As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
I pulled the plane ticket out of the envelope and stared at it. United Flight 29, departing July 31st from Chicago O’Hare and connecting to Tel Aviv through JFK. I realized how long it had been since I’d held an actual ticket before my flight (having become reliant on e-tickets during college), but the dog interrupted my train of thought as she dropped a slobbery tennis ball at my bare feet and gave me a “c’mon, let’s go play!” look. I put the ticket back in its envelope, and as the dog bounded out the door in front of me, I envisioned the adventures I was going to have in the coming year.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, 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 excitementstirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, 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.
July 31st dawned hot and humid, as it often does in the Chicago suburbs. It was then that the fear, long anticipated but never actually felt, hit me. Upon waking up, I realized that I would be spending the next 12 months on the other end of the world–in a country where I didn’t know anyone, had no family, and didn’t speak the language. Feeling like there was a Mac truck sitting on my chest, I curled into a ball, pulled my covers up to my chin, and put a pillow over my head. Maybe if I’m really quiet they’ll forget I’m here, I thought to myself, only half joking. And then I won’t have to go. But I knew that this was something I needed and wanted to do. I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t. I knew I was making the right decision. I got up, and put the last of my belongings in my suitcase before we set out for O’Hare.
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.
The plane banked left, and I saw the beach. I was awestruck. I’d studied about Israel and the Middle East for almost 7 years, and was amazed that after years of wanting to visit, I was finally here. A few weeks later, I let the waves of the warm Mediterranean Sea carry me as I gazed in wonder at the Tel Aviv skyline. Sure beats the quarterly budget review I’d be doing if I was in D.C., I thought to myself happily.
But my amazement didn’t stop in Tel Aviv: two months later, as the cab I was in entered the outskirts of Amman, I held my breath in anticipation of seeing a city I’d long read about, and always hoped to visit. I was awestruck by the monastery at Petra as I stood in front of a landmark I’d seen a hundred times in National Geographic pictures. From my room in French Hill, I got chills every time I heard the muezzin sing the call to prayer. In April, my palms grew sweaty as we drove into Cairo, and my pulse quickened as I walked into the great temple at Karnak. In each of these cases, I knew that, despite being far away from my family and the fear I’d felt before getting on the plane, it was all worth it. A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but a journey of 10,000 miles begins with the conviction and courage to even get on the plane.
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. I
thaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
There have been moments when this journey has seemed almost interminable. Moments when, feeling overwhelmed by the tasks required of me while learning both Hebrew and Arabic, I’ve stood in the botanical garden and wondered why I came here at all. Times when all I’ve wanted is a bacon cheeseburger, to be able to watch Sports Center, or to see my best friend back home. Times when I’ve been tempted to call the ticket desk at El Al and ask them to put me on the next flight back to JFK. But whenever my journey has seemed insurmountable, I’ve managed to pull through.
More than that, I’ve tried to keep the perspective that I shouldn’t hurry the journey; the time to return home will come soon enough. I know, despite how hard this year has been at times, that this is what I was supposed to do. It has been good for me. It has given me perspective, made me grow, and enriched my life in ways I never thought possible.
Before I left, I had a feeling that through living abroad for a year, I was going to become the person I want to be: having overcome my fear of being far away from my family for a long stretch of time, having overcome my discomfort with the constant moving and instability that has characterized my life thus far. After going to three high schools and having my driver’s license in four different states by the time I graduated from college, I dreaded–despised, actually–the notion of instability and starting over somewhere new. I still don’t like it, but I’ve proven to myself that not only can I start over in a new place and be okay, but I can start over in a country I hadn’t seen before I got off the plane and where I couldn’t even read the alphabet when I arrived. I know that I’m finally well on my way to being the person I’ve aspired to become.
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.
My flight back to America leaves tonight. I know I’ve changed deeply during the course of the last year, but it’s hard to articulate the changes in ways that make sense to other people. I don’t know if the changes are strictly internal; if they manifest themselves only in ways that I can see, or if they’ll be evident in my behavior as well. I wonder if people from home will be able to see these changes or if I’ll get back and just be good ol’ Lillian, same as she’s ever been. The problem is, I don’t want to be same ol’ Lillian. I’m not the same person who left the States last year. Ithaka has made me wealthy with all I’ve gained along the way, and it has been a marvelous journey indeed. However, I’m not sure whether anyone else will understand by now what these Ithakas mean.