“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will~ ulysses, by tennyson
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Yesterday was my birthday. I didn’t go out partying, I didn’t plan a big day with a bunch of activities, I didn’t even do anything outside of the ordinary. I made breakfast, read the news, went to the gym, did some grocery shopping, and followed that up by meal-prepping for the upcoming week while the NBA All-Star game played in the background.
During most of the day, I couldn’t help but sift through the normal thoughts one has during these semi-meaningful arbitrary milestones that we set for ourselves like birthdays. How am I doing? Am I working toward what I want? Am I where I thought I would be? Am I where I should be? Am I loved? Do I love? Do I have passion? Am I still curious? Am I inspiring myself appropriately? Is this still interesting?
At some point while I was wandering the aisles of Whole Foods and pondering these thoughts, the quote from Tennyson above crept into my head and stayed there the rest of the day until I had a chance to sit down and reread his poem, “Ulysses” (also known as Odysseus, of Homer’s “The Odyssey”). I previously read it at some point in college, but had found the old english vocabulary to be boring and therefore indecipherable for my underdeveloped brain.
But this time around, I found a lingering resonance that I can’t quite define.
The poem takes place after Odysseus/Ulysses has returned home to his family, and he finds himself, for lack of a better term, bored. He has become part of the experiences that have shaped him during his adventures abroad, and he longs again for the great unknown, the call of the wild. He decides to leave his ruling duties to his son, and to rally his crew again for one last voyage at sea, with the final two lines of the poem offering a defiant refusal to bow to age.
“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
While I read and reread the lines of Ulysses to make sure I was pulling as much meat off the bone as I could, and organizing my thoughts for what I thought would be a triumphant and defiant topic here in this column, I had my Spotify account on shuffle in the background. On my third read-through, the soft, delicate tones of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” began playing. I stopped thinking, stopped reading, closed my eyes, and relaxed in my chair, listening as the gentle piano notes danced lightly around the room, filling the air.
As the composition progressed, drifting from the serene innocence of the opening to the dramatic ascending notes immediately following, then to the peaceful rolling motifs blissfully drifting around seemingly without direction in the middle of the song, until the melody quietly slowed into its wispful, melancholic yet satisfied end, I found myself experiencing emotions I had never let myself feel in the song before.
I felt the bliss and insecurity of innocence. I was lured by wonder. I felt the weight of helplessness, of being completely out of control. I felt the sting of pain. the bittersweet melancholy of love lost. I felt the release of healing. I felt the breathlessness of love’s first spark. I settled into gentle comfort. I felt cautious, and hesitant. The pull of curiosity. I felt the gentle confidence of true beauty. I felt hope.
I sat still as I allowed these emotions to wash over me, unsure of what it was I was experiencing, but trying to remain present nonetheless. Amid a fog of confusion, the song ended and I wiped the tears from my eyes.
I looked at my notes on “Ulysses” and tried to make sense of how this poem could lead to the emotional experience I had just had with “Claire de Lune.”
I am still not totally sure of what this experience is significant of, nor do I think these two works of art relate to each other in any way.
But as I look back on my 37 years of life, I find great comfort that I can find such identity and resonance from a piece like “Ulysses,” knowing that though I may not have the accomplishments I hoped to have by now, I still possess a dogged determination to strive, to seek, to find, and that I am not yet ready to yield. Not any time soon.
And yet I also find comfort that I can derive such passionate, emotional identity and definition from a piece like Claire de Lune, a song I’ve heard a hundred times in films or shopping malls without more than a thought of its recognizance. And yet, suddenly I can be moved to tears when it inexplicably decides to reveal itself to me in an intimate moment.
And as I grow through my experiences, and I continue to marshall the strength not to yield, I will continue to be increasingly open to these emotions that for most of my life I have avoided. For I am only recently realizing that they make me strong, not weak. Where the strength of my convictions and ambitions offer the form, my emotions and vulnerabilities offer the color, and together they weave the most beautiful tapestry I am only just now becoming aware of.
I am not yet where I want to be, and I am still learning who I am. But I know that I have a lot of life left to explore. And for that, I have hope.
To strive, to seek, to find.