All roads, arduous & unsparing; led home, to peace & stillness
The greatest things in life, are often easy to crack. What seems great in poetry is harder in prose, simple on hindsight might feel like toil right now; and what works on every level is hard to see, at first.
‘Finding Penélope’ (Rome, 2022) by Erin Chrisman, © Chrisman Studios
Here’s some thoughts from across the millennia, as epiphanies go…
‘Old love, but in shapes that renew and renew forever.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time
You become an image of what is remembered forever.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours
And the songs of every poet past and forever.’
~ Rabindranath Tagore
But, tis’ never guaranteed, never constant, always ephemeral, the answer rests moment-to-moment, in every breath and look and glance.
‘To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
The breathing in unison.’
~ T. S. Eliot
I divide my life, now, as the time after I met my wife and the years in the wilderness prior. This is my way of piecing together observations as life moves, from honeymoon to the banal and back, but through it all; the question in the wind: with each passing day, does this wine taste sweeter, or but a hangover?
Part I: The moment he knew
Why do I feel different this time, and what does it have to do with Homer’s Odyssey!?
Odysseus leaves behind the victories of the Trojan War, battling through the Straits of Messina; stuck between Scylla & Charybdis, six-headed sea monsters, unforgiving whirlpools, notoriety, nymphs & sirens; fights the son of a God, Poseidon, and fends off the advances of another God, Calypso, despite an offer of immortality in paradise – all for a chance to be back home.
Home with Penélope, his wife, & Telemachus, his son. Aided & abetted by a Mentor, Athena (Zeus’ daughter) in various guises, guiding him from a rock to a hard place to ‘home.’ To his wife.
The Odyssey is obviously a story of “nostos,” meaning “homecoming” (the word from which we get “nostalgia,” the pain of missing home).
~ Emily Wilson, On Homer’s Odyssey
Any reading of any translation of the Odyssey, especially Chapman’s Homer, gives you a panoply of adjectives describing Her:
- Penélope is ‘prudent Penélope’ never ‘swift-footed Penélope’ even if she is moving quickly.
- Beauty is skin-deep, her love for Odysseus is more careful, more suspicious, and her understanding of him might seem less complete;
- (and in choosing Penélope, Odysseus is also choosing to become old and, eventually, to die.)
- Yet, Penélope’s initial appearance is coupled from the beginning with her most prevalent epithet: periphron. Nancy Felson-Rubin, author of Regarding Penelope, translates periphron as ‘thinking all around’, which is certainly more to the point than its frequent translation as wise or prudent.
In her own son’s words, Telemachus describes her resilience to his own father:
Homer is drawing a stark contrast between Helen of Troy, whose choice of Paris over Menelaus, her husband, led to the Trojan War, while preserving Penélope as the feminine epitome, worth fighting the ends of the world to reunite with.
Planning an entire sequel around a wife who fends off innumerable suitors while pining for her husband, is a sleight of hand that’s masterful as is wise.
Part II: The moment he knew
The idea that Ithaca, revered, venerated as a utopia, was not a fancy island. A material paradise, rather a bucolic, sleepy town, is the stuff of legend.
Recent research seems to suggest it was Cephalonia (“Κεφαλονιά,” Kefalonia), not Ithaca (“Ιθάκη,” Ithaki); might have been the home of Homer’s Odyssean homecoming. Both offer a simpler, more bucolic resistance to either the hustle of cosmopolitan centers like Troy (“Τροία,” Troia), or blissful islands like (“Ωγύγη,” Ogygi) that Calypso tried to wield against Odysseus.
Why leave all that is worldly & luxuriant (Goddess Calypso’s ‘island of luxuriant, dense complexity. A place of secrets and tangled mixtures.’), to be home, in a rural backwater.
From Homer to Pixar, every single human, storyteller, artist or accountant; knows deep down within, past the daily minutiae we find ourselves burdened, this one irrevocable fact. We seek security & simplicity. I’ll give anything to replace secrets & tangled mixtures with the peace of home.
No matter how many people we are surrounded by, no matter the money, applause, sex or fame, notoriety or immortality, likes or fucks one receives; the intense longing for a peaceful home is the only undeniable truth.
Life is never just about plumbing, death, nor taxes.
A Penélope, who brings such harmonious vitality to life, is a redemptive figure.
A man is home where…
Odysseus’ journey back to where he belongs, where he’s comfortable, where he’s accepted, where’s he’s earned his right to be and there’s an ease to it, that no coffers can fill.
Odysseus’ choice to be with Penélope is associated not only with an admission of human mortality, but also with its opposite: an insistence that a man might be able to claim or reclaim a permanent position at the head of his particular social ladder.
Odysseus seems to be magically able to evade the pressure of time on mortals and rise above all challenges of circumstance.
~ Emily Wilson, On Homer’s Odyssey
This is the plot of literally every Pixar movie from Finding Nemo to Up to Toy Story, and every single one of them owe a debt of gratitude to the greatest story ever told: Homer’s Odyssey.
That his home was at siege is the stuff of modern storytelling, from Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (a misplaced ode to masculinity) to Home Alone (a misplaced ode to growing up).
But, between both extremes, is a kernel of a fundamental truth about home: You know it when you belong; and that is worth fighting for...
A man is home when…
In one’s wild youth, adventure might be ever-constant, drama & chaos lurking in every bar, city & drink we take. But, as one ages, and one sees the turbulence come through; peace above all else and give me peace a’plenty, please.
King Odysseus left home for the Trojan war, leaving behind a young wife & fledgling son, and fought & won for 10-years, and he spent another 10-years finding his way back, aged significantly but also tamed of his cravings.
He now sees the world for what it is, and the allures remain just that – mere trifles.
(Chapman) believed that the Odyssey, on the other hand, was chiefly an allegory of the ‘mind’s inward, constant and unconquered Empire’. Odysseus’ arrival home meant that he had achieved the goal of a good man, which is to have his mind free of passions.
~ Colin Burrow, London Review of Books, on Chapman’s Homer
The word passion from the Latin pati is ‘to endure suffering.’ An ’ailment, disease, affliction,’ stemming from ’desire’ ‘that which must be endured.’ Run afoul of passions in his lesser days, John Donne (the greatest among metaphysical poets) compares his marriage to a man’s travels are twinned as a compass might, a circle.
‘And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.’
~ John Donne, ‘A Valediction: Of Forbidden Mourning’
The suffering of one’s desire is now molded into a deep & abiding affection, the endurance, trimmed to an expansion, ‘like gold to airy thinness beat.’
‘Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion.
Like gold to airy thinness beat.’
Part III: The moment he knew
‘Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun,
because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.’
~ Qoheleth, Book of Ecclesiastes, 9:9
Last week, after dinner, to a question from my wife on a project she’s working on, my usually overabundant response stilled. I did not have too much to comment on, rather just joy that she’s having so much fun working on something she loves, with my ‘self’ in abeyance.
As humans, one is conditioned (by all of our past) to respond without listening, with one’s biases leading the way, and giving a motive to every question lobbed our way. And that agenda is ‘thought’, constantly in my way, tainting every response.
The mind is silent, only when thought relents, which gives way to sheer observation, turning desire to affection, which is attention.
That’s true in every aspect of our life, especially with those we’re closest with, and our partner usually bears the brunt of these ruinous ‘thoughts.’ Whether it’s the end of a busy day, or if we receive hurt from any quarter at work or elsewhere, we return home, and we mete it out (unknowingly, but subliminally guided by these actions) to those closest to us!
As compared with passion that masters the mind, so that the person in its influence becomes its passive instrument, affection though moving, affecting, or influencing one, still leaves him in self-control.
~ Century Dictionary, via Etymonline
Affection restores agency to a once unrestrained mind.
If one can be silent, with an un-chattering mind, un-cluttered, with one’s wife, then thought ends, and with it the chaos & suffering of desire:
- If one can be that with rippling circles of affection, whether ’tis kids, or parents, or cousins, etc.
- If one can be that with family, that will extend to one’s community, and so on and so forth…
A marriage could be the smallest atom of attention. If one gets marriage; one might get to appreciate life, effortlessly.
‘Don’t fear gods,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.’
~ Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyrus, 4.9–14
And what might seem the hardest, nebulous, even impossible is peace in general, particularly in marriage; knowing what’s right is more than half the challenge.
Coalescing these thoughts, as one re-reads The Epic of Gilgamesh (4000 years ago), The Odyssey (3000 years ago), The Book of Ecclesiastes (2000 years ago), or The Herculaneum Papyrus (1000 years ago); mimesis after mimesis, from poets across millennia reiterates a formula for marriage in contentment.
‘Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart …
Let thy garments be always white; and let not thy head lack ointment.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy life.’
~ Qoheleth, Book of Ecclesiastes
The truth never wilts.
What is true 4000 years ago, 3000 years ago, and 2000 years ago, is true today, and will be true tomorrow.
‘Let your clothes be clean, let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!
Gaze on the child who holds your hand, let a wife enjoy your repeated embrace!’
~ Sîn-leqi-unninni, Epic of Gilgamesh
Truth, beauty, & order are the same and can be seen by a mind that has clarity and lives in reality, not in figments of its petty creations. To find marriage fulfilling is a challenge, but easy (like all good things), once the self abates.
And that peace is a gift from Penélope, which makes Odysseus’ journey back to her, through every hardship possible worth it.
’Ithaca’ (Italy, 2022) by Erin Chrisman, © Chrisman Studios