When you live in the world of Homeric epic, you're never too far away from grief.
One of things I find most interesting about the environment of the Iliad and Odyssey (and really a lot of Ancient Greek literature and thought that follows) is the consideration and acceptance of grief as a perpetual human condition. Heroes of the highest social order have grief. The enslaved have grief. Men have grief, women have grief. Achilles has grief. Odysseus has grief. Everyone. Has. Grief.
Of course we know that in the world that incubated and preserved these stories the reality was that certain classes of people suffered in very acute ways (often because of their lack of agency) that other classes didn't. But I find something very... real and compelling about a culture that can so openly acknowledge the universality of trauma, suffering, and grief.
Grief was on my mind as I arrived at The Hill School in Pennsylvania (an hour outside of Philadelphia) to perform both The Blues of Achilles and my Odyssey as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities funded Institute called Timeless Parallels: Veteran Voices & Classical Literature.
The conceit of the Institute was to examine how Ancient Greek culture framed and processed combat experiences and veterans' issues through narratives, texts, and performance, and to investigate how we might use some of these same texts and tools in our society to amplify veterans' stories and consider trauma as it relates to war as well as other environments.
The campus of The Hill School was beautiful, my accommodations were perfect, but grief was on my mind because the previous day the suburb of Highland Park, a community in which I've been teaching guitar for almost 20 years, was turned into a war zone by a mass shooter.
My students and their families were all physically okay but I could feel their collective grief in texts and phone call. We've all seen mass shootings on television with increasingly regularity but this was the closest I've been to one and it felt very real in a way previous incidents haven't.
I sang The Blues of Achilles in the school's beautiful stained-glass military chapel, the walls covered with the names of the alumni of the school who served in the wars of the 20th century with a special mark next to each person who lost their life in service. I reached the penultimate song of the cycle, Grief of Our Hands, in which Achilles and Priam mourn together and this communal acknowledgment of their grief is the thing that finally rehumanizes Achilles after the inhumanity of his battlefield slaughters.
I thought about how this moment of shared grief isn't portrayed as a panacea: it doesn't bring back Patroclus or Hector or stop the war. But it does allow Achilles and Priam to see one another as humans and to begin to move past the paralyses that their respective griefs have created.
I think that is what is missing in our society: the opportunities and desire to see one another's humanity in the universal condition of grief. I have my suspicions as to some of the culprits and bad actors who knowingly corrupt the avenues we might otherwise use to make productive connections around trauma and grief but this isn't the place to speculate on those.
The next day I sang The Odyssey in that same room for the same audience. For a long time I considered the Odyssey to be the more hopeful of the two epics (not particularly hopeful, but I thought there was at least some light in it in comparison to the Iliad)... but during this performance I became aware of how truly bleak it is. Odysseus never really experiences that moment of human connection that Achilles does with Priam.
In book 24 of the Iliad, Priam becomes a stand in for Achilles' own grieving father and Achilles treats him with just about the only gentle kindness we see from the ruthless warrior in the whole poem. In book 24 of the Odyssey, Odysseus needlessly hectors (natch) his grieving father with lies designed to exacerbate Laertes' grief.
I finished singing and headed right for the airport. On the TV at the airport bar a newscaster reported from the scene of the shooting in Highland Park. Interviews with witnesses, with family members, with doctors who helped on the scene... grief everywhere but also in that wine-dark sea of grief I saw people helping people, people giving of themselves, people doing whatever they could to comfort those who lost so acutely and mourned so heavily. I thought of my two Greek protagonists and their respective griefs.
And I thought of my grief.
And I felt the human connection that ran from a battlefield millennia ago to me in that airport bar to the TV broadcasting new but somehow never-changing stories of loss, grief, and, against all odds, hope.