imagine such a thing. I admire her in many ways, but I’ve no desire to emulate her.

      I’ve been noticing more lighted decorations around the neighborhoods this year. I have a feeling the hunger for a little light in the darkness is widespread. Our regional symphony holds an annual Christmas concert each year. I went with a friend last night, and it was simply packed. I don’t think another person could have been stuffed in. It was a wonderful program, and people left smiling. It was good.

  16. I had not seen that version of the poem. What a lovely version of our life journey. It suggests that we can reach God’s waiting room filled with the riches of a well-lived life.

    Your friend must be tired and proud at the end of the holiday, but how sad that she had no unfortunate surprises like the rest of us.

    1. To be honest, Kayti, I think one of her seasonal goals is to avoid all surprises. That’s unfortunate, since surprises are part of the joy of the holiday. I’ve known a few people for whom surprises seemed to evoke only anxiety, and she might be one. It would be easy to start muttering about “control issues,” but there could be some truth there.

      “A well-lived life” is a phrase not often heard these days. I like it, and everything it suggests. It certainly doesn’t mean a lack of conflict, disappointment, or difficulties, but despite all that, we can — and should — take pleasure in the gifts life offers.

    1. Oh, I’m glad you like the door. The Presidio La Bahia is perched on the bank of the San Antonio river. The fort was moved there to protect a Spanish mission on the opposite bank. Eventually, it became the place where Fannin and his men were massacred (or killed, or met their comeuppance, depending on your view of things) just prior to the Battle of the Alamo.

      I spent four days there over the Thanksgiving holiday. Here’s a view of the church inside the Presidio grounds, taken more or less at midnight. There will be more posts.

  17. I haven’t thought of that poem for such a long time and am so glad to be reminded of it, and I also love the way your post enacts the joy of the journey, winding as it does from holiday preparation comprehensive in its scope and detail to open-ended wandering, passing through the land of etymology toward that wonderful poem.

    1. I just amused myself by pondering a parallel, Homeric epic journey through the Land of Etymology. What verbal Cyclops might await? What syllabic Sirens might call? And so on. I love parodies, but that one might be a little too epic, even for me. Still, it’s quite a mental tease.

      This one (especially in true translation) needs to be read in conjunction with “The City” and “The Gods Abandon Antony.” Still, it stands well enough on its own, and lacks the tinge of regretful grief in the others. It seems to me that everyone needs a little peace this year, and this feels to me like a peaceful poem.

      1. shoreacres: Just have to say you are on a roll, between your commentary on Breezeway and your riff on the land of etymology here. It is quite a teaser, isn’t it? I’ve just also looked up and had a read of the other two Cavafy poems you note, new to me, and yes, what a context for reading Ithaka! I agree, of the three, Ithaka is a peaceful poem, also hope-tinged, at least to me. Reading it put in mind Ashbery’s journey-poem, Just Walking Around, particularly these lines in Ithaka: “But don’t hurry the journey at all./Better if it lasts for years.” Wonderful poem.

        1. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that I was making myself laugh, but I was.Your comment sent me back to re-read “Just Walking Around,” and I did find it a good companion piece — although, as you’d suspect, I find Cavafy more congenial. It’s such fun to find pleasing connections between two such different writers.

  18. Many thanks for this! Rahner does something similar with his distinctions between sacred and profane hope. There are simply some things that are not accessed by planning! As for Advent, one congregation in our community recently started a six week Advent, which apparently has some historic precedent in part of Christianity. An interesting thing to ponder, I think.

    1. Down under all those layers of language, Rahner, Moltmann, et.al.do have an insight or two, don’t they? Over the years, friends have been required to project where they thought they’d be in five years. I always laughed. None of the big changes or events in my life ever would have made it into such a plan. They couldn’t have been predicted. So it goes.

      I’m not sure about that six weeks of Advent. For one thing, it would conflict with our national day of Thanksgiving, and poor Thanksgiving already has enough to contend with. Besides, just think of the adjustments that would have to be made. Are you sure the change isn’t being plotted by the Advent wreath lobby? There would have to be a lot of six-week wreaths produced — and more candles made. We’d need a few new Advent hymns, too. Good ones already are in short supply.

      You know I’m joking, of course. It is an interesting proposal. What’s their rational? Is there a link to their congregational page?

      1. I have often thought that the only reason we have blue for Advent was for the commercial benefit of certain church suppliers. Imagine what they could do with a longer Advent! Yes, it could well be a plot, but one with some historical precedent. In certain parts of the church after Michaelmas (Nov. 11 and celebrated as a thanksgiving day(!)), the days to Epiphany numbered 56 and these were a kind of fall lent according to this article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Martin%27s_Day

        There is also a six week Advent in the Ambrosian rite, it seems. As for the congregation, Pastor Fred has always pushed back against Christmas encroaching in Advent, and you can read all about it here:


        1. Thanks so much for both of those. I have to say, I feel a great deal of affection for Martin, now that I know he hid in a goose pen to avoid being made Bishop! And the article in the newsletter is very interesting. Apocalypticism vs. eschatology is a neat — and appropriate — way to approach some of the issues.

          Something else that came to mind is the fact that there are seven O antiphons that have been used for centuries: the Magnificat antiphons used at Vespers of the last seven days of Advent. I suddenly have every sort of good idea. If I were to lobby for a longer Advent, I might even go for seven weeks. The liturgical structure is there.

  19. “Adventus … Wholly unplanned, unexpected, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable, these events confound human expectation, and shimmer with mystery.” This probably describes my vocational path through life! And as far as Christmas preparations go, I am at the opposite end of the scale from your friend quoted at the outset of this post.

    Thank you so much for the opportunity to connect with that wonderfully subtle, wise Cavafy poem again; I agree with you about the probability of Durrell’s having translated the version you present here. I read the whole of the Alexandria Quartet one summer long ago whilst working as a Merchant Navy stewardess, and fell in love with Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric writing – but not with any of the thirty-nine sailors who were responsible for my Friday nights aboard ship spent in my cabin, door firmly locked, reading my way toward my own version of Ithaca…

    1. I’m not at all surprised to know that you’re on the other end of the scale from my enthusiastic friend. It simply isn’t possible to observe Advent and honor the solstice as you do, and throw yourself into a flurry of preparations for Christmas. I love the lights, the music, and the gift-giving, but all of that can be enjoyed with a degree of simplicity.

      It’s so easy to forget even the poetry, musc, and art that has been important to us in the past. That’s one of the reasons I don’t worry myself overmuch about what people might or might not already know when I post. Heavens — we watch television reruns and listen to favorite songs more than once. It’s good to go back, and appreciate the best our artists have given us anew.

      I remember you mentioning that time in your life. It’s funny, and romantic, and quirky, all at once. But what’s most interesting is the way Durrell has influenced each of us over the years: differently, but powerfully.

  20. One becomes so wrapped up in the lists and lists of details, and the ticking off of each item on the list that the experience becomes fragmented and the reason for the season gets lost in the shuffle. The thing that is saddest is that most of the brouhaha around the season is totally manufactured busywork.

    There is a parallel here with the Odyssey. We become caught up in the various episodes of the journey that we forget that the whole point of the Odyssey is Ithaca. However devious and circuitous the journey, it still has a destination. The Odyssey is the story of a man trying to get back home from Troy: Out of the shipload of men of Ithaca who went with Odysseus to Troy, only one of them survived the return journey: Odysseus. And he is a much different man than the one who sailed away ten years previously.

    (FWIW, here’s my theory: The Trojans bred horses, the source of their wealth, and the city looked to Poseidon as the god to whom horses were sacred. The Trojan horse was Odysseus’s idea, I think this perversion of his sacred animal into the agent that brought down Troy pissed off Poseidon and is why Poseidon saw to it that it took Odysseus 10 harrowing years to get back home to Ithaca, and as further punishment, Odysseus lost every one of his friends and comrades in arms in the process.)

    1. I don’t suppose I could conjure Poseidon for a firm answer on your theory, even if I made a run down to the coast. Still, as theories go, it’s a good one. I like it.

      It’s been a while since I read the “Odyssey,” but I dipped into it while writing this, and began to remember what a treat it is. I’d forgotten Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” but that came to mind, too. The British Library has a note on their page that adds:

      “Thomas Alsager, a Times journalist, lent his copy to Leigh Hunt, who lent it to Keats’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke. In Recollections of Writers (1878), Clarke describes it as a ‘beautiful copy of the folio edition’; all that he otherwise specifies is that it is an ‘old’ one, earlier than Richard Hooper’s of 1857.

      When they read it together, probably on 25 October 1816, Clarke recalled that Keats responded with ‘one of his delighted stares’ to a description of the shipwrecked hero Ulysses ‘The sea had soak’d his heart through’.

      Keats went home in the early hours, and had his sonnet in response – one of the most famous in English – delivered to Clarke by ten o’clock the next morning.”

      I can knock out a limerick pretty quicky, but that Keats was really something — writing that sonnet overnight.

      As for the manufactured busyness of the season, and the fragmentation that comes with it — well, it seems worse every year. I suppose changes in media play a role. Fifty years ago, we looked at the Sears catalogue and the newspaper ads when it was time to think about gifts. Today, we can’t escape high pressure sales tactics anywhere — unless we make an effort.

    1. It’s a pretty name, isn’t it? It’s a pretty island, too. If I ever were to go to Greece, that’s one place I’d want to go.

      I’m glad you like the door. I’ll be showing a bit more of the fort in future posts, including one of the coolest cannons ever, and a couple of neat windows.It’s a great place to visit.

  21. I am certainly glad I don’t feel like your friend when it comes to Christmas. I usually start Christmas preparations a couple of days before Christmas Eve. Nevertheless I do enjoy Advent, in exactly the way that Jürgen Moltmann describes. Thanks for taking the frenzy away from Christmas!

    1. My dad was like that. He loved Christmas, but he was pretty casual in his approach. He often would do a little shoppng on Christmas eve day — or so he said. We never were sure he was shopping, or just down at the pub, having a pint with his friends.

      In any event, being able to enjoy the season is the point. I’m glad you do, and I wish more could. It’s a special time, in so many ways.

  22. Oh the places you take me, and the exquisite grist to chew on. I have a poetry anthology curated by Caroline Kennedy of Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s favorite poems, and a version of Ithaka is included. I turn to that first whenever I thumb the book.

    Several years ago when one of my dearest friends passed away, i read Ithaka from my book at her memorial because she loved Jackie, Greece and ancient literature. You’ve brought back sweet memories for me.

    1. It’s wonderful that “Ithaka” was included in that book of poems. I didn’t know that. What’s even more intriguing is that Tennyson’s “Ulysses” was JFK’s favorite poem. I have copies of both in my little “poems I like” notebook. If the great EMP comes and takes out our cloud, I’ll be able to sit out under a tree and read them while I wait for the greater apocalyse.

      Which reminds me: have you read Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”? It’s not unduly long, it’s acerbic and timely, and it offers a wry laugh at the end. What could be better?

  23. I’m sure Meriweather Lewis would heartily agree with the meaning of the poem you present here. What an incredible journey this genius of exploration provided for us in his memoirs. His reaching the Columbia was almost anti-climactic.

    As you write, the poem and translation you offer, present us with an opportunity to hold back, delay gratification of the senses, and wait for life to reveal itself, offering us childlike and magical moments–if, as it says, we only see.

    Very interesting blog post for this time of year. Thank you for your efforts.

    1. Many of the explorers participated in that same reality, however they expressed it. I still remember coming upon a spot in Kansas where Zebulon Pike and his men had camped. I’d never read his journals, but when I did, it was a marvelous experience, and left me in awe of them all.

      I’d not thought of the gentle admonitions toward delayed gratification in the poem, but they certainly are there. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the Christmas season has become so frenetic. Unable to wait, we have Christmas every day, for weeks. When the day finally comes, everyone is heartily sick of it.

      I’m glad you found something of interest here. While I do like to provide seasonal entries, I try to do it in a way that allows everyone, of any faith or none, to find something of value in the posts.

  24. Love your friend’s phrase, “Interminable Season of Holy Obligation.” I have a friend who coins phrases like that – descriptive and hilarious with a tiny bite.

    Thank you for this version. As they say, the journey is half the fun, but not to any parent who’s had to listen to the words repeated a hundred times from the backseat, “Are we there yet?” :) But we do learn and love as we go. There’s no doubt about that. Thanks, Linda.

    1. It’s the little bite that makes them memorable, Bella. Too much sweetness and light can be cloying, and I love the self-awareness her phrase reveals. She knows she’s a Christmas nut, and doesn’t care. She will not be denied her pleasures.

      I’ve never thought of this before, but consider: what would happen if parents started telling those demanding little tykes in the back seat, “We ARE there,” every time they asked the question? They might at least get an extra thirty seconds of silence while the kids tried to process that one.

  25. Wow, Linda, I am glad you found that scrap. I really enjoyed the poem, and am saving it for myself – although not on a scrap probably – and lovely story of your friend and her Christmas preparations.

    Your mom’s Santa cookies sound wonderful. If not for the kids, I would probably spend Christmas in bed all day or maybe at some soup kitchen. Kids insist that we do this or that, so I just do what they want. We do almost no presents. But there is always grandma – my mom, who sends a box of handmade stuff – mittens and woolen socks for the family – and kids count the days to receiving the package from overseas, such joy for them, they fight over who gets to open.

    The second favorite is cookie making of course and gingerbread house constructions. And the third favorite – we always make a tradition to go to local zoo and farms to talk to the animals during the Christmas week. Moving slowly and soaking in all the goodness of cuddling with hot chocolate by the fire, that is all you need for Christmas.

    1. I certainly am glad I found the poem. Now, if only I could find what I think’s the world’s best-ever Christmas poem. I clipped it from a magazine, post-1977 and pre-1990, and I think it was from The New Yorker, or maybe The Atlantic. I remember a few snippets, but haven’t surfaced it. Maybe I’ll make another run at it this season.

      I love your trips to the zoo or farms. You know the tradition of animals talking on Christmas eve, yes? Have you ever read Loren Eiseley’s story about “The Talking Cat” who showed up at Christmas? It’s not so very long, but I read it and well up with tears every single year. It’s wonderful. I think even the kids would like it. The link gives you the entire story, which is a chapter from one of his books.

      Do you have any old family recipes that you make every year? A special cookie or pastry? We never made a gingerbread house, but there has been a splendid one next door at South Shore Harbor Resort every year — like this!

      I only regret I don’t have a fireplace — although some crazy people have been known to use technology to put a big, cracking fire on an oversized computer screen. One does what one can.

  26. I suspect you have a most interesting collection of books. I have never had the pleasure of reading the poem Ithaka until I came by here. And of course you added beautiful commentary to go with it.

    Christmas is religious as a client so aptly put it the other day. Normally, I would say religious is something, or one that has a vocation involved in that, but at the same time there is nothing religious about, it’s a beautiful time to remember what God has done for us.

    I realize even though i haven’t really taken the time to observe Advent as I could that I am in waiting whether I want to or not, and so I’ll take the scenic route which I would refer to as the “waiting in the meantime.”

    1. My book collection’s much smaller now than it has been in the past, especially since I disposed of a couple of specialized collections, but I do love the ones I have. And it’s true that they’re an eclectic mix.

      I think you’re right, that the season has a good bit to offer even people who aren’t formally religious, or who belong to other faith traditions.It’s a time to slow down, to be quiet, to learn patience. Who among us couldn’t use a little more of that?

      I like your expression, “waiting in the meantime.” It feels like a double dose of waiting, but who cares about that, when you’re able to take the scenic route?

    1. It’s always fun to see the different interpretations people bring to a poem. I like the thought of every day being a journey toward Ithaca, even though it sometimes seems as though Ithaca has the ability to keep receding into the distance as we travel.

      In any event, yes: let’s wish a good, long journey for us all.

  27. Oh I love this! Especially as we’re about to head out on a 25th anniversary cruise – we fly to San Juan on Saturday & that day will be an interminable travel day. But it will be the first time I’ve ever flown anywhere with my husband & that should make it fun, right?

    1. What a wonderful way to celebrate, Dana. I think I remember you mentioning the trip at Bella’s, or perhaps on your blog. You must be excited beyond words. Congratulations to you both.

      And yes, it certainly is an appropriate poem for you. Journey on, girl — and bring back oodles of photos. (Between the two of you, I predict you’ll hit a thousand.)

  28. Very beautiful writing, I love the word ‘adventus” for all of its meaning. I also loved the poem interpreted by Lawrence Durrell because of its simplicity. This post also reminds me of that beautiful quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

    1. “Adventus” does imply adventures, doesn’t it? Interestingly, some of the best adventures I’ve experienced have been marked by the same simplicity as the poem.

      There’s no question that, where travel is involved, a little foreknowledge is a good thing. But too much planning, too much preparation and scheduling, can make it a relief to get back home. I’ve traveled with a person or two who adore every-minute-packed itineraries, and they generally leave me exhausted. A good journey leaves room to breathe.

      1. I love simplicity, although I love to research subjects which seem complex, deep down I’m a very simple person. I also love to discover on my own, without all the pre-planning.

        I found two more quotes on this subject:

        “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain


        “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller

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