Thursday, June 4, 2015


We have gone through many sleep routines with our two young boys in the year and a half since Paulo was born.  We've had the boys in different rooms, together in the same room, spent more effort getting one or the other to sleep, done bottles and cups, songs and stories.  We are constantly adjusting the routine based on our changing living arrangements and their evolving characters.  The major challenge is balancing the need to get them to sleep quickly and without fuss, and our desire to spend special time with them and enrich their lives in some extra way, as through reading to them great works of literature, for example.

For a few months, we had a pretty set routine where my wife and I would put Paulo in his bed with his bottle, and Sam in his bed nearby, and the whole family would be together as we said prayers and then I'd read a book.  In this way we read Liberation Theology, Great Expectations, a good chunk of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and we finished Homer's Odyssey.  In many ways this last work was the most special, for I'd started reading it to Paulo in the womb back in our town in Colombia, but between time spent apart, a series of moves, busy-ness with new jobs and new living quarters, I had not gotten very far before we set it aside.  I felt bad about this; during Sam's gestation, I was jobless, so I read to him anthologies of US and world literature, tales of the Brothers Grimm, and Greek Myths, and I continued the heavy diet of reading once he was born.  For Paulo I couldn't be as diligent about reading to him.

Once we'd been in Washington for a few months though, we settled into a nice routine, and so I found myself better able to minister to Paulo's development by reading a lot to him, both alone and with his brother Sam.  It was extra special then to finally resume the Odyssey and finish it, night by night as my boys fell into slumber.

I had never read it before, and I must say that I was surprised by the plot.  I guess I'd been expected a full-out account of Odysseus's journey just post-Troy.  You know, all the famous stories about the Sirens, the Cyclops, the island of the lotus eaters.  But the whole first part of the book is about his son, Telemachus, searching for his father.  Eventually the action does jump to Odysseus escaping the island of Calypso, but this means that we're meeting him for the first time well after all his famous adventures have transpired.  In fact, most of those famous adventures are only shared with the reader through flashbacks, as Odysseus tells his story to others, or has it told by bards.  I was surprised and even a bit dismayed at this roundabout way of getting to what I thought was the main narrative, but I was also impressed, because this is a very post-modern way of telling a story, used in one of the most ancient stories we have in Western culture.

The last parts of the story really drag out Odysseus's return to his home island of Ithaca, and the planning of his revenge on the suitors courting his wife and eating up all his palace's food.  This means that, of some five major parts to the story, only one of those tells the famous episodes of Odysseus and his men returning from Troy that we always hear about.  The rest are other metaplots, ambientation, explorations of personal relationships and character.  Which are of course the things that make a great story, a true-to-life exploration of the human experience.

Homer does an excellent job capturing the whirling feelings Odysseus experiences at his homecoming.  The overflowing joy of setting foot on your homeland, the trepidation and dislocation as you face sights and places and even people who are at once deeply, vitally familiar to you and yet now strange after such a long separation.  Odysseus's ironic pleasure at disguising himself and passing unrecognized by those who love him (and his impossible self-control to keep himself from reaching out to his wife), only to reveal himself triumphantly as he prevails over the evildoers that have beset his home.

I also loved the images at the book's very end, when Odysseus and his son Telemachus suit up for battle alongside Laertes, who is thrilled to see his son and grandson become such valiant men, and to share in their valor one last time.  And of course it's Laertes, the coolest grandpa in the world, who takes a break from tending his fruit trees to hurl a spear from afar and skewer a guy's head, right through his metal helmet, which convinces all the other bad guys to make peace immediately.  I obviously hope I never have to go into battle, and especially not my children or grandchildren, but I can imagine the pride and exhilaration that Laertes and his brood must have felt to share that experience.

I'm still a lot younger than Laertes or even Odysseus at the time of the story, but reading about them, I sometimes wondered if my best years are behind me, as Odysseus felt his were.  I guess I don't mean my best years, because I expect (and hope) that the years to come will be wonderful, spent with my wife and children and doing work I believe in.  I don't expect to be like these World War Two vets that had the most vivid, raw experience of their lives when they were 18 years old, and then settled into a (self-chosen) suburban inertia thereafter, stripped of any drama or passion or conviction.  But I recognize that the novelty, the uncertainty, the precariousness and thrill and fear and wonder of your first years of adulthood probably aren't going to repeat themselves once you're older.  Or maybe they do, but you live them vicariously through your children.  It's very clear to me that, biologically, I've basically done my work by having kids, and any time for me beyond that is just extra icing on the cake.  Am I coming to the end of my life's Odyssey, to settle into a tranquil, satisfying postlude?

I mused on this as I read the Odyssey, but in all honesty, I don't think my life's drama or wonder have run their course and been consigned to the past.  I guess I'm lucky that, through personal choice and also due to factors beyond my control, life keeps presenting new adventures, and I've found a partner in life that is just as open to those adventures as I am.  At least thus far, our lives have become gradually more exciting (sometimes too much so!), not less.  No, we don't go out to nightclubs or travel to farflung places on a whim anymore.  But we manage to involve ourselves in debates and struggles and discoveries and triumphs that feel much more real and more vital than the errant pleasure-seeking of youth.

Around the same time we were reading the Odyssey together, my mother came to visit us, and left an issue of the New Yorker, as she always does.  I generally try to stay away from the New Yorker, because you could easily blow a lot of hours reading an issue from cover to cover.  So I read an issue just a few times a year, when my mom leaves one behind after a visit.  Anyway, this issue I read concurrently with the Odyssey had an essay by Roger Angell about growing old, specifically being in your 90s.  The main takeaway I got was that loss is a constant presence when most of your friends are dead, but that memories become alive and reassuring at that age.  Also, you keep on living, learning new things, loving people, doing whatever it is that motivates you.  And seeking human companionship and love, whatever your age.

After finishing the Odyssey, I was motivated to finally get around to learning Tennyson's poem Ulysses, which is itself a reverie on old age, on memories, and on the never-dying desire to act and work and make a difference in the world.  It's taken me upwards of a year of intermittent effort, but I'm just short the last stanza (which is admittely a pretty long one).  I remember that my grandmother used to talk about childhood in a small town in Kansas, before television and even radio.  She and her family would memorize and recite poems to entertain themselves at night.  I like that idea of a concentrated solo effort to learn a poem, and then the social occasion of sharing these great words with others.

From the Odyssey I loved getting a sense of the ancient Greek morality, a code of honor and violence that strongly condemned personal betrayal but thought nothing of slaughtering a village, if the latter were part of one's duty as a warrior.  It is obviously a different set of values than we have today, and that is to the good; the old ethics was incomplete insofar as it did not consider the full humanity of women, slaves, foreigners, enemies, and it is a vast improvement today that we have widened the scope of who we consider to have rights.  Likewise, Homer's society seems not to have seen any flaw or inherent injustice in monarchy, in the hereditary division of people into servants and masters, ruler and ruled, rich and poor.  The prevailing order was not to be questioned, but rather each was to carry out their preordained role in society with honor and excellence.  In fact, any departure from the status quo, such as that represented by the suitors vying for Odysseus's kingdom, was regarded as aberrant and evil, to be stomped out mercilessly.  In this sense I could never in good faith live in the time of Odysseus, or adopt his value system.

At the same time, I appreciated the aesthetics of the time and place of Odysseus, what the ancient Greeks considered good and beautiful.  For them the good life was focused on good food shared with good people, stories and songs shared around a fire, hospitality freely given, craftsmanship and excellence in execution of one's duty.  An orderly farm and orchard, abundant harvests and herds, and all the work that goes into achieving these.  And physical exertion in sport, in battle, in love-making.  All these things remain true and good today, though more fleeting pleasures like iPads and Us magazine and combustion engines and concentrated psychoactive drugs cause many of us to forget the simpler, lasting pleasures of family, friends, food, work, soil, and stories.  For those of us ensconced in the white noise of modern consumer society, it may seem like a very alien idea to sit down on an old sheepskin and eat swine leg in front of a dying fire, telling stories of shared household memories or legends of valor.  But if we open ourselves to what we really care about, what really matters, I think most of us would find meaning and satisfaction in the good life as proposed by Homer.  Maybe we have a dining-room table instead of a sheepskin or a dirt floor, maybe we eat pizza we prepared as a family instead of fresh-slaughtered pork brought in by the servant swineherd, and maybe our achievements are getting an important project through the office bureaucracy, instead of fighting alongside Achilles on the "ringing plains of windy Troy".  But the good life today, as in Homer's time, is to do good work, to love fully and passionately, to celebrate life with people and food, and through language to both remember the past and dream of the future.

I'll close with a long quote from the translator Robert Fitzgerald's 1962 (pre-Moon landing) postscript to the Odyssey:

Why care about an old work in a dead language that no one reads, or at least no one of those who, glancing at their Rolex watches, guide us into the future? Well, I love the future myself and expect everything of it: better artists than Homer, better works of art than The Odyssey. The prospect of looking back at our planet from the moon seems to me to promise a marvelous enlargement of our views. But let us hold fast to what is good, hoping that if we do anything any good those who come after us will pay us the same compliment. If the world was given to us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago, by no means neglecting self-mastery, which in a sense is the whole point. Electronic brains may help us to use our heads but will not excuse us from that duty, and as to our hearts -- cardiograms cannot diagnose what may be most ill about them, or confirm what may be best. The faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace -- these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be. Nor do I suppose that the pleasure of hearing a story in words has quite gone out. Even movies and TV make use of words. The Odyssey at all events was made for your pleasure, in Homer’s words and in mine.

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