The First Feechie: Enkidu

gilgamesh

gilgamesh

I’m teaching a world literature course this fall. We started with the epic of Gilgamesh. It’s one of the oldest surviving works of literature, probably written around 2500 BC. To put it in perspective, that’s about a thousand years before Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt. I’m pretty sure Abraham would have known the story of Gilgamesh–and known it as an ancient story.
When Gilgamesh was written, civilization was still a relatively novel concept in the Fertile Crescent. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the central conflict/friendship of the epic should be between a civilizer (Gilgamesh) and a suspiciously feechiefied fellow named Enkidu. Two-thirds god and one-third man, Gilgamesh is stronger than anyone else in the world. When he becomes king of Uruk, he oppresses his people, taking whatever he wants because no one can oppose him. When the cry of the people of Uruk goes up, the gods order the goddess Aruru to make his equal. So she pinched off some clay and dropped it in the wilderness, and up came Enkidu:

His body was rough, he had long hair like a woman’s; it waved like the hair of Nisaba, the goddess of corn. His body was covered with matted hair like Samuqan’s, the god of cattle. The was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land. Enkidu ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes; he had joy of the water with the herds of wild game.

Civilization didn’t come easy for Enkidu. When friendly shepherds tried to give him a meal, he didn’t know what to do with himself:

All the shepherds crowded around to see him; they put down bread in front of him, but Enkidu could only suck the milk of wild animals. He fumbled and gaped, at a loss what to do or how he should eat the bread and drink the strong wine.

When at last Enkidu comes to the city of Uruk to meet the heretofore unrivalled Gilgamesh, the two become friends in a most feechiefied manner: by fighting first and shaking hands later.

Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown. Then immediately his fury died. When Enkidu was thrown he said, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men… [or, as Dobro Turtlebane would have said more succinctly, ‘You got what it takes, Civilizer!]…So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh go on to have many adventures together. More than once Enkidu gripes about having given up his wild life and gone civilized.

All that to say, feechie stories have a very long and august history, going back as far as Western literature itself. And yet, as a genre, feechie stories don’t always get the respect they deserve. Would you believe that there isn’t a single university in America with a Feechie Studies department? Not one! Maybe we should start a movement–or at least circulate a petition.

How Stories Do Their Work On Us

bookshelf

Reading with my children has reminded me of a truth that years of adulthood had almost caused me to forget: that “story” is truer than “precept.” We adults tend to think that we arrive at the truth of a story by reducing it to two or three abstractions that the narrative embodies. The parable of the Prodigal Son is “about” grace and forgiveness.The Lord of the Rings is “about” courage and friendship. We listen with half an ear as the preacher reads the scripture lesson, because his sermon is going to boil it down to three basic truths anyway.
But our children know it’s the story that does the work on us, not the disembodied precept. If you don’t believe it, open up a book of Aesop’s Fables; skip the fables, and just read the morals at the end of the fables. You might just as well tell punch lines instead of telling jokes. The moral may summarize the story and bring it to a point, but the moral isn’t the point.

It’s not that abstract concepts or ideas are unimportant. Mercy, forgiveness, repentance, abundance—all the things that form the basis of Christian truth—are abstract concepts. But being mere mortals, we can’t really understand any of those things if they aren’t grounded in what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. You can talk about grace until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to come up with a definition that improves on the parable of the Prodigal Son: a father, arms outstretched, welcoming a rebellious and wicked son back into his home. And the word “friendship” doesn’t mean much unless you’ve seen a friend in action—Sam Gamgee, for instance, nearly drowning himself rather than let Frodo journey to Mordor alone.

The Habit of Understanding
The moral benefit of a story goes far beyond the “moral of the story.” Almost by definition, an avid reader is in the habit of understanding what it’s like to be somebody else. Whatever the moral of the story, reading sharpens the skills of empathy, which is not only a moral virtue, but a huge advantage in any pursuit. Habit Five of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” boils it down: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Readers, you might say, are habitual understanders. A story allows a reader to join in the inner lives of its characters. Readers aren’t mere spectators or audience members. A well-written book allows them to experience what it’s like to be another person. And isn’t that the very basis of empathy and kindness? Isn’t it a key component of love?
Our natural tendency is to close in on ourselves, to be so concerned with our own interests, our own preoccupations that we find it hard to understand another person’s perspective. More than that, we find it very hard to understand our own selves.

Consider the case of David and Bathsheba. Because I tell stories for a living, one of my heroes is the prophet Nathan. He’s the one who had the unfortunate job of confronting David about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah.

One has to be careful when exposing a king who has already demonstrated a willingness to murder in order to keep his guilt hidden. So Nathan made up a story. He told about a rich man with many flocks and herds and a poor man who had only one little lamb that he loved like a family member. When the rich man needed a lamb to feed a visitor, he took the poor man’s pet lamb rather than slaughter one of his own.

David was enraged. He vowed that the rich man would die for this injustice. That’s when Nathan brought the truth down like a thunderstroke: “You are the man.”

It was one of the great moments in the history of fiction. Cut to the heart, David repented of his sin. And Nathan the prophet lived to tell more stories.

Nathan’s story did what all great fiction does: it took David out of himself, and it gave him an emotional attachment to what it is good and right. Nathan didn’t tell the king anything he didn’t know already. David knew it was wrong to kill a man and take his wife. But he had built for himself a little world of self-justification and self-protection and self-indulgence that made it possible for him to ignore the moral facts of the matter. Nathan’s story took him out of that world and let him see what it looked like from the outside.

Loving the Right
As the prophet Nathan knew, it’s not enough to know what’s right. People have to desire what’s right before they’ll do it consistently. Stories have a unique ability to shape a person’s sympathies—to change what they desire.

I love the Narnia books. I think what I love most about them is the fact that they give us a chance to renew the way we feel about things we’ve known all our lives. If you’ve been paying attention in Sunday School, you already know all the theology in the Narnia books. They don’t give you new facts to chew on. They help align your feelings and desires with regard to the facts you already know.

Instead of giving you a lecture on the importance of staying warm, Lewis builds a fire and says, “Here—feel this. Doesn’t that feel good?” You can hardly help but love Aslan for the things he says and does. You can hardly help but desire what’s good and right and true.

A virtuous life is a life of adventure—of facing challenges, standing firm, rescuing the powerless, righting wrongs. A good adventure story dramatizes that adventure and makes it seem like the sort of life that nobody would want to miss out on. It doesn’t just tell the reader what’s right; it helps the reader towant what’s right.

Real life doesn’t always feel like a great adventure. Sometimes doing the right thing is rather dull. Great adventure stories remind us that in the end, the choices we make every day are the stuff of greatness. The world is changed by people who choose to tell the truth, to show kindness, to be courageous.

Our natural tendency is to burrow into our own little lives and so lose perspective on what really matters and what’s really true. Our good deeds start to seem irrelevant, and our bad deeds start to seem like they’re no big deal. We all need to step outside ourselves now and then—perhaps to try out another, better self, or perhaps, as David did, to see our own situation from another viewpoint.

Guest Post: Growing Peas

Peas

Peas

In the comments section of this blog she’s known as BuckBuck, but her real name is Rebecca Reynolds. Besides winning the recent clerihew contest, BuckBuck/Rebecca writes beautifully and thoughtfully at a blog she calls the little boots liturgies. Today’s post, about gardening and quadratic equations and the hymnal that is nature, is so good that I asked if I could use it here. There’s more where this comes from. If you like what you read here (and I think you will), head over to Rebecca’s blog and mine it for its other treasures.

Growing Peas

by Rebecca Reynolds

Some gardeners never bother growing peas. They say the plants produce too little for the space they require. They say it’s easier to buy them at the grocery, and it’s true. My largest harvest wouldn’t even fill a $1.28 freezer bag at Kroger.

Responsible gardeners raise things that are bean-practical. And still, every March I poke the end of my index finger into the thawing dirt and drop pregnant frivolity into holes one knuckle deep.

I plant peas knowing full well that ten handfuls of pea pods will never even make it to the back door. My children will pull them off the vines and pop them sweet and sun-warm into their mouths, feet running, eyes full of light, littering the hulls on the trimmed tops of early grass. They will burst joy’s pea against their palates fine and experience five seconds of June perfection. Candy mixed from a recipe of cool, unfrozen earth and virgin April daylight.

Most vegetable seeds begin the same prim way, two neat little responsible leaves atop a juicy white stalk. The tomatoes, the peppers, and the beets I started early have already risen and conformed. Yet pea plants push their baby green elbows through the dirt, renegade. Hair tossed from sleep. Exploding into twirly bits and leafy whimsy. They are born into the shape of laughter and confetti.

It’s spring!
It’s spring!
It’s spring!

They shout from their rows, waving their little palms in the air like children running out of heavy school doors into summer holiday.

Woohoo!
We’ve survived Algebra I-
thirty long problems every night.
We’ve survived parabolas, and walking in line,
and Eustace Scrubb, and acne, and Mrs. Sneed.
We have recited bookish, joyless things underground too long.

It is the green-sweet time
when sun and earth make us sleepy and full!
We will lie in blanket pods for long warm days,
and drink the wine of becoming,
and fall asleep while frogs sing over us.
We have been birthed from the marriage
of thirsting and being made,
like the prodigal racing home.

The earth reads like a book and gardens like a hymnal. I am so thankful for that.

Because I have spent long winters memorizing the gospel of quadratic equations. I have traced steps on chalkboards, split factors, trusted that in cases of this X, Y should perform such-and-such. Cognitive shoulds demand allegiance like the putting on of scarves in February.

I have watched agnostics rumble and huff over it all, blood too hot and wise to be wooed by two dimensions. And I hardly blame them.

Yet four rows of pea plants rise through black dirt like a prophet poking reckless and beautiful into the light. Divinity pumped sweet through xylem and phloem with the pulse of a practical exchange. The madcap bliss of unorthodox gift art. The faithing life, borne through the sucking of honey into veins.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Tantum ergo

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! oe’r ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To the everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Spirit proceeding
Forth from each eternally,
Be salvation, honor, blessing,
Might and endless majesty.
Amen.

R. Thou hast given them bread from heaven.
V. Having within it all sweetness.

Rural Fantasy

thirteenth child

thirteenth child

I was on Amazon.com yesterday and noticed that my book The Charlatan’s Boy was on a list of “Rural Fantasy for Children” put together by children’s lit blogger Kate Coombs. I’ve called my subgenre “frontier fantasy.” Ms. Coombs calls it “rural fantasy,” and she demonstrates that there are a good many more books in the category than I realized. She writes,

Maybe you’ve heard of urban fantasy, but there’s a new subgenre on the scene: its counterpart, rural fantasy. These magical stories take place on farms, in the backwoods, on the bayou, or in the Appalachian Mountains, and they tend to have a folksy, tall tale flavor. Also related are fantasy books set in the Wild West or on the American frontier during its pioneer days (think Little House on the Prairie with wands). We sometimes find a touch of Native American magic in the mix, as well. I suspect all this Americana is part of the backlash from authors trying not to recreate Hogwarts, let alone Middle Earth.

Her list includes Ingrid Law’s Newbery honor book Savvy and its sequel Scumble, Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker, the graphic novels Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack by Nathan Hale, O’Dell Award winner The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan. That’s not even half the list.

I didn’t think of myself as being part of a movement, but it seems there are a good many writers experimenting with the idea of taking American settings and tropes and infusing them with fantasy elements to create a new folk mythology. Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear what you think about them.

Here, again, is the link to the list.

On Ash Wednesday


 

Recycling from a couple of years ago…

It’s Ash Wednesday. Yesterday my friend Father Thomas, an Anglican priest, burned the palm fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday to make the ashes to rub on people’s foreheads today. “Remember that you are dust,” he will say to them, “and to dust you shall return.”

I didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday or Lent, but I have to say, at this age it helps to be reminded that I am dust and returning to dust. It’s not just a help, but a comfort. This world is forever demanding that we take it as seriously as it takes itself, and it tempts us to take ourselves too seriously too. Ash Wednesday says, “No, no, no, dear sinner. You’re just dust, living in a world that’s just dust, and you and the world both are returning to dust. And you are dear to God nevertheless.”

I love the prayer in the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I used to associate Ash Wednesday–when I considered it at all–with self-flagellation. But, as the apostle Paul said, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance–the confidence that God hates nothing he has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.

For all my ambivalence about T.S. Eliot, there are passages in his poem “Ash Wednesday” that I just love. The lines I love the most in that poem, the lines that most perfectly capture the spirit of the day, are these:

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

“I’m not worthy.” True enough. But not the truest thing. The Lord speaks truer things into being every day.

So happy Ash Wednesday, you old sinner. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. And God loves you anyway.

Chesterton on Levity

Chesterton

Chesterton

I’m a big GK Chesterton fan. I especially love his book Orthodoxy, which is surely one of the most quotable books ever written. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs from that book:

The swiftest things are the softest things. A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. The stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air. Modern investigators of miraculous history have solemnly admitted that a characteristic of the great saints is their power of “levitation.” They might go further; a characteristic of the great saints is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art… In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man “falls” into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

The Singing Bush and the World of Wonders

At breakfast this morning, a friend got on the subject of that scene in The Three Amigos in which Dusty, Lucky, and Ned encounter the Singing Bush. They’re trying to find El Guapo, and, in classic fairy tale fashion, they get vague instructions: go to the Singing Bush and there summon the Invisible Swordsman. Here’s the scene:

I love Dusty Bottoms’ (Chevy Chase’s) eye-rolling dismissiveness of the Invisible Swordsman. He stands in the presence of a Singing Bush, yet the idea of an Invisible Swordsman–well that’s just ridiculous. His skepticism, his off-hand treatment of things that are too much for him to understand, has disastrous results.

But even if Dusty accidentally kills his own sense of wonder, the wondrous survives.

This is a world of marvels that we live in. We grow accustomed somehow to the wonders that surround us–the pearls that come from oysters’ mouths, the spring that emerges from winter’s bare, the heart that turns from stone to flesh when grace and mercy elbow in. Yet the idea that new wonders await is something that we have to be convinced of every day. We scoff like Dusty and–praise be–are proven wrong in our scoffing again and again.

In Which My Uncles Are Mistaken for Bank Robbers

modelT

modelT

My grandmother’s brothers were driving across Florida in a Model T Ford–this was eighty years ago or more. The car had no windshield, so the bugs that would normally get splattered on the windshield were instead getting splattered on my uncles’ faces. They were resourceful young men; they got paper bags at a grocery store, cut eyeholes in the bags, and pulled them over their heads like hoods. Then they went on their merry way, bugs popping against the paper bags like pistol shots every few seconds.
They hadn’t gone very far before a policeman stopped them. I suppose they pulled the bags off their heads well before the officer strode up to the driver’s side of that Model T–surely they did–but I like to imagine them turning to face the policeman with the bags still over their heads. They lean back and adjust the bags with their hands to line up the eyeholes so they can see the policeman. “Hello, Officer,” Oliver says, his voice muffled by the paper bag. “Was I speeding?”

The policeman gives them a long squint. “You weren’t speeding,” he says, “but with them masks over your heads you look more like two bank robbers than anybody I ever seen.”

Bonus broken windshield story: My father’s uncle Buddy was tearing down a dirt road in a Model A or Model T when he saw a buzzard picking at something in the road ahead. Buddy didn’t slow down, confident that the buzzard would flap off before he got there. The buzzard tried to flap off, but it miscalculated the speed of the car’s approach. It has scarcely gotten off the ground when there was an explosion of feathers and flying glass. The buzzard crashed through the windshield and landed in the passenger seat beside Buddy, still flapping and clawing. The car hadn’t quite come to a stop when Buddy jumped out the driver’s side. “That buzzard was welcome to the car,” he said. “I just didn’t want to ride around with it any more.”

Ramona and Beezus: A Movie Review

Ramona_and_Beezus

Ramona_and_Beezus

This may just be my low expectations speaking, but I saw Ramona and Beezus the other day and was quite delighted with it. It had the makings of a very cliched children’s movie. A puckish little girl feels misunderstood at home and at school, and her every effort to straighten up and fly right is thwarted by misfortune and misguided enthusiasm. But Ramona and Beezus rises above the cliches and speaks some real wisdom. Ramona feels misunderstood, but as it turns out she’s the one who misunderstands. Her wise, kind parents understand her quite well, and the main movement of the story is Ramona’s coming to understand how much she’s loved.
Sometimes it seems that every live-action children’s movie made in the last thirty years involves inattentive parents following their own pursuits at the expense of their children’s happiness until finally, in a climactic moment, they see how wrong they’ve been and apologize to the kids. At the climactic moment of Ramona and Beezus, Ramona tells her parents that she’s sorry, and the parents don’t–get this–don’t say, “We’re sorry, honey. You were right all along.” I almost got up to adjust my television set. I thought at first that maybe the DVD player had skipped. If I’m not mistaken, the parents do apologize elsewhere in the movie (at appropriate times), but it was refreshing to see a movie that hinged on a child gaining wisdom rather than parents seeing the light. And it’s such beautiful wisdom that Ramona gains. She learns that she is her father’s treasure, that he thinks about her all the time. I’m sorry to spoil the ending, but it really is lovely.

I’ll tell you why I like this story so much. We all think we want to be proven right. But when it comes to finding real joy, my money is on those moments when I’m proven wrong–when my vision of the universe and my place in it turned out to be too limited. There’s a certain pleasure in saying, “I told you so.” Too many kids’ movies play to that small pleasure. There’s a bigger, wilder pleasure in being able to say, “Who’d have thought?” Ramona, perhaps, would have gotten some satisfaction out of having her parents say, “You were right, we were wrong.” But she got much more joy in saying, “What a fool I’ve been! They’ve loved me all along.”

Joey King, the girl who plays Ramona, is a gifted little actress. It was 18-year-old Selena Gomez (Beezus) who reconciled my teenage boys to the idea of sitting through Ramona and Beezus, but after the fact even they had more to say about Joey King than Selena Gomez. I haven’t read Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories, so I’ve got nothing to say about the movie’s faithfulness to the books. Maybe some of you know both the movie and the books and can speak to that.

There were a few false notes in the movie. I was surprised to see a nine-year-old who didn’t know any bad words that were any badder than “Guts!” There is a little bit of teenage kissing, which was a little bit more than I was expecting in a G-rated movie. There are definitely moments when Ramona and Beezus looks and feels like all the other live-action suburban children’s movies you’ve ever seen.  But on balance, I liked this movie a whole lot more than I had planned to.

I also loved True Grit.

Paint Cans: A Fable

oldpaintcans1-150x150

There was this guy, and he cared about the environment. He never threw mostly-empty paint cans in the trash when he was finished with a painting project. “Paint is bad for the environment,” he said. “It goes in the landfill, it ends up in the groundwater.”
So he put his old paint cans in the shed to await the day when he could carry them to the paint disposal place across town.

All his friends said, “Listen—all you’ve got to do is to throw your old paint cans in the trash, put some garbage on top. The trash men will carry them right off. They’ll never know the difference.”

The guy said, “You like drinking paint, do you?”

“Pardon?” his friends said.

“You like drinking paint? That’s what you’ll be doing if everybody throws their paint cans in the trash. It gets in the groundwater, you know.” His friends went away chastened.

The years went by, and the guy repainted rooms, touched up the shutters, re-did the trim. The paint cans piled in his shed—a dozen, two dozen and more.

“You’re crazy,” his friends said. “Just throw these paint cans in the trash—a few this week, a few next week, a few the week after that. They’ll be gone in no time.”

“I’m not a polluter,” the guy said.

“Then take them to the paint disposal place,” his friends said. “Who wants old paint cans taking over his shed?”

“I’m going to take them to the paint disposal place,” the guy said, with a firmness that quailed his friends and cheered his heart.

More years passed. The pile of old paint cans grew ever higher, so great was the guy’s conviction.

In the fullness of time, the guy sold his house. Moving day approached, and he thought of the mountain of old paint cans in his shed.

“I am not a polluter,” the guy said. “In all these long years, I have never thrown a paint can in the garbage. Not one!” His voice trembled with more conviction than ever. “I am a busy man, and a good one. I am moving, for crying out loud! And the paint disposal place is many miles away.”

So under the cover of darkness he loaded all the paint cans in a borrowed truck and placed them—quietly, quietly—in the nearest construction dumpster.

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