One of the great joys of living near Stanford University is access to many outstanding events that are open to the community. One such event was “The Living Odyssey: An Evening with Madeline Miller and Martin Shaw” on Tuesday, May 7th, 2019.
The Odyssey. Homer’s tales, of Odysseus's journey back home, after a war, and overcoming many trials and tribulations along the way. Stories, like all great epics, that draw us in and touch us in the deepest, most primal way.
Part I. Getting There.
It had been an exhausting few weeks, with intense work and many social events to attend and more to coordinate. After another long stretch of work on Monday, I simply ran out of steam. When Tuesday rolled around, I was drained. Part way through my usual walk (which I was determined to go on), I was exhausted and walking slowly back to my car. After returning home around 5.30pm, I lay down with a warm quilt over me and closed my eyes. I woke up at 6:40 PM. The living Odyssey started at 7:30 PM at Stanford, and it would take be about 20 minutes to get there.
I walked out of my room and was greeted by my daughter who touched the bedspread design now marking my cheek and pranced around saying “Ooji Mooji!”
“What?” I asked impatiently and with furrowed brow.
“That’s what you do to me,” she exclaimed, squeezing my cheeks together between thumb and fingers, “Ooji Mooji Mooji!”
Indeed, when affection cannot be expressed in regular words, I lapse into such expressions.
“I am so tired,” I said to her. “Shall I ditch the Odyssey?”
“No,” she lectured, teenager-feigning-adulthood, “That wouldn’t be good. Go!”
“I have to eat something,” I said.
So I quickly ate a few bites of Sunita’s vegan quiche, left over from the gala held by the iSing Girlchoir (in which Sunaina sings), shelled a handful of peanuts and ate them, washed my face, changed my clothes and put on some earrings to try and pretend I hadn’t just rolled out of bed. And then I launched forth.
I made my way to the Cemex auditorium at the Knight Management Center, home of Stanford’s famed Graduate School of Management, provider of MBAs to many a captain of industry.
My friend Abha had saved me a prime seat: fifth row, center, and I sank into it gratefully.
Part II. The Event.
There were three gray upholstered chairs placed in a curve on stage, and behind them, on the stunning wall of horizontal wood strips, was a square black cloth through which white lights shone: stars in the sky.
The guests of the evening were introduced by Jonah Willihnganz, professor of English at Stanford, and Director of the Stanford Storytelling Project which hosted this event.
Madeline Miller’s debut novel of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second novel Circe, published in 2018, is told from the perspective of Circe, a nymph in the Odyssey who masters witchcraft.
Martin Shaw wrote the award-winning Mythteller trilogy, and this year published two books: The Night Wages and Courting the Dawn: Poems of Lorca. He lives and teaches in the UK and has devised and led the Oral Tradition course at Stanford University.
Martin Shaw opened by playing on a drum and telling the story of Zeus stealing away to sleep with Maia. Of this union, Hermes is born, who walked immediately upon birth, and soon stole his brother Apollo’s 50 cattle. He talked his way out of the situation, and Shaw explained Hermes' charm: “Apollo had the facts, but Hermes had the story.”
Madeline Miller read from different sections of her book "Circe" at various points during the conversation. For her readings, she stood up. The one who tells the story is the one who controls the narrative, she said. Men have controlled the narrative in many stories, including The Odyssey. She wanted to tell the story from Circe's perspective.
The moderator Jonah Willihnganz asked several questions that members of the audience had submitted in advance.
On why we keep going back to these stories, Miller said that they were primal stories, about our humanity.
Martin Shaw had a beautiful explanation. We have three kinds of memory, he said: skin memory, flesh memory, and bone memory.
Skin memory is what is on your resume, e.g "I worked at such and such place at such and such year." Flesh memory is deeper: e.g. "I lived with Julian for 20 years and this is how I felt when we divorced."
Bone memory is the deepest: e.g. when you stand in a grove of old oak trees and begin to weep uncontrollably, inexplicably. And he believes it is this bone memory that takes us back to the stories that we know and love.
That resonated for me. Several years ago, it must have been bone memory that made me weep instantly when I heard on the radio, unexpectedly, an old song that my mother used to sing to me when I was a child. A lullaby. It had been a few years since she died, and the song triggered so many emotions.
There was an engaging discussion on Nostos, coming home. The Greek word Nostos is one of the roots of nostalgia, the pain and longing for home. Odysseus' journey home, fraught with danger and misadventures, is a tale that we can all identify with. In some ways, it is a search for ourselves and the journey, the discovery.
Part III. Other Tellings of The Odyssey
Indeed one never tires of the old stories and myths, and their reimaginings. I have seen Suzan Lori Parks' “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, III, III” performed at ACT's Geary Theatre in San Francisco. Read a review here.
Parks drew from the Odyssey and cast it in her own form and fashion, drawing inspiring from other epics including the Mahabharata with its warring families. She sets her play in the Civil War, with Hero, an enslaved man trying to decide if he should go to war on the Confederate side, in exchange for freedom, promised by his master, a Confederate Army colonel. The dialog is sharp and searing: the colonel's entitlement when he says "No matter how low I fall, I'll always be white!"
The music was exquisite: several ballads sung by Martin Luther McCoy. one was was "In the Midst of this Bright Wilderness" with the lyrics, "God's in his heaven up above, up above, while we toil bravely down below." And the song "Misplaced Myself" a euphemism for a slave running away to escape.
The reunion of Ulysses and Penny is fraught with more pain and difficulty in that moment (for Penny) than in The Odyssey; Odysseus went with other women during his journey, but did not come home with any of them.
Another retelling, Marcus Gardley’s “Black Odyssey”, was performed at Cal Shakes' stunning Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda in the fall of 2018. It was my first visit to the amphitheater, and I was charmed by the ambience. The beautiful stage and seats were surrounded by tall trees, and as night fell, the landscaping and lights appeared quite magical.
The play is set in Oakland, California in the year 2001. Ulysses Lincoln, a black soldier lost at sea and presumed dead after fighting in the Iraq war, is struggling to find his way home to his wife and son. Various gods (Paw-Sidin / Poseidon, Auntie Tina / Athena, Daddy Deus / Zeus) conspire to make his journey more difficult. They war with one another and toy with him. We see the richness of African-American history and music, both the light and the darkness. In modern day Oakland as in all of America, a young black man's life is in peril. Read a review here.
And thus the stories live on, with tellings and retellings, from the ancient times to our times.
Part IV. The Reunion
Martin Shaw, accompanied by his drum, concluded the Stanford event with the story of the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope. She is distant. So much time has passed. When you have spent so many years imagining an event, a reunion, how can the reality measure up?!
After much back and forth where the coolness hasn’t quite thawed, he declares that he will go and sleep outside. Yes, she says I will have our marital bed moved out. He is stunned. No, he exclaims. The ones who know that bed are you and I. If you move it, you will sever it from the olive tree that holds it up. Our story will be torn asunder.
He reveals himself in that moment. And she sees him as he is. And they reunite.
After thanking Homer for the stories, Shaw concluded with a beautiful blessing:
"Bless the ones that listen
Bless the one that tells the story
and bless the ones that are to come.”
#StanfordUniversity #TheOdyssey #Circe #MartinShaw #MadelineMiller #Odysseus #Penelope #JonahWillihnganz #StanfordStorytellingProject #Nostos #FatherComesHomefromtheWarsPartsIIIIIII #BlackOdyssey #MarcusGardley #Ulysses #CalShakes #ACTSF #SuzanLoriParks
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