The Days of Ithaca
There are times where my mind seems to have no choice but to drift back to Ithaca. When the days are hard and the weight of life seems too difficult to bear, our thoughts travel to the places where things were easier to face. And my mind goes back to that upstate New York town again and again.
I think of beautiful fields with tall grasses and wildflowers of different colors. Back then I imagined being a part of magazine spreads of white clothes on perfect young lovers, littered with dreams of being kissed by someone who loved me on a picnic blanket, looking up at a bright blue sky from the earth below. The colors seemed richer there: The bricks an earthier red, wood a deep chocolate brown, the green grasses painting the land emerald green in the humid summer sun. Or maybe my memory wants to think all those things were true, just to comfort me.
There were those old buildings and homes that were there for hundreds of years as the university shone on top of the hill. I never visited it, nor its gorges, but know well enough never to say, “Ithaca is gorges,” to anyone who ever lived in the town, no matter how much they did or didn’t enjoy their time there.
I think of my black sundress and fake daisy-topped shoes and a black trash bag filled with pillows and linens that I slept on the night before, covering a black leather couch. There was a giant green suitcase on loan and a gold band around my left ring finger. All these things rolled confidently into the Ithaca bus station as the Honda Accord sped away.
I didn’t look back. I should have looked back.
A little less than 24 hours of my 32 years of existence was spent in Ithaca, but it became a part of me. It merged into my soul and its death grip hasn’t let me go. It’s like a vortex in my brain, pulling me into the depths but yet at the same time providing a life raft when the world isn’t as kind as it used to be.
The years have passed and the details have grown into images while sleeping, occasional flashbacks in daydreams and words shining back at me on a computer screen. Very little has remained the same from that time. The gold band is gone, as is the suitcase. I shrunk out of that black sundress. And that Honda Accord has driven far out of my sight, and I have no hope in it coming back to me.
When I walk alone through Culver City, I’ll sometimes stare at the earth red brick on some of the buildings downtown and my body somehow shifts me back. I crawl into the memory, warm like a womb that cradles me to remind me that this glorious point in my life existed. In the green hills and the humid air as new students navigated the streets, there was innocence left inside of me, with the taint of the world barely touching my skin. And the day after I left, crying in a polka-dot dress in a random, gray field in Albany, I knew how much I already missed Ithaca and how life wouldn’t be the same.
Since that time, I have made many decisions about my life. Some were the best decisions that I had ever made. A few were the worst, and somehow no matter how strong the best decisions were, the bad ones remain more vivid. But no matter what happened, I kept sailing through the ocean of my life, not unlike Odysseus in search of his own Ithaca.
There are days where I feel so much closer to Ithaca, like sunny days with the Rolling Stones blasting through the sound system of my car. Those come alongside the moments where I have cried over a too-hungry stomach, felt the anxiety of the real world trying to put me in a chokehold, and hugged my mother tightly and felt against me what she referred to as the “grotesque shape her body” that her illness has created. It’s those places where Ithaca feels so far away that there is no mental pathway to take me back.
I travelled since my journey to Ithaca and found beautiful places along the way. There was the lush beauty of the Napa Valley, the eccentric and the eclectic meeting up in New York City and standing on the sands of the Mediterranean, the sea of my ancestors. Even as I drive along in my car, each street feels like another current to travel on an endless journey. Yet even when my heart’s dearest desire came true and my feet once again roamed the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, I felt that missing piece roaming around inside of me. And like the ancient captain Odysseus, my heart was calling for Ithaca over and over again.
But unlike Odysseus, Ithaca was not my home. It wasn’t even close to it. I was born here in Los Angeles, where my family is from. My return almost three years ago came in my time of crisis, with the realization that I needed to come back to my birthplace. I adapted, creating a new family for myself and trying to kick start a new life among the palm trees. But in the depths of my mind there are fields filled with wildflowers and dreams of making love on a blanket in the midst of them. No matter how good the days are sometimes, the feelings of being lost on an open sea were accumulating in the back of my mind.
Several years back, there was an article talking about how archeologists were trying to find Odysseus’ beloved Ithaca, and how some of them think that they were close to finding the golden shores that the hero craved throughout Homer’s epic. They talked about looking for the place where his one true love, Penelope, waited for him. Where he called out for 20 years on the rough ocean. The place that he called home.
When Odysseus returned to Penelope, she didn’t believe it was him after 20 years, no matter how many times he said it, and asked him to prove it with something only he would know. And he did by talking to her alone in the room with their marital bed, showing her where one of its posts was built from a living olive tree and the tree still stood. He showed where his roots were as a human being, in the place he had invested his very soul.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter if Ithaca is or was a place. It’s not why it’s in the text of Homer’s epic. Ithaca is simply home. It’s not necessarily a location, but the feeling of putting your heart somewhere and knowing that it would be safe until you returned for it.
And maybe that’s what I attach to Ithaca. There was the risk I took to get there and the freedom it allowed me to just be a part of the universe as opposed to fighting it. It was where I was exposed to the first time to real truth, to the path that leads towards intimate conversations driving in the dead of night and honest declarations and soft smiles as my eyes opened in the morning. It was where I was all bravery and true beauty, not just a band on my finger that was unknowingly weighing on me like a chain.
I was my best self in that small minute of my life, and in a world where you forget how to do it anymore, it’s when the mind returns to the place where it remembered that. It takes away the trauma, the darkness and the horrible decisions that cost you more than you care to write down, replacing it with sun and wildflowers. And sometimes that’s the energy you need to keep moving forward in the darkest of times.
The days of Ithaca are gone now, but the sweet and lovely memories that help comfort won’t go away, which deep down is beautiful. I’m not sure if I could ever bring them back exactly how it was then. But there has to be another form of Ithaca out there, a place to rest my heart and take back like Odysseus did. And I will keep sailing on, no matter how long it takes to get there.