Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ham and cheese and Ithaka

Constantine Cavafy, 1863-1933

Well, here it is almost a new year and I’m feeling kind of underwhelmed again, but can’t exactly put my finger on the why.

Used to be I’d go out and buy new yearly planners in December, resolving to keep track of things. That lasted maybe a week. I still have a couple of them --- beautifully bound, pristine, years out of date. Maybe I could turn them into scrapbooks. Maybe I should throw them away. Now there’s a useful thought.

I was visiting with a friend earlier in the week who says he feels more spiritually enlightened now than he did a year ago. I’m happy for him and told him so. But I don’t --- just as muddled as ever. Not unhappy, not confused, not despairing --- just muddled. There’s nothing the matter with muddle. Sometimes it’s more generous than certainty and quite often more hopeful.

Used to make long-term new year resolutions. Those lasted about a week, too.

Now I make short-term resolutions. Like just before going to bed, I resolve to make the bed the next morning and sometimes do. Baby steps.

Earlier this month, I resolved not to waste food and because of that have recently eaten an entire Christmas ham purchased because it was on sale despite the fact I do not especially like naked ham and knew my holiday dinners would be eaten elsewhere. But after consuming baked ham, cold ham, hot ham and cheese sandwiches, ham and cheese omelets, ham and bean soup and escalloped potatoes and ham I was feeling mighty self-righteous.

Until I found something sealed in plastic in the refrigerator I didn’t recognize. DNA testing would be required to figure out what it once had been. And desiccated celery, dead grapes. Whoops. One more new botched beginning, as Stephen Spender wrote. But “beginning” is the key word here. “Botched” goes with the territory.

Some say we should put the old year behind us, start the new as if it were a newly-wiped slate. Don’t buy that. It’s magic thinking and magic thinking leads to crash landings. I’m just not ready to give up on 2010 yet; a few things still to think about --- but looking forward hopefully.

I’m partial to Constantine Cavafy’s 1911 poem entitled “Ithaka.” It soon will be a century old, but speaks to 2011 just as it did to 1911 --- at least to me. Happy new year!

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.

Translation from the Greek by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

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