Thursday, May 12, 2011

Nostoi: Journeys Home

Well, just because I've started a concerted effort to become a prairie-loving homesteader in north Texas doesn't mean I've stopped longing for eastern California. In fact, a double-whammy caught me off guard a few weeks ago, when my humanities class focused on Homer's Odyssey and I received a group of photos from my uncle. The latter were taken on his recent trip with my aunt, my cousin, and her new husband to the Owens Valley. They hit many of our old haunts, including the Department of Water and Power plant at Cottonwood, and the photos included shots of the plant and of the old house that had served as home ground for travelling children and grandchildren until my grandfather died in 1959.

The house, alas, has been severely remodeled and no longer looks anything like what I remember. In the old days, several families lived in the vicinity, in city-owned bungalows, with access to horse pasture, an orchard, walnut trees, and blackberries. My grandparents' house had a pantry and a back sleeping porch, an old wind-up telephone, and a screened-in front porch with an army cot under which a box of toys was stashed awaiting whatever visiting child wanted to play with them.

I still bear a scar in my eyebrow from tearing through the house from the front porch to the kitchen, where I ran headlong into the open oven door and got a gash that probably earned me a helping of my grandmother's Little Horse cookies (made with a press that I've since inherited).

All that's gone now: no horses, no orchard, no porch. No workshop where my grandfather kept his tools and puttered around. He had the infamous Marilyn Monroe-on-red-silk pin-up calendar, but since we weren't allowed in the workshop, we could only see it by peeking into the window. I do, however, still have the cookie recipe, and will make an effort to reproduce it for Owl's Cabinet when I've got a free moment.

I've often wanted to make this trip myself, but have always lacked the nerve; and now I'm glad I didn't cross the aqueduct and brave the short drive up to the house. I'd probably have cried for days. I'm also glad that my uncle actually visited the spot and did the dirty work--so I won't wonder about it any more, and can just hang on to a child's charmed memory.

As if the photos weren't enough, my class session on the Aegean cultures of the Bronze Age featured some consideration of the homecoming theme in the Odyssey--the nostos, or journey home. When I checked my Liddel and Scott for some elaboration (from nosteo, to come home or return), I discovered that it also means, when applied to food, abundant, nutritious, wholesome.

So nostalgia, the ailment to which I have become so prone, unites nostos with algos (pain), to create a word that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, connotes not just longing, but a "form of melancholia caused by prolonged absence from one's home or country." The literal translation would be home-sickness, but I tend not to see the condition quite so negatively. Because it encourages memory (and is often generated by memory), nostalgia can be somewhat energizing. More than once, after musing over old photographs, or re-reading letters from my parents or grandparents, I've sat down to write, often taking up projects I'd abandoned for some time. Since much of what I write comes from or is set in the old turf, the act of recovering memory can transport me there and reignite creative embers.

I often remark about the serendipitous nature of research, and simply looking up the Greek origins of nostos led me to a connection I'd never made before, but is really foundational to notions of home and comfort: food. Many of my childhood memories are grounded, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, in kitchen aromas and favorite meals. The aforementioned "Little Horse" cookies were frequently included in care packages, lovingly tucked into old coffee tins by my grandmother, and sent to Taiwan for Christmases and birthdays. Pies, made from blackberries freshly picked from the brambles behind the Cottonwood house, and applesauce cake (with its "secret" ingredient of chocolate powder; the original recipe is here) were staples of family gatherings and perennial choices for comfort food among several generations of children. The connection between fragrance and memory is never as clear as when it's churned up in the kitchen.

True melancholia, the debilitating depression that seems to plague so many (if we can believe the pharmaceutical ads), is undoubtedly not at all productive. But I have found that missing someplace meaningful, while saddening in some sense, is also therapeutic because it juxtaposes past with present and can remind us of those parts of the past that have made us who we are. I don't mean to belittle true depression or make light of those who do suffer; but I often wonder if we're so conditioned to seek happiness (whatever that is!) at all costs, and to feel like failures if we're not "up" and "positive" all the time.

It's not that we should wallow in occasional home-sickness, but I do think that we might well benefit from letting our minds wander along old paths more frequently--perhaps to explore both senses of nostos: of returning, but also of nourishing and sustaining. Home, even when we can return only in memory (and even if it takes us ten years to get there), is still restorative, as long as we don't choose to get lost on a path and forget where we are now.

Not long ago, I came across a book by Norman Fischer, Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls (New York: Free Press, 2008). It's a Zen-ish take on the idea of the homeward journey and, although I am decidedly not a fan of self-help books, I found his essays interesting. I've used some of his comments in my discussions with students of the relationships between ancient literature and modern life, and the notion of coming home to oneself seems to resonate with them.

Another recent acquisition, Robin Lane Fox's Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer (New York: Vintage Books, 2008) demonstrates how potent and how prevalent the heroic journey is, not just in the West, but in the East as well. Journeys, and especially nostoi, seem to be part of the literary landscape of most cultures. But in an era when "travelling" seems to connote pleasure cruises on gigantic floating hotels or trips to theme parks, voyages of discovery like those undertaken in antiquity appear to be diminishing.

Our so-called "globalization" far more closely resembles a kind of entropy, where the world is blurring into a homogenous blob of sameness. Fewer and fewer of my students travel anywhere (some have never been out of town, much less out of state), and the curiosity that used to drive adventure seems to be dwindling by the second. I'm not sure what all this means, but one possible outcome is that few of this generation's survivors will every have to make a journey home, because they'll never have left.

Image credit: One of many Victorian paintings dealing with Odysseus and his long voyage: John William Waterhouse's Odysseus and the Sirens (1891), via Wikimedia Commons.


Martha Z said...

One of the great things about my "Around California" blog is that it has caused us to visit parts of the state we never would have.
A back road in the coast range we explored recently led us though the valley town of Colusa where there was a quilt show and civil war reenactment. Then we drove some little used county roads up through green rolling hills and tiny hamlets. California as it once was.

Kawks! said...

I myself rarely travel. I just don't get the same pleasure out of it as most people. Even some of my close friends seem to be invigorated by road trips to strange places. However while they are usually frolicking and exploring, I'm sketching or complaining about the weather, or the bugs. It is however very interesting, even while I don't enjoy myself on adventures and would rather be working (on illustration or animation) I find that after a long and boring trips, my day to day work seems a lot less draining. I will still continue to bitch about long drives and flights tho. :)