Reading ‘The Odyssey’ Far From Home

What Homer’s poem taught me about making a life on the Great Lakes

After a protracted fall during the length of which the leaves perpetually seem on the verge of turning, winter arrives in one swift blow. Overnight, the trees shed their leaves and the low hanging boughs are lined with snow. For a few days, the air turns frigid. A ghastly wind blows through the streets, glazing the roads with a thin layer of ice. It is a rough and forbidding initiation, a grand entrance that clears the city of walkers, sends everyone indoors. The silence is palpable. The heavy load of snow that is rudely dumped on our homes mutes the noise of distant traffic and the whistle of the train as it cautiously chugs down the tracks that cut across the city.

It is here, in South Bend, Indiana, that I first read The Odyssey. I am not ashamed to admit that there are many great books I have not yet read. Quite the contrary: It is a fact that delights me, makes me feel hungry, alive. I prefer to remain aware of all of the great books I have not yet read, not to mention all of the great literature that has not yet been written. And since so much of literature is about navigating the spaces we inhabit, then it follows that I also orient my inner compass towards those remote landscapes in which I have not yet lived. To further stitch the two together — literature and landscape — I tend to think carefully about where it is I am living when I suddenly take an intense unforeseen pleasure in a great book. A classic. So, I fell in love with The Odyssey in South Bend; and, like a perfect mirror effect, that falling transformed my relationship to the city.

This is a strange, magical place; it is also harsh and withholding. Living here requires a great deal of fortitude and patience, not to mention an appetite for solitude from those of us who weren’t born or raised here and who don’t have built-in networks we can fall back on to bolster us through the seasons. Here in South Bend, the sun appears sparingly in the winter. When it makes a rare appearance, people rush out of doors in droves; they stick their faces in the light, breathe the fresh air, shake off the stale, sooty climate of their homes. Our neighbors dust off their cross-country skis and go around the block while their children make snow angels, or fly downhill on their sleds at the park as the family dogs watch over them with bemused looks from their fixed position under the unrobed sycamore on the hill. These are the tell-tale signs of South Bend’s unrelenting winters. It won’t be long before Lake Michigan — immense, magnetic, temperamental — will be a glacial mass embellished with translucent ice floes.

Landing on the shores of the Third Coast after years of wandering was something I never saw coming. The landing was not easy. I felt emotionally shipwrecked. I had left North America for Spain two years prior with the intention never to return, a failed search for home that had taken me to Italy and then back to the U.S. It was at this particular juncture in my life, during those first psychologically demanding years of living in the Midwest, surviving its winters and coming face-to-face with its brutal legacy of distaste for otherness, that I started reading The Odyssey. I discovered a few vague parallelisms: Lake Michigan is haunted with shipwrecks, and the landscapes that hug the Third Coast have been shaped by The Great Migration, transformed by Polish, Italian, Latin American and Arab immigrants, globalized by Somali and Hmong refugees. And The Odyssey, a tale of loss, reckoning, and encounters between civilizations, is full of shipwrecks, digressions, wandering, narrowly escaping death, being blown off course and arriving at the most unexpected shores.

As it turns out, Ulysses’ nostos — his difficult, mesmerizing journey home by sea — brought into sharp relief my own strange journey across Europe, North America, and the Middle East. Nostalgia (which comes from nostos) has kept me company, an unrelenting philosophical mentor, as I have crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic in search of a place to put down roots. Instead of the goddess Athena who guides Ulysses and his son Telemachus on their travels towards and away from home, a nauseating nostalgia for the past hovered over me, simultaneously attracting and repelling me. But, no matter how many times I retraced my footsteps, one thing remained unclear: Nostalgia for what? For which version of my past? A country? A person? An atmosphere? A smell?

Ulysses’ nostos — his difficult, mesmerizing journey home by sea — brought into sharp relief my own strange journey across Europe, North America, and the Middle East.

Given the disorienting cartography of my life, there isn’t a singular home for me to return to. I am from nowhere; or, perhaps, I am from a constellation of places which habits and social codes violently contradict one another, leaving me empty handed. That emptiness, though excruciatingly painful, has also allowed me to cultivate emotional and psychological dexterity, to embrace digression, and to comfortably linger on the shores of foreign cities on my impossible search for a place to call home. While Ulysses had Ithaca, an exact geographical point to which to return, I am still waiting to find the story of my return, the many dizzying returns, that will likely lead nowhere except further inwards, a descent I make willingly and on which my writing depends.

This spiraling structure, of returns nested within returns, echoes the narrative blueprint of The Odyssey: ten years after the Trojan War, Telemachus leaves Ithaca in search of his missing father, and almost simultaneously, after a long sequence of fantastical near deadly events, Ulysses leaves Calypso’s island and arrives shipwrecked on the island of Scheria. Along the way, Telemachus hears tales of his father’s adventures through Nestor, King of Pylos, and Menelaus in Sparta. Five books into the epic, we begin to hear the story again, but this time told by Ulysses himself; the inhabitants of Scheria have promised the help he will need to return home safely, but only after he has recounted the story of his adventures. So, before we arrive at Ulysses’ own telling, the tale of The Odyssey is told and retold by a varying cast of characters whose own stories have intersected with Ulysses’ narrative. These retellings of the past are crucial to the narrative’s future. The memory of Ulysses’ journey — his nostos — is kept alive by different tellers, echoed and re-echoed, safeguarding the continuity between the past and the future. In his essay “The Odysseys Within the Odyssey,” Italo Calvino writes beautifully about the “risks of forgetting the future” by allowing the past to slip from memory. He reminds us that woven throughout the song of The Odyssey are the lines “to think of the return,” “to speak of the return.” This echoing, or infinite return to central events of the past and to the shape of the hero’s journey, is a linguistic and mental structure familiar to most exiles and to the loved ones they have to leave behind along the way.

Before we arrive at Ulysses’ own telling, the tale of The Odyssey is told and retold by a varying cast of characters whose own stories have intersected with Ulysses’ narrative.

I wholeheartedly believe that preserving the possibility of a future in which justice has been restored depends in large part on remembering the past, on actively recalling and retelling our struggles. But I am also intrigued by the architecture of The Odyssey as a whole, and, in particular, in the great spatial and temporal leap that occurs between books IV and V, that momentary negative space in which Telemachus’ telling pauses and Ulysses’ telling begins. It is in this electric tension that their songs of longing for one another reverberate at the highest frequency, paving the path for their critical future encounter in Ithaca. Like absence and presence, loss and reckoning, the two parts of the narrative are interdependent: to preserve the story of The Odyssey we must hear the song of the exiled hero alongside the song of those Ulysses leaves behind. These two experiences, of those who leave their homeland and those who remain, do not fit together squarely; they do not add up to an exact whole. Central to their respective integrities is that charged space in between, that hollow dimension or hiatus against which silent surfaces our hopes, desires, longings, and despairs echo, reaching a crescendo, a critical mass.

Understanding, therefore, surfaces through narrative accumulation, through the circulation and recirculation of the story of our struggles and the silences when those stories are not being told. Those in-between, liminal spaces — the silences — are critical not only to preserving the differences in our songs of sorrow, but also to creating the necessary space for us to sit with our collective struggles without requiring them to be perfectly synchronized. In this context, the possibility that The Odyssey was written by several people, or gathered by Homer from oral tales that had been recounted for generations, becomes doubly charged. It is a classical collage, a song of multiplicity, an epic poem that doesn’t seek to erase the fault lines and fissures that become a part of our identities in the process of learning to be human while we may be lost at sea, or faced with a disorienting number of shifting cultural, geographical and linguistic points of reference. It is a poem that is as much about speaking our story as it is about moving beyond reason, and into a quiet space of reckoning, where the embodied experience of grief and desire is not forsaken in the process of giving shape to the memory of the journey through language. The silences, too, repeat. And a great deal of unabashed weeping and wailing occurs throughout The Odyssey.

The Girls Who Turned into Trees

For better or for worse, I am extraordinarily sensitive to space. The first year of living in South Bend, I wept incessantly. Some of the tears I shed in longing for the balmy air of Barcelona in the summer, some for the streets and sounds of Florence, Italy, where I had ended up living, a brooding city with a bloody history exquisitely masked by ornate buildings and laced with the sapphire waters of the Arno. Unlike Florence, South Bend is no open-air museum. It is a rust belt city dotted with abandoned warehouses, homes with blown out windows covered with plastic to keep out the frigid, winter air. It is a city in the process of recovering from financial collapse, and when I first arrived here six years ago it was much less recovered than it is now.

The Midwest is an inspired, but scarred landscape. It’s haunted with the legacy of racism and segregation and marked by rampant poverty. These issues are not ghosts of the past — which would be difficult enough to reckon with — but ongoing realities. Here, the pain of our great human failures is not masked by exquisite architecture, but rather by that well-known brand of Midwestern politeness, the ability to look the other way practiced so often and with such diligence that it has been raised to an art form. And then there is the warmth and hospitality that comes at a high price, subjecting those of us who are not from here to a line of questioning so alienating that one might wish to be invisible. Surviving in the Midwest as an outsider requires subterfuge, cunning, a robust temperament — qualities Ulysses possesses and which Telemachus is taught to acquire in his journey from boyhood to manhood. But weeping is as much a central note in the symphony of the poem; the weeping is cathartic, yes, but it also serves as a form of remembering and reminding us of the characters’ emotional memories, their embodied experiences. In fact, the first time we see Ulysses he is alone, weeping on the beach: “. . . as always, / wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish, / gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.”

Weeping, longing for home, unsure of how it was I had landed in such unexpected shores…these were the circumstances that lead to me to fall in love with The Odyssey and that taught me an unforgettable lesson: in order for a great book to have a lasting impact on us, the circumstances of our lives have to have ripened for the encounter, the frequency of our character calibrated to that of the book. I am writing here of The Odyssey, but also of all of the great books people always claim to be rereading or apologetically concede to not having yet read: Bleak House, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, War & Peace, The Shahnameh, The Epic of Gilgamesh. The list goes on and on. What excites me is the fact that sometimes we are lucky enough that our life intersects with a book at a critical juncture, almost instantly transforming our consciousness, or illuminating a fact or feeling we have always suspected but preferred not to acknowledge about ourselves. Such books haunt us for years by stirring awake our own dormant ghosts, by reminding us to remember.

Weeping, longing for home, unsure of how it was I had landed in such unexpected shores…these were the circumstances that lead to me to fall in love with The Odyssey.

I suspect I will forever circle around the notion of home, searching for it despite knowing that it can only exist on an abstract plane within my imagination. I also suspect that for most of us the feeling of belonging is almost impossible to locate, but that once found it is transportable to anyplace. For now, I’ll continue to linger on the shores of the Third Coast, surrounded by fertile plains of soy and corn that unfold as far as they eye can see beneath the wide, pearl-pink skies of the Midwest. Once the glacial winter cedes to spring, the tulips emerge, their silky bulbous shapes sway in the cool April breeze. The geese will return, waddling around in single file and honking at drivers. The ground will thaw and the grass will regain its color. Thunderstorms will roll in, the silver veiny flashes of lightning radiant in the twilight. Summer will be green and lush and the air will be filled with the song of canaries and blue jays and woodpeckers carving holes in the trunks of the trees. There’s great beauty here. It is not all strain and sorrow. I no longer weep about living in the Midwest, but I couldn’t have remained here without weeping, without sitting in that uncomfortable and, at least for me, unfamiliar space beyond language.

To return again to where I started: the shame we are required to perform upon admitting that we have not read a certain classic. Well, according to Calvino, “All that can be done is for each of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics; and I would say that one half of it should consist of books we have read and that have meant something for us, and the other half of books which we intend to read and we suppose might mean something to us.” Calvino is one of my authors, the way that Homer was one of his. But I find myself dissatisfied with the inventory he proposes. My library is also filled with books that, for some reason or another, I never intend to read. The negative capability created by those books serve as fuel for me to search for the books that I will read and that will momentarily steady my restless nature. I am soothed by the idea that there will always be an enormous number of books I will never be able to read — that my life, however long it shall be, is too short to allow me to fully exhaust literature’s possibilities. Those books help me hone my search and give a certain gravitas to the choices I do make. After all, I consider the intersection where life and literature meet a window that allows us to simultaneously look without and within, a vantage point onto infinity. And in order for that space to be meaningful, we each have to craft it in our own time, at our own pace.

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