I’ve written before about how my experience traveling to perform The Odyssey has opened my eyes to the plight of its hero as well as some of the considerations of the poet (let’s say, “Homer”), who was the shepherd of the story.
Of course I don’t mean the material conditions: to put it as mildly as possible, I travel and exist in *slightly* better material conditions than would have a Bronze age warrior or an Archaic age poet.
What I mean and part of what has captivated me about The Odyssey from the very beginning is how journeys and homecomings shape one’s identity and existence.
Being even an amateur classicist is fun because you get to look at a text, at an archeological site, at data of some sort, squint, and try to come up with a story that is supported by the raw material you have in front of you.
When I look at the way the text of The Odyssey interacts with the figure of the poet, how it seems almost aware of its own creator and the context of its creation, I can’t help but tell myself the story that Homer felt some sort of kinship with Odysseus, in their skill in crafting stories, in the character of their existence on the road and maybe even in the core existential challenges and questions that buffet Odysseus on his way homeward.
I will say this: as a modern bard I acutely understand the hero who wants both to lean fully into the teeth of a vivid life on the sea and also get home to his wife and household.
It’s a jarring and often dissonant existence. Even under the best of circumstances (which I basically have), travel is physically demanding and emotionally alienating.
Long periods of solitude punctuated by brief, intense intervals of human interaction and connection.
I was thinking about this as I drove from Berkeley south down the east side of the San Francisco Bay in the early Sunday evening, the day after my performance at Humanities West.
I saw a friend from college on Saturday night and a friend from grade school on Sunday afternoon. These reconnections I have on the road are wonderful: they help anchor my identity in the past, they help me connect the story of my life from this weird voyage performing The Odyssey back to the time I first encountered Classics and back even before to my childhood. It’s reassuring that though our circumstances have changed sometimes radically, my friends and I generally seem like the same people we were back when we met and developed our relationships.
I was driving a new big black Jeep Grand Cherokee rental.
The sun was sinking towards the hills and the sky was clear.
It was nearly 60 degrees and I had the windows down.
I was listening to Kamasi Washington’s last record loudly, absorbing his rich lyrical tone and the overall depth of his excellent band and compositions.
I turned my car onto the Dumbarton Bridge, the music swelled appropriately, and I was suddenly flanked by water on both sides.
There was almost no traffic and, alone, I soaked in the bay, the light, the hills, the music… all of it.
This is what Odysseus was looking for when he tied himself to the mast out on the water to hear the Sirens’ songs: the moment of pure experience and human existence, longing tinged with suffering, a Nobody gliding along surrounded by water and the world.
I found myself holding my breath and released it.
I was across the bridge and the moment passed.
I met my contact from Menlo School for dinner and then packed it in for the night.
The next day I did my performance in a beautiful room at Menlo School (a high school near Palo Alto) for a great group of students and teachers. It was a tough show physically, maybe the toughest I’ve sung in two years (ironically since my last trip to California which coincided with a double ear infection). In retrospect, I was getting a pretty severe cold and it was already inhibiting my singing.
But I survived it, enjoyed it, and headed to the airport for my flight home.
As the plane departed I scrolled through my music and noticed the name of the Kamasi Washington album that provided a soundtrack for my Odyssean moment:
“Harmony of Difference”
The two Greek words I came across in senior year high school history to which I trace my romance with the language and Classics itself were:
“Harmony of Opposites”
Now there’s a story you almost couldn’t make up.