Part 2: The Story of Utnapishtim (from Ancient Assyria and Babylon)
Oceans of Time
Soooo....there's story called the Epic of Gilgamesh and in it the king (Gilgamesh) loses his bestie (and lover? Enkidu), and he is WRECKED. He goes on a quest to find immortality. He finds out that a barmaid at the end of the world knows of a guy who might have the key. So off he goes to bar at the edge of the world (...it's the edge of civilization, OF COURSE THERE'S BEER!). At the bar he finds out about a dude who survived the great flood that wiped out all of humanity.
You see, the gods decided humanity was a pain in the butt, and it was time to wipe us out. Ea, however, decided this was likely a bad idea and repeated the whole plan to a reed hut--thus keeping his promise not to tell people about their impending doom and how one might escape said doom, BUT letting an righteous dude overhear said plan and thus save people–we have a few redeeming qualities, after all. Utnapishtim heard the plan and followed through, building an arc to survive the flood. He loaded all kinds of animals and supplies, people from every skill and trade, and his family. They set sail. For 6 days and 7 nights, the storm raged. On the 7th day, it abated (does this sound familiar...it should). The boat ran aground on a mountain, and Utnapishtim started sending out birds to see if they could find dry land. Eventually, he sent out a raven and it did not come back. Sacrifices were made and life could begin again.
Time is most often thought of as a river; it’s constantly moving and changing, you can easily get swept away in its currents and lose track of everything else around you—at least that’s my experience when I’m doing something I love, or I get snagged by Facebook (notice, the two are NOT the same). But, sometimes I feel as though time is more like the ocean after a flood, and we are stuck on our boat with our (relatively) little communities trying to figure where we’re going and what we need to do next. As of late, there seems to be a lot of infighting and wanting to throw people overboard, but that’s another essay.
Like the ocean, time can be an isolating force. Our connections to our communal and personal pasts are constantly being taken away. They fade from memory as they sink or get carried away on different currents, out of reach and out of mind. Our walls may be covered in old pictures of family, but little more than that and maybe some names remain: ‘that’s your great grandmother, Elizabeth…she was French…or German…I think….that’s all I've got.’ The story written by her is mostly, if not entirely, lost to the depths of an ocean. Equally important though, are the stories we don’t remember accurately. We look at the pictures or peer over the side of our arc and see phantom images of the past. All the things we don’t actually know get filled in with our imaginations, sometimes overly complimentary, sometimes with little more than our fears filling in the gaps.
The past feeds the ocean like rain-storms and the waves toss us about, testing our navigation skills. Family attitudes and habits get past down, whether we recognize it or not. Culture also changes dramatically within the space of a single lifetime, making it harder to steer our ship on a straight course. Our metaphorical arc is surrounded by histories that affect us, filled with decisions we didn’t make, but that we are living with. Sometimes even our own past gets forgotten; we let it fall off the edge of the boat into the ocean below us, and it becomes unconscious but still attached to the boat...like a barnacle. That kind of thing creates drag and weighs us down, making it even harder to steer or get anywhere. That old unconscious stuff can even capsize the boat if it's really big.
Our future can also seem rather indistinct, hidden in the fog or camouflaged at that point on the horizon where the water and the sky meet but you can’t tell one from the other; the horizon is often a mystery. Occasionally, we think we are going in one direction, but the stars were hidden and we set the sails for the wrong way. Navigation can be really tricky: we get stuck in the shallows, a strong current sends us off the maps, or the ship threatens to capsize. These are cases when it’s really nice to have an elder around you. They’ve made those mistakes and had to backtrack; they’ve been turned around and been confused and learned the way out. Unfortunately, we tend to favor youth, even when it comes to tricky questions about life and direction.
Time is an ocean and we usually spend our lives floating on the surface, wishing for an ever-elusive island that represents stability (but also boredom…besides, stability is really a mirage). Any island we may find is just a resting point between voyages on the uncertain sea. Time does not let us rest for long. It begins to bury us when sit, we become stuck in a rut, a form a death in itself. If you're still breathing, get back on the damn boat!
We may mourn our loved ones who have actually fallen overboard; perhaps the greatest gift we can give them is to tell their stories. Certainly, we need to keep track of our own stories as well, and be mindful of the stories we are creating right now; you are a writer whether you mean to be or not. We too will eventually be part of the currents and waves that our children and grand children will ride. Our decisions will have repercussions that we cannot even imagine today. Are we creating future storms and giant waves, or can we write a story that brings calm seas and easier navigation?