what are you a sign for

song

“What are you a sign for?” someone asked me in EverQuest, when I was twelve. I was confused for a moment until I remembered the name I’d chosen for my latest alt — Signe, named for Signe de Barbentain, from A Song for Arbonne, which I was then reading. Here is her introduction:

Some mornings, as today, she woke feeling amazingly young, happy to be alive to see the spring return. It wasn’t altogether a good thing, this brief illusion of youth and vitality, for its passage—and it always passed—made her too achingly aware that she was lying alone in the wide bed. She and Guibor had shared a room and a bed after the older fashion until the very end, a little over a year ago. Arbonne had observed the yearfast for its count and the ceremonies of remembrance scarcely a month past.

A year wasn’t very long at all, really. Not nearly enough time to remember without pain private laughter or public grace, the sound of a voice, resonance of a tread, the keen engagement of a questioning mind or the well-known signs of kindled passion that could spark and court her own.

A passion that had lasted to the end, she thought, lying in bed alone, letting the morning come to her slowly. Even with all their children long since grown or dead, with an entirely new generation of courtiers arising in Barbentain, and younger dukes and barons taking power in strongholds once ruled by the friends—and enemies—of their own youth and prime. With new leaders of the city-states of Portezza, a young, reckless-sounding king in Gorhaut, and an unpredictable one as well, though not young, in Valensa far in the north. All was changing in the world, she thought: the players on the board, the shape of the board itself. Even the rules of the game she and Guibor had played together against them all for so long.

There had been mornings in the year gone by when she had awakened feeling ancient and bone cold, wondering if she had not outlived her time, if she should have died with the husband she’d loved, before the world began to change around her.

Which was weak and unworthy. She knew that, even on the mornings when those chill thoughts came, and she knew it more clearly now, with the birds outside her window singing to welcome the spring back to Arbonne. Change and transience were built into the way Corannos and Rian had made the world. She had accepted and gloried in that truth all her life; it would be shallow and demeaning to lament it now.

 

Before her name even rose on the page, I knew she was the one I’d named my character after, so long ago. I can’t explain — I suppose it has little place, at the moment; we are too concerned with surviving the next few years to even imagine growing old, to have obtained safety and sanity as a planet long enough to get there — how valuable, how much of a blueprint, the women of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books were for me, growing up. But I can recognize them when they appear, even when I haven’t read the book for years; even when I haven’t, as in this case, finished it.*

Of course I gravitated to Signe. She had loved lastingly, and managed to survive even the cavernous loss of that love. She remained capable of recognizing change in the world without balking at it, or blaming it for her own losses.

****

Bertran, too, though — now that I’ve read further and decided, in fact, to post this. It would be disingenuous to parade around Kay’s women as the only or chief reason to read his books. It’s broader than that. Bertran de Talair, like Alessan (and Dianora!) of Tigana, like Crispin of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, like basically everyone in Lions of Al-Rassan, which I will love until I die, Kay’s characters provide roadmaps to (and through) loss. I do not wish to be thought excessively morbid here, but those are rather important. Knowing people can recover (or not); knowing the multitudinous ways in which your courage and self-regard and faith can fracture and dissolve in the face of the absence of what you most loved, and still do: that’s really fucking important. And while that’s not the point of any of these books — of any of these characters — it is what makes them fiercely lovable. Show me how to put yourself back together again. That it can be done. 

They don’t all do it in the same way, of course. That would be trite, boring, and unrealistic. And you’re not always looking at the loss of a romantic partner, either: a country, a kingdom, a child. So many things lost, reflecting so many ways people falter and fail to protect themselves against fate. Against time. 

You can see, can’t you, how important — how valuable — it is, to see such things portrayed? The fact that the world portrayed may or may not have magic in it, or gods who answer, or names of places and people that evoke those of the real world — that’s all dressing on the side. That’s not why I keep Kay’s books on reserve like bottles of wine in a basement, seeking a particular, rare vintage when the occasion calls for it. People misunderstand, I think, when I try to sing his books’ praises to them. “Oh, so you want to read about history without really reading about history,” is the typical response. No, I don’t. I want to see how people grow old and love and die in a world close enough to this one to offer advice. And I want to know that though there are very, very different people marching toward that end down very different paths, they can still get there without breaking along the way. Possibly while happy. Or with the memory of happiness still alive within them.

I named myself after Signe when I was twelve, when my mother and even her own mother were still healthy. I had barely scratched the surface of adolescence, and the only premonition of its moody unwieldiness I’d yet had to suffer was a military brat’s move to a new city. There was no sprawling, neon-lit reason for me to look at someone like Signe and think that I could or should learn from her, become her, in a game or in the world.

No reason, except that even twelve year olds aren’t dumb. You don’t have to see the grasping roots of illness dismantling those you love to know it can happen. You don’t have to have begged the school secretary for quarters to call home and make sure the bombing didn’t take your father, to know it can happen. (For reference, Columbine occurred when I was twelve: even us nostalgic 90s kids knew we could die in an instant.) You know these things happen. That you cannot escape all of them. What you don’t know, as a twelve or a twenty or a thirty year old, is how to deal with them. What you are supposed to do. Who you are supposed to be. More than the jeweled mosaics or mountain town mysticism; more than the palaces and priesthoods and resurrected social strictures of cultures long extinct, this is why you read Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. Because his characters suffer the same wounds we do, and manage, if not always to be better for it, at least to make a kind of sense of the aftermath. To make sense as aftermath.

That is something worth learning. If we are to serve as signs for others, willing or otherwise, let us at least point toward knowledge worth knowing.

*It would make a better story to say I didn’t finish it for the same reason I didn’t finish The Bell Jar — I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle, book in my coat pocket, and never recovered it from the scene of the accident. But A Song for Arbonne disappeared years before that; I don’t know why. My father purged everything in our house, my books included, in a fury over my mother’s decline, so my original copy is long gone. I’ve always remembered to return to it, though. It’s the last of Kay’s alternate histories I’ve not yet read. The real last — in that I haven’t finished it.

all the light we cannot see #4

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This book. Oh my god, this book.

I had to stop reading it for awhile. I was reading it as my mom died, though I didn’t know it. And afterwards, reading a letter where a father lied so earnestly to his daughter, saying he was safe when he was in chains, saying he was fed well when he was starving, I burst into tears and set it aside for a time. I am usually, vainly, proud of myself when books make me cry. A kind of triumph over the accusations of heartlessness my mother hurled at me when I was little and stubborn and she was entering menopause and also stubborn. But the accusations lingered long after, I’m sure, she had any recollection of directing them at me, and I am always secretly pleased when a book (or a game, or a movie) moves me to tears. Liquid proof of my humanity, Mom.

Except, she’s dead now, and the tenderness of a father in the book is more than I could bear.

And I still can’t discuss most of it, because every single person I have endeavored to spare any plot line, ever, scoffs at the idea of spoilers. “It’s not about the plot,” they say. “It’s about the prose. Go ahead, spoil me. I don’t mind.” Well, I mind. And you’re wrong. When the construction of a story, the way you find out one piece of information, and the timing of that discovery as it relates to the next piece and the next, does not add up to some orderly chronological march down a straight path but rather builds out in fractals, forward and then back, spiraling, in a complex conflagration of memories that precede, sometimes, the shattering that carved them out, and are followed by the poetic justice that explains why that shattering was necessary — well, then yes. It does matter. And I’m not ruining that for you, any of you. It is important.

Which is frustrating, because I know no one else who has read this book. A guy walked in the other day, laughed at his girlfriend’s suggestion that he read something she recognized — “I’m not really a book kind of guy” — and walked out. People here do not read. And everyone I know who reads elsewhere has not read this. Or is too busy.

No, I’m not putting a spoiler tag in and then talking anyway. Go find it and read it. All the Light We Cannot See. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I will say, though, that parts of it…were honed-edge ice picks chiseled to just the right length, aimed at just the right angle, to cut my heart wide the fuck open. God. The timing, to have read this book when I did. My mother would have loved this book, had she lived to read it. Not just lived, but had she remained someone capable of reading, of knowing the meaning behind words. She had not been able to for years, by the time she died.

Except for “I’ll meet you across the sea,” which was the last thing she ever read to me, on my shirt as I moved her into a dementia care facility. Her reading of which hurt me more than anything I have experienced in thirty years of life.

Anyway, she would have loved this book. Please read it.

And if you get the version pictured above, understand that every child of someone like my mother lives for a page 523, and we never get it. We never will. The removal of even the delusion that we might get a page 523 is what hits us, when they die. Even though the version of them we knew has already been dead for years. We always, maybe encouraged by media but more because we are human, hope for that.

And now it’s out of reach forever.

Look at how many views that has. He explains, in the book, how it is played. I never knew; I know nothing about music. I know this song is used often for pathos, but I don’t think it’s without reason.

all the light we cannot see #3

The best moments in All the Light We Cannot See are times when he says things he does not have to say. They are like gifts.

“The last technician,” says Neumann one, “didn’t find anything.”

“It’s good equipment,” says Werner. “I should have them both functioning in an hour.”

A gentleness flows into Volkheimer’s eyes and hangs there a moment. “Pfennig,” he says, looking at Werner, “is nothing like our last technician.”

That moment was completely unnecessary. That little bit of description. It’s just a gift. Before this line of work, I for years studied memorials to the dead, built by those who should have stopped them from becoming dead, and didn’t. I kept wondering when a book like this would come along, and how it would be received. There was All Quiet on the Western Front, of course, but that’s the wrong war (though it’s always what people pointed to when I asked about this). And though it starts young, it doesn’t start young enough: it doesn’t humanize children who were taught to dehumanize others from, almost, the cradle. Children who grew up killing, and whose own chlidren, in the 70s and 80s, demanded answers they couldn’t or wouldn’t give for what they did.

We don’t need to know, verbatim, that Volkheimer is still capable of tenderness. We could have guessed it from actions he takes elsewhere. We don’t need to have it spelled out for us like this. But it’s a gift that he does it. It tangles things for us. Werner, we have already been brought to believe, doubts the morality of what he is doing, and the majority of those for whom he does it (though he, like the vast majority of his countrymen, lack the courage to turn that discomfort into subversive action). We are being asked, throughout the pass, to give him a moral pass, for his doubt. But Volkheimer? All the others? What right to our forgiveness have they? Werner is a liability for them at this point: if he can question why they do these things, wage this war, why aren’t they? Would it not be easier to paint them with a red brush of condemnation and dismiss them all as morally bankrupt?

It would be easier. And we still might. But it is going to be messy for us, with moments like this with Volkheimer carved into our brains. That’s why I love these tiny little descriptive gifts. Things should be messy. Moments like this ensure they are.

Also:

His footfalls across the landing. One-pause-two one-pause-two. Wheezing. Climbing again.

If he touches me, she thinks, I will tear out his eyes.

This is coming from a blind girl. Think on that. I missed it at first, riveted and riotously sororal in the face of a sentiment I’d felt myself more than once. But she’s blind. She has not seen since she was six. She can move in the world and has learned to live in it fully, but this is her threat. This, as she is torn asunder, is what she will do to him. If he ends her, he will be forced to live as her. Let him learn how it is. Let him live it.

That is way more powerful than I caught, the first read through.

welcome to morrowind

I had taken great care to screenshot all the different loading screen illustrations I encountered, and was going to post those — I’ve always loved them anyway, and the Morrowind ones are gorgeous. But it turns out the screenshot button doesn’t work on those anymore, alas. So while I gather them the long slow way over time, you’ll have to settle for these. I’ll provide only minimal context, so as to avoid spoilers.

Spoilers for ESO, I mean. Spoilers for Morrowind the original? That’s on you. It’s 2017.

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Ceiling mosaic in Vivec.

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Fancy shrine.

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Vivec City is really lovely at night. Lamps everywhere.

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Looking down on town,  Red  Mountain in the background.

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Our boy with the bedazzled  loincloth.

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Set before the events of Morrowind, Vivec City is still under construction here. Construction materials, quests and laborers are everywhere,  and in addition to providing a convenient crafting hub that would have been hampered by a canton were it located in a finished one (I’m sorry, I know, I never really liked the original city much…the cantons  always looked like yellowed teeth to me! and you couldn’t get anywhere), the work-in-progress nature of  the city makes it seem much, much more alive than it did in Morrowind proper.

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Balmora. Something else that strikes you is the pronunciation. Words that for so long were rendered only in text are now fully voiced and…wow, was I wrong, thirteen years ago, on how to pronounce Balmora. (Bahhhlm’ra, not bal-MORE-uh!) Or Gnisis! Nye-siss? Pssh! I thought it was Niss-iss all these years. Ald’ruhn? Think Buzz. Not Al-Droon, as I always thought of it.

Whoops.

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More Bahhhlm’ra.

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Suran! And that quest bang you see right there is for my favorite quest line I’ve encountered so far. Short, sweet, tidy and full of feels. Plus it helps that the questgiver himself is rather, ah, winsome:

scarletjudge

Indeed.

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Daedric ruins! Those of you who really missed those funky shapes, you get them back now. I always hated Daedric ruins (sorry Austin!) because they were dark, creepy, and I died a lot. But that brings up an important point:

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Forget dark and creepy, Morrowind is gorgeous. Even the ash is less morose this time around. As someone who trudged only unwilling into the Ashlands the first time (though not for lack of fondness of the Ashlanders, who are awesome), I can honestly say it’s almost pretty this take. Not, apparently, enough for me to have taken a screenshot, but still.

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Also, the House of Earthly Delights is still there in Suran! It’s an inglorious admission but this is the first thing I remember obsessing over in Morrowind. I was still in what for me is that golden window when you first start a game and don’t know the rules or boundaries. Could I free these women? Join them? Befriend them? Start a rival brothel? I had no idea, because I didn’t know how open “open world” was. I had been prescribed Morrowind in the back of an English class while describing what I wanted from my ideal game. “Yeah that already exists. You can play it right now.” So I did. And while the answers to all the above questions were no, no, and no, a.) I didn’t know that yet, b.) it seemed within the realm of the possible still, and c.) there were always mods.

Oh, the Morrowind mods.

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Yeah, no pretty scenery here, I just thought this was great.

Wait till you hear this guy though.

random music fridays : bard guilds

bardsguildkelethin

Yes I know this is Kelethin. I spent a lot of time there too, okay?

Someone at work recently asked if anyone used to play EverQuest, back in the day.
Ahahaha.

Ahahahahahahaha.

I immediately leapt to the music, in my feverish response to affirm that yes, I had indeed played EQ1 in its heyday. But what I remembered–what I could hum–was more the Faydark theme and the Ak’anon theme (itself a specific version of themes carried throughout Freeport and the loading screen, I know, but that was the one I remembered, wedged into the mountains in gnomish territority, hoping nothing would kill me so I could continue enjoying the midi music).

That led me, though, to a full gathering of all the EQ music, much of which I didn’t know I remembered until I heard it. I kind of wonder, given the spazzing, fuming or just absent nature of the full gamut of my music teachers throughout elementary school, just how much of my musical familiarity — how you expect a pentatonic scale to hit that last note, for example, and you expect it through exposure, not through some biological need to hear the full scale — came to me through games.

Anyway, I played bards whenever I could (I know, I know), and EQ was no exception. The Bard Guilds, in Freeport and Qeynos, respectively, had THE. BEST. Music.

qeynosbardsguild

So there you go then. Linked in the city names above. Enjoy. While you are there, may I recommend the Freeport gate theme (where I’d often try to avoid being eaten by lions long enough to admire the sunset, or which would start playing and would herald a joyful end to a long, harrowing journey across the continent from Qeynos) or the Warm Fire cottage theme, which starts out so homely and then, poof, you’ve got a waltz on your hands. If I could play a stringed instrument, I’d learn to play that.

Oh! And don’t forget the Docks theme! Man, that game didn’t give you any safe waters. You could be boarded and murdered by pirates or island ghosts, just taking basic transportation across the map. Harrowing, and memorable.

Edit: Here is a guy talking about EQ1 music. The links aren’t there anymore, but you can find all the songs in that compilation I linked to different timestamps above. And I’d like to point out that it’s no accident I like a theme “so pumped full of Prozac that it’s shooting rainbows out of every note. Triple rainbows, even.” Damn right. I have the real world to be sad in. If I’m going to be paying to be in some other world, I am going to mainline the rainbows.

waffles

I am back in the waffle place where I was a week ago, when my mother died. It’s loud now. Then, it was quiet, and I read this as my mother lay dying thousands of miles away:


I didn’t know she was in the act of dying. I trudged out here because eating proper food was something she would have told me to do, and despite purchasing two huge bottles of Gatorade to try and make up for all the water I lost through crying, I still felt (and looked, I’m sure) like I had a terrible hangover. A server with pink hair tried to flirt with me, missing both my wedding ring and my general misery, but she retreated when persistent questions about my book met only bleak looks, and eventually left me to my reading.

A week later, I read:


And I think of the many posts I’ve written over the years about anger being more productive than despair. That remains true. But it is too hard, maybe, to stay angry the length that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis requires. It can flare up, when petty people luckier than you waste their time and their mental cognizance on stupid shit, right in front of you, where you can see, and seethe. When those they love treat them like they’ll always be there, because they can’t imagine–haven’t been wrenched into imagining and then living–any alternative.

But staying that angry starts wars that can’t be won. At least, I assume that is how you end up with people wanting to cryo-freeze themselves into better times, or re-seat their aging brains in younger bodies, or…all these batshit things you see people do. Take over countries. Launch a bomb at a man who threatened your father once. 

One of the petty people I resent most sent me a long letter. Amid a pile of storebought sympathy cards and watercolor flowers with embossed silver script, she sent me a long letter on notebook paper. I prepared myself for religious bullshit, or affirmations of being there for me to fill a void she’d better not dare even to try. 

Instead, she said what I already knew, and what I so resented her daughters for not seeing: she was in the same place I was. Lost her mom that way and will go out that way. I know for a fact she spent all Mother’s Day sobbing, but here she was writing in ballpoint pen on notebook paper, telling me it would become less shit in time.

Of all the well-meant falsehoods people shower you with when someone dies, hers is the one I’m grateful for. 

Because I know how much it cost her.

reapplying breakup songs as songs of loss

This is not a new thing. Remember Stepmom?

Stepmom

Spoilers, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough isn’t about losing your mom. I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy.

This should be a creepier transposition than it is, though. Especially in an age where the most powerful people in the world obsess over their daughters’ fuckability, I would expect us to balk at so many songs of romantic loss repurposed for…I guess it’s, what, platonic loss? Familial loss? You have to retreat from the word “love,” even, it seems like, if you want to discuss loss of a family member. We’ve reserved that word for a narrower and narrower space, as you grow older and don’t say “I love you” as much or as freely anymore; or write it in red crayon on lopsided heart cards. I think of the studied disdain of Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter, reflecting on the insipidity of the latest chart-topping hit: “an actual song called ‘I Love You.'” His distaste is that of the artist, sure, but also of the cultural critic. People, for wanting such things, are kind of dumb, is the implication. We should, I guess, want more. Or want it more colorfully.

Obviously the right lyrics — or at least the absence of the wrong ones — helps enable the transposition from romantic loss to non-. But maybe we also lend ourselves to this lyrical reapplication through a desire, both to see loss we could have fixed as inevitable, and of loss we couldn’t fix as something we could have fought, staved off, or avoided through calling back, or being more patient, or picking up.

Take Said and Done, by Nervous but Excited, which cropped up on an old playlist I’d retreated to at work and which, instead, had me desperately undoing my ponytail to hide my crying:

Bases covered:

1.) Come back home (not going to happen)

2.) We can get back to the way we were (we can’t)

3.) Try to forgive the rights that I made wrong (I’m sure everyone has lists of such things…continuing to Skype my mom regularly when I returned from abroad, as she apparently expected when she’d stay logged in all morning hoping for a call, is kind of at the top of my list)

4.) Still close my eyes to the sight of you laughing in sunlight (this verges on too decidedly romantic to be comfortable listening to but again, like with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, the idea that memories held or promises made are concepts relegated entirely to romantic situations is a little short-sighted — and anyway, you obviously want to remember the person who knew you, laughing maybe, rather than the glassy-eyed husk with concave cheeks who didn’t know you anymore)

Again, I’ve written about people dealing with death a lot, and everything I say is salted with the knowledge that it’s very much the wrong thing, for someone. It’s either too crass (I keep saying she died, rather than that she “passed away,” because I hate the fakery of that phrase, the gentleness it implies, when there was nothing gentle or graceful or noble about this), or too narrow-minded (the President is imploding and taking the country down with him; there are bigger problems than one mother who is no longer here), or simply too much (most of the people caught in the bullet-spray of my sorrow don’t really know me that well, and certainly don’t know what to do other than take cover and wait for me to stop posting sad shit).

I am, though, among the people I do know my age, the first to have to do this. Everyone else has the luxury of parents they can still argue with, or of celebrating Mother’s Days their mothers haven’t died on. They can pose in stupid family photos still, and puzzle over bizarre combinations of emojis texted to them at 10PM, and scream and cry and clutch their mom’s hand as they give birth to their first child.

Let me help you then, all you millennials who will get to have your mothers for decades longer than I did. Let me help you do this years from now. Here is a list of do’s and don’ts for losing your mother, in no particular order:

DO Tell your boss. Even if you aren’t really that close or you were just hired like a month ago. There is probably some company provision that allows you to stay home and cry all day. This is important. It is better to do this at home than on your keyboard. Especially if your work has nice keyboards.

DO listen to sad songs, or songs that are sad to you in the context of your loss. That’s how this post came to be, after all. More importantly, even if you possess a steely reserve necessarily built up over almost a decade’s worth of dementia-driven misery, you should probably cry at some point. Music may be necessary to crack your adamantium shell. Grab those headphones.

DO eat. I mean, duh. I’ve never been moved not to eat by feelings, but I hear it’s a thing that can happen. Nutrients are kind of a big deal, guys. Get them.

DON’T become annoyed by people stepping gingerly around you. They literally don’t know what the fuck to do. This is not their fault.

DON’T snap at other people who text you happy pictures, from better days, of the person you’re both mourning. If you can’t deal with it, just ignore the texts. Your phone isn’t going to fill up, and you don’t know what psychology is driving the other person to fling these images of the lost person out there. You can’t yell (or…text-yell?) at someone loud enough to bring your mom back, so please don’t try.

DON’T expect people to say the right thing. They won’t. They can’t. There is no right thing. The right thing would be for your mom to still be alive, and she’s not. So whether you find yourself surrounded by people who pretend everything is fine, or by people who ooze religious platitudes, or who go on about karma or childhood or funeral prices or lame internet jokes, don’t expect a magic bullet. Not from a mentor, not from a friend, not from the old guy who walks his dog at 6AM every day. Literally no one will get it right. Not because they suck but because your mom is dead. It’s not their fault.

Oh, but if it is? Punch them. Just, you know. Because it would probably feel good.