Sunday, February 22, 2009

Keep Ithaka Always In Your Mind

Your hair is never going to be completely perfect, I think these words hard, almost like I am yelling each one directly on the angry and determined face of the woman blocking the exit on the F train as it pulls into the Delancey Street station. She has been fixing her sharp jet-black bangs by licking her fingers and smoothing them down over her extra long forehead again and again since 42nd Street. Too busy with her hair to move an inch for the oncoming passengers at West 4th Street who tolerated her behavior by exiting and entering single file through the other, unblocked door so as not to disturb her state of selfish oblivion. The surprisingly indulgent passengers in the car gingerly move around her when they exit and are quickly followed by a hoard of people impatiently waiting on the platform and then avoiding her as they enter.

I have been watching from my spot at the center bar that I share with three men and two women, one of whom balances at the steel using only the tips of three fingers and her thumb.
“I know how you feel, honey. The germs, right? This is exactly why I prefer to wear gloves on the subway in New York City.” I want to tell her, but I don’t because it might seem crazy.

The black haired woman at the doorway is annoyed that someone with an extra large backpack and a cup of coffee is infringing upon the extra personal space she has claimed for herself. She is staring the girl down. The girl, however, is too worried about potentially spilling her coffee to notice; she is not quite maintaining her equilibrium sandwiched between a man trying to read the Wall Street Journal and some dude listening to very loud music through his headphones.
These shenanigans do not fly in Greece. I can guarantee that.

People don’t understand the sense of blocking the way of others just so to make it easier for you when you want to exit some five, seven, eleven stations down the line.
I think it might be because the Greeks are not worried about being first so much, nor do they seem overly concerned with being on time. There is a prevailing faith that they will get out at their station, no doubt about that, and when they do, it will be magnificent. The doors will open for them and remain open until they exit and the people continuing on the train will move out of the way to let them pass, because it is the right thing to do seeing how we are all sharing space here anyway. In Greece, the people do not tend to make strangers responsible for their comfort; it’s an individual accountability thing.

I have improved my relationship with personal responsibility and full ownership of my actions since my trip to Greece. I am working on incorporating this evolution into my life here in The States. That, and understanding circumstances and the way things are, and loving everything about life, not just the really delicious parts. I figure, it is not so much about getting everything that you want; it's more about choosing the things that you get.

While in Greece, in every moment my actions were completely my own choice. A fact that was screamingly obvious as I moved through the strange crowds in an unfamiliar country. Every step I took, everything I ate, if I ate, the trouble I got into, the trouble I avoided, where I went, and how I got there… all of it was my choice, only me, solitary, solo, isolated, alone.

I have always been afraid of being alone. As if my ability to take care of myself was somehow insufficient, I worried, that if left alone, I might fail miserably.

In a creepy little hotel room in a precarious section of Athens, I wondered who was now going to watch over me? Who would check my actions, keep me safe and be ready to call foul on some absurd choice I was considering, or divert me from making terrible mistakes? This long running fantasy that I entertain where someone better, smarter and more reliable is seeing to my safety and general well-being exploded when I triple checked the dead bolt on the cardboard thin front door and pulled the dark curtains to cover the sliding glass door on the terrace.
I did not think I would sleep at all that night and took pains to heed the many precautions I have picked up along the way these last 40, or so, years. I put all my money in the pocket of my fleece jacket and wore it on top of my pajamas. My bags were packed and ready to go should I need to flee quickly, or toss my luggage off the side of the terrace in a heroic and dramatic escape. In the morning, I woke up unharmed and with all my belongings intact even if I was sweating through the layers of clothes I had worn to bed.

In Greece, there was no phantom proctor following me around when I got on and off ferryboats, when I made wrong turns and walked directionless down long stretches of road. This trip illuminated my solo flight and my ability to be with myself with confidence.

Call me crazy; or, you get what you need.

The blog essays too, all mine. No one saw them before they were posted, I did not discuss them with anyone, no one told me what to write about, what mattered, what didn’t, or how to say anything. Sometimes (most-times) I white-knuckled it through the very instances my finger hit that key to “post” because the words, my words, felt so vulnerable. Maybe I was being too open? Maybe I was showing too much of my hand? I’m no card player, I don’t know what’s good for me, what makes sense, or what I am doing. Still I managed to develop this experience where I consciously answered only to myself and I kind of liked it, after all.

This is all just a metaphor for my life, right? I wanted to go somewhere and find myself, or something romantic like that.

Lesson #8: Being with the unknown world was not the hardest aspect of my travel. Being with myself all the time, now that was the real challenge.
Back home, I am afraid of my own choices more often. I fret about little things, and all sorts of things I have no control over. I worry that I am being judged and that I am doing the wrong thing, in the wrong place, wearing the wrong shoes, wrong lipstick, wrong choices, and just plain wrong. When I left New York City, I wanted to experience life in another environment, that’s all I set out to do. What happened after that was just what happened. What happened after that was that I started to choose without all that judgment and the annoying voices in my head slowing me down with their doubt.

“Open,” I said on the first day and then every day after that. And I am still saying it now, particularly in times of confusion, when I am hearing only static in my head, and when rivers of uncertainty rise up and want to submerge me.
“Open, just open.” I tell myself and I feel my ribs cracking apart inside my chest to make more room. It’s painful, but it’s a good kind of pain, reminding me that I am intensely alive.

It has taken me four months to get up the courage and the stick-to-it-ive-ness to write a closing essay for this online travel blog. I am no longer in Greece, after all, so it seems that I have to move on to another blog title in order to stay current with my life. Right?

It does not escape me that I have taken my time coming through with this last essay. I have tried to convince myself that my lack of urgency in writing a final blog entry had to do with that I am on to new things. Or maybe I am not inspired to write about my Grecian journey when not in Greece. Perhaps I simply have not been able to get back to that traveler-voice, or maybe I just do not know what to say any more.
Maybe time just needed to pass a bit. Perhaps things just had to settle down so that some great revelation would take place prompting me to write incredibly insightful words about the trip and the lessons learned that would be worth both the write and the read.

Do not expect those things here, My Darlings.

There are a host of different reasons I might be able to come up with to defend my resistance to writing a final blog essay but the one that seems most apt tonight is this:

I have issues with commitment.

It’s true.

Now, before I have to argue with anyone, I want to express that I know I am a committed person. I am committed to things and people and can be counted on to do what I say I am going to do, for the most part. I am pretty much on time (not as on time as my friend, Simone, but closer than others); I am fairly reliable about my likes and dislikes. These things take some degree of commitment. However, these are not the kinds of commitments I am referring to in this essay. Here I am acknowledging a plain resistance to commitment in the form of thinking that if I commit to choosing something, any one thing, that thing must be the perfect choice, the best choice, and the real choice.
“Best,” “Perfect,” “Right.” These are tall orders; it is quite impossible to find all the evidence needed to be sure about anything. So perhaps finding an alternative, something not quite so unreasonably precise would be an improved way to pursue future endeavors.

Take, for example, the writing of this very essay, I want so much to encapsulate everything that I learned on my trip; to acknowledge the pivotal aspects of the journey; and, to pay homage to the Greek people (particularly their spirited kindness, persistence and great trait of never doing a single thing they don’t want to do – I love this about them). I want to salute the outstanding sunsets; the breathtaking beauty of the translucent turquoise water; and, the fact that I was unafraid to swim alone in the sea. I want to be thankful once again for great acts of extreme generosity such as decorating the bed in my small room with fresh, pink bougainvillea petals.
There is much to be thankful for and many people to thank, both there and here. Christina, Peter, and Andreas, Tomas and Vassilis, and Sweet Michele. And that man who reminded me to smile when I was wearing my New York City scowl through the grounds of the Acropolis, like a fool.
I feel the great love and support from new friends and life-long friends. All those truly stunning people who know me as well as, and sometimes better, than I know myself. Those who tolerate and even love me.

I am working out this commitment issue, and with this post working also, at least a little bit, on my troubles with completion. I know that my life only creeps slowly and painfully forward when I become entrenched in finding the signs that I am making appropriate decisions before acting on anything. But, better than that, I know that when I act with any trace or fume of grace, when any of us do, magnificent things happen, and always, always, in the midst of our terrors the remedy for fear is faith.

Thank you for reading.



By C.P. Cavafy
Posted here by me with many thanks and very big love to Jenny. –xob.

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.