One of the most beautiful gifts my ex husband FP ever gave me was introducing me to the poem Ithaka by Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. I loved it from the minute he read it to me, when we were newly married and he was sharing the books that he loved. When he read it to me my heart felt so full, not only from the contents of the poem but from the idea that a man I loved was reading me poetry.
As a gift back to him, I searched until I found a photo frame shaped like a sailboat, which I found during one of my trips to Arizona. I typed a portion of the Ithaka poem so it fit inside the frame, giving it to him to keep on his desk as a reminder of our journey together. It was so precious to me that X years later I asked him for the frame back when we parted and I was grateful, but at the same time disappointed,when he willingly turned it over without protest as though it meant nothing to him.
Struggling with our divorce, I had no way to organize my feelings. I was in a free fall of sleepless nights, replaying events in my head, asking myself questions that ultimately would never be answered. In an act of total desperation I decided that I would fantasize that I was alone on a ship on the water on the way to Ithaka, and I began to try to live out the poem, as a metaphor to my road to healing.
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.
I knew that setting out onto the waters to Ithaka would be rough. For one thing, I don’t love the water. I blame that on my childhood swimming teacher who pushed my head underwater to find the colored keys dropped at the bottom of the pool as part of apparent immersion therapy.
Many years later when I was in my 40s, I found solace with the water when my father was dying. Watching him struggle for breath with a lung disease every day while he was a hospice patient in my house, I would sneak to the outdoor pool at my gym in Scottsdale and force myself to swim laps. I made learning to swim a way of facing my fear of water, and of facing the fear of watching my precious daddy die a little every day. The symbolism of my labored breathing made me feel like I was breathing life for both of us.
When the divorce from FP was filed, I took to walking around my neighborhood in Iowa where there are lakes, watching the waves ripple in a blowing breeze. On other days I noticed the water was stagnant. I would read the water tempo and measure it against the tempo of my soul. Was it a good day? Would I make it? Or, was it a day to write off and get back into bed with chocolate and my journal? I walked for miles processing everything, and ultimately one morning I found a little stream under a busy street that I could see from the sidewalk. For days after finding it I would practically run to the stream hoping it would be vibrant. If I found it plump and rushing, it somehow set my tone. I denied there were Laistrygonians and Cyclops stirring. I clung to the water as a lifeline.
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.
I bought a ceramic mermaid that I happened upon in a small artist’s den in Flagstaff. She was lovely and haphazard all at the same time. “Gorgona” means mermaid in Greek. I remember FP telling me a story he had made up about a gorgona when he was learning to speak Greek as part of his graduate school training. It seemed perfect. I took to keeping her with me, carrying her from room to room and perching her next to my bed at night. She was my companion that accompanied me during long hours of introspection, round and round the cycle of grief, through tearful prayers on the floor in front of icons, and ultimately coming up from the depths of the deep.
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.
Conventional wisdom says you aren’t “there” for a year after the divorce is final. I remember deliberately setting an appointment with my counselor at the one year mark, crying in the chair and asking “why aren’t I better?” I continued to do the hard work, not really feeling better for at least two years; not really feeling I had turned the corner fully for more than three years afterwards.
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. Constantine Cavafy
At this point in my life I am at a place I never imagined was possible. Although I refer to my divorce from FP as a “near death experience,” I realize that there were gifts the marriage gave me that I will hold forever. The overarching sadness and pain that the divorce brought don’t overshadow the wonderful things that I experienced in my marriage. Without the marriage, I would not have realized a dimension of love I hadn’t previously encountered. Without the divorce, I would never have set out on my journey to Ithaka.