Ithaca, Billy Joel and the Meaning of Life

In 1978, the year that I graduated from college, I bought a little notebook. It took me a while to find exactly what I wanted, because I had three specific requirements. First, it had to have lined paper. I have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder -- just a hint -- and I can't stand the way my writing tends to trail upward on unlined paper. Second, it needed to be small, because I wanted to carry it around in my pocket. Third, I wanted a nice looking notebook -- and I suppose it was nice looking in the late '70s, though I can hardly bear to look at it now with all its swirly little purple flowers.

I didn't intend to use my notebook as a diary, though I have kept a diary from time to time. Instead, I wanted a place to record my favorite quotations, poems and passages from other people's writings. Over the years, I've filled 103 little pages. I've never let anyone else read it, because much of it is so ridiculously sentimental and downright sappy.

Reading from front to back, it's interesting to see what I copied into this notebook at various stages in my life. The first few pages fairly reek of angst, lost love and oh-my-gosh-life-is-passing-me-by stuff. The early pages include a curious mix of Bible verses and Billy Joel lyrics. Evidence of my love of literature runs throughout the notebook, though my graduate school years resulted specifically in a crop of humorous quotes from 18th- and 19th-century British novels. There's the passage in Middlemarch where George Eliot writes, "The mistakes that we ... mortals make when we have our own way may fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it." (notebook page 58) And I've always adored this line from Jane Austen: "I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them." (notebook page 73)

One thing that surprises me is that relatively few of the writings are humorous. Instead, many of them have to do with making one's way through life -- fighting through the confusion and distractions and pressures, and trying to find something lasting and meaningful. One of my biggest struggles has always been simply to live in the present, to savor the joys and the beauty of this moment, this day. For me, the present is often nothing more than the most expedient path to the future, where I am always expecting to find meaning -- right around the corner.

One of the quotations in my notebook comes from the unpublished autobiography of Mac Bulgin, my graduate school advisor, who died several years ago. Mac writes, "I am pulled in a dozen directions and nearly blinded by a shifting kaleidoscope of beliefs and motives and choices. For me, to live is to be anxious and troubled, but then to choose, and so far as I can, to enjoy the world's blessings -- whatever their ultimate source -- and to love and in some way serve the good people in it." (notebook page 90) In this particular passage, Mac is describing himself at the age of twenty-one, during his senior year at Princeton. I can relate.

The older I get, and the more I add to this tattered little notebook, the more I understand that living in the present means more than just remembering to stop and sniff the stupid daisies. It's about making sense of life -- the big birth-to-death kind of life. It's about what happens along the way, where the importance of every single day adds up to something of value and real meaning. It's about the fact that if we don't look for meaning, we won't find it -- and it is worth finding.

Here's an often-quoted excerpt (notebook page 102) from "Ithaca," the 1911 poem by Constantine Cavafy:

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

In quoting this poem, people often stop here. Don't expect to find riches awaiting you when you arrive at Ithaca, because Ithaca's gift to you has been the voyage itself -- so enjoy the trip. Yeah, yeah. But the most intriguing lines are actually found in the rarely quoted final stanza:

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

I don't fully understand what Ithacas mean, at least not yet. But I think it has something to do with the value of not seeing life as a linear journey from point A to point B. It's more about finding meaning in the process of living, the points of intersection with the lives of others, the moments when we're suddenly paralyzed by the smell of falling rain.

These lines come from T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" (notebook page 100):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I'm glad that I bought this tacky little notebook back in 1978, and that I've recorded these bits and pieces of my journey, because they do matter. The meaning in life isn't found in some pot of gold at the end of a rainbow -- it surrounds us and lives inside us every day. And when I get to the end of all my exploring and arrive back where I started, I trust that I'll finally know the place for the first time.