An Odyssey Revisited

An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is arguably the best book I’ve read in months. Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College and a translator of Greek poetry, takes the approach of telling his and his father’s story in conjunction with  teaching a class on Homer’s The Odyssey.

As with many sons and fathers (or daughters and fathers) theirs has been a troubled relationship. His father was a mathematician and computer scientist, who, for various reasons, never completed his PhD. Daniel Mendelsohn, while co-parenting children with a woman, is gay and has known he’s gay since a teenager. But as with many, he wasn’t able to come out to his parents when young.

The father, Jay Mendelsohn, now retired, asks if he can sit in on a class Daniel is teaching on Homer’s The Odyssey, and reluctantly, the son agrees. The Odyssey as well as An Odyssey is the story of a father and a son’s relationship.

Jay Mendelsohn’s first comment on the first day of class, as he sits against the wall in the classroom rather than around the big oval discussion table of students, was that he didn’t think Odysseus much of a hero because he lies, cheated on his wife, gets his men killed, and is always rescued by the gods.

Daniel Mendelsohn must somehow maintain his role of “teacher” with the students. And as the class progresses, Daniel goes to family elders and asks them to tell him stories about his father, just as Telemachus goes to elders who had returned from Troy to ask for stories of his father.

The epic poems are all ring cycles, cycling back to the past and forward again.

I studied both The Iliad and The Odyssey in graduate school at St. John’s College, and so, pulled out my much annotated and underlined copy of The Odyssey to read as I read Mendelsohn’s. Reading two copies of Odyssey’s journey at the same time was an interesting excursion.

In addition, I pulled out my copy of the Freshman Greek Manuel from St. John’s. One of my professors has given a summer course for the Graduate Institute students on the Greek language.

Most of us know the story, or at least the outline of the story: the Trojan Wars, Odysseus, Achilles, and Hector, so I won’t go into those many details, but I do want to note Mendelsohn’s remarkable writing.

The book is written in much the same style of Homer’s in that there’s a lot of dialogue and story telling, and what was also remarkable, and which I didn’t notice when I began reading, and in truth, didn’t notice for several chapters, was that Mendelsohn had omitted quotation marks for dialogue in the same way Homer’s epic is written.

True, it’s likely the formal quotation marks for spoken lines came about far after Homer, but what made it remarkable, especially reading the two copies side by side, was that I wasn’t bother by the omission and in fact hadn’t even noticed.

Mendelsohn weaves a tale of adventure, battles, backstory, life and death, in much the same way Homer does. However, Mendelsohn is much easier to read than Homer.

As I read, I had flashes of memory, sitting around a big oval table at St. John’s in Santa Fe, a tutor at one end, fourteen or fifteen of us, reading lines and discussing. I’d taken one semester of Greek (the Freshman Greek Manual and pages of practice in Greek lettering), but I wasn’t a Freshman, I was a Graduate Student, trying to cram several thousand years of language development into a short four months.

Another interesting piece I learned about my own writing is that I also tend to use ring cycles. Nothing, or very little about me, is straight forward. My writing picks up threads from the past and weaves them into present. One only need look back to the previous essay On Fire and Family to see how that plays out.

Whether or not you’ve ever read Homer’s The Odyssey, you probably know the story. Read Mendelsohn. You’ll find a modern odyssey, an odyssey that many of us take in our lives.

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On Fire and Family, an essay

Here’s an essay from a collection of essays titled Kansas Chronicles which I mentioned in The Quest, a previous post, and which an international blogger friend, Rambling Rose, read. She asked about conservation and the farm I mentioned. Here ’tis. It’s a long form post, but I hope you will all get a larger understanding of the farm — about which I seem to write often as it turns out.

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   The roaring crash at my back spins me like an out-of-balance top as the old corn crib crumples, sparks spewing a halo of destruction.
“Come on!” I grab at my grandson’s wrist and pull him after me. At thirteen, he’s too young to battle this blaze. “If something happens to you, your dad’ll kill me!”
We sprint a wide curve around the dying corn crib, head for safety.
“See that field?” I point to the spring green of wheat across the fence line. “That won’t burn. Get out there!”
I run back to the prairie, panting, but the men are gone. I’d whirled from one crisis to the next since tallgrass flared beyond the corn crib. I glance at the March sun, slanting in from the southern sky. How long since we’d set the fire? I didn’t know. Now the corn crib sags into smoldering rage and a towering whirlwind marches west, flame tips flicking ash debris from its edges. Mute, I watch the Old Testament image of God’s saving guidance threaten destruction to any animal not fast enough to flee. Hawks circle. A vulture mounts the vortex, wheels, his dark wingtips limned in sun.
I should have known burning the corn crib was a dicey idea at the least—¬-a catastrophe at its worse. But it seemed a good idea. There were men, you see, whose opinion I respected: my son and nephew, both grown and practical men, and two neighbor farmers who understood things like farms and fires and prairie.
The morning began simply enough. My son, nephew, grandson, and I picked away at the old corn crib, testing the strength of rusty nails frozen in timber, dragging out bent pieces of tin, and debating how, exactly, we might dismember the building enough to push it into a backhoe dug trench—¬-a trench the cousins had begun to fill over the weekend with dead trees and old machinery bits. And then the neighbor brothers drove up, Gary and Dave, and suggested we just burn it down. Dry timber and left-over straw exploded into an inferno, sparks flew over treetops into prairie, and the spirit of the land, dormant for so many years, crackled into freedom.
“You wanted to burn the prairie. We got enough here to watch. I’d say let her go!” So yelled my farm neighbor, Dave.
“Jump on!” Gary said, motioning for my son Stephen to straddle the front of his four-wheeler, and Stephen jumped on—¬-two men on a headless horse to outrun a prairie fire.
Dave grabbed a handful of tallgrass, twisted it into a torch, and began dragging the fire off to the south. My nephew David, the fourth grown man in this, “we got enough here,” grabbed a shovel and followed.
Some instinct beyond my knowing had whipped four men into action while I stood stunned—¬-until the crash of the collapsing corn crib spurred me and I’d dragged my grandson to the safety of an open wheat field.
Sure, I’d set it up, called our wide, multitude of family home for Mom’s 85th birthday, pleaded for help before they all scattered—¬-and for three days, they’d hauled and cleaned on a farm that hadn’t seen much attention since Dad died ten years ago. But some other Master Plan added the themes of death and resurrection and spun them through a family’s legacy with the land.
The four oldest grandsons, grown men, claimed their patrimony on the legacy of memory. They remembered their grandfather, and the farm, alive and working, and they guided the younger ones on forays across the land. Then, like seed, the family scattered, leaving only Stephen and David to come to the farm today.
I feel useless; mostly I feel a fear knot in my chest. Prairie fires become their own force, dangerous and unpredictable. Twisting up a grass torch, I begin inching fire toward the north fence line.
So, Prometheus, was this how it all started, the good idea to set fire free? Fire as gift and curse, creator and destroyer. Was there some mitigating detail you forgot, some invisible silver cord to unite good with evil and keep destruction at bay? As it was, this fire, on this particular farm, stirred ancient echoes of a call I didn’t know I had sounded.
When we were growing up, Dad rarely burned. We mowed, plowed under the stubble, harrowed and disked. A youngster during the Dust Bowl days, he’d been one of the first to build a series of terraces across the land to control erosion; Dad was a careful man, so maybe burning felt too chancy.
I’d thought it romantic and exciting. Springtime smoke towers on the horizon flipped book pages on the winds of imagination: a nighttime’s menacing horizon; Zane Grey’s cowboys outrunning fire; settlers frantically plowing breaks around sod houses, fire storms herding buffalo for Native Americans.
This fire didn’t feel romantic.
Except fire is a natural part of the prairie’s evolution. Some 8,000 years ago, receding glaciers left the central plains rich in top-soil, grass, animals, and enough wide space for really spectacular storms. In those far-off days, lightening set fires, so the prairie hid its tubers and seeds beneath the surface, while grass roots ran twelve-feet deep. Burning rids the matted buildup and renews the land—¬-a symbiosis that allows each to live. But symbiosis needs to be done with care or you risk disaster: humans plus fire minus silver cord.
I hadn’t set a firebreak around the old corn crib; the sparks jumped, and wind wove the fire. With a little luck, the elements have come together of their own accord: fire, wind, earth, and enough men to guard against disaster.
When I was young, my solitary wanderings took me beyond the fields through the pastured woods. I became adept at listening for the crack of a twig, a rustle of leaves from some small animal’s hunting story. I’d hear a meadowlark mother scrabbling, crying pitifully, as she lured my feet from her nest. Perhaps five hundred years ago, as second daughter with little dowry, I’d have walked my life inside a convent’s stone walls and prayer and found my place and reason. There, then, the questions that fill all the silent spaces: Who am I? What defines me?
How is it that this farm, now owned by our far-flung family, defines me more than my accomplishments or my years in New York or Mexico or Hawaii or any of the other places I’ve lived? Most of us evolve from our story of origin, for good or ill, but why this farm, this family?
Below these burning grasses, burrowed into the black dirt, hides life that blooms with each spring’s rain. Maybe that’s what the farm, the family, cultivates: deep roots that allow me to bloom with each changing season.
While I ruminate on my own connection to the land, nephew David returns to check in, tell me Dave drove over to the west side. He asks if I’ve seen Stephen.
“No. I haven’t.” The knot tightens in my chest. I glance at the sun. It’s lower.
I don’t tell him how worried I am, how useless I feel, but I know my nephew as well as he knows me. We’re both worried. Stephen could be trapped anywhere – the tree stand, the plumb thicket.
“The fire jumped the draw—¬-started up the west side. That’s why Dave took off. I think I’ll go on down and see if I can find Steve,” David says.
“Okay. Thanks.”
I watch him go, turn back to the work I’ve been allotted, wonder at the uncountable hours I’ve spent in my head as I drove a tractor along a furrow, daydreaming stories. The same impulse arises now to distract myself.
The fire is fierce and I am afraid for my son.
A matted clump of tallgrass flares and I jump aside. Michael is picking a path down the waterway toward me.
“You okay, Grandma?” A frown etches his forehead—-the same kind of frown my sons make when I do something less than sensible.
“Yeah, Michael, I’m okay. You want to learn how to do this?”
He nods—¬-so brief I could have missed it if I didn’t know him. An only child, he’s well-protected, hasn’t yet learned risk. Yesterday when his parents left, he struggled in deciding whether to stay with me or leave with them.
“You’ll be okay. The wind’s behind us and these are the clean-up fires—¬-not so big. Look, turn this way.”
I shift my body so the wind blows at my back. Michael follows.
“Can you feel the wind on your neck?”
Michael nods.
“And the fire’s in front of you?”
He nods again.
“That means the fire will blow away from you toward the field already burned. You’re okay. Now watch what I do.”
The worried look disappears as he watches me twist a torch, light it from a burning clump, and drag it along the base of unburned grasses.
“See? Think you can do that?”
A one-shoulder shrug accompanies his nod.
“Yeah.” He walks beyond me. As his torch catches, he flinches and drops it. Tearing off another handful of grass, he repeats his actions. This time, the tallgrass flares.
I watch him inch the fire northward. With each spent torch, he creates another sentence in his own fire story.
“That’s pretty cool.” Soot, rather than frown, streaks his forehead.
I measure our progress—-about twenty yards from the north fence, I guess. I turn to survey the burned grass behind us. A Kansas homestead—-a quarter of a mile wide, north to south, and a mile long, east to west: one hundred and sixty acres—¬¬-this much is ours, down through five generations, down through roots running deep.
Chill catches in the sweat of my neck. The wind has shifted to the northeast—-a good sign, blowing the fire back from the north fence line and away from jumping into the neighbor’s pasture.
I grunt as I bend to resume working. My mother gives these same little grunts, both as she lands herself in a chair and as she gets up. On her, it’s charming; on me it sounds old.
“Grams!”
I look up. My nephew strides back along the fence line, a shovel riding his shoulder. The sun hangs a hand’s breadth from the horizon.
“Hey, Auntie!” he calls.
“Hey, David. Where’s Stephen?”
He chin-points in the direction he’d come. “They’re heading this way.”
He trades his shovel for my torch and begins pushing the burn north. I lean on the shovel, stretch my back. The fear knot relaxes.
Stephen tops the rise, walking along the fence line. He swings a length of wire with something burning at the end, lighting grass. Gary follows on his four-wheeler and Dave in his truck.
The sound of calves bawling for feeding time drifts across the fields; the evening call of wild turkey comes from the cedars in the east pasture. Stephen reaches the end of the fence line and turns to meet his cousin. Their fire lines meet at the tip of a V, smolder into ash.
Two men face the west and the burned off land, watch as the last strip of grass withers to smoke.
Michael and I walk over; Gary and Dave join us. We stand as farmers do at the end of a day, talking, reliving the story.
“You see how that wind shifted?” Dave said. He shakes his head. We grin.
“Couldn’t beat the timing,” Gary agrees.
Stephen demonstrates his bailing wire tool—¬-an old leather glove soaked in kerosene, wrapped in wire.
“I gave it to him when I drove around to the west side,” Dave says. “Saves your back.”
Night creeps into our quiet conversation and erases our shadows. Yard lights blink across the countryside. We linger, reluctant to leave, to break the spell that holds us.
But the world demands action: Michael and I to travel east to our Kansas City homes; Stephen and David to begin their drives west; Gary and Dave to evening chores. We nod farewell. We’d done our work and reclaimed the farm.
And the spirit that bound us in a ritual of fire stretches, sighs, flows back into the land.

A Quest

The simple task of finding my college transcripts became an overwhelming quest. One of the gifts of my life is that I have an entire writing room for myself. It is also my curse. Seven very full bookcases line the walls; a portable file stand sits beside my desk; it, too, is full; two folding tables sit in front of the portable file stand, and creep across the edge of one bookcase; both are stacked with books and papers, mostly the research I’ll need to do if I ever get around to writing the Kansas Chronicles and the notebooks and files for the Mexico book if I can ever get around to writing it; a glass-topped table sits beside my matching metal and glass-topped desk, where I have the laptop and a lamp and a microphone for the times when I teach online classes, and is covered in Post-it notes, a dish with paper clips, a flashlight (and you ask why I need a flashlight if I have a lamp on my desk? good question); other piles of papers relating to who knows what, miscellaneous mostly, sit under and in front of the desk lamp.

I have too many saved words.

I found one of my college transcripts, but not the other. Why couldn’t I have stored them together? One wonders.

One of the books on the folding tables of Kansas research is named It Happened Here. Does it ever. Nominally, the very thick book is a history of Marshall County, with photos, by a woman who was, no doubt, as obsessed as I am. Marshall County is where the farm lives.

Speaking of which, the farm that is, I still need to find someone with a bobcat and a tree cutter in the front to go over the tallgrass and cut out volunteer trees so we can burn the prairie in the spring or I’ll lose the contract for conservation the farm has been in for the past forty years. Oh, yes, and do farm taxes before my sister, who lives on Maui, writes and says she is ready to take their taxes to an accountant and needs her copy of the farm taxes. Now.

I have at least six professions, if you count farm manager, which I count because it requires attention and all our widespread family is somewhere else. Along with the portable files here in the writing room, there are four file drawers in two cabinets in the “office” our name for what would be in a normal family, the baby’s room. We do not have a baby, we have file cabinets, which hold up a plywood desk top which I first sanded and varnished and set upon said file cabinets when first I moved to Santa Fe in 1992. And bookcases. There’s two in there, too.

Is it any wonder I write memoir?

I still don’t know where my graduate school transcripts are; I’ve thrown out some papers, thankfully, and tomorrow I will call St. John’s and ask them to send me a copy. You see, I miss teaching, and for some degenerate reason, I’ve decided to apply to UMKC as an adjunct in the Arts and Science department, a job whose requirement is that the applicants have some background in international peoples and countries, which I do. One of the things I do is teach pronunciation, and have, since I lived in Mexico, but if I get off on that story, well….that would require the story of Pepe Lobo (American name Joe Wolf), manager of the travel office where I worked, and who went to Mexico after the revolution when pesos were pure silver as big as…and he’d demonstrate with middle finger and thumb a circle about 2 inches in diameter, and stayed, and who said, one day, “I didn’t hire you for your typing skills; I hired you for your looks.”

But as I said, that’s an entirely other story, the Mexico book, which God willing and the creeks don’t rise, as my farm grandpa used to say, and I don’t die, I will, eventually, write.

And then maybe I can throw away some papers.

The end.

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A Piece of Memory

Since you’ve no doubt seen me write about my memoir in process, I decided to post this piece I just read, and remembered, learning to trust the journey I seem to always be on, in one way or another. Marion a yoga teacher, and a few months pregnant at this writing. We are at Kalani Honua, a retreat center near Kilauea on Hawaii Island. We both were off work and resting.

Marion and I lay in our beds Saturday morning. Time, that most precious gift of the protogenos gods, given and stretched, wrapped us in glorious freedom. Rain, pocking through the jungle, woke me briefly during the night, but morning wore a sapphire gown ruffled with bird song. The garden below our window glittered green, the wet lava chunks varnished to a high black gloss. Breakfast smells rose from the kitchen: coffee, pancakes, eggs. I pulled a muumuu over my nightshirt and walked downstairs to fill a tray. We ate in the room. If there’s one thing a nomadic life teaches, it’s how to make a comfortable home wherever the stopping happens to be. We sat cross-legged on the bed, my writing table, emptied of notes and Smith Corona, our dining table.

“I wish I could see where all this was heading, this whatever-we’re-doing-here thing,” I said. “You’ll go home to a family and a new baby. I don’t even know a direction.”

“Where do you want to go?” She popped the stem of a banana.

“That’s just it. If I knew where I wanted to go, I’d be there. It doesn’t appear I’m staying in Hawaii. I want to. It feels like home. But I don’t think it is. My dreams were showing me… maybe places. Maybe people. But I haven’t dreamed lately.”

She peeled the banana skin and tossed it onto the tray; a soft ripe smell hung in the air.  “What kind of dreams?”

I picked up the discarded peel, stalling for time, unsure how much to reveal. “Did you know banana trees talk? I lived above a banana plantation once, up on a mountain-side. Well, visited. On St. Lucia. We lived there one winter between semesters, one of those happy times. I’d sit on the patio to watch the sun come over the mountains and listen to the banana trees talk. I told you about Bill.” Marion nodded.

“Is that what you’re dreaming about?”

“No. I’m not dreaming about Bill. Or St. Lucia.” Marion looked at me. I looked down, tossed the banana peel onto the plate. “Things I’m running from like scary men and monsters; things I’m walking toward, a home in various stages of construction, lots of those; churches. Mom was in some of them—the dreams, not the churches. I’m entering the churches. I was dreaming of a man, brownish-hair, sorta my size, for several months.” I shrugged. “He’s usually in the house dreams. Sometimes there’s white all around him. He’s rescued me a few times. Not lately, but I’m not having monster or chase dreams anymore, so maybe I don’t need rescuing. Now I’m just a crazy lady in the jungle minus a spirit lover.” Marion smiled at my half-hearted attempt at humor but didn’t shift her gaze. Her eyes pinned me like a moth in a display case. “The other night, I woke and my arms were above my head, like this.” I lifted my arms, head back. “I was praying. That’s what I mean when I said I wish I could see where this was heading. What am I supposed to be doing? Or going, as the case may be.”

My own voice surprised me. It wasn’t tough or strong or questioning. Only quiet.

Marion smiled that slow, wise smile she wore during yoga. “Maybe we have to give up measuring by any yardstick or any road or any doing. Maybe we have to accept. The greatest power lies in accepting. Accept the gifts and the challenges. Give up judging our lives in order to stop judging others.” She broke off a piece of banana and handed it to me. “Not knowing is probably the biggest gift of all. If you were sure what was coming, maybe you’d think too hard and decide not to do it.” She laughed. “Look around you—friends, smiling faces, peace. People who love you. What’s so wrong with that?”

I blinked. “Bhante Kamalasiri said that. He was my teacher in D.C.—a Buddhist teacher. I loved his name. Bhante Kamalasiri.” The syllables’ sweetness rolled off my tongue. “From Sri Lanka. He barely came up to my shoulder. About twenty minutes into sitting meditation when our arms and legs were aching, he’d say, ‘Lift the corners of your mouth.’ And we all did…at least I did, I expect everyone did…and we’d smile.

“One day, I asked to talk to him…a bunch of stuff happening in my life; I was worried about my son. Bhante fixed tea and we sat in the library. He listened patiently to my litany of worries. When I ran down, he said, ‘But Janet. You are with a friend. You have a warm cup of tea in your hands. What is so very wrong right now?’”

Marion laughed suddenly and rocked, arms wrapped below her stomach. “That… is…so… monk-like….” She stopped, inhaling as deep a breath as she could. “They say the best things. He’s right, you know.”

Yeah. I knew.

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A New Year Dawns

Each day, I receive a post from Richard Rohr at the Center for Meditation and Contemplation. Rohr is a Franciscan monk for those of you not familiar with the name. In today’s post, he wrote about change, an apt post for this ending/turning time of the year.

“Exponential change creates exponential fear along with exponential hope. Massive transformation creates the double-edged cultural sword of decline and renewal. Exponential change ends those things that people once assumed and trusted to be true. At the same time, upheaval opens new pathways to the future. Change is about endings and beginnings and the necessary interrelationship between the two.”

While I stay abreast of the news and know what’s going on, I choose not to live in fear. It’s not effective. What I do live in is the reality of change. 

My previous post was on the Solstice. For the three days following the Solstice, the Sun stands still in the sky, and on the 25th it begins its movement north again. That change has been going on so long, we can’t even count the years except for approximations. The Sun returns. Every year.

And every few decades or centuries, earth’s civilizations go through a massive change. And after a time of turmoil, the civilizations renew and another epoc is born which would not have come about had there not been the preceding upheaval.  In other words, change fulfills “the necessary interrelationship between the two.”

Now we are coming to the end of another calendar year and about the begin anew. We’ll make resolutions, I suppose, because that’s the habit, and most of them will be broken. Perhaps that’s because in making resolutions, we force change rather than allow it to make its own time in the same way forcing corrections in the Julian calendar made it accommodate human inconsistency. The Hebrew calendar, on the other hand, seems more logical (and more difficult) in its correlation with lunisolar movements.

I tend to watch the sun and moon progressions. But we live in a world defined by numbers, and so, in this darkening evening outside my window, in a year winding to its end, I wish you an interesting 2018.

By happenstance, the numbers in 2018 add up to 11, and in the esoteric language (I am nothing if not esoteric-led) the number 11 is one of the Master Numbers, meaning it cannot be reduced further.

“In Numerology 11 is the most intuitive of all numbers. It represents illumination; a channel to the subconscious; insight without rational thought; and sensitivity, nervous energy, shyness, and impracticality. It is a dreamer.”

And so, in this new year dawning, I wish you pleasant dreaming. Be bold in your dreams; be patient; change and hope; and trust the journey.

J.

**photo by Jerry Stump