Unexpected Diversions

THREE DISTANT WORLDS invaded my couch yesterday. Our internet was out-of-service, so I spent the afternoon reading portions of three books: (i) Gilgamesh; (ii) Craddock Stories, and (iii) Lincoln, in that order. It was a pleasure to rediscover paper bindings for a day.

by David Herbert Donald, 1995

I acquired this copy my normal way: by asking a bumbling question. We were discussing an old poem at work recently, that ends like this,

That’s why I call him a farmer.
I don’t mean that everything about him wasn’t all right, you understand,
It’s just — well, I was a farmer —
And he was my neighbor, anybody’s neighbor.
I guess even you young folks would ‘a’ liked him.

– A Farmer Remembers Lincoln, by Witter Bynner

After which I posed my garden variety type of question, “Do you think he was actually a farmer?”

The next day, of course, Donald places Lincoln’s biography on my desk in response, assuring, “No rush, I already read it.”

I’m only starting Chapter 3 now, so here’s my favorite part so far,

“Thomas Lincoln wasn’t a harsh father or brutal disciplinarian. He did encourage Abe to go to school, though he had a limited idea of what education actually consisted of, and rarely interrupted his son’s studies. “As a usual thing,” Sarah Bush Lincoln remembered, “Mr. Lincoln never made Abe quit reading to do anything, if he could avoid it. He’d do it himself first.” Dennis Hanks conjectured that Thomas may have thought his son spent too much time in his books, “occasionally scolding him for neglecting work.” The father wouldn’t tolerate impudence. When young Abe broke into adult conversation, Thomas would hush him back. As Hanks recalls, young Abraham never balked.” – Lincoln, Chapter 1, Section VI, p.32

My mom tells a similar story about her childhood in West Texas on the farm. Her dad gave precedence to reading, and some claim he read every book in the (small) school library over the years, plus all the kids textbooks after they went to sleep. I enjoyed the biography’s hint at frontier religion too, from Page 48, suggested by the dedication,

I claim not to have controlled events,
but confess plainly that events
have controlled me.

Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges
on April 4th, 1864

In the beginning of Chapter 2, it says Lincoln described himself to neighbors as “a bit of floating driftwood accidentally lodged at New Salem by the floodwaters of the Sangamon River.”

by Graves & Ward, 2001

Fred Craddock was a minister in the Disciples of Christ tradition. He grew up on a Tennessee farm during the depression, and served as a country preacher in Appalachia mostly, before passing away just last year. He wasn’t a tall man with a booming voice, so he had to capture the heart of listeners his own way. It was everyday life he spoke of, with a spark of humor. “My style’s an ‘old homiletic,’” he’d say. Others complimented him as “folksy”. Most still rank him with the best story-tellers of the 20th Century though. After his funeral, Brett Younger said, “Fred Craddock changed preaching. He told some stories you wish you hadn’t heard too.” That memorial’s probably the reason I ordered his compendium. No index, no titles, no cross-reference – just a collection of heart-warming stories and lots of convicting ones too. I can only read about ten pages of that stuff at a time, so here’s a sampling that’s safe enough for the political season,

Page 24, “The Bible calls it a birth. You’ve been to that window, haven’t you – the maternity ward, the nursery, and all that stuff up there in that big window? With all the men outside trying to figure out which one is theirs? You know, “Julie is in there somewhere, and I know she’s the prettiest one.” You can’t read those little old bands, where the arm comes down and the hand joins and there’s a deep wrinkle, and there’s that band. It’s so small, and you say, “Well, I think that’s her???!!!” and the Bible says, that’s what it is; that is it.”

In one of Fred’s final lectures he compared himself to a piccolo, and his voice to “… wind whistling through a splinter on a fence post.” When asked, he said was most proud of his work at the Craddock Center.

by Herbert Mason, 1970

Another co-worker lent me Gilgamesh after listening to our work-mate insist that all the world’s greatest stories are derived from it. I’d heard that argument before, so I leaned in this time, “Hmm, maybe I should read that someday.”

“You want to? My daughter has several copies!” Roberta interjected excitedly, “because my grandson’s in a charter school.” Roberta sits on the other side of Gary, and quietly placed a copy in my desk drawer before I got there the next morning. I was happy actually – it’s a short poem for having such an epic reputation. It turned out to be fascinating too. Set in ancient Sumeria, it goes a little something like this,

  • Gilgamesh, half-god and half man, is king of Uruk
  • He befriends his rival, Enkindu, who’s half-man and half-animal, after they fight
  • They go on an adventure to the great cedar forest, where
  • Enkindu dies from an unnecessary injury (he crushed his knuckles on a door frame, so he couldn’t fight well)
  • Gilgamesh is devastated and feels a bit guilty too
  • Plagued with grief, he wanders aimlessly, and eventually curses his own mortality
  • There are other trials before he eventually consults the scorpion king, “where can I find Utnapishtim, my spiritual father, sole remaining survivor of the great flood?”
  • The scorpion man says, “That’s a hopeless cause!” but eventually shares the route because of Gilgamesh’s persistence, “cross the desert of Sin, find the boatman, he’ll take you across the Sea of Death, where you’ll find Utnapishtim, known as the Distant One”
  • There’s more about the return trip

What I found particularly striking was: the sun’s ecliptic recently passed through several constellations that sound oddly familiar with these trials Gilgamesh was facing. He enters the Road of the Sun in Part III, 3rd Stanza, and encounters,

  • Taurus: where he and Enkindu fought the bull of heaven
  • Gemini: the twin mountains of Lebanon
  • Cancer: in Enkindu’s hand
  • Virgo: the maidservant who nursed him back to health
  • Scorpio & Libra: the scorpion king
  • Ophiucus: could be the boatman, Urshanabi
  • and the Milky Way: where he crosses the river to the unknown

That’s just a personal observation. When he meets Utnapishtim, the poem continues this way,

The eyes of Utnapishtim seemed so full
of hospitality
when Gilgamesh awoke
from his exhaustion.
As if some faces could be doorways in –
to life one has an image of
but never sees. The vista was
a strange and beautiful release.
Utnapishtim was the only one whom he had met
on his journey who did not add to his fatigue.

Utnapishtim raised his hand and touched the shoulder
of the younger man to put him at ease.
Two things encourage me to hope, he said;
that one can come this far to bring life to a friend,
and that you understand how we must borrow light
from the blind (my own eye was damaged long ago
and my left is slowly fading.)
Friendship is vowing toward immortality.

“friends can’t die” – Luke 20: 36

Title: A Sky Full of Stars
Artist: Coldplay, Ghost Stories Live (2014)

“He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables


the ecliptic


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