When I started college, one of the first classes I took was a Greek and Roman Literature course. We were assigned to read Homer’s Odyssey, but not just read it: during every class, the professor would walk around the room, pick up a student’s copy of the book, find a section he or she had annotated. Then this professor would ask the student to explain their written comments and recite at least three lines from memory from that section. Oh, and you could only use the line “rosy fingers of dawn” once in your recitation. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least: you never knew when Dr. Koper would pivot suddenly towards you, grab your book off your desk, stare at you over his bifocals, and say, “Page 75. You have written ‘third warning.’ Explain, and give me two lines from the text.”
His argument was that The Odyssey is the story of every man (or woman), so it is an archetypal myth: leaving home, encountering obstacles along the journey into the larger world, and, if lucky, coming back home again. But here’s the catch: when the hero returns, they find themselves, their loved ones, and even their home itself altogether different, changed. Dr. Koper claimed this story was worth not just reading, but truly understanding, and the only way we truly understand stories that are not our own is by making the words part of our memories, so that they intermingle with our own experiences.
I thought of this book again over the Thanksgiving break. I have to admit, I think Dr. Koper was right. After all, this entire year could be described like The Odyssey. This pandemic has unmoored us all, sent us to places and thrust us into situations that we never would have imagined ten short months ago. I suspect we have all tried to be brave and resilient, like Odysseus. And, like Odysseus, we have discovered that these characteristics are hard to maintain when you are tired, lonely, and overwhelmed. We have learned that when everything is strange, unpredictable, and sometimes even dangerous, all we want is to go back home: back to the place where things were as they once were.
According to my (very old) class notes, the word “nostalgia” is actually a combination of two words in Ancient Greek: “nostos,” or “a hero’s homecoming,” and “algos,” which means “pain.” In short, nostalgia means “homecoming pain.” Pain for the desire for home, or more specifically, our memories of home that are tied to love, safety, comfort, joy, happiness, contentment. Home as we remember it, in the past.
Chris and Helen write:
While we do believe that we will get back to normal when this pandemic ends, we are acutely aware that normal may look different than we remember. We, and those around us, will be changed by this journey. We will likely continue to feel some sense of nostalgia for our memories of the past for quite some time.
This is why writing matters. The Community Writing Center provides a space for our writers to explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences throughout their journey: through poetry, memoir, and fiction, and yes, even through grant applications, scholarship essays, and résumés. While the genres differ, all these types of writing afford us a way to shape and share our experience through words. This is a very powerful thing.
We want to remind you that in the month of December, we have a number of opportunities for you to write with us: An upcoming grant-writing workshop, our regional poet’s group, and (of course) free online writing feedback consultations. We also have a writing contest we’re co-sponsoring with the Marshall Frederick’s Museum, so don’t forget to check out all these opportunities on our website, www.communitywritingcenter.com.
Also, if you are looking for some good reads, we’d recommend a great memoir, The Dream House by Carmen Marie Machado: this is a cleverly put-together series of short vignettes that focus on the trauma of a past relationship, demonstrating how an extended metaphor can work throughout an entire book. If you’re looking for a good book on writing, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft gives some great writing advice paired with short stories about his own writing life. And as for poetry, we recommend Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, a work that very much focuses on pasts both public and private.
Finally, we want to recognize one of our local authors, Jared Morningstar, an English teacher at Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy and facilitator of the CWC Poets’ Group. His new collection, American Fries, is an interesting mix of fiction and poetry that explores the contemporary American experience. To learn more, visit HERE.
As always, we look forward to seeing you online. In the meantime, be safe, be healthy, and keep writing!
Helen and Chris