On Friday night, along with Janet and Bob Haisman, I received the Ulyssean Award from the Senior Citizens Center of Oak Park-River Forest, the oldest senior center in the state of Illinois, founded in 1954.
“Ulyssean” is a reference to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, whose name is actually Odysseus, but somewhere along the line it was transcribed into English as Ulysses. In Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem of that name, having returned home after his decade-long ordeal, Ulysses is not content to rest on his laurels late in life and sets off on a new journey where, “ere the end, some work of noble note may yet be done.”
According to the SCC, “It is this thirst for learning, doing, and adventure of body and spirit that is the Ulyssean Journey. The Ulyssean Award honors individuals in the community who exemplify this lifestyle and philosophy … and made contributions to the community which have served to broaden our social, educational and/or cultural horizons.”
I don’t know if I can lay claim to all of that, but I’m definitely a horizon-scanner, and I’m following some pretty impressive role models. Redd Griffen, Sherlynn Reid, Virginia Cassin, Rev. Dean Lueking, Lee Brooke, Chatka Ruggiero, Gus Kostopulos, Sylvia and Gy Menninga, Bobbie Raymond, Norb Teclaw, David and Sandra Sokol, Larry Christmas, Don Offermann, Mardi Bloch, Barbara Furlong, Jeanette Fields, Jim Bohenstengel, Harriette and Mac Robinet, Nancy Waichler, Harold Rohlfing, John Hedges, Mena and David Boulanger, Michelle Germanson, Ann and Gene Armstrong, Marty Noll, Harriet Hausman, and Barbara Ballinger previously won this award in its 15-year history.
I thought I would share my remarks from Friday night because the occasion reminded me of an important thread in my life that had gotten buried, because my main point applies to anyone who reads this column on a regular basis, and because we can probably all use a good, old-fashioned pep talk right about now:
First of all, thanks to Nancy Teclaw, Janine Katonah, Galen Gockel and the rest of the SCC board. I can’t imagine receiving a more personally meaningful award … because I have a long history with Ulysses.
Picture a 10-year-old boy holed up in a cozy, second-floor bedroom in one of those grand four-square Gunderson homes overlooking Jackson Boulevard on the south side of Oak Park in the early 1960s, sitting at a desk, hunched over a book.
This book. The Adventures of Ulysses, from the Landmark series. Perhaps you had them in your house growing up. I read Abe Lincoln – Log Cabin to the White House, The Landing of the Pilgrims, The Swamp Fox of the Revolution, and even Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde to name a few.
But this one changed my life.
The story held me in thrall — starting with the Trojan Horse, which Ulysses devised, earning him the nickname “Wily” and the enmity of Poseidon, god of the sea. Ulysses and his crew were condemned to a long, torturous, treacherous trip back to his kingdom, Ithaca, in Greece, a trip that lasted 10 years, during which Ulysses survived the lotus blossoms of forgetfulness; the man-eating, one-eyed Cyclops; the boulder-throwing Laestrygons; the perilous passage between Scylla and Charybdis; at one point in the journey coming within sight of his homeland, only to have his crew foolishly open the bag of winds that King Aeolus had given them, setting off a storm that blew them far off course again. Warned about the Sirens, Ulysses puts wax in his crew’s ears and has them tie him to the mast so he can hear the beautiful song that would otherwise have lured him to his death. He survives it all, barely, and finally is delivered by sympathetic sailors, alone, to his beloved Ithaca, his son Telemachus, and the love of his life, Penelope.
Magnificent. Larger than life. I had never read a book that gripped me like this one did. I had no idea a story could have that kind of power. I was only 10, but up in the comfort of my bedroom, the world suddenly enlarged. That started me on a literary odyssey. All thanks to the artistry of a great writer … Gerald Gottlieb.
I heard Homer’s version was pretty good, too. Though I never read the original Odyssey, I love Homer’s description of the Aegean as the “wine-dark sea,” evoking mystery and blood-tinged foreboding.
“Yea, and if some god shall wreck me in the wine-dark deep,” Ulysses says, “even so I will endure … For already have I suffered full much, and much have I toiled in perils of waves and war. Let this be added to the tale of those.”
Joseph Campbell, the world’s foremost authority on mythology, said myths like this one have no power until we apply them to our own lives, until we see our face in these stories. The Hero of a Thousand Faces, he called it. When we see the parallels between these stories and our own lives, the power of myth is unleashed, and it is a potent force.
In college, my literary odyssey led me to James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, a modern retelling of the Odyssey, framing it as a search for what he called “the holiness of the ordinary,” which became my modus operandi — in journalism and in life: attempting to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
After college, I discovered Tennyson’s poem in which he imagines that Ulysses does not live happily ever after in Ithaca, but is driven by a deep restlessness to set off one more time into the unknown to meet his final destiny.
For always roaming with a hungry heart / Much have I seen and known, Ulysses says. I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move. … / Little remains: but every hour is saved / From that eternal silence, something more, / A bringer of new things; … / And this gray spirit yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
But my favorite Ulyssean poem is “Ithaka,” by the Egyptian/Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, who offers this advice:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
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 excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
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. …
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.
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.
Oak Park is my Ithaca. I left it for 20 years and came back to chronicle my own odyssey and the odysseys of my fellow villagers for the past 28 years through the pages of Wednesday Journal. It turns out you can go home again, and Oak Park has been everything I could have asked of an Ithaca.
What I like about this award is that it isn’t focused on the past — because, frankly, I haven’t achieved all that much, unless you consider writing a weekly newspaper column for 33 years — half of my life — an achievement. But this award isn’t about that. It’s about continuing on — keep on keeping on. When readers are kind enough to comment on my work — and they are almost always kind — at the end of the conversation they usually say, “Keep writing those columns.” That’s the Ulyssean challenge.
What I like best about this award, though, is that it reconnects us to Homer’s defining metaphor: That life is a great journey and we are its heroes. Our heroism can be very small or somewhat larger or very large indeed. But it’s not how much we achieve. It’s the fact that we keep living life as fully as possible to the very end, no matter how challenging our circumstances.
Don’t stop. Keep going. Go farther.
I am honored that the Senior Citizens Center chose to single me out as an example of Ulyssean restlessness, and I’m thankful for this reminder of the Ulyssean ideal, which remains very much alive in my life.
But the plain fact is, we’re all Ulysseans, whether we know it or not — not in some vaguely aspirational, Hallmark card sense, but in a very real way. We’re all taking the long way home. And getting there is not the final goal. As the CTA slogan used to say long ago, “It’s the going — not the getting there — that’s good.” Probably not the best slogan for the CTA, but it fits for life’s journey.
So I’d like to end with a toast to my fellow Ulysseans, as we continue our respective odysseys, sometimes shared, often intersecting, but ultimately each of us on our own mythic journey through a wild and wonderful world, facing our monsters — external and internal — driven by a holy restlessness, navigating the wine-dark seas and probing the wine-dark deep, far from home but getting there, heading there, wherever home ends up being. As Ulysseans, let us firmly resolve that our lives will not be lived in vain, that we will keep going and go farther, that we will strive and never yield, because it is not too late, it is never too late, to seek a newer world.
Here’s to all of us.