If you’re like me, it’s harder than usual to ease into back-to-school mode. Amid reports that US schools now have more security guards than social workers, our collective exhaustion – as parents, and humans – feels palpable. The news each day is brutal.
Nineteen months into the Trump administration, the days are not getting easier.
There are rough seas behind us, and more ahead. It’s unclear how soon we as a country will be able to move through this dark cloud of gloom and corruption and foreign interference, and what it will take do so. From the horror of detained and stranded children, to a White House steeped in lies and chaos, each day makes new demands on each of us for action and fortitude. I know that many good people are registering others to vote, working for political campaigns they care about, demonstrating at detention centers. Some have channeled their anxiety into fitness – one friend lost twenty pounds working out his anger on the rowing machine. Another friend has taken up meditation. I am doing these things, too, and like others, I’m asking how to craft enough solace to make the fight sustainable.
For me, a daily dose of comfort has come from reading – not for work (I’m a book reviewer) – but passionately, to help myself feel alive. In this era of soundbites, I want to read things that are big and knotty enough to hold the sadness of the world at bay, even for an hour. I’m craving poems and novels fiercely, as places where I can recharge. And for me, this past summer’s most consistent immersion came from reading Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey” aloud every night with my seven-year-old son.
For those who don’t know, Wilson is the first woman to have published a translation of “The Odyssey” – Homer’s epic poem about Odysseus’ 10-year trek home after the end of the Trojan War – into English. That’s significant, of course, and a wonderful thing, but would mean nothing if it weren’t also such a vibrant, readable translation – the kind that can easily beguile you and a precocious middle grade child. The classic translation by Robert Fitzgerald begins with the grand and somewhat hooty invocation: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending / the wanderer, harried for years on end …”
In contrast, Wilson’s tone is earthy and earthbound. She begins simply: “Tell me about a complicated man.” She goes on: “Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost, when he had sacked the holy town of Troy.” The language greets us, opening the door. Insofar as this is a beginning (for where does this long yarn really begin?), Wilson embarks with speed, clarity, and light. For a while we’re with Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, who is determined to rid his home of men who aim to replace his noble father, and who, with the goddess Athena’s help, sets out to look for Odysseus despite looming dangers.
Lights up on Odysseus, pleading to leave the island where he’s been kept by Calypso. She agrees to set him free, but sends him forth only on the frailest of handmade rafts. His journey is precarious. Here in the 21st century, we can relate; we, too, are lashed together and tossing on, despite great obstacles, to the next island, where we can beach ourselves and look for rescue.
Again and again, Wilson’s fresh language entranced me. Here’s some from her take on the original proverbial rock and a hard place: Odysseus has to pass his men between Charybdis (a sea goddess who sucks water down and will certainly kill them) and Scylla, the howling rock witch with “twelve dangling legs and six long necks with a gruesome head on each.” Odysseus has been told that Charybdis will definitely swallow them all, while Scylla will only kill about half of the men. He’s got to take this sea-path. He doesn’t tell his men what’s ahead. Instead he leads them on, into and through the dangerous jaws.
Here’s Wilson’s beautiful, haunting translation of the moment Scylla grabs up six men whole: “As when a fisherman out on a cliff casts his long rod and line set round with oxhorn to trick the little fishes with his bait; when one is caught he flings it gasping back onto the shore – so those men gasped as Scylla lifted them high up to her rocky cave – and at the entrance ate them up…” The language glitters: the men shine like fish even as the witch devours them, and Odysseus and the mourning survivors sail away beneath them. It’s an image that will rattle and twist in the brain for a while. It’s not all so gory (though it has its share of gory bits, for sure).
Here’s Odysseus passing the Sirens, magical songstresses whose songs beguile men into the sea. Odysseus chooses to plug the ears of the crew with wax, and then ties himself up to the mast so he can listen but not die. “I gripped a wheel of wax between my hands / and cut it small. Firm kneading and the sunlight warmed it and then I rubbed it in the ears of each man in his turn. They bound my hands and feet, straight upright at mast. They sat and hit the sea with oars.” The sirens urge Odysseus to stop and linger over their “honeyed song” – and indeed, a lingering light shines through Wilson’s language, too.
Our world seems now endlessly tossed between rocks and hard places. How will we steer? I entered the Odyssey only for pleasure – and a bit of honeyed song, perhaps. I began because I crave a good tale, and because Bennett and I love getting lost in stories together. We didn’t start because we thought that the book would provide any answers or console us in any direct, quantifiable way. We just wanted something good to read at bedtime.
I’m not reading for easy parallels, but instead to enter a story powerful and durable enough to have withstood several millennia of human confusion and darkness. But, for a blessed hour each night before bedtime, I leave presidential doublespeak and enter the much more wonderful shapeshifting of crafty Odysseus. “Facts evolve,” Trump’s aids cynically put it. I have news: myths evolve better. Sometimes it’s the best hour of the day.
The poet W.H. Auden once said something along the lines of the fact that part of the pleasure of reading detective stories is that they absorb you completely and then you immediately forget them. One of the pleasures of reading the Odyssey is that you may well find that you half remember the myth, and yet even so it quivers with life when you encounter it again. Bennett and I loved the section when Odysseus washed up on the island inhabited by the Phaeacians, who are destined to help the long-suffering wanderer home. Odysseus seeks help from the princess Nausicaa, and eventually from king Alcinous himself.
Alcinous throws Odysseus a huge welcome feast – at which there is a poet, hired to sing. In a moment that feels like a dazzling poetic irony, the poet sings songs about Odysseus to Odysseus himself for some time. Odysseus has been lost at sea so long that his life has already become the stuff of legend, and his legend now precedes him to the very house where he is seeking shelter. It is hard not to feel happily engrossed by the mobius strip of the old poem, which is partly about the pleasure and complexity of being lost inside a poem itself.
Then we’re off – inside Odysseus’ own version of his travels – passing the floating island of Aeolus, keeper of the breezes, even venturing down into Hades, to summon up the dead. There’s something about the richness of the stories that seems to act as a foil for our own confusion, draining away the day’s madness. At the end of the hour, I feel a bit filled up again. I feel a bit rehumanized.
Of course, in this hard summer, it was hard not to notice that I was reading a story of parents desperately trying to get back to their children, of children trying to get back to their parents. And it was abundantly clear that if one code of ethics does animate this great and foundational text (other than a reminder not to piss off the sea god Poseidon), it is a reminder to be kind to guests, migrants, travelers, and beggars. It is a reminder to be generous to the strangers who come to our doors.
You feed them first, ask questions later. After all, you really never know which is a messenger, and who, disguised in rags, might be the hero whose return you’ve been hoping for. We are called on and charged to be generous. You never know who is the long-lost father, who is the goddess Athena herself.
I will say this: in making a ritual of reading the story aloud with my son at night, I also felt a flickering sense of kinship with the long lines of people who have gathered before, on dark nights, to listen to stories. As summer nights passed, and fall beckons, the very fact of moving through the twisting story has helped me craft a much-needed space of renewal. By day I am often angry. At night the old story gives me one space in which to take the long view.
There they are, those quintessential figures: the son trying to find his father, the father trying to make it home to his son. And there the king is, making his return to vanquish the arrogant suitors who have tried to usurp his home.
“This story has a lot of turns, mom,” said Bennett, drowsily, the other night when we’d stopped reading. “It really fascinates me.” It fascinates me too, how this other tapestry, this other world, can help us feel closer to one another, a little less alone, a bit more brave. I sense that the old storytellers knew what they were crafting. At the party in Phaeacia, after the poet sings, Alcinous eventually invites Odysseus to tell his own story.
Everyone draws up to hear. As if also expecting us, we later listeners, Alcinous says, “The gods devised and measured out this devastation / to make a song for those in time to come.”
An earlier version of this op-ed misattributed a quotation to Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey. The translator was Robert Fitzgerald.