As with most stories, the scene opens with an ordinary man in ordinary circumstances encountering some happenstance or blunder that leads to the adventure.
I awake in a hospital, critically ill for weeks with some infection I didn’t see coming. But that is the way it always is with my peers in the bar association. Going hard all the time, ostensibly seeking justice, and then when we all least expect it some terrible disease is contracted and he dies never having actually achieved his apotheosis, his goal. Did he ever stop to think just what that was? How does he know when he has achieved justice, crossed the finish line and can rest? Or is it that the goal line keeps moving?
I would prefer to be in my home astride the 48th Parallel North, the earth below me spinning forward to a new day announced by the rising sun. A man can barely hear himself think for the blaring of audio commerce and commentary, and telescreen demonstrations of what he is supposed to want to be. I recognize I am ultimately spinning in some other man’s artificial whirlpool.
We live in a time of great material abundance but also a time of a multitude of distractions. Trapped in a time famine, I cannot hear my own soul.
Admitted to an isolation ward, away from the noise and one step closer to the grave, I’m wondering if this is all there is, working until you drop, if you do not take your own life first, as so many lawyers and others seem to do. I have blundered into this infection, and the happenstance pause allows time to contemplate more fundamental questions.
It is as if I live the bourgeois myth of Willi Loman in Death of a Salesman, and had bought into the notion that the whole goal in life is to make the last payment on the house mortgage. Getting to the end of that debt, Loman kills himself, perhaps because he sensed beyond that goal there is no rudder, no way on his steerage, no idea why he made this his goal. His son stands over his grave and says, “He didn’t know who he was.”
Dissatisfied with this answer I set about to answer that question – “Who am I?” Is my identity nothing more than coming to the end of a debt? What is it that defines a man such that when he passes he is remembered for more than a mortgage paid off?
The Hero’s Call It is the heroes we remember. Among this class are the great lawyers who achieved justice, yet the evidence is I have made similar efforts for three decades now and it does indeed seem that the goal line has moved, I never actually achieve justice. There must be something more, something very old that instructs us as to when we have met the challenge and succeeded and may rest.
My mind wanders back to the Bronze Age, to Homer and epic journeys that spin a great sea yarn but also trace the experience of men in any time. Baked into our DNA are these myths. They exist beneath the surface, waiting for that time we know will come when the challenges of life are great and we need to fall back on a shared experience or the tales of how it has gone before, whether in a time of challenge, ostensible defeat, obvious victory, or resolution.
The Leaving The rosy-colored fingers of dawn spread toward my house. I load the old Ford – which has one payment left on it – with foul weather gear and the other accouterments of a life at sea and turn it west toward the basin where my vessel, The Islander, lies crouched for employment.
I let slip the springer lines from my sloop, take a sniff of the blower to ensure no vapors linger in the bilge lest I end up like Loman, then engage the engine to back from the mooring. Clear of the slip I ease the transmission into forward, give the throttle a nudge and glide toward the outflow of the harbor. The current of the river tugs at the keel as the Islander as I enter the channel, and before long I have lashed the wheel to place the rudder amidships and go forward to set the jib.
Returning to the cockpit I set the mainsail, sheet it in and turn off the engine. I am at once enveloped in the silence of wind and waves that called me from shore, a call so seldom heeded. I point her into the southerly wind and pinch her up to port. We heel over close hauled into Possession Sound, just as Captain Vancouver and HMS Discovery sailed here so many generations ago when this inland sea was new to the Europeans.
Immortality In Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, following the victory at Troy, Ulysses (called Odysseus in Greek) is captive of the nymph Calypso who promises him immortality if he would only stay with her. She had rescued him from shipwreck, but he longs for his mortal wife Penelope, and his home on the island Ithaca. Calypso is persuaded to let Ulysses go. He leaves, giving up a pleasant eternal life for the grief of mortality. Why? Because he knows who he is.
Ulysses takes great care in fashioning his raft and sets sail by the same stars that are here to guide us in our postmodern age. We see the same moon, but are we not off course? Does not our own arrogance that we are somehow are more intelligent than those who have come before us yield an unfortunate dismissal of the wisdom they can provide?
Overlooked by my schoolmaster’s curriculum, The Odyssey is relevant to anyone, particularly those who form the latest generations, whose seed was originally cast in Europe and took root there, only to venture to distant lands. The lesson is about a man who set his sails for a goal in life, taking great care in preparation, following the stars, and yet is blown off course, often by the god Neptune, sometimes by the weakness of other men. Yet he persists. This is just our fate. Ulysses’ tale is not like postmodern life in which smiling Americans on television mute the amplitude of the human existence, the hope, joy, failure, despair, triumph and grief.
As young men, my friend and shipmate and I planned to be owning a sailboat together at this time of our lives, yet Neptune intervened and caused my friend’s early departure from this earth. My voyage is now solo. The crew’s experience with death is congruent with Homer’s Ulysses. When his men begin to die, a clarity overcomes the hero. He does what he can to save them, yet he also understands in no uncertain terms that we just don’t have that long a stay here. Tomorrow is fiction. The time is now to overcome the obstacles and rise to your highest best destiny. Success is not a given, and the risk of failure is real.
A good long run on this heading is behind the Islander and it is time to tack. I say to myself, as my friends and I used to say to each other, “Prepare to tack” and reach for the line for the jib at the self-tailing winch, then declare, “Helm is to the lee,” loosening the line from the winch, letting the wind grab the sails as we pass off starboard. The main boom swings before me then I reach for the jib line and sheet it in. “Mark has the conn,” I say as my shipmates would have said. As if we really have control.
Settling back behind the wheel on a now-westerly beam reach, my mind returns to Homeric foundations for our lives. I contemplate the calculus of competing demands and how more likely it is we do not have the control of our lives as I have of my vessel.
Courage and Leadership: Meeting Challenges, Gaining Confidence In time Ulysses and his fleet raise a city inhabited by Laestrygonians, giants who seize crews and eat them. Ogres throw stones at the ships. Crews drown as the rocks strike the ships and sink them. Ulysses’ ship and its crew are spared because he wisely did not enter the harbor but anchored outside. He is able to cut the cable, escaping the bombardment.
Eventually Ulysses and his crew make landfall, yet are lost. Ulysses reconnoiters the island, finds it inhabited and kills a stag to bring back to the crew for food, bracing them for the news that they have no choice but to seek an encounter with the inhabitants for assistance.
The theme here is about leadership, about the timing of bad news for the persons in your charge, thinking about their fundamental needs to weather the coming storm. By drawing lots, a platoon of his men is sent out under a lieutenant, Eurylochus, whose men are turned into pigs after encountering the witch goddess Circe, whose name means “the encircle.” Eurylochus escapes to tell the tale, whereupon the hero, Ulysses, goes to release them.
Notwithstanding the danger, our hero wisely listens to Circe when she tells him the journey ahead will have challenges. As so often in life, things just keep getting more difficult. To achieve anything worth having, it has to be hard. The easy win is cheap and unappreciated. One must go through hell to achieve heaven.
While on this tack, I reflect on Ulysses leaving Circe with his men to take on one of the dangers Circe has forewarned: The Sirens, who lure the men to their deaths upon the rocky shore. The postmodern world features Sirens of alcohol, drugs and sex who tempt the population of the land, whereas out here, on the unharvestable sea, these distractions are often unavailable, and when present, often unwise. “The rail is in the water,” I declare as the wind freshens and heels the craft over to starboard. How can one think of drinking alcohol or other intoxicants in this demanding environment?
We Are Unmoored from All that Came Before Bringing my thoughts back to our postmodern age, I reflect on funeral parlors going out of business. “People no longer bury their dead,” my mother said to me. Perhaps it is the failure of this cultural norm to be brought forward to the latest generation that has me thinking so often of our myths and what has become of them. Contrast the new normal of a relative’s ashes kept in a closet with the elaborate description of the funeral rites of Achilles in the closing chapters of The Odyssey. Western Civilization is often not taught with any adequacy, I am told by my children; indeed, it is cast as “incorrect.” Nothing takes its place, so it is civilization itself that erodes.
We are thus lost at sea, like Ulysses at times, not knowing east from west and making a guess at direction. Unlike our ancient hero, and more like Willie Loman, we do not know who we are. Instead we take our identity from the structures of modern and post-modern life, leading us astray from those values which have historically validated our souls.
In a prior age our civil identity held a steady course in any sea, ballasted by family, church, custom and state, the helmsmen of parent, cleric and governor at the tiller. But American vessels of state and culture have declared their passengers “free” to choose who they are, as if the peaceful waters of the post-war era will remain still forever, and the fundamental physics of wind and wave will never threaten them again. As if they are bigger than nature.
The postmodernist declares his own truth. How can he become a hero when there is no objective truth to measure himself against?
Like Ulysses, I long for the simplicity of win or lose rather than the complicated questions of today. For example, watching his men being eaten by the giant Cyclops, only by tactical genius are Ulysses and the surviving crew able to fashion an escape by blinding the beast’s eye with a pointed log. Today’s monsters have one eye too: the digital screen. The message from Homer is plain. We know what to do. Grasp the courage necessary to turn the devices off.
The laws of nature do not apply to postmodern man because he declares it to be so. The telescreens remind us daily that the rules were for the people who came before, that we can ignore the cruel sea. But as I feel the waves below my feet I know postmodern man will lament when he learns Neptune has not heard the news of his freedom and decrees that he drown. The postmodernist is adrift in a sea of his own making, grounded to nothing and at the mercy of Chaos.
Vengeance as Justice It is good to be on the water again, among the laws of physics. Timeless and predictable in its danger. The sea gives us purpose, to traverse it and survive. We feel – and are – alive because of it. The peril is not mitigated by some government agency, or argued away in some blog post. It is me and the water, my vessel and the wind. It is the simplicity of Troy.
Once again, I go through the ritual of the sailboat turn to starboard but this time to run with the wind and not to pinch the sails against it. I leave the jib where it is, allowing the line out so it fills with the southerly wind, then work the main around to port to run wing and wing.
Silent at first, a pair of Navy F-18 Superhornets from Ault Field on Whidbey Island startle me as they pass from behind, low overhead. “Boys,” I say to myself, shaking my head. They don’t even know they are mortal. They bank left and head for the airbase, living the myth of themselves. They are the warrior heroes of this age.
Vengeance populates the ancient texts. Well before many of the major religions are founded by their own heroes, vengeance is part of the mythic hero’s task. Ulysses learns his home is overrun with suitors for his wife who fears he is lost, and there are women assisting in the sacking and despoiling of his estate. The climax of his tale is about vengeance.
After taking several insults while disguised as a beggar, Ulysses reveals himself. The sins of the suitors and their women are obvious; there is no defense. Laying waste to all the suitors and a dozen women, Ulysses has what it takes to right these wrongs because he is the hero. He heard the call, left his comfortable home, and was initiated into maturity by meeting so many dangers. His method of righting wrongs upon his return home are second nature. The weak and sinful sloths he finds seeking Penelope’s hand have it coming.
The scene is a horror, but candidly, not all that different than what is available on the postmodern Cyclops telescreen. Emotionally we still want this kind of justice. We sing about it in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “…His terrible swift sword.” These gory scenes sell tickets for admission. We have seen this movie before, and we like it.
Acceptance I have much further to travel before I rest. I put the helm over, forgetting to speak to my dead crewmen. Perhaps I have finally buried them in the manner of Achilles on this trip; their lives are resolved. The boom pivots to port and I sheet it in for the run back to the slip.
Meanwhile I ask myself, what immortality do I return with from this passage, initially set on as a means to address those questions arising in my hospital bed, contemplating those who have gone before? What have I learned upon the sea of time and from the experience of similar sailors? Do I come ashore with some great Holy Grail or a Golden Fleece, represented in this age by the latest cellphone or a large automobile? While I suspect there are no suitors for my Penelope’s hand as Ulysses found, there is the unspoken reality that there are challenges ahead on shore. But I am better prepared for them than when I left land on this voyage. I am mindful of actual dangers.
My great fulfilment from this voyage is not about vengeance. The ancient justice meted out by Ulysses upon his return home will never work in the postmodern age. Instead, this voyage is about finding peace in the cacophony of suitors for my soul. I come ashore with a maturity informed by the ancients. I’m not distracted by the glamor of the new. I stick the Cyclopes eye by turning off the telescreen, ending my time famine. I ignore the shocking conduct of postmodern men, shed from my mind like rain running off the seabird’s back. I have my own world view now, informed by the ancient standard but matured by all that followed.
There is more to life than a mortgage or a car payment. These are mere pebbles on the beach of a life. One must look up from that shore, take in the horizon, gauge the weather and live life deliberately. One must ask the real question: Is this the definition of life as I want it to be, carried with me each day, and when I am gone, the account of my bones?
Now there is a place I know, a comfort in my own skin on the land or the sea, a clarity and competence that is not for sale and cannot be bought at any price.
Just shy of the marina I once again lash the wheel down to go forward and bring in the jib which I let fly for a moment to slow my approach. It flaps wildly in the wind, reminding me that this triumph of man in nature is fleeting.
Whatever peace one achieves on this earth, the wind will always blow hard against you and one needs to be prepared to meet it. I have heard and heed the call to be something other than a postmodern man. Informed by those who came before, from their earliest stories, I know who I am, and I like it.