How’s Your Iliad?

‘And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.’ –Wendell Berry

In the recently released movie Tender Bar, Yale student JR Maguire, played by Tye Sheridan, asks his girl crush when he bumps into her at a party, “How’s your Iliad?,” after having read and discussed the story in their English class. In other words, he is asking how her journey is going so far as a Freshman at Yale as well as life in general.

Both the Odyssey and the Iliad are classic tales about coming into one’s own, but also about returning home, which in both Western and Eastern literature, is metaphorical for having found one’s identity and place in the world, in relation to one’s outside environment filled with ambiguity and obstacles. This theme is present in many great works of literature across all cultures as seen in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, Fae Mae Ng’s Bone, Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York, Tova Mirvis’s The Outside World, and Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves, to name a few.

During the pandemic, “Home” has taken on more than a physical meaning for most. We have all been reminded of the importance of Home, and its pastoral significance: a place of familiarity and sanctuary. Spending so much time at home has allowed us to slow down and reflect. At first, this idea was unfamiliar. Unless one is living a Thoreauesque lifestyle in a cabin in the woods, the hectic pace of life compounded by the constant flooding of social media and other infinite distraction, kept us from sitting quietly and pondering our relationships, environments and inner thoughts.

Although uncomfortable thoughts can also surface when spending so much time in semi-isolation, the meritorious thoughts eventually gravitate to the surface, as we are also reminded of the preciousness of life. As a result, it seems that most people I know have made more personal vows and commitments as to how they will live their lives post pandemic. Returning to and re-envisioning our homes has helped us to prioritize that which is most important to us.

Something that has also become noticeable, is a sense of community as part of the equation of home. Whether attending more town meetings, voicing opinions (of agreement and disagreement), forming more community groups, performing more acts of kindness, reaching out and having conversations with individuals and even neighbors we hadn’t previously known or bothered to, we have seen an acknowledgement of this important and broader connection. A sense of community makes us feel that we are part of something greater than ourselves.

Feeling reduced is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is what often starts us on great journeys. When we come face-to-face with our own humanity, we are forced to ask important questions about ourselves, our relationship to the world and to others, presenting us with a chance to expand our minds to new outlooks and ideas. The pandemic has forced us to realize that the hierarchy within society that attempts to establish lines of superiority and inferiority is man made, since Covid doesn’t discriminate against those lives it will impact.

So let me ask once again, an important question we can ask ourselves as our lives open up again, the same question that JR McGuire, who understood the full significance of the question, asked his soon to be girlfriend the night of that college party: “How’s your Iliad?”

Photo/artwork at top: “My Little Hut” by Aarti Dadhania.

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