I fell in love with the poem Ithaka the first time I read it.  At the time, I was in college and didn’t fully understand its meaning but I was so drawn to it and Ithaka made an indelible impression.  I felt Ithaka urging me to embrace a life full of adventure and full of discovery.  Each time I read it’s words, it felt like lightening going through my veins and all I wanted to do was travel.

ITHAKA
By C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
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.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
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 the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen 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 gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not 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 will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

So here we have Ithaka, the great journey poem.  It’s easy to think the person who wrote this poem was an adventurer but Cavafy, born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents, actually spent most of his adult life in the same city of his birth.  From his simple and humble life came the greatest poetry written in Greek during the 20th century.  Ithaka was read at the funeral of Jackie Onassis, and is delivered often at graduation ceremonies in the United States.

Over the many years since I first read Ithaka, it has stayed with me, reminding me to “keep Ithaka always in your mind.”  But Cavafy encourages us not to rush for the goal, whatever we may think that goal might be.  He wants us to take our time, lingering in foreign places to awaken our senses, broaden our minds and nourish our souls. He encourages us to explore worlds, peoples and cultures that are different from our own because we may not be here for long.

In college I thought this had meaning only in the context of travel.  Over the course of several years, I came to realize the real meaning of Ithaka is the journey it inspires.  Now, from a deeper perspective, I believe the journey relates to my life whether I am traveling abroad or even within my home country.  The people we meet and the places we linger are all part of our Ithaka.  The journey itself is the destination and the poem tells us to enjoy the journey, wherever it takes us, and allow it to take as long as necessary.  The more exotic and different from what we know, the better.

What matters, Cavafy says, is that you become rich along the way, so that your hopes don’t rest on a fixed dream where everything is as you imagine – the perfect house, the perfect job or career, the perfect relationship. The richness of Ithaka is that it gives us the journey, and that is all she has to give.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

In Cavafy’s view, the more we immerse ourselves in life around us, broaden our minds, explore our world and allow our senses to be nourished, the more we will come to learn how to drift home and understand what Ithaka means.

May you remember to keep your Ithaka always in mind.

 

7 thoughts on “Ithaka: Finding Home

  1. Wow! Love this. Now I know/understand you a bit better :). Need this more in my life, thanks for the reminder & inspiration. Will keep Ithika close by..

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