One-eyed giants, six-headed monsters, a man-devouring whirlpool, and spell casting nymphs: these are some of the characters that summon my seven and eight years olds imaginations each day. We read from Homer’s Odyssey nearly nightly. The great epic saga about a man’s journey to get home is one of our favorites. The story is old. Some say 700 BC. This is a concept I try to teach my children, but the vast sense of time is too great for them. All literature seems to come from this poem. With each passage, something new about the past reveals itself to you; whether it be a cultural reference, a phrase or a story. Many roots go back to Greek mythology and this text.
The word mentor has its origins in The Odyssey. The character Mentor, is a wise advisor to Odysseus’ son Telemachus. I had been unaware that this often used term had its origin in the Greek epic. I began to think about the word and what it means to me on my odyssey.
I was on the road with Jack Keroauc. Nineteen years old and hungry for experience. I wanted to be a stranger somewhere; to feel stranded in some completely foreign situation. I wanted to meet people. I wanted to find Neal Cassady.
It was a hot summer morning when I boarded a Greyhound bus on a downtown street in Cleveland alone. I had just finished a whole slew of Beat books and was inspired to experience as much as I could. A month prior my older brother had shared an artist he had heard on NPR with me. When I found that this artist was performing in Chicago weeks later, this became my destination. A makeshift pilgrimage. On the trip I met many obstacles including being mugged and struggling to get back to Cleveland but I came out of it with a direct line to what would become my destiny.
When looking back on this, there is nothing extraordinary about this journey. I wasn’t hitch-hiking across South America or any such thing. In youth, however, moments and choices like this can be monumental in informing our lives. They can be transformative. If one believes our fate isn’t pre-determined then you have to accept that there are endless combinations that drive us to each point of our existence. This moment was certainly one that created exacting consequences.
I met the artist that evening and months later he would be the one that helped me make my first album and guide the course in life I would take. A few years later, he would invite me to come reside with him and his family in New Orleans. He became my mentor.
I cannot trace my growth as a person without going directly through him. Nor can I separate my world view today, nearly fifteen years later, from the one he showed me. Those magical days in New Orleans, and those many years under his wing, unveiled a deeper connection to the universe than I knew existed.
I learned about love. About life. About music. About God. All through his eyes. He spoke a language to me that nobody had ever been able to relay before. Things made sense. Being human made sense. I didn’t feel so alone. I hung on his words. Even the words he threw away were jewels I still remember.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a mentor. I was very lucky. I learned from one of the greatest musicians, artists, and people there are. I had a deep subconscious yearning to learn and to see something deeper and he filled it. But the mentor-student relationship is also not meant to last through time, though the teachings are. This was what I failed to understand ten years into it.
What the student wants most is to become equal or even surpass the teacher. The student wants to be respected as a peer but wouldn’t the nature of this relationship mean the mentor has worn out his tenure in that case?
Eventually, as relationships grow, you begin to test them. Slowly and cautiously at first. You will offer an opinion you know to be different from his. Hesitantly. He will smack it down. You will feel ashamed or young and remember your role. Finally, you begin to see that he is not perfect. He will be wrong sometimes. And one day, your opinion may become more than just a testing ground, it will be your own. And you will try to defend it. To stick by it.
Well I never surpassed mine. Nor did I come close to approaching his level of artistry. This, over time became my inner fight.
Then something happened.
One day in particular, the relationship as it was designed was severed once and for all. I regret this day. It was my fault. My perceptions and expectations didn’t match the reality of the relationship. I wanted to be a man. But I was still the student. Still the kid.
I saw the way he laughed with others. The way he listened to others. The way he spoke to others and I realized I didn’t want to be someone’s student or child anymore. I was hurt and confused. I saw he’d never look at me as equal and I lost my mentor.
I always remember the famous line from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.” So it goes here. The relationship is what it is.
So where am I today?
We no longer relate in that same manner but I still look to him. My adult life began with him. I see the world through him. He is still my mentor, as much today as then, but not in a personal way. We are friends again, perhaps not as intimately as I wish.The dust settled and we can forget the unfortunate incident that threatened it all but I’m left leader-less. And I’m left to wonder on the nature of mentors and students. I’m left to wonder if the dissolution of the relationship was exactly as it’s supposed to happen; how it’s supposed to be with mentors and students. I think back on The Odyssey and it occurs to me that if the young Telemachus were to sit down with the wise elder Mentor, and expect a true friendship between peers; had the relationship progressed in that way; we may have a different word for mentor today.