The Odyssey is a story about telling stories and how these stories relate to identity.
Odysseus wields the act of storytelling with as much power as he did his conventional weapons of war on the Trojan Plain.
As a reader, we are privy to the ever-changing landscapes of his stories and therefore his multiple identities. Some we know are false, some we believe are true.
His hesitancy to tell his true story and in doing so reveal his identity at certain points in his journey is justifiable: it is an overt act of revealing his identity (shouting "I am Odysseus" to Polyphemus) that compromises his return home and from that point forward he is understandably cautious with how much of his true self he allows to be known.
In my last post I wrote "what we are remembering when we remember is our story" and, as it is with Odysseus, our stories are our identities. When I perform I present my story of being a modern bard and how it relates to Homer and Odysseus. My story and identity often fold into Odysseus' and I use that phenomenon to infer that Homer likely had the same empathetic experience I do in singing Odysseus' story, an experience I believe overtly and covertly manifests itself in the text of the epic.
But what happens when our memory turns out to be inaccurate and corrupts our story? Odysseus purposefully manipulates his identity through his storytelling but do we sometimes unknowingly do the same because we are at the mercy of our demonstrably fallible memories?
I was thinking about this as I sat in my hotel room at the Indiana Memorial Union on a Tuesday morning. On Monday I performed for two Classical Myth classes, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. The shows were great and I had a great dinner with my host professors on Monday evening.
I had mentioned during these shows that my first college performance was at Indiana University in the fall of 2002 or spring of 2003. In my memory, I had done my first Odyssey shows at my alma mater, Oak Park River Forest High School, in the fall of 2002, and then my college friend Nick had advocated for bringing me to Indiana, where he was in graduate school, to perform for a myth class in the months following these first high school performances.
I wondered if I could figure out exactly when that initial IU show had been so I could reference it at my public show that evening for perspective, and after sifting through my old Odyssey emails like an electronic archaeologist, I got a surprise: an email from a (since retired) IU Classics Professor dated April 14, 2002, thanking me for performing for his class the week before.
I stared at the date again and then again.
If I had really performed at IU that week of 2002, that meant two things: 1) I was back in Bloomington to perform again 16 years later, very nearly to that exact date; and, more importantly, 2) that IU class was not just my first college performance but actually my very first public performance of any kind at all, falling 5 weeks after I finished writing the piece on March 4, 2002, and just 3 weeks after my first performance in front of an audience, on March 17, 2002, in my parents' living room in Oak Park.
I have a very, very vague memory of that performance at IU in 2002. Like many of my early performances (okay, maybe some of the middle ones too), it was an exercise purely in memory, mechanics, and stamina, with very little, if any, artistry: I was holding on for dear life like Odysseus on the rocky cliff of Scheria, just trying to get through the piece intact, play the chords and sing the notes, survive physically, and somehow make it to the dry land of my post-performance discussion.
This was an incredibly profound revelation: my 258th performance would take place 16 years later, possibly to the day, in the same place as my first performance.
But I was also a little shaken that all these years I had remembered the beginning of my Odyssey incorrectly and I had inadvertently told both myself and my audiences a demonstrably incorrect story about my journey.
What other parts of my Odyssey did I have wrong? What other parts of my life did I have wrong?
I set up in the beautiful performance space, a high-ceilinged lecture hall with fantastic acoustics, and the crowd began to fill in. In my introduction, I mentioned my revelation, and I was off (there's a great article on the show HERE).
30 minutes later, for the 258th time, I hit the closing harmonics and let them decay slowly into the air between my guitar and the audience. Unlike those early shows, this was not just an exercise in mechanics: my experienced muscles allowed me to control the flow of the music and story with expert precision. Those harmonics seemed to hang forever and I imagined that they were prolonged by the ghosts of the first harmonics I'd hit out of relief 16 years earlier, which had been waiting for my return to finally disappear into silence.
In the post show discussion, I casually mentioned I'd finally started working on a prequel/sequel version of The Iliad.
An hour later I was in the car embarking on the 4 hour drive back to Chicago, the same one I would have taken in 2002 in my mustard colored 1983 Volvo DL240 wagon.
The sun was sinking and I cranked the last TV on the Radio record and the song Love Stained came up and the sound came pouring from the speakers:
Sentimental storm clouds
Gathering, let's try to play them down
They've been there the whole time
Following from grip
To call, to walk, to run, too slow
I smiled and thought "not too slow: just right."
An old story continues, a new story is begun.