Today I was in for a surprise, an unlikely and timely gift. It was a sunny Sunday in January, just breaking into the 30s after a cold spell. I put on yoga pants and dressed in layers, a puffy vest, a sweatshirt with black date stamps printed on the front, like the kind from old library check out cards. I’m a book nut and these are the kind of things folks give me, clothes with print screens of old book covers and quotes. Anyway, I wanted to walk a circular route, heading off the ridgeline along Davenport Road. This would give me a shorter option home. I didn’t take the dogs because they were not used to walking more than a few miles. And I didn’t want the hassle.
Walking felt good. It was warming up and ice was melting along the sides of the road where the sun was shining. The air had the clean crisp smell of winter, easy to breathe and cold on the intake, like my lungs needed to clear out the stuffy recycled air in the house. I’d been thinking about midlife since I turned 50 last weekend, enjoying the picture album put together by family and friends, the birthday meals and chats. Cars were zipping by as I walked down from the ridge.
I usually ran the route counterclockwise and decided to walk in the opposite direction. I figured I might see different things and I wanted to finish along Ponus Ridge. I thought about Cafavy’s poem Ithaka, a favorite which I read after my birthday. The poem was about Homer’s Odyssey and the return home, reminding the reader that the journey is what gives life meaning, not the destination, the battles with Cyclops and Poseidon, the markets with their perfumes and riches, the scholars in the cities. My husband and I had been talking about the epic tale, The Odyssey, and when it took place. We wondered if we had ever read Homer’s epic and whether we had a copy somewhere. I had told him that I learned the tale was written around the 8thcentury BC, that I had an illustrated version, which I read to our children years ago. When he went to the office, he played a recitation of Ithaka for his coworkers.
The Odyssey seemed suited for this stage of my life, a bit battle worn and seasoned from adventures myself. I had slipped and fallen on a recent trip and it made me realize I wasn’t as spry as I once had been. I decided to get out more, stay active. I opted for the longer route, walked by the traffic circle along the house lawns, with ice and sand piling up in the gutters. I stayed on the right because Interlaken Road was a three way stop and it was easier to avoid traffic.
I saw it then. Around the stop sign, at the base of the lawn, it was covered with leaves and road debris. A rectangle, the shape was definitely four distinct lines. I stepped off the road, the occasional car passing behind me. It was gray and stuck beneath the leaves in the ground. It was a book with a cloth cover. It made me sad to see it there, discarded and buried. I pushed away the wet leaves on top and noticed a small gold circle with a running figure inside, holding a torch. A classic. The book was a tome and would be heavy from the cold, ice, and dirt. I scraped off more dirt and leaves with my glove, pushed the ground around the edges and spine. I lifted but it wouldn’t give, the pages stuck together. I dug around it, the volume settled about an inch into the ground. I pried it loose, the book a solid block, heavy from the weather. I rubbed at the letters on the spine which were just legible. The Complete Works ofand that’s all I could read, the rest gone from age or weather. I had five miles left. Should I leave it? How would I carry it? I wanted to know the author. It had taken a real beating so I moved my hand along the edge or page block, but the pages did not give. Then the back cover moved when I put pressure on it. A page tore as it opened. The right cover fell in my hand.
So spake Athene, and he obeyed and was glad at heart. And thereafter Pallas Athene set a covenant between them with sacrifice, she, the daughter of Zeus lord of the aegis, in the likeness of Mentor, both in fashion and in voice.
A poem followed with the opening line, “Homer, thy song men liken to the sea.” And I glanced to the left page. The Odyssey of Homer. What!?!
You’ve got to be kidding. This was far beyond comprehension. Homer’s tale had found its way to me, opening to the second epic, the Odyssey.
The book was cold and heavy and I continued to walk, dazed, holding it like a pizza in my gloved palm, my arm bent at the elbow. The cover warmed in the sun and the leaves frozen on and the dirt began to blow off, my hand cold from it. I walked with the weight of it in my forearm and followed the tree lined road along the reservoir, the pines almost touching above. I was stunned by the book, the coincidence too much, imagining I must be on some show or in the twilight zone, the whole thing rigged.
The reservoir was frozen by the pines, with branches, cones, and brown needles covering the road side. The long stretch was a drinker’s favorite, littered with containers, Foster’s, Corona, Modelo, Budweiser, Seagrams, miniatures, DD coffee cups, Starbucks plastic cups, flattened lids. How did the book end up there? A few beers, a wild exchange, mad over a break up, a girl pummels her ex with Homer at the stop sign. He ducks and it continues out the open window. Or a dump truck filled to the rim, the last of the load is an old box of books, Homer sliding off at the turn? Maybe a classics major, walking home after leaving the Temple at the corner, his backpack unzipped, the tome falls into the leaves, sound unheard. At home, he can’t remember where he left it, the assignment due the next day.
I turned onto Cascade Road and passed the church. My hand grew numb and I switched the book to my other; Homer was now on my journey, making our way together across the creeks and up to the ridge line. I’m not sure I believe in things happening for a reason or the idea of fate. I’ve been working on a project which considers the woman warrior, the modern Athena, and recently I had been learning about Homer, wondering whether I should read the Odyssey, some 12,000 lines long. This book’s arrival suggests I should. I’ve set it on the counter, atop two small cups, to dry, to let the air circulate around its sullied covers, the stained pages, the smell of the book like wet earth. The spine has separated from the pages and the book is still cold nine hours later, extended warmth needed to thaw. I imagine weeks will be needed for it to dry.
It’s magic. The book’s arrival. That I found it on a route I haven’t walked in months, on that side of the road, rarely ever. Coincidence and fate aside, what about the old biblical saying? Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. (Matthew 7:7 KJV)
The thing is I didn’t ask or seek or knock. I don’t think so. Maybe I did and this is the answer from the cosmos, in Homer’s book, and in the lines from Cafavy’s poem. You’ll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high ….. you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you. (Lines 6,7, 11-13)
* Here's the poem, first heard on a warm Florida evening with friends.
BY C. P. CAVAFYTRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
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.
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 your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing 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 learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t 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’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.