These Ithakas

I’m sitting with my laptop with tears streaming down my face…because I get it. I understand C.P. Cavafy’s amazing poem, “Ithaka,” on a new level now. It’s been one of my favorite poems since I heard it during a Cornell University commencement address in Ithaca, New York in my twenties. I printed out the poem and displayed it on the refrigerator, or framed on a wall, for years back when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.

You can read the full poem here: http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?cat=1&id=74 . Please do!

Yesterday, I was walking along the riverside and was drawn to the way the sunlight illuminated fallen leaves, making them look like glowing embers.

I picked up an oak leaf and had an idea. I held it to the sun and was delighted to the core by the photographic effect I achieved. It was a simple effect but a very satisfying one that began spontaneously when a sense of awe was ignited by a creative spark.

All of a sudden, I realized I was holding a tiny magic wand in my hand. And that’s when the delight giggled in!

I continued on my walk looking at the world around me through a lens of appreciation and joy. I was completely in my element, exhausted from a long week at work but invigorated by being immersed in what I love.

As I admired some fall foliage on the trail, a line from the “Ithaka” poem sailed into my mind: “not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”* At this point in my life, I am not looking to anything or anyone to make me happy. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve been married twice and have raised two children who are now teenagers – one of whom has graduated from high school and is living on her own. I worked really hard to decide on a career direction once my youngest started school, and jumped through all the hoops (which were numerous and expensive) to earn the credentials needed for my chosen career path. After what felt like a mythic Quest, I landed a teaching job at my preferred grade level. And I was happy – immensely happy – for two or three years.

But the thing is, you really can’t look to a life situation to make you happy. Not a relationship. Not a job. Not material possessions. Not anything else. Because everything in this world changes, and happiness and fulfillment are ultimately an inside job – a way of relating to the world, a manner of traveling. Toward the end of the poem, Cavafy explained:

“Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.”

*Source: C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Relationships and career may awaken something extraordinary in you and set you on your path, but they are not the destination. Rather than thinking, “I will be happy when…” (I get married, buy a house, have a baby, land my dream job, retire, etc.), it’s about tuning your mind to the channel of love and joy and engaging with that “rare excitement” that lights you up.

At this point in my life, I understand the last lines of the “Ithaka” poem in a new way:

“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.”*

Yes, I think I finally understand what these Ithakas mean. Don’t build your house on the shifting sands of the world. Build it in your heart, and carry it with you always. Let it lead you to new harbors when the time is right.

In my experience, a worthwhile life is one spent doing what you love – that which fills you with joy and meaning. And that might change. Whatever my job or career is, I feel that my true work is to love, to inspire, to be inspired, to create, to listen, to have a grateful heart. Those things have become more important than any particular life situation. As I become older and hopefully wiser, I find myself gravitating toward these things. The details don’t matter so much. I just want to keep alive the creative spark – the “rare excitement” – and live an inspired life.

I am never happier than when I am engaged in the creative process, and I set my sails each day to follow the winds of creativity. If it’s not in one place – and a place can be either physical/geographical or mental/emotional – I will find it in another and spend my time there. In that place, I feel truly alive and know exactly what to do.

In that place, I realize that life is short and that if you wait for all the lights to turn green before starting out, you’ll never leave the house. It’s one thing to have a map and know where you want to go, but it’s another to actually get in the car or on the bike – or even in the moving van – and get started. For example, my husband and I joined an online international rock balancing community a while ago. Every day, we are inspired by photos posted by group members. A couple weeks ago, Jack decided to start posting his own pictures on the group’s page. Why wait? And then someone liked his work and invited him to join another artists group. That is how it happens. You show up and share your talents, and then people are drawn to your energy and perhaps inspired by your courage, and they help you along the way. We help one another.

That is how the magic seems to happen. If you’re looking to an “Ithaka” to make you financially rich, there’s more involved, but if you’re looking to be happy and to live a fulfilled life, you’ve got to follow that spark and spend more time doing what you love.

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