What do you do when a story grabs your head in its jaws and won’t let go? It’s like an earworm, that unbearable impulse to repeat a song, a rhyme, or an ad slogan over and over until you can bear no more: you confess your terrorist deeds and take the Boy Scout oath.
In my current brain, it’s the Akedah, Hebrew for binding, specifically referring to the myth of God’s directing Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last moment, he’s reprieved and a ram is provided: God still requires blood, just not the son’s. But Abraham has proved his obedience and is duly blest.
Right now we’re finishing the eighth draft of a novel updating the tale to a father/son journey from Chico CA across Yosemite and Death Valley to Las Vegas and on to Shiprock NM. Two years ago, I drove this route. We expect to publish it early next year and to give away copies, just to have it done with.
Why has this story captured me ever since I first heard it in Sunday School? Of course I was told its moral, but it burrowed more deeply. You could pull off the bloated tick’s belly, but the head held tight.
Some years ago, we did a workshop at a Lutheran seminary. We asked the students—future pastors all—to listen to this odd story as if they’d never heard it and had no notion what it meant. “What does it spark in your mind?” They then divided into groups and came back with treatments of how they might focus a play. In one group, it was the straight interpretation, except that Abraham held a pistol to his son’s head, not a knife. Another, that it was Isaac commanded to kill his father. Another, that the dad was getting directions though a CB radio with very bad reception and was incredulous of what he was hearing. Another, focused entirely on Isaac’s mother Sarah back in the tent.
Like all great stories, it can’t be corralled by “the moral of the story is . . .” It’s a bramble with vicious barbs.
I don’t start out with a message I want to express, rarely even for a Facebook blurb. I’m drawn to a ground where I want to dig. I may find dinosaur bones, a vein of gold, or the petrified dregs of a privy. I only know that I need to dig. Why there? I don’t know. At some point I’ll probably speculate on the why: something to do with my father, with me as a father, with the yearning of men in the desert? I’d be interested to know, but right now I can only shape the story as it wills, and I may have to fake knowing what it means.